Gymshark founder Ben Francis
According to Silicon Valley mythology, promising startups are founded in garages. That is true in the unlikely entrepreneurial hotspot of Bromsgrove, too.
In 2012, Ben Francis, then a 19-year-old fitness fanatic and Aston University business student, launched Gymshark with some of his schoolmates from his parents’ garage in the British Midlands. His mother, an NHS coronary care nurse, helped him sew the company’s first pieces of gym kit. Last month, General Atlantic, the US growth equity fund, bought a 21% stake in Gymshark to help finance future expansion, valuing the business at $1.45bn.
“The last eight years have been nuts,” says Francis in an interview with Sifted. “The last six to 12 months have been even crazier, not only doing the deal but seeing what’s going on globally.”
Now a 500-employee multinational business based in Solihull, Gymshark has developed something of a cult following among bodybuilders around the world. It has also built up a community of 12m social media followers. It is one of the fastest-growing companies in Britain, recording £18.4m in pre-tax profits on £176m of revenue in the year to end-July 2019. Backed by General Atlantic, the 28-year-old Francis now has his eyes set on further expansion in North America and Asia in his quest to rival Nike or Adidas. He still has a 70% shareholding in the business.
Melis Kayha Akar, a principal at General Atlantic who helped negotiate the investment and is joining Gymshark’s board, says that Francis is a “very young, very driven” entrepreneur who has succeeded in building a disruptive and differentiated business. Gymshark has done a great job of exploiting social media and the shift from offline to online commerce and focusing on the fast-growing health and wellness market, she says. “Ben has been visionary in capturing these three macro trends.”
Here are some of Francis’s insights into:
- How to develop products and build a brand.
- How to grow a global company.
- How to manage people — and yourself.
Developing product and building a brand
In building Amazon, the core philosophy of its founder Jeff Bezos has always been: start with the user and work backwards. Francis has stuck to that mantra in developing Gymshark, too. It helped that he was himself his original user. “It sounds a bit selfish but the product came from what I wanted,” he says.
Back in 2012 body-building was something of a niche activity in his home town and he had to scour the internet to find diet supplements and suitable clothing. But when he started attending fitness events around the world he discovered a big community of fellow lifters that captured his heart and sparked his entrepreneurial ambition.