SME catches up with Simon Caulton, the owner/founder of Ones, a company that makes lightweight, sustainable trainers
Simon, tell us about Ones. When did you set the company up and what was the inspiration behind it?
Ones Leisure Trainers launched in December 2021. The brand creation was inspired by my own personal journey when my daughter, Mia was diagnosed with infantile acute lymphoblastic leukaemia at just seven months old in July 2017 and given a 50:50 survival rate of reaching the age of five. The experience was life changing. As parents, both Anjna and I had to leave our day jobs and become around the clock carers for Mia, living at Birmingham Children’s Hospital. We watched our daughter endure a gruelling treatment plan which included, lumber punches, bone marrow operations, blood transfusions, X-rays and chemotherapy drugs.
Mia was discharged after nine months, but she still had almost two years of continued chemo treatment at home. With my work being predominately based in the Far East and Anjna’s work 15 minutes away, we made a decision as family that I would become a stay at home dad and look after Mia and Anjna would return to work.
This was a very difficult time for me, stepping away from a career I had worked so hard for, that I loved. I never imagined becoming a stay at home dad. I love my daughter and yes this was the right logical step as a family, but I struggled with this adjustment. The loss of my independence, loss of control, the trauma, isolation, I felt myself losing my purpose, my mental health spiralled downwards quickly, I needed to find a focus.
Designing the trainers was an incredible chapter. I channelled all my pain and experiences into the brand. While Mia was in hospital, we were occupants at the Ronald McDonald House in Birmingham, a charity that offers rooms to parents/families caring for a critically ill child in hospital. The house was a lifeline for us. Every morning I would get ready and sit at the edge of the bed, put my trainers on and stare at my feet, not knowing what the day will hold, I would take a deep breath and then take that One Step towards the door to take on my day. I spent so much time on my feet all day in hospital, I noticed my feet would become quite sweaty and swollen, my legs would often become tired and achy by the end of the day. I recall the need for something comfortable, lightweight and breathable on my feet as it would be a very long day in hospital.
When I started to do my market research, I identified that many regular trainers could be quite heavy and the insole flat design would cause aching on the base of feet when worn for prolonged periods. So when I designed Ones, my brief became very clear to me – I wanted to create lightweight, breathable, super comfortable and eco-friendly trainers for anyone who needs to stay on their feet all day. We have committed 10% of all profits to Blood Cancer UK, for continued research in kinder, effective treatments and improving survival rates.
Life has taught me the importance of taking One Step at a time. Whether you are on an uphill battle or striving towards something beautiful, we all have our own One Step Journey. Ones Trainers is a brand that belongs to everyone who purchases a pair of Ones. They are starting their own #myonestepjourney. The brand slogan is “every journey starts with One Step”
What were the challenges in the early days? How did you and your partner Anjna combine developing the company with caring for Mia?
Becoming a new parent is a challenging and tricky time for all parents. The first year is all about finding your feet and adjusting to living on minimum sleep! I guess for us this situation was further exacerbated by our child having a serious illness. We had to find our new normal.
After nine months of intensive chemo, Mia was discharged, but then started the second part of her treatment, 18 months home maintenance programme which entailed us administering chemo drugs every day. Mia was immune deficient so we were limited to what she could do. She was so vulnerable to infection that visitors were kept to a minimum. Subsequently this made me become isolated and confined in my own home. Mia was prone to infections, at the first sign of temperature spike she would be rushed into hospital for antibiotics, tests and close monitoring for 2-3 days every time. All this made planning things rather difficult.
So we lived day by day. Anjna would go to the office and I would look after Mia. On her better days she was allowed to go out. Her nursery would let her pop in for a few hours for a break. This break also gave me time to think about the business. I spent so much time thinking about how to incorporate the key components of being lightweight and breathable into an everyday trainer. I had found a new passion and focus. I drew on all my contacts from the Far East and built a partnership with professional shoe designer Katie Ridges who helped bring my vision to life.
You’re keen on sustainability. How is that reflected in the materials you use? And what style and type of shoes do you produce?
From the beginning, I was committed to Ones Trainers being eco-friendly and sustainable so partnered with Bloom Materials, who launched the world’s first algae-blended EVA to the footwear industry. Bloom Materials have worked with numerous well known brands in order to help them design eco-conscious products that have a positive impact on the environment. Sustainability is high on Ones agenda, so working with Bloom Materials is incredibly important. We want to increase the percentage of Bloom rise in the EVA outsole, improving the litres of water cleaned and restored to the environment and the M³ air cleaned of carbon dioxide. Ones has even committed towards three of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
You joined the STEAMhouse incubator which is supported by Birmingham City University. Tell us about that and how it helped.
I have been incredibly humbled by the immense support offered by the Birmingham City University’s STEAMhouse Incubator, a unique centre dedicated to providing a space for collaboration, innovation and the development of new ideas, start-ups, and ventures. The pandemic like for many businesses also sent Ones development back, having lost our original manufacturer, Richard Scutt – the Incubator manager and Julian Beer, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Birmingham City University – provided sound advice and support to get back on track. Ones has gone onto winning ‘Rising Star of the Year 2022 Award’ at StartUp Awards National Series.
Where do you hope the company will be in five or ten years’ time?
This year is heavily focused on building the brand, establishing an effective marketing strategy and selling Ones Trainers. We want to continue building brand ambassadors that align with the very soul of the brand.
