Jamie Skinner is the co-founder of Jungle Culture alongside his business partner, Christopher Chalk. After feeling as if he wasn’t creating a positive impact in the world, he decided to leave his corporate banking job to start his own business. Jamie and Christopher have spent around three years building their business, traveling across the world to find suppliers who share their ethics and objectives.
Jungle Culture supplies eco-friendly products that are responsibly sourced to over 30 businesses worldwide. Their mission is to inspire people to see the beauty and purpose in nature and help businesses worldwide take a stand against plastic waste. Jungle Culture really started to take off after six months, and after three years, they’ve sold more than three million reusable straws – an impressive feat. Jamie’s been kind enough to talk us through how they did it and what’s next.
Who are you and what brand did you start?
Hi! My name is Jamie Skinner, and I am the co-founder of Jungle Culture and Jungle Straws. I grew up just outside of London in a smallish suburb, and the 'thing to do' for people in my area was to go to university, get a degree and then go and work in the city at a bank, hedge fund etc.
That's pretty much what I did! I studied international business and Mandarin at university and took a job at an investment bank after graduating. The problem was that I found office work to be really dull and, without being melodramatic, soul-sucking.
I didn't feel particularly proud of the day-to-day work I did. I also felt like I wasn't creating a positive impact in the world, so after my two-year contract ended, I quit my job to find a bit more meaning, freedom, and hopefully wealth.
My girlfriend and I took a flight to Mexico, and coincidentally I met the guy who is now my business partner at a small hostel in a town called San Miguel de Allende. Fate?
The business we started originally was called Jungle Straws, and our first product was bamboo straws, which we sourced in person from a small farm in rural Vietnam. After six months, the business started taking off, and we knew that Jungle Straws was no longer a viable brand name, so we created another brand, 'Jungle Culture'. Our aim was to continue sourcing eco-friendly solutions from ethical manufacturers in Vietnam and beyond and market them in the UK, US and EU.
That was nearly three years ago, and we now have around 50 SKUs, which will be increasing to 60 in a few weeks (or probably by the time this is published)! We've sold more than 3 million reusable straws and made custom products for the likes of the US parks dept, TOMS, National Geographic and the British embassy!
Our business is UK-based, but we started everything in Vietnam. For a year and a half, we both lived in an ex-fishing village called Hoi An, where we ran an office out of my living room.
BRAND IDEA - how did you come up with the idea for Jungle Culture?
Nowadays, plastic straws and plastic waste are a hot topic, but we started our business before David Attenborough shined a light on the problem. This was our criteria for starting the business:
- It must create a positive impact on society
- It must allow us to work remotely
- It must be cheap
That was pretty much our base.
We had never invested in a business before Jungle Straws, so in the beginning, we were very, very cautious when it came to investing. Our initial investment into the business was £500 each. We were pretty scared to invest more, so being cheap was definitely a significant factor in our decision making.
Since Chris and I left Mexico, we ended up on different sides of the planet. Chris was in Vietnam, and I was in Portugal. In Vietnam, bamboo straws have been a thing for a long time, so when Chris mentioned them, I was intrigued. We did a Google search and found that there weren’t many other companies in the UK making them. We ordered a pack of straws from the biggest company at the time and felt that we could improve on the design, so that’s what we did.
The inspiration behind Jungle Straws was really just a desire to do something that made us both feel proud and gave us independence. We didn’t do any thorough analysis of the market – just a few days of looking around and a gut feeling!
We brainstormed to create our brand name and for any aspiring entrepreneurs out there, our advice is to always check websites like name checkr.com to make sure that the social profiles are available.
Our first logo was made by Chris’ girlfriend Molly Maine, who is a graphic designer. Lucky for us, she didn’t charge! A different UK branding expert created our second logo and branding details, and we basically sat down with him for a few days and explained the story of our brand. He turned it into what you see at www.jungleculture.eco
Many of the drawings are based on old Vietnamese cave illustrations, which was a nice little nod to our second home! We love Vietnam, and it’s always going to be a part of our brand culture.
BRAND LAUNCH - take us through how you launched Jungle Culture.
