Accountants by day, bikini designers by night. When sisters Charlotte Li and Olivia Bishop couldn’t find the swimwear styles they loved in the UK, they set about founding their own brand. Here are Charlotte’s tips for maximising time, funds and creative inspo
When you envisage the brains behind an ever so slightly risqué swimwear brand loved by the likes of Millie Mackintosh and many a Youtube influencer, you don’t necessarily immediately call to mind jobbing accountant co-founders, one with two boys under three and both still working nigh-on full time. Sisters Charlotte Li and Olivia Bishop founded Tocoswim in 2016, after being unable to buy the kind of swimwear they loved from their mum’s native Trinidad and Tobago in the UK. Turns out that their combined sartorial eye was ahead of the curve in that respect- the Love Island villa wouldn’t look the same these days without a distinctly cheeky (in every sense) bikini for one. Here are co-founder Charlotte’s words of wisdom on turning a side project into a success, when time, investment and me-time are limited.
Identifying a gap in the market
“We grew up visiting Trinidad three or four times times a year- there was an abundance of amazing South American swimwear readily available. In Trinidad, women of all shapes and sizes flaunt their bodies with confidence- irrespective of cellulite or body size, everyone is proud to put themselves out there. When Carnival rolls round once a year, everyone celebrates their body in the skimpiest of the skimpy costumes, and we wanted to bring that vibe to the UK with our bikini brand.
“Why swimwear? Put simply- we couldn’t find affordable, high quality, ‘brazilian cut’ swimwear in the UK. You’re stuck with either the ultra expensive designer stuff or cheap, mass produced tat. Australia in particular is killing it in the swimwear space, but after paying for import duty and shipping, you’re looking at north of £120 for a bikini, and most people, ourselves included can’t justify that. Coming up with our own brand was a ‘why not?’ decision in the end.”
Getting it off the ground financially
“We got a government start-up loan to launch the business and put in a little bit of our own savings. Neither of us were in a position to put a tonne of our own money in - we both have life commitments. All of the money went on our initial stock order - we didn’t (and still haven’t) put any money into marketing.”
How to start a business with a family member
“A lot of people think that going into business with family is a bad idea, but I actually think that starting a business with a relative allows you to be totally honest. There’s no ‘professional filter’- if Olivia doesn’t like a design, for example, she says it like it is. It also helps that our roles don’t overlap hugely with the exception of design which is very much a collaborative exercise (I sketch while we both brainstorm ideas together).”
Carve out separate roles from the start
“Olivia looks after the operational side of the business such as manufacturing, finance and logistics and I focus on creative marketing, packaging, PR, influencer management and events planning.
“Otherwise, none of the rest of the family get involved. That said, mum’s attic is our makeshift stockroom as she is the only one fortunate enough to have any space to store 3000 bikinis in London. We don’t have a fixed workplace yet so we both do our work from home or coffee shops on our days off (and of course our mum’s house/ stockroom).
“I’m normally full time at my accountancy firm, so developing our business involves lots of ‘evening shifts’! These continue now- my average bed time after packing up orders is around 11.30pm.”
Get ideas on paper
“To come up with our designs and concepts we block out a few hours alone with a sketchpad. From there it involves lots of trial and error. We like to keep our styles simple but also cater for different body shapes with various cuts and levels of support (at the moment tops range from A to E). Our colourways don’t really follow a theme – we have a mix of bold and bright and more subtle neutrals so there’s something for every day and mood of the holiday.”
Know your customer
“Our ‘average’ customer is aged between 18-35, generally with a lot of body confidence! Approximately 75 per cent of our customers are UK based and want an amazing bikini for the few holidays they take in the year to chase the sun.”
Don’t bottle it up
“We don’t have a mentor as such, but we are lucky that we can turn to each other and our wider family and friends for advice and support. That’s one of the best things about going into business as a pair as opposed to solo.”
Prepare to be surprised (in a good way)
“The most surprising element of starting our business has been the amazing response of our customer base. We’ve had so many repeat customers, which is the best thing to see when you’re doing orders, and so many people have purchased because they’ve seen our bikinis on a friend.
“Second to that, we get a surprising amount of orders from men- there are clearly a lot of partners out there buying our bikinis for their girlfriends/wives... “
Focus on the benefits after a busy day
“Whenever I’m tired or finances get tight (which they do- paying for nursery in London is a huge cost, plus mortgage, bills... the list is endless!), I always remind myself that I don’t want to change my lifestyle to fit into the amount of money I currently have- I want to work every available moment to change my financial situation to accommodate everything I want to do in life, and so that I can give my kids an amazing future. Running my own business is the only thing that is going to give me the flexibility to do that.”
“Being told by friends that they’ve seen strangers on holiday in our bikinis is the most rewarding aspect. It’s amazing to think that people are wearing our bikinis all over the world now.”
The bumps in the road
“We are still juggling our day jobs with running Tocoswim- we both work four days a week as accountants, which I’ll return to once I’ve finished maternity leave. It can be hard to put all of our focus into the business in the evenings and during weekends when we’ve had a long or stressful day/week in the office.”
The best career advice I’ve been given
“Make the most of your contacts- you’d be surprised how many people can help you along the way, and willingly so!”
What I’d say to other women thinking of starting a business
“If you are passionate about doing something, and can’t stop thinking about it, then you just have to take the risk. Start small to test the market and assess demand- once you’ve got an idea of whether it’s got legs, grow it from there. Make sure that you have a good support network around you to keep you going when it gets tough too, because it will.”
Wind down in a way that works for you
“Cooking is something that we love to do in our family, so we always have a dinner planned. If not that, then a good old documentary on Netflix with a glass of wine does the trick.”
Never lose your your mojo
“We are currently planning our SS19 collection, which I have a feeling is going to be even more amazing than this year, and I think it will feature our first print. I can’t reveal anything else for now, but I’m excited.”
Follow Tocoswim on Instagram @tocoswim