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Our founders reflect on 10 years of Thread

Our founders reflect on 10 years of Thread

Our origin story has never looked anything like your average fashion brand’s. In fact, co-founders Kieran O’Neill and Ben Phillips are the first to admit that their style credibility was lacking when, over 10 years ago, they conceptualised the idea for Thread. And that just might be exactly what made the whole thing work: instead of building a company that assumes people know exactly what works for them, they built one that shares tools, expert advice, and personalised outfit ideas to help them discover what they feel their best in.  

Which is why, here we are a decade later celebrating not just 10 years of helping people look good in what they’re wearing, but helping them feel really confident in those clothes too. We spoke with our founders about how the mission has taken on a whole new meaning over the years, where they see Thread heading in the future, and how they’re personal style has evolved (we can attest, for the better).  

Why does your business relationship work so well?

Ben: Kieran and I met when he was an intern at the company I worked for back in 2005. We got on straight away, and it was clear we both had a similar kind of ambition in terms of the things that we wanted to do in the future.

A few months after he left, he contacted me and said he was going to start a company and see if I wanted to get involved. And for me, it was a no brainer, simply because of the values we shared, the things we wanted to do, and the scale of the thing we wanted to build. It wasn't just, “let's just try something out and see how it goes”. It was about doing something big together. And the reason we worked so well from the start is that we have very complementary skill sets, so we never step on each other's toes.

And in the 15 years we've worked together, we haven't had a big disagreement. We've obviously had conversations where we’ve had different opinions, shall we say, but we always get to a good outcome, and we always disagree and commit and come to a conclusion that we're both happy with. And I think that's why it's worked so well.

Kieran: There are a few reasons. In a founding team, you need to work with people who really complement you. At that initial stage, your business is just an idea, and you really need to work 24/7 to make it happen. Ben and I were a really good fit in that respect. He’s an incredible software engineer, and he knew how to balance moving quickly whilst making great decisions. 

We got to know each other the most when building the previous business we founded together. At that last company, he was an incredible person to work with. He was great at getting it built. We also had similar priorities in terms of how important culture and values were in a company. A lot of people are great at their specialism, but don’t think more broadly than that. 

What did your job look like in the initial days of Thread?

Kieran: At the beginning, the main thing was figuring out what the first user experience should be like. We began in a really scrappy, manual way by design, where we’d ask people off the street to fill out a questionnaire, and then we had a stylist email them recommendations. Part of my role was finding stylists to work with. I was trying to help the customers to understand the product and why they need it. I worked with Ben and Tom (our founding engineer) and a few others to figure out that first version. Very quickly, we moved out to Silicon Valley and took part in an investor program (Y Combinator), so I spent time looking for places to live and work. I ended up finding a random mansion in the Bay Area that was empty for a few months.

And during that program, we were in this fun routine of doing morning stand-ups, working through lunch and chilling out in our American-style backyard. We worked through till like 7 or 8pm and then would find somewhere highly rated to eat on Yelp. 

Ben: The CTO role at an early stage startup is basically a software engineer. All you’re doing in the early days of a new company is trying to validate the thing you’re doing. I was responsible for a couple of other engineers who joined from our previous company, and we were responsible for quickly building a version of Thread which we could test on people. It was very clichéd – late nights, early starts spent writing code, getting out in front of users as best as possible, and just learning. 

Why was establishing a values-driven culture so important to you both?

Ben: In our previous company, the culture wasn’t so strong. In any company, a culture happens, whether you like it or not – whether you try to control it or influence it in any way. And we noticed that we had a set of shared values that just came about from our day-to-day behaviours. Some for better and for worse. So when we started Thread, we were very deliberate about creating a culture which would give us the best chance of success, but also create an environment where we wanted to spend our time. We knew this was going to be a long-term company, and if you're going to spend every day there, you want people to share your values and really believe in the things you believe in.

So we set out to create a culture where the values would kind of change a default behaviour. One of our values is Candour, and with that you lean into the difficult conversations; you give feedback when you don't necessarily feel like it. You lean into facing the big challenges you have ahead and talking about them openly and transparently. And so those things were things we believed would change our chances of success. And then another value, Enjoy the Journey Together, is one where we want everyone to feel supported and feel happy and enjoy that time. And that for me was really key. From day one, you can build a company where you optimise for success and winning, but that often comes at the expense of people and happiness. And we were very deliberate from the start that winning and success is really important.

But for us, it had to be a place where people had fun and smiled and enjoyed themselves. So we were very, very deliberate from day one. We put a lot of time and effort into the culture, and it's one that I'm super proud of.

What has been the biggest step change over the years? 