Let me prefix this by telling anyone starting an e-commerce business – please don’t start how we did!
We did things the hard way. Usually, the standard procedure when sourcing a product is to look online and find a reliable manufacturer. The problem is, if you do this, then you really have no idea about what the working conditions are like in that particular facility. You also have no idea if people are being paid fairly, and you don’t know if the products are plastic-free at all. They may very well arrive plastic-free, but there are multiple steps in the manufacturing process that most brands don’t ever see.
Chris and I decided that we would personally visit multiple farms and seamstresses around Vietnam to source our first product, which was a set of 12 straws in a natural jute bag with a natural jute single straw sleeve. We sourced the bags and the straws from two different places, had everything shipped to us and packed them all ourselves.
The farm that we use to make our bamboo straws is family-run. Almost everyone that works there are either related or friends. The whole process of making our straws is very natural and localised, so we were delighted to have found such a great partner.
Because we chose to partner with small farms and workshops instead of large Chinese factories, our suppliers didn’t know how to export, fill out customs docs, or do pretty much anything related to international trade. This created a lot of hurdles. It’s taken us nearly three years to build a team of people on the ground in Vietnam that help us pack, ship, translate and source products. It was definitely fun, but it’s been exhausting at times.
Our total startup costs were £500 each, but we lost money on our first shipment. During the first six months, we invested £5,000 each into the business, which we recouped by the end of the year. Since then, we have never needed to seek investment to expand. We rely solely on our business profits to grow, and during the Christmas season, we sometimes take bank loans to bring in more stock for the busy period.
At the start, we focused on Amazon because we were both in Vietnam and had no way of shipping website orders. We were 100% Amazon based for the first few months until Chris built our initial website.
The first lightbulb moment we had was receiving an order for a few thousand dollars from an events company working with National Geographic. At the time, we had done minimal marketing, and suddenly we realised that we could sell bamboo straws and other zero waste products wholesale.
After that, we created a wholesale brochure, bought an engraving machine and started emailing shops and events all around Europe.
ONLINE STORE SETUP - what are your top 2 tips for successful Ecommerce store setup.
- Spend time planning before you do anything. You are always going to make some mistakes, but some things are difficult to change. When you come up with a brand name, write it, say it, get someone with an accent to say it. Get ten people to read it. If it’s two words, put them together like a URL to see whether it looks strange? Think long and hard about things that are difficult to change. We didn’t think our brand name through, and changing it after a year was difficult.
- Do everything yourself in the beginning, and don’t invest lots of money until you see things start to work.
CUSTOMER RETENTION - what has worked best to attract and retain customers?
Focus on the products and focus on the customer experience. If you can sell someone a product that’s better than your competitors at a lower price, then you’ll retain customers. What’s more, they’ll tell everyone about your brand, too.
Always read customer reviews, listen to what people say, and if you hear the same thing multiple times, make changes to what you’re selling. Continually improve, and you’ll always be ahead of your competitors.
We use email marketing with Klaviyo to help retain our retail customers. Keeping in touch with customers via email is always a good idea and an excellent way to remarket in the future.
SOCIAL - what are your top 2 tips for successful use of social media to engage with customers.
- If you’re not good at social media, then outsource it. Chris and I are terrible at running Instagram and Facebook, so we don’t, and since we handed it to someone else, it’s been a much better tool for us than when we were hands-on.
- Our social media manager posts on Instagram every day, and they’re always running FB ads. I can’t help with tools, though, sorry!
BUSINESS GROWTH INSIGHTS - how has Jungle Culture changed and evolved?
For the first six months, we grew pretty steadily but at a small scale. It took around eight months for us to hit £85,000, which is the business revenue threshold in the UK to pay VAT (sales tax).
After we hit the VAT threshold, we’ve grown quite quickly ever since. In our second year of trading, we hit around £650,000 ($900,000), and this year we are on target to pass £1,000,000 ($1,400,000).
During our first two years, we mainly focused on Amazon, Etsy and Wholesale. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve gradually put more time and attention into our websites, and we now receive from 10,000-13,000 organic visitors a month. We have somewhere between 750-1,000 wholesale clients and around 5,000 email subscribers too.
