“Just keep going.” That’s Paul Adrian’s advice to fellow entrepreneurs. The prominent successes of exciting British challenger brands in recent years – think Brewdog in the drinks industry or King of Shaves in the personal grooming market where Adrian specialises – has prompted a glut of copycat ventures sometimes led by founders expecting instant success. “The reality is that it takes a long time to build a brand,” Adrian warns.
Adrian knows what he is talking about, having spent the past five years building Mojo Skin & Haircare, a premium hair styling and grooming brand that now sells products in large numbers, both in the UK and internationally. With his 25-year background in advertising and marketing, plus his experience as a director of King of Shaves, Adrian was better placed than most to launch a new challenger brand, but recognised the need to spot the right opportunity and then to focus relentlessly on growth.
“I love challenger brands; you can do things differently and have a point of view,” he says. “I realised that in the hair product category there had been little or no innovation for 15 years – every product was very similar and almost all of them were owned by the big fast-moving consumer goods companies.”
Enter Mojo Skin & Haircare, which Adrian launched in 2015 aged 49. He deliberately set out to create an affordable but premium range of hair care products, commissioning his manufacturer to use ingredients of the quality used in products normally reserved for professional salons. He also wanted the products to feature a luxurious fragrance more akin to an after shave than a traditional wax or gel.
The result was a set of four Mojo haircare products each priced at £10. The packaging of the product is styled in gold and black, and looks unlike anything else in its category. “Customers buy with their eyes, so you have to stand out at the point of sale,” he argues.
Initially, Mojo was entirely self-funded, though Adrian was able to persuade a couple of friends to invest. But meeting Andrew Gerrie, the co-founder of the retail chain Lush and chairman of Hotel Chocolat, led to him becoming an early investor in the company.
It helped that Mojo was an early hit with trade buyers. Adrian’s advice to entrepreneurs starting out in a business with products – as opposed to services companies – is to keep initial runs small and affordable until a buyer is prepared to place a more significant order. In Mojo’s case, Adrian pitched his new product to both Ocado and The Hut Group at a stage where he had only produced samples – both ecommerce brands subsequently decided to stock the Mojo range.
Building on this early success, Adrian took the products to Waitrose, which placed the first orders for in-store products. He also began investigating international markets where the Made in Britain brand has premium value; early breakthroughs included deals with Woolworths and Coles in Australia, and Countdown in New Zealand.
Further domestic expansion also followed. Adrian is particularly proud of a distribution deal with Sainsbury’s which stocks the Mojo range as part of its Future Brands collection, launched to promote innovative small suppliers in a range of categories.
Fast forward to today and Mojo Skin & Healthcare has sold more than a million products and is stocked in 3,000 stores around the world, with e-commerce providing significant additional sales capacity. The business’s revenues are on target to hit £3m by 2021.
The key, Adrian, says is to think about what you can do differently as an entrepreneur. In his market, that meant developing a different type of product for an underserved demographic – older, more sophisticated buyers of male grooming products (including many women) – marketing it accordingly and finding the right distribution outlets. One possibility would have been to sell through barbers’ shops, but Adrian instinctively felt these would lack the footfall of the supermarket sector.
There have, of course, been challenges along the way. “With the start we had, cashflow was really difficult,” Adrian recalls. Indeed, fulfilling new – and bigger orders – as the business grows while waiting for buyers to pay their bills continues to be a challenge. Adrian believes many entrepreneurs overlook just how disastrous cashflows can be, even for ostensibly successful manufacturing businesses. Try to run before you can walk and you’ll take a nasty fall, he warns.
Adrian has also had to manage supply chain issues thrown up in recent months by the Covid-19 crisis, though he says sales have proved resilient, despite an initial drop-off. “The fact we’re stocked in stores such as Sainsbury’s where footfall has been constant has helped,” he says. “Also, people still want their hair to look right for all those Zoom calls.”
Adrian urges entrepreneurs not to rest on their laurels. He has spent much of this year developing a skincare range which he now intends to add to Mojo’s range – and which will leverage the brand success and product qualities of his hair care products.
Get the product right and look beyond pricing, and challenger brands can make it, Adrian argues. “Go in cheap in markets where the competition is established and had deep pockets, and you’ll run out of money,” he warns. “But if you have something different, consumers and retailers will take a good look at you.”