Ben Amanna was endlessly bullied as a kid. At the age of 12, Ben turned to boxing as a safe haven. He became immersed in the world of boxing—from starting a boxing club and winning national championships to promoting live matches and exploring the business side of boxing. Ben’s expertise in the space allowed him to identify a gap in the athletic clothing market: sportswear for the boxing lifestyle. A serial entrepreneur, Ben left behind a lucrative business to launch BOXRAW, an apparel brand dedicated to boxing. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Ben shares how his company bounced back from a failed partnership deal and how he built a community of boxing enthusiasts using social media.
For the full transcript of this episode, click here.
Felix: How did you choose this business and industry?
Ben: I'd always had a strong link to boxing from a young age. I actually got into boxing at the age of 12. I was bullied a lot growing up, and boxing was that safe haven for me. It allowed me to stand up to the bullies. Boxing was always there. I started working at the gym by the age of 15. I went to university and started a boxing club and went on to win the national championships. After university, I worked with various boxing businesses, from events and promotions, to white collar events and raising money for charity. I never thought that boxing was going to be my end business. Then I started BOXRAW, which was actually previously the name of a boxing event promotion company.
I happened to be training for a fight one day, off the back of another business having failed. I remember running down the street in this Adidas tracksuit and wanting people to know that I was training for a fight. I was really proud of the fact that I was a boxer. In the weeks after that, I remember starting to look around and recognizing that there wasn't really a brand that represented boxing and how I knew it to be. The brands that came before us just focused on the end result: the fight night, boots, gloves, shorts–the whole glamorization of the sport of boxing. For me it was the journey to get to that point, which was the most magical. It was the lifestyle of the boxer that needed to be talked about. Boxing has always been there, and I'm very grateful for the fact that I've been able to merge two big passions of mine, which is boxing and business, to create this brand.
Felix: How were you able to validate that this wasn’t a one-off experience? That other boxers were also experiencing this?
Ben: I asked around to a few people in the gym about boxing brands. A lot of them just laughed at me. They'd say, "Why would they wear your boxing brand when they all wear Nike, or Jordan, and so on." I remember thinking that you guys are ludicrous. It all comes back to this research I was doing at that moment. Every major sports brand out there all start with a new sport, right? So Nike, athletics; Under Armour, American football; Adidas, soccer; Vans, skateboarding; Moncler, skiing. It's been with every sport in history, apart from boxing. The difference now is that we were at the start of this golden era of boxing. I started to recognize that. This is probably four years after university, but while I was at university, our boxing club grew to over 950 members by my third year.
This was at a time when women's boxing wasn't really a thing. 70% of our members were women, they'd come in for these boxing fitness classes. That whole notion of them being in this empowered environment helped create this community. I started to recognize that boxing was on this upwards trajectory. The actual people in the gym, even friends, just laughed it off initially. They couldn't see it, but in my head it was, there needs to be something that represents who we are and what we do.
Felix: What made you keep pursuing the idea, even after some discouraging feedback?
Ben: I just saw the gap in the market. It was off the back of a previous business that I spent a lot of time working on–it was actually a mobile phone app. We spent two years working on it, me and two other co-founders. Five days into launch, they gave up and said, "Look, it's not really working." Which was ludicrous to me because we got to the top 10 social networks in the first three days. By day five, we dropped like top 50, and they were like, "Okay, we're hanging up." It was that embarrassment of having spent two years working on something with these people, to then tell all of my friends about that, tell them how big I think it was going to go.
By this point, I was thinking of a big scale. I was thinking of a billion-dollar app. With the reality of that then being taken away from me, I was still like, "Okay, I'm still thinking big." It was that ego of not wanting to be seen to have just failed and stopped that kept me going in this instance. Past that point, it was about the recognition and understanding of the journey of other brands. Seeing where boxing had taken them. I also had a lot of confidence in what I understood about the sport. Boxing changed my life from a young age. I got into the sport because I was bullied a lot.
