Today I interview Stuart Conroy, founder of Activ8, a husband and wife business team who run a distribution company of mobile, tablet and MP3 accessories and also run the retail arm of the company Yoshie & Nico.
The company is forecasted to tip the £10 million mark in turnover within this year.
Hi Stuart, Thanks for doing this. How are you doing today?
I’m good thanks just got back from China looking at our new collections.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
I’m 40 years old, based in Hertfordshire and I run Activ8 which is a global distributor of mobile, tablet and MP3 accessories which I set up in 2000 with my wife Zoe.
Tell me how you initially got into business?
I was in IT in banking and a little dead behind the eyes so wanted to get into something that felt like a finished product. I wanted a role where there was a sense of achievement and an end goal rather than going through the motions. I see that in the future we will be working for longer in our lives so wanted to get into an industry that I enjoyed and had longevity. Twelve years on we are doing great things in our industry and changing the way people look at what can be done with the new technologies.
How did the idea for Yoshie & Nico come about?
We had been wholesaling for eleven years and in helping establish a lot of online sellers providing all of the images and data to sell online it seemed a logical step to expand into direct to consumer. It was not a big step for us as we had been providing all of the necessary tools to High Street and Online sellers for a considerable amount of time. We set up Yoshie & Nico to create our own portal where people knew that what they were buying was good quality at the right price. It is very difficult on online channels through an image to see what a good product is and what’s not. The goal is to add other company’s accessories that are new and exciting which compliment what we are all about. The names are family names within our team which we liked and complimented our inclusive nature as a company.
Tell me about the early days, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
We have struggled at various times but I think you have to in order to learn. I nearly lost my house when I first took on the business as a sole Director in 2008 but I think it drives you on and you work harder. When your parents tell you that doing an extra 10% than others in life gets you places you always kind of dismiss it but you learn as you grow up its true. There are so many people who work hard in our industry so we try to work harder.
What is Yoshie & Nico? And what are you trying to solve with it?
In terms of Yoshie and Nico, we are a portal where the customer can trust in the quality of the goods. We are also generally first to market. Yoshie & Nico provide high end, good quality products at a sensible price point. We are fashion orientated for brands like Covert and activity orientated for a brand like Shocksock. We rolled out an initial site but we are currently in the process of redesigning in order that it gets a stronger message across of high end fashion conscious designs.
How have you been able to fund it?
Sleepless nights and hard work. We had to pay back loans of over £70k to the banks after our initial ventures failed and we learnt that the best way from then on where possible was to self-fund development.
What sorts of advice do you having for entrepreneurs looking to raise money for their startups?
There are several routes but these days the truly entrepreneurial can easily find routes to market these days through the online channels. It’s a great place to start looking at the fundamentals including pricing, marketing and targeting to set you on your way. The traditional routes have largely disappeared for borrowing in the current climate. If it was me for my products I’d be looking at pop-up shops in fashionable areas.
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
Initially given my background it was extremely difficult as you come away form a corporate background and have to learn the lessons. I was full of enthusiasm and still am today and that gets you through the tough times when things don’t go as you had envisaged them. For many people who have worked in companies you have no idea how much work you have to take on and cover the roles of 10 different people. I’d always liked working hard so although challenging I enjoyed the aspect of doing a little bit of something different every day.
How did you initially get traction?
We delivered what people wanted. It’s as simple as that. Our customers wanted competitively priced products quickly for new devices. We’d sea shipped in the early days and relied on better quality products. When we alerted our logistics model we were able to get our products to market as early as inferior products and started to get sales.
How has it been working with your wife, especially as most entrepreneurs would oppose having family involved in business?
They say don’t work with friends and family but it depends on your relationship. Zoe had not planned to work with me but wanted be closer to home after we had complications with the birth of our son Mack. What initially was a few days a week part time has now turned into a partnership where we are working towards the same goal and we both get to see our son properly every day. We are totally different in character so we deal with different aspects of the business and it seems to work.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow your business?
We have always tried to bring better quality products to the market. In the online world resellers tend to just focus on the price they sell for but with our resellers we try and focus on other factors like lower return rates, higher customer satisfaction. We can make products for cheaper but they lack quality and we have to believe in what we sell. We have to want it for ourselves. I got my wife to help me with the key parts that I could not do myself and she has been my rock.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
There have been a number of micro highlights in terms of recruiting the right people or getting a client like Fonehouse on board. It has to be getting on the Fast Track 100 in the Sunday Times was special and felt like a reward for the hard work that has been put in by a number of people.
What should we be expecting from yourself and Yoshie & Nico team for 2013?
We are signing deals for distribution currently in Africa as well as helping European partners grow online and on the High Street. We hope to open shops in the future under the Yoshie & Nico brand. We are also looking to move into the USA in volume. With the High Street in the UK we are also looking to manufacture for “own brand” accessories as the fashion market starts getting into the accessory market and phones and tablets are seen as a fashion add-on.
Also look out for our new trading portal which is really exciting!!
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
Don’t chase the money. A strange thing to say to entrepreneurs but if they believe in what they are doing then that is the dream and the rewards will come if they have chosen correctly. Use your network of friends and family for help, and don’t think it’s going to be an easy ride, be prepared for long hours and sleepless nights.