An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Learn from children, because they know how to have fun, and they don’t know how to hate and be suspicious. That’s the best approach you can have to business and to life.

As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Panos Papadopoulos.

Panos Papadopoulos spent the past 35 years starting and developing Panos Emporio, one of the world’s leading brands in luxury swimwear, which today generates annual revenues of $20 million. Born in Greece, he is now based in Sweden. Panos recently published his autobiography PANOS: My Life, My Odyssey, in which he shares how he managed to leave his poor Greek village and went on to build a fashion empire.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I was born in Kertezi, Greece, in the spring of 1958. When I was two weeks old, my mother was working the fields, and a horse kicked me after being startled by a snake. She screamed, as I looked as though I could die, and an Orthodox priest baptized me on the spot — in line with Greek tradition he had to do this if I was to get a burial. That’s how I got my name, Panagiotis, though I was usually known as Panos (though my mother called me by the name the priest gave). Soon after, we moved to Paralia Aspropirgou, on the outskirts of Athens. We weren’t rich — in fact I know first-hand what it’s like to be very hungry. If you’ve seen how basic a refugee camp can be for a family, it wasn’t far from the life my parents, my two siblings and I had in those early days. I found it a real torment, especially as school was hard — my parents couldn’t afford the books that I needed. So it was a tough start, and one of my few solaces was to go see the films of Tolis Voskopoulos. I loved his music, and the films — about a man who has to overcome odds and great opposition — spoke to me. My parents, too, had amazing values, and they imparted them to me: believe in yourself, trust in yourself, and don’t wait for someone else to solve your problems for you. Listen to your inner self and let your best values guide you. Keep your word and respect others. These really formed whom I became and who I am.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are plenty in my autobiography, but the one that sticks out is, ‘No risks, no history.’ This is what drove me to start my swimwear label in the 1980s. I love to challenge myself, and I love having my creativity stimulated. I’d get bored otherwise. I had to take a risk in order to have a business where I could determine what I wanted to do, and be the master of my own destiny.

Money comes when we do the things we love because they are the right things. We have to choose if we are to do the things we love or do the things we should. For me, it’s love every time, and it so happens that it meant I had to take risks, and do something no one else had done before. I had to create a swimwear line which genuinely appealed to women, was the most comfortable that money could buy, and was more colourful than anyone in Sweden, where I live, had seen before. No, it isn’t rational to sell swimwear in a cold country where hot summer days are few. But I wanted to have a life of freedom because that meant true luxury. That was the one thing I wanted above everything else. If I succeeded, I knew I would have my stage, my freedom to communicate my values and philosophy to others, to travel the world, to meet people, and, above all, to have unlimited creativity.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I mentioned earlier Tolis Voskopoulos, who was my idol. His first songs and movies were like a balm for my vulnerable soul. He was a poor outsider trying to become a singer. His struggle for survival was met by less than kind people who wanted to exploit him, or just insult him. I recognized his struggle to make a career and the obstacles he faced along the way. He didn’t worship money like some did; he was a passionate person whose values attracted me. I knew most of his songs’ lyrics intimately, with so many feelings and so much respect. Every time I watched an interview with him, I could see how his words connected to his soul: simple, authentic replies, with a soft voice. There wasn’t that typical arrogance or a feigned air of superiority about him.

His way of acting and his life became a reflection of my later life. He was principled, and he wanted to be something of his own making without steamrolling others. His values have been my ones for my entire business life.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?

Sometimes, the only way to do it is to do it. If it’s something you’re genuinely passionate about, where you know deep down that you must follow that path, there’s more than a chance you have already analysed and processed everything you needed to in order to realize this passion. I know I did with my swimwear designs. I did my sociological market research — I majored in sociology at university — and knew what people wanted. I knew they weren’t being served by the labels out there. I also absorbed a lot of knowledge about fabrics and trends, and digested all of that. I innately analysed it all, and the answers were deep in my soul. The only way to uncover them was to do it. So often in my life, I would act first, then the realizations would come. I had to persevere. For me, it was a matter of survival.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

In my case, it was 1994 when I started and there was no World Wide Web — at least not for me when I was trying to get by — so I didn’t even have that luxury. Everything I did, I had to figure it all out from step one. I kept it to myself, and I imagine I avoided many of the put-downs. And I knew no one had done what I proposed.

Why? One sunny day, I was with some friends at Långedrag beach, just outside Gothenburg. My friends jumped into the water, but I didn’t share their enthusiasm. I looked at the water, and it was grey. Everything around me was grey: the rocky beach, the sand, the stones, the rocks, and even the seawater. I saw the grey rocks, grey water — and these gorgeous blonde bodies. I started to look at the dark swimsuits, and, in my eyes, I could not understand why these bodies wore something just not to be naked.