My parents came from India. They were Christian missionaries. I grew up in an all white Roman Catholic school and neighborhood. I was very much the outsider there, but the boxing gym was the one place that never judged me. There were so many components to the sport that really shaped me throughout school. I was a little rascal in school. I got suspended a lot. Boxing always kept me on that straight and narrow. It was that personal belief of what boxing could do for the world that kept me going in the initial instance. I was never one to try and follow the crowd. If I spotted an opportunity, I went for it. When people said, "I don't know if that could work," that was the motivation in the early days to try and prove them wrong.
Felix: As you were pursuing your goal, was there a moment where you realized that through the process the validation started trickling in? How did you fight that upstream battle?
Ben: I never let any of that get to me, honestly. I really never let any of that get to me. I still don’t. BOXRAW has grown substantially since I first started five years ago, but I'm still so far away from where I want to be. The levels keep increasing. As I look back, I have to look at certain moments and think, "Wow, okay. We've come far." I don't think there's ever been a point where I've been like, "Okay, we're starting to get traction." It's been steady growth, albeit slow in the very early days. We’ve annualized around 300% growth year on year. It's been a constant struggle, if that makes sense.
Every time we elevate, I'm still trying to push to that next point. There hasn’t been that moment where I've been like, "Ah, okay, we've made it. Okay, we're now a recognized brand." I'd probably say more so this year. This year I'm seeing more people in the streets wearing it. People coming up to me saying, "Oh yeah, I've seen this person wearing it" Many pictures of people in random countries wearing it. Now I'm a bit more aware of it, the level's increased now, but it's still like, "What's next?"
Felix: As you’ve grown you’ve continuously pushed and expanded your targets and goals. How has the company evolved with your intentions?
Ben: The vision is to be the reason why the world is into boxing. We're trying to shift that narrative away from boxing being viewed as this elite sport, that only a few can partake in at a competitive level. We want to show that anybody, age, gender, social demographic group, can take up the sport and have it change their life. When we look through history, at the big brands that are out there, they've been the catalyst for a sport being adopted on a mass market scale. You look back to 65 years ago, and the notion of running in the street was unheard of.
The only people that did that were Olympians, track athletes, people that took part in tournaments. Then Nike came along and popularized running as a leisure activity and minor sport. Conversely, look to 20, 30 years ago. The notion of doing yoga was unheard of. People who practiced yoga were the yogis in India. Then Lulu came along, and they popularized it. They made it part of a culture. Each brand is responsible for the mass market adoption of a sport. That's what I feel my purpose is. While we've got financial goals, we've got different initiatives we want to achieve. Fundamentally we want to bring more people into the sport of boxing, and help them understand what the benefits are. We do that through our content. If you've got an Instagram page, it's not so product heavy. We're trying to sell a story, a lifestyle, an attitude toward life.
That's what we're about. It's that vision of trying to create a legacy brand that can go out there and compete with the big boys. We're not doing this to be this small boutique boxing clothing brand. Longer term, as we’ve started to scale up, it’s about shifting that narrative away from just the physicality of the sport, and toward the mindset that in every mind there's a fighter. That's when we’ll start to go a lot more mass market. For now it's very much just to own and monopolize our niche.
That's through the products we create, the stories we tell, the charity endeavours that we have, the technology that we create. It's all focused around how do we bring the world into boxing? I preach that to the team all the time. If we were able to bring the world into boxing, the market will reward us at some point. Not everything has to have a dollar CTA attached to it. It can just be about telling a story, making something different about the sport, and having them take it up.
Forging a legacy sportswear brand in a market of apparel giants
Felix: When you think of these big, role model brands like Nike and Lululemon, what aspects of their business are you trying to emulate with your own?
Ben: I don't know how transferable what other brands have done is. More than anything it's that genuine desire and passion to try and infiltrate a mass market of a sport that they love. It's less about building this marketing campaign, this billboard, because it is not relatable right now. The thing that I’ve taken away is that they were true to their core. They understood their audience. They served their community, and they then grew their community. That's the only thing that I've really taken away from looking at how these other brands have done it.
"They understood their audience. They served their community, and they then grew their community."
