Rob and Paul Forkan lost their parents during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But they turned tragedy into inspiration, starting Gandys International as a sustainable travel apparel brand that gives back to underprivileged children around the world. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Paul shares their journey from tragedy to ecommerce success, including selecting the right charities to partner with, and how to maintain your ideal profit margins.
How this brother duo built their parents’ legacy out of tragedy
Felix: The business was really born out of a tragedy. Can you share more of your story with us?
Paul: Me and my brother, Rob were pulled out of school at a young age. I was 11 and he was 13. We had gone to India on holiday at Christmas. When we came back our parents asked us and our other siblings, “how did we find the holiday?” We said, “Oh, it was amazing. A real eye-opener. One of the best holidays we had ever been on.” The culture in India’s so vast, and the people are so friendly. It’s a magical place.
We went back to school after our holiday, and then our parents said, “We’re going to reduce the price of our house.” The house was currently being sold, and they reduced it, and then within a few weeks they said, “Pack your bags. We’re moving to India.” Then I went into school and told my teacher. I said, “Miss, I’m moving to India at the end of the week.” This was 22 years ago. She thought I was joking.
It got to the end of the week and I have my shirt all signed with signatures, and it was the last day. She said, “What’ve you done to your shirt?” I said, “Oh, it’s my last day today, Miss. I’m going to India tomorrow.” She thought I was joking, so she rang up my mother, and she says, “Yeah, did he not tell you?” And that was that.
We packed one bag. We stopped off in Jordan, traveled around a bit of the Middle East. We were going to go for six months, and it ended up being four years. Four and a half years of living like hippies and traveling all around. Whilst we were traveling, we did volunteer work, we visited mosques, temples, and other things. They homeschooled us for a bit. We went to school for six months. We had this free-spirited life, living on a beach, traveling around. My dad had a Lonely Planet book, and he would read places out, and we would say, “Oh, yeah, that sounds good. Let’s go there.”
Unfortunately, 2004 came and we were in South India. He said, “How do you fancy going to Sri Lanka?” Me and my brother–even to this day–we love going to new countries and ticking them off, having a look around and experiencing their culture. We went over to Sri Lanka. We traveled for a few days and we settled in for Christmas. The next day, our life was turned upside down. We were caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami.
I was quite lucky that my brother grabbed my arm and helped wake me up. I’m not a morning person. He saved my life. My mom and dad put my little brother and sister on their shoulders and got them out and basically sacrificed their lives. Our parents didn’t make it.
I was 15, and had a little younger brother and sister, at the time they were 11 and seven. We had no money or food, and the trains were down, because along the coast all the petrol stations were wiped out, and we had to hitchhike all the way back up to Colombo, the capital, to get to the embassy and get stitched up.
We got back to London, and our older sister basically adopted us. The reason why we started Gandys was because we love traveling, we were brought up traveling, and we did all this volunteering. We wanted to give something back to the people that helped us in Sri Lanka. Since starting Gandys we’ve built kids campuses around the world. We built one for the 10 year anniversary of the tsunami in honor of our parents and the 235,000 people that also lost their lives to it.
Giving back to the global community by investing in children
Felix: When you began to consider how you’d like to give back, what did that vision look like? Did you plan out all these campuses? How did this idea take shape?
Paul: We love traveling. We would always volunteer, even after the tsunami. We found that the problem would always be, we would go to a place, we would help for a few weeks or a month volunteering, and then we would go back to work, and we would feel so bad and guilty to be going back to work.
I was living in Australia, and even my brother would come back to London to work, and what could we do? We need to leave a legacy–at least in honor of our parents. We thought of doing these kids’ campuses. In the developing world, our money goes a lot further, and they need the money the most and the help the most. That’s why we chose to do our work there.
Felix: Can you tell us more about what the kids campuses? What is exactly the experience of someone that would be a part of this kids campus?
Paul: They’re heavily focused more around preschool. Every campus is slightly different as well. We’ve got one in Rio, in Brazil, that’s in the Favelas. They all have their different problems that we’re working towards to help them. The one in Rio is near loads of gangs and stuff, so we’re trying to break the cycle by giving the children an education, so they don’t end up going into that cycle.
