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From humble beginnings in founder Ben Francis’s parent’s garage in 2012, Gymshark has become a powerhouse of the fitness industry with 5.8 million followers on Instagram and a turnover of £401.9 million last year. In this month’s brand spotlight, we take a look at their journey and consider what leadership lessons we can learn from Gymshark’s success story
Gymshark was not Francis’s first attempt at building a business. While working part-time as a student he dabbled in building fitness tracking apps and drop-shipping health supplements. Ben’s passion for fitness was always the driving force behind his business dreams. So, when he was struggling to find gym clothes like the ones his fitness idols in the USA we wearing, he decided to make them himself.
“We saw the problem, and we solved it. We created bodybuilding and fitness wear inspired by what our heroes wore, and made it fit to our body types. We designed for ourselves (we were the customer) we spoke to the fitness market that wasn’t being spoken to.“Ben Francis
Gymshark’s big break came at the 2013 Bodypower expo and the launch of their luxe tracksuits, modelled by some of their favourite athletes. Customers flocked to their stand and the tracksuit sold out completely.
“Although now it makes total sense, at the time, to have an open stand, with famous Youtubers wandering around and launching a product at the event – this was unique.”Ben Francis
This led Gymshark to their, at the time, ground-breaking new strategy – influencer marketing.
“We created the product we wanted, and we communicated in the way we wanted to be communicated to. Through social media.”Ben Francis
Francis sent samples of his clothes to his favourite fitness YouTubers (in the early 2010s YouTube was the rising star of social media), in the hope that they would love the products and wear them in their videos. Their strategy worked and Gymshark’s brand ambassadors, each with a huge social media following of their own, have become the cornerstone of their marketing strategy.
At this point, Gymshark seemed unstoppable, and Francis’ leadership was remarkable for his youth and level of experience but exponential growth doesn’t come without its challenges. The brand’s 2015 Black Friday sale should have been a triumphant moment, but instead saw the Gymshark website crash under demand.
“The failure cost Gymshark an estimated $143,000 in lost sales. Worse, it also cost the company the trust it had spent years earning from customers expecting a great experience.
Francis penned more than 2,500 handwritten apologies that included discounts to those who were affected by the Black Friday crash.”Shopify
It is this authenticity and commitment to his customers that allowed Francis to weather this storm. 2015 is also the year that he decided to step down as CEO.
‘You end up having to balance your time between day-to-day activities for the role you’re working in, but you also have the inevitable founder and director responsibilities – like understanding financials, business structures, managing risk, long term plans, attending board meetings and so on. This is a lot to manage for anyone, let alone a young entrepreneur who has little to no prior business experience.’Ben Francis
Francis recognised that he still had a lot to learn about leadership and so appointed Steve Hewitt to the role of Gymshark CEO.
“It allowed me to spend my spare time working on my weaknesses… I’ve been able to learn and grow at a turbo-charged rate that will stand me in good stead over the next ten years, learning at a rate otherwise impossible.”Ben Francis
Fast forward to August 2021 and Francis was ready to step back into the role of CEO and his ambitions for the brand are huge, in the video announcing his appointment he sets out his vision
A Gymshark guide to leadership
Francis’s ambitions may seem lofty but given Gymshark’s incredible journey from garage workshop to international heavyweight, we wouldn’t bet against them. So what insights can we take away from this young entrepreneur’s story? Here are our four main takeaways.
The power of authenticity
Gymshark is a brand that really lives its values. This can be seen through their blog, which covers the lifting techniques, high protein recipes and product releases that you would expect from a sportswear brand. But, there is also a mental health hub: Deload, a demonstration of Vogueing and a diverse range of models, in terms of body type, skin tone, and disability, all wearing Gymshark clothes. The tagline ‘united we sweat’ underpins the idea that everyone is welcome in the Gymshark community. It’s a thread that you can see through the website, social media and choice of ambassadors.
This commitment to authenticity is further demonstrated by voluntarily publishing their ethnicity pay gap report and factory list alongside the mandatory gender pay gap report and tax strategy. This transparency demonstrates to customers and clients alike that Gymshark’s values are more than just taglines, but a set of principles that guide everything they do.
Understand and appreciate every function in your business
Putting ego aside for the good of the business is not something you would necessarily expect from such a young entrepreneur, but Francis has shown on multiple occasions that the business comes first. Following his decision to step back as CEO he took on the roles of Chief brand officer, Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Product officer to fully understand each function of the Gymshark brand while building his leadership skills.
“I’ve worked in so many different facets of the business, I really think I’m in an amazing position now where I can amalgamate all of that knowledge, experience and expertise, and hopefully be the person that can really help to lead Gymshark to this next level.”Ben Francis
Nurture your people; from your employees to the wider community
Of course, not everyone can utilise an army of social media influencers with thousands of followers, but you do have ambassadors. Are your employees proud to represent your company? Do your contractors return time and again? Would your clients recommend you to their stakeholders? Each of these individuals and groups has its own sphere of influence.
The Gymshark brand represents a diverse community of fitness enthusiasts from all walks of life. We see this not only in branding but also in their employer mission to be a place where everyone belongs.
Gymshark’s employees are at the heart of their employer brand and they proudly show them off through their ‘day in the life of‘ and ‘meet the family’ posts on LinkedIn and support them through the community events focused on health and wellbeing.
Looking after the employees you already have will help you to attract the brightest talent in the future. Morson can support you to build an employer brand to be proud of.
Trust your team, they’re better than you
You are never too important to ask for help. Despite being the founder of the company, Francis realised that Gymshark needed a CEO with more leadership experience, so he appointed someone who he could learn from.
‘As the business grew, it became clear that we needed a CEO who would manage the entire business. Steve Hewitt was clearly the person for this. He became the CEO in 2017 and we started the creation of the Gymshark board.
It allowed me to watch how Steve works, and learn from him. I’m a firm believer that you can learn extremely well by watching what others do who are better than you, ask them questions about why they do certain things, and truly understand what they do.Ben Francis
Morson has a wealth of experience in recruiting the right people with the right technical skills for your business, whether that’s a new CEO or a technical specialist. You can even outsource your recruitment to us entirely through our RPO and MSP services. Our end-to-end solutions optimise every aspect of the recruitment process. With Morson as your recruitment partner, you’ll have an expert on hand to find the right people for every type of role.