Wed, 24 April 2019
The Power of Focus
How Jake McKeon of Coconut Bowls stopped chasing new ideas, and scaled a business and community that he’s passionate about.
Jake McKeon considers himself an idea man, and that’s not always been a good thing.
For years, he lept from one idea to another, always enchanted by a shiny new business possibility. With a thumb on the pulse of social trends and a knack for testing new business ideas, McKeon always had two or three ventures going at the same time.
It’s common for new entrepreneurs to begin their journeys by following their ideas, imaginations, and curiosities. But McKeon was taking that to the extreme, and eventually found himself a little scattered. He needed to find a way to center himself, and ultimately that meant being grounded in his personal passions.
Through some tough experiences and hard lessons, McKeon learned to mute the part of himself that saw potential in every new idea. Instead, he turned up the volume on the interests he personally cared about the most, and let that guide him to his sole venture today—Coconut Bowls.
The name may sound a little funny when you put it in such a serious context. But today, Coconut Bowls is a thriving business with a charitable initiative that supports rural coconut farmers and local artisans in Vietnam and Indonesia. In the process, the company is providing people with ethical and healthy livelihoods and reducing environmental waste. Here’s how McKeon is proving that having a heart is good for business.
The Creation of Coconut Bowls
McKeon had already experienced a few failed startups by the time he finally connected with Coconut Bowls, but when this one took shape, it was an entirely different story.
“Coconut Bowls has been the most natural of all my businesses,” McKeon says. “The product fell into my lap.” McKeon was walking through a market in Bali and came across some handcrafted coconut products. He was running a health and superfood business at the time and thought that his customers would love this simple concept—bowls made from coconuts.
So, he had a bunch of bowls made, filled his suitcase, and started selling them online back home in Australia. He found that—on his shoestring budget—it was actually cheaper to fly back and forth to Bali with empty suitcases than to ship the product.
McKeon ended up making a few more trips, each time bringing more and more luggage. On one trip, he brought along a couple friends and a load of empty surfboard bags. “We didn’t have any surfboard equipment, just coconut bowls. So coming back through customs was ridiculous, but they let us through, thankfully,” McKeon says.
It wasn’t long after that trip when Coconut Bowls started to see sales and momentum build (and made the switch to sea freight).
But what originally brought McKeon to Bali, and to that fated market that brought him face-to-face with his most profitable business venture yet?
It was a thirst for travel and healthy food—and failure.
To understand McKeon’s story, let’s back up to the very first business he started, six years prior, Moodswing. Moodswing was a social networking app for sharing emotions. “I wanted to create a safe platform for peer-to-peer emotional support, for people to speak openly and honestly,” McKeon says.
With no experience in business or tech, McKeon came up with the idea for Moodswing, and simply assumed people would want it. Following that assumption, he went on to spent all $40,000 of his savings—money he’d originally intended to use to travel.
“Moodswing was my most outlandish business concept,” he recalls. “I was very naive at how hard the process was going to be.”
McKeon hooked up with a co-founder and developed the app idea. On top of his savings, he raised another $20,000 from family and friends, increasing his overall funding to $60,000. He also put significant efforts toward marketing it and growing his user base.
His growth hacking worked. In 10 weeks, Moodswing had reached a user base of 100,000 people, faster than either Instagram or Facebook had experienced early on.
Moodswing’s significant and immediate growth only fueled McKeon’s naiveté. “I thought I was the next Mark Zuckerberg.”
He flew to the States and met with a few investors, namely Snapchat investor Jeremy Liu. During McKeon’s pitch, Liu promptly asked about his app retention metrics, and McKeon was stumped. “I thought, ‘What are ?’” he says, laughing.
It turned out that only 10 percent of those who downloaded Moodswing returned, which reflected poorly on the user experience of the app. McKeon returned to Australia, humbled.
With only $20,000 left in the bank—not enough to improve on the app—he decided to pitch to an accelerator. They agreed to invest $25,000 in exchange for 10 percent of the business, but only if those friends and family who invested were no longer involved.
“So I used the remaining $20,000 to pay back our friends and family members who’d invested,” McKeon says. “I didn’t want them to lose out, and it was good, because I’d never do business like that with friends and family again. I learned that lesson and got out scot-free.”
McKeon and his team spent three intensive months creating a beautiful new app for Moodswing, then returned to the US to raise more money. “At this stage, Moodswing had a 60 percent retention rate, which was really good. Forty percent of users returned seven days later, and 30 percent returned 30 days later,” McKeon says.