Felix: One of your goals is to dominate the niche that you’re operating in, and be top of mind to the people who are already present in it. What does that look like tactically?
Ben: It’s about the first to own the boxing market. It's one of the goals for this year, to understand what is the addressable boxing market in the UK and the US? It's then a case of approaching every single boxing gym to have a presence there. Whether it be the clothing that people are wearing in that gym, the coaches, what they're wearing, what's the ring, the bags, the equipment. It's understanding the consumer profile of a boxer, and trying to make sure that we own 50% of what they do within a boxing gym or environment.
Obviously everything always starts with products, and we're big on innovation. We've filed for 16 patents in the last two years. We're very much playing a long game. Just yesterday, a skipping rope was launched that we've been working on for four years. We're not just here to exist in this market. We're here to try and innovate, shape, and create this new ideal of what we think boxing should be. It always comes back to that consumer profile: how do we tap onto whatever they're doing in the environment that we're trying to serve?
Felix: In what ways were you able to leverage the work that you had already done in your niche, when you launched your brand?
Ben: In terms of the boxing business, or activities I was involved with, the only thing that really helped me with BOXRAW was that knowledge of the sport and the extended community. Talking to people in the sport, from boxers themselves, to coaches, to promoters, things like that. Aside from that, it wasn't a lot. Launching an ecommerce brand is a completely different kettle of fish. The big business that enabled me to fund BOXRAW was a car sales business that I set up straight after uni. I was actually still running for about a year and a half into when BOXRAW had launched. That was funding BOXRAW to stay alive. From the car sales side, it was the relationships, having to deal with customers, very stressful circumstances sometimes that helped inform how I run this business.
That really helped me deal with stress when it came to BOXRAW. Aside from that, there weren't too many transferable skills. What really helped in the early days was the Shopify blogs. I was working at 4:00 AM every morning while working the car sales business, and I would read every Shopify blog that I could. Inside Out, I knew that whole platform. The blog's probably much bigger than what it was back then, but it got to a point where I read every single blog twice over because I was trying to consume as much as possible. I'd read the blogs, I'd go to work, I'd be selling cars, changing oil filters, packing orders by the evening, and reading more blogs. Consuming knowledge because I had no experience in this type of business and I was very much a one-man band in all the previous businesses. When it came to the latter point, when we first started to hire, maybe two years in, it was, "Okay, let me try to read about how to manage better." It was all very much off the cuff and just failing and learning and figuring out as I went along.
Felix: A period of balancing both a day job, plus your business is something that a lot of entrepreneurs face. How were you able to succeed and remain on track through that time?
Ben: I was hungry. I was really hungry to make this business succeed. Initially, when the idea of BOXRAW first came into my head, I gave myself a three month timeline to launch the brand. I was so delusional in how long it would take to actually set this up. It was that naivety, and not being too scared to fail, and so driven to try and make it work. I never considered, "Okay, how am I going to make this work by working in the daytime?" I was using the time I had. In the early days I was probably sleeping anywhere between three to five hours a night.
It was relentless, but I was so driven. I was thinking, "I don't want to have to go back to working in a business where I've got co-founders and other people that are responsible for my future." I saw this as my opportunity. I've seen other relatively new brands that started to blow up. I was like, "Okay, it can be done." It was that drive that really kept me going. There was never a moment where I was thinking, "Okay, how do I manage this, and so on?" I knew it would take as long as it would take to launch. I always came back to that vision, the ideal of where I was trying to get to.
Turning to social media to build BOXRAW’s loyal community of followers
Felix: Looking back, what were the most useful and least useful placement of your resources?
Ben: A good way that I used my money–in the early days especially–was not having to hire anybody because I was able to do everything myself. When people ask me for advice about wanting to start a business, I'm like, "Just jump on Shopify's blogs and try and learn everything there." That really meant that I didn't have to hire anybody. I was able to do the website, the picking and packing, the social media, the email marketing, the customer service. If you can't find it on Shopify, you can find out on Google. In the early days, I was very lean. Any of the money I spent was on product, which I made a lot of mistakes with, because I was so fussy.
