I first met Sue Fuller when I was walking around the PGA showroom floor earlier this year. She was bright, enthusiastic, passionate and about as obsessed with her dog as I am. I was instantly drawn to her and her company. Her bags have filled a void we didn't even know we had! She and her co-founder Oliver have done an unbelievable job building their brand. In under 2 years, their bags are seen just about everywhere - from being featured in Time Magazine, Forbes, Today to recently inking a deal with Peloton. This boss babe easily lands a spot as one of the most "Inspiring Women" I've met and I'm honored for the time I was able to get with her (and Oliver) for this interview.
What is Oliver Thomas?
Most entrepreneurs start a business because they want to solve a problem that they have identified. This is exactly what drove me to start The Oliver Thomas. In July of 2017, I found that my combination of frequent travels (nearly 70% of my time had been spent on a plane weekly since I was in my early 20’s), being a mother of 2 boys and a fur baby (the real Oliver Thomas is my beloved Shitzu) and trying to stay fit while going to the gym had me carrying 3-4 bags at a time throughout the day. All the bags were heavy, didn’t function and were absolutely killing my back and shoulders. It was then that I realized that no one needed another bag…or did they? One that actually functioned and allowed you to go from day to night and week to weekend without having to carry around multiple heavy bags. Hence www.TheOliverThomas.com was born. We are creating the most fashionable, lightweight, vegan, durable, water-resistant, machine washable, mulit-functional bag line for today’s busy women (and men).
In order to start the company, I knew that I had to surround myself with the most trust-worthy, hard working, no B.S. people I know. I called my best friend, neighbors, former colleagues and even the real Oliver Thomas’s Dog Nanny (a former head of sales training for a major automobile company in the US) and explained my idea, concept and passion around solving for the way that real women live today. We were going to try to make the world a little bit better one bag at a time.
How did you decided to make your dog a co-founder? The REAL Oliver Thomas…and naming him as the co-founder?
It was really a spur of the moment decision and just dawned on me when I sent my son out to walk the dog….”what about calling the company Oliver Thomas?”I knew it was kind of funny, unexpected, would make people smile and would definitely be a good conversation starter. I cannot think of anyone that makes people smile more than Oliver Thomas. He makes people of all ages smile, feel carefree and laugh.
Tell us a bit about how you developed the brand attitude and why you think it plays an important part?
I saw the fashion industry and social media taking itself a little too seriously and I wanted to create a beautiful high-quality product but with a casual feel. We are selling amazing, functional bags and fashion accessories, but nothing should be stressful about buying a bag. I also have teenage children and in the world of social media I believe it is important to keep things as authentic, fun and real as possible. The Oliver Thomas voice of brand plays a critical role it portraying that image.
What caused you to go out on your own and start a business from scratch?
I worked in merchandising roles for brands including Ralph Lauren, LL Bean, Kohl’s, Carhartt and Vera Bradley. While those experiences enabled me to grow and build my knowledge in the business, as I climbed the corporate ladder, I found myself moving away from the actual consumer and away from solving the needs of the consumer. My passion for product combined with my experience in global supply chain, planning, merchandising and design lead me to founding Oliver Thomas. The biggest thing I have learned is that there is no substitute for continual learning and the hustle is real! I have been fortunate to surround myself by amazing colleagues and mentors who share a similar outlook and work ethic.
Can you share any challenges and/or successes that became great learning opportunities along the way?
In the great words of Phil Knight, when you are an entrepreneur, every day is a crisis! That’s what makes it so much fun. Everyone on the team has a great sense of humor, enjoys having fun and has a tremendous passion for our customer and the product. This is what drives us everyday.
What are some of the best and worst lessons you learned about leadership in the early years of your career?
- We value relationships. Everything begins and ends with relationships.
- Be curious. Don’t assume to know everything! I ask myself what I can learn from everyone I interact with on a daily basis.
- Be humble.
- Take care of the people who supported you in your life and professionally.
- Listen and Listen. Speak once in a while.
- Don’t settle with myself, people, product, and process, and always encourage moving forward. Good enough is not an option.
Who Inspires You and Why?
I am constantly inspired by anyone who shows passion. I love to be surrounded by that type of energy.
What are you reading now and do you have any favorite books?
I learned a great lesson from Warren Buffet who would often tell how he spends 5-6 hours a day reading. While I would love to read that much, I generally try to read between 2-3 hours a day. I read anything I can get my hands on from the latest news stories, latest business articles, any new books published that I find interesting or that have been recommended. I also listen to TED talks or podcasts. I try to learn something everyday that I can use to improve myself, processes or the business.
5 Questions for the REAL Oliver Thomas
1. How involved do you get in the design of your namesake brand?
I am kind of a “Big Picture” kind of guy. While I let my Mom lead the design process, I give a final “paw of approval” on each new product introduction.
2. What is an average day like for you?
I love hanging out with my friends, going for long walks and getting my beauty sleep. It may not look like I am doing a lot, but there is a ton going on inside of this head.
3. How would you describe your style?
Relaxed, comfortable, personal, chill….unless there is a squirrel around.
You’ve recently come out with some fabulous dog jackets, what’s next for you?
I am constantly thinking of new ideas. I was surprised how well my customizable dog coats have been received by my fellow pet friends (even Luna my Pot Belly Pig Friend Loved Hers) and we will be continuing to expand my line of pet products. This is something that I am intricately involved in on a daily basis. Watch for new introductions coming out this fall.
I am also very involved with the retailers that choose to sell my pet products. I shouldn’t pick favorites, but any accounts with great dog toys gets an automatic approval from me.
5. What advice would you give to a dog (or human) looking to change up their style?
Be your own animal! That is why I LOVE the badges my brand offers. There are so many to choose from and you can make your style your own and convey your own message.