HUGO MIDDLETON DIDN’T SET OUT WITH A BUSINESS PLAN TO START AN SME. HE BELIEVES THAT, CONTRARY TO PERCEIVED WISDOM, A NEW BUSINESS CAN WORK WITHOUT THEM.
“The more you plan something, the more you overthink it,” says the entrepreneur. Better to see an opportunity and get on with it.
So when the couple bumped into an American business group that wanted to distribute men’s gifts in Europe, they seized the chance. Becoming their UK distributor in 2012, they were given a US$10k target to achieve in the first year. They reached it in the first week.
“We knew we were on to something worthwhile and worth concentrating on,” says Hugo. "There was a clear gap in the market. Men’s gifts up to that point hadn’t evolved much beyond cufflinks and socks." Therefore, the couple started to develop their own high-quality gifts and accessories for men and sell them wholesale to high street stores and barbershops. And so began Men’s Society.
Of course, that’s in danger of becoming a plan. Fortunately, world events stepped in. Brexit meant a cheaper pound, making British exports more attractive. So they imported less and less and exported more and more. Suddenly they went from being an importer of somebody else’s products to an exporter of their own distinctive brand. It’s the kind of reactive flexibility that typifies Hugo and Bella’s approach to business planning. See the opportunity? Take it.
Like beard glitter. Hugo saw a new trend for putting a little glitz in your whiskers, so Men’s Society put together a kit. Multinational clothing company Urban Outfitters then posted about it on Instagram. 18,000 likes later, the kits were selling like hot beard glitter kits. Their turnaround time was just three weeks. Agility and response time were the keys to success for this line, reflecting Hugo and Bella’s FMCG attitude to a more traditional market.
They could move so quickly because Men’s Society products are made in the UK at their dedicated fulfillment and production warehouse in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. This is not just patriotic, it’s efficient. Shorter production runs allow for quicker fulfillments and although they could manufacture more cheaply abroad, they would not have the same level of control and flexibility over their products. Talking of which, this is a unique and diverse line-up: bear bottle openers (not a typo – a bottle opener in the shape of a grizzly’s mouth) and festival survival kits make for an eclectic product mix.
Ever wondered how to make your Nike’s sparkle? Men’s Society has the answer in the form of their best selling sneaker cleaning kit. And, of course, beard glitter, just one among many in their facial hair grooming range. Beards have always been good to them. From Berlin to Brooklyn, hirsute males are benefiting from the SME’s grooming products, while becoming a little more glittery too. Now that they’re growing internationally, Men’s Society doesn't have to rely on the local hipsters, who have apparently started to shave.
With DHL as their delivery partner, they’re efficient at getting their product to market as well. Those markets are growing and becoming increasingly global with 30% shipping within the UK, 50% to Europe and the rest worldwide. The strongest markets are turning out to be unexpected and, pleasingly for Hugo, the SME is reversing its American import heritage by starting to export to the States – a massive market. The difference between a chain of stores in the UK and the US is night and day.
So the business is traveling. But with more countries come more challenges, not least in the form of exchange rates and Customs. Japan has particularly stringent import regulations, but it’s a market they want to develop. To be an international men’s gifts business, you have to understand what’s trending around the globe. So Hugo’s in major cities like Tokyo, Berlin and New York several times a year. “One of the perks,” he smiles.
As a wholesale export business, the trade show is a vital means of selling their product. But in a conference hall crammed with stall after stall of businesses trying to sell their wares, how do you stand out from the crowd? How do you capture people’s interest and convince a department store to stock your Whiskey Cooling Stones? Hugo’s finding answers.
Social Media’s one of them, but comes with its own set of questions. How to use it effectively? It’s not enough to just post a catalog of products on Instagram and hope customers will swing by the website. You have to engage and inspire, showing them the Men’s Society lifestyle: men who want to cut a dash with well-groomed beards that sparkle in the light.
“Social media is a powerful tool for us,” says Hugo. “It’s not a catalog of our best-selling products, it’s supposed to be much more aspirational than that … It’s much more about a lifestyle rather than just a selection of products.”
That sort of engagement is vital. Hugo thinks the biggest challenge with e-commerce is not payment (thanks to platforms like Shopify), or delivery (thanks to DHL) but reaching customers. Obviously, men have always wanted glitter in their beards, it’s been the missing ingredient all this time. But how to let them know that Men’s Society can fulfil all their beard glitter needs and more?
The healthy growth and development of the business since 2012 shows Hugo and Bella, along with their small team, are answering these questions. Not bad for a couple who jumped in at the SME deep end while juggling two young kids at the same time. Having their office just down the road helps. Having worked together in the corporate world also helps. As they say in the Men’s Society press release, ‘We were founded by Bella and Hugo. They are married to each other. They don’t argue in the office. They’re very professional about it.’
And although there have been challenges, Hugo wouldn’t do anything differently. Even the mistakes, which have helped the young company learn. Like the benefits of having as much cash for as long as possible. Or not expecting too much, too quickly. There is one thing he’d change, however,
“We’ve got a contract with Nespresso and overestimated how much coffee we drink in the office. Now everyone just sits at their desks shaking – completely over-caffeinated.”
So Hugo’s advice for a budding entrepreneur? “Don’t overthink it, just get on with it, really.” Sounds like a good plan.
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