From Shovelling Cement to Billion Dollar Innovator

The epic rise of Ben Francis and Gymshark

From Shovelling Cement to Billion Dollar Innovator

The Epic Rise of Ben Francis & Gymshark

“My number one piece of advice: Bet on yourself.”

Building a brand is not for the faint of heart.

It will drag you to your hands and knees at the best of times.

The hard work and efforts that it demands are unmeasurable.

But there’s two factors that reign supreme.

Leadership and Community.

You need a leader who is humble, gracious, and will put their business before anything else, while taking the responsibility and accountability that make everyone around them feel part of something magical.

And you need to pass on this spirit to your community.

Now here’s a man who has both of these in abundance.

Ben Francis. Founder and CEO of the 21st century Goliath – Gymshark.

On December 1st 2021, Ben stood on London’s Regent Street, the prime shopping destination in the heart of the British capital, about to open his first ever brick and mortar store.

And it all started in his parents garage, with nothing but a sewing machine, a screen printer, and a vision to change the world.

Yes, Ben’s reported net worth reached $1.3 billion at age 30.

But this pales in comparison to his vision for the future.

As he steers the ship for one of the, if not THE biggest success story of our generation.

This piece is a manifesto for the 21st century underdog.

Prepare to be inspired, challenged, and empowered.

Today on David to Goliath:

Life Lessons From Grandad Francis

Born in the West Midlands of England in 1992, Ben's story begins like many others.

Dreams of a career on the soccer field, dreams of scoring the winning goal for his boyhood club Aston Villa, dreams of glory under the stadium lights.

But reality, as it so often does, delivered a harsh verdict early on: "Not quite good enough, lad."

While he wouldn’t go onto play for his boyhood club, the seeds of sport were well and truly planted.

He learned to use his competitive edge in other ways.

But first, a harsh reality reality check.

At 14, Ben did some work experience at his grandfather’s factory – which lined industrial furnaces with ceramic and brick.

Staring into a cement mixer, he saw a future he wanted to avoid at all costs:

Twelve-hour days of back-breaking labor, the reality of aching limbs and a lifetime of monotony.

But amidst the cacophony of the factory floor, he found something unexpected—a lesson in courage, taught not by words, but by actions.

His grandfather, a stoic figure with hands weathered by years of hard labor, embodied a resilience that left a mark on young Ben's soul.

Here was a man who risked it all—even his family home—to keep his business afloat.

“Seeing the sacrifices my grandfather made for his business made me feel comfortable with the concept of financial risk at quite a young age.”

At age 17, Ben managed to blag his way into college, where he had the chance to cast aside the normal education route which he struggled at, and pursue a B-TEC in IT.

The IT class was different. It was all about applying real skills – not just writing about them. It meant he could learn about photoshop, in-design, and all the tools of the trade.

Getting down and dirty, creating, experimenting, failing, and rising again.

Then the big breakthrough: He joined his local gym.

Immersing himself into the routine of exercise while his peers would begin to get a taste of the town at weekends.

In contrast, Ben spent his free time watching YouTubers such as Scott Herman, learning the basic skills and structure you need to apply to yourself in the gym, to get results.

Structure. Consistency. Hard work.

The bricks upon which his mentality was built.

“I applied these same lessons to my school work, and went from getting Ds & Es at GCSEs, to As and Bs at A level.”

But now is where the magic truly happens. Ben didn't compartmentalize his passions for IT and gym.

Instead, he integrated them.

A Newfound Vigour

IT and gym. IT and gym. These two obsessions became Ben’s canvas for creativity.

The rigid confines of school faded into insignificance as he began leveraging his fresh computer knowledge and his love for the gym to start building rudimentary apps.

Apps that helped users create workout calendars and access fat loss exercises.

“It was an incredible feeling to see my creations in the top charts on the Apple App Store pages. Both apps were basic, the first was called Fat Loss Abs Guide. It was a simple app filled with pages on how to lose weight and get abs. The second was called iPhysique, it was an app that gave tips on how to get in shape, but also would allow you to auto populate your calendar with a basic workout split so you could hold yourself accountable.”

Ben’s new found vigour turned him from a D student into an A student, as his talents shone through.

This led him to secure a place at Aston University, an achievement that only two years prior, was beyond his wildest dreams.

So off he went in 2011 – time to make a name for himself among the academic elite.

Boy, did fate have a different plan.

Ben was FAR too practically minded for the rigid confines of the education system.

Within a year, he would channel his energy elsewhere, juggling his studies with a part-time job as a delivery guy for Pizza Hut.

