Any other business

Tangle Teezer: From startup to award-winning exporter

7 min read

09 December 2015

Since its founder’s idea for a detangling hairbrush was rejected on Dragon’s Den in 2007, Tangle Teezer has sold over twenty million of the product – and sales have grown from £1m to £30m.

To cap off the remarkable rise, the innovative hairbrush maker was named Export Champion of the Year at the 2015 Growing Business Awards.

But one of the most astonishing things about the firm is that 86 per cent of its turnover now comes from overseas. Real Business spoke to Tangle Teezer’s CEO Matt Lumb to find out how the young company has grown so quickly to reach so many corners of the world.

For Lumb the answer is simple: “Our success is down to our aggressive attitude to expansion,” he said.

Tangle Teezer sells to 70 countries directly, through relationships with distributors, and ships to a further 30 through the Tangle Teezer website. China and America are key growth markets, while India is the latest region the company has entered. “We’ve just started there properly. It takes a lot longer than six months to get a real foothold in that market, but we’re getting there,” Lumb said.

The company has been flexible with its entry strategies, using different approaches in different countries. The normal route into a market is through professional hair salons, but Tangle Teezer brushes are also sold on 50 different airlines, as well as through home shopping networks. The company is currently in discussions with QVC in China to use the TV station to increase sales in the country.

The US market has proved the most difficult for the brand to try and enter so far. “It’s a graveyard, littered with household names that have tried and failed to make it there,” Lumb said.

“So we’ve had a to take a bold approach. We were working through a distributor in 2014 but we realised at the beginning of this year that it wasn’t working. Things just weren’t moving quickly enough. So we grabbed the bull by the horns and set up a subsidiary company there in February. It’s the first time we’ve set up an enterprise in a different country, but it’s working well so far. And we’re in complete control, which is great,” he added.

Read more winners’ stories from the Growing Business Awards:

Such rapid growth isn’t without its challenges – the company has struggled to find a balance between ambitious expansion and sustainable progress. “People say that it’s a nice problem to have, worrying about growing too quickly, ensuring enough supply to meet demand – but it has been difficult, at times, to make sure our UK factories can produce enough for our international demand,” Lumb explained.

“Until now we’ve been very lean as we’ve grown, which isn’t easy. It’s hard to be lean without being under resourced. At the moment we’ve got 31 staff, and if I’m being completely honest we’ve run out of space. We’re moving to a new office next week, and have two more members of staff joining in the new year,” he continued.

Lumb was brought in as CEO in 2010 by Shaun Pulfrey, who invented the Tangle Teezer, to allow its founder to concentrate on innovation and product design. His background in finance means that maintaining margins will always be a keen concern. “There will probably be point when we have more than one staff for every million in revenue. But that’s in the short term. Do I think we can get to £100m turnover? Yes. Do we need 100 staff to achieve it? No. The biggest challenge for increasing sales in China isn’t having more people, for example. Selling more there is about having the right distribution strategy,” Lund added.

Controlled growth has also meant being selective about which stockists to distribute to. “We’re solely distributed in premium outlets. You won’t find us in mass-market retailers,” he explained. The accolade of being named a “Coolbrand” numerous times is important to Tangle Teezer’s international reputation and is a big source of pride to the company’s leaders. “The first year, we were amazed. And then when we were awarded it again it was fantastic. It’s nice recognition. But we wouldn’t have got that if we’d sold Tangle Teezers everywhere,” he said.

But with the growth of the brand recognition all over the world, counterfeit versions of Tangle Teezer products have presented another challenge.

“There’s a huge budget devoted to protecting our intellectual property. We work very closely with customs agents around the world, and we’ve got two people working on it full time in the office. It requires a huge budget. It’s expensive but the cost of not doing it would be higher.”

As Tangle Teezer gets bigger its CEO is aware that the issues it faces will continue to change.

“We’re definitely not a startup any more, but we’re only eight years old,” he emphasised.

Yet despite the complexities, Tangle Teezer’s focus for the future will be on penetrating deeper into new markets, in combination with innovating through product development.

The most important challenge for Lumb is maintaining momentum. “My absolute nightmare would be annual growth of 20 per cent. It sounds fine, but when you’re used to 70 per cent, it really isn’t enough.”

It doesn’t seem like he has anything to worry about. Since its win at the Growing Business Awards at the end of November the brand has already won another national prize, and is currently selling brushes at a rate of 20 per minute, so the future certainly looks bright for Tangle Teezer.