Venturefest WM 2021: Ben Francis, Gymshark – how he built one of the fasted growing businesses

The first virtual Venturefest West Midlands was opened by Managing Director of Bruntwood SciTech, David Hardman, and Mayor of West Midlands Andy Street, who made note of the fantastic innovation 2020 has prompted and the priorities of 2021 to enable a West Midlands recovery.  

To kickstart the day, Andy introduced a brilliant example of regional innovation – our Keynote Speaker Ben Francis, founder of Gymshark.

Interviewed by Adam Dent, Advent Communications , Ben gave a lively, entertaining and highly personal insight into the beginnings of Gymshark. Inspired by his entrepreneurial family – with both grandparents and great-grandparents having run their own business – Ben always had a natural desire to make and produce things, starting with business cards and a website for his grandad’s business. He noted how his school year had always been incredibly sporty, and as games of football turned into workouts in the gym, Ben began creating the first of many lifestyle businesses.  

From fitness apps to selling nutritional supplements, Ben became more and more attuned to what worked, and eventually founded Gymshark in 2012. Starting as a transactional website which sold other business products, he and his friends quickly realised that no-one was selling the clothes that they wanted to wear – “so we thought, how hard can it be?” 

When questioned about the level of risk involved in developing a business, Ben explained that he’d bought a sewing machine and a screen printer with money he’d earnt working at Pizza Hut.  His mum and nan had taught him how to use the sewing machine, and a local friend taught him how to screen print. Although he sometimes worked 12-hour days sewing and printing, the level of risk he was taking as a single young person was nothing compared to his grandfather – who, when married with two young children, once mortgaged the family home to finance a particular contract. 

When trying to outgrow production at home, Ben’s financial challenge was finding a supplier who would manufacture products at reasonable volumes without payment in advance, finally finding an early supporter and supplier of Gymshark in Pakistan who made 300 pairs of shorts on a ‘pay us when you can’ basis.

Ben described a major turning point in the business when Gymshark attended the annual BodyPower event at the NEC for the first time, booking a stand on the basis of a “gut feeling”. 

Having always watched YouTube rather than television, it was natural for Ben to invite his favourite Youtubers onto his stand – who he described as his “heroes”. He even flew some in from USA to take part, lifting with them at the gym in the evenings. Ben scotched any notion this was part of a deliberate marketing strategy to use ‘influencers’, and instead described how it just felt like the natural thing to do based on what he knew about his market. 

The impact was clear – before the show, the Gymshark website was generating roughly £200 per day revenue. The day after the show, it generated £30,000 revenue in half an hour, and Ben had to frantically set all the product lines to ‘out of stock’. Fulfilling all the orders meant some intense work, but also meant that the business had the capital to invest in both employees and warehousing.

Shifting away from being a lifestyle business was a conscious decision for Ben, who described asking lots of questions and ‘pecking the head’ of fellow gym goers who had more business experience to help overcome problems and grow sales. 

Admitting you don’t know everything can be a challenge, but Ben was clear that this was a necessary part of growing a successful business, with his skills set now being used to articulate Gymshark’s vision around the world.

With Gymshark hitting over half a billion dollars in revenue and selling in 187 countries, Ben championed the West Midlands as a hot bed of talent that isn’t being maximised. Stating that creativity doesn’t require huge resource, Ben characterised Gymshark’s superpower as agility, using their 1.2m followers on TikTok before any of the big sports brands even had a presence on the platform as an example.

Source: thebrandgym

Closing with ‘what’s next’ for Gymshark, Ben shared how the company’s recent investment from General Atlantic will help support the brand’s global growth, particularly in North America and the Asia Pacific region. He disclosed how he’d been advised to “always get funding/investment when you don’t need it, because it’s harder to get it when you do.” 

With an innovation hub at Gymshark’s Blythe Valley location, the plan is to develop many more products for those interested in fitness and conditioning. It was clear to the audience of over 200 people in the West Midlands innovation ecosystem that Ben believes in the vision of Gymshark and really does feel he has the best job in the world. 

You can watch the discussion in full here:

“Fantastic interview with Ben Francis, founder of Gymshark, on his inspirational journey from hand-making T-Shirts for him and his mates, to Unicorn status.”

Naomi Nash, Tech Nation 

“Great to hear about how important Ben’s experience of work was with his Granddad and appetite to risk.”

Sarah Windrum, Coventry & Warwickshire LEP 

(Author: Jane Holmes, Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands)