The laws of probability suggest you probably only have one decent business idea in you, but that’s something Joe Sillett is hoping doesn’t apply to him.
When Sillett and his dad first looked at the cricket apparel market at the turn of the millennium they felt sure there was an opportunity to do something different. The result was Woodworm, a brand Sillett describes as “rebellious and cheeky” – one which went on to attract the attention of customers around the world.
The basis was a uniquely-shaped cricket bat, one which incorporated a scooped out section on the back. “I went to the Champions Trophy in 2002 when all the teams were based out of two hotels and got to know players, showing them the design and securing some great media coverage,” Sillett remembered.
As the brand continued to court attention, Sillett worked behind the scenes to secure two lucrative endorsements with English batsmen – Freddie Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen. These two free-scoring athletes helped propel the business further to a point where a £10m valuation was obtained four years into operation.
“At the beginning we had people say ‘we don’t know what we’re doing, go back to whatever we were doing before’,” he added. “We then had those same guys two years later saying ‘we take our hats off to you and eat all of our words’.”
With big retailers such as John Lewis and Decathlon stocking Woodworm products, the time was right for an extra injection of growth capital – but this is where Sillett and the business came unstuck. “We did a deal with a hedge fund to go into cricket and golf, securing [golfer]Ernie Els as a sponsored athlete. But things started going down hill from then as we didn’t get the second half of the money promised. That left us where we didn’t want to be when the credit crunch hit, and we ended up having to sell in a pre-pack administration deal for £250,000.”
While Sillett and the Woodworm team had perhaps led a charmed existence till then, with various things coming together at opportune times, it was still a big bump back to earth.
“Woodworm taught me you can achieve the unexpected and break the rules while doing so. But it also taught me what you need to look out for with trap doors. In terms of where we are at now with the new business, it really reassured me that you need to be careful about who you partner with as one bad move can be fatal.”
Thinking back, Sillett had red flags coming out of the first meeting with the eventual hedge fund partners and didn’t want to do a deal. However, with other shareholders involved, the company ended up taking this route rather than Sillett’s preferred listing on the London Stock Exchange’s junior offering the Alternative Investment Market (AIM). “We came three days away from a mandate letter, and in hindsight that would have been a better course of action,” he said.
Describing seeing his business go from zero to a £10m valuation and back to zero again as “bruising” and “battering”, Sillett decided to chart a new course and spent the year after writing a book with one of Europe’s most well-known mind coaches, Karl Morris, about how some of Britain’s most successful sports personalities made it to the top.
The “therapeutic exercise” left Sillett ready for a new challenge, which this time came in the form of an apparel brand called Tekkers. Not wanting to dwell too much on an experience that culminated with a management buy-out at the start of 2017, the serial entrepreneur was then motivated by a talk given by two other repeat business builders.
“I went to a talk where Nick Jenkins from Moonpig and Mike Clare from Dreams were discussing success. I asked them a question about finding a good idea for a new business and Nick advised finding something everyone needs and buys and then adding a new twist. Mike was the same, he knew everyone needed a bed and started from there,” he recalled.
The advice from Jenkins and Clare stayed with Sillett, and it was during a chance visit to the local hardware store in search of a new ironing board that he and his wife had their lightbulb moment – a disruptive brand in the iron market.
Just over a year later and the husband and wife team have designs, IP protection, factory sourcing and prototypes under their belt. And, rather than making the same mistake, Sillett has turned to the crowd for funding his latest enterprise.
“I came within a day of signing up with two private investors before crowdfunding. But part of my experience with Woodworm was in my mind when turning down that deal, the synergy needed to be right,” he commented.
“Having turned that down, I realised there was no better way of both funding and getting an army of early supporters.”
The Funky Iron Company’s first crowdfunding round was closed in March 2017, when it surpassed its £100,000 target and ended up hitting the £137,852 mark. That capital funded tooling and moulding costs, widening the IP protection and building the early stages of a brand. Now, in going back to the market in search of £150,000, Sillett is after money to fund the opening stock order, support PR efforts and pay for advertising.
Speaking excitedly about trips to China and the factory he’s using out there, Sillett is close to a finished product which will then be sold through the company’s own website and via retailers. However, he had some sage advice for anyone bringing a new product to market.
“It will always take twice the amount of time and twice the amount of money you think it will,” he warned. “It’s about finding the right balance between pushing the product forward but not so fast that the right issues aren’t addressed.”
He’s halfway towards securing the £150,000 required – the rules of crowdfunding mean you don’t take even a solitary pound home unless the predetermined funding target is hit – but is confident he has the investor appetite.
In a market where nobody has bothered to create anything particularly exciting, innovative or even aspirational, Sillett believes the Funky Iron Company has a big opportunity. And, having entered an industry cloaked in tradition and brand loyalty with Woodworm, he doesn’t seem like someone to shy away from a fight with major electronics firms.