We caught up with Worcester Warriors and VVS Leather founder GJ van Velze to discuss how his business has changed over the past year, the challenges it has faced and what he is hoping to achieve in the future.
How has your business grown in the last 12 months?
We now have two ranges of shoes and more colour options to choose from, which is very popular with the boys. The women’s boots are selling very well. Interestingly the boots that I thought would do the best are doing the worst and the boots I thought were ok are our star seller. The Marula is by far the best seller, which is a three-quarter Chelsea boot that is very comfortable. The comfort and the weight make it very attractive to consumers. It is very popular in Europe. Countries like the Netherlands that don’t have a huge rugby following love the Marula, which I never expected. The more I’ve been involved and the more I understand in terms of how small the world really is, and this being an e-commerce website, it is incredible to see the growth.
Have you got any big plans on the horizon?
To coincide with the British & Irish Lions I want to launch a third range of Men’s boots, which will then all be on sale in South Africa if all goes ahead. I am aligning that alongside my coaching clinic and boot4boot campaign, where I give away a free pair of boots for every pair of VVS boots we’ve sold thus far. I already have a player from both sides to be involved in the clinics which is very exciting. The aim is to not only give something back but create awareness for the brand in South Africa to ensure it is sustainable.
What has the Covid-19 pandemic taught you?
Covid-19 has highlighted for me and my business that we have to value growing at the right pace. We all want to make money from day one but I am in a comfortable position where I’m still playing rugby so I’m not reliant on the business to pay a lot of salaries, so that has been a saving grace for me. The reason I didn’t have enough patience at the start was because in rugby you play every week, so I might have the worst game of my life, people are abusing me Saturday, Sunday, Monday but by the Wednesday I am already thinking about the next game. You get a chance every week to prove a point, to change those opinions, but when it comes to a business it could be weeks, months. I was comparing everything with rugby and that is where the learnings have been. If you look at Wolfpack lager (Chris Wyles), FourFiveCBD (Dom Day & George Kruis) it’s refreshing to see that they have made progress - but it is steady progress to get to where they are.
What has been the biggest highlight for you in the last 12 months?
I think the excitement whenever you have made a sale and the positive reviews from people who don’t know you from a bar of soap. One of the latest ones was from a girl who bought a pair of the Marula boots and she said they were comfortable and beautiful, the normal stuff that people say. But then after about three weeks she replied to us on Instragam saying she’d had plantar fasciitis for a number of years and that this was the first time in her life she’d been able to buy a brand new pair of boots, walk for miles and not have any pain. That was a great moment.
I come from a very successful family, I’m the only one who hasn’t got a degree and you almost feel like your mum is going ‘ oh my son what are you going to do with your life, you haven’t got a degree’ but when I get reviews like that it gives me the belief to stick with my passion and go for it. It makes it all worth it.
How have you pivoted as a company during Covid-19?
The one thing that struck me in the middle of the eyes through this period is that we have a responsibility to promote the message of ‘we have one life to live’ - we’ve got to get out there and live our lives. We cannot be caught up with living through our phones and technology. If there is one defining message I want to spread with my brand it is you have to go out there and live your life to the fullest. These boots, they should be a companion for your next adventure, impulsive decision, whatever it may be, but you must go out and make memories.
What are the biggest challenges your business has faced/ may face due to Covid-19?
Covid has highlighted that when all routine and schedule has been taken away from you how you will respond. We have been exposed to a lockdown and therefore exposed to so much accountability for the productivity of our day. The fact that I have always had something going has kept me sane first of all. My wife works in the NHS, so it wasn’t as if the two us were at home relaxing, and VVS Leather kept me going and motivated. It cannot be underestimated.
I have a Pop-up store booked for Christmas in two locations in London, it will be the first one for the business. One of the potential options is doing a trunk show, which are very popular in Japan, where you hire out a London hotel room to showcase your goods and whatever the customer purchases will be posted to them next day delivery. I think it will be dealing with the disappointment if it does not go ahead due to restrictions. I have put targets in my head which I want to reach. To be on show with people, face to face is a big milestone for me and to be able to see what they are looking to buy into. The uncertainty is one of the biggest challenges. Trying to find ways to adapt. But that is life, and you can’t ask for a better learning curb than that.
How important is it for players to start thinking about life after rugby?
It can never be underestimated how important it is to start planning. I don’t know what the average span of a career is in Premiership rugby, but it is not very long. The road might end on the next contract cycle, then in the last 3-4 months you are scrambling around trying to find something and you end up just taking what is on offer, rather than looking for something you are passionate about or whatever is going to make you grow as an individual.
What would you say to younger players who are looking to start their own business?
If you are young and you have the luxury of time on your side, you must go and find something outside of rugby that you are passionate about. If you told me at the age of 22/23, I’d be passionate about starting my own business in a field that I know nothing about I wouldn’t have believed you. But I think I now really value the passion side of it. Because we all have a passion for rugby, and we are talented, and we work hard, otherwise we would have never been successful professionals. When everything gets taken away from you, you have to fall back on something you enjoy doing. It might not pay you the best salary in the world, but it must be something you love doing and it gives you room to improve and room to grow. We as human beings cannot sit still. In a high performance environment, it is very easy to see because if you stand still you get left behind, you don’t play. It counts the same outside of rugby. Reach out and go and explore something that excites you.
Website: Van Velze & Smith Leather