Family-run company BiggerFeet sells footwear for people with larger-than-average sized feet. The company's founder, Oliver Bridge, tells us what it was like to set up his own company at 15.
Oliver Bridge spent his early years fascinated by finance and business. Initially he wanted to be a stockbroker, and created his first mock share portfolio with his dad around the age of seven. That was just the beginning.
“When I was 8 I launched a magazine and sold it neighbours, but this flopped! When I was 12 I started a disco business and ended up making a lot of money out of weddings and 18ths – that sort of thing. However, by the time I was in 6th form and the start of university, I wanted to do investment banking! So, I suppose my early ambitions were a mixture of entrepreneurialism and finance.”
While some businesses ideas come from years of market research and experience, others – like Bigger Feet – are born out of necessity.
My mum joked that I should start my own business selling big shoes, and when I did a bit of online research it actually looked like a fairly empty market
“I have size 13 feet and had always had trouble finding big enough shoes. Finally the final straw was not being to find a pair of football boots whilst on holiday. My mum joked that I should start my own business selling big shoes, and when I did a bit of online research it actually looked like a fairly empty market, so BiggerFeet was born!”
Like many small family businesses, BiggerFeet found it difficult to get suppliers to take the company seriously.
“It is very difficult to get someone like Adidas to supply you – especially as a startup. So, we went to trade fairs and made lots of friends, and ended up buying through intermediaries who have a wider range, generous credit terms and often let us buy in small quantities, which the big manufacturers wouldn’t.”
Oliver also freely admits that his lack of business knowledge made things tough in the beginning, and he attributes early success to having a mentor who could keep him avoid going down the wrong path.
“I was at risk on a lot of occasions of being hoodwinked by sales reps, the bank manager, customers, the media, and there was potential to make a lot of mistakes. Luckily, Paul (who had helped me set up the bank account etc) was a brilliant mentor and helped through all of this – showing me how to deal with people and get favourable terms in contracts, how to get your message across to journalists etc. It showed me that a mentor, especially for a brand new entrepreneur, is absolutely invaluable.
And despite the thrill and experience gained by being a young entrepreneur, Oliver found that his age was an issue when setting up the company.
“If you’re under 18 you can’t be a company director on your own, you can’t open a company bank account, you can’t have a credit card, and the list goes on. Luckily a friend of my mum’s was happy to step in and be the legal guarantor, allowing me to go ahead and set it all up, and me being liable to him rather to the bank directly. It couldn’t have happened without him!”
In fact, Oliver thinks that young entrepreneurs can face an uphill struggle when first formulating their plans as some business people are unwilling to take them seriously. He advocates a solution for younger people looking to succeed in business.
I think there is an important balance to strike between being humble and willing to learn, not being too deferent, and having confidence in your idea
“I think there is an important balance to strike between being humble and willing to learn, not being too deferent, and having confidence in your idea. Someone that constantly apologises and makes jokes about their age will quickly come across as a soft target, so be willing to learn but mix this with a clear idea of where you’re going so you don’t get pushed around.”
After being involved with a family-run business for many years, Oliver has spent considerable time trying to perfect the work-life balance. He’s positive about running a business with family but also admits that some problems can arise.
“It’s very good in the sense that you have a supportive network who you can talk to whatever time of the day and who understand what you’re going through – that’s great. They’re also brilliant in the sense that financially, they don’t demand wages for everything and are more lenient when lending money and that sort of thing, which is essential for a startup with limited money and cash flow.”
One of the main risks, he says, is that the family can fall into a situation where all they talk about is the business. It’s easy for it to be all consuming.
“The other challenge is to make sure that disagreement in your business and personal dealings don’t carry over either way – because this is bad for business and your relationship.
“I think on balance, starting within your family comfort zone is great for starters, but as soon as you are not reliant on them, then move out of that space and give everyone a bit of distance – they’ll thank you for it. “
BiggerFeet is now a thriving online company, and Oliver attributes its success to the cheap prices. He explains: “There are other providers of large shoes, but we are almost always cheaper.”
But, he admits, cheap prices and larger profits are not enough to sustain a company in the long-term. You need to be clever with cashflow, he says, as it’s easy to run a profitable business but soon run out of money.
He explains: “Have cash in hand where possible, and forecast and expect when things might spike so you can make provisions (eg delaying supplier payments or asking for early customer payment) so that things don’t come to a standstill.”
People deal with people who they trust and who they think are on an upwards trajectory: everyone wants to be part of a success story
As well as keeping on top of cashflow, he stresses the need for hard work and confidence as factors contributing to business success.
“People deal with people who they trust and who they think are on an upwards trajectory: everyone wants to be part of a success story. Make people believe you’re going places and they’ll buy into your vision. And always be prepared to work hard. There are a lot of hours / stress / dedication involved and you need to stick at it.”
Before attending university Oliver sold BiggerFeet to his Mum and brother, who currently run the business. For the new owners, growth is coming in two main ways: streamlining current activities and creating new ones.
“My mum has recently re-launched the website and is looking to grow the range so we can compete with some of the other retailers who have a bigger range of products. Aside from that, I think she wants to look at how to make the whole thing more profitable – where we can streamline things without compromising on the customer experience.”