INTERVIEW: Alice Whiteley, founder of Yawn
Alice Whiteley is the management consultant turned luxury pyjama brand founder looking to revolutionise your bedtime. It’s a quiet revolution though - Yawn is simply about switching off, getting comfortable and feeling your best in order to get an excellent night’s sleep. And Yawn pyjamas certainly do that. Alice and her team have thought of every little detail to ensure the smoothest night’s sleep, from the 284 thread count cotton to the covered seams; from the hand-drawn designs to the enormously deep pockets (yes, PJs with pockets!) — Alice understands it’s the little things that matter most.
Her career trajectory is a varied and interesting one, and I loved chatting with Alice who is clearly so passionate about encouraging women to take time to indulge in themselves. Before I’d even had a chance to turn my dictaphone on we were deep in conversation about self-care, what that word means in 2019 and how her brand is tapping into women’s need for it. But not in a ‘jump on the bandwagon’ sort of way, Alice has a very real and obvious desire to help women slow down and feel their best at a time of day that’s so often forgotten about by busy women — bed time.
On wanting to be a businesswoman:
I’d always wanted to set up my own business since being a young girl. Growing up, I was really influenced by Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop. I used to read a lot about her and really admired her story, and I love that The Body Shop was built on really strong principles.
When I graduated from Oxford, I started as a management consultant because I was really keen to learn as much about business as I could, before figuring out how to do it myself. I was mostly looking at other businesses and helping them figure out their next big steps and how best to grow their business. I saw the good, the bad and the ugly and that’s definitely informed the way I run Yawn as a business. I worked in a lot of very male dominated environments so for me as a female founder, it was important to build a business that I believed in.
The turning point for starting Yawn was me being burnt out. I was really, really tired working as an independent consultant and having three children. One night, driving home from meeting a client, I had a car crash on the M25. I thought, there’s got to be more to life than this. Financially, it was great, but I wanted to be more in control of my time so that I could make sure I was there for the key moments in my kids’ lives.
I was finding it really hard to relax, and all my friends, regardless of whether or not they’ve got kids or careers, they’re all finding this to be quite a pressurised time in their lives. Lots of us are finding it increasingly hard to relax, and so I felt like being in your pyjamas and being at home in really beautiful products makes you feel more comfortable.
On running a start up business:
I want Yawn to be a brand that feels like a hug. I want to design products that give you that reassurance that yes, we’re thinking about your comfort and here’s a product that will last and you’ll feel really good and comfortable wearing it.
As a management consultant, I’d worked with companies in the creative and consumer industries, so I knew a lot about branding and design. But starting up a business is such hard work and the early years were tough, mainly because I had no idea about the clothing industry. I had to travel to India and find factories and literally learn a whole industry from scratch.
However, coming into a totally new industry, especially later in my career, meant I came in with such a naive perspective, I just thought like a customer. I thought, ‘What would be my perfect pyjama company?’ I wasn’t thinking like a designer, I had fresh eyes and that really helped me. Of course we made some mistakes, but I think overall, if you learn fast, you can get there in the end.
I tried to make our design process structured, but the reality is it's completely fluid. For example, we had this great family holiday in the mountains in Austria with the kids and we used that as a starting point for our collection. One of my business partners went to Japan, so the blossoms there formed another of our prints. Our best-selling print is called Port in a Storm and it’s inspired by holidays in Devon. We always hide little details in our prints, so in Port in a Storm there’s a hidden whale.
I get a massive kick out of seeing customers put our product on and hearing how much they love it and how well they sleep in it. We’ve had a real cross section of women who’ve benefitted from our products - menopausal women love the fact it’s cotton, whereas we have some women who are sensitive to seams who really enjoy the construction of our product. I received a lovely comment yesterday from a woman whose husband bought her Yawn pyjamas for their second anniversary (two years is cotton) and she’s bought a pair for herself every year since.
On lessons learnt:
I’m really proud we’ve got to this point. When I started out, I couldn’t imagine how I would make my first product and now we’re selling thousands of units. The main thing I’ve learned as an individual has been to keep going, however hard it feels. I’ve had big highs and big lows and I used to get incredibly worried about every individual thing, but I’ve learned to not worry too much about individual situations because things will pass and get easier. You just have to keep plodding on and doing the best you can.
A couple things happened for us in the early days that really helped. One was that we got mentioned in the Financial Times, which was amazing - that nearly broke our website! Another was when my mum and I were on our way over to France for our first ever trade show. I got a call from Galeries Lafayette, the biggest store in Paris, saying that they love Yawn and they wanted a meeting first thing in the morning with all their top team and they wanted to give us a concession. I hadn’t even started trading at that point! That was so exciting and energising. I thought, ‘this idea is going to work.’
I’m really ambitious that five years from now, most people in the UK will have heard of Yawn. It’s a massive challenge, but I’m up for it. We’ve learned so much about how women like to sleep and relax and what they like to wear to bed and that’s specialist expertise that we’re developing in our sector. There’s definitely room for brilliant niche retailers that become world famous because they’re brilliant at doing that one thing really well. The first item on my wedding list was a Le Creuset pot, and that was such a cool moment, thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve got a casserole pot that will last me the rest of my life.’ I’d like for Yawn to be the Le Creuset of the nightwear world.
At the moment, my family is my number one and Yawn is my number two. The challenge at the moment is it’s really hard to find time for a number three or four while I’ve got those two things going on. Hobbies have had to take a back seat for a while as I prioritise my time at home with the family. However, the last two years I have loved being part of a local book club. It’s a really supportive group of fantastic women who I wouldn't have got to know otherwise. Reading has always given me lots of pleasure but I had let it slide, so it has reintroduced me to the never-ending joys of reading. I also love the chats we have about life in general, it’s become a real highlight.
Quick fire questions
Your ultimate girl power song?
Anything by the Spice Girls.
Your female icon?
Anita Roddick. When she died, I was really affected by it. She was a really entrepreneurial and dynamic businesswoman. She always had really strong values at the heart of The Body Shop and she managed to scale that business to international levels.
Who inspires you who isn’t a celebrity?
I’m lucky in that I have really fantastic parents and husband, so I’d say them.
What makes you happy?
Being on a long walk somewhere really wild and remote with my family and friends, having long chats with all the people I love.
What puts fire in your belly?
Yawn. I’ve got lots of energy and Yawn is a massive challenge, which I love. It’s tricky having to figure out what to do next every day, but I love that nature of it. If there were no new problems or challenges, I think there’d be something wrong with me, not with it.
This interview has been edited for clarity.