Ben Francis is the Founder and ambitious entrepreneur behind leading global fitness brand, Gymshark. Ben founded Gymshark when he was 19 years old, while still a student at Aston University. In addition to his full-time commitment to his studies, Ben juggled working as a pizza delivery man to fund his Gymshark venture.
Ben made the decision to step down as CEO in 2017, to allow him to continue to focus on the things that have always set Gymshark apart – innovative design, creative content and consumer first thinking. Gymshark has gone from being an entrepreneurial start-up to becoming a global brand with millions of customers in 170+ countries via its 13 websites. In August 2020, Gymshark became the first DTC brand in the UK to achieve Unicorn status with no external capital funding. The recent investment partnership with General Atlantic will see Gymshark become a true global brand.
In this interview, I speak to Ben Francis about his journey in entrepreneurship and how he created Gymshark, one of the world’s most popular fitness brands.
Q: How did entrepreneurship come into your life?
[Ben Francis]: Business had always been around me. My grandparents ran businesses; on my dad’s side, a taxi company and on my mum’s side, it was furnaces. I actually did work-experience lining furnaces! That was my first experience of business – or entrepreneurship – whatever you want to call it. When it comes to Gymshark, it’s funny, it was nothing to do with business, commerce or entrepreneurship – I was following my passion, and I wanted to be involved in the fitness industry.
Q: How did you learn to lead?
[Ben Francis]: From the outside looking in, entrepreneurs come across as people who are extremely talented in particular domains, and who galvanise resource around them. That might be true for some people, but it certainly wasn’t true for me.
At the beginning I literally started a business out of passion. I loved fitness- it changed my life- it changed my schooling, education and taught me skills that changed my life for the better. I just wanted to be in fitness.
When we started the business- whilst the first 6 months were difficult- it started to gain momentum and started to feel like a real opportunity. That’s when I had to grab the business by the ‘scruff of the neck’ and drag it to where I thought it needed to be.
I was working on the principle that if you only listen to the voices around you, you’ll amalgamate them into something that already exists… My view was that consensus isn’t going to build something that will change the game. That was really useful to the point where the business needed to hire individuals- particularly people who were better than me in their particular area. All of a sudden, that ‘grab a business and drag it to where you want it to be’ mentality started to alienate people. I had to learn very quickly to work with teams, develop leadership traits, communicate my vision and improve.
Today, I still work on developing myself. I want to be able to eloquently communicate the Gymshark vision, how it relates to every individual in the organisation, how that relates to different departments, how that relates to our culture and our community.
If I acted 8 years ago how I do today, I wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes in the business. If I acted today how I acted 8 years ago, the business wouldn’t be where it is today. Entrepreneurs and founders have to learn to be the most adaptable people in their business- that’s really important – otherwise, the business will outgrow the founder, or the founder will cause the business to stagnate or slow.
Q: What has been the role of mentorship in your journey?
[Ben Francis]: Do I have mentors? The short answer is yes- though they weren’t formally recognised as mentors for a long time. There have been several occasions in my career where the stars aligned to bring myself and Gymshark forward. I really do feel like one of the luckiest people in the world. At the beginning of the journey, I met two people at the gym. Paul Richardson (who is now our Chairman) and Steve Hewitt (who is now the CEO). They pushed me forward in a good way. Gymshark was growing quickly, and they asked me whether I wanted to be the biggest brand in the local area, or a truly global brand. As a young entrepreneur I told them I wanted to be one of the biggest brands in the world… they said, ‘that’s great, but you need to do X, Y and Z and you probably aren’t going to enjoy that…’ That advice was tough- but it made me realise that I have to bring people into the business that are better than me, that I need to curb my ego, and spend time developing my weaknesses.
I took a step back from the business and brought good people in – we grew. I took time to develop myself and the business grew even more. I’m fortunate to have been in a situation where I’ve been able to do that… to make those changes… even today, I try to learn something from every single person I meet.
A lot of people would expect me to say that I chat to all these brilliant business gurus regularly but I learn every single day from my girlfriend, my family, from graduates coming into the business… I try to learn relentlessly.