Our project in Malawi’s in a rural place in Africa. That’s really one of our poorest projects, in the sense that people really struggle for food there. Our Sri Lanka one is in a rural space, but they’re a bit more developed than Malawi. The main focus is to get their preschool, and get them up to speed so that when they go to the bigger school, they don’t feel like they’re behind other students who get more help from their parents. We want to try to teach them the basics in that. Otherwise, if a kid feels like they’re starting school two years behind the other kids, they’re more likely to go on and not do well.
The campuses are used not just for school, but for a safe community place for the children to go. They have IT labs, so they can go there and learn about IT. The sports are great as well, because it gives them a place to go. Not hang out on the street and end up going down a bad path.
We have partnerships where we help some of the older kids at some of the campuses to get into university, or get a job. It’s a thing we do to help the community as a whole.
The logistics behind funding campuses all over the world
Felix: Where do you begin, once you decide to build a campus like this? What are the beginning steps?
Paul: I’m quite lucky. We now have a big set up around us but when we started, we started small. When I was sleeping on my brother’s sofa, and we had no one working for us, the first few months our goal was to always build a kids campus, but it took us a couple years to get the money and to learn. Our first project basically funded a nurse and a teacher for a few years.
We basically did more bits like that. We came across a project as well that was basically on the verge of coming to an end. It was already a school that was existing, and they just had no money coming in. They couldn’t afford to turn the lights on. We basically helped fund them for a few years. Whilst doing that we were learning how they operate.
That then helped us when we built our campus by using the stuff that we saw, and making sure we try and get our projects to be as sustainable as possible. Our project in Malawi has a food program, so the children can learn about farming and harvesting. We also then have less money to run them. That comes down to electricity, everything. We try to be as efficient as possible, and having partners and stuff helps as well.
Felix: You mentioned you have locations all over. How do you manage these projects from a distance?
Paul: We’ve got one in Sri Lanka, which was our first one. We’ve got one in Malawi, in Africa, and one in Mongolia. It was meant to be finished in November, but due to the pandemic that’s going to be hopefully April/March time. Then we’ve got one in Rio that opened this year in March, and one in Nepal as well.
I have a lot of WhatsApp groups. I’m on the phone every few days for each project. We’re always getting videos, pictures, updates and stuff around them. Some of them it’s been a strange year for us. We would normally be helping all the children, but this year we’ve been helping the families, because they’ve not been able to go to work.
Here in the UK we’re lucky. There’s a furlough scheme. The government’s been very good at handing out money. Over there, the governments don’t have the money to hand out, so they have lockdowns. People have been struggling for food. Our kids campuses have turned into refuges. We’ve fed tens of thousands of people throughout the pandemic in Brazil, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. They’ve changed how they were operating. Some of them have opened back up now, and we’re hoping that they now stay open. It’s so important for the children to be going in and physically being there at the campus.
Felix: Is there a lot of red tape involved in setting up a campus, in terms of legalities or governmental regulations?
Paul: We don’t physically open them ourselves. We use a small charity on the ground who is already registered in the country, because of the red tape. If we were to turn up there, some countries would charge us an arm and a leg to do stuff, and we would get caught out on a few bits. Whereas, someone that’s been there years knows it off the back of their hand, and every country has different rules and regulations.
We want to piggyback off their expertise, and their network as well. We will go to them and speak to a few charities in the country, or even in the continent. We have a few things around the criteria of the projects. A big one for me and my brother Rob is making sure that the project’s going to still be running in 20 years time. We don’t want to open a project up and shut it down in a couple years because it’s not run properly.
We’re quite strict on all of that, and the charities and stuff that we work with are all vetted, and we do background checks on them as well. Our trustee will go out and visit once a year at least, and so will me and my brother.
Finding an organization that aligns with your core values
Felix: I think a lot of our listeners are interested in giving back through their businesses. For someone who’s never done this before, how do you go about vetting one of these charities?
Paul: There’s a few of us that make the decision. We get them to do a pack for us. We aim to meet them a few times, speak to their trustees and people that have worked with them over the years. It’s like if someone was looking for a job, you get a reference on them, and you see that they worked somewhere for a few years. It’s the same with the charities. We need to make sure they haven’t just popped up in the last 12 months.