We got fired by two suppliers before launch. I picked up on every minor detail, and they didn't like it. They said it wasn't possible for them to make something so perfect pre-production. At a later point I became, to my own detriment, so heavily involved in every single department, it became very hard for me to then let go of certain areas. I didn't trust people to do it to the same standard that I was doing it. In the early stages, I'd say the best money that I spent was on the products, and then on the online marketing. That being said, online marketing has changed significantly from when I first started five years ago, in that you don't get a lot of bang for your buck. Before, you could spend £5.00 and reach hundreds of thousands of people on Instagram or Facebook. Now you spend £5.00 , you'd be lucky to reach about 10 people.
The world and dynamic of how people are communicated to, and our market has changed a lot. The best use of resources would be products. The product needs to be great. Then the next use of resources will be creating a content funnel. The world nowadays, especially if you're trying to go into ecommerce, is content driven. It's trying to carve out space in your niche. First of all, what's your niche? What's your reason? Who is it you're trying to serve? Then selling that. Then serving them with content that actually makes sense. One year before we launched, we had an Instagram page that was building a community around it.
Now, nobody knew that we were a clothing brand. Everyone just knew it was BOXRAW, coming soon. We posted content that the community could relate to. We started conversations, and I was very much a pirate–I had probably 10 burner accounts on Instagram. I would comment on my own Instagram page from this fake account. It's quite funny actually, because these profiles took me weeks and weeks to build to get followers. They were all the personas of my friends. I'd use photos that I have of my friends, post them, and I create these weird personalities. Then, someone from the outside world would comment on a BOXRAW post, and I would respond from one of my burner accounts.
I'd spark these debates. What happened over time was that more and more people started to join the conversation. I understood what would spark an interesting discussion about a certain boxer, or a controversial topic. The whole ethos behind what I was doing was around how do I create this community within boxing? Then when it came to launch, we had around 20,000 Instagram followers, and the community was already there. We'd built up a name at that point of being an authority, because we knew what we were talking about. I knew how to speak to the boxers, having been involved in the sport for such a long time.
Many people, when they're starting a business, it's almost like they're trying to look for an excuse and say, "I haven't got the money to start a business." You don't need a lot. It's 2022. An Instagram account is free to create. You can create content on your phone. If you understand who it is you're trying to serve, and it's a viable business and mission, then you'll grow to make it work for next to nothing, other than just the cost of the products.
Felix: What did the brand look like in the earliest stages of your launch? What did your product offering look like?
Ben: We had a hoodie in two colors, we had a tracksuit in two colors, one type of t-shirt in four colors and another type of t-shirt in four other colors. That was it. I actually got it really wrong with the first product offering. Coming back to that point about me wanting to put so much energy into trying to create the best possible products, what happened is I'd be sending products to different boxers. They loved the gear, but what actually happened is that none of them wanted to train in it. They said it was too good quality to train in. They wanted to wear it on the street. I was stuck with this dilemma of, "Right, how the hell do I create this content of boxers in this training gear when they don't want to train in it, they want to wear it on the street?" I had to make a quick shift into, "Okay. Let's try to make it a lot clearer that this is for training." In the early days it was small. In the early days, it was very small. But I did put a lot of energy into the products I was creating.
Building relationships with suppliers through trial and error
Felix: In what ways did you change the product that made it more clear to the end user that they needed it?
Ben: That product stayed there. One of the products that I just talked about is called the Dempsey hoodie, which is still available today. We brought it back about a year ago. We had to stop making it after about two years because it was too expensive, but we just bought it back. The other ones were the Whitaker tracksuits, which are still available. Getting past that point, it was really about then going back into these boxing gyms and looking at, "Okay, what are these guys actually training in?" Trying to understand the reason why they're training in certain items of clothing. The next product after that was a pep short, and that was a two in one training type.
