Two former City workers who built businesses out of the financial crisis

 
Liam Ward-Proud
Adam Taylor and Lexi Tamasan’s pet food subscription service is taking a sizeable bite out of a large market

PET FOOD is not the first product most think about when founding a company. But when Adam Taylor saw his mother, who suffers from arthritis, struggling with a large bag of dog biscuits, it struck him that there was an opportunity.

“It’s such a regular, predictable purchase,” he says. “We thought it made perfect sense to automate it through a subscription service.” Taylor and his girlfriend Lexi Tamasan started delivering heavy bags of food to elderly people, sometimes at a loss just to test the market. Four years later, PetShopBowl.com stocks an enormous range of food, toys and medical treatments for pets, and is on target for a £3m turnover this year.

LOCATION
The couple left London shortly after Taylor lost his job at Lehman Brothers in 2008, and based themselves at an incubator attached to Warwick University. Soon after, they found that key pet produce suppliers were located nearby.

“The area is a hub for distribution,” Taylor says. “We found that we could focus exclusively on the business in its early stages, away from the distractions of expensive restaurants and nightclubs.”

Does he feel they missed out by not being immersed in the London startup culture? “Perhaps in terms of networking opportunities to begin with. But for our delivery-focused business, it made much more sense to be based near the suppliers.” Their new location is within a mile of the key wholesaler, cutting delivery costs, and giving them a strong bargaining position.

COST CONTROL
Aside from an initial £5,000 loan from the Princes Trust, the business has been entirely self-funded to date. “We initially spent a lot of time trying to keep costs low, especially with marketing.”

The pair negotiated their way to a free stand at the Crufts dog show, and ended up sleeping in their car and dining on their display products for sustenance. The verdict? “Dog kibble isn’t as bad as you’d think,” Taylor says. “But we quickly realised that social media was a better way to raise awareness than physical leafleting.”

The PetShopBowl Facebook page shares pet-related pictures, funny articles, and viral videos, latching on to internet trends to spread their message. They have over 66,000 likes, compared to 39,000 for Pets at Home – a larger and more established player in the pet supply market.

“Crucially,” he says, “we were able to direct people to our website, with Facebook becoming our primary marketing tool nationally.”

The internet traffic translated into orders, allowing them to expand their business organically through steady revenue streams. “We just didn’t need a bank loan,” Taylor says proudly. Looking to the future, the couple are hoping to expand to Europe. “We already ship to some countries, but upscaling the business even further is the next stage.”

Jennifer Duthie’s customisable trainers are designed to both put a spring in kids’ steps and encourage creativity

AFTER losing her job at Lehman Brothers in 2008, Jennifer Duthie has become something of a serial entrepreneur. Since that dark day, she’s founded numerous e-commerce businesses and a web design company in India.

But Skribbies, her latest venture, is more of a personal mission. By allowing children to customise their own trainers, and wipe the designs off as soon as they want something new, Duthie aims to “promote an active lifestyle, while encouraging creativity and personality.”

PERSONAL MISSION
“The idea came to me when I was thinking about how much I used to play around with clothing when I was young – tying headbands around things, and generally just being creative,” she says. After researching the personalised clothing market, Duthie realised there was a gap for kid’s trainers. “I felt this was something I needed to do,” she says. “It’s more than just a business proposition for me.”

Duthie’s determination led her to impressive feats of creativity when it came to selling the product to retailers. “Companies like Hamleys just don’t pick up the phone to strangers.”

After finding it difficult to gain access to the Regent Street store, she posed as a courier to get into the buying department. Having fooled the receptionist – and leapfrogging scores of less tenacious pitchers – Duthie found her way to a key buyer, and was able to gain access that surprised even her –“I had no idea I’d get so far.” It’s still very early, and Skribbies is currently in negotiations with major retailers, but Duthie says her online sales (through skribbies.com) have tripled in the last month.

MULTIPLE VENTURES
It’s often said that entrepreneurs have to throw themselves behind just one project to succeed, but Duthie sees many benefits to running simultaneous ventures.

“In the early stages, I was able to support myself through the more successful startups I founded in India.” This gave her the luxury of time – Skribbies trainers went through numerous iterations of prototype designs over a period of 18 months, until it was exactly the product Duthie had in mind. “I just wasn’t prepared to sacrifice on quality,” she says.

But as ambitions grew, so did the company’s funding requirements, and Skribbies owes a lot to Duthie’s family and friends. “I’d recommend that entrepreneurs seek any and all forms of finance imaginable,” she says. “I was also an early investor in Apple, which gave me some savings to draw on.”

But the benefits of running simultaneous businesses goes beyond the brute financing needs. “My web design company built the Skribbies site completely free, and I’ve given cut-price web services to others in return for advice,” she says.

With plans to extend the brand’s online presence through video marketing, this technical expertise will surely continue to be of use.