Every second, a truck full of clothing is burned or buried in landfill. In 2008, Mart and his brother, Rob Drake-Knight had the simple idea that waste is just material waiting to be reused, and if nobody else was willing to solve the waste problem, they would.
What started as a small clothing brand called Rapanui is now Teemill, a technology company that has redesigned traditional supply chains to eliminate waste, and successfully produced the first circular economy for clothing, recognised by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Queen’s Award for Innovation.
Headquartered on the Isle of Wight, UK, Teemill has developed an open-access sustainable print on demand platform that enables others to create, make or sell their own t-shirt designs, sustainably. So anyone on the internet can access the technology that took 10 years to build, in 10 minutes. Over 10 thousand brands already work together to co-create a circular economy, powered by Teemill technology. Now, the mission is to scale the solution and help brands end waste. You can follow the entire Teemill story in Mart’s TED talk: How to design the circular economy
Where did the idea for Teemill come from?
When I was five I got extremely worried about waste. I wrote to the bin man and they sent back some info about how recycling would fix it all. Later I realised the issue had got worse, not better, so my brother & I decided to start a company to make products from natural materials using renewable energy. It wasn’t called Circular Economy back then – to us the idea that products should also come back to us so we could remanufacture the material just seemed like common sense.
Making it work took a bit longer than we originally thought, as we needed to redesign the way supply chains work, including building our own factories. Then once we were up and running, we realised we needed to scale it up as a solution needs to be as big as the problem, otherwise it doesn’t work. So we put all the tech online on a free platform so anyone could connect to it, use it. That’s how the Teemill platform came about.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
We live on an Island. While this means we can’t easily get off it, we do get to wake up to the sound of the sea. After that, I am a big believer in tea. Most of my work is in engineering, which is a broad word – it’s mostly just fixing problems with hardware, software, the way products are designed and made. Or figuring out how to make new things, designing the solution into something that someone can do about it. Every day is different and setting up so there’s variety in the work helps on projects that take decades. Growth companies are good like that: There’s always some new challenge. The subtle rebranding of the word “problem” to “challenge” there is part of the coping strategy.
The important work is done by the team. I go wherever there’s a problem and specialise in removing hurdles. Sometimes it’s overnighting on a factory floor fixing a broken robot. Other times I’m sat at home online with my cat, video calling someone who wants to bend my ear about some technicality they’re stuck on. The thinking is 24/7. But productivity is overthought sometimes. Have a clear mission, use OKRs as they do in Measure What Matters, then if productivity matters, put in quality hours.
How do you bring ideas to life?
To begin with I don’t believe they’re my ideas, the ideas exist and I discover them – just as anyone else can. Often they’re shared and almost always never totally new. If you don’t separate the idea from the person, progress is impossible. I suppose you’d say the innovative bit is how we join up ideas from different places and make systems instead of products. Often what is day-1 dumb in one industry is totally profound in another. After WW2 Toyota solved heaps of the issues the fashion industry is struggling with now, they just call it something different. Kaizen, pokayoke, Andon, Kata. They’ve been doing one-piece flow in cars for decades. When we did it in t-shirts we were treated like we came from outer space.
I read lots of books. Physical books are good as the information density, relevance and scope is limited by the form & printing economics. Too much info and it’ll be too heavy, it needs to only be about one thing and it needs to be useful or no-one will buy it. That’s a downside of the internet. Anyone can write anything and there’s no cost, so good information is mixed with bad. Here’s an example. I had blueberry wheats for breakfast. Reading books changed the course of my life. I’d like to think that readers will go buy a book but not blueberry wheats, but maybe it’s wishful thinking – it’s not locked into the format as much as a real book (pokayoke). I travel around to factories speaking to people working in the company. They have the best information. Especially watching people work with our systems and technology on their first day – before the workarounds or the habits form. Their pain is the best roadmap around.
Anyone can have ideas, but it’s only when they are done in the real world they make any difference at all. We are quite aggressive about shipping new tech every week and at the same time, inform our decisions with data – it’s ok if it doesn’t work, we just need good visibility so we can see either way (Kaizen).
What’s one trend that excites you?
It is a time where people are starting to talk about serious change, at serious scale. Telling other people to change things is like standing still throwing stones. To change anything at pace starts with moving it yourself. We learned to code, build factories, robots, design, fabrics and all that sort of stuff ourselves. We just googled it and started doing things.
That’s the trend that excites me. The fact that for the first time in civilisation we all have access to the internet, all it’s knowhow, and we can sell and ship to everyone on it unlocks a once-in-a-civilisation level opportunity to redesign the system. We just need to help people make the connection that waste, sustainability, tech are all chapters in the same story. It was never meant to be for cat photos.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I think there are people who try to make sense of their feelings, and others who make sense of reality and can adjust their feelings to help them get what they want. I suppose you’d call it critical thinking, but a whole load of habits like listening by observing what people are doing, not just what they say. And starting from the physics up. When we built a circular supply chain, everyone we talked to said what we wanted to do was not possible. Anything allowed by physics is possible, and you can either have the confidence to cut through that (but nobody likes a big head) or the tools to take a fresh look and say, ok, you don’t believe it’s possible but what would need to happen so that it is?
