Take a risk and be your own boss

Take a risk and be your own boss

Table of Contents

When redundancy hits, and you feel at your lowest, don’t look at it as a setback, instead see it as a redirection. Use that time to check in with yourself and ask: “What do I really want to do? What are my goals and dreams?”

Will King did exactly that after he faced redundancy.

He realised he was unhappy and so decided to take the leap and become his own boss—but he also knew he needed to create a great product.

And with that, King of Shaves was born, the first company in the market to offer shaving oils and a razor-burn-free shave.

Discover how Will got his product into big retailers such as Boots and how he differentiated both his business and marketing to compete against rivals such as Gillette.

Here’s what we cover:

Use redundancy as a launchpad not a setback

Back in the day of the Yellow Pages

Solve a problem and fulfil a need that isn’t already being fulfilled

Building an authentic tone of voice

Be open to new way of marketing and look for advantages to your brand

Keeping your business privately owned

Rival companies will play dirty

The downfall of the shaving bond

Fund your growth by selling more of your product

How Covid impacted King of Shades

In the eye of the storm—businesses battling recession

Being direct to community should be your marketing strategy

Transferrable skills from the yacht to the boardroom

Use redundancy as a launchpad not a setback

Bex Burn-Callander:

Will, it is so wonderful to have you on the show. How are you?

Will King:

Bex, you know what? I think we were chatting earlier and said it’s been 10 years since we last saw each other and here we are 10 years later, and you haven’t aged a bit.

I know you have a baby on the way, and you’ve already got one and it’s so lovely to see you, and I’m still shaving lives, Bex. That’s what I’m doing.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I love that you are still on brand, and I feel as old as time. So I love you for saying I haven’t aged.

Will King:

Oh stop it.

Bex Burn-Callander:

But yeah, you are right. When I was starting my career as a business journalist focusing on entrepreneurs, you were just an obsession because number one, you were doing so many cool things that had never been done before with King of Shaves.

Number two, you were always great for a quote, because you always just said exactly what was on your mind, and you never held back, which was great.

And three, you always picked up the phone. So you were part of my kind of mini-MBA as a business journalist, just learning from you.

So it’s so nice to be catching up with you again.

Will King:

Oh, thank you, likewise.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Well maybe we should start then. Take me back to the heady days of 1993.

Tell me how you came to create this disruptive brand.

So you’ve been made redundant, is that right? Tell me how you came to the world of shaving lives.

Will King:

Goodness, me. We’re going back 29 years, Bex. So I was 26 or 27 years old then, and I was working in conference and event production, but there was a recession in the UK, and I was made redundant.

I went from my £40,000 a year job and company car, to a bike. I was really not that happy to be honest with you.

I decided to do two things.

Firstly, I wanted to be my own boss. The entrepreneur word wasn’t really used a lot then. I mean, of course you had Alan Sugar and Richard Branson, but other than that, it was very, “You’re starting your own business, really?!”

Secondly, I needed to make a product.

I hated shaving. I’d studied engineering at Polytechnic, now Portsmouth University, and The Body Shop was big, aromatherapy and essential oils were big. And I thought, could you shave with natural oils?

They lubricated and foams didn’t, they’re chemical-based products, and so I bought a book in Henley on how to mix essential oils. I went home and mixed up some essential oils and months later I arrived at a formulation that seemed to not gunge up the sink too much but did deliver a nice shave.

You have a carrier oil, and you have essential oils, and I didn’t get razor burn for the first time in my life. I mean, that was a huge thing. I’d always had rash skin. And we had to wear suits, shirts, and ties back then.

I thought, maybe if it works for me, it might work for other people.

And that’s how I came to create the original King of Shaves shaving oil, the last one of which I have here is 30 years old.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Wow. Still in its packaging.

Will King:

And that went on the bottom shelves of Boots in May 1994 after lots and lots of phone calls and lots of trips up the newly opened M40 and then the M6.

And of course after we’d got it into Harrods where I’d rung up Mohamed Al-Fayed and got put through.

I got put through to his assistant, and they listed the product, and it is incredible now, Bex, when I look back on it.

In 1993, not only was I able to launch a product, but there was no technology to speak of then, the internet wasn’t invented yet really, and everything was paper.

But also incredibly the timing was so amazing because I had one competitor that was Gillette. So there were really no other shaving brands other than Wilkinson Sword. No Nivea for men. No L’Oréal Men Expert, no Bulldog, no nothing.

It was me and my two dogs, the Fox terriers, out the bedroom, and we got it on to the Boots shelf with the buyer Fiona Kemp.

Our sales went from £300 a year to £57,000 a year and then to £250,000 when we got it into Sainsbury’s and then £500,000 when we got into Tesco. Then I guess by 1998 the rest was history, we’d become this challenger brand to Gillette.

And if you didn’t like Gillette, well, we were kind of the only other option. So incredible.

Today, you could not believe that it was just us and to paraphrase a couple of famous sporting brands, impossible is nothing, I just did it.

Here I am 29 years later. So it’s great to be on the pod with you.

Back in the day of the Yellow Pages

Bex Burn-Callander:

I’ve got so many questions, Will.

First I have to ask, how did you get Al-Fayed’s number?

Will King:

So how did I get Mr Al-Fayed’s number?

Well, first of all, I picked up Yellow Pages, a big yellow book of telephone numbers that you used to have delivered to your door every year. I lived in London, and it was listed. That’s still their number now.

