Colin Stevens started selling bathroom equipment on eBay from home. Ten years later his business Better Bathrooms has grown into being the UK’s largest independent bathroom retailers, selling thousands of products via his website and in addition he now has a new 20,000 sq ft showroom in Wigan, with 162 staff and £15million retail value stock holding. Colin was named Entrepreneur of the Year at the prestigious 2012 National Business Awards.
Easyspace recently caught up with Colin for an interview:
Q1. Colin, tell us a little bit about your background and what led you to becoming an entrepreneur and setting up Better Bathrooms.
At 17 I actually set out to become a professional golfer, so began selling golf equipment online to fund my career. Yet after four years of hard work it finally dawned that I wasn’t going to beat the golfing greats like Nick Faldo, so instead turned to making money.
I’d already seen the potential of online trading and it was actually my mum who suggested selling bathroom equipment online. She was working in the industry at the time and said if people were willing to buy golf equipment on eBay then why not bathrooms?
I’m afraid to say I laughed it off at first, with big name bathroom retailers relying on footfall. Surprisingly after 24 hours of listing my first set of taps on eBay they had sold, which encouraged me to invest in more fixtures and fittings, then in 2001 Betterbathrooms.com was born.
Q2. Did you follow a business plan when you started and how difficult was it getting the business established in the early days?
In the early days my business plan was to increase sales which are the mentality we still have today. We work within a financial model that means growing the business and increasing sales helps us move forward, so as long as Better Bathrooms is making sales, the rest just keeps going.
Q3. You started selling on eBay from your house and the business has rapidly grown. What is it like being in charge of a business growing so fast and what challenges does this involve?
Huge growth is definitely a challenge in itself. Ensuring you have a large and diverse team to handle various business aspects is essential, so staff recruitment and development is something we heavily invest in. I believe to be the best, you must learn from the best, so employee training is something I don’t take lightly. We recently flew in leadership guru, Lee Cockerell, former Vice President of Operation at Walt Disney World Resort. In a two day seminar he inspired the Better Bathrooms team and taught skills in creating world class leadership.
Customer feedback is another vital area that helps us improve. By listening to our customers we can recognise weak areas and find ways to improve.
Q4. Apart from selling via your website you also set up 3 bathroom & tiles showrooms in Wigan, Warrington & Manchester. Many would have advised you to stick with selling online only. Why did you decide to also open up showrooms?
The opening of our first Wigan store back in 2003 was just a toe in the water. I’d actually spotted the ‘to-let’ sign during a night out and thought ‘what a great place for a bathroom store’. Within two weeks the deal was done and I owned my first showroom.
Our competition already had firm hold of the high street and retail parks so investing in a multi-channel approach was essential to compete. It wasn’t until the opening of our Manchester showroom in late 2010 that marked a turning point, with this our first outlet operating within reach of large retailers.
Our stores have been so successful that they’ve transformed our model for the future.
We now occupy a 20,000 sq ft Wigan Store, a 14,000 sq ft Warrington store and 10,000 sq ft Manchester store.
Q5. In addition to your 3 showrooms you also have a warehouse which holds 100,000 Sq Ft of stock. Why did you decide to hold so much stock, rather than operate a Just In Time system – and rely on your suppliers to hold stock for you?
This was so we don’t have to rely on anyone and we’re a self fulfilling operation where we are in full control.
Q6. How did you fund Better Bathrooms, including its expansion?
Luckily I started with a decent cash pile from selling golf equipment, which helped kick start Better Bathrooms. From there I’ve continued to reinvest profits back into the business to encourage growth, something which we still do today.
Q7. How did you market Better Bathrooms when you first started and how do you promote it now?
With Better Bathrooms starting life as an online business, it meant SEO was an essential factor to ensure we were clearly visible to customers. As a multi-channel business we now occupy a more diverse advertising plan, investing in a mix of TV, print, radio and online.
