I’m with the band
… says Ash Loudon, having made the journey from stacking shelves in a Northampton supermarket to launching a unique commemorative bracelet for the Armed Forces community, via an 18-year Army career. The launch of his new product, Valour Band, is the culmination of more than two years’ work and has reinforced his belief that military experience can be the perfect catalyst when faced with unfamiliar challenges.
Ash Loudon enlisted in the Army as a solider at 19, and shortly after his promotion to Lance Corporal was identified as a candidate for Officer training. He was subsequently commissioned in 1998, enjoying a wide range of roles, including a return tour to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, this time as an instructor rather than a trainee. He retired nearly two decades later as a Major, having commanded his squadron on operations in Afghanistan. Despite an extremely rewarding career, he felt that he wanted to try his hand at the challenges that lay beyond his uniform, and he retired in 2012.
‘I found resettlement such a useful process,’ he recalls. ‘While I didn’t arrive knowing exactly what I wanted to do, it helped me develop a direction and, more crucially, the belief that life on the outside was a clean sheet on which I could make my mark. I quickly became convinced that I wanted to start my own business, so I set up a digital design company, creating branding, websites, print campaigns, and so on.
‘If I took away anything from resettlement, it’s the belief that previous military experience shouldn’t necessarily be the leading factor in defining where your future career takes you. Just because you’ve spent an amount of time in a certain field within the military doesn’t mean you can’t consider completely unrelated opportunities. Skill sets and experience are widely transferable.’
Nexus of an idea
A few years after starting his first business in digital design Ash identified a novel way of recognising service. After seeing his medals gather dust (with exception of their annual outing during remembrance) he came up with the idea of producing an everyday wearable item that would reflect an individual’s service.
‘Rubber or silicone bracelets had been done to death and felt a little too throwaway to mark a career in the military, so I set about designing something that would be more enduring. In essence, I felt the final product should have a visual impact and physical form that was in keeping with the commitment and dedication that a Services career signifies.’
This decision lead him down a path that was to take more than two years to navigate, and that required him to develop a whole new range of skills.
Don’t fear the unknown
What became apparent as Ash took on the wide range of roles associated with developing a new product (3D modelling, research and development, marketing, packaging, branding … the list goes on!) is that lack of previous experience shouldn’t necessarily be seen as an insurmountable obstacle.
‘There is so much advice out there, and I found that the key wasn’t so much knowing how to perform a task, but rather knowing what questions to ask in order to achieve the aim.
‘This is a skill I found to be crucial when serving – as an officer there is a requisite level of knowledge that one should possess, but when surrounded by incredibly talented and experienced individuals, such as our senior NCOs, greater gains can be made by harnessing that expertise. Indeed, failing to do so would be short-sighted at best.’
British all the way
As the concept matured and the product began to take shape, Ash became increasingly convinced of one thing: it should be made in Britain. ‘The provenance of the final product was very important for us.
‘We have a superb industrial base here in the UK and I was keen to use it. Doing so enabled me to leverage another valuable lesson learned from my time in the Army: the value of meeting face to face. It is easy to forget how much more can be achieved by sitting down with a supplier or partner.’
Therefore Ash found he could have his cake and eat it: he established a network of suppliers and partners with whom he could easily communicate and drive production forward, all while nurturing the kind of provenance that he felt was crucial to creating a product that was rooted so deeply in military pride.
In addition to sourcing all of the product components from within the UK, a partnership with The Royal British Legion has established an important part of the Valour Band story.
Ash continues, ‘The Royal British Legion has a superb social enterprise called Britain’s Bravest Manufacturing Company, which handles part of our assembly process. It’s a superb company, based in the south-east, which provides us with a great number of options for scaling our operations. It’s also fabulous to be involved with the important work done by the RBL.
‘Again, the ability to meet face to face unlocked more opportunities than working solely through emails and calls.’
‘In summary,’ concludes Ash, ‘I’d say the process has taught me a few important lessons:
- Be bold. It sounds a bit trite, but try not to be overwhelmed by challenges. There is always a solution – maybe not a perfect one, but a solution nonetheless.
- Ask questions. Surround yourself with expertise (while being wary of ‘experts’) and be curious. Challenging assumptions will create unexpected opportunities.
- Get out of your office. Time spent travelling to potential suppliers, partners and contacts is never wasted (does that sound familiar?). Face-to-face business turbo-charges your results.
- Finally, don’t be precious. Have someone you trust who you can bounce ideas off, and be prepared for the truth. I am incredibly lucky in that my business partner and fiancé, Nicky, has been there to provide critical feedback throughout. That feedback has been pivotal in keeping the product on course.
When developing an idea like Valour Band from a concept it’s important to have a strong counterpoint with whom you feel comfortable, and you only get maximum benefit from feedback if you can avoid being precious about ideas. There can be no sacred cows!’
Valour Band is now on sale through the online shop at valourband.com and can be followed on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram Q
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