I went to a business growth event recently at the British Museum. I wasn’t sure what to expect – sometimes these events can be very dull, focusing on how to set up a company, taxes and legal advice. Luckily I was wrong, very wrong, and this turned out to be one of the most inspirational events I have attended for a long time.
Two of the guest speakers told stories that were simply incredible – Michele Mone of Ultimo Lingerie and Richard Reed of Innocent.
No moaning from Michele*
In 1971 Michele Mone was born in Glasgow to very poor parents. A dyslexic, she left school at 15 with no qualifications to support her family after her father lost his job when he was paralysed by illness. After working in low paid jobs, she joined the Canadian brewing company Labatts as a typist. Two years later, at the age of 22 she was the Director of Sales & Marketing for Scotland. An incredible rise for someone with no qualifications.
However her success didn’t last as Labatts sold their business in Scotland and Michele was unemployed once again. One thing that always annoyed Michelle was how uncomfortable cleavage enhancing bras (brassieres) were. So she decided to design the world’s most comfortable bra. Three years later she had produced a bra that she was happy with. The next challenge was to find a buyer. Instead of starting at the bottom she decided to go straight to one of the most famous stores in London, Selfridges. She was 8 months pregnant with her 3rd child, she had only £500 left in her bank account and debts of £480,000. She refused to leave until the lingerie buyer agreed to meet her. They agreed to stock her bra.
This was Michele’s first success, quickly followed by Julia Roberts wearing her bra in the movie Erin Brockavich to create her characters large cleavage. Since then Michele has grown her business and has a personal wealth of over £40m, not bad for someone who left school with no qualifications.
What are Michele’s top tips for Entrepreneurs?
Network as much as you can because you never know when you will need someone. She almost lost her business when a supplier stole £1.2m in cash and 10 months of stock. Using her contacts she managed to raise money to cover the losses.
Think big. Michele always targets the biggest markets and the best retailers/celebrities to market her goods. She believes everyone should think big when building a business.
You can visit Ultimo’s website at www.ultimo.co.uk
* The title of this section is a play on words. Mone and moan (the verb to complain) are both pronounced exactly the same way (/məʊn/).
The innocence of youth
Richard Reed was one of three friends who met at University and they always wanted to set up a business together. Many ideas were created and discarded, until one day they decided to invest £500 in fruit, make smoothies (100% pure fruit drinks) and sell them at a music festival. People were asked to put their empty bottles into one of two bins – ‘Yes give up your regular jobs’ and ‘No keep you regular jobs’. The yes bin was full at the end of the festival (Richard thinks his parents put a lot of empty bottles in the no bin!). So on the following Monday the three friends resigned from their jobs.
With investment from a business investor they developed their production facility and started to sell. Their big break came when a high-end supermarket, Waitrose, decided to test the market in 10 stores. Richard and his friends were delighted but also very nervous. How could they make sure the test was a success? One night in a bar over many drinks they realised there was a very simple solution. Go to each of these 10 stores and buy their own smoothies! So the next day, they went to each of the 10 stores buying their own smoothies. The test was a success (obviously) and Waitrose agreed to stock their smoothies across their entire network.
In 2008 they almost lost the business when three things happened – retail sales fell 30% following the economic slowdown, they tried to launch their products in 5 other countries and finally one supplier, who provided all their fruit , called on a Friday afternoon to say they weren’t opening on Monday. They recovered but they almost lost the business.
Coca-Cola bought a small part of the business in 2009 and in 2010 increased this to 58%, finally buying out Richard and his friends in 2013 for over US$500m. Richard and his friends now run their own venture capital fund, JamJar Investments to invest in start-ups.
What is Richard’s top advice for new entrepreneurs?
Be aware of risk in your business as you grow. Their major mistake was buying all their fruit from one supplier. When they went bust he almost lost his business.
Focus on one thing. Many new entrepreneurs they meet are working on too many different projects. Richard believes that you should do one thing and do it brilliantly.