Investors essentially told McKeon that if Moodswing could get to 10,000 daily users, they’d be able to raise whatever they wanted. But the app only ever got up to 8,000 weekly active users.
It was the end of the road for McKeon and Moodswing. “We just couldn't get there. We didn't have any more money,” he says. The business also started to lose McKeon’s attention. His co-founder’s, too.
With Moodswing in his rearview mirror, McKeon switched gears and started an organic superfood business called SupermixME. This time he took a more traditional route, ordering a batch of products for $5,000 on his credit card, packaging them at home, selling them, and buying another batch. But things were moving too slow for him.
So he took a step back and asked himself, “What am I good at?” He realized that, although Moodswing didn’t work out, he’d gained valuable insight into the world of social media marketing. He used that experience to start an agency, 7 Star Social, and quickly landed a few profitable clients.
At that point, McKeon was ready to take a break. “I decided I was going to travel for six months and work online,” he says. “I didn't want to focus on growing anything.”
His travels brought him to Central America, Europe, and—you guessed it—Bali. When McKeon returned, armed with a suitcase filled with coconut bowls, he started to scale his social media agency. At its peak, 7 Star Social was servicing more than 35 clients, each paying between $500 and $2,000 per month.
And in the background, Coconut Bowls was growing slowly. Eventually, McKeon decided he didn’t want to work for other people anymore, so he turned his sole focus to Coconut Bowls.
A Few Valuable Lessons
McKeon walked away from his experiences with Moodswing, SupermixME, and 7 Star Social with much more than the idea for Coconut Bowls. “I look at my journey like an apprenticeship,” he says, one that gave him a crash course in failure and success.
McKeon’s first major lesson from that time was around building a minimum viable product—a process he failed to follow when launching Moodswing. “It’s all about finding product-market fit before doing anything,” McKeon says.
That can be a hard thing to define, exactly, but when you’ve got it, people will start buying and enjoying your product organically. “It shouldn’t feel like a hard sell,” he says.
McKeon thought he had a good idea and spent all of his money without testing whether it was something people wanted. Looking back, he realized that he could've created a simple website or Facebook group and asked for feedback. “There are so many ways to test . It’s cheap to do and saves time and money in the long run,” McKeon says.
The second major lesson he learned was to avoid doing things too fast. “Take your time. Don't expect immediate success.”
With Moodswing, McKeon spent all his time getting those 100,000 users as fast as he could, but in reality, he says that businesses shouldn’t want to achieve that level of growth until they’re happy with their product.
“When our users tried , didn’t like it, and deleted it, they weren’t going to give us a second chance,” McKeon says. “Focus on product first, make sure people like it, then look to marketing.”
The Power of Focus and Community
McKeon’s biggest takeaway, though, was about focus. He had always given more attention to new ideas than the things he was most passionate about, despite the advice he’d heard countless times from others.
McKeon found that with every new business, there was always a new, more exciting idea that held more potential—hence his quick transition between Moodswing, SupermixME, and 7 Star Social. But he doesn’t recommend the same for other entrepreneurs.
In his opinion, when you focus on just one business, you learn more about the product and industry, and you invest more time into talking to your customers. Over time, McKeon has found that this only strengthens your passion, or develops a new one.
When it comes to Coconut Bowls, for example, McKeon has always been passionate about health, and has since become passionate about running a socially responsible business. “While I’ve always been mindful and conscious of sustainability, it’s never been a passion. But it’s been developed since I’ve fed off excitement and passion of our community.”
McKeon has derived valuable learnings from his community since creating Coconut Bowls three years ago, none more so than from a live strategy session with Quest Nutrition co-founder Tom Bilyeu.
The duo conducted the session on a live Foundr podcast, and McKeon walked away with some valuable lessons. “We were one year into Coconut Bowls and had some epic growth,” he recalls. “But we were chasing our tails. We didn't have a long-term strategy, a community strategy, or a brand strategy.
As an avid supporter of building community, Bilyeu helped McKeon learn the value of “supporting the people who support you.” That conversation helped shape the Coconut Bowls business and influenced a lot of McKeon’s current marketing and growth strategies.
One of his biggest marketing wins with Coconut Bowls has been building a customer base that markets for them. Through social media engagement, a thank-you card and follow-up email, McKeon and his team encourage customers to share on social media what they made in their bowl.
“We started with this strategy and are still using this call-to-action today,” McKeon says. “We’re very lucky that our customers do our marketing for us, and it’s basically been the driver for our growth.”
