How The Shackleton Company Took Inspiration From The Legendary Explorer To Bring A New Brand To Life

RISING takes the famous quotes of iconic adventurer Ernest Shackleton that inspired the entrepreneurs behind The Shackleton Company to find out how they can help you launch your own endeavour

Every so often RISING discovers one of those brands that seems bang on trend. The Shackleton Company makes high-performance, high-end adventure wear from natural and modern fabrics (the SBS swear by wool) – made in Britain and tested in Antarctica – but designed to deliver that fashionable explorer’s silhouette (which footballers are shopping for by buying women’s Canada Goose jackets with drawstring waists), while Tom Hardy is currently making a movie about Ernest Shackleton. The brand’s purpose is directly inspired by the iconic explorer, so what lessons have the entrepreneurs running it taken from his legend?

1. ‘I have often marvelled at the thin line which separates success from failure,’ Ernest Shackleton The first thing the leader of a new brand should ask is: are we really needed? It’s never been easier to set up a new company, which is good, but it also means there’s more competition. Your point of difference is usually along a very thin line, so it pays to make sure that line is strong and distinct. ‘The world doesn’t need another technical brand, what we’re trying to do is connect high performance with a great aesthetic. It tries to make you look good as well as saving your life, if it needs to,’ Ian Holdcroft, director of The Shackleton Company tells RISING.

Shackleton was realistic about circumstances but optimistic about outcomes

2. ‘Optimism is true moral courage,’ ES Ernest Shackleton’s most famous expedition, aboard the Endurance, was a total failure of its stated mission, but also an epically heroic battle for survival in which he led his 28 men back home safely, in the face of almost impossible odds. ‘One of the things that made Shackleton so successful was that he was realistic about circumstances, but optimistic about outcomes,’ Martin Brooks, also director of The Shackleton Company, tells RISING. ‘With the ship collapsing in 1915 everyone else would have thought, “that’s it, we’re screwed” – he knew how bad the situation was, however he said: “If we’re optimistic and believe we will survive then we will survive,” and he got all 28 home.’

Brooks says that optimism has been essential to the business. His background is in advertising where you exchange your time for revenue. ‘But with us there’s an enormous capital outlay for design and then a nine-month lag for stuff to come through. You’re producing things and then sending them out into the world and hoping people are going to respond. That requires quite a lot of optimism and courage to keep putting yourself through the personal mill of being an entrepreneur.’

3. ‘I hold that a man must strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize,’ Robert Browning OK, so Shackleton didn’t say this but it’s inscribed on the back of his gravestone and it’s a quote from one of his favourite poets, so it counts. It had real significance to Brooks when he and Holdcroft developed The Shackleton Company’s stated purpose: ‘To inspire and equip the modern pioneer.’ This is more than just a tagline, however. ‘People judge brands by what they do, not what they say now. Having purpose at the heart of a brand, not just as a nice thing but commercially, is crucial,’ says Brooks.

He gives the example of the ex-CMO of Procter & Gamble, Jim Stengel. ‘He created the Stengel Index where he managed to track stock market growth and correlate it against business purpose. He worked out that brands and businesses with purpose at the heart of them grow four times more profitably over an extended period of time than those who are just there to make cash for shareholders. We have to demonstrate our purpose and right now we are the main sponsor and equipment supplier to Scott Sears, He’s aiming to be the youngest guy ever to walk to the South Pole, solo and unassisted.’ (Watch this space for an exclusive RISING interview with Sears…)

4. ‘If you're a leader, a fellow that other fellows look to, you've got to keep going,’ ES The question of overcoming fear is as relevant to an entrepreneur as to an extreme explorer, which led Holdcroft and Brooks to work with academic Nathan Smith, who was studying what it takes to perform in extreme environments. When you are really under pressure and you’ve still got to do your job, what’s the difference between people who do their job and those that don’t? ‘It came down to values rather than personalities – optimism, courage and selflessness were the top three values,’ says Brooks.