I rang up the switchboard and asked to be put through to the buyer and nobody would help me. I was trying to write letters, you had to send letters back then and stamps and put parcels in the post and hope they turned up.

You probably know, my first job was selling advertising space for Haymarket, for a marketing magazine. So I had no issue picking up the phone to people if I didn’t know them.

And I just thought, you know what? I’ll ask to be put through to his office, and I was.

So I said, “Hi, I’m Will King, and I’ve launched this brand King of Shaves and Harrods is the world’s best known and best department store, and I’d love to share with Mr Al-Fayed what my plan is.”

And the lady said, here’s his fax number. So I faxed it over and the next day I had an order.

Solve a problem and fulfil a need that isn’t already being fulfilled

Bex Burn-Callander:

Well, it’s amazing.

And I feel like we can’t stress enough that you were the original shaving disruptor because you walk into a supermarket or into a chemist, and you see all these brands on shelves, but there was literally only one.

So I want to know, first of all, how hard was it to be the first disruptor? What was the pushback like?

Was there a reaction when suddenly this whipper-snapper was trying to claim shelf space?

Will King:

That came later.

I mean, definitely when we launched our razor in 2008, that was quite punchy because Gillette for the first time went on 50% off some of their handles, which they’d never discounted before.

But going back in the early days, no, when we got into Harrods, then although the sales were tiny, I had a stockist and I knew I had to get the Boots buyer, a lady called Fiona Kemp, and I knew her number. City Gate Nottingham NG2 3AA.

I can still remember the original Boots central Nottingham post code.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You’re showing off now. I don’t know how you remember all these things.

Will King:

Oh, well these were important milestones and I just badgered Fiona. I wouldn’t say badgered, I was politely persistent.

And at the end of the day, after many faxes, she granted me a meeting, and we had a 15-minute meeting in December 1993 or January 1994, early then. And then I heard nothing for weeks and months and I thought what’s happening?

Then I got a letter, an old school letter through the post from the purchasing team at Boots, saying, “We are looking to set up and come on as a supplier.”

And I thought, well, that’s it. I must be in. I mean, she really didn’t have much to lose. So we were put on the bottom shelf, we were selling it at £2.99. Gillette was at, let’s say £1.99 or £2.49.

We were at £2.99, so what were premium mass in the market. So we delivered margin to them, and you know what? It was a tiny bit of shelf space. It was on the bottom shelf, and what was the risk of it didn’t work? Like nothing.

And then of course, nobody knew who the heck I was or anything. So there was no pushback because the Gillette guys would’ve gone, oh there’s this weird shaving oil called Kings of Shaves on the bottom shelf of Boots. I mean, yeah. Ok. Move on.

Of course, because it solved the problem and I think that’s important with people listening to this podcast, if you’re doing a product or service, you have to solve a problem.

You have to fulfil a need that isn’t already being fulfilled.

You can’t just launch another kind of shaving gel because Gillette were doing shaving gels or another kind of shaving foam. So we’re doing shaving foam.

So we came up with the shaving oil and then the aloe-based alpha gel, the shaving gel, lots of aloe in it, which is good for your skin.

Those were two unique products.

Incredibly, the pushback only really started after 1999 when we were on the top shelf at Boots, we’d signed Ted Baker, the fragrance licensing deal to previous year.

Boots had that as well. Fiona brought that into Boots too.

So we got in King of Shaves, we got in Ted Baker, and we got in Fish. I launched all of those three with Boots, and we were on top shelf, and then we’re on mid-gondolas. And then when you’re on a mid-gondola, which is the big slice of shelf on the top, and you’re doing 3 for 2 or £1 off, well your numbers start to rocket.

So we went into this epic double-digit growth and then people took notice and Nivea for Men launched in ’99, of course. And that took them 11 years to get to overtaking us in number two position incredibly. And L’Oréal Men Expert launched in 2004.

So incredibly, we’d had an 11-year run with just Gillette as the competitor.

Then, of course, it was easy to poke fun at Gillette and be a bit cheeky and be a bit controversial. And the internet came along and all of this stuff happened, and I guess we were just lucky and a lot of life, Bex, is timing. We were just lucky.

I mean maybe lucky I was made redundant, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. Lucky the internet came along in the mid-nineties, lucky men’s magazines came along in the late nineties, you had magazines like FHM with a million monthly circulation.

We would be in there with an advert or editorial, and therefore we started to get really noticed.

I’ve since spoken to people in the industry and incredibly, they said there are two CEOs of big PLCs now, and they said, “What you did, you just showed that the big guys could be challenged, and that gave us permission to create our businesses and believe in our brands because we saw what you did with your little shaving oil and what you became in the mid to late noughties, 2010, 2015 and so on.”

And that was incredible.

But to go back to the products, it’s all about the product. The product’s got to be great. That’s why iPhone’s such a popular global product. And it’s like, Tesla’s such a good electric car.

These are great products, and they did have visionary entrepreneurs behind them, Elon and the late Steve Jobs.

But it’s all about the product. If the products sucks, you’re going to go nowhere.

Building an authentic tone of voice

Bex Burn-Callander:

The product was great, but you also had a particular tone of voice that was just so cheeky. I mean, we’re so familiar with it now because everyone does it.