Another successful tactic has been creating something to do with the Coconut Bowls community. Along with his customers and other content creators, McKeon and his team came together to create a cookbook, Vegan Bowls for Vegan Souls. It’s had tens of thousands of sales to date.
“We’ve had feedback from customers saying that it’s changed their lives,” McKeon said. “It’s not just a cookbook; it’s also built around having fun in the kitchen and being mindful about where your food comes from.”
Eventually, McKeon sees the Coconut Bowls brand expanding, which will allow him to expand the product line and its “made-by-nature” concept.
But McKeon and his team don’t only see Coconut Bowls as a brand—they view their business as a community and a collective of people who are all passionate about health, nature, and sustainability. “We share recipes with each other. We share inspiration and experiences,” McKeon says. “It really brings people together. … It almost comes back to the root of Moodswing—people who support each other.”
Thu, 18 April 2019
Matthew was a guest of StartCon, Australia’s largest startup and growth conference. It was held at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.
When he was young, Matthew Brimer spent his days taking apart old electronics and dreaming of space exploration. A child of the Midwest, he was raised on the belief that hard work and passion could turn even the grandest dreams into realities.
As he grew older, he continued to hold tightly to this conviction, and, with the blood of two entrepreneurial parents pumping through his veins, Brimer knew he wouldn’t be stuck in his high school job selling ice cream forever.
Always that tinkering kid at heart, Brimer wanted to be an inventor. And he ultimately achieved his dream, but in a way he never would have imagined while growing up. He became an inventor of businesses, of communities, of experiences.
Co-founder of several brands to date, including dance party/lifestyle brand Daybreaker, VC firm The Fund, and most notably online education platform General Assembly—Brimer has developed an incredible knack for building passionate, engaged communities. Today, General Assembly has 20 campuses and more than 35,000 alumni, and Brimer serves as a mentor to members of the next generation of entrepreneurs through his role at The Fund, a New York City community of founders that he co-founded.
And it all began with an old piece of furniture and a lucky break on eBay.
In 2005, during Brimer’s freshman year at Yale, he and a few buddies noticed that some of the buildings were under renovation and the university was selling the contents in the process. After perusing the items for sale, they decided to buy an antique piece of furniture to see what they could get for it on eBay.
They took a couple photos of the item, posted it and hoped they could make a few extra bucks from the sale.
They had purchased the piece for $50. It sold for $1,000.
Minds blown, they rushed back to the buildings, bought more items and the college freshmen launched a small online business in the antique furniture space.
Having caught the entrepreneurial bug, Brimer wanted to try his hand at something a little bigger—something that required more technical skill.
In 2007, he and four other college students launched the website GoCrossCampus.com, an online game that turned college rivalries into a wildly popular online battle.
“We made every first time founder mistake in the book. It ended up a few years later becoming a total failure,” Brimer says. “But for a while we were the largest college gaming network in the country.”
He acknowledged that with too many founders and no way to generate new revenue, the project was doomed to fail, and GoCrossCampus shut the doors to its battleground in 2010. But while his first project may have ended, Brimer’s desire to create new things had only begun to grow.
He graduated, moved to New York and freelanced as a web designer while he spent all his free time immersing himself in the tech space. Although the city was bursting with brilliant entrepreneurs and new, exciting ideas, Brimer soon realized that bringing them together to interact and exchange those ideas was a challenge.
What if, he wondered, there was a physical building dedicated specifically to serving those in the tech space? What if there was a place where they could work alongside each other and learn while building meaningful community?
With that dream in mind, Brimer, Jake Schwartz, Adam Pritzker, and Brad Hargreaves co-founded General Assembly in early 2011.
Education for the 21st Century
General Assembly launched as a place for coworking, education, and community, under a single membership model, and this system worked well at first. But Brimer quickly noticed that, to better serve members, a greater emphasis had to be placed on building out the educational branch of the brand.
“There’s this huge skills gap between where traditional higher education leaves off and where the 21st century begins,” he says. “College education isn’t changing that much relatively speaking. But the 21st century—in terms of what employers are looking for, in terms of the talent they’re hiring, in terms of the skills you need to be effective in any industry today—that’s moving quickly.”
Brimer says that a traditional university education can leave graduates in tech fields woefully unprepared for the challenges ahead, and this was the gap he hoped General Assembly could fill. So they eliminated the coworking aspect of the business and doubled down on providing quality education from stellar instructors.
