King of Shaves Turns 20. Will King’s thoughts on the past, present & future!

I remember exactly where I was this time, 20 years ago.

Sitting downstairs in the house I shared with my then girlfriend in West Ruislip, opening a letter from Companies House acknowledging the incorporation of “Knowledge & Merchandising Inc. Ltd.’ with the company registration number 2808675.  I owned 99 shares, my girlfriend as Company Secretary had 1.  I had with me my two fox terrier puppies, then 3 months old, Moke & Dudley and a few thousand empty 10ml bottles with a logo ‘Kings Shavesystem’ printed onto a plastic, which I found out had come off in the shower (not waterproof).  I had no car (having been made redundant) and no reference point whatsoever for founding a men’s shaving brand, other than the fact that when I shaved with the oil I’d mixed in the upstairs bathroom sink, I didn’t get razor burn.

192 Directory Enquiries was the equivalent of Google in 1993, Windows was yet to launch proper and I worked on a 16Mhz Elonex computer with a single floppy drive.  You either wrote letters to people, or if you had their fax number (very difficult to get) you faxed them.

I was at home 90% of the day (I always walked the dogs at lunchtime, often up to the postbox and back) and as well as shaving with my oil, was dreaming up other ideas in case that never went anywhere.  One of those was the Body Glove clothing line, that somehow or other we might get UK distribution rights for, another was a phonics based learning system for young children called “Shirley’s Early Learning Series” that my Mum had written, my Dad had illustrated (both were teachers) and that I was trying to get a publisher interested in.

Oh, and I’d written 59 pages of a novel called “We Three Kings” which charted the rise and fall (and maybe rise again) of three brothers called King (follow up books, if that was ever successful were to be called “Gold, Frankincense & Murder” and “Wise Men don’t Lie”.

I was spinning plates.  A trait many, if not all entrepreneurs are familiar with.  Hoping that if I kept enough aloft, I’d get traction with one.  Most people thought that would be Body Glove (it wasn’t) but turned out to be King of Shaves (we got a listing in Harrods in September 1993).

From small acorns…

Having been made redundant, I decided to A) be the master of my own destiny and B) manufacture and/or marketing something physical.  Why?  Well, having grown up in the Thatcher years, I felt Britain was no longer seen as a base for making great product, and I wanted to change that.  I also believed that having worked previously in the advertising & marketing business, working in the product business (once you’d made a success of the product) you’d have more time to spend on making that business bigger.

I don’t intend to go into these early days in much detail – for a full rundown, buy my book and have a read.  But I do remember acutely, 20 years on – how I felt, what was at stake, and that anything could be done, if you worked hard and had a great product, brand or service to run.

Between 1993 and 2003 we enjoyed quite a run at KMI.  In 1997, my business partner Herbie Dayal and I approached Ray Kelvin, the owner of Ted Baker, then doing sales of £14m (total) and about to float as a PLC to license their brand name onto a fragrance (we’d also written to Paul Smith, but he hadn’t got back to us).  Ray thought we wanted to sell our King of Shaves shaving oil from Ted Baker stores, and asked “who’d heard of King of Shaves?”  Luckily his then head of design, Ed Potter commented he liked it, and we were able to get the meeting back on track, and in time (September 1998) launch Ted Baker Skinwear at Selfridges, a minimal bottle with a neoprene stitched cover, which the edgy design company StyloRouge, owned by Rob O’Connor helped us design.

KMI (from which King of Shaves is now de-merged) still work with Ted Baker today, 16 years on – one of their longest license partnerships.

Between 1995-2003, we launched a slew of innovative men’s grooming products & brands.  Remember then, it was Gillette, the newly cool Lynx (via the Lynx Effect, which my wife Tiger Savage co-created whilst at BBH in 1995) and Colgate Palmolive.  No Nivea for Men (they launched in 1999) or L’Oreal Men Expert (created 2004).  Nope, it was just us, in the vanguard of men’s shaving & skincare with unique products such as our shaving oils, our tubed aloe rich shaving gels (AlphaGels), our K-Series men’s skincare range (now supplanted by our  Superskin range) and innovations like a natural deodorant (Pro-Deo) and a silicon based shaving oil (Kinexium).

