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Disclaimer: * The King’s Business Review does not endorse smoking in any form. Smoking tobacco kills and has severe health repercussions. *The King’s Business Review was not paid for this article and the content is in no way promotional, the Stogie Lads are not Cigar retailers and do not sell tobacco products.
We here at the King’s Business Review are starting a series called Young Entrepreneurs. As a student-run magazine, we want to highlight the voices of our generation and generally have a conversation about the state of the world of business and how we fit into it. Our first guests are Carl Hjelmborn and Ruben Renmarker, the two Swedish students who founded the Stogie Lads.
Our interview takes a close look behind the scenes of their company, how it grew, and the valuable lessons they learned along the way. Gaining a fast following in the last year, the brand made a big splash in the relatively niche cigar community. Although as two twenty-two-year-olds from Sweden, they would, under normal circumstances, be seen as very unlikely candidates for such popularity within an old tradition that typically carries with it thoughts of refined older gentlemen. Having that said, they are great first guests for our series – after all Carl and Ruben are young entrepreneurs venturing boldly into an old game, read their story below.
For the audience who don’t know, how would you break down the Stogie Lads?
Well, in a way, the Stogie Lads is our cigar-smoking online persona; it’s our representation of ourselves that we put forward to the cigar community. So it started out just as an Instagram page that we built up a little under three years ago now, where we chronicled our cigar experiences, and now it’s naturally evolving, we’re starting to branch out a lot more. About a year ago, we started producing cigar-related content on Youtube, now we have an online store, and recently, we started a podcast as well. So we are really involved in a lot of projects as the “Stogie Lads”, and they all connect to the larger cigar community.
Yeah, it started out as almost like a cigar diary, a place where we just wanted to take note of what cigars we’ve been smoking and what we thought about them. Then, at some point, people started to really engage with what we posted, and we began to gain a following. One thing just led to another, and now it’s this awesome community that we have with a bunch of great people in it.
What’s behind the name “The Stogie Lads”?
A lot of people do ask that – even cigar smokers, so the word stogie isn’t that common, but a stogie is a slang word for cigar. I think that’s, you know, that’s kind of a fun word that we used to say a lot, a little bit more as a goof. Which, to us, highlights this more casual side and Ruben and I have always called each other lad for some reason. I don’t really know why, I guess we both grew up on a lot of British media, so we incorporated a bit of British slang there.
Yeah, it’s kind of a funny backstory, I guess we’re just two lads and have always called each other that. Also, nobody had that name on Instagram, either. So there you go.
What’s the origin story that brought you guys together and also what sparked your interest in Cigars?
Both Ruben and I have quite an international background. I was born in Chile and ended up living in Spain, China, Malaysia, Brazil, as well as Sweden now. We became friends when I lived here in Sweden back in ninth grade, and I think at that point, you’re sort of starting to transition into young adulthood. One fascination that both Ruben and I had, I don’t really know where it came from honestly, was this whole sort of old-school gentleman’s lifestyle. You know, we read up a lot on things like watches, whiskey, cognac, and all that, we were sort of fascinated by it. Obviously, we were too young to smoke at that point. But I think always in the back of our head, we had that kind of fascination with cigars. And then, luckily enough, at some point later on, we got to try cigars for the first time, and we, I think it’s fair to say, fell in love immediately. So it’s fueled from that fascination, but then, you know, the cigars themselves and the whole aura around them have kept us interested ever since.
I was born in Stockholm and lived there for five years, and then moved with my family to Singapore. Five years after that, I spent four years in Canada, and then I returned to Sweden and have lived in Stockholm since then. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster, I know. And yeah, exactly, it was definitely that mystery and intrigue which hooked us. It drove us to read up a lot on this world which at that point was a little bit out of reach. The fascination started before we were even legally allowed to buy them. Ultimately I think one of the driving factors was when Carl moved back to Sweden after he graduated from school in Brazil because then we had access to this beautiful deck where Carl lived right by the Swedish archipelago. It was this coming of age feeling, it felt like the first time (I was still living at home) where you were truly independent. So, I was there a lot and we had this sense of freedom and could just do the things we enjoyed. So we explored cigars and cooked nice dinners and everything. Yeah, it was a really amazing time. I think that accelerated our love of cigars because we had that opportunity to be able to truly dive into this whole world all at once.
Carl (left) and Ruben (right) Enjoying the sun with some cigars on the beautiful deck (mentioned above) in the Swedish Archipelago!
Cigars are often seen as antiquated and from a different time so what makes cigars so distinct and iconic to you?