According to Brimer, these practical training programs on digital skills taught by actual practitioners currently working in the space were the most powerful, the most transformative thing they could provide. He wanted to equip students with valuable skills that enabled them to land a new job, upgrade their current position or pursue their passions in the digital economy.
Brimer and his cofounders threw themselves into the new phase of their business, raising more capital, expanding their curriculum both online and off, and launching a new branch that offers corporate training and assessments to large companies. They also built out a credentials program and launched a philanthropic wing designed to lift up those with talent and tenacity from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
With this grand expansion came a need to cement the trust consumers had in the brand.
From day one, Brimer placed a significant focus on delivering measurable outcomes at General Assembly, as a way to build firm trust in the brand. He wanted to answer the question, “What can I do after experiencing this product that I couldn’t do before,” with an unequivocal answer: get a job in tech.
It’s no secret that a college degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee a job after graduation, and this, Brimer feels, is a major issue right now for traditional colleges and universities.
“So here you have spent all this money, all this time getting a college degree and it doesn’t guarantee you a job anymore,” he says. “The outcomes are a little nebulous.”
Brimer and General Assembly wanted to provide something with more certainty. By supplying classes in coding, data, design, marketing, business, and career development, as taught by instructors with the most up-to-date information, Brimer feels that General Assembly fills the gap left by traditional education, more directly preparing students for a career in the industry.
The co-founders of General Assembly also made a concerted effort to attract instructors who were not only excellent in their fields, but also who cared deeply about passing their knowledge and skills on to others.
Brimer says that the best instructors at General Assembly are those who love giving back and empowering others, even if they’ve never had any teaching experience. Today, according to its website, there are more than 250 expert instructors. With an ever-evolving curriculum, and continued expansion, General Assembly is bound to continue making a splash in the tech world.
Brimer began as a cofounder, later transitioned into a part-time position, and this summer he stepped into a new role as an external “evangelist for the company,” when the Adecco Group acquired the brand for $412 million.
While his day-to-day work at General Assembly may have come to a close, he is still extremely passionate about what he was able to accomplish during his time there, and is excited to see what new frontiers they are able to conquer in the years to come.
Brimer is no longer the kid tinkering with household electronics in Missouri, but with free time to concentrate on new ventures, he’s still dreaming big.
“It would be a hilarious thing,” he says, “to explain to my 6-year-old or 8-year-old self what it is that I am, have been, and will be.”
4 Ways To Establish Trust in Your Brand
When competing with major colleges and established universities, the way Matthew Brimer was when he co-founded General Assembly, it is absolutely essential to establish deep trust in the brand as quickly as possible. But all brands, not just those in the education space, have to find a way to build a bridge of trust between company and consumer to become successful. These are four of Brimer’s best tips on how to establish trust for your brand.
1. Deliver Measurable Outcomes
Brimer says that one of the best possible ways to build trust in your brand is to deliver outcomes that are clear and measurable. To decide what that outcome is, he recommends asking, “What is possible for a customer after engaging with the brand or product that would have been completely unattainable before?” By nailing down the measurable outcome and then delivering it, it turns word-of-mouth references into undeniable, tangible results.
2. Celebrate Success Stories
Once you’ve determined what “measurable success” for your brand looks like, it’s time to celebrate those who have achieved it! Brimer says that even prestigious colleges only gained the clout they have because of the success of their alumni. In the same way, the successes of others who have interacted with your product reflect back onto your brand.
3. Establish and Adhere to Core Values
By crafting a definitive and concrete set of core values you can stand by, customers learn what they should expect from your products and services. Brimer says that by delivering on those values, you can develop an invaluable level of trust with consumers that can only come from maintaining integrity.
4. Stay Humble
Brimer says that, all too often, as companies grow larger, so do the egos of the people at the top, preventing them from quickly acknowledging mistakes and accepting feedback with humility.
“The more human of a relationship you can have as a company with your users, the more trust you’re going to have,” he says. “Trust goes away when it’s a faceless brand—a faceless corporate entity—interacting with live humans on the other side. That’s when things go downhill.”
Wed, 10 April 2019
How Aidan Clarke grew global brands 2XU and Saint by prioritizing product.
In a market saturated with quick, cheap fashion, building a high-quality, global apparel empire was not an easy feat—but in 13 short years, Aidan Clarke paved a way.
It took a lot of dedication, but Clarke was determined to make a game-changing clothing company. Clarke decided early on that he doesn’t care about how his apparel looks, as much as he cares about its quality, and that commitment has paid off in a big way.
