Sport was an enduring passion
For 28-year old founder Ben Francis, it all started when his mother – worried about his lack of application - persuaded him to join the local gym.
The valuation of sportswear group Gymshark topped £1bn this year, when a US-based private equity group took at 21% stake. For 28-year old founder Ben Francis, it all started when his mother – worried about his lack of application - persuaded him to join the local gym.
Ben Francis may have made his name selling on-trend sportswear to a generation of gym bunnies, but his entrepreneurial spark was ignited by mixing cement. From age 14, he worked with his grandfather where he observed a small business in action and developed an early ambition to run his own enterprise.
Sport was an enduring passion. Football came first - he was a season ticket holder at Aston Villa – but in his teens he became increasingly involved in gym culture. Frustrated with his apparent inability to knuckle down to his GCSEs, his mother persuaded him to join the local gym. He loved the hard work and structure, his academic results improved – enough to get him to university to study business – and he found his calling: “I knew from the outset that I wanted to be involved in the fitness industry,” he says.
Ben was also a dab hand at technology. He spent much of his teenage years developing websites and, later, apps for iPhones. His first venture sold license plates, while his apps helped people plan and improve their gym workouts. In 2012, he set up the Gymshark website with a friend, while supplementing his income with pizza delivery.
Cash was a problem in the early stages. He didn’t have enough to buy stock, which limited his ambitions. His solution was to sell a broad range of supplements online, distributed directly from the manufacturers while he took a small margin. Eventually, he built up a cash reserve, enough to buy a screen printer and sewing machine. He began making clothes under the Gymshark brand.
His idea was to combine US and European styles of gym-wear. The American style clothes were boxy, while the European fit was more tapered. It was early days for gym culture in the UK, but his clothing managed to capture that elusive ‘cool’ and within 18 months, he was generating as much as £30,000 in sales in under an hour.
Ben saw the power of ‘influencers’ long before it became the accepted way to market new products. They sent clothing to prominent body-builders and fitness gurus such as Lex Griffin and Nikki Blackketter. It helped that he loved the products, the culture, the athletes. “I was in love with the industry! I was making the products we wanted. I was the customer.” He made what he wanted to wear.
There was considerable hard work along the way, however. Vitally important to building the brand was the group’s presence at BodyPower Expo and other international exhibitions in Germany, Los Angeles, Ohio and Australia, where gym-lovers met, trained, share tips and styles. This took a toll as Ben and his brother toured the world. Equally, success brought its own difficulties - as the brand went viral and sales sky-rocketed, he and his brother were still hand-making all their stock.
Ben never took external investment – the business was lean: “We couldn’t grow any quicker, so there was no need to bring in anyone else.” He got to £2m turnover, managing single-handedly, but it started to become clear that he couldn’t move the business to the next stage all by himself. He brought in Steve Hewitt as CEO to run the engine of the business. He says: “Steve created the foundations to grow again. This was our professionalisation phase, building up to our globalisation phase.”
Turnover grew, the business successfully expanded international and it moved closer to Ben’s ultimate ambition of being the UK’s equivalent to Nike or Under Armour. “The skillset is different at each level. Entrepreneurship at the start is a bit erratic and we could run as a one man band. Now we have over 400 staff, families with mortgages. A team can achieve a lot more.”
“For me, the most important thing is self-awareness, recognising when you might not be the best person to take the business forward. There is a desire to be CEO and always at the top, but at some point you need to take a step back and bring in different skillsets. It is easy for entrepreneurs to become arrogant.”
After the private equity deal in August 2020, Gymshark is now valued at over £1bn. It has over 8 million followers on Instagram and 1.8 million on Facebook and is among the fastest growing companies in the UK. Ben is not yet 30 and believes there is still a lot more to go for. Nike should watch its back.
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