There are three things you need to know about Troy Armour. They relate to the person and not the business, for, while Armour runs a fascinating selection of eclectic companies, the man himself is far more intriguing.
The first is that he spent his early years in a caravan in Donegal in the late-seventies, while his father, a man with an existential fear of debt, worked and scrimped and saved enough money to build his own house without turning to the bank.
“Stay in the middle of the road,” his father told him repeatedly. “If you are in the middle of the road, you can’t go far wrong.” But, even as a young child, Armour did not want a life in the middle of any road. “If you stay in the middle, you will get run over,” he would respond.
The second is that he has invented his own universe, a land of fairies and monsters and daring adventures. Most parents read books to their children. Not Armour. Instead, he created his own stories, and recited them to his daughter. Eventually, he started writing them down, and his family now have a collection. Once, when the school asked children to dress up as their favourite character from a book, his daughter Paris turned up as one of Armour’s creations, the Pom Pom fairy.
The third thing you need to know about Troy Armour is that he is both an outsider and highly gifted. He was tested when he was 13 and his 150 IQ marks him as exceptional. He was, and is, something of a maths prodigy. But maths is not what drives him. When he looks at the world, he does not see numbers, but colours and design and aesthetics. It made him feel like an outsider growing up, and it caused others to treat him like that outsider too.
It was why, despite his academic pedigree, he opted out of college, fearful that the same isolation would transfer from one place of education to another. When he eventually went to college, he pitched up at MIT in Boston, where everyone else in the room looked at the world differently too.
This has not defined him, but, by his own admission, it has driven him, and that drive has led him provide outlets for other people who look at the world in different ways.
This interview has been arranged to discuss one of his businesses, Junk Kouture, a platform that showcases work from post-primary school students making creative designs using recycled materials. It has just raised $1 million in a funding round that values it at twelve times that amount and unwrapped plans to expand into seven new markets next year including Tokyo, Sydney, Cape Town, Mumbai, Sao Paolo, Singapore and Los Angeles.
But to understand Junk Kouture, you must understand Troy Armour. And that is not a simple task.
Troy Armour is sitting in an exam hall in Sligo, but his mind is anywhere else. The night before, he started chatting with the owner of the B&B where he was staying, and the conversation turned to a local businessman called Gerry McManus. Armour had long been fascinated with McManus, who had carved out a niche selling computers in the northwest. The B&B lady knew him also and confided in Armour that McManus knew little about computers other than how to sell them. “He used to sell washing machines,” she said.
Armour knew plenty about computers – he had been taking them apart and putting them back together for years. As he sat in the exam hall working his way through his year two ACCA accountancy exams, Armour asked himself a question: “If this guy knows nothing about it and he can build that kind of a business, could I do it?”
So, 35 minutes into the exam, he stood up and walked out of both the room and his future as an accountant. He went home and told his mother that he was either going to start a band or an IT company. His mother started crying and, between the sobs, reminded Armour he could not sing. “Well then, I can’t learn that, so it’ll be the IT company,” he responded.
The next day, Trojan Technologies was born with the aim of installing servers, networks and accounting systems for companies in the area. It was 1996 and 15 of Ireland’s top 1,000 companies were in Donegal. Within a few years, Armour had eight of that number on his books and was posting earnings of more than €1 million.
“I wouldn’t consider myself an entrepreneur or a businessperson. I was a hustler, that is the way I’d put it,” he tells me.
“So, you went month to month, there was no strategy. In 1999, I was in the final of Young Businessman of the Year, it was sponsored by Shell or something. And I remember being in that competition with 12 others. There was 13 of us and I was just a complete lunatic. They all had marketing plans and all the rest of it right. Here I was, this kind fly-by-night, but at the same time people took to me and the business was going well.”
Did he win? “Of course not. How could I win without a strategy or a marketing plan?” he says.