His first and primary brand, 2XU, is based on the idea of making high-performance athletic wear, with a focus on unique, custom-engineered materials first. This approach and the resulting success would lead him to his second brand, Saint, which takes that same emphasis on materials and applies it to safety gear for motorcyclists.
The funny thing is, by focusing on high-end users and materials, Clarke’s companies ended up creating products that have much broader appeal than the initial target audiences, branching out into athleisure, workwear, and potentially even streetwear for skateboarders.
Through these two brands, Clarke has found a way to sell products that look good and perform well—and outfit consumers in over 60 countries.
From Door-to-Door Sales to 2 Worldwide Brands
Clarke got his first taste of the clothing business at just 18. As he was preparing for a school dance, he took a second glance at the neckties he and his friends were buying. A young entrepreneur’s mind started crunching numbers and realized that the fabric only cost $30 per meter, and each meter could make up to seven ties. Yet here he was shelling out almost $100 to purchase just one. “I thought, ‘Hang on, there’s a business here,’” Clarke recalls.
He decided to start making his own ties and selling them door-to-door to businesses in his home of Auckland, New Zealand.
Clarke’s entrepreneurial path didn’t continue in a perfectly linear fashion, a common theme we see among emerging founders. After graduation, he went to college and started a corporate career. His pushed his entrepreneurial passions to the back of his mind, but not for long.
“I ironically landed back in clothing,” Clarke says. “I’d grown up around seamstresses and saw the value-add of clothing.”
Clarke started his first apparel brand 2XU in Melbourne in 2005 and moved his family there soon after. He spent the following five years on a plane building 2XU into a multinational business reaching more than 60 countries.
Why Melbourne? Clarke and his team had received a significant amount of startup funding, and their investor was based in Melbourne. The Australian market for 2XU was also better than in New Zealand. “We spotted an opportunity. New Zealand had lots of local sports brands, but Australia ironically didn't,” Clarke says. “We wanted to take on the big boys.”
2XU started with audacious goals. Clarke and his team wanted 2XU to be uniquely performance-focused, so they spent the entire first year developing fabrics for their apparel, before creating their product. “You can either buy fabric or focus on quality,” Clarke says. “We said, ‘Hey, we want to change the fabric.’”
With millions in seed capital, they were able to spend ample time and resources on fabric development. Eventually, their warehouse became so full that they had to start selling their product.
Clarke and his team did wholesale and direct sales at the same time. While most clothing brands avoid direct sales so as to not compete with wholesalers, 2XU opened its first retail store to prove they could sell premium, expensive sportswear in Australia. “Selling at our own store motivated retailers to accept products,” Clarke says. “Having our own hero shop drove demand for wholesale.”
The team also visited both retail and special sports stores. Selling next to well-established international brands was difficult, but they pressed on. Their first major sale was to a now-closed triathlon store that purchased the entire 2XU line for over $3,500.
Another significant sale Clarke remembers was to Rebel Sport, a major retail chain in Australia and New Zealand. “Needless to say, we had a few drinks that night,” he says, laughing.
Clarke’s next step for expanding 2XU was finding ambassadors and distributors. But that wasn’t always easy. “Trusting someone with your brand is like a glorified babysitter,” Clarke says. “You have to find someone with the same passion to sell your story.”
He found that the best thing about distribution is how it taps into local knowledge and expertise. The 2XU team worked hard to find passionate brand ambassadors and people to accurately represent 2XU brand in each country. In doing so, they found mostly nontraditional distributors: athletes.
In the following years, 2XU celebrated two major equity events. In 2011, a local company bought 30 percent of the company. Next, the capital arm of Louis Vuitton discovered the brand and bought in at 40 percent, a significant valuation for 2XU.
Since then, 2XU has scaled up and hired corporate CEOs to run the company. “The challenge we face, though, is how to still act like a small business…an underdog,” Clarke says. “We used to say, ‘By athletes, for athletes,’ but we can’t say that anymore.”
But at the end of the day, the 2XU product is “still sensational.” It’s been well-received at the professional and Olympics level and is very much considered a premium brand. In the United States, it’s worn by the NBA, NFL, and even Navy Seals.
In other places, 2XU apparel has become an athleisure staple. “You don’t have to be a world champion to still want quality,” Clarke says.
After getting 2XU settled, Clarke pulled back and spent a “non-executive year” focused on himself and his health. One day, while riding bikes with his co-founder, he came up with what would become his next big idea—a new form of safety apparel for motorcyclists.