Another thing that’s quite big for us as well is we don’t like working with big charities, or charities that don’t need us. We like being on a journey with someone that’s really passionate about what they do, and helping and saving the world. A charity that really needs us, and we know that every penny that we give them will go into their cause helping their people.
Felix: How expensive is it to run something like a kids campus, or any kind of campus? What kind of resources and capital would someone need to begin this process?
Paul: Africa would probably be a lot cheaper than some of the other places. In Sri Lanka, the land can be quite expensive. Africa’s very needy. It also depends where as well. But you could look somewhere really, really tiny. It depends if you get volunteers to run it as well. We have teachers that run them.
You could start off with building a really, really tiny school classroom for around 25,000, 30,000 pounds, then it depends if you want to make it bigger. You can go all the way up to 150 000. You could go up to around the couple hundred thousand pound mark. Rio’s quite expensive.
Felix: An annual cost, or just the initial start up?
Paul: That would be the initial start up cost. Then annually, it depends how many teachers you have. Food, medication. You could spend around 30,000-40,000 pound per one running it as well.
Funding your philanthropic ambitions with an ecommerce brand
Felix: Okay, so let’s talk about the actual business that finances these campuses. Tell me about how you decided what kind of business you’d build to sustain them.
Paul: We started off with flip-flops. We were selling them on our website, and through department stores across Australia, Thailand, Europe, Germany, and the UK. The reason why we started with flip-flops was we used to live in flip-flops as children, and we thought, “What’s a universal product that everyone can afford, that can help solve a universal problem of making sure everyone has an education?” That’s why we chose flip-flops.
I don’t know if you’ve been to the UK, Felix, but you only get two weeks of summer a year. So we stopped making flip-flops, and we branched out into jackets and bags, and we’ve now become a full lifestyle brand.
Felix: How did you get involved with these retailers all over the world?
Paul: I went to trade shows, looked at buying directors and CEOs on LinkedIn and got distributors as well. If I was starting a business now, that’s still so old-fashioned. The future is doing it on Shopify, and reaching the customer yourself, and owning the customer as opposed to using a third-party.
Felix: So you started with flip-flops, realized it wasn’t the perfect fit, and decided to pivot. When did you realize you should explore other products in the catalog? What made you take that leap?
Paul: It was about two and a half years. We had sold a few hundred thousand pairs. We thought it would just kick off then go, but it did end. The reason why, when looking at it, we realized the flip-flops we were making were really good quality, but they were the ones that you don’t spend loads of money on. Sort of the basic rubber style.
By the time you pay a distributor, and then the department store takes money as well. We also used a factory that produced for big corporate companies. By the time everyone took their money for being involved in the process of our flip-flops, we were like, “Oh, there’s not actually much money left for ourselves.” After all of the hard work, the marketing, we had literally so many celebs, Richard Branson, this was when One Direction was big, they were all in our flip-flops. Royals, we literally had Kate Middleton, Prince William. Richard Branson was giving them to everyone who stayed on his island, and he was wearing them.
We were looking at it and we were going, “Okay, we need to look at our business model.” I’m glad we did. As you’ve seen, the pandemic sped up the collapse of the high Street. The future is online, and for the last sort of three or four years, that’s what we’ve been working towards.
The transition from brick and mortar to direct to consumer
Felix: Okay, so you transitioned from retail to direct to consumer. That was a big moment. It sounds like you also had this realization around the business model itself, specifically the price point. Tell us about that.
Paul: Yeah. We’re bringing flip-flops back this year. We have a rule that we like to aim for, which is a 60% margin on our products. We’re not the first to do it, but by not using any department store or retailer, we can do the 60% and our stuff’s still priced really competitively. We can undercut loads of our competitors. Whenever we’re making a product we look at, can we undercut our competitor with a better product at a better price?
Felix: What changes to your product can you focus on to make sure that you are ticking both of those boxes; that you can charge less, but also offer a superior product?
Paul: It comes back to loads of competitors out there making outdoor apparel. Loads of the big ones that you see people wearing every day sell in department stores or other retailers, so they have to put their price up in order to make a good margin on their products. By only selling online, we don’t have to pay any rent. We don’t have to pay any rent or landlords, and we don’t have a partner who’s after margin for themselves. It makes it quite easy to undercut them with a better product.