Kieran: There was this transition period in 2016 where we went from using tools that helped the stylists manually pick things to using machine learning. It really felt like we were really innovating. There was a moment when we began to see it work that really felt like we created something new. And that meant that we were able to grow faster and that the unit economics began to make a lot more sense. 

Ben: There are many but one that sticks out to me is the first time we had a warehouse. In the early days of Thread, we were packing clothes from my living room. That was at the very start. So the first time we had a warehouse, I felt this immense pride that we'd built something that required one. Even though it was a small room in an office, the realisation then that we'd made a step change was great. Then the next warehouse we got was bigger and then the next one we got was bigger. And each one is a great milestone. 

Any other honourable mentions?

Kieran: Womenswear is one of the most exciting ones. When we first started doing Thread in 2012, we did womenswear as well as menswear, and it worked really well. But we felt because we were only six people that we should focus a bit more. And when we shut down womenswear at the time, we had a lot of disappointed customers. So I’ve always felt confident that the concept would work, but you never know if it’s going to work in exactly the same way later – if the unit economics are going to be good enough and whether you’re going to have to rethink the whole business model. 

It was during the start of the pandemic where we were doing a lot of things to play defence, but I wanted to have a year where we were on the offensive. So I asked, if we’re going to do all of these hard things this year to get through this, what can we do that we’re actually excited about? So we did the bold thing of launching a whole new business line while in that defence mode. We decided when we wanted to launch, we set a three-to-four-month window, and we hit it, and I was really proud of the team for doing that. It required every team to play a role; every element of the experience needed to be different and right. 

What are some of the most memorable reactions you get from customers? 

Kieran: There’s a lot and they all sort of weave into this overall fabric. There was one that really stuck with me: back when we were smaller, we used to all share customer support, and one day, I had someone write in and say something like, “Hey, I just wanted to share that I signed up for the site on a whim, and my stylist recommended that I wear a blazer, and I never thought about wearing a blazer before, and I ended up wearing this shirt and blazer, and it felt really good. And there was someone at work on a different team that I’d always fancied, and she told me I looked great today, and that gave me the confidence to ask her out.” And he was just emailing to say thank you. And that enabled me to see the real-life implication of what we’re doing. 

If all Thread were doing is try to sell clothes, that just wouldn’t be exciting to me. So really the goal of the service is to help people feel that much more confident. 

Ben: The reactions that stick out are when customers say when we've made a difference in their lives; they vary quite a lot, from people who have left university and need to dress for an office now to people got divorced and realise that they've been in a rut for a while and needed to refresh the entire wardrobe wardrobe before going out and meeting new people.

They all experience a change from not feeling good about themselves to feeling really good about themselves. And that's when I went through. I started Thread because I needed it. And for me, the feeling I had when I left the house was one of disappointment. I didn't feel good about myself. And it’s so rewarding when customers tell me that they've gone through the same change that I did and that now they feel good about going out – they have the confidence to ask people to go on dates and to go for that interview that they weren't sure about before and just do more with their lives. That's the thing they all have in common. And that's why we're here. That's why we do what we do.

What has been your favourite Thread office over the years?

Kieran: The Leonard Street office (in London). It was small, but it had these really nice beaten up wooden floors and brick walls – a very classic start-up look. It had a really nice feel to it. 

Ben: I do have a soft spot for Curtain Road in Shoreditch. I think because at that time we were building significant parts of the team that we hadn't had before, and we made some really key hires then.

And I just remember my mom coming to the office and feeling very proud to show around and introduce her to people. I think that was one of the points when I realised that we were on to something that was going to be quite big. But I'll be honest, I think back to all of them, and there are memories in each one which I’m quite proud of. 

Any favourite memories over the years?

Ben: There's loads. I think in terms of fun memories, iteration days always stand out to me – they’re days where we go off site and talk about the company and reflect on how we've done and what we can do better going forward. And we also take the time out to have a bit of fun. And I remember once, there was some kind of game session and one of our engineers was hula hooping, and it was one of the most incredible sights. It was absolutely brilliant. 

And then there's the Christmas party speeches, which I do every year, and they give me a chance to reflect on the year gone by and talk about what's coming up. And there was one in particular which, due to logistics, I ended up giving after we had dinner and actually had quite a few drinks. I was in a kind of happy state by the time I spoke, and it was as we were about to launch in the US, and everyone was just really buzzing. I remember giving that speech and looking round everyone and just being like, this is a great place to be and there's just so many great things coming up. 

How has the mission evolved, if at all, over the years? 