Here’s a chart showing our Shopify sessions over the past few years:
MANAGING CHANGE - what are the top 2 tips you’d suggest others adopt to safeguard their business.
- When Covid struck, our wholesale business dropped off of a cliff, and suddenly our online orders skyrocketed. Likewise, we are now starting to see a slow-down in online orders as people aren’t locked down anymore. Thankfully, our wholesale business is booming as events and shops have started again. In that respect, I would advise other businesses to diversify your products and customer base. Do not rely too heavily on any one revenue stream.
- One huge impact that Covid had on us was with international shipping. Many ports around the world have been backed up for months, and costs have gone through the roof. There was a period of time when we were out of stock in several of our bestsellers for nearly a month because our boat had been delayed. When things like this happen, stay calm and work on other areas of your business. During that time, we had to put a lot of our sales efforts on hold, so we focused heavily on PR and SEO.
FUTURE BUSINESS PLANS - how is Jungle Culture doing today and what does the future look like?
Business today is great! We are due to receive a few shipments in July containing 5-10 new products, which we hope will sell well and complement our existing range. We’re also expanding further into the US market and trying to navigate some of the problems created by Brexit.
This year and next, we’ll be pushing hard to release more and more products and expand into more markets while also building a solid team.
Long term, we would love to exit, but we still feel like there’s a lot of work to be done and many more challenges that, hopefully, we can surmount!
ENTREPRENEUR INSIGHTS - what has been your biggest learning experience since starting Jungle Culture?
The journey of an entrepreneur is a difficult one. It’s incredibly stressful, and at times it pushes you to the absolute limit. You just have to find a way to get up every morning and put in another 10-14 hour shift, every morning, seven days a week. Forget your social life, forget your friends –you don’t have time for any of that.
ONLINE BUSINESS TOOLS - what are the business software tools you couldn't live without?
Over the past year, Zoho inventory has helped us a lot. It’s a relatively cheap inventory management solution that has worked well for us.
Canva is fantastic for anything simple in terms of design.
We use Trello for organising tasks and responsibilities.
See what tools other founders use here.
SELF DEVELOPMENT - what are the educational resources you’d recommend?
I like listening to 'How I Built This' and watching 'Shark Tank' just to get an insight into what other businesses are doing and how they're growing. I watch all kinds of business documentaries on Youtube while I am doing my morning workout. CNBC has some excellent business strategy mini-documentaries, but just find something interesting and beneficial and listen or watch for 20 minutes a day while you're cooking, cleaning, working out etc. It's really easy, and you'll pick up a lot.
For books, 'My Morning Routine' was a great one for helping to organise my mornings and inspiring me to get up a lot earlier. There's also 'How to Develop a Super-power Memory', which will teach your brain to do things you didn't think were possible!
INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE ‘shout-out’ - who have been the most influential people for you during your brand journey?
Chris and I are lucky enough to have a great team. Chris’ mum Janet and her partner Graham have supported us from the very beginning. They started posting a few packages a week, and now they maintain our engraving machine, which is a pretty steep learning curve for two retirees.
Personally, my girlfriend and friends are all fantastic, and they are all very supportive. However, one recommendation I’d give to any entrepreneur is to put a bit of distance between you and your friends while you’re trying to build a company. Otherwise, you’ll spend too much time socialising.
FINAL WORDS OF INSPO - for other aspiring entrepreneurs.
It’s a well known one, but Elon Musk said to maximise your chances of success, just put more hours in. It’s absolutely true. If you put 10-14 hours into your business every day, you will be much better positioned to succeed. Hard work, mental toughness, never stop pushing forward and never make excuses.
Latest offers & promotions - where can we go to learn more about your latest offers and promotions?
Shops, restaurants, events, weddings and online retailers can contact us via our zero waste products wholesale page. Here you will find a huge range of products including; Coconut bowls, Reusable razors, Bamboo cutlery sets, Reusable straws, Eco shaving soap, Natural soaps, Coconut shell candles.
Shop the range and use the code ‘MYBRANDJOURNEY15’ and you’ll get a 15% discount !!