How Liam Neeson Inspired This Aussie Entrepreneur To Start A Business He Knew Nothing About
"I think the world’s full of good people and people are drawn to wanting to help and create change."
The following is an exclusive excerpt from Cult Status, a new book from Junkee Media co-founder Tim Duggan. The book explores the new generation of entrepreneurs who are building businesses that are purposeful, principled and creative.
James Bartle was stuck in thick traffic on the chaotic streets of Cambodia in a tuk-tuk when he heard the news.
His phone started buzzing with dozens of text messages all at once. Did you see it? they asked. How did this happen? He was caught unaware. Oh my gosh.
James had started a jeans brand, Outland Denim, a few years earlier as a way of helping women who had experienced exploitation in the developing world. He had no experience in the fashion industry, learning everything on the job as he set up a factory in Cambodia to employ seamstresses to make his jeans. And now, as he was heading to the factory, he received the news that somehow a pair of his jeans had made their way onto one of the most famous and photographed woman in the world, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, who was newly married to the UK’s Prince Harry.
When Meghan stepped off the Royal Australian Air Force plane in Dubbo, a rural town in New South Wales, she was wearing a pair of slim black Outland Denim jeans, and James’ world changed forever.
From the outside, they look just like any other pair of jeans, but if Meghan had looked inside the front pocket lining of her jeans, she would have found a small thank you note from one of the seamstresses who had been rescued from different forms of exploitation. The ‘Markle Effect’ was instant, with media around the world retelling the story of James’s ethically sourced denim business. As James sat in the tuk-tuk, he became emotionally overwhelmed.
“We just felt so honoured and so proud that she would choose our brand,” he says.
“Picture what some of [our employees] have come from, probably quite hellish, to making a premium product for a princess. It’s just amazing.”
What ‘The Markle Effect’ Did For Families In Cambodia
James realised this was a game-changing moment for Outland Denim, and he has been able to ride the wave of demand that’s ensued. The jeans sold out within 24 hours, and the increased exposure, awareness, direct sales and retail contracts led to Outland Denim employing an additional 46 people.
“The impact that she has directly made isn’t just 46 new lives, it’s 46 new families’ [lives],” says James.
He’d watched the movie ‘Taken’ with Liam Neeson, in which sex traffickers abduct his character’s daughter and friend.
“Families that aren’t in harm’s way, that are going to have a better chance at a much stronger future. That’s generational change directly as a result of her wearing a product.”
The ‘Markle Effect’ was a few years in the making.
James’ journey started in an unusual way. He’d watched the movie ‘Taken’ with Liam Neeson, in which sex traffickers abduct his character’s daughter and friend. Although fictional, it sparked something inside James and shocked him into learning more about the issue; he eventually travelled to Asia with a rescue agency and saw girls for sale.
It was extremely confronting for James, and he spent the next few years trying to get to the heart of the problem and figure out what he could do about it. James thought that the best thing he could do was to give women in developing countries a living wage, training and education. If he could do that he could help their entire families and communities.
“If you’re confronted with something powerful enough to provoke you in the way I was provoked,” says James, “then there’s only one option: to do something about it.”
How James Turned Inexperience Into An Advantage
First he needed a business idea. In a moment of naivety, James launched a denim brand, something he had no experience or knowledge of until he started. It was only after he started that he realised he had chosen, in his own words, the worst product in the market in terms of environmental impact.
Making denim is a complex and resource intensive process, with spinning and stretching of cotton, dyeing, weaving and finishing the product. It uses more electricity and water than most other fabrics. James used his inexperience in the fashion industry to his advantage. It meant he had fresh eyes on every part of the process, and could question the small and big things during every stage of the production that challenged the conventional way of manufacturing: Can you use vegetable or organic dyes? How do you reduce the CO2 emissions from the process? Can you use less water? What can you reuse the water for?
It’s been a rollercoaster since then.
“I’ve had the darkest moments of my life as a result of this journey,’ he says, recalling a time when he didn’t have enough money to pay wages to the women in Cambodia and thought he would have to hop on a plane to let them all go.
“I remember sitting on the edge of my bed just overcome with anxiety.”
“I’ve had the darkest moments of my life as a result of this journey”
Then something would happen and he’d find the money to pay that month’s wages. And repeat. To help get James through it, he’s relied heavily on his staff around him.
“The team of people … behind this is the reason it can be so successful. It’s not because I’m just giving it everything. It’s because there’s a whole team of people giving it everything and together, we’ve been able to get results that we never dreamt of having. I think the world’s full of good people and people are drawn to wanting to help and create change.”
Outland Denim is a for-profit business that aims to have a positive social impact on every part of the process.
“I believe the best model is where everybody wins,” James says.
“I think we’ve lost the meaning of what good business is over time. And I’d like to be a part of re-establishing what good business really is and I believe this is it.”
This is an excerpt from Cult Status, a new book from Junkee Media co-founder and publisher Tim Duggan. Cult Status explores how to build a business people adore, and is published by Pantera Press.