Q8. Do you use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc, to promote your website? How successful has it been for you? Any advice on how businesses can use social media to promote themselves?
We use social media to speak with customers in real time, including facebook, twitter, pinterest and Google+. Social media is great in helping use a conversational tone rather than pushy sales messages to distribute content.
My advice is to just stick at it. It’s daunting starting off with zero interaction but get it right and you’ll soon become a key presence.
Q9. Despite current tough economic times over the last few years, Better Bathrooms has been recruiting additional staff , with now over 162 employees. What was it like taking on your first members of staff and what recruitment advice would you give to a new business, which is considering recruiting their first employee(s)?
Look at the personal characteristics, make up and attitude of your potential employees and hire on this. From here ensure you have the means inside and outside the business to teach and develop your staff. To be honest, I didn’t have a clue at the beginning so this is definitely something you learn along the way.
Q10. What’s it like managing your business? Describe your typical day
Chaotic! My day mainly involves lots of meetings to analyse new opportunities and improvements to increase performance. Having these scheduled correctly is essential to help the day run smoothly. I’ve always got one eye on the present and one on the future.
Q11. Which entrepreneur/person has inspired you the most & why?
It has to be Walt Disney. He’s a visionary in creating something from nothing. Look at Disneyworld in America, it was originally a marshland, so to have the foresight to open a theme park and holiday resort here, honestly who does that? Its nuts!
Q12. What mistakes have you made in your business and what would you have done differently?
I started Better Bathrooms when I was 21 with no business experience, so what I’ve learnt along the way has often been from my own mistakes. If I knew back then what I do now then I wouldn’t have made half of the wrong decisions, yet this wouldn’t have helped both me and the business improve. I strongly believe it’s what you don’t know what can harm a business. I’ve been lucky to have great business mentors which have helped deliver unique advice and business tips.
Q13. Where does that drive to be your own boss come from? Why did you decide the life of a 9-5 employee was not for you?
I love making my own decisions, so not having to wait on others to implement change and make a quick impact. The creative and competitive factors are more drivers of running my own business, so being able to create something innovative and completely new.
Q14. You’ve been supporting the “Tenner” initiative – tell us about that and why you decided to take part.
Run by Young Enterprise, Tenner gives over 25,000 young people around the UK £10 as start up capital to kick start and run their own business throughout May. From this they can do whatever they like, whether that’s selling jewellery, sweets and healthy treats – basically anything that’s creative.
I actually sold drawings of Star Wars figures out of the school play ground when I was seven, so the Tenner initiative was a great fit in helping get more young people involved in starting their own business and thinking about making money.
I was lucky enough to be invited to Bury Grammar School for Girls in Manchester, were 60 pupils between 12 and 14 were taking part in the scheme. My visit helped offer advice on creating a successful business plan including how to know and target the right audience with the best product. In my opinion, if it’s in high demand then people will buy it.
At the end of May all loans are re-paid with those taking part able to keep the profits and spend as they wish.
Q15. What advice would you give to somebody thinking of starting their own business?
Having the necessary skills to success as an entrepreneur is key, which must include –
• Have a clear vision and plan for this
• Have the determination not to take no for an answer
• Impeccable communication skills
• An understanding of business margins and cash flow
• Ensure you can identify and improve your weak areas and overall evolve as an entrepreneur
When it comes to setting up your own business, first ask yourself the following questions –
• Are you willing to work all hours of the day, seven days a week?
• Will your business be a hobby or a job?
• Who are your competitors?
• How big is the market in which you’ll operate in?
• How much mark up are you able to make? If there isn’t enough profit to be made then you’ll never get beyond the start up stage.
Q16. What are your future plans for Better Bathrooms?
World domination! Aim high is my motto! We’ve an aggressive growth plan in place for the next 3-5 years which will take Better Bathrooms to the next level, so definitely watch this space!
Thanks Colin, from everyone at Easyspace.
To find out more about Colin and his business please visit his website www.BetterBathrooms.com
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