Interviews

“Failures will allow you to succeed”

Gymshark’s founder Ben Francis on why keeping going is the key to success, the power of influencer marketing and how to let go of the brand you built in order to thrive.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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Resilience: reflecting on the impact of a global pandemic which upended almost every aspect of our lives and businesses, it’s difficult not to conclude that professionally and personally it's the most precious trait to possess. 

Yet, when it comes to telling the phenomenal growth stories of new economy brands, businesses and founders; the importance of that resilience is not always recognised or reported. Leaving a level of gloss which means that even in 2021 founders expect to create ‘viral’ startup brands with little to no friction. 

This is what makes Gymshark founder Ben Francis’ story so compelling. The fitness and apparel brand was a direct-to-consumer success story before the pandemic made direct sales a business necessity. In 2020 the company was valued at $1bn just 8 years after it’s launch. 

So what can marketers learn from the Gymshark success story? According to founder Ben Francis there is, in fact, as much to learn from failure.

Gymshark, for example, began life as a supplements reseller. He explains: “It’s so easy to look at Gymshark in isolation as this thing that blew up and did incredibly well, but people forget about the seven websites and the four apps that were produced beforehand which failed miserably. And the reason Gymshark can exist and has done what it has done today is because of those prior failures”.

New economy brands

For Francis the resilience to get through these failures are key to success. His advice to young entrepreneurs is refreshingly free of gloss. “Failures will allow you to succeed, so I think people need to reframe what they think about failures and just give it a go. Go all in on something and see what happens. If it doesn’t go well, you can always try something new”.

“I had to learn to trust people. The business was my absolute baby and I had to learn to build great teams.”

Ben Francis Founder Gymshark

From delivering Pizzas to building a billion pound business empire

Francis, who was speaking as part of UNILAD’s ‘Minutes With’ series, shared how he launched the Gymshark brand while also working at Pizza Hut; a role which not only gave him an appreciation for hard work, but also the flexibility to build his own brand.

He didn’t quit his role at Pizza Hut until the company was turning over £250,000 and the flexibility of working at the pizza chain, combined with the income it provided, gave him the launch pad he needed for the business.

He worked on building Gymshark in between doing shift deliveries and going to university. “University life was very functional,” he explained, describing a day of lectures, followed by a shift at Pizza Hut.  “I could respond to customer enquiries in between shifts which was perfect for me,” he adds. 

In 2010, everything changed for Gymshark, after Francis visited the Bodypower Expo and booked a space on little more than gut instinct for the following year. Over the following year the company shifted track, away from supplements towards creating streamlined, tapered fitness wear with little more than a screen printer and a sewing machine.  

The fuel of influencer and experience combined

The Bodypower Expo was a turning point for the brand and Francis describes lying on the floor after the show had ended having sold their entire stock.

He explains: “We launched [the clothes] at the event and we teased it on Facebook and we brought our hero’s to the event - they were You Tubers, or what people call influencers. When the stand opened there was this huge rush of people.”

Subsequently, when he turned the Gymshark website back on it sold £30,000 of products in half an hour; a demand they simply couldn’t keep up with meaning they had to temporarily pause orders. He adds: “The brand inadvertently went viral, and then you had the scarcity of the products combined with the fact that no one else was making products for the true lifter.”

When you start a business you need to have a really clear vision as to where the business should be. I had to grab the business by the scruff of the neck and drag it to where I needed it to be,

Ben Francis Founder Gymshark

The challenge of scaling up

In the wake of the brand’s success (prior to the Expo Gymshark was selling on average £300 of product a day) Francis reappraised his priorities and decided to leave university in order to focus on scaling the brand.

“Emotionally I had worked so hard to get to university so leaving university was a big decision. But the second I told my parents I had made the decision they never brought it up again,” he says. 

So what has he learned from the experience of founding one of the fastest growing brands in business? “When you start a business you need to have a really clear vision as to where the business should be. I had to grab the business by the scruff of the neck and drag it to where I needed it to be,” he says 

It was an approach that required not only being laser focused on that vision but saying no to experts who said the brand should automatically be stocked in various stores. An approach that was well ahead of the current drive to direct to consumer marketing.

Warning against the danger of arrogance setting in when a business gets to a certain stage, he explains: “Several years ago I was far more arrogant and pig-headed - now I listen a lot more.” 

Francis points to trust as the key attribute to successfully scaling a founder-led business. He explains: “I had to learn to trust people. The business was my absolute baby and I had to learn to build great teams.” 

Today Gymshark has 550 offices across the globe. He explains: “This calendar year we will have sold over half a billion dollars of product - only through our website. That's a mind blowing moment to get to.”

His advice to the next generation of founders and brand-builders looking to emulate this success is clear. Rather than looking at Gymshark in isolation as this incredible success story, remember this: “Failures will allow you to succeed”