Yeah, absolutely, what you’re saying is true. I think that everyone agrees that the general consensus on cigars is that smoking cigars is equal to having money or is very luxurious and it’s seen as that. I really think that is just this one take on cigars though, In the actual community, what you see is that there are so many regular everyday people who enjoy cigars. It doesn’t have to be anything super fancy, it can genuinely just be people devoting some of their money on this hobby they are passionate about. They’re smoking and enjoying and exploring really. So yeah, there is really a dedication to it which is amazing to see because it’s so specific that you’re all in. What I think we’ve really seen from the community is that there’s a lot of dedication to it which makes it so special. I think that it’s not just about a single cigar, It’s not just about the smoke, It’s about everything around it as well – the experience and the community especially.
That’s spot on. Also, I think what a lot of people don’t understand is that cigars are handcrafted. I often like to compare it with wine, because I think it shares a lot of similarities. But price-wise, it’s very similar to wine, which is a hobby that people don’t really associate with money the same way even though wines can get very expensive. cigars can get expensive, but wines can also be for the everyday kind of person, right? Cigars are also very time-consuming though. I think that they require a certain amount of attention, where the whole process of smoking a cigar really means you have to set aside some time and it really becomes this sort of ritualistic and meditative experience where you select your cigar, you cut it very carefully, and then you light it up very carefully. It’s a process that uses all your senses. It’s the palate, it’s the aromas, It’s even the artwork on the band you know, it involves everything. You just need to make time for it, like meditation, or if you’re with people – that’s when it’s truly great because it just brings everyone together. It’s a very beautiful thing in all those aspects. Cigars are so much more than what people make them about to be, just like Ruben said. I think it goes far beyond the old legends, there’s an art to it.
The two of you are doing a lot from running a very popular Instagram page with a lot of engagement to selling merchandise and partnering with cigar shops. You now also have your own podcast. Is this all part of a larger business plan or did it occur organically?
Yeah, so just along the time that we started this, there’s never been a real plan to expand or anything like that. Everything has just happened naturally. There’s been a lot of work done behind the scenes though and Carl’s been really adept and hard at work with Instagram, you know, we’re always trying to figure everything out and how we can make it better. There’s a lot that goes into it but still, everything has happened organically, like the following that has come out of it has been organically like you said. It’s been the result of the engagement we’ve had from the community and the people that discovered us. So for example, the website started out with some of our followers writing to us saying they wanted stickers of our logo. Just when we did our new logo, they were like, “Oh, we want some stickers of that!!” After that, we got a lot of requests so we started selling merchandise of our brand. Carl was very quick to set up the page, which the merch is on right now. So that is really what set it all off, people who wanted to support us and represent the community asking for the products we put out now, it’s a cool thing.
Building on what Ruben is saying, from the get-go I was very much a believer in that mindset. Everything has to be value-based. That’s really why we started the whole page, right? We felt that a lot of cigar Instagram pages were just very ostentatiously based, which I’m not ever criticizing, I just think that that serves a very specific purpose. We wanted to put out content that has a lot of value, a lot of depth, and research behind it. So we always write up in-depth reviews and histories of the cigars we’re smoking. It’s not just like a staged picture that looks good. Although that’s traditionally really what’s been very good on Instagram, we wanted to sort of break away from that. So that’s where it started and I think that value-based philosophy is always going to be important to us. We never want to do anything because we feel like we’re big enough to do it, it has to come from the heart. So with the whole merchandise thing, we didn’t think okay, now we’ve got this many followers, now it’s time to do this. Instead, we waited until we saw people wanting our products because we always disliked the sort of artificial push-to-sell mechanisms that are so common in social media. Everything we’ve done, you know, say for example with the podcast, that’s also the same progression, people messaged us wanting us to have a radio/podcast type of show and we thought that would be really cool as well and that’s when we did it. So I think everything we’ve done has grown organically just like Cuban tobacco! I think that’s the best way to do it, that’s when you feel like you have support for real and that’s when everything comes together and becomes successful.
You guys come off as modest and low-key in a market that is seen as extravagant and luxurious. I especially remember you were talking about buying cigars on a student budget in one of the podcast episodes (I was taking notes at that point). Are you making a conscious decision to go against the grain here? Does cigar smoking have to be so expensive?
That is a great question, the term going against the grain is interesting. I think we’re going against the “stereotypical grain” – we’re going against this old and exclusive ideal that people associate with cigar smoking. Like we mentioned earlier, you know, those pictures you see of people trying to cram anything expensive and hyped up into one post, which looks great but doesn’t necessarily achieve anything beyond that. When we started the page, we really wanted to show people that there’s this whole different side to it. When we were talking about creating the page we thought these can’t be the only people that represent cigar smokers, right? There’s no way the entire cigar community, all these hundreds-of-thousands of cigar smokers in the world, they all can’t be millionaires. The economy just doesn’t work that way. So I was talking to Ruben and we were thinking that we couldn’t be the only young student, cigar smokers, there’s no way. So we wanted a page that represented who we are. I feel like that’s part of the reason we have got recognition. We try to go against this old generic view of cigars and we try to show what it’s really like and that this love for cigars isn’t just an elusive thing that only wealthy people have. I mean, you see people from all walks of life, because it is a very inclusive community, much more so than most people would think.