In 1998, our offices (above a small supermarket in Chalfont St. Giles) burned down (the delivery pizza operation downstairs caught fire) and we ultimately relocated via High Wycombe to Chesham, firstly in a beautiful old building called the Bury, then into a series of industrial units on Asheridge Road.

We launched the Fish ‘Unisexy’ range of men’s & women’s haircare products at Boots in 2001, and in 2003 celebrated our 10th anniversary as the UK’s 2nd largest seller of men’s shaving & skincare products, although Nivea were snapping at our heels.

I’m delighted today, 10 years later – that many of the staff who worked with me then, work with me now – including Andy Hill, Jane Greenaway, Simon Watson, Karen Heygate-Brown, Andy Honour to name but five.  Goodness me, they’ve seen a lot.

In 2003, I rightly (or wrongly – depending on your viewpoint – especially if you’re a long suffering shareholder given the cash burn) started what has become a decade of investment & innovation into shaving hardware, in the quest to launch the ‘King of Blades’ – the world’s best razor.  Foolhardy perhaps, given in 2005 Gillette (the biggest, and still the best…) was bought by US company P&G for around $57 billion dollars.  Clearly there was money in razor and blades, and a fearsome competitor too – with over 80% market share world-wide.

However, I was convinced we could disrupt their monopoly, sorry – cosy duopoly – with Schick Wilkinson Sword (bought by another US company called Energizer in 2004 for $930 million dollars) with a razor designed and largely made in the UK called the Azor.

I worked firstly with James Mason, then Andy Honour – talented industrial designers between 2003-8 to launch this razor, in partnership with a Japanese manufacturing company Kai Industries, whom I’d met in 2004 at a tradeshow in Frankfurt.

We launched the Azor 4 to critical acclaim in June 2008 (it got a nice write up in the Daily Mail and other publications) and in the following year, had got around 5% of the market from Gillette & Wilkinson Sword.  However, it wasn’t plain sailing, they weren’t about to give up their monopoly on the market, and we faced fearsome competition on  price and promotion almost from the day we launched.  Although I raised £4m of debt & equity in 2009 (and a further £5m between 2010-11) it was clear however much we marketed our Azor, our spends were always a fraction of what the competition spent.

But, in 2009 I asked my design & innovation team (basically Andy & Andy) to go out and develop for me a truly ‘cutting edge’ razor, taking into account all our learnings of the past 6 years, which must have great patent protection, and amazing comfort and closeness.

The King of Blades.

Whilst they were doing this, I became sadly distracted – firstly on not promoting our shaving ‘software’ business (gels & oils) as aggressively as we had done previously, letting Nivea for Men usurp our number 2 position in 2011) and also locked into a distribution strategy for King of Shaves with the Remington brand in the USA, which although it delivered £4m of sales in 2011-12, did not get the cut-through at retail (only launched at Walgreens), and led us to terminate the agreement for contractual/breach reasons in June 2012 (we’d previously been 10 years in the USA with an office ably managed by Stephanie Eddy, who joined us as a graduate trainee in 2000, leaving 12 years later…)

And of course, we had (and still have) a global recession, which although it hasn’t slowed beard growth, has meant that growth prospects in the UK and abroad have become more difficult to come by.  We have had to promote more and deeper with retailers, and in effect ‘trod water’ whilst my team readied our next generation razor, and other products which will launch in the the near future (not too much detail here I’m afraid, you never know who’s reading).

So, here I am now on April 15th, 2013 – still at the helm of King of Shaves, having got much right, and quite a lot wrong, especially underestimating what it would take for us to succeed at scale against Gillette in the UK – although the consultant who war-gamed with me between 2007-8 said they’d a a ‘challenging competitor’.  Not wrong there.