Felix: What does your product development process look like?
Paul: Me and Robert are very, very involved in the product development, and we both love design. We have a signature map print that we put inside the lining on our products, it’s quite important. If you look at some of our products and cover up our logo, you know that it’s from us, because it’s got our signature cut. We have our own signature colors as well and we stick to them. We don’t use loads of colors.
All of our stuff, when we’re designing them, it’s important to us that it’s timeless. We want you to be able to get it back out of the wardrobe in five years time, and it doesn’t feel like it’s dated. It needs to be hard wearing, long-lasting.
We’re not 100% sustainable. We try to make everything we can with sustainability in mind. We don’t use feathers from live animals, because we think that’s wrong. Even though companies say it’s ethically sourced from them, to take a feather off an animal is not ethical in any way whatsoever. You should not buy a jacket with it. I speak to our suppliers, and our suppliers say, yeah, they’re getting these certificates that they’re from somewhere ethical, but they’re like, “We’ve been to pick feathers up, and where they’re coming from is not ethical.”
We’re always looking into that. Using fabric where stuff’s made from recycled plastic, plastic bottles. Consumers–especially younger consumers–that’s their only catch, trying to buy sustainably. All our products have to be distinctive, desirable, and different as well to our competitors. We’re making jackets, so we’re all making the same stuff. We’re not reinventing the wheel, but we always make sure it’s distinctive, desirable, and defendable as well. We make it so good, and the best. No one can make a jacket, or a rucksack that is better than what we do.
The key to a successful product launch? Small market tests
Felix: How do you do product testing before manufacturing in order to make sure it’d have demand?
Paul: Me, my brother, and loads of people in the product department would test. We did a polo jacket this year, and it flew out and sold out. We brought a small amount in, we saw that it got a good read, and then we backed it with even more. We’ll dip our toes. To anyone starting out, I think it’s really important to start off small.
When we started, we did some stuff where we were like, “Oh my God, we’ve ordered so much stock, too much stock.” It’s important to do stuff slowly, take your time, and grow organically, and don’t overstretch or push yourself.
“We’ll dip our toes. To anyone starting out, I think it’s really important to start off small.”
Felix: When you decided to make this pivot online rather than going through retailers, what was that transition like?
Paul: We started off selling directly to consumers. Whilst doing that, we were getting ourselves stocked in retailers as well. It wasn’t new. Ever since the start it has been quite cool. You get a relationship with the customer, whereas if you do it the other way you don’t get a relationship. The customer just picks it up when they’re in that store or on that other person’s website.
It’s quite cool, being able to email them, and you can do the notify as well on the Internet, on Google. With social media, it feels like you have a constant relationship. It’s quite amazing, how you can Insta story of a product, and then it’s just completely sold out.
Felix: When you made the transition online without any retailers, what were you doing to drive attention and awareness to the website, to the brand?
Paul: We worked with a lot of content creators around the world, because it’s hard for us to go visit all of these amazing places, national parks, tourist hotspots etc. Some of these content creators will have hundreds of thousands, sometimes a few million followers. We would basically want them to produce us some high quality content that we can distribute to our community. And once we share it to our community, they would also post it to their community. That helps bring people through the door onto our website, and that’s where our traffic comes from.
Key considerations when approaching influencer marketing
Felix: A lot of influencer marketing. How do you decide whether a creator is going to be a good fit for the brand?
Paul: Look at their wall normally. If their style is more of a wanderlust vibe. If they tick the boxes of that and what we’re after, then we know that they’ll work for us. Sometimes it’s not about sales. Sometimes they might have a few hundred thousand followers and don’t get many sales from it, but you get some really good content. That is good for us, and we then sell to our community.
It’s not always about the sales. I’ve spoken to people who have started out, and they think if they can get a few Instagramers with a million followers, it’s just going to send their website crazy, and they’re going to make loads of big sales. You have to just do as much as possible, take your time and not think about the sales. The sales will come later.
“You have to just do as much as possible, take your time and not think about the sales. The sales will come later.”
Felix: Is there any way that you’ve been able to determine whether a relationship with a specific content creator is going to lead to sales?