The idea sounded simple, but as the duo dove into R&D, they realized creating this type of product would require a significant commitment. “It cost us a couple million dollars after a couple years,” Clarke says. This effort would go on to become Saint, Clarke’s second global clothing brand.
Their goal was to create a single-layer safety product—ensuring a flexible, comfortable riding experience—that wouldn’t rip or tear if someone fell off their motorcycle. The global “slide time” standard for the fabric on these products (which defines the amount of time that a fabric should withstand sliding across an abrasive surface, such as pavement, before it tears) is four seconds, and they’re routinely tested in facilities equipped with spinning disks of sandpaper that replicate sliding on the street.
Their first fabric lasted 3.67 seconds before ripping—just short of the standard but still much longer than any other single-layer fabric. After continual development, Clarke’s fabric now lasts almost six seconds.
This single idea helped Clarke and his brand break into work clothes and other tough lifestyle applications.
They’ve since patented their super-durable fabric, which involves a unique material spun into the yarn. “As for workwear, no one can do what we’ve done,” Clarke says. “It’s nice to have the IP protection.”
Premium Product > Price
Both of Clarke’s businesses, 2XU and Saint, lead with a premium product line. And there’s a reason for that. “People often lead with price,” Clarke says. “That’s a lazy way to sell. Product is king.”
Some clothing retailers also find themselves tempted to sell their products relying on aesthetics alone, but not Clarke. “Rather than being a fashion brand, I’d rather be an authentic motorcycle brand with tough products…that also look good,” he says about Saint.
How can you create this demand? Clarke relates it to a “chicken and egg” situation. If you create demand before you’re ready to supply and distribute your product, you risk wasting resources because you’re essentially creating demand for competitors. On the other hand, if you develop and supply your product before the demand is there, you risk wasting resources on product that never brings in revenue.
To build demand for your product, Clarke recommends doing so authentically. He and his team often attended sports events and spread the word about 2XU to one person at a time. Those early adopters and advocates would then tell friends. “It’s like a grassroots movement,” Clarke says.
Clarke claims that social media, in fact, is a lot more directed. “The ability to target and generate demand is more focused than ever,” he says. “That’s what’s exciting about today.”
Every business’s website is now the flagship store, at least to begin with, Clarke says. People form their judgments about your products very quickly, and you’ve got to have your website synchronized with the products you’re offering in the real world.
The Future of Saint and 2XU
Looking ahead, Clarke is excited for the futures of both 2XU and Saint. The brands are at different stages, but they both sell high-quality product and are both in growth mode, as Clarke calls it. His primary growth measure isn’t from a focus on sales numbers—it’s from a focus on communities.
“Saint is a rocketship about to take off,” Clarke says. “It’s five times tougher than standard workwear.” The brand has even had inquiries about street fashion and safety gear for skateboarders and other action sports.
As for 2XU, Clarke says that seeing more and more people discover the brand is exciting.
“The tough thing about clothing is that scalability is hard,” Clarke says. Small businesses often buy too much stock, but Clarke encourages the opposite—pay more to make fewer units and sell them up.
In his opinion, it’s better to scale yourself up. Too much stock can put clothing brands in a hard place. Unlike the whiskey business, apparel product is worth less and less every year.
At the end of the day, Clarke reminds brands and entrepreneurs to prepare themselves for the road ahead. “It’s a tough game,” he says. “Just believe in yourself, be resilient, and keep pushing.”
Thu, 4 April 2019
At 16, he began building websites.
At 18, he became a regular at the gym.
At 20, he started sewing and screen-printing workout apparel in his garage.
By 26, when most adults are only on the cusps of their careers, Ben Francis had already launched a viral gym clothing line, served as its CEO, and stepped down in favor of a more creative role in the wildly successful company.
Today, the Gymshark founder works alongside 190 staff, including the high school buddies who partnered with him to launch the brand, bringing this unmistakable apparel line to customers in more than 130 countries.
And while it seems like this former pizza delivery boy magically rocketed to entrepreneurial stardom overnight (OK, he sort of did), his success can be traced back to a dedication to community building and an innate understanding of social media influencer marketing, long before it was a thing.
But it all started with amateur website building, a love for fitness, and a whole lot of YouTube.
Years before he was a CEO, Francis longed to make a name for himself in the fitness space. But the closest thing he had to investors were people calling to order a pizza, so establishing a clothing brand couldn’t have seemed less attainable.
