Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Ben Francis, the Man Who Created Gymshark, a $130 million Sports Brand at the Age of 19

It's hard to understand how Ben Francis, then a 19-year-old boy, had the time or energy to found his own sports brand, Gymshark.

Many young entrepreneurs have to find time to work on their ideas outside of an eight-hour workday, and Francis was no exception. In 2012, he was studying at university full-time and delivering pizzas at night.

"I would wake up and go to college, finish past noon and then work at Pizza Hut from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m.," he recalled.

"What I would do was answer emails about my brand in between home deliveries. Then I would go home and work on my website and design new products," he added.

After two grueling years, and with his fledgling business turning over close to US$320,000, Francis quit college and his job as a pizza delivery boy to focus on his company.

Seven years later, his sportswear brand has an estimated turnover of US$130 million.

Looking for a sign

Before Francis started his business in 2012, he already felt the "entrepreneur fever" in his gut. As a teenager, he had created a website to sell license plates.

But his true calling was in exercise and the gym. Before Gymshark, he had created two apps for iPhones to measure body exercise levels. One of them had earned him US$10,000.

What followed was the brand: a business selling sportswear for gym fanatics. "I was going to the gym and basically wanted to be in the fitness industry. I wanted that combined with an internet portal dedicated to selling products for the gym," Francis explained.

But his brand had started elsewhere: with the sale of dietary supplements for athletes. However, when he saw that the profitability of these was so low, he decided to redirect the course.

"I remember one afternoon I was at the gym and I looked around, I felt that no one had the clothes I wanted to wear. So I said to myself, 'I'm going to make it myself,'" he noted.

In the garage

So he got to work. The first thing was to look for seed money, which was contributed by his brother and his friends. With that money, Francis bought a sewing machine and a printer and started producing T-shirts in his parents' garage.

"My grandmother made curtains, so she taught me how to sew. I remember I was thinking about 10 orders we had and that making 12 or 15 products was going to take me all day. But it was a lot of fun," she said.

Seven years into his venture, Francis admits that after Gymshark's first push into sportswear, the company didn't have a big plan for expansion. "The only thing that was certain was that I wanted to wear those clothes to the gym," said the young man, now 26.

Then it was time to choose strategies. And one of them was to start producing sleeveless T-shirts, called "skeleton", for skinny teenagers and still without muscles to show.

Most of the ones on the market were for adults who already had well-developed biceps.

When it came to pricing, Francis accepts that no in-depth market research was done. "It was literally saying 'how much would you pay for this,'" he noted. "And we said 'we'd pay US$25'."

Growth

Gymshark now has about 1.2 million customers and 215 employees at its offices in the center of the UK.

But how has it grown so fast? To make a long story short, the issue goes by using social media to its fullest extent.

More specifically, Gymshark began sending free clothing to key users on the networks: prominent bodybuilders and other fitness gurus, such as Lex Griffin and Nikki Blackketter.

The idea is that these networking stars would speak well of their products and, in that way, their followers on YouTube and Instagram would start buying them.

The idea worked better than Francis thought it would: sales skyrocketed.

At the same time, he set out to make his own social networks interesting and visually pleasing. Today he has about 2.4 million followers on Instagram and 1.5 million on Facebook.

Sustaining a giant

But its strategy has spread: the brand has organized events around the world, inviting followers to meet its "stars." Hundreds of people attend these presentations.

Another key to Gymshark's growth process has been that Francis has surrounded himself with experienced people in the business. For example, Steve Hewitt, who had worked for other sports brands, became the company's manager.

For market analysts, such as journalist Emily Sutherland, Gymshark's success lies in the brand's use of social media.

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