You buy your oat milk, and you see that same kind of voice on the side. But at the time you and maybe innocent, it was all brand new, this idea of a brand that reached you in a different way, communicated a different way.

Will King:

Without a doubt. And definitely I came to know the innocent guys quite well. I think they launched in 1999 or maybe a year earlier. And a lot of them they said when I met Rich Reed and the guys behind it, they said a lot of our learnings were shaped by what you did because you gave a humanity and a tone of voice and an authenticity to your FMCG or your products.

Clearly Mr Gillette had died a hundred years ago, so he wasn’t able to, and by this time Proctor and Gamble were looking to buy Gillette, and they definitely were never going to give Gillette a humanity as such that we see today.

Obviously passed that in the mid noughties, when Mike Dubin launch Dollar Shave Club, which is the standout direct to consumer success story in the 2010, ’20, he was a standout comedian.

I mean our blades are great, and he went on there, and he crashed a website, and it went out and then of course got his exit to Unilever in 2016 for a billion dollars.

The only D2C brand who’s managed that level of exit, even though he’d lost $400m and Unilever since lost I think another $300m with it.

But as by the by, he got his exit.

But again, he had that tone of voice and that tonality and that authenticity and that genuine rapport, which I guess brought us together all the years ago when you were journalists and looking to cover startups or scale up or gross stories like we did at King of Shaves.

Be open to news way of marketing and look for advantages to your brand

Bex Burn-Callander:

And you were saying that product is everything, product plus personality, I think in this case.

But were there any decisions that you remember making in those early days that you think were really pivotal to the growth?

And I know you said about being very persuasive and very persistent for example with buyers, but after you first got your run at the consumer, what were the smart decisions that really stood you in good stead?

Will King:

So I think the smart decisions that the get go definitely were that we stuck to our knitting in terms of King of Shaves. So we did a shaving oil and then for two years we just had one shaving oil. And then we thought it’s selling all right, maybe we could have two.

So we went up to Boots, and they said, “Oh, if you’re going to do another shaving oil, why don’t you do some shaving gels?”

And we’re going, “Oh, if we did some shaving gels, why don’t you stop them?”

And they’re going, “Well yeah, because your sales are kind of on fire. So you’ve got a brand awareness and then while you are at it, why don’t you do men’s skincare? There’s no men’s skincare.”

So we did men’s skincare in 1996.

And I think listeners listening to this in 2022 will think, hang on a minute, we still see all this hype about men and skincare now.

This is like 25 years ago and these guys were doing a men’s moisturiser, an exfoliating scruff, a cooling post shave balm. And we did.

And when we were given, I guess, the permission by the retailers to go and basically make whatever we wanted to make, which we then did, you then get a confidence and then a belief, yeah, as long as you stick to what your core competency is.

And definitely for the first nine years, we were very good at sticking to the core competency of King of Shaves.

We were lucky to get Ted Baker as a fragrance licensing deal because we’d written to Paul Smith and then Ray Kelvin, the founder who’s now stepped down, but was the shareholder then. Their sales were only £15m a year. They hit a market cap four years ago of a billion pounds.

Our timing was good and that we had King of Shaves in the mass space, so shaving lives, and stuff, but of course fragrance is great.

And if you have a brand name like Ted Baker, that was roofing it in the late nineties with Britpop and everything, you had fragrance and fragrance has a lot of margin.

Also, it’s a huge number of sales at Christmas for Christmas gifting. So we had a belts and braces shaving brand, King of Shaves, and then we had Ted Baker as the licensing, the licensing gig. And the two of them seemed to coexist very well.

There wasn’t any crossover between what I was doing with shaving or fragrance was doing with Ted. So that was nice.

You can kind of keep your eyes on two brands at once and see where they’re going. And I think sticking to your knitting at the get go is imperative and also, I guess, embracing new opportunities.

So I have a trait curiosity for what are things, and why are they happening?

So for example, when the internet came along, you’d see this HTTP://www.firstdirect.co.uk/welcome. Oh, what’s that all about?

Of course that was the start of the internet, and I was able to buy shave.com for £18 on a credit card because at the time everybody’s going, there’s this internet web thing coming along and what does it do, and it’s never going to take off and remember we were on dial up. So 2.4 kilobytes upper second, 2,400.

We’re now, I think I’m on 195 mg download at the moment. I mean, it’s incredible, but that, and in recent terms with what’s happening with NFTs and board eight yacht clubs and the whole crypto thing and now web three and the metaverse and this and that and the other.

I’ve always been very good on looking at what’s coming down the track at me and then see if it would have an advantage to a brand.

So focus on your brand. Just keep it tight, but also be open to new ways of marketing it. And we were very open to those, and they were very inexpensive as well.

Keeping your business privately owned

Bex Burn-Callander:

You were talking about other rivals in the sector who have exited. And over the years with King of Shaves, there were loads of rumours, loads of big brands courting you, but it never, tell me about that journey.

How come you never sold and made God knows how many millions?

Will King:

I never founded it to sell it, and so many founders I see now they get on the runway, and they raise a pre-seed series A, B, exit, exit.

And you think, no, why don’t you just build a damn good business?

And you know what? It may keep you going all your life. But if somebody does offer it to you fine, you might sell them. I think a lot of people get extraordinarily fixated, especially now on a three-to-five-year raise, burn, and then exit.

You’ve seen in recent days with this cost of living crisis that these stock markets crashed in terms of package goods and stuff and brands like that, because people won’t be spending as much, but I digress.

So in 2012, ’13, we’d been working on a hyper glide razor, the super hydrophilic coated one that you just add water and shave.

We launched that and an investment banker called William Blair got wind of us launching it. We were then approached by a big online retailer, even bigger now about being bought by them, and then William Blair wanted to rep us. So they became our investment bank and they repped us.

And that was just carnage because I’d launched this razor, we had some teething manufacturing issues around the blades and the cartridge, which is painful.

I was to and from Japan where we were sourcing the steel blades from, and the handle was designed and made in the UK and the cartridge was made in the UK.

And then we had this deal going down and then the company that were going to buy us flaked on my birthday in 2014, literally walked away because we hadn’t got a patent through on hyperglide in North America, which subsequently did come through, because Gillette were agitating against it. But we said that was ridiculous. We’ll get it.

By that time it had been in the press, and I was tired in 2014, I was really quite wiped out, and I took the decision to step down, and it was in the press on the front page of The Telegraph and the Tell and everything, The Times, on the business section, the king steps away from throne, all this stuff.

But truth be told, I was just tired and disappointed that these big companies didn’t follow through.

But anyhow, that there is a silver lining to the story, of course, because what I then found out is, well, hang on one of the company that walked away from us, I can’t name them, but walked away from us. I rang him up and said, “Why should you walk away?”

And then he says, “Well, you haven’t got a patent.”

I said, “Well, we have now for hyperglide, is that what you wanted then? The hyperglide factory tech, is that what you wanted? Not King of Shaves?”

And he goes, “We were never really interested in King of Shaves, but we love your technology. Can we buy it?”

We sold it for a lot of money and that was a lot of money.

And what that meant, I guess it took us out of proprietary shaving manufacture, i.e. our own unique cartridge and handle, but it delivered a great return on investment.

By then you’d had Dollar Shave come into the mix and Harry’s. They were financed by huge venture capital out of North America. Both of them raised just shy of $400m each. So they were punching massively in the UK.

I think perhaps our timing with selling the hyper glide tech and therefore exiting the hardware as I called it and going back to the software, the shaving gel, and oils, then maybe that was time. But then that was all of the stuff, and we always get inbound even now. I mean, we get inbound all the time.

But because I’ve not been CEO for seven years now, but I’ve shaped the narrative of the business and the brand, we’ve got a great new packaging refresh coming down the track, and it’s lovely, but it’s like, look, if somebody really wants us, and they’re going to be not stupid about it and fine.

But a lot of any founder or any scale up business, listening to me talk and if you get courted by an inquisitor, whether it’s private equity or a big private company or a PLC or a competitor, you’ve just got a tread weary.

Because so many of them flake, and often they just want to find out what’s your special secret sources. They genuinely do want to see if they’ll get a chance to look under the bonnet and see if there’s an electric motor on the wheels and therefore no engine, or if it’s just got a conventional engine.

You got to be careful of that in business because there’s a great value in know-how.

You can protect innovation with patent like we did with hyper, but know-how is mission critical, and they can get your know-how, and you got to be careful.

But that’s where we are today. Still privately owned, but you never know what might be coming down the track.

Rival companies will play dirty

Bex Burn-Callander:

Well, it’s interesting because we had someone come on the show a little while ago talking about how many rival companies will, for example, take a tiny stake in a crowdfunding round just to get access to your financial documents.

Will King:

Of course.

Bex Burn-Callander:

And to get advanced notice when things are coming and you just, it’s easy to forget that companies can fight dirty and-

Will King:

They do.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Yeah, and they do, exactly.

Will King:

They genuinely do. And especially the bigger ones, because you have bigger companies, but they of course have them employees out there. The behaviour of the employee might determine the face of the company.

If they do something silly, like we had guys that Gillette who were caught turning our razors around in Sainsbury’s, yeah. So that (beep) me off. So I actually just got it in the press.

And then Justin King rang me up whom I became friends with and said, “Oh, you know, could have at least told us before you put it into the national paper that Gillette is going around, turning your razors around, we’d have looked into that for you.”

I said, “Well, that’s fine, Justin, but I put like 15 million quid into this launch and it just (beep) me off me, to be honest with you, I wouldn’t do that to Gillette. So why did their field sales force feel they wanted to do it with us?” Ridiculous.

Bex Burn-Callander:

How did you find that out? Did someone give you a call and say, well, you’ll never guess what I just saw.

Will King:

Yeah. Yeah. We got a photo of the field merch team out there, just turning them around on the displays.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Oh my God.

Will King:

But that’s rampant, that behaviour. I mean, if you remember Richard Branson’s Virgin Coke and the behaviour of Coca-Cola when he launched in North America.

Coke were never going to let Branson launch Virgin Cola in North America ever in a gazillion years was that ever going to happen, let alone British Airways.

Remember the scandal with BA and Virgin when they tried to do the dirty tricks in the late nineties with that, I mean that was front page news every day and that was British Airways.

Bex Burn-Callander:

It was great publicity then.

Will King:

Great publicity.

The downfall of the shaving bond

Bex Burn-Callander:

And Will, I’ve talked about how you were a pioneer in terms of a disruptor in the shaving category, but you were also a pioneer in ways that you raised finance.

I remember writing about the shaving bonds at a time when this was almost completely unheard of.

