More often than not, business is about looking at how things have been done before and having the courage and imagination to reinvent the rules. That’s what Anne Boden did when she created Starling Bank, an app-based bank for personal and business current accounts. Born out of her determination to give customers control over their money, Starling strives to be fast, adaptable, friendly and supportive – just like a murmuration of starling birds.
Starling is all about questioning old logic and disrupting the established order. That’s why it’s built an app-based bank to suit the lifestyles of millions of people who live their lives on their phone. With no branches, it’s able to offer 24/7 customer service. Another example is its sleek debit card, which has a vertical design and is reflective of the way we use them today: inserted into card machines, ATMs or tapped to make a contactless payment. Portrait makes sense.
In this series, we’ll be shining a light on other Great British entrepreneurs who, like Anne Boden, are pioneers of change.
In this edition of the Portrait Series, we speak to Dave Linton, founder of Madlug, who won the Entrepreneur for Good Award at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards in 2019.
Dave Linton is the founder of Madlug, a bag brand created to give every single child in care the dignity they deserve. For every bag Madlug sells, Dave and his small team donates one to a child who has been given an unfair start in life. Oftentimes, local authorities don’t provide bags or suitcases to children in care who need to move from place to place, leaving many to put all their worldly belongings in bin bags as they go between care homes and foster homes.
Dave’s entrepreneurial story earned him the Entrepreneur for Good Award and the Great British Entrepreneur of the Year title at the Northern Ireland regional final in October 2019, before he went on to win the Entrepreneur for Good Award the national final in November.
“I’d never won anything before launching Madlug,” Dave begins. “So, to win awards is always a huge shock to me. I don’t live my life with that kind of expectation.
“The risk that comes with winning lots of awards is that you can become the hero in the story. And that’s not what we want for Madlug. We call our customers heroes because they are the solution to the problem.”
‘I’m going to fix that problem’
Admitting that he always had a thirst for helping people while growing up in Newtownabbey in Northern Ireland, Dave became a youth worker at 18. “I have always been driven to help others who are in need”, explains Dave. “My time as a youth worker made this drive stronger and, in particular, to help children and young people who are disadvantaged.”
He dedicated his career to helping young people until he was 42, and never considered the prospect of a different career, let alone starting a business.
Dave’s initial idea was to collect second-hand bags and donate them to the local authority. But further research made him realise that wouldn’t be enough to help the 90,000 children in the UK and Republic of Ireland who found themselves in care. How else could he help? Dave next turned to the idea of setting up a charity, so that he could work on a much bigger scale Unfortunately, at that time the environment just wasn’t right for it. Then he remembered reading about the ‘buy one give one’ business model.
“I thought it would be difficult for me to set up a traditional business. If I started a coffee shop, I’d always be giving away too many free drinks and be broke. I wondered if I could apply the ‘buy one give one’ model to this problem of children in care using bin bags.”
Using the buy one give one model, for every Madlug bag that is purchased one is donated to a child in need; a model Dave felt would help in the communication for the need of bags for children in care.Cutting through the noise
While undoubtedly tough and lonely at first, he just needed to get that first order in. He could then use the money made to buy more products, making sure any sales were reinvested in new stock. It really was a traditional bootstrapped business at the start. With bags such a significant aspect of the fashion industry now, Dave was entering a very crowded market with next to no budget.
He explains: “We have quality bags and an identifiable brand, but the story is key and actually quite innovative in the marketing of this type of product. There are so many bag companies out there, but they just don’t have those engaging stories,” explains Dave.
The bags are currently part manufactured in china and are then finished by the Madlug team in Northern Ireland. By using polyester, the backpacks are far more durable and should last for many years. But, with no manufacturing experience, Dave decided to stay classic with the design and focus on the Madlug story.
“For our customers, homelessness is a physical problem – they can see it walking down the high street. Children in care are invisible, it’s not something you see in your day-to-day life. We need to introduce the problem to people before we can fix the problem.”
Shortly after launching in 2016, Dave was listed on The Observer’s New Radicals list, a collection of the top 50 individuals who are actively changing their communities for the better. It took Madlug from a few hundred pounds worth of bags a month to passing £1,000 for the first time since their inception and led to greater support from accelerator programmes.
While that was certainly impactful for the business, it can’t compare to the second major milestone. Despite failing to make it to the final of Virgin’s Voom competition, Dave was determined to create his own opportunities and take full advantage of the experience.
“I decided to go anyway and learn from the finalists for next time,” he explains. “I’m a learner, so I’ll always take any opportunity to learn and improve.”
Between the finalists’ pitches, he attended a few small talks taking place around the venue, one of which was by Crowdfunder, the UK’s largest crowdfunding platform. Although he’d always been reluctant to go down the crowdfunding route because of the time he’d have to dedicate to it, Dave put his name down.
While on a well-earned holiday a few weeks later, where Dave promised his wife he would switch off from work, he received an email from Voom titled ‘Chance to get back in the game! Win £1,000 and brunch with Branson.’
Dave says: “I only had five days to put this whole crowdfunding campaign together, which isn’t a lot of time at all when you’re dyslexic. I didn’t have anything prepared, no big investors lined-up to kick things off. I really started it with nothing.”
Targeting £10,000, Madlug raised £7,500 with five minutes remaining in the initial 72-hour window, around £5,000 more than any of the other finalists. Dave was pipped at the final hurdle by two businesses and he eventually finished third in the 72 hours. The winner, for some unknown reason, decided not to raise a single penny more for the rest of the campaign.
And the runner-up didn’t reach their target over the four weeks. “We carried on the campaign and ended up raising £24,500. I won the brunch with Richard Branson. That was incredible, but more than that, we had a new crowd of people interested in the brand and what we were doing.”
While the Virgin founder is right up there in terms of entrepreneurial influencers, it was a much smaller influencer that had a huge impact on the business in Madlug’s third year.
“One of our customers read a blog by Part-Time Working Mummy (Rachaele Hambleton), who talked about being raised in care and carrying her belongings in a black bin bag.”
A month later, the best-selling author posted to Facebook and Instagram about her story and Madlug. “Within 10 hours we sold out of every single product,” Dave says. “We restocked a few days later and sold out again in 10 hours.”
Scratching the surface
Madlug has achieved a lot in its relatively short history. But the mission is far from complete. And Dave has ambitious plans for the future of the business.
“There’s over 30,000 new kids in care every year in the UK, so my dream is getting to a place where we can supply 30,000 bags to the new children entering care that year.
“I also want to move into the space of creating job opportunities for care-experienced young people. Not a course they have to attend in order to get benefits or something like that, a course they want to be on. We can be more than just a manufacturer. I really believe we’re only starting to scratch the surface.
“We want to be a lead voice that champions children, not just giving them a bag, but by treating them as we value them. These children have huge value and worth.”