It was shorts with leggings built into it. I noticed that boxers were wearing leggings all the time, but they didn't want to show their ass while they were training so they wore shorts on top of them. It’s a logical thing, "Okay, if that's what they're wearing then we can make it two in one style that's going to save them loads of time, and probably look better." It came to actually trying to serve that market. Initially I had that vision of knowing that the market needed to be served. Then when I started the product, I almost forgot about the actual customer. It was almost like, "Right, let's just try and create the best possible product," not thinking about where it's going to be used.
Felix: Were there many iterations before you landed on a satisfactory end product?
Ben: It took two years for me to launch BOXRAW. The only reason it took so long to launch was because of the products. I also had no clue what I was doing. The one thing that Shopify doesn't tell you in a blog is how to create a tech pack, or how to go about creating a design for clothing. The way I did it, I simply went into the local sports store. I spent thousands on products, every single size range. I was an idiot. I'd measure a small, I'd then measure the medium, large, extra large, double extra large, and put all these sizes into a table and then try to figure out my own special sizing. After a couple years I realized that there's a thing called grading, where you can start one size and then grade it upwards and downwards.
It was a lot of trial and error in the early days. As I said, two suppliers fired me. I then left one supplier because I wasn't happy with the products. I ended up donating all of that gear to charity. It all got shipped to Ghana at the time. I was very fussy about it. What would happen is the process would take so long that by the time we got a final sample, the fashion had changed, and my ideas of thinking had changed. I'd also developed as a designer, too. It was messy. You know? It was a hard pill to swallow in the initial instances, because even with this Instagram page, when I first launched it, the coming soon website would say we'd launch in a month, and that would get pushed back.
It was a mess. What did help me in the early days, and what I started to recognize after speaking to these suppliers, is that they judge you based on where you're coming from. They're going to do their research on who they're speaking to. What I did with this coming soon page, is I created those alias email accounts. I'd email different suppliers from different aliases, like a product director, and so on, saying, "We're rebranding the company. We're the biggest brand in boxing, but the website's down at the moment. We're doing a complete new relaunch." That somehow was able to sway them and they bought it. What's very important in the early days is your ability to be able to sell the vision to who you're working with–whether it be suppliers, creators, influences, boxers, or whatever your niche is. People need to be bought in. Otherwise it can get very expensive.
People are more likely to have a good deal with you if they can see where it is you're headed. That's really what I found with all these suppliers. I went to some big suppliers who were dealing with some major, major brands. If you're able to find that one rep who you deal with, whether it be in Turkey, in China, or Cambodia, build that relationship with them. That's really what the car sales business taught me–the importance of relationships. The other part of the reason why I got fired by some suppliers in the early days is because I thought they're in China, I'm in England, and I've got this potentially big brand. I can speak to you how I want to speak to you. I can complain about every single issue. You're dealing with a person on the other end of it. Business is not business, businesses are formed on relationships. That was a big mistake I made in the early days. I can give good advice for people to sign up and get going. When it comes to dealing with suppliers, set out to build the relationship with the supplier, and be sure you can sell the hell out of what it is you're trying to do. Create the perception of the brand being much bigger than it is. They need to be brought into the fact that they're not going to make a lot of money from you in the initial instance for that small 50, or whatever quantity that you're getting. They won't make a lot of money off that. Where they're making their money is when you get thousands, and tens of thousands of orders. It's essential from the get go to be real with the people you work with.
Felix: From the manufacturer perspective, they’re looking at the relationship as a long term investment. Tell us more about how you were able to convince them to work with you.
Ben: Definitely. As you start to speak with suppliers, they start to use lingo with you. You're like, "What the hell does that mean? What's an MOQ or what's an ex-factory shipping terms." What I started doing was I prepared this list of questions that I had to ask. Some of the questions didn't even mean anything, they didn't make a difference to my business or their business. But the fact I was asking it made it seem like I knew what I was talking about. It was just from researching online about what I should be asking. Obviously if I'm getting some orders in, that we were then going to sell on a website, I understood certain things that came on invoices. I'd ask questions around that, in terms of what their shipping options are, is it ex-factory, is at FOB. I'd ask random questions about certain specific types of embellishments–which I had no interest in using–but they clearly showed that I was a technical product director, if that was the alias I was using.