Can you tell me about clever ways that you have raised growth capital for the business and how you’ve kind of changed the relationship? This is like before crowdfunding.

Changed the relationship between a business and their customer.

Will King:

I mean, it definitely was, Bex and going back to the names, shaving bond 007%.

When we did that in 2007 is what’s called a retail mini bond, which I’ll admit ends a bit sadly really on all of this because it got very misused and is now regulated by the SFO [Serious Fraud Office] and the FCA [Financial Conduct Authority], but I’ll come on to that.

But at the time in the mid noughties, we had so many inbound people who wanted to buy shares in King of Shaves. People were calling up, “Can we buy shares in your company?”

We go, “No, it’s private.”

“Oh, well you going to float.”

And we go, “No, don’t really fancy it.”

“Oh, OK. I’ll carry on buying your razor or your shaving gel.”

And I bought, I don’t know why I bought it. I bought a domain. I used to buy hundreds of domains. I mean, I used to go bananas about, I would buy the trademark as well.

And I bought, you remember saving bonds? Yeah. Savings bonds.

Bex Burn-Callander:


Will King:

And I thought I just bought shaving bond. I thought that’s funny. It’s just to play on words. So a saving bond, shaving bond. And I bought it. This was before I decided to do it.

We had quite a cool lawyer called Memory Crystal, and I was their entrepreneur in residence when I stepped down at King of Shaves.

I did a three-year stint working with Leslie, the chairman and Nick, the CEO. I said, “Oh, we want to raise money, we have people wanting to buy shares. I mean, can’t we just do something to give them an involvement in our company? Could we issue a bond like a PLC did? Can you do a bond, like a premium bond?”

Leslie says, looks at Nick or looks at her advisor and says, “Could they?” And he looks back, and he said, “We have to ask Deloitte.”

So they got Deloitte in, and they say, “Right, this guy, he’s got a profitable company. He wants to issue bonds in his business.

“He wants to pay 7% coupon on him because he thinks he’s funny. He’s shaving bonds. He’ll get some good press on it. He’ll give the bond. He’ll return the capital and interest after three years and people will get some free products, a copy of his book and a certificate.”

So they go, “Is he going to be able to repay the money? Is he going to use the money to buy private jets or yachts or what’s he going to do with his bonds?”

And of course I’m going, “I don’t want to do that. I mean, we’re just going to put it into the company and scale a business and goodness sake.”

Of course that’s what people did with it down the track, which I’ll come on to, which is sad.

But in 2008, ’09, we launched a shavingbond.com on the papers, and it just took off. The press went bananas around it. I don’t, if you remember, I think Patrick Hosking wrote a really aggressive art piece on it in The Times about trust his razors, not his bonds, and this and that and the other and ah and this.

But it was new, and everybody loved it and came in, and then of course it went massive because Memory Crystal, where we’d created this retail mini bond is what it became called for a retail company, a retail mini bond.

I invented it basically. They did all the legal and then Memory Crystal made probably millions doing the jockey club bonds, or this or that.

Crowdcube then launched, and they were doing the platforms, and they were looking at it and then everybody was doing it.

Then of course in around 2018, there were companies using it to raise £200m to £300m of the bonds from gullible investors or gullible is the wrong word, unsophisticated investors, who thought their money was being invested in property and with a return.

And of course it wasn’t.

It was being spent on cars and jets and planes and all the (beep) that I said we would never do.

Sadly at the end of having created that lovely piece of ability to raise money and pay people for being involved and give them shares and give them ownership and involvement, of course it got abused.

But now I would advise listeners hang on to your equity at all costs. That’s the most expensive piece of finance you can do.

On Dragons’ Den, you see Steven Bartlett in there saying you can’t give away 50% of your company for £30,000 to Deborah Meaden. Yeah, that’s not right. I mean A, she’s rich already. B, you’re (beep) in terms of any future raising and C, it’s all over.

So you’ve got to try and get either bank debt or invoice factoring that we used where you take a Boots invoice, and then you get paid to, give them a sort of premium to the people who advance it.

I had credit cards, early days, loans, friends, and family. We then had business grants for the government, DTI loan guarantee schemes in the late nineties, which the government guaranteed 85%, if it went Pete Tong and no businesses were told about it because it was like the loan of last resort that Barclays would ever want to give out.

If it went wrong, it meant that the government’s going to pick up the tab, and it makes Barclays’ sort of asset checking and risk, the risk team look (beep). Yeah? And so nobody talked about these debt loans.

So it’s like buying a house. You can’t buy a house straight up £400,000 in your first year. You buy it over 30 years, 25 years on a coupon. And if you’re able to raise the debt on the basis, the company’s got a shot of succeeding, that’s the way to go and sell your shares as late as you can.

I still remain the biggest shareholder with King of Shaves after 30 years, incredibly, which is kind of good.

I’m quite happy about that.

Fund your growth by selling more of your product

Bex Burn-Callander:

No, that’s interesting because you hear a lot of positive reviews of the whole investment angle, and you are saying go debt, and we don’t often hear go debt. We hear avoid debt.

Will King:

Well, I think you’ve just got to be sure what debt you can repay. I think, remember when we were doing our business, the interest rates were higher. I mean, interest rates very low now, or the base rate is.

Bex Burn-Callander:

For now.

Will King:

If you have a venture capitalist, let’s say they buy 30% on a post money of £2m. They’re going to be looking at a 10x on that, because it’s got to make the money work for them.

So if you are £2m company, when they’ve come in and given you some spends, you can’t turn it into £20m.

Well, the next round then other people will be going well, hang on a minute, it’s not worked out there. Then that’s a nightmare.

It’s even worse if you raise too high, say you raise at a £10m or £50m valuation and get £2m in, but then there’s no sales. Then you have a down round, which is the nightmare of all nightmares, because it’s going to zero.

Of course, you have SEIS [Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme], and you have EIS [Enterprise Investment Scheme] and you have let’s just call it tax efficient investment schemes that people can do.

But end of the day, if you can end up owning or hanging on to as much of your equity in your company as possible, and you believe it has a future, and it has a success chance, it’s better to own a hundred percent of something than 1% of something, if you see what I mean.

But I’ve never owned a hundred percent of King of Shaves apart from the day I founded the business when I then had to sell some shares, and I sold 35% of shares for £15,000. There we are.

A year later I sold 10% for £10,000. And within years it was valued at £22m.

Bex Burn-Callander:

But you had to get those raises. You had to do that. You had to go through that process to get it to the £22m. Otherwise, it would’ve just stalled anyway.

Will King:

Well I think a lot of the King of Shaves growth, going back now 20 years, a lot of it was organic. I mean we just lit off like a rocket.

When you’re in a hyper growth, you’re doubling your sales every year, every year, every year, every year you got no issue money coming into the business.

The banks love you. You’re posting profits. You’re posting growth. We had a profile, as you’ll remember, in the SME space, the entrepreneur space. And it was lovely.

But if you need money, you need money.

But there are other ways of hustling and getting money and getting there. And maybe it’s just good old-fashioned selling of your great product, but you need to sell more of your product to finance the growth of your business.

Not raise more money.

Bex Burn-Callander:

It sounds radical now, doesn’t it?

Just fund your growth by selling more of your product. Don’t go out and raise loads of money. Just be really successful.

Will King:

On the margin, and make sure you have a really good product margin. You’ve got to have a strong margin, so you’re not just buying it at a pence and selling at two pence.

It’s got to have a good margin built in.

How Covid impacted King of Shades

Bex Burn-Callander:

And Will, the concept of a play on words, I feel this has been a running theme in your life, in your businesses because you had like Will King, King of Shaves, you bought the shaving bond because of the saving bond. There’s been all these stories.

I remember there was a story about you and the paper calling you King of Shades instead of King of Shaves. And then that led you to start a sunglasses business.

Will King:

The sunglasses. Yeah, I know. I know I’m sucker for the punnies.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Yes. What happened to the sunglasses?

Will King:

So they’re there.

So all of this, this is going back 10 years when I was with Tiger, Mike’s wife, and we were at an event, and I was written up as being the founder of King of Shades. And so I trademarked it as you do, because you thought why not? And got it.

When you have a name King it infers it’s the best sunglasses. Yeah. Infer it’s the best. It’s like it could be Ray-Ban, King of Shades, for example. And Budweiser was king of beers.

But because I’ve got form with King of Shades and owning that forever, then I was able to get it. I spent a lot of money, raised money, debt actually from friends and family. I said, “Well, that’s funny, that looks good.”

It was a bit of a side hustle, and it was flipping hard, and I wanted them to actively hug your face.

They’re called shug sunglasses, I have them out of stock at my blooming website because I can’t get the factory to make them in the UK because they’re rammed with other stuff.

But that’s by the by, that’s a teething issue, but thought why not? And they’re sunglasses that hug, and they like the razor we developed with the active hinge that actually hugs your head. But it was hard.

I did it myself with financial backing from some old friends of mine who just thought, “Oh, that’s quite funny, and we’ll give him, he can do it, and he can keep it out of the King of Shaves space and there will be no confusion.”

We launched it and well of course Covid happened.

So we launched it on Kickstarter during the pandemic, which was probably not the best thing to do. That was my optimism shining through hard and strongly. Therefore, even though we are locked up inside, people would buy my Will King sunglasses, which of course they did not.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Nobody’s meeting anyone. We’re not trying to impress anyone because we’re stuck indoors.

Will King:

My timing was off then.

Then we launched them and was very, we had a lot of challenges with the manufacturing in the UK, not with the lenses, but with the frames because the UK factories weren’t able to work at the precision levels that Chinese ones could.

But I didn’t want them done in China because I felt the active head-hugging frame design would get ripped off.

I chose to do it in the UK, and we had massive issues with the factory. We had Covid. We got the tool running, we got a couple of thousand pairs made. I’ve got brand ambassadors wearing them in the Olympics and sailing and stuff like that.

But we couldn’t bring the cost of goods down in a way I hope to from our £69, I think £79, it’s on the website, £63 with 10% off.

I wanted to get it sub £40, even £30 and I couldn’t do it. I think it’s one of those moments where I’ve got some great patents on it, which I love. They’re good for another 15 odd years. So I’m relaxed about that.

I’ve got people saying to me, there’s one guy in particular saying, “We’ve got to do it, we’re going to do it.”

And I’m saying, “Yeah, but the timing it’s not quite right yet. I just need to work out on the tooling with the tooling guys, why it’s been so difficult to make these frames when it should be so simple, and then we’ll go again.”

What I think people don’t necessarily realise is that before Dollar Shave Club launched, he’d launched a year before, and it was a complete disaster. Then it was pulled off the internet, and it was rebooted, and then it launched massively.