Not to be discouraged by limited funds, Francis and his high school friends began a workout supplement drop-shipping business and quickly realized that there was an opening in the workout apparel market.
Dressing a bodybuilder and a skinny, weight-lifting newbie are two totally different jobs, especially when you’re going for form-hugging designs fit for a workout. Francis and friends, however, believed they could create a line that would be sleek, modern, and appealing to gymgoers of any body type.
“And so,” Francis says, “I bought a screen printer and a sewing machine and started to make the clothes by hand.”
The designs were an overnight sensation.
“People were seeing the clothes, and they were so iconic and unique, that it sort of started to spread like wildfire,” Francis says.
But the real secret sauce was the passion he and his friends had for YouTube.
In the early 2010s, YouTube was rising fast. People passionate about everything from movies to knitting, gaming to, yes, fitness, were creating video content and building communities around shared interests.
Francis and his friends were among the millions who joined online followings based on their hobbies, but stuck around for the personalities in the videos. One such fitness YouTuber who held their attention was Lex Griffin of Lex Fitness, whose channel now has over 440,000 followers. Another was Chris Lavado, whose channel has 65,000 subscribers today.
Realizing they could leverage the followings of others, Francis and his friends pursued a business strategy that put them on the map, and that they still use today.
They sent samples to Griffin, Lavado and other fitness YouTubers they admired, and hoped for a stamp of approval—and a video to prove it.
While the term “influencer marketing” has only recently entered into the pop consciousness, the principle has been around as long as marketing. Attracting the favor of a wealthy or influential person by showering them in gifts that define a brand is as a classic move, a point Francis illustrated by sharing some history of his hometown of Birmingham, UK.
For hundreds of years, the Jewellery Quarter in central Birmingham has been a hub for opulent accessories. Many jewelers open businesses in the Quarter, and the competition is fierce. But historically, there was one way to ensure that a brand’s name would be on everyone’s lips: become the first choice of royalty.
Frances explained that this principle of vying for favor worked then and still works now.
“They would provide a bunch of free jewelry to royalty so that people would associate that jewelry with the royalty and then hopefully back to the brand and go buy it,” he says. “It’s no different to what influencer marketing is nowadays.”
“I think it’s worked forever, and as far as I’m aware, I think it’ll always work.”
And so, like an ambitious jeweler in the 1700s, Francis sent off his product to curry favor with those who had the power to make his brand catch fire. And it worked.
“They absolutely loved it, and they’re still with us today,” he says. “That started, I guess, what you’d now call an influencer market for us.”
Today, Francis continues to leverage the audiences of athletes through an ambassador program that now includes such personalities as bodybuilder Matt Ogus, lifestyle and fitness vlogger Nikki Blackketter, and weightlifter Whitney Simmons.
Because of Francis’s early success in harnessing an influencer-generated market, Gymshark has never relied on investors for capital.
“We never needed investment,” he says. “So why complicate things?”
Francis recognizes, though, that there was also a component of luck at work. He entered the world of social media influencer marketing when it was still a young idea, and those with followings weren’t inundated daily with products in search of a boost.
“I do think it’s a hell of a lot more difficult than when we first started,” he admits. “It’s a completely different place now.”
But if he were to launch a new business today, a venture he says would be a fun challenge with the vastly changed online landscape, he knows exactly where he would focus his attention.
“Product is king at the end of the day,” he says. “I would focus on creating an absolutely brilliant and a gorgeous product because I think from that, it’s like a snowball effect.”
He believes that by designing a remarkable, unique, and stunning product, anyone can rise above the cacophony online.
“If you get someone’s attention with a genuinely brilliant product, people will wear it, people will use it, and people will talk about it.”
But for now, Francis is focused on the current community he has built.
Growing up, Francis loved attending events and expos in his hometown and dreamed of the day he would not only participate, but host his own. His belief in the power of person-to-person advertising was instilled in him as a young expo attendee and has continued to stick with him into his mid-20s.
“Even though the world is becoming ever more online, and 99.9 percent of what we do is online, there is always space for that human connection, and I think that’s really, really important, and it’s a real important thing to Gymshark.”
So in Gymshark’s very early days, when an opportunity to participate in an expo presented itself, Francis says that nothing could have stopped him from finding a way to join.
When he reached out to one of the coordinators to find out how much it would cost to get Gymshark a spot, he was quoted a price far more than they were able to afford at the time. But as Francis likes to emphasize, he plans hyper long-term and hyper short-term and lets the rest in between work itself out.