Felix: You almost have to demonstrate that you know what you're talking about, even just by asking questions.
Ben: Exactly, exactly. The thing is, there's such a low barrier to entry nowadays. People can just go and start a brand. These bigger companies and suppliers are aware of the fact that these brands come and go, so their confidence in you will really impact how they work with you. It's the difference between getting a sample that really looks like what you asked for, getting a sample that comes on time, getting it at the right price, or even not having to pay. That's what I was able to do from the get go, I didn’t have to pay for samples. Whenever they tried to charge me, I was like, "Why are you going to do that when in a year's time I'm going to have 10,000 orders coming through?" They all bought into it.
Felix: How expensive was your two years of product development?
Ben: I don't know. I think it would've been less than £10,000.
Going all-in and walking away from a £1.2 million car sales business
Felix: You had also built out your social media following throughout this time?
Ben: Yeah, I had Instagram, but it didn't do anything. I remember when I was testing a product I noticed that if the sale comes through, your mobile gets a notification. In the moments leading up to the launch, I had these grand visions of the moment that we launched at 7:00 AM on a Monday, that my phone was going to be pinging, ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching. I launched, and it took maybe an hour for the first sale to come through. Even then, it was from someone from Coventry that I knew so then I was even more disheartened because no one was really buying it. In reality it took about a year and a half for us to really start to get consistent sales.
My best friend was my first employee, then my brother. They were helping me before that, but they weren't able to come full time because BOXRAW wasn't making enough money. Isaac, my brother, needed to carry on running the car sales business and feeding the money into BOXRAW. It was a long slug. There were definitely moments where I was doubting whether or not this was viable. Part of the reason, probably why a lot of my friends before were saying, "Is anyone going to wear it?" is because the car sales business was making a lot of money. It was a successful business.
Felix: This was a family business?
Ben: No, it's something I started straight after uni. My dad was a mechanic. I started working for him at the age of 12. Every holiday, Christmas, and weekend I was working for him. While I was at uni, in my third year, one of the students’ car broke down and he couldn't afford the repairs, so I repaired it. I bought it off him and repaired it and sold it. Then I was like, okay, this is a niche here. After university, I went back to college to do a MVQ, which is a qualification basically in vehicle repair. My car sales business was buying cars that had been in accidents, repairing them, and then selling them. By the second year I hit $1.2 million in sales. You can imagine, from the outside perspective, looking in, friends thinking, "Okay, he's tried all these other businesses..." If I told you every business I tried, you'd think the law of averages, BOXRAW has to work now. From their perspective, they observed, “Ben keeps trying all these different businesses, but it's like he's forgetting the fact that this car sales business has got legs and is making some serious cash from.”
Felix: It sounds like you have two really great business ventures going. How did you make the decision to go all in with one over the other?
Ben: It was recognizing that there was a ceiling on the car sales business. That was one of the easy ones. The easiest thing though was that I just didn't enjoy it. I was very good at it. I was very good at understanding what the market was looking for, in terms of cars. Buying them at a low price, getting them repaired for a low price, and then selling them. It also turned me into someone that I didn't like. It got to the point where I became that good at sales that a customer would come in to buy a people carrier, it could be an SUV, and they'd leave purchasing a hatchback from me. Deep down, I knew that this was the wrong car for them, but I became so good at sales that I was able to convince them that this would actually work.
It gets to a point of, "Do you really want to be a salesman your whole life and to put up this front of someone coming in to buy something and then doing your best effort to try and sell it.” It annoys me now, being in BOXRAW. I get people that send me these cold-call emails and phone calls, I can see right through it. That wasn't who I wanted to be.
Felix: Aside from the enjoyment factor, a lot of people might say well all the benefits outweigh the cons on this great opportunity. How do you explain that decision to walk away from a good thing?