So I think nobody gets everything right all the time. I’m wearing them when I’m sailing on teams in their classics yacht regatta next week, the crew will be wearing them.

But it’s selling tens of thousands of them in year one. No, we sold a couple of thousands. It was painful. The company owes me a lot of money, but it is what it is.

I’m pleased I did it, but not everything works out, listeners.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Well, you don’t know, you don’t know how this is going to pan out.

As you said, you could come back brighter and harder, and we could be talking in another 10 years’ time, and it could be even bigger than King of Shaves.

Will King:

It could be.

In the eye of the storm—businesses battling recession

Bex Burn-Callander:

Will, you’ve talked about the challenging trading environment out there, like insane price rises.

Does it help that you’ve been through recessions before?

If I remember in 2008, and I was asking you whether King of Shaves would survive the recession, and you were like, well, what do you think? Do you think beards grow more slowly during a downturn?

Will King:

Yeah. Maybe I was a little flippant about that one. It was when the bids came in, wasn’t it? It slowed us down.

Bex Burn-Callander:

But I’m wondering what you’ve learned from being through these cycles before, which you think has prepared you to make better decisions this time round.

Will King:

I mean, I founded King of Shaves in the recession in the early nineties. So you’re creating a business at low water, so you know the tide’s going to come in sooner or later. And that was good timing, but it was also super tough.

The financial crash, I mean now is a shocker really because the world was looking pretty good, to be honest with you.

I’d just been at the America’s cup and in Valencia, and we were actually on the verge of winning a big business competition then with H Boss, Halifax Bank of Scotland, if you remember them, and of course they then ceased to exist within the year and were nationalised by the government.

That presaged along with a lot of changes in working practices, you had social, YouTube was big by now. Google was big. Twitter was about to be launched. Facebook was getting big and people were now like, we are communicating, Bex, via the screen.

Whereas in departs we’d meet up in the coffee shop or at the office, and we just do this over a mic, that’s what we’d do. Now we’re doing it over tech. Seeing that happen, then of course we had the whole Brexit horrendousness of well we’re coming out of there. So that was a hiatus.

More recently, of course Covid, which was the unexpected recession for many companies, and for us included, nobody could go to Boots or Superdrug to buy a product. So Amazon became our number one sort of sales channel for about six months. It’s now not anymore, but it was.

But I think to answer your question, yes, of course, if you’ve seen what a storm looks like and how ugly a hurricane might be and what to do, if it’s a bit windy out there, and you’ve still got your sails up, and you know that you pull them down very quick and run for a nice mangrove swamp, if you’re in the Caribbean and dodging a hurricane, that’s what you do.

I think a lot of younger entrepreneurs, especially the Millennials and especially the Zoomers now the Gen Z, they’re seeing these come almost one after the other, after the other. And they must think, “Hey, give us a break.”

So they’re seeing it, but of course, if you know what it looks like, you’re better equipped to deal with it rather than thinking it’s going to be OK and blow away, and it’ll be gone tomorrow.

And of course it often isn’t.

Bex Burn-Callander:

But do you then stop spending on marketing, for example, that’s the classic, or do you then put a halt on growth plans and wait for things to get better?

Or are you more of a contrarian where you think actually this is a good time to invest, this is a good time to build stronger relationship with customers.

Will King:

With the exception of Covid, I would normally double down on my marketing during a time of economic hiatus, because you can probably get more bang for your buck. If you’re selling a commodity product like a shaving gel or a shaving oil, the more market share you can get.

It would’ve been madness for anybody to spend any money on marketing in Covid because you could go nowhere, and you could do nothing other than order in stuff. And shaving, guys would then just went from shaving every other day to not bothering to shave for a week or two weeks.

It didn’t matter, only if the missus or the partner might have said, “Oh, you’re a bit stubbly now, might you have a shave?” And he said, “Well, if I have to.”

I think any amount of marketing then I think would’ve been money poorly spent. Coming out the other side, yes, it’s important to rebuild the trust, and you’re seeing that.

But I think in a recession, normally I would be contrarian, but the pandemic was an unusual global recession, and it was just goodness me, save the ship. We don’t want to die. Like everybody else.

Bex Burn-Callander:

No. A hundred percent.

Being direct to community should be your marketing strategy

Bex Burn-Callander:

You talked about marketing just then, and you are one of the people that I see as being an ultimate marketing whizz, some of the incredible campaigns that you put out for King of Shaves, just so eye catching. So hilarious.

So how do you reach customers today? Are you on TikTok? I know you’re still on Twitter, but what media do you use now?

Will King:

So I think where King of Shaves is now, we are a nearly 30-year-old brand. So we’re a bit middle-aged, really.

We’re having a reboot with our packaging, which will be coming in Q3, early Q4 this year, which will hopefully help us to appeal more to a younger demographic. I hope.

We’ve never really had, I would call structural success with social advertising, and I don’t think any or many shaving brands have.

It’s like, if you do a TikTok, and it’s a video of hairstyling, or a makeover. For example, Revolution Beauty they’re huge on TikTok. It’s huge on Instagram. It’s huge on socials. It’s huge because it’s a beauty and makeup brand business and skincare, they’ve just done Rev Men.

But shaving it’s well, I’ve had a shave, and I’m now not known to stubble and well, that’s exciting then. I’ll flick down and get rid of it. A and B, yes. We’re looking into it there.