What does the future look like for the Stogie Lads?
This is definitely tough to answer in some aspects, we do like to let things open up naturally like we were saying before. We like the next steps to come from situations we encounter and then just build on that. We should also highlight though that we’re not just completely freeballing it. Sure from one angle, that is our style, but we have always had this drive and ambition in believing that if we follow through consistently with great quality and provide good content then we’re on the right track. We draft ideas and do that with great care so it’s a long process. We always like talking about how we can make something better and see if there’s something we’re missing, so there are definitely things planned for the future, for sure, however grand they may be. I can’t say that we have a set business plan because it’s not like Ruben and I have said you know “alright in 10 years we want this to be a real cigar business” because I feel like if you go that route, you’re setting yourself up to constantly chase this vision and it loses its appeal and doesn’t really feel so genuine.
For us it really started out as a hobby and it continues to be that so I think that it’s very important not to get all caught up in the numbers. I think especially because it’s so early on that we want to take it slow and get the little things right, maybe this year is just trying to try to really get the best out of what we’re doing. For the podcast we invested in equipment and focused on the production value and editing a lot, really trying to make it the best quality it can be. So we definitely have some things that we want to do in the future but we’re not looking to rush anything.
Talking bigger picture, what do you guys think the role of our generation should be in business today? Do you have any advice for other young people wanting to venture into business?
I think the decentralization of all these big industries puts us in a great place. What our generation has done really well is blurring the lines in between what an established creator and an established entertainer are. Not so long ago, you had to be signed to a studio and it was all this big company stuff which we still have but definitely a lot less. We’ve found ways around those barriers and can now break into these markets in a much bigger way. Our generation really profits from platforms on the internet, like YouTube or own-brand websites, which have catapulted us into this creative environment we have today. I think that’s really awesome. Our generation should just keep on you know, moving that forward. Even with YouTube, in the beginning, people could create whatever they wanted and have their voice heard but still, they were getting monetized through YouTube. In the last few years, though, it’s grown beyond that. For example, Patreon is a great way where customers and fans can just support brands and creators which de facto means the middle man is getting cut out, something I definitely see as a positive. All these changes provide the opportunity for us to be really independent in the purest sense of it and capitalize by creating our own businesses, I think that’s fantastic.
Exactly, there’s never been a time where it’s been as easy to get out there and create or produce something. What we’ve been able to do from starting a page based on a hobby to where we’ve come now really just goes to show that. You can look at it as tools, Instagram for example is really just a platform to share your ideas, which allows you to create broader communities of people, I think that is really cool. In terms of advice, I would say, in the beginning, just create a lot of content and get out there really, but the focus should be on adding value to the community, because that’s really what’s going to create attention and keep people interested, it’s the value-added. The thought process shouldn’t be “How can I grow as fast as possible?”, but more like, “what can I bring to the table that wasn’t there before?” Because people are naturally attracted to that and we can recognize very quickly if something is truly innovative and valuable or just there for the sake of something else. Yeah, that is what really shows, and also just don’t be afraid to do it your way in your own style.
The truth is you have to love what you do but you also have to keep pushing at it. We never set out to do anything more than to create content about something we love. That was the only goal when we started it, I think the motivation to start at a business or anything else has to be pure. If you want to do bigger things, you need to have the drive and ambition but it’s tough to set out just to achieve momentous success. It’s sort of a paradox, in that sense, where you just need to love what you’re doing but you need to be okay to keep on doing it for a long time, possibly forever without ever gaining any sort of external reward because if you don’t feel like that, then it’s never gonna take off. That’s the way it went for us, we did it for two years really without any kind of momentum, it was much more a slow and steady increase, which we were fine with. But then all of a sudden, everything took off and started moving faster. That’s just a product of the passion we put behind it. The best advice is to consistently produce things you are proud of.
We no longer live in the days of economist Milton Friedman who argued businesses only had a responsibility to their shareholders to increase profits, in an ever more globalised world and economy imply appearing to be pro or anti issues is not merely enough.
‘Since 2014, I’ve been a seller on Depop, and over the last year I’ve worked as a researcher for the Digit Research Centre at the University of Sussex, examining the platform’s transformation of the British youth labour market.’