'We're building the Nike of underwear': Heist CEO

Using an engineering-led approach to product development, Heist is re-inventing underwear in an industry where innovation is usually driven by cyclical trends. And as a brand, Heist has something to say on how women are portrayed in advertising today. Co-founder and CEO Toby Darbyshire explains to eatbigfish the insight that led to Heist, his reflections on last year’s banned tube ads and his advice for other challenger CEOs.

What did you see as the opportunity for Heist?

$110bn of underwear gets sold each year. Yet I’d look at how women are portrayed in the advertising, and as a man, I’d think this is borderline offensive. So my co-founder (Edzard van der Wyck) and I talked about it to our friends and partners and they said: Oh yes, and the products suck too. So we’re taking a swipe at the whole industry. Not only are the products sub-standard, but the way the industry articulates the consumer is 1980s at best. We feel we have a chance to say something important.

I’d look at how women are portrayed in the advertising, and as a man, I’d think this is borderline offensive.

What’s the ambition for Heist?

We’re building the Nike of underwear. We want to look at underwear with the same level of innovation and product development that the big sportswear brands look at sportswear. Underwear is a sector that’s forgotten, old fashioned and needs a change. We started with a pair of tights. 3.5bn pairs of tights are sold each year. And we want to use technology, innovation and a different brand message to tear up that relatively small market. We're now selling socks and looking at how we move on to our next project.


Is the ultimate goal then to promote female empowerment and body positivity?

Our ultimate goal is to elevate underwear from a forgotten product category and to use deep technological innovation to make it brilliant. That is the guiding light of what we do. Now we would never sell that in a way that doesn't have a level of inclusivity and body positivity because these are things that underpin our view of the world. But we're not here to play that role. We're just doing our bit in a movement and a societal discourse that's much broader than us and encompasses much more than just underwear.

We approach all our new products with the assumption that we don’t know anything

How did you approach creating your first product?

I think our biggest strength comes strangely from our most obvious weakness which is the fact that I’m a man. Everyone said this would never work because how does a man, or two men at the time, know anything about tights? There's no way that I could design the product from my own experience. And that's actually the thing that’s become most valuable to us because we approach all our new products with the assumption that we don't know anything and we start from the very beginning. That's become the guiding principle.


So what did that process for developing the tights look like?

We approached it pretty scientifically - or as scientifically as possible with subjective responses. We asked 67 women about their underwear. What works? What doesn’t? It was then a question of working out how to engineer out all the defects that existed. We don't have a design team, we have an innovation team. So we're never design-led, everything we do starts with a problem. Our 67 women has now grown into nearly 300,000 people who we email, sell to and ask for input into a product design process.

As a brand it’s important for us to push the boundaries in a way that’s really credible

Heist made headlines in the British press last year after your adverts were deemed 'overtly sexual' by Transport for London for showing a woman's naked back. What are your reflections on that?

It was pretty stupid. What made me happiest was the TM Lewin ad with a topless Gary Lineker getting pulled the week after because TFL were worried about the reaction. The authorities need to have a correlation with what the image is saying. You can produce incredibly demeaning images of women fully clothed and images of incredibly strong women naked. The decision-making is going to be difficult because it's subjective. But as a brand it's important for us to push the boundaries in a way that’s really credible.

It’s good to be outsiders

What’s been most difficult in running this business?

The obvious thing is I’m a man and so I didn’t have the confidence to speak or write for the business in the beginning. I can't understand on a personal level for example, what being objectified as a woman feels like. My biggest challenge was overcoming that. It’s something that took a lot of unlearning. But there are plenty of women selling for men and men selling for women all over the world. What’s important is who you are as a business and what you stand for. I actually think it's good to be outsiders and it's quite healthy.


How is the business doing?

We've had a powerful first couple of years. We're selling to 38 countries now. Our revenue is growing 20% each month so in the winter we sell a pair of tights every 15 seconds. We're definitely in a decent cohort of super-fast growth businesses. And I think we're well set up for the next stage which is moving from being a tights brand into a multi-product innovation business. We want to take the success we've had with tights and do it across 5-10 other products in the space.

What advice would you give other CEOs?

When start-ups do interviews like this the tendency is to grandstand and that obviously overlays the fact that beneath it all we're just as chaotic and as messy as anyone else. I think because start-up culture is so dominated by VCs who are so overwhelmingly keen to put out only good news, it makes you forget that we're all probably fucking up on almost all the same things. And it's interesting seeing the help you can get from the ecosystem around you when you very openly just ask for help.

Interview by Cecelia Hund, Strategy Director at eatbigfish. We exist to study challenger thinking and behaviour and work with businesses who want to become challengers themselves.