Nicolai Schumann (Full Time MBA, 2009) and his sister have taken a leap together away from the corporate world and found their own fashion label, Alice’s Pig. Nicolai also guest lectures storytelling as a business tool at Cass to MBA and MSc students. We sat down to chat about it all.
Tell me about your time at Cass!
I did a full-time MBA finishing in 2009, and officially graduated in 2010. Before that I had founded a business in the movie industry, specialising in scripts and story development. I bought out my share because I wanted to internationalise my career. I decided to come to Cass to study because I wanted to spend a year in Europe, specifically London, and I was also very interested in strategy and Cass is very highly ranked in this. I loved a) the location and b) the international appeal.
The foreign electives were great, I went to Dubai and Shanghai and it was just great being in a super international environment. Now I can pick up the phone and call buddies from my MBA cohort in 25 different countries!
What happened next?
After Cass, I worked at the BBC doing mobile strategy for the World News and then on to Deutsche Bank and then I worked for Charter International/EASB in M&A. After that I decided to enter the entrepreneurial world again and founded the fashion label Alice’s Pig with my sister. On the side I also lecture in storytelling for Cass, Queen Mary and Goldsmiths as well as running corporate workshops.
I enjoy combining storytelling and business – storytelling is highly important for senior management, it’s one of the best leadership tools – in fact, storytelling is everywhere!
How is it working with your Sister?
Painful!! She just had a baby, and I became an uncle a couple of weeks ago, so she’s off on maternity leave at the moment, which I have to say I am enjoying. It’s good though – my parents are also involved. The good part of being in a family business is that they are a bit more patient compared to companies that are private equity or investor funded – and see more long-term. That means we can build more slowly with a good foundation, which is working well.
Our expertise is in totally different areas, she did straight fashion and does the product development and I do all the front end marketing and branding.
How did you become a guest lecturer?
When I was working for in M&A, ironically my company itself was bought by an American corporation, and their offer was to either take the leaving package or to relocate to Baltimore. An easy choice!
I had always had a strong storytelling background and worked on many screenplays and I have long since tried to find that interface between storytelling and business. So I did some research, designed a module, and Cass took it! I lecture MBA and MSc Management students, and it’s great to combine my two passions. This approach is becoming also very typical – I thought I had something new but now you find it quite often nowadays.
Teaching is so rewarding, giving students what you learned, and at the end I always ask them if they will apply what I have taught them, and they always all say yes! It’s rewarding to realise I am helping further their career and also their life – storytelling is also a great life skill. We think in stories, we plan in stories, we dream in stories.
How did you get the idea for Alice’s Pig?
My sister worked at Puma in Hong Kong when I was at Charter International, and we both decided to get out of the corporate world and try something together as we had so many complimentary skills.
Where did the unusual name come from?
In Alice in Wonderland – this episode is in the book (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) not the film -and Alice has a baby crying in her arms. It turns in to a pig and jumps off and vanishes. She said something like – this nasty little baby has turned in to a handsome pig, and from that I took to mean, that beauty can be in everything – wonderland is everywhere. We are British and vintage, striving for beauty, and so Alice is our mascot.
What has been the main challenge?
Getting the brand off the ground in the first place was the main challenge. Creating something from scratch, it’s almost like giving birth! You have to bring it up, name it, nurture it.
I still remember our first customer! She was from North Carolina in USA. Getting our name out there is really the hardest part, people don’t know you, they don’t trust you, they don’t see you.
Trust and brand awareness are very hard to gain – and there’s ten thousand other things to worry about too, like the supply chain, quality control, forecasting etc.
We came in with a lot of enthusiasm but it’s not an easy business! If I’d known how hard it would be and how competitive maybe we wouldn’t have done it, but it’s good to be naïve sometimes. Otherwise you can just keep analysing and being cautious and you will always find a reason not to do something!
Do you have advice you’d like to go back and give yourself?
Oooh, good question! In a way, your experience is the sum of all your mistakes, and it’s good to make mistakes.
Something I probably would do differently is to spend more time in brand and product development before going out with the product, spending that time making sure everything is ok. We totally over-produced our earliest collection and we were just not ready really, if it had been more “us” it would have sold better. Ultimately, in hindsight, if we had spent more time on product development, it would have been better.
Usually it’s good to get a prototype out there as quickly as possible, but we’re talking volume here – not like an app where you can put it out there and then pivot change and review in a learning cycle. We would rather have tested before, but you have to get it out there and see how it performs. We learned how to make our collection more consistent because the first one was so hit and miss. But I always say never regret!
Finally, it’s the quick-fire question round!
Favourite place in London: Brixton
Favourite holiday destination: New York’s East Village – I love urban areas
Must-check-everyday website: I have to say, the BBC
Dream travel destination: Mars
Cheese or chocolate: Definitely chocolate! I have it daily! In fact, every day I have a coffee and cake in the afternoon!