What we’ve got right though is keeping our brand current and much loved by our fans – the King’s Doms’ – those who like me are now middle aged Dads (but were once idealistic 27 year olds) as well as the younger generation.  We’ve constantly innovated, updated and refined our products, always keeping the emphasis on quality over cost of goods, and – I hope – always being the King of Shaves, never the Knave of Shaves.  We’ve got the whole web thing, including social media, largely right too – I tweet as @KingofShaves and ensure that people know who we are, what we stand for and why we’re worth buying.  I’m also delighted we bought shave.com back in 1995, were the first in ecommerce in 1999 (from a toiletries perspective), have been on twitter since 2007 and Facebook since 2008 (it’s about the conversation in the community – the digital dialogue – no longer the brand broadcast).

What we’ve got wrong is never quite getting the US right (we’ll be back in 2014, in partnership with the US division of our Japanese partner) and also, not evolving our Azor razor quickly enough (it being a patent minefield out there).  The last few years have seen our company run at a loss (as we make investments in R&D and more for the future), but these have been financed via equity, not debt – with strong, supportive partners.  And, with our next generation of razor – it’s taken us 18 months longer than I thought it would to get a razor with a real “WOW” to it – but hey, if it was easy, everyone would be making one.

When I set out with King of Shaves, I didn’t have an ‘exit’ planned as such – as so many do – build and sell within five years, and move on to the next thing.  I’m personally quite the rarity in entrepreneurial / business circles, still the founder, still the CEO, still with my wealth in the business, rather than cashed out.  This has afforded me great opportunities in meeting amazing people, getting great press coverage for what it’s been like running an entrepreneurial business, and seeing the term ‘Entrepreneur’ hit the mainstream, big time – when I started, it was basically just Richard Branson and/or Alan Sugar.  Along the way, our company, it’s products and perhaps the way I’ve run it, has influenced dozens, nay hundreds of people, many of whom have set out on their own personal mission to “create a job, not take a job”  One person I met said I was the “Entrepreneur’s Entrepreneur”. Now, I don’t know about that, but it was nice to see how respected our brand, business was.

Each and every day, when I stand in front of the mirror and enjoy the ‘King’ of Shaves (can’t wait to later this year when I’ll do this wearing Google Glass and using our new #Hyperformance razor) I think of how lucky I am, to be where I am, having done what I’ve done, and thinking about what there is yet to do.

It’s a privilege and a pleasure running King of Shaves, 99% of people I’ve met in the past 20 years have been great to work with, of course there’s the odd 1% who massively disappoint and frustrate you – but hey, that’s life – and at least when you’re your own boss, you can choose what to do, when to do it and with whom.

Although our financial year 2012-13 will be disappointing for me, in terms of sales growth, it will be hugely rewarding in terms of knowing that in 2013-14 we’ll bring to market a product that I believe will be truly worthy of the phrase ‘King of Blades’ and with it’s uniqueness, give us something to shout about in the UK and overseas.  Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the shaving with, and until YOU use it, and rate (or slate) it – I won’t know if the multi-million pound investments I’ve signed off on (with my shareholders sometimes melting down) will work.  But, a brand like King of Shaves must always deliver halo products – as Apple knows, get one product right, and the world’s your oyster.

That’s around 2,100 words now – I’d only set out to write 1,000 or so – but when you get going, it’s difficult to stop.

For those who’ve read this far, and if you’re a fan or user of King of Shaves, I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my heart – it’s absolutely my DNA – good and bad in the brand – and I hope you like it for better than worse, although many find our shaving oil and Azor razor a little too marmite.

We live in uncertain times, but with uncertainty, comes opportunity (keep an eye on Bitcoin…?) and with creativity, enormous success can be generated.  The late Steve Jobs would say “stay foolish”, I’d add “embrace change as a constant” and always, ALWAYS – be the best YOU can be.

Be a King.

Thank You

Will