In this exclusive interview, we sit down with Ben Francis, the founder of Gymshark and Britain’s youngest billionaire. With candid reflections on his journey, Ben shares the highs and lows of building a fitness empire, the pivotal moments that defined Gymshark’s success, and the unwavering motivation that propels him forward. Get ready to be inspired by the entrepreneurial wisdom and personal anecdotes from a trailblazer in the world of business and fitness.
Ben Francis Interview | Student Pocket Guide
Ben, firstly thank you so much for your time – we’re really excited to speak with you! Would you mind starting by explaining how you first began your business touching on your ambitions and vision at the time?
At about 16 years old, I started going to the gym and absolutely fell in love with it. As well as building muscle, it gave me structure, routine, and discipline. I was also quite into computing and web development, so I really quickly knew I wanted to do something that combined that and the gym. When I was going to the gym though, the clothes I was wearing didn’t fit how I wanted them to – they were either skin-tight or it looked like I was wearing my dad’s suit. I thought “Why not wear something that me and my mates actually want to wear”. So, I saved up some money, bought a sewing machine and screen printer, and with the help of my Mom and YouTube, I taught myself how to sew. We never started with global ambitions or anything like that. We had much more manageable goals. We actually started with dropshipping. Firstly, we just wanted to create a website. Then we wanted to create something that transacted, then it was a case of trying to make a profit. I clearly remember we sold something that had a £2 profit. We were dancing round the room like we had won the lottery. It’s all grown from there really.
How quickly into starting Gymshark did you realise you were onto something huge, and did you have to adapt from your original plans or did things unfold as you expected them to?
I didn’t have what many might call a standard university experience. I’d go to lectures in the day. I had a job delivering pizzas for Pizza Hut in the evenings and then I would work on Gymshark at night. I remember this moment as clear as day. We’d been working on Gymshark for about 18 months, and it was gaining a bit of momentum. There was an expo they used to hold at the NEC in Birmingham (my hometown) every year – the Body Power Expo. I don’t know what compelled us, but we knew we had to be there. We emptied our bank account on two things – a little stand and to fly over some of the guys we admired on YouTube that we had sent some of our gear to. At the time, we were doing pretty well – turning over about £200 a day. When the doors opened, everyone flooded to the stand and other, much bigger players, were watching thinking “Who the hell are these guys”. I went home after the event and switched the website off. When I switched it on again, we did about £30,000 in 30 minutes. It was right then that I knew we were onto something game-changing.
What sacrifices did you have to make when starting your company, and can you share any words of wisdom for students thinking of starting a business?
I was never really into drinking culture or going out when I was at uni, but I still had very little time to myself. As I say, it was lectures – Pizza Hut – Gymshark. And then, after Body Power, I took the decision to completely focus on Gymshark and drop out of uni. It was an incredibly tough decision as I was the first person in my family to go to university, something my parents and I were so proud of. But they backed me to the hilt. I’m really proud that I still have such strong connections with Aston University too.
In terms of starting a business, it’s got to be finding something you love. I fell in love with the gym and I loved technology. And I still do. I genuinely think I have the best job in the world. So, being able to do something you love will put you in the best possible place when starting a business.
You’re a very motivated person, what is it that drives you (is it something you are born with or can nurture as you grow as a person), and as you have progressed in business has your motivation changed?
My motivations have grown as I’ve got older. As I said, my first motivation was just to create something that I wanted to wear to the gym, and then create a website that transacted. Now, my motivation is genuinely to create a brand that outlives all of us. I am dead set on making Gymshark one of the most iconic British brands of all time. And that hits me the moment I wake up and sets me on my way for the day! I also now have twin boys, so knowing I’m doing it for them is a real motivator too.
Who inspires you in business, and how do you maximise your own productivity?
So, I’ve had three jobs in my life. Gymshark and Pizza Hut you know about. But my first ever job for my work experience was with my granddad, lining furnaces. It was incredibly physical work, but it really taught me the value of graft and entrepreneurship. It was a business he had set up and built from the ground up. I owe so much to him for teaching me that and he remains such an inspiration.
It may sound a bit obvious, but working out massively helps me with my own productivity. If I go a few days without getting a lift in, I do feel sluggish and things feel a lot tougher. It’s really important for me to do that. I think the gym has definitely become a place, especially for me, to work on both my physical AND mental health.
You have no doubt achieved huge success – are there any standout business moments you can share that you are most proud of?