Come late afternoon, the sun began going down and people started to head back, I said to myself: ‘Imagine if you could make these beaches with these gorgeous bodies more colorful.’ I didn’t think of being a designer. I just wanted to put some color on that grey beach.

For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

While I did invent processes for print and for fusing two fabrics together, most of my intellectual property resided in my design work, which is covered by copyright, something far easier to record. I always had my sketches, so I could prove when I came up with a design. There doesn’t need to be a registration process.

Initially, I used a local manufacturer as not many were actually capable of producing the designs I wanted, though later on, I began sourcing from different parts of the world. The secret is to be very forthright about what you want to achieve, but, more importantly, to know their jobs as well as you know your own. I studied every stage of the manufacturing process. As a result, I was always very clear about what I needed a manufacturer to do. If they couldn’t do it, I’d know very quickly.

Finding a retailer was tough when I first started. I literally called everyone in the book and got knocked back by a lot of them. But I couldn’t feel down about this. Each time I called, I refined my approach a little. I stopped saying who was calling, as that seemed to be blocking my chances. Eventually, I found one retailer, run by two middle-aged women, who said they wanted to see me. They were intrigued and wound up stocking my first collection. I focused on that one triumph, and while I visited and chatted with them, I told them I had difficulties getting retailers. They put me on to a man called Pelle, who was a legend in Gothenburg in those days. He knew all the big retailers in the country and was very persuasive. Having made the introduction, I went to see Pelle, and he got me into my first major retailer.

Even then, they were unsure about my range — until everything started shifting far more quickly than they had imagined. You can read the full story in my book.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why?

When you feel a passion for something, pursue it. Something inside you is telling you that you’re enthusiastic about something and you need to follow through. I felt it when I left Greece and I felt it when I started my business. It was always there as I grew my business.

Acknowledge who you are. I’m someone who works 18-hour days because it gives me a sense of achievement. I like competing against myself. But this might not be for you. However, denying this is denying who I am.

Learn from children, because they know how to have fun, and they don’t know how to hate and be suspicious. That’s the best approach you can have to business and to life.

When you have the most fun, that’s when you have the greatest success. I probably could have left my company at the 25-year mark. It was less fun after that, although I still managed to innovate and win prizes, for my work.

No matter what you do, at the core are three values: passion, respect, and love. I’ve found that no matter what I do, I always come back to these three things. Passion can prevail over logic, and I always had a knack for being able to synthesize a lot of information and make a decision. We need to trust that instinct. My father always went on about the need to respect others, and respect nature. As to love, why else would millions of songs be written about it?

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Learn about the people who might want to use your product. Don’t ask them, ‘Would you buy this product?’ as a lot of people can’t see a need for an item till it’s launched and presented to them. People can be rear-view mirrors when it comes to market research. Instead, ask about their jobs, what they see as important, and consider how your product addresses their concerns. If you think it will make a difference to their lives, then find a way to produce it and launch it.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Do it yourself. You can’t wait for others to solve your problems for you. Plus, how would a consultant know what your passions are and how you feel about something? Only you know that.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

It’ll be different for everyone, but I opted to bootstrap. I borrowed only to produce my first collection, but once I had my first sales, I never went to the banks or venture capitalists. The banks were ridiculous to deal with back then, anyway. One time I had a firm order from a major retailer, and the bank wouldn’t open a letter of credit for me on account of my being Greek! So I never bothered with them again. It’s why my former company was one of 450 limited-liability companies (out of half a million) that were platinum-rated by the government!

If you seek venture capital, then do so honestly. Be very clear about what it’s for, and if you realize that the funds might not be used for the purpose you sought them for, return them. You’ll earn more respect for doing the right thing. Better that than burn through it all and have nothing to show for it.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Beyond creating products that people love, and that they come back to time and time again, I’ve inspired many others to follow their dreams. I’m still continuing to do that with House of Panos, my incubator, where I mentor and coach people — and if you’re a student or under 25, I’ll even do two free 30-minute sessions. The world would be a better place if we each did the things we truly love, not the things we feel we are forced to do.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If there was a movement where we could encourage everyone to do the jobs they truly wanted to do, where every person loved every moment of their work, then I would be all for it. A job needs to stir your soul. I’d like to see this taught early on, so people learn to identify their passions. Every day they live their lives to the full! Let’s put this all online and see who might want to swap jobs!

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I was at Jamie Foxx’s house many years ago when he had his wrap party for Django Unchained. When he asked me if I wanted to hang out for lunch the next day, it was on the very day I had flown to LA and I had some filming shortly after. I was so very jet-lagged. I had to decline and I know he was as disappointed as I was. So, Jamie, if you’re reading this, hit me up!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Making Something From Nothing: Panos Papadopoulos Of Panos Emporio On How To Go From Idea To Launch was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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