We did have King of Shaves on TikTok two years ago, but we were too early, and now it’s a massive learning channel and going forwards I think again, it’s very, very hard for brands to work out how to attract customers.

I’ve got a 22-year-old son, Cameron, who plays in championship rugby, I have no idea how you’d market to him. He doesn’t watch linear TV. Everything’s on demand. It’s all WhatsApp, private chats and secret stuff. I don’t know how, I do not know.

I think I am quite a smart marketing guy, but I’m sure TikTok would come into that arsenal, but then men aren’t into it, or young men aren’t into it in the way that younger women are into it.

It’s now much more of a learning channel as YouTube has become.

It’s a learning channel. It’s not so much a funny dance channel, dad dance channel it’s much more of a Discovery Channel.

But word of mouth, I think the big brand that’s done super well is George Rawlings’ [dating] app called Thursday. Cleverly the app only works on Thursday, you can only download it on Thursday. That’s it. That gets to cut through for me.

Of course, it’s got such a following now that they’re taking over bars with singletons. That’s amazing. That’s community building.

I think any brand owner or business owner out there now, we are now living in the age of the community. It’s about being direct community. You’ve got to appeal to the tribes of people out there.

We’ve had historically Apple fanboys, we’ve had people who love Tesla’s, IBM never had any fanboys, you just didn’t get excited to be bought it. But it didn’t have that piratical, fanatical tribal community to it.

If you look at brands like Dan Murray’s Heights, the brain food supplements, and he’s built the brand and the business around a single product, a supplement, and a community. He’s gone from nothing in two years to £6 million AR I think and does super well.

Everything I now look at, whether it’s Above and Beyond, that’s very community driven, and then King of Shaves, we’ve got to, let’s say reboot it to be community driven, but we live in a very different world, Bex, to when I was 27 and everybody was clean-shaven, unless you were the geography school teacher or the mad professor.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Now everyone’s got big itchy beards. It strikes me though that if you don’t know how you would sell to Cameron, your son, you should hire Cameron, your son, to actually tell you.

Will King:

Yeah. He doesn’t want to work for me. He’s grown a beard. He’s grown a beard, that’s not right.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Oh, the traitor.

Will King:

The traitor.

Transferrable skills from the yacht to the boardroom

Bex Burn-Callander:

And Will, I have one more question for you, which is actually about sailing.

You mentioned that you are going sailing in a week and I think I remember correctly, actually, the job that you first wanted to do when you went to university was that you wanted to design yachts.

So talk to me about sailing, your great passion and how much of your time are you spending doing that now?

And how is that complementing you as an entrepreneur?

Will King:

Absolutely. I mean, that’s a great question. I mean, sailing is my absolute passion and had I passed my A-levels in 1983 and not got a C and two E’s I’ve been studying ship science and yacht design at Southampton University and gone on to be, I hope, a famous yachts designer.

But I failed my A-levels and did a degree in mechanical engineering.

But the entrepreneur side of it is really important. And a lot of entrepreneurs do sail. So Larry Allison, Charles Dunston, Jim Ratcliffe, INEOS, and there’s a reason for that because there’s a vast amount of data points that when you’re sailing, you have to be aware of and be able to deal with, especially if you’re yacht racing.

So you’ve got, of course, you’ve got the yacht, you’ve got the sales, you’ve got the ropes, you’ve got the crew, you’ve got the direction, you’ve got the tactics, you’ve got the strategy, you’ve got the navigation, you’ve got the starting time, racing lots of different sails that you put up at different times, depending on your angle to the wind and then different weights of sails that you put up in different wind strengths.

So if you’re listening to this thinking, goodness me, that sounds kind of complicated, it kind of is at that level of sailing, but there are also yachts, dinghies that have a single sail, like a topper or a laser that I started sailing with.

So entrepreneurs need to be able to really process and act on a vast amount of data, really very quickly to be successful because change happens fast, and it’s only getting faster.

If you are able, not necessarily just you, but have people around you that I say you can delegate to great people. I’m always big fan of this hashtag delegation, delegate to great people. On a yacht it’s the same.

Although I’m part of the crew, there’s an Olympic class strategy tactics guy, the owner’s driving the boat. You’ve then got an amazing guy who runs what’s called the mast, which is pulling the ropes up and down, a future Olympic hopeful on the fore deck.

You’ve got a lot of talent around you, but of course there’s no point sailing your yacht fast in the wrong direction, Bex, that is not fast.

So in anything like in life, just make sure, you are clear about the direction you’re going in. And you’ve got the right skills along with you and the right sails up at the right time to deliver on the promise of hopefully of a win.

Anybody who thinks sailing is expensive is elitist, and it’s this and that it is not actually. There are always people looking for crew. There’re always ways of getting into it. It is accessible.

I’m sailing actually with my first hero, Eddie Warwick, who I met when I was 14 at the National Sailing Center, and then I became the UK’s youngest sailing instructor at 15, the following year.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Full circle.

Will King:

It’s lovely to be reuniting with him after 39 years.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Well, best of luck on the voyage. And I love a sports analogy. So I love that point about reading all the data and adjusting your course and how that’s useful in business.

Will, thank you for all your insights this afternoon. It’s such a pleasure catching up with you.

Will King:

Such a pleasure, Bex. Thank you so much.

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