I’m so lucky that there have been so many. There are a couple that really stand out. About eight years ago, we did a pop-up shop on Mercer Street in New York. We had no idea if anyone would turn up. I remember getting a cab there in the morning and about three blocks away spotting someone wearing Gymshark, which was nice. About two blocks away, there were more people wearing us. And by the time we arrived, there was a queue down the street and around the block. I remember there was a big Nike pop-up happening at the same time and I think CNN came down because they had heard of all the commotion. They thought it was for Nike, but it was for some brand from the West Midlands. That was a really special moment.
And I’ve got to say when we opened our flagship store on Regent Street. When it looked like it might happen, I went down to London, looked down Regent Street, and saw the way it arcs down the left, the Union Jacks… the goosebumps were unreal and I knew this was the right thing for us. Fast forward to the opening day, there were queues all the way down Regent Street for the grand opening and it didn’t stop all day. Cutting the ribbon and seeing the community come in will stay with me forever.
Most start-ups fail. What 3 characteristics would you say best prepare a person/business for success?
The biggest one has to absolutely be to learn from failure. Many people don’t know this, but Gymshark was actually the seventh business I set up. The previous six all failed, but I ensured I took learnings from each of them.
I’d also say to surround yourself with people who are better than you. I’ve been fortunate to work in all areas of the business – product, brand, tech – and all the people I’ve worked with I’ve learned from. You don’t need to know it all.
Finally, I’d say resilience is key, both when things are going well and badly. When times are tough, you need to remind yourself why you are doing it and use that drive to turn it around. For me, it’s because it’s something I love. And when things are going well, it’s using that resilience to not rest on your laurels. Gymshark is successful, but we still have so much to achieve, so you won’t catch me putting my feet up any time soon.
To get to your level in business, how much do you have to keep learning, and can you talk about any risky decisions you’ve taken in business, that have led to your success?
You have to keep learning all the time. We’ve had to pivot, change strategy, and learn from things that haven’t worked. And I don’t think that will ever change.
Well, I mentioned Body Power. That cleared us out and we obviously didn’t know what the outcome would be. We sometimes say here “zig when others zag”. We try to do things differently. Some might call that risky. For example, after a global pandemic and ongoing reports about the ‘death of the high street’, what did we decide to do? Open an 18,000-square-foot store on Regent Street in London. We recently celebrated its first anniversary and I’m delighted that it’s performed ahead of forecast.
What have been the biggest challenges in business and how did you overcome them?
Competition has got much fiercer. When we started, there weren’t really many dedicated fitness apparel brands around. Now we are seeing many more cropping up. And you’ve got to remember, back in 2012 when we founded Gymshark, we were the audience and community. I’d like to think we still are, but things naturally change. If someone were to ask me “What would worry you more, a massive company putting all their efforts into your area or the next 19-year-old in a garage with a sewing machine”, the answer is always the same. It’s the 19-year-old all day long.
We live and die by our product. We have to ensure we are continuing to create the best product out there and at a fair price point. And carry on staying so close to our community, listening to them, hearing them, and reacting.
Does luck play a part in success, or is it more a situation of “you create your own luck”?
I think it’s both. Everyone has worked so hard on Gymshark to make it what it is today, but the timing of it was pretty serendipitous. I was “lucky” enough to be the first generation that really watched more YouTube than TV. I just used to watch bodybuilders on Muscle Beach in California. We then thought “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if they were wearing our stuff”, so sent it to them. This was before influencer marketing was really a thing. I was lucky enough to be setting up as social was really taking off too and our community were all hanging out there. So yes, we’ve grafted very hard, but we’ve definitely had factors and timings work in our favour.
We’ve not touched on the actual fitness aspect, you look in great shape, how often do you work out and what is your top fitness tip for students?
I try to work out four times a week, as I said, both for my physical and mental health. I’d say my top tip (and I took this into business too) is that you get out what you put in. If you commit to going to the gym three times a week, you will see a difference over time. That consistency and routine is what makes all the difference.
What are your goals for 2024?
We have an initiative called Gymshark 66 that we do with our community every year. Studies show that it takes 66 days to form a habit. So, we challenge our community to commit to something and keep it up for 66 days. It could be gym-related, getting 10,000 steps in, drinking two litres of water, anything really. I’m still working this out, but I know that I’m still dead set on making Gymshark the most iconic British brand of all time.