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Ben Francis: Entrepreneurial Unicorn and the Meteoric Rise of Gymshark

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

Gymshark has dominated the headlines for all the right reasons lately. Their Founder, Ben Francis has led his brand to enormous global success, including its recent $1.45bn valuation after securing investment from General Atlantic.

This makes Gymshark one of the 489 “unicorn” companies worldwide - a private company whose worth exceeds $1bn. Less than 25 UK companies have ever achieved it and only eight have since 2001.

Gymshark’s journey to success since it began in 2012 has been astronomical and the brand has constantly been at the forefront of fitness wear and wellness, setting trends rather than following them.

What’s striking when you first read or hear about Ben’s journey is his entrepreneurial flair and mindset.

During university, he started creating possibilities for himself: first developing two fitness apps, then switching to selling wellness supplements and ultimately learning how to sew gym clothing.

Since then, he’s catapulted himself, his brand and his team onto a global platform, competing with the likes of Lululemon, Nike, Sweaty Betty and Adidas.

He made a key strategic decision that many founders struggle with. He stepped down as CEO in 2017. He did so to pave the way for Steve Hewitt (then MD) stating that

“During his days as MD, it was clear that he was significantly better at the business fundamentals than I was. As the business grew, the team grew, thus people management skills became vital. As well as this, thorough understanding of stock, operations, and financials were imperative – all areas that I just didn’t understand well enough.”

(Self published article “Why I Stepped Down as Gymshark CEO”, 2020)

Mainstream media often idolises founders who are able to take their company from ideation to multi billion pound organisations. In reality however, founders like these are rare. In fact, ceasing control of operations is often in the best interest of you and your business.

A study by the World Management Survey revealed that companies led by their founders are 9.4% less productive. But productivity typically increases when the CEO is replaced.

Ben understood that the strategy for starting a company is very different to the strategy needed to scale it. Stepping down can sometimes be seen as a failure, but this couldn’t be further from the truth in many cases.

Ben put his business’ needs first and was honest about being a young entrepreneur who wouldn’t know the ins and outs of business strategy as much as an industry expert like Steve.

He was able to re-allocate his time to spend more energy on his strengths:

"This was brilliant for me and extremely freeing. It allowed me to focus on the things I excel at

(Self published article “Why I Stepped Down as Gymshark CEO”, 2020)

A sign of a truly professional leader and an instrumental factor in Gymshark’s investment strategies and growth.

Ben has laid the foundations for transparency and authenticity in other areas of the business as well, namely their content and social media.

Throughout the brand’s history, Ben has managed the front end of the business - brand, sponsorship, design and marketing.

On social media, Gymshark inject humour and fun into each post while never straying from voicing their values and purpose.

For example, they recently reposted an image of an body confidence influencer Nelly London wearing their product which prompted a record breaking number of likes and comments.

One simple update gained viral status and started an online debate: what does fitness look like and how should it look going forward?

Gymshark has built a strong social media presence since they launched in 2012. From the onset, Ben understood his target audience - young gym-goers and athletes. He knew they wanted to look good, feel good and perform well - and tailored his designs around them.

He then used influencer marketing, which at the time no one else was doing. It was a natural strategy to engage their target audience. He first turned to bodybuilding professionals and was one of the first to send clothes, create brand ambassadors and gain mass exposure.

Since then, the brand has garnered legions of loyal fans across the globe.

A key (and very apt) word to describe Ben’s leadership journey so far would be agility.

At each stage of the brand’s journey, he’s done exactly what has been needed for Gymshark to grow and develop. Ben has gone from personally sewing, packaging and waiting in line to post every order, to reaching out to an American investment firm and securing money so that Gymshark can compete with Nike and Adidas on an international level.

He has recognised that what helped generate Gymshark’s first £100 million isn’t what will help it at its next stage to generate £200 million.

Digital has evolved significantly, especially in terms of sales channels and the way brands engage with their consumers. Ben has a fierce understanding of community, brand and product and was lightyears ahead in revolutionising his direct-to-consumer strategy.

The past ninety days have brought into question and redefined what digital means and forced leaders to think deeply about their digital offering. Following in Ben’s footsteps, more leaders are understanding that direct-to-consumer sales allow companies to shape their brand story, better engage with customers and therefore build more loyal relationships.

The brands that come out of this crisis successfully will revisit the concept of leadership to ensure they have capable, competent and visionary leaders at the helm.

We are experts in placing leaders with agile mindsets and innovative ideas for brands at the intersection of creativity, digital and retail.

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