“This was 12 months in advance of the show, and I was like, ‘Right, yeah. We’ll have it. We’ll get that, and we’ll just sort of make it work,’” he says. “It was our dream to go to an event like that.”
And go they did, beginning a successful string of expo appearances that were initially in the UK, but rapidly branched out internationally until, eventually, they stopped going to expos and started hosting them.
“I literally think, ‘Let’s make the product that I love,’ and by default, I think other people would love, and let’s create the event that I would love to go to, and by default, I think that other people would really enjoy to go,” he says.
He also says that when it comes to events, making a profit is not the immediate goal. Just like the early days spent working a screen printer in a garage, Francis’s motivation is simply a desire to create something awesome. Something he loves.
“We just sort of think, ‘Right, what would we really, really love to go to? Let’s go make it happen. Let’s forget about the profit and loss at that point for that event. Let’s just go make something really, really cool.’”
But rapidly gaining a dedicated following, especially when selling a physical product, has its challenges. Francis says that Gymshark’s biggest challenge at the moment is keeping up with demand, especially when YouTube influencers or expo attendees are hyping them.
“We definitely made massive improvements in the last six to 12 months, but there’s still a long, long way to go,” he says.
Part of the Gymshark’s effort to keep up with growth meant Francis himself coming to terms with his right role within the company. As CEO, he quickly came to realize that he was in a position that he was not suited to fill.
“We were growing so fast, and the role of the CEO is very people oriented,” he says. “I’m very much an introverted person. I’m much more suited, and work better, in either a very small team or on my own where I can really dive into a project, focus on that thing and make it really special.
“As we were growing bigger, it became more and more evident to me that the CEO really needs to be a lot more of a strategist and a lot more of a people person than what I am.”
So Francis made the difficult decision that it would be best for him to step into the role of Chief Brand Officer instead. But the transfer of CEO power didn’t just happen overnight, which he feels helped build trust among himself and the staff. It happened over a period of about a year as Steve Hewitt, the current CEO, slowly took on more and more until he finally stepped fully into the role.
Of course, passing leadership on to someone else is always a humbling and challenging process, but it’s one that Francis has come to embrace as an opportunity to become more fully himself.
“I think it’s very important to be self-aware and to understand what you are good at what you’re not good at,” he says. “I’m a massive, massive believer of that.”
Today, Francis has the freedom to focus on product and vision, gathering small teams together to pursue new designs and strategies for the future.
So what’s next for Gymshark?
Francis says that they are always pursuing innovation and are currently in the process of designing new fabrics, as well as looking to branch out of the strictly apparel space.
And in an effort to keep avid followers and fans of the brand up to date, Francis has recently launched a vlog series of his own, giving a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Gymshark and into his world.
In the 10 years since Francis started creating amateur websites from home, his world has utterly transformed. But many things remain the same: a love of fitness, a passion for social media, and an unbreakable bond with his high school friends turned business partners.
The Gymshark brand invites each customer and avid follower to “Be a visionary.” And Francis is asking nothing of his followers that he hasn’t done himself. After all, where would Gymshark be without an enthusiastic pizza delivery boy who had the vision to buy a screen printer, and the boldness to show the world what he could create?
Ben Francis’s Tips for Success
Launching a brand new product on your own or starting your own business is never easy. No matter how large or small the venture, it requires vision, courage, and determination. But Ben Francis believes that there are three things any beginning entrepreneur can do to improve their chances of success.
Francis says he was once asked to share a story about a time when he was told that he couldn’t do something. He paused to think, but his mind came up blank. “That never happened, because I never surrounded myself with those people,” he says. Starting a business is a challenge, but with the support of people who inspire and motivate you, Francis believes that mountains are reduced back into molehills.
Being honest with yourself and clear about who you truly are is one of Francis’s crucial steps to success. “Self-awareness is key,” he says. “I think it’s massive. You can only kid yourself for so long.” Without the ability to identify which skills you have in abundance and which you lack, you’ll be unable to build a team around you that complements your abilities and improves upon them.
Once you’ve identified your strengths and weaknesses, Francis insists on the importance of allowing them to guide your decisions. “Could I do an operational…role for a little bit? Absolutely. I’m reasonably intelligent. I could manage,” he says. “But would I be able to do it for a sustained period really, really well? Absolutely not.”
Rather than forcing yourself to be something you’re not, Francis encourages all entrepreneurs to be honest about their strengths and find ways to play to them, even if that means relinquishing, as he did, the title of CEO.