Q: How did you develop the powerful influencer strategy Gymshark uses?
[Ben Francis]: In the early days, it was gut instinct and some good fortune. Growing up, I didn’t really watch TV – it was more YouTube and social media. All my fitness heroes were on YouTube – I was watching people like Lex Griffin, who is a guy from the North who is a lifter… people like Chris Lavado and Matt Ogus in California. They were people I would watch every day because I was into fitness. As we made our product, it just made sense to send them clothing to get honest opinions and reinforcement. At the time, I felt that if Chris Lavado told me the product was great, it would make my year! I wish I could sit here and say that a group of us built a strategy, formula, and tried to work it all out – but it was nothing like that. It was organic. It was reaching out to our heroes on YouTube to see if they liked our kit. They loved our kit, they started wearing it and we started to get to know them – and eventually invited them to our events. It was super organic.
Today we have a differentiated strategy – we don’t work with loads and loads of people – we’re very careful about who we work with. We protect the Gymshark name and community really tightly.
Q: How have you created deep brand engagement?
[Ben Francis]: We’re very community focussed and (in normal times) do several events a year dedicated to getting people together who are into fitness and conditioning. I would be at every single event – I’d stand for 10 hours a day and just talk to everyone I could. I’m genuinely interested and fascinated by talking to people – and I learned more from the people at those events – the community, the customer – than anyone in business.
If I go back to the start – the first event we ever did was Body Power in Birmingham. It’s crazy – the best fitness event in the world was 20 minutes from where I grew up! We went to the event.. we spent every penny we had on the event, not to get people to come buy our stuff but to get people to come to our stand and talk to us about fitness, gym and lifting… At the end of the event, we’d all go to Ironworks gym and get a lift in together – everyone – the Gymshark people, athletes and community. That’s how we started to create a core community. Those people started following us on Facebook, Instagram and other channel and we started to build a following. The success of that first event meant that at the age of 21, we started to attend events around the world – Cologne, Ohio, Los Angeles and Melbourne. At all the events, we’d go for a lift afterwards and start to build that community… and it just grew!
Q: How does innovation relate to your strategy?
[Ben Francis]: Innovation is a long-term investment and it’s something we try to lead ourselves. What’s really powerful though is the feedback from the community. I went to an event in Toronto some time ago – I was stood outside the stall – there was a really long queue, and some guy came up-to me and said, ‘hey man, why don’t you guys do anything in camo?’ I live in Birmingham… everyone just wears tracksuits… Camo just wasn’t a big deal at the time. I thought about it for a minute and asked if he wanted us to make stuff in camo, he was like, ‘yeah man! I’d love it, it would fly over here in North America and Canada!’ – I literally called the product team and told them to get some camo into the next range… it was one of our best-selling ranges! That’s a really small example but shows the power of having those conversations.
Q: How did you time and choose the right funding partner for growth?
[Ben Francis]: We got to a point where we had started to genuinely expand globally. It was clear that we needed support to do that, and so we began to look for the right partner. The decision to bring in General Atlantic was fairly easy – they completely understood our culture, backed our long-term vision, and have incredible international experience. We believed they were the best company to support us on our growth journey, and I’m happy to say the journey has been brilliant.
One thing that I’m really proud of is that if you walk around our office and there’s a handful of GA people in, you wouldn’t be able to tell if they were with GA or with Gymshark. It’s one company, one team, all moving forward with the same vision.
Q: How do you hire well?
[Ben Francis]: We don’t necessarily hire the best CV, we hire the right CV. We try to hire the right people. If someone is 10/10 skills-fit, but doesn’t seem interested in our long-term vision? I’d rather have the 8/10 candidate who’s passionate about where we’re going.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Ben Francis]: I don’t think much about my own legacy, I think about Gymshark. I want Gymshark to be the brand that unites the conditioning community… that brings fitness into the reach of more people… gives people the opportunity to work on themselves physically and mentally.
I wasn’t very good at school. I got in the gym and then I was good at school because I applied the principles I learned in the gym to my general life. I want more people to have that experience.