In Conversation with...

Seven Ways I Make it Happen: Irene Agbontaen, Founder of TTYA

Seven Ways I Make it Happen: Irene Agbontaen, Founder of TTYA

Thursday, 18 June 2020

London-based TTYA – Taller Than Your Average is a lifestyle brand offering clothes cut for tall woman alongside an influential podcast and an events arm. Since its 2013 launch in Selfridges, TTYA’s collections have featured in stores such as Barneys New York and ASOS.com, and shot for American Vogue by Mario Testino. Founder Irene Agbontaen discusses how authenticity gives her focus and the importance of determination and ‘graft’ in her success.  

 

What in your routine is essential for success? 

Having structure is super important to me – waking up at a certain time, dedicating a certain time to wellbeing and, overall, knowing when my workday is and then when to close my computer. Routine is something I’ve developed in myself as my business has grown. When you’re younger you can have the mentality that if you work hard, you'll be successful, when actually, if you work smart you'll be successful. Now, for me, it's really important to have 20 minutes of time for reflection when I wake up. I'm spiritual, so I thank God for a new day and I also exercise every morning. Then I'll start work, looking at any social media, writing emails and building out. 

 

How do you manage your digital balance? 

Social media, and particularly Instagram, is the first contact that many people will have with the brand and it plays a vital role in the business structure. Initially I was doing it all; trying to manage my personal feed, doing a TTAY London feed, tweeting…and I just thought, actually, it doesn't make sense and I can't effectively communicate if I'm trying to manage all of these platforms. So, I hired a woman to work on a consultancy basis to help build the digital presence up. We’ve created a fake Instagram account where the posts are pre-loaded so we have an idea of how things will look and how the messaging will be communicated. I can check it and put my comments under the picture if need be, and then approve it - then she can upload it. It’s an effective way of me being able to use my time well to make sure that I still have a strong digital presence.  

 

Where did you get your entrepreneurial spirit from and what did it teach you? 

I got my entrepreneurial spirit from my Mum. She came here from Nigeria and didn't have accessibility to the opportunities such as higher education that we had – things that we can take for granted. Seeing my mum struggle, working two jobs so that we could have a better life gave me a foundation of resiliency. Hard work was something that didn’t go unnoticed in our household – she taught me about putting in the graft to do better for yourself with the opportunities that you have. She was also keen on showing us that the world is not fair – as a black woman that was her experience – and the importance of having determination instilled in you. What she knew to be ‘black and successful’ at the time was to be a doctor or a lawyer, and I've been able to prove that isn't just the case. When I first started being stocked in Selfridges, she came with her pastor to the shop floor and was so happy because she saw what hard work had manifested into.  

 

How do you stay focused?  

I'm lucky enough to work in an industry that has given me the ability to make my product into a brand and my brand into a lifestyle. And that's been important to me because I didn't come into this to be the next ‘big fashion designer’ I just saw a gap in the market as a tall woman. There was nothing for me to wear so I thought I'm just going to create what I want. TTYA is very authentic to me; it embodies everything I'm about. I love going out and socialising and I've built my brand on that lifestyle and off the back of women supporting women. Staying focused for me is about applying all the things that I love into my business so it doesn't really feel like it's a job. There is always something exciting and fun happening because I'm creating the environment for that to happen.  

 

What is your top tip to stay on top of finances – practically, emotionally or strategically? 

People often like the ‘jazz’ of starting a business and want to see the rewards, but don’t necessarily understand what they need to know. I think you have to read up and know what you want in order to create financial freedom. For me, it was to set up an account where 10 per cent of my income goes, and then a separate play account for fun. You have to be careful with your finances when you're self-employed because things can start to cross over if you don’t document them carefully. The other important thing for me is to have a receipt book: each month all my receipts are put dutifully in chronological order without fail. When it comes to my tax return, I submit my receipt book to my accountant and he just laughs because he knows that things are going to balance up.  

 

What makes you feel out of your comfort zone? 

At the end of last year, I did a capsule collection for ASOS, and after that I really wanted to pause. I felt as if I was running and running. I didn’t expect my brand to take off so quickly, and I was just trying to maintain demand and for me it was important to be able to make time so I could think strategically about what was going to take me to the next level. Obviously, you have a bit of panic then and think, ‘Okay, is this going to make sense, is my brand going to be relevant?’ But I built TTYA as a lifestyle brand, so it will always be relevant. Taking time to reassess has helped me to build a solid business infrastructure. I’ve been spending time looking at things like sourcing sustainable fabrics and making sure that my whole business makes sense. And now I feel like I'm ahead of the game, not chasing.  

 

How you had to flex or pivot in your business to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? 

The brand is a lifestyle one that includes TTYA talks, our event element, TTYA the podcast, and the clothing element. Obviously, with COVID, the factories have been shut so I used the time to amplify different arms in the business. For example, with TTYA talks and the podcast, I was able to churn out a whole season in lockdown because everybody was suddenly accessible. With some of the challenges we're seeing now there are actually benefits in other areas, we’ve just got to look for them. The event side of my business, for example, is going to be heavily affected because we don't know when we're going to be able to gather in groups again, so we are looking at taking events into a digital space. It’s forcing people to think of ideas outside their comfort zone, which is only going to benefit us in the long run.  

 

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