Ben: The car sales business was doing well. I was always running that from the age of 21 up until when I was two years into BOXRAW. 27 maybe. That was always running in the background. I tried my hand in different businesses. It was the mobile phone app that really got me thinking bigger, and thinking about mass market scale brands. That notion of being able to impact the world, versus just being able to impact a country by selling cars. It came back, "What do I want my legacy to be? Do I want to be selling cars for the rest of my life or do I want to be really trying to change the world and trying to make an impact?"
As cliche as that sounds, that's what it was. I wasn't looking at the cash. I know that's easier said than done if you're not in a position where you've got a business that's making money, and you're working a 9-5 that isn't paying you that well. For me, it just came down to me wanting to make a difference and having that trust and belief in myself that I can make this work.
Felix: You mentioned it took 1.5 years to gain consistent sales. Was there anything in particular that you attribute this success to?
Ben: We did a lot of seeding in the early days. We would send packages out to boxing gyms, boxers, and coaches. To this day, we actually don't pay a penny to any influencer, boxer, or celebrity. We've got some of the biggest athletes, boxers, rappers, actors wearing the brand in the world. It's because of authentic either seeding and the brand. I never wanted it to be a brand that is all about influence, hype, and so on. In the early days, it was about staying true to our core. Further to that, it was the fact that we had quality products. To this day, we get people that say your product is the best out there. I'm not just saying that. If anyone's listening, and they're in BOXRAW, I hope they can agree that we put a lot of time and energy into what we create. Every fabric is custom developed, every product has a story.
That built the pathos. Something I read on the Shopify blog, is that your customer is your best marketing tool. That really stuck with me. It's like, "Okay, if my customer's the best marketing tool, how do I provide the best experience for them?" In the early days I used to have these thank you cards, and I’d hand write the customer's name on each card. It was that personal touch that the customer's like, "Oh wow, they really care." To this day, we probably over invest in our customer service team because we want to create the best possible experience. That's always stuck with me, that our customer is our best marketing tool. How do we provide the best experience for them?
Felix: Was there a delay in ROI when it came to sending out samples and seeding your product to these potential customers? How long before you saw the impact of that tactic?
Ben: It took a long time, but I think from my perspective, It's probably just because I was so tight with different businesses I had previously. I much prefer to have the money invested in a product and then gift it to somebody who's going to hopefully be seen wearing it, knowing that they're enjoying it. The logic was to really create this network effect, albeit it took a lot longer to create a network effect and really start to catch on. I have strong belief in the product and I didn't want to have to pay someone to do a photo shoot or to post it on Instagram. I'd prefer for it to be organic from the get go. I predicted what would happen in the early days when I saw these brands jumping on this influencer wagon. I could see these influencers jumping to the next brand. My logic was always that if an influence goes to the next brand, then the customer hasn't built up a loyalty or affinity toward the brand, what's happened is the customers just got an affinity towards the influencer. When they go to the next brand, they're going to take that customer with them. You know? For me, it was just all about building organic fans of the brand.
Navigating influencer partnerships and hiring a well-balanced team
Felix: Can you tell us more about a setback that you experienced with a collaboration?
Ben: This was a very famous boxer, he was a world champion. I had a really good relationship with him. I was his commercial director, so I went all around the world with him to try and sort out sponsorship deals. We also had a collaboration with him on a 50/50 profit split. We've always been very firm that we don't pay for your influence, but if we have a collaboration with you, we will split the money down the middle. We had that going on, and the contract was coming to an end, we started to talk about the next year's collaboration, how it would look. I bought around 1.2 million worth of gear to land at the warehouse in January.
January came and what happened is the manager then came to me and said, "Look, the contract's run out, and if you don't give us 50% of the company, then we're not going to resign the contracts and you're going to be stuck with the gear." It was an interesting dilemma because I knew that was a lot of money to us at that time–a hell of a lot of money to us at that time. With him not promoting it, how the hell were we going to be able to sell the gear? First of all, I obviously didn't do the deal. I told them to go screw themselves. I went on my way, but fortunately one of my best friends from uni–he's a lawyer–and he wrote the contracts. We had this one year sell off period, which allowed us to still sell the gear in the event we were left with any gear.