“Do you know what, there’s a show in this”
Today, Trojan remains one of four businesses within Armour’s wider Patral Group. It made him successful and allowed him to buy a large house in Donegal that was once owned by Johnny McDaid, the frontman of Snow Patrol. But, over the course of our interview, he keeps returning to Junk Kouture.
It is far more than just a business for Armour. It was, he says, built to offer solace to the kids who were not picked for the football team, for those who felt lost in the world. It was designed, he says, to provide a sense of belonging to those who had no belonging. “Kids like me,” he says.
“I was the creative kid and creativity was worth zero at school. I was told to get into academia. I was the kid that was shit at sports. I didn’t fit anywhere. I was a geek and I was not sporty. Junk Kouture spoke to me, it is the reason I never let it go. It was the sport I would have played if it existed when I was a teenager, you know. And sport is two or more people competing using a skill or talent.”
“Show business,” Doherty replied. “There’s no business like show business.”
But even the origins of Junk Kouture comes with its own backstory. In 2010, Armour, desperate not to be embarrassed at his upcoming wedding, went in search of a dance tutor.
“One night we were in her studio, and she was making clothes out of junk with kids in a local school,” he says. “I came home, and I said, ‘do you know what, there’s a show in this’.”
Mathematicians and scientists had the Young Scientist of the Year event. Armour quickly envisioned something similar for designers – a platform that would allow kids to express themselves. Junk Kouture, which challenged students to create fashion outfits recycled from everyday junk and discarded waste, was born three months later.
Initially, the business model focused on securing sponsorship for the various competitions. Bank of Ireland, for example, signed a multi-year multi-million euro sponsorship deal.
He then migrated to selling tickets for shows and events. Initially, he worked the country circuit, renting halls in provincial hotels and operating a lean model. Eventually he worked his way up to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, which sold out in 15 minutes. Along the ways, there were television programmes, partnerships with RTE and increasing media exposure.
But it remained one of a number of businesses that demanded his time and required his energy. But it was where his heart was. Once after a sell-out show in Dublin, he turned to Moya Doherty, the co-founder of Riverdance who provided some mentoring to him, and said: “If I could give up the computers in the morning, I would.”
“Show business,” Doherty replied. “There’s no business like show business.”
Three years ago, after bootstrapping Junk Kouture across Ireland and the UK, Armour felt he could take it further. But he also recognised that this would require him to change how he approached the business – and his other businesses.
“I’d spent eight years hustling. And I came to this realisation that I can’t hustle this across the world. You know, I hustled it to that point. I hustled Trojan to this point. I had a band and I hustled them,” Armour tells me.
“I had a marketing business and I hustled that too right. So, I sat down, and I made a list and I said ‘right okay, what do I really want to do?’ And the one thing that stood out was Junk Kouture.”
To help his transition from successful hustler to corporate strategist, he enrolled to study entrepreneurship and leadership at MIT.
“So, one of the things that I would have said to many people before was that Junk Kouture reminded me of Formula One in so many ways. People would go, ‘ah you’re joking, what are you on about?’ But what’s Formula One? It’s a tour around the world, it’s a large-scale event, people can buy tickets, media, merchandise. I started plugging in all the bits. I came back to one of the team and said, ‘Can you look at the school calendars of every country in the world and try and plug in a tour?’.”
To date, Junk Kouture has run 10 tours across the UK and Ireland, selling out 60 arena shows. But international expansion is accelerating.
Aided by the $1 million in seed funding, Armour plans to hasten the international roll-out into five new markets – New York, London, Paris, Milan & Abu Dhabi – this year. Resources, he says, are being deployed in each of these new markets and the onboarding of schools has begun to launch the Junk Kouture programme for the academic year in September 2021.
In 2022, he plans to expand into a further seven markets. And Armour says he is not stopping there. “For me, the vision is a billion young people,” he says.
