My most viewed video is currently (and probably always will be), the first video I ever made. Titled “How I Started The UK’s Fastest Growing Company” it’s a quick run through of how Gymshark was started, from working at Pizza Hut & studying at Aston university, up to the point of recording, where Gymshark was a multi million dollar revenue business growing faster than any other business in the United Kingdom.
Even now, four years since winning that initial award, it feels surreal. Never did we ever intend to create the rocket ship that Gymshark turned out to be.
Gymshark was founded back in 2012 by myself and a friend called Lewis. At the time I was a student at Aston University in central Birmingham, and a Pizza Delivery driver for Pizza Hut. I was obsessed with fitness. Rightly so, as it was the reason I was fortunate enough to be studying at Aston in the first place. All of my heroes were in the fitness industry, so I wanted to be involved in the fitness industry however I could be. After a stint making fitness iPhone apps and websites, I wanted to make a website that would actually transact and sell product.
Supplements were the most obvious choice, and as a friend of mine worked for USN at the time, I asked what minimum order quantities would be for me to purchase their product, to put on the Gymshark website. The minimum orders were sky high, more than I could dream of being able to afford whilst I was earning less than £5 an hour at Pizza Hut.
After realising I couldn’t afford to stock the website, I had the idea of drop shipping supplements from other suppliers via the Gymshark website. This meant that I didn’t need to buy stock and risk my own cash to start to run the website. Back in 2012 this wasn’t anywhere near as commonplace as it is now. It was a creative solution to the problem that was in front of me. Albeit we stopped drop shipping as soon as was possible, this short term creative solution allowed us to build the website traffic and funds to get the business to a level where it could purchase (or create) its own product.
After drop shipping for several months, we spent everything we had on a screen printer and sewing machine. This was our solution to the fact that nowhere created or sold fitness wear that made sense to us. No one had created streamlined, tapered fitness wear. Everything coming out seemed to be large, boxy and baggy.
We saw the problem, and we solved it. We created bodybuilding & fitness wear inspired by what our heroes wore, and made it fit to our body types. We designed for ourselves (we were the customer) we spoke to the fitness market that wasn’t being spoken to. We created the product we wanted, and we communicated in the way we wanted to be communicated to. Through social media.
It was around this point that we visited the Bodypower expo. Whilst I was there I had this unexplainable gut wrenching feeling that we had to be there next year. It felt like if we wanted to be known in the fitness industry, this was our one chance to be right at the centre of it – even if it was just for one weekend. Whilst at the show, we booked a space for the following year, purely based on gut feel.
I’ve always been told by my Dad to always trust my gut, so I did. It cost everything we had, it was another leap of faith.
The next twelve months were spent hand printing and sewing Gymshark product, posting on Facebook, and obsessing over everything fitness related on Youtube. My job at Pizza Hut suited me perfectly, as between deliveries I could respond to customer queries in the inbox.
During that year, Gymshark grew and grew and grew. We upgraded our floor space at Bodypower, and saved enough to order our first batch of product from a manufacturer. We also managed to save enough money to bring athletes to the expo with us.
The Bodypower expo was filled with supplement brands, usually with a bodybuilder who would sit and sign autographs at the back of the stand. At Gymshark, we used it as an opportunity to launch our first ever tracksuit – the Luxe tracksuit. The athletes were there on our stand, having casual conversation with anyone who decided to stop by. Although now it makes total sense, at the time, to have an open stand, with famous Youtubers wandering around and launching a product at the event – this was unique.
The Gymshark unit (which was in Droitwich at the time) would be managed by my brother Joe (Gymshark employee number one) whilst we were at the event at the Birmingham NEC. This allowed us to continue to fulfil orders from before the event whilst we were working at Bodypower.
At 9am on Friday, the first day of the event, I was still stocking up the stand with product. I thought running a few minutes late wouldn’t be a problem – no one knew who we were anyway… I was wrong. The second the doors opened, people flooded to the Gymshark stand. We were inundated with people there to buy the product, to see it for the first time, touch it, try it on. To meet the athletes, to speak to us. It was three days of none stop restocking, talking and meeting people. It felt less like a business to customer relationship, but more like a group of mates hanging around at an expo. It felt like everyone who stopped by our stand had something in common.
After the event, athletes, staff and customers would head down to Ironworks and lift together. We didn’t realise it at the time, but this was the beginning of the Gymshark community.
Over the weekend, we sold out of everything we’d taken. Our stand was the busiest stand of the entire event. After the event we all lay on the floor, shattered from the non stop work we’d done over the last three days. More exhausted than I can remember being in my entire life.
I’ll never forget someone walking over from a nearby stand and just asking “how did you guys do that?” We just responded: “no idea”.
After the event, I returned back to my parents house and late that night decided to switch all the stock on the website back on. I posted on Facebook that the store was live again and thought nothing of it. All of a sudden, notifications were flying in on my phone, orders coming in by the second. I watched the orders come in and and quickly excitement turned to dread as I realised the volume of orders was so high, we may not be able to fulfil all of them. I clawed at my laptop, going through each product to reduce the stock levels to zero (back then each product was set to having infinite stock levels). Finally I managed to zero all the stock and the orders stopped.
In the first 30 minutes after turning the website back on, we’d sold more Gymshark product than in our entire history. We’d completely sold out of everything we had.
Sat in my parent’s living room, in the middle of the night having just seen the Gymshark website blow up for the first time, it was at this point I knew we had created something truly special.
So, back to the title. How did I start the UK’s fastest growing company? For the most part I was lucky. After that, it’s down to creative problem solving and incessant work ethic.
Firstly, fitness was just about to take off in 2012. Young people across the world were realising the huge value both to professional and sporting life of a structured weight lifting regime.
Secondly, social media was starting to fly. We knew social inside out – not through hard work, but because we grew up on it, and were the first generation to do so. This knowledge allowed us to create the Gymshark community.
Finally direct to consumer brands were being listened to. Shopify (the company that runs our web store) was on the up and people were comfortable buying from companies they’d never heard of before. Shipping times were reasonable and the general public understood if they didn’t like what they ordered online, they could just return it.
These three stars aligning gave us the opportunity. From there it was constant hard work, searching for opportunities to grow the brand every single day. Whether it be small opportunities on Google Ads, or on social media, or through alterations to our product. We took big risks, we risked all we had several times. But most of all, we had a ferocious understanding of what our community wanted, we obsessed over it. We understood what they wanted, and we solved their problems.
As I’ve focussed on the very early days of Gymshark, I’ve not talked too much about the infinite benefits of surrounding yourself with great people. This is because for us, we didn’t build a team until after this point. I’ll talk more about this in a later article.
Gymshark’s startup days allowed us to become the UK’s fastest growing company by:
- The stars had to align
- Fitness, social media and direct to consumer businesses we’re all on the cusp of blowing up when Gymshark started in 2012
- Creative problem solving
- Solving problems creatively is key. When we couldn’t afford product to sell, we drop shipped. When we needed to, we created the product ourselves. When we couldn’t compete with other stands at Bodypower, we brought something that no one else was.
- Risk taking
- All businesses take risks, Gymshark was no different. On several occasions we gambled with everything we had and won.
- Community first
- We created product for the community (and ourselves). We created the event we would want to go to. We communicated in the way we would want to be communicated with. Always put your community and your customer in the forefront of your mind.