Paul: Yeah. You can look at their audience, who’s commenting and stuff. You can get really granular. We get ones that work well for us, Americans and the Canadians, and then the British, German, and Irish do well. The South American influencers, for example, don’t do well. Some of the ones in Asia for us don’t do well. Some of that is because they can get products cheaper where they live, with less duty and fees. We use mainly UK influencers, because it’s cheaper for us to post products out to them with no import duty tax. Normally most of their followers are in their own country. By using British influencers, we know that we can deliver it to them basically for free the next day.
Felix: You’re looking geographically where their followers are located. Do you just assume that based on the location of the content creator, or do you use any tools to help you determine where their individual followers are located?
Paul: I’m not sure what my social media guys use. When I used to do it, there were software tools out there. Some of them were charging like 500 pound a month. But I found you could pretty much tell by looking at the content creators page.
You also get a lot of influencers as well where they have poor engagement in that sometimes, because they’ve bought loads of followers that aren’t real. It’s important to check all of that. You can see if they’re getting good engagement regularly.
We did stuff as well. We took amazing pictures of landscapes, and then we would give them the product. They would be based in the UK, for example, but when they do their pictures, you wouldn’t really see our product. They’re so far away in the landscape. In those cases, there is no point gifting them, even though you’ve got lovely content. To us, it was a balancing act, because you need to be sustainable. You can’t just gift everyone if you’re starting out.
I know some people that are starting out, and they can’t really afford to give lots of people free products. They have a high price point product. It’s jewelry or something and you’re starting a jewelry business, that makes it really hard to do, because you can’t really give them the product.
Optimizing celebrity status and repurposing user generated content
Felix: You mentioned there’s lots of value in the content itself, not just the exposure that you get through the content creator’s followers. What do you do with the content that they produce for you?
Paul: We would then use it on our social media. Sometimes it could be turned into adverts as well. It gives us creative assets that help bring people onto our site.
Felix: How many do you typically work with at a time?
Paul: We probably have about 50 a month that are producing stuff for us.
Felix: You had also spoken about a lot of celebrity endorsements. How do you get in front of these celebrities to showcase your work?
Paul: We’re quite lucky, because we have a good product and we have a good ethos with what we’re doing with our kids campuses. Some of the celebrities, you just say to them, “Would you like to wear one of our products?” If they’re wearing another outdoor brand, they’re going to use the one that does the good, because it also looks good on them. We’re quite lucky in that sense. Even with that, some of them are still hard to reach and to get a product on. I’d say that’s what’s really helped us, is having a mission they also feel passionate about.
Felix: Do you have any strategies or tips for getting your products in front of these celebrities?
Paul: We’ve done some wacky stuff to get a hold of some. We’ve done music festivals where we’ve had a stand at them, and it’s been raining the whole weekend, but then you managed to get a celebrity, a big musician, and then they come into the brand, and every six months or something our stylist will get a call like, “So and so’s after some product from you.”
We’ve just managed to get out of saying yes to everything, be at loads of events and stuff, and we’ve been really lucky when we’ve pushed ourselves to do that. It’s helped us, and led to collaborations. Every celebrity, or influencer–every little bit of work you’re doing to build your website and your product and business–it always leads to something.
The first few years were some of our favorite years, because everyone was new and we were buzzing. It’s so simple, but it’s so tough, and it’s quite scary. We kept going and going and going, and each time that led to something else.
Felix: Can you tell us about some of the tools and apps you’d recommend that help you run the business?
Paul: We do our email on Klaviyo. That could be a good one for listeners. I’ll go with just Klaviyo for now. The best thing about working with Shopify are all these apps, it’s endless. Whereas on our old previous website, Magento, there were hardly any apps, no apps. We used to be on MailChimp, but moving to Klaviyo our open rates and email conversion has gone up, which is great. We use another app for our stock management, called Stocky, that’s really good as well.
Felix: What do you think has been the biggest lesson that you’ve learned in the past year that you want to apply moving forward?
Paul: Well, it’s been a strange year, with COVID. It’s taught us that we don’t need to be in the office every day. We used to do more photo shoots ourselves, but now we’re using more influencers and people around the world.
Instead of paying for these big photo shoots, we’re now putting the money towards more people around the world, so we’re getting more content back than what we would get. We’ve landed on a new way of operating, which is quite cool, and we’ll be saying that will now be instilled in us forever.