“This is a sport for creatives, and I think it’s the first sport for creatives in the world. Basically, I’ve built this ecosystem around it which is a combination of Formula One and WWE. So, it’s the large high-octane events. And then around that you’ve the sponsorship, the media and the tickets that we sell for revenue. And there’s a community that’s grown up around it. Like last year, 350,000 people got involved either making dresses, educating people, collecting stuff, promoting for people coming to shows in Ireland. Like it’s mad what it’s done. All organic. Across the world now at the minute I’ve programmed 13 cities in 12 countries with a billion people population. I believe that I can change the lives of a billion young people.”
It was built to offer solace to the kids who were not picked for the football team, for those who felt lost in the world.
The ambition is startling, but Armour is far from startled. Instead, as we speak, he keeps returning to the mission that drives the business, and his belief that it will succeed. It is why he has sold out of The Wurkhouse Creative Agency, a digital media and creative business that he launched to provide a cheaper offer to companies who could not afford the larger Dublin based agencies.
It is also why the company has raised $1 million from what it describes as “influential executives who support Junk Kouture’s vision to enrich and empower the lives of young people, across the world, through creativity and sustainability”.
The list includes Justin Cullen, the former chief digital officer of Core who joins Junk Kouture as executive chairman.
Armour says the pandemic has aided the company’s efforts, allowing it to embrace new digital events and online offerings. “There is now an easier route to market,” he says.
Armour says that more than 1,000 schools in the UK, Ireland, USA, France, Italy and the UAE are already actively engaged with Junk Kouture with more joining the programme every week. For many of those participating, Armour says it is like they have found their own tribe for the first time.
The music maker
Patral, his overarching holding company, houses four companies, including Junk Kouture and Trojan Group. The Wurkhouse Creative Agency is still listed, and although he remains involved when required, the management team have bought out his team and the business continues to hum nicely.
But the fourth business is not a business at all – it is Seo Linn, the Irish bilingual folk group that garnered international attention for their Irish cover version of Avicii’s top-10 hit Wake Me Up in 2013.
The members of the group, all schoolteachers from Galway, approached Armour looking for advice on breaking into the music scene. He explained he knew nothing about the industry, but they kept asking and eventually he agreed to manage them.
To help fund the members go full time, they raised €60,000 on Kickstarter in a month, and within a calendar year, had played in Croke Park, the Aviva Stadium, the Bord Gáis Theatre and the Three Arena. There were even calls from the White House about gigs. They managed to amass 32 million views on YouTube and performed international headliner gigs in New York, Melbourne, Boston, London, Paris, Edinburgh and even Uganda.
“That band went from zero to 250 grand of revenue in a year. It took 60 grand on Kickstarter; I still have the record for that,” Armour says.
A turning point, however, was a 250-date tour Armour had lined up for Seo Linn in the US. At the last moment, the band decided they did not want to make the trip, instead preferring to stay at home with wives and partners. The band continues to perform and make music and are now back working as schoolteachers also.
Meaning born from ashes of the past
The conversation is ebbing and flowing. Anecdotes are interspersed with ambition, and the timeline constantly shifts between the businesses that Armour has founded and the upbringing and circumstances that led to them being launched.
But the common thread knitting the journey and the story together is Junk Kouture. It is, in effect, his revenge against his teenage years, where he felt trapped and misunderstood.
“It has taken me a long time to say this, but it embodies me,” he says. “This is true. At the start, I was embarrassed to tell people that. But the biggest realisation for me in the last six to twelve months is that my biggest weakness is my biggest strength. Because for me, telling people that I was awkward, shy and a prat as a teenager was something that I’d run away from for 20 odd years right. And that is the biggest thing for me now when I see those young people on stage, and I see them come to life and I see them see career progression that they never saw. And I see them find friends that they never thought.
“I was the 15-year-old kid who was creative and smart and felt on the outside, and Junk Kouture is born out of the ashes of that. That is what it is.”
He has received letters from parents whose children have stopped self-harming after their found confidence and belonging through the programme. Even now, he can remember the young girl with Down Syndrome, who initially froze on stage, but thrived after being aided through the process by the hosts. “There are so many stories,” he says. “And hopefully, there will be so many more.”