Young entrepreneurs photo
March 22, 2022
Simon Mueller

How Gymshark’s Athletic Wear Became the ‘Big Fish’ of Direct-To-Consumer Branding

At only 19 years old, Ben Francis learned one of life’s most important lessons: “If you don’t succeed, try again.”

The university student and gym-enthusiast had tried his hand at building two apps that would help users build and achieve their fitness goals. Eventually, his app did work.

Not unlike many start up businesses, Gymshark an athletic wear company, had a rocky start. For the first six weeks, they did not make any sales. However, Francis was able to survive through a series of lessons in DTC marketing that targeted directly towards consumers without third parties.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 45% during the first five years, and 65% during the first 10 years. GymShark, an athletic wear company launched in the UK, is a success story in part to DTC, or Direct-to-Consumer marketing.

Through this, that can be drawn upon by others with the same entrepreneurial spirit.

Lesson 1: Collaboration

DTC marketing brands often depend on collaborations. For Francis, his luck turned when he attended a local trade show to learn how to market himself better and network within the gym industry. The next day, a photo from the trade show displaying his workout wear suits began to go viral on Facebook, and increased their daily average sales for 100x. He realized that having popular figures wear his fitness apparel would gain more following on social media and lead to more online sales.

This influencer marketing strategy essentially helped spread the word about Gymshark, and is emulated by other business models today. Additionally, collaborating with other companies with similarly aligned branding and products is a mutually beneficial way to boost sales and exposure.

Lesson 2: Transferring your skillset

In school, Francis was barely passing classes, and instead opted for his interests in sports like football. It wasn’t until he discovered an IT class at 17 when he found a love for tech and computing. Around that same time, he also started going to the gym and discovered his fondness for fitness.

Francis’ ability to transfer life lessons learned from his extracurricular life into the classroom, were pivotal to his life’s path. This, he said, changed his life.

“These early lessons of structure, consistency and hard work were some of the most important lessons I’d learn in my life. I applied these same lessons to my school work, and went from getting Ds & Es at GCSEs, to As and Bs at A level. The structure, consistency and work ethic I found in the gym I realized, could be applied to different areas of my life and it would work. This changed my life.”

Transferring lessons and skill sets from different experiences can help build familiarity even in unfamiliar settings.

Lesson 3: Shipping Savvy

Gymshark didn’t always sell fitness wear. Initially, Francis started doing Gymshark by selling workout supplements. While selling pizzas to make ends meet, he got the idea to start a website and start selling supplements directly to his (then) small consumer base.

After realizing he couldn’t fund enough supplements to stock the website on a delivery driver’s salary, he transitioned to the idea of drop shipping supplements from other suppliers via the Gymshark website. Drop shipping is a retail method where businesses don’t keep the products it sells in stock. When a drop shipping retailer sells a product, it purchases the item directly from a third party that ships the product directly to a customer.

In this case, Gymshark would be the storefront for other DTC brands that would advertise stock on its page. For every sale purchased on Gymshark’s site, the drop shipping supplier, would charge Gymshark, and Gymshark would charge the customer.

Though he stopped dropshipping soon after, he used the short-term creative solution to build his website, direct traffic and raise funds to get the business to a level where it could purchase its own product, taking the third party drop shipper suppliers out of the direct-to consumer transactions.

Lesson 4: Understanding your Community

On his site, Francis highlights some of his keys to success that ultimately earned Gymshark the title of the UK’s fastest growing company. Over all, he stressed the importance of knowing your brand and by extension, your community.

First, he recognized that fitness was about to take off in 2012. Young adults across the world were beginning to realize the professional and personal benefits of working out and fitness lifestyles.

Second, he recognized social media platforms were a burgeoning game-changer. His social media savvy allowed him to curate and attract the Gymshark community. Even today, Francis uses social media to target his ideal audience: 16-25 year olds who, like him, are obsessed with fitness. They stay active on Instagram, Youtube and Tiktok to entertain and engage their nearly 20 million followers across the platforms on their unique brand.

Finally, direct-to-consumer brands were being listened to. Shopify (the company that runs Gymshark’s web store) was new in 2012, and trending as people got more comfortable buying from companies they were unfamiliar with. As long as shipping times were reasonable, and products were returnable, the consumer public was welcome to the DTC model.

These three stars aligning gave Francis the opportunity he needed for Gymshark to soar. After that, it was just a matter of constant hard work, searching for opportunities for brand growth, and more DTC advertising on social media. Moreover, he credited his ability to take risks by investing in the Gymshark community.

“We took big risks, we risked all we had several times. But most of all, we had a ferocious understanding of what our community wanted, we obsessed over it. We understood what they wanted, and we solved their problems.”

Lesson 5: Never Give Up

To date, Gymshark, after launching in 2012, now has a net worth of $1 billion. Francis spent nearly 10 years building his brand and taking risks, and now he and his team have many accolades to show for it. Though he had setbacks from classes, to app making and website building, he used his skill sets and transferable knowledge to turn his company into a brand much bigger than his obstacles.