UK entrepreneur Laura Ward, winner of Start-Up Entrepreneur of The Year, is the founder of EXEAT, the world’s best-selling luxury British tennis brand for women. Since the brand’s inception in 2021, Laura has revolutionised the global court wear market, leading the way as part of an exciting new breed of ‘post-Brexit’ UK brands with powerful global trading strategies, that fly the flag for Great Britain on the world stage.
Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?
My background is advertising and prior to EXEAT I had no experience in the fashion industry so it’s been a significant pivot. My career began in 2002 working with brands like Audi, Unilever and British Airways creating their advertising campaigns and getting a masterclass in global brand building along the way. In 2011 I founded my own company TLA – one of the first Influencer Marketing agencies in Europe with clients including Coca-Cola, L’Oreal, Jaguar Landrover and several major European governments. We pioneered the creator economy (Instagram had launched just a year before) and today the industry as a whole is worth $15bn. It’s a great source of pride that TLA played a role in that, because initially people just didn’t believe it would work.
Since age 6 I’ve been keen tennis player and I launched EXEAT three years ago. We’re famous for creating deeply chic, fashion inspired court wear for brilliant women that is cunningly tailored to really flatter the form. We’ve taken the world’s most stylish courts by storm and are now the #1 luxury British tennis brand globally. As a company we’re passionate about playing it forward environmentally and all of our pieces are made from game-changing sustainable fabric with an ultra-low carbon footprint.
How did the idea come to you for the company?
My lightbulb moment came on a tennis court in Paris during 2017. I had the opportunity to move to the city with my work at TLA, which of course I leapt at but the hitch was that I didn’t know anyone, so I decided to join a tennis club. Unsurprisingly, there was something about playing tennis in the fashion capital of the world, facing impossibly chic opponents across the net which made me want to up my style game on court. So, I went shopping for some fancy new kit – the creme de la creme of tennis apparel, but all I found was rail upon rail of the same old boring, unflattering mass-produced sportswear. I was gobsmacked that the top end of the court wear market didn’t seem to exist, not least because tennis is so famous for its rich sartorial heritage. That was my lightbulb moment to create the high quality, deeply luxurious tennis apparel that female players deserve, because tennis historically is a fundamental sport for women’s empowerment. It was the first sport women were ‘legally’ allowed to play in the 1800s and the first sport women were permitted to compete in at the 1900 Paris Olympics. It’s also consistently the sport in which female athletes command the highest fees in the world. Now that’s worth celebrating!
How did you achieve awareness?
Through a mixture of global influencer marketing, Facebook ads, SEO, PR and organic social media.
What are the key successes?
Funnily enough, the things that should have made our launch impossible actually ended up providing a very unique context for success – namely COVID 19 and Brexit. Let me explain:
COVID19 did periodically shut down our supply chain as all our factories closed which was difficult, however during the various lock downs tennis was the only group sport in the UK we were permitted to play. This saw people flooding to court even if they hadn’t picked up a racquet since childhood resulting in a whopping 372% uptick in tennis participation according to the LTA. To play tennis is to love it and these high figures remain today, resulting in tennis being fastest growing sport in the world among women which of course has benefitted EXEAT significantly.
And on to Brexit. The UK’s messy divorce from the single market meant that in the immediate aftermath it was too expensive and difficult for us to trade within the EU which should have been our bread and butter. This forced us to look across the Atlantic to America pretty much from launch – the biggest western market in the world for tennis. We discovered shipping state-side was a bit cheaper than to Europe (yes, seriously) and also that the US has a nice high threshold of $800 before duty is incurred on imports. Our dresses are £250 so we could essentially trade ‘tax free’ with our E-com customers over the pond. As a result, today 80% of our revenues come from export and we are the #1 selling luxury British tennis brand in North America. Focusing on the USA turbo charged our revenues in a way that would have taken years had we simply focused on EU. Curious as it sounds, Brexit forced our hand and become our superpower.
Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?
- No is just a starting place. As an entrepreneur you need to become the master of alchemising ’no’ into ‘yes’.
- Cash is king and therefore it is crucial to have a decent working knowledge of your accounts. P&L, balance sheet, accruals etc… do not just leave the numbers up to your bookkeeper and accountant. Do not say to yourself ‘I’m just not a spreadsheets person’. As an entrepreneur the buck stops with you, spend the time educating yourself.
- And on that note, educate yourself in business. Read the books, listen to the podcasts, immerse yourself in wisdom of other great founders and commercial brains. Some recommended reading: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, Ride Of A Lifetime by Bob Iger, The Dip by Seth Godin and Originals by Adam Grant.
- And finally, be in the business of making something great. Not something that’s OK. Or Good. Or better than the competition. But something really, really great that leaves a legacy.
Who are the 4 people who inspire you the most and why?
My father Stuart Ongley – he too is an entrepreneur, starting working life as a coal miner in Australia before coming to the UK and launching his own company, SGO, in the music business.
Phil Knight founder of Nike – he built a global superpower brand in sport from scratch. His memoir Shoe Dog is a must-read for any entrepreneur.
Anya Hindmarch – I so admire her relentless pursuit of creative expression and how it breaths joy and resonance into her brand. Also the work she has done in sustainability is a game-changer.
Lydia Fenet – Global auctioneer and author. She’s built the most incredible, truly unique career in auctioneering and is a master networker. She’s now parlayed her experience into brilliant books and podcast – I think she’s a wonderful role model for working women in particular.
What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?
“The struggle is where greatness comes from”
Ben Horowitz, The Hard Thing About Hard Things
What are your Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn social handles and also website links so our readers can connect with you?
For more information visit exeatweekend.com
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