On 17 August 2020, a tweet was sent from the Gymshark account to Pizza Hut. While unusual for the fitness brand, at first glance, the question was simple enough:
“hey @pizzahutdeliver u up? how’d you feel about @BenFrancis1992 delivering one last pizza? you know for old times sake” [sic].
To the outsider, it’s nothing more than an attempt at a humorous online exchange, an example of the social media nous the British brand is so good at. Dig a little deeper, though, and the tweet becomes a victorious statement of celebration from the brand. Eight years ago, you see, its founder, majority shareholder and chief marketing officer Ben Francis was earning £5 per hour delivering pizzas for his local Pizza Hut.
This week, the company he founded, Gymshark, was valued at over £1 billion ($1.3 billion) by US private equity firm General Atlantic, which has just agreed to purchase a 21% share in the clothing business. Retaining a 70% share, this puts Francis’ stake at £700m – or 140 million hours’ (5.83 million days) worth of pizza delivery.
As far as businesses started in your parents’ garage at the age of 19 go, it’s difficult to find a comparable success story. But just why did Gymshark succeed where so many teenage dreams failed?
“I absolutely love it here… I’m super proud of the West Midlands in particular and I think it’s great that we can create incredible brands,” Francis said in a recent interview with Sky News. “I think we need to do a better job of marketing that and shouting about it a bit more.”
Born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, in 1992, Francis took inspiration from the nearby MG Rover factory, and began a number of businesses during his teenage years. His first was a company that sold car license plates online. Later, like most teenagers, he became interested in fitness and started attending the gym.
“The structure, consistency and work ethic I found in the gym, I realised, could be applied to different areas of my life and it would work,” he later wrote on his blog, benfrancis.com. This inspiration later led to him founding a pair of fitness apps, Fat Loss Abs Guide and iPhysique.
In 2010 Francis went to study international business and management at Aston University. But, a few years into his degree, he grew frustrated that he couldn’t find gym apparel that appealed to him, and realised that there was a business opportunity there. While working for Pizza Hut by night, the 19-year-old Francis founded Gymshark in 2012 along with business parter Lewis Morgan.
Enlisting his brother and a drove of mates, Francis and Morgan initially sold fitness supplements before making the lateral move into fitness attire in 2013. Francis purchased a sewing machine and a screen printer with £1,000 of savings. Having learned to sew from his mother, he set out to produce quality gym vests and T-shirts. According to a later interview with Medium, it took him six weeks to make his first sale.
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