Holdcroft himself has had experience in extreme environments as a desert and mountain ultramarathon runner, but the business is keen to identify pioneers in other fields, to fulfill its purpose. ‘How do we celebrate the modern pioneer? It’s not just about crossing oceans and going to poles, it could be science, medicine, technology, all of those things – it’s the transformation the human goes through when you go beyond your comfort zone, and you only go beyond your comfort zone by having the courage to go beyond your fear – whether you have succeeded or failed isn’t really the point, it’s the transformation that’s important,’ says Holdcroft.

You just have to keep pedalling day by day through creativity, ingenuity and sheer optimism

5. ‘By endurance we conquer,’ ES Any startup is a risky, demanding endeavour but one that manufactures a physical product, with an inbuilt 8-9 month delay to returns and pressure on cashflow, is arguably even more so. ‘Investment is an interesting thing because everybody gets it, thinks ‘what a brilliant idea’ but people want to jump on and invest once it has reached a certain threshold, and it almost definitely going to succeed – by then it’s a bit late,’ says Brooks.

Compared to the short turnaround of investment and return in software or tech, apparel is a long-term play, and a test of endurance. ‘The thing where you think: “Are we going to get there?” you just have to keep pedalling day by day and keep making progress out of not much through creativity, ingenuity and sheer optimism. We’re getting there day by day, by thinking of ideas and making them happen, rather than thinking: “Well we can’t do that without money.” Life as a small brand is to create something out of nothing and that’s what we are doing.’

6. ‘A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground,’ ES Long-term plays are by definition ambitious, so the key is to think big. ‘Our ambition is to build a £100 million adventure brand in 10 years time. This isn’t a cottage industry – high-end adventure is where all of the action is so we are in the right sector,’ says Brooks. This seems to be a case where the business’s stated purpose demands truly ambitious thinking. ‘Sometimes over a pint we laugh about our real purpose is making sure that the rocket that takes the first human being to Mars has Shackleton emblazoned across it!’ says Holdcroft.

‘If Shackleton was alive today would he be trying to get to the South Pole? Of course he wouldn’t, he would be trying to do something that no human being has done before, because that’s the type of person he was. And as a business and how we should think – it’s great talking about it because it re-ignites the fire and and gets you out of emails and cashflow!’

It’s not the critic that counts… credit belongs to the man in the arena

7. ‘I thought you'd rather have a live donkey than a dead lion,’ ES The fear of failure short-circuits many startups before they ever get off the ground, or cuts them off at the knees at the first sign of crisis. It’s a problem that the business world is all too aware of, and Harvard Business School turned to the example of Shackleton to design a course on Management Leadership and Crisis around the Endurance Expedition.

‘That was born out of utter failure, not even getting to the start-line for the intended purpose, but ultimately a great success of getting everybody home alive, which is completely different,’ says Holdcroft. He says the story is much more true to what happens in real life, but that social media has made people even more wary of risking failure. ‘People are locked in their own inertia because they don’t want to fail,’ he says. As Theodore Roosevelt said in 1921, “It’s not the critic that counts… credit belongs to the man in the arena.” There are a lot of critics who sit on the side of the arena. But it’s the person in the arena who should be celebrated even if they fail time and time again because success is the doing bit, not necessarily the outcome’

8. ‘It is the men that we have to think about,’ ES Shackleton was famously selfless as a leader. He always made sure his men ate before he did and once insisted in giving his gloves to the expedition photographer when he lost his own – Shackleton’s fingers duly became frostbitten. He fully understood the value of good morale and The Shackleton Company itself was inspired by the story of Hussy’s banjo on the Endurance expedition: ‘When the Endurance got crushed in the ice, and Shackleton said, right that’s it, ship’s gone boys we’re going home, and the incredible trek began, he famously took off his gold watch and threw it in the water. He tore Psalm 23 out of his bible and threw the book away, then he shot Chippy, the expedition’s cat, to demonstrate that if they bring all their crap they’re dead,’ says Brooks. ‘So, Hussy was about to destroy the ship’s banjo but Shackleton said, no it’s vital mental medicine – he took morale incredibly seriously and was great at maintaining it.’

WHAT NEXT? Got an business idea that may benefit society, as well as generate healthy profits? Then The Shackleton Foundation may be able to seed-fund your startup with up to £10K. It was founded by the explorer's descendents to support social entrepreneurs and leaders who embody the courage and resilience of Shackleton.