Kieran: When we started, we had our own experiences where at different times we felt more or less confident in what we were wearing. A big one for me was when I went to my friend Josh’s birthday party. At the time, I basically wore the same shirt to every social occasion. And it turned out that they’d taken a bet as to whether I’d wear the same shirt again, and I had. And I felt really small in that moment. So when thinking about what I wanted to work on next, that was one of the drivers. 

I knew that I’d had that experience, but I didn’t know if it was universal. I didn’t know if what Thread would ultimately be doing would be more about helping work against a frustration or helping people to be more confident in themselves. And what’s been really clear is that not everyone goes through this transformation, and that’s okay, but even people who weren’t looking for that, often in a small way often experience it when they find something that becomes their new favourite and helps them feel like a different version of who they were. So I’d say the core of the mission has always been the same, but it’s become clearer in our minds how powerful that can be for different types of people. 

How has your style evolved since founding Thread? 

Kieran: It’s night and day. Occasionally Facebook throws you really old pictures, and I saw a photo of me from about three months before we started Thread, and I couldn’t really look at it [laughs]. It wasn’t like I was deliberately trying to be something and that thing was bad; it’s more that I really didn't know who I wanted to be. The process of building and using Thread has helped me clarify that in my mind. Now for me, it’s something that I get joy from; it’s something that over time, I can have fun with and evolve, whereas in the past, it was more of a chore. 

Ben: 10 years ago, I didn't have one. I didn't know how to create a style for myself. I knew the occasions when things looked okay on me, and I felt good in them. But I didn't know why. And I remember about two or three years into Thread when our stylists were putting together some amazing outfits and the recommendations were starting to get quite good. I realised that there was a kind of certain style that I was going for, and it wasn't through me knowing what that was. It was through Thread teaching me what worked and through liking a few items and a few outfits, and it just got better and better at recommending things to me. And then I realised that I had a style. 

It wasn't that I chose it and I knew what it was. And I think that's like one of the things that makes that great for me is that I didn't start using it knowing what I wanted to get out of it. I still wouldn't know exactly how to define my style. It's just things I feel comfortable in. And I think that's one of the key things for me; it's important that you feel comfortable because that's how you feel confident and happy.

How has Thread made an impact on your life?

Ben: When I think now of some of the things I've done going forward, not just with the company, but in my personal life, I feel just so much more able to navigate the world. A lot of that comes from the feeling of confidence. And I'm not attributing all that to the clothes I wear – growing up and maturing is a huge part of it – but so is being comfortable and being confident in how I look.

I can go into new places and know that I feel good, and that’s a huge thing for me. So I guess it just gives me that feeling of security and safety and strength. 

Where do you see Thread heading in the next 10 years?

Kieran: The thing I really want for us in the next 10 years is to continue to be bold. To not just incrementally improve what’s working today, but to constantly be asking ourselves, what problems do our customers have and what questions are they asking us? And then starting from scratch in terms of addressing how we’d solve that. If you do that, a lot of the things you try won’t work, but it’s about being a team that swings and takes those risks. And doing that in a way that’s aligned with the culture we’ve built. 

Ben: The vision for Thread has always been to make people feel happy through feeling confident, and that is how it remains. And for me, it's about doing that for as many people as possible. We've launched in the US and womenswear recently, and I just want to reach as many people through what we’re doing.

Like I said, for me, it’s made a massive difference in my life. And I just want as many people to feel that as possible. So in the next 10 years, I’d like for us to grow and do what we're doing, make the products even better, hire more great people, and build a great team. And ultimately, reach as many people as possible. 

What in the next 10 years would you like to stay the same about Thread?

Kieran: Honestly, nothing. Because I think whenever you try to keep something the same, you’re slowly causing it to fail. There are a lot of elements that I want to be present. One of the values we have is to Enjoy the Journey Together. Work is a huge part of our day-to-day experience, and I want Thread to be somewhere where people can enjoy that. But how exactly that manifests and shows up in the experience of working at Thread will probably look very different over the next 10 years. And it’s that constant evolution and growth and change that I think keeps it exciting and interesting and allows it to be authentic to who you are today. 

Ben: There's a kind of irreverence to Thread and a feeling of joy and fun in everything we do, and I don't ever want to lose that. I think one of the risks when a company grows in size and the number of people is that you lose sight of the human relationships. One of the things I love about Thread, and I sorely missed in the pandemic, is when everyone's together and there's this vibe and excitement. And I'd love to keep that. We have a strong culture, and it’s something that I hope in 10 years time, when we’re a much bigger Thread, that we still have. It makes us very unique, and I love it.

Words: Allison Pavlick, Ben Phillips, and Kieran O'Neill
Photography: Jack Batchelor
Styling: Millie Rich