This is where the team really stepped up. We just had to become very resourceful with what we had. It got to the point where we had all these photos of this boxer in the gear. We Photoshopped him in places. We'd have him in the outfit and we'd change the colors of them because the new colors had dropped, or we'd change the background of the environment he was in. We used that for a year to try and get rid of the products. Thank God, by the end of the year, we actually shifted all the products, albeit some of that at some discounts.
That ordeal broke my heart. I really considered this guy a friend, almost like family. I've been around his house, I've spent time with his family. It was a tough pill to swallow, but I think it toughened me up a hell of a lot. The saying that business is business and not to take things personally. For probably two years before that I'd really been promoting him a lot for our page. I've seen him, I've been going to boxing events. I was known as this boxer's guy. It was the best thing to ever happen to us. Off the back of that, we then got another collaboration with someone who is his rival, and it all worked out. It all worked out. But it was definitely hard in those moments.
Felix: One of the things you mentioned was a lesson around leadership–tell us about that.
Ben: The big distinction between a startup and a scale up is that in a startup, you don't need someone who's got loads of experience. What you need is hustlers. That's exactly what I hired. My best friend's a hustler, my brother's a hustler, the university students we hired on internships were hustlers. They're all still here to this day. That works in the early days, because you just need people that can wear many hats across different departments, and are prepared to get their hands dirty. I was trying to keep that mentality of thinking that anyone can learn a job. And it was almost like me projecting onto other people that, "Okay, you haven't got the experience, but take this project and run with it."
But the reality is, with the size the company's at, we can't afford for people to just be learning on the go. People are always learning on the job, but we need specialists. That was a big shift that had to change towards mid last year. Started bringing people in with actual experience versus people that wanted to hustle and grind their way to the top. I learned that in the early days, those people worked great. Where we're at right now, we're at the point where we really need specialists.
Felix: Is that something you were able to easily integrate into your hiring process?
Ben: No, it's very hard. I made every wrong mistake last year in terms of hiring. There's a rule, the saying of hire slow, fire fast. I did the exact opposite. I was quick to hire because I looked at that fancy CV without checking references, not taking into account why they've worked in these big brands, but only worked there for 6-12 months and been hopping around. I wasn't looking for any of these red flags. I was excited at the idea that these guys are much older, or they've been working at big companies, and I brought them all on. I ended up firing about a third of the people I hired last year, towards the back end of the year.
I had to do a real cleanse both in terms of skill sets, ability, but also culture. That's another thing, as a company scales, the culture can change unless you really try and keep it on top of it. It was almost like I had people that were doing roles very well, but I knew they weren't the right cultural fit. I needed them so much to be able to do the role because I was scared about what would happen if they then left. I learned the hard way by the wrong culture permeating the team.
There were a few people last year who I let go because they were just too negative. Every job was such a big job for them. That permeated with the rest of the team and I noticed other people then doing it. I took way too long to act on this, but it got to the point where I had to pull the plug and say, "Look, you are out now. This is not part of the culture I'm trying to build." I essentially started fresh, not completely fresh, we still probably got 30 people here that have been here for a few years now. There was a lot that I had to get rid of to try and maintain that culture.
Felix: What is the most important aspect of the business for you to focus on moving forward?
Ben: Right now it's quite boring. I have some big projects that I'm working on. A big foundational thing I'm working on this year are brand guidelines. If anyone goes on the website or Instagram, they'll see how true it is to the sport of boxing. I took that for granted in the early days because I was involved in every single department. What happened last year is I started to bring on people who were great operationally in certain departments, they weren't able to understand the brand thoroughly. So what I'm working at the moment is just guideline documents that can really help sort of inform people about how we need to operate in their department, whilst staying true to the brand. Because that's another thing, right, brand start off in this great niche, and they're really cool and quirky. And as they get bigger they try and become something for everybody. And I'm acutely aware that that's a big reason why many brands fail after that five year point. So it's a lot of foundational stuff at the moment. Just allow us to get to that next stage.