Boom or Bust
“Just as the doctors walked in, something collapsed inside my face and I started haemorrhaging from my nose and mouth. I lost almost six pints of blood. They just kept squeezing plasma in. I managed to turn to the nurse at some point during this and told her to say my goodbyes for me.”
Jamie Chapman is talking about his decision to start up his own business. The Drum is transfixed. “One of the doctors put something up my nose that filled it with water and eventually stopped anything else coming out. It was at that point that I passed out.”
The Drum is now gripped to the edge of the seat by only the merest suggestion of bum cheek. “I’d been on a night out in London,” Chapman continues. “It was a stag do. I’d been at Ascot during the day and then we went out for drinks in the evening. I left the club we were in, after having had a few, and went to get a taxi.
“But as I was looking for one, I got jumped by four people. They chased me into some traffic and beat me to a pulp. Luckily, a taxi driver chased them off and somebody called an ambulance. That’s when it all happened in the hospital.”
Bloody hell. Literally, bloody hell. Hearing the rather chirpy, rather cockney Chapman talk about this some four years later, it’s difficult to take in just what he went through - especially when he confirms, not that he needs to: “I almost died. It’s something I wouldn’t want to go through again, but you know what? I’m almost glad I went through it then.”
To clear things up, Chapman - the 29-year-old founder of the web-based lingerie store Up Lifted (www.upliftedlingerie.co.uk) - is no masochist, but this near-death experience changed his entire life. You could say it even uplifted it.
“I spent a week in intensive care,” he continues. “That was August 2003. When I came round I just decided it was time. I didn’t really like working for other people and I wanted my own business. The attack, well, I know it’s a cliche, but it made me come to terms with the fact that we only get one chance. This isn’t a dress rehearsal. So I knew then that if I was going to give this a go I had to do it straight away.
“After that, I moved quickly, and by October I’d set up the company. The website launched in January 2004. That was it.”
For those of you unfamiliar with Up Lifted - which will probably be almost everyone out there who isn’t in possession of an ample set of breasts – Chapman’s online store specialises in lingerie that comes “in those harder to find sizes”. Which, in bra terms, means anything from a size D up to the lofty peaks of the previously unheard of - for me anyway - reaches of H, JJ, K and L (again, bloody L).
And if we’re brutally honest, it’s not the sort of business you’d expect a young, male ex-bank employee to set up. Is it Jamie? “No, it isn’t I suppose, and to be honest I knew nothing about it,” Chapman freely admits with a chuckle that, if it wasn’t inappropriate given the subject matter, I’d say was almost dirty. “But when I was originally looking to buy a business, rather than set one up, I came across a lingerie firm that had exceptional growth figures. Unfortunately, they wanted £300,000 for it, which I just didn’t have at the time, but it did get me thinking.”
What followed was a rather embarrassing conversation with his sister (“I never noticed she was a D+ before - I mean, you don’t, do you?”) where he found out how difficult it was to get bras of a certain generosity.
“The more and more people I spoke to, the more I found out that there was just one option: Bravissimo,” Chapman explains. “I looked into what they were doing and what they offered, and thought I could do something similar but a little better. Something that took the successful, straightforward sales approach of Fig Leaves and mixed it with Bravissimo sizes.”
And three years later, that’s exactly what he’s done. It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Chapman though. Far from it in fact, and before we hook up with his current success it’s worth getting abreast with how difficult it was for him to be taken seriously at the outset. Particularly at industry shows.
“God, that was daunting,” he says, remembering his first Harrogate exhibition. “You walk in there and you’re just surrounded by women in lingerie. It was so embarrassing at first - you can’t really look them in the eye, so you just have to concentrate on their knickers and bra. I’ve got to be honest, I was petrified. I just felt so rude staring where I was meant to stare.”
“I think it’s difficult to be taken seriously when you’re a man doing this - especially one who’s saying he’s going to set up an internet business. There are a few guys at these shows who I’m convinced go along just to eye up some women, and people may well have thought that about me. I don’t blame them.”
Our collective hearts are bleeding for you Jamie - they really are. Anyway, Chapman persevered through the hell of staring at scantily clad lingerie models and soon convinced the suppliers, with his burgeoning sales, that he was indeed very serious about his underwear. His competitors have taken note too.
“I’m very aggressive with my expansion plans,” he reveals, with a tone that shifts down a serious notch or two. “I didn’t do this just to make up the numbers - I did this to become a big company, to overtake Bravissimo. This year we’ll be driving on with that objective, taking on more brands and product lines to keep the site fresh and increase spend per customer.
“We’re also stepping big time into the swimwear market, which will be a major opportunity for us and for anyone else going into it this year.
“One of the reasons Up Lifted has risen to challenge the established players so quickly is Chapman’s understanding of the online consumer. “It’s different to the high street,” he says. “Online customers aren’t very loyal when they’re shopping, less so than they are in offline stores. They’re searching for price, looking for shopping comparison sites - which we take advantage of - and heading to the best deal. “We’re competitive on price, but more than that, we also do free delivery and free returns, which Fig Leaves charge £2 for and Bravissimo charge £3.50. With our fast delivery and excellent customer service - something we’re always praised for by our customers that have migrated from competitors - it all adds up to a compelling proposition.
“Which is fine when consumers see the pound signs first and foremost, but when they’re bewitched by brand it’s not such an easy sell.” And that’s something Chapman has recently had to acknowledge. “I was doing research online, looking at what words people typed in to search engines to get to a competitor’s site,” he says. “Seventy-five per cent of them typed in my competitors’ business names rather than ‘large bras’. I knew they had a big brand name [we can assume he’s back to Bravissimo here], but until that point I didn’t realise just how important a brand name was. It was at that point that I came to the conclusion there should be more emphasis on brand building for Up Lifted.”
Which, almost at the very end of the affair, brings us to what originally led The Drum to Chapman’s doorstep: his decision to appoint his first offline PR agency, Leeds-based Lucre Communications.
“The sector is growing in size,” Chapman says, surely not intending the pun. “In 2006 the D+ market was worth £283million, up 13 per cent from the previous year, while sales of A to C cups grew by just one per cent. High street retailers like M&S are taking note and are coming back into the market in a big way. Competition is increasing because the opportunity is there. We have to respond to that.”
This response is initially coming through a dedicated national PR campaign to raise awareness of the Up Lifted name, before Chapman considers his first foray into offline advertising later in the year. We’d warn any hungry agencies out there though that Chapman, despite his ostensibly affable exterior, is no push over. “After learning so much from online marketing, and getting burnt, I’m incredibly results focused,” he says.
So if you haven’t done your research, or are just after a quick buck, don’t pick up the phone. Because after three demanding years in this business, Chapman knows a tit when he sees one.