The next steps would be:
• Sustainability remains high on Ones agenda, working with Bloom to increase the percentage of Bloom rise in the EVA outsole, improving the litres of water cleaned and restored to the environment and the M³ air cleaned of carbon dioxide
• Explore new and existing sustainable/eco-friendly materials to develop the RMC range to become more sustainable/eco-friendly.
• Introduce new styles and colourways to the range
• Working towards three of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
• Continue to grow our Blood Cancer UK partnership
• Continue to support Ronald McDonald House charity
• Introduce Ones lifestyle apparel range
• Build a team and perhaps move into offices, at the moment, every corner of my house has trainers in it!
Has all the effort been worthwhile?
It’s been hard work bring the brand to market and especially during the pandemic, there were many times I considered walking away from the project. However, this project has opened us up to other areas that has been immensely fulfilling.
Blood Cancer UK – Partnership
The Ones brand is about each individual’s #myonestepjourney. We have become a family ambassador for Blood Cancer UK, continuously raising awareness and being involved in fundraising events. We have committed 10% of all profits to Blood Cancer UK, for continued research in kinder, effective treatments and improving survival rates. As a family, we raised £11,928 in 2017/18. This was awarded to a research project at the University of Edinburgh, where Professor Katrin Ottersbach and her team are looking at genetic changes which occur before birth which can lead to the development of the disease and are also trying to understand why some leukaemia’s escape treatment, causing some babies cancers to return. Improving our understanding of these changes and the driving factors will help lay the groundwork for better and kinder treatments in the future.
Ronald McDonald House Charities
Ronald McDonald House Birmingham is one of 13 Ronald McDonald Houses across the UK situated in or near hospital grounds to enable seriously ill children to have their families close by when they are undergoing treatment. The Ronald McDonald House at Birmingham Children’s Hospital is one of the charity’s largest purpose-built accommodation facilities. As well as providing 66 bedrooms, the city centre house offers families the opportunity to cook together, eat together and share their experiences.
We spent 225 nights at Ronald McDonald House Birmingham during 2017 and 2018, we know first-hand the lifeline this charity is for a parent or family caring for a critically ill child. The house is a short walk from the hospital, and I was given my own room, which became my sanctuary. It gave me a safe and quiet place to recharge my batteries, get a break from the hospital and the constant beeping machines, and enabled me to get some much-needed sleep and rest so that I could stay strong for Mia. With the communal kitchen, I could cook my own food and take it in for my child. The house helped me to look after myself so I could cope, stay mentally well, and continue to care for Mia. I have no idea how we would have managed without the house.
The three Ones styles are named the Broughton, Cantlow and Cooksley, which are named and dedicated to the three rooms we occupied at the Ronald McDonald House Birmingham. We have spoken at a number of charity fundraising events and Anjna has joined the Board of Governors for Birmingham House. As a family we are active fundraisers and in 2021 we raised enough money as family to enable us to sponsor the ‘Aston Cantlow’ room at Ronald McDonald House Birmingham, in Mia’s name. It was wonderful to sponsor one of the rooms we actually stayed in too.
Mens Mental Health Work
• I have been supporting the Wolverhampton Wanderers Foundation Head 4 Health Programme for 2.5 years
• The Head 4 Health is a PLPFA (Premier League & Professional Footballers Association) funded project with additional funding from City of Wolverhampton Council.
• The project aims to improve mental and physical wellbeing in all adults 18+.
• It is split into eight-week cohorts, where participants attend once a week in addition to weekly Extra Time sessions where individuals can talk in a safe and relaxed environment. At the end of the eight weeks there are sustained sessions that participants can continue to attend with Extra Time sessions and physical activity sessions including Walk & Talk.
• I have delivered talks during mental health week to support the amazing people that work at Ronald McDonald House charities (RMHC)
• RMHC offer families that often find them selves travelling long distances to be with their child in hospital. Their 13 houses across the UK give families a warm and comfortable place to rest, eat and relax, just moments away from their child’s hospital.
• This year I started to support the Aston Villa Foundation and their think football project.
• Team-Work Football uses sport to offer anybody with mental illness or struggles the opportunity to improve their wellbeing.
• Engaging with adults aged 18+, Aston Villa Foundation coaches provide weekly sessions and workshops for people of any footballing ability.
• A participant at the session will receive personal support and advice from our coaches as well as the opportunity to build self-esteem and confidence through football.
• In addition to football, the fitness activities carried out during sessions improves participants’ physical wellbeing by developing their fitness levels and weight management.
• Guest speakers are also involved to talk about improving nutrition and offering other accessible activities within the local area.
• Team-Work Football will continue to build on its success so far and we are aiming to build in a competitive element for those that wish to take that route, working closely with Birmingham FA to develop some Mental Wellbeing festivals.
• Recently started to support HMP & YOI Brinsford. This is an adult male category B & C prison and young offenders institution.
• They have started a health and wellbeing workshop, which provides and supports the inmates with advice on mental health, wellbeing, addictions, etc.
• This was a pilot scheme introduced by the Brinsford, which has been reviewed as a success with a plan to roll it more frequently and introduce the workshop into other HMP & YOI. I’ve been asked to support the workshops going forward.
I am also an official mentor for the STEAMhouse incubator as an, to support other entrepreneurs and start-ups on their journeys, offering my business advice and nuggets of wisdom.