What advice would you give your younger self?
Not to worry so much about how business is “supposed to be done”. Business as usual is what got us in this mess, in order to change anything we need to change our approach too. We’re creating something completely new, and that means working against the grain. If you want to create change, change the way you work, from the start.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
You’ll get much further with cooperation than competition. When it comes to a systemic issue like sustainability, we need everyone on board. That’s why we’re sharing the technology that it took us 10 years to build, for free. We even share it with competitors. Because the current system isn’t working, and we need to redesign it. And now that the solution exists, we need everyone using it in order to change how things are made.\
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
One of the things I’ve learned is that if you’re looking for the answer to some issue, the most important thing is not the answer but to learn to ask the right questions. For example, if you ask someone what the solution to sustainability is, you’ll get a jumble sale of cliches and end in a sort of dead ended frustration vibe. But if you said, if sustainability is the answer, what is the question: You get stuff like “what is it made from, where is it made, what happens to it after that, even, why is it made like that? Could it be made differently” – then you get exciting stuff like ideas and solutions and progress. So in short, if we want better answers, work on the questions.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Growth seems to me to be about creating products that help people. Rather than selling stuff, creating helpful products creates reasons for people to buy it. Building a brand, growth was about competing with other brands. When we released the technology behind it, it enabled other people – including our competitors – to grow. And so while people say beating the competition is how businesses get big, in my experience we got way further, way faster, with cooperation.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
There are so many, they all blur into one: Failure is half the job, the other half is what you actually do about it. Our factory burned down once (it wasn’t our fault). Rebuilding was an opportunity to redesign and make it stronger. And install sprinklers. Software breaks at critical times. Robots explode. Products might flop. It’s how we learn, and out of that comes faster robots, software that is a joy to use, and great products. The trick is to face challenges and deal with them. Failure is feedback. If you’re growing you’re out pioneering and that means getting used to solving issues. In the end it’s sort of like a massive real time strategy game, or a big sudoku. For some it’s painful. Others find it fun.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Our business is about enabling people to turn their business idea into reality. Our platform is about giving people access to all the technology we built so they can create their own circular products for their main business, side hustle, to bolt merch on to their main offering, for internal staffwear and stuff. We also have begun sharing the fulfilment and on-demand printing software as services for people that want to make their systems more efficient.
Now charities can use Teemill to fundraise, bands can use it to make merch for their next tour, entrepreneurs can start their own online business. We exist to enable that positive change and growth. Have a look at Teemill.com and get the work that took us 10 years free in 10 seconds.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
On the Island we have ferries that are very expensive and slow so any business trip to the mainland takes ages, costs loads and you have to drive a lot. I take a microlight instead, which is a sort of really small aeroplane. It’s very fast and cheap and the carbon is about the same as the car. Soon they will be electric of course but even now it’s an interesting genuine example as it says a lot about the nature of the sustainability problem compared to how it is presented, and some of the unexpected consequences:
Now when you do the maths, short haul airliners with low occupancy are co2-suicide compared to a train. But in the case of an ultralight it is cheaper, faster and uses marginally less fuel. Slogans and generalised beatdowns on “flying” only get us so far and actually being careless with the words we use to describe the problem can block out potential solutions. When we say flying is bad, actually we really mean that carbon emissions associated with flying are bad because of the way the plane is designed. The flying bit is magical and a future without it would be less exciting. What we want is flying, but without carbon, which means redesigning propulsion, storage & energy generation in a connected system. Some people call this “systems thinking”. Quite a useful branch on the brain tree, given our collective situation.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
We found that individual pieces of software are great at doing one thing. But they’re often designed for everyone to do anything so there’s a paradox to how focused they are, how fast they improve, and laterally it’s hard to move from one platform to another – it’s friction. So we built most of our own software systems and web services for the team. The Teemill platform is part of the same ecosystem as the network of on-demand factory systems and connected to an internal platform where our staff work. This means that everyone in the system works in the same “HQ” in the cloud. Building what we needed to help our team meant that we also built something other people need, and so now we can offer the platform to other brands, businesses and events. We all use the features in our systems every day to plan, chat to each other. And other businesses we work with use it in their fulfilment and on-demand print & production. We are looking to share it more widely in future, like we did with Teemill.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
That’s like asking what the best song in the world is. Would take time to get to one so here’s a few. Toyota Way is a pretty interesting process book. Superintelligence Paths Dangers Strategies helps understand software scaling power & associated risks. Good to Great, does what it says on the tin. Thinking Fast & Slow is good for teams building things in tech to avoid facepalms.
What is your favorite quote?
“You have to accept darling, this will only ever be a hobby” – my girlfriend’s assessment of the business and its prospects when I was 19 after what might politely be described as a ‘quite flat’ first 6 months of trading. It’s ok, we have a son now.
- If you’re serious about solving the problem, the business model itself should be on the table.
- Only changing things changes things.
- Building enabling technologies has more potential than using technologies to build you.
- Waste is where the economy and the environment agree. Start there.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.