He embraced the hustle – In lectures at 9 until 5, running pizzas until 10, and keeping consistent at the gym.

But his entrepreneurial spirit craved even more chaos.

Though his plate was already full (pun intended), he knew deep down his real passion was in the fitness industry.

At this point, Ben’s apps had made it onto Apple’s fitness charts, but a new problem was on the scene.

He found himself grappling with a seemingly trivial yet profoundly resonant dilemma: the quest for suitable gym attire.

So he began sketching out some ideas from his bedroom.

And scribbled his dream of launching a gym apparel brand on a little napkin.

Little did he know this was planting the seed for a billion dollar empire.

A Website That Would Transact

After a stint making free apps and not content with his $8-an-hour pay at pizza hut, Ben decided it was time to roll the dice.

It was time to make a site that would transact.

He wanted to start selling gym clothes, but buying in bulk from factories was a realm he could simply not afford to venture into.

“The minimum orders were sky high, more than I could dream of being able to afford whilst I was earning less than £5 an hour at Pizza Hut.”

After calling around UK distributors, he realised he was nowhere near the minimum order quantities required.

So he teamed up with a friend, Lewis Morgan, and began drop shipping health supplements on one of his many websites, which they named ‘Gymshark’.

Their strategy was simple yet ingenious at the time.

It was a creative solution to a problem in front of them.

Without the need for hefty investment in inventory.

They loaded the Gymshark website with as many supplements as they could find, from all vendors they could reach, adding a tiny margin.

And eagerly awaited that first sale.

6 weeks later, BOOM! A sale, with a $3 mark-up.

Even though only a tiny win, it made them believe.

From this point on, with each sale they built momentum, gradually accumulating the resources needed to bring a new vision to life.

Now, remember that problem Ben had of not finding clothes to fit him?

It was time to find a solution.

But just like anything Ben Francis does, not in the conventional way.

A Screen Printer and a Sewing Machine

Months of relentless immersion in the intricate world of drop shipping cultivated within Ben and Lewis an insatiable hunger for innovation.

They saw a gap, a void in the market that begged to be filled with their vision.

Amidst a sea of mass-produced, shapeless activewear, they envisioned a line that was tailored, sleek, and infused with intention.

So they pooled together every hard-earned penny and invested in a screen printer and a sewing machine.

They began stitching their own fitness clothing from Ben’s parents’ garage (with the help of his grandmother), leveraging the small audience they had already built.

“No one had created streamlined, tapered fitness wear. Everything coming out seemed to be large, boxy and baggy.”

They designed for themselves, and spoke to the fitness market that wasn’t being spoken to.

This was also their creative answer to the need of purchasing heavy volumes of stock.

The next twelve months were spent hand printing and sewing Gymshark products, posting on Facebook, and obsessing over everything fitness related on YouTube.

“My job at Pizza Hut suited me perfectly, as between deliveries I could respond to customer queries in the inbox. I remember thinking we had 10 orders to do, and to make 12-15 products it would take most of the day. But it was so much fun learning."

All along, there was one event that captured their hearts…

The Inception of Influencer Marketing

Imagine standing at the mountain of opportunity, feeling that magnetic pull of destiny toward the peak.

That's where Ben found himself at Europe's largest bodybuilding expo, BodyPower in 2012.

At that moment, he knew Gymshark had to be there next year. It wasn't just a whim; it was a gut feeling, a primal instinct urging him forward.

“I’ve always been told by my Dad to always trust my gut, so I did.”

At the show, Ben and Lewis booked a space for the following year.

It cost everything they had, it was a bold leap of faith. Risking everything to this point.

“It felt like if we wanted to be known in the fitness industry, this was our one chance to be right at the centre of it – even if it was just for one weekend.”

Before they knew it BodyPower 2013 was on their doorstep.

But there was one gigantic problem.

After blowing all their money on the stand, they had nothing left to spend on advertising.

On a whim, Ben reached out to the fitness YouTubers who held the keys to their kingdom, enticing them to their stand with free products. 

And that’s where the magic unfolded.  

The YouTubers liked the clothes and their followers began to ask where they’d got them from.

It was the birth of a viral marketing campaign, one that they hadn't even planned.

“It was just a case of, ‘Oh, it would be so cool if our heroes would come to the U.K. and be with Gymshark at this event.’ I didn’t really think that much into it.”

As they set up their booth at BodyPower, doubts crept in. Would anyone even know who they were?

But as soon as the doors opened, the floodgates burst open.

People swarmed to the Gymshark stand, drawn by the energy and excitement radiating from within.

The athletes started arriving, having casual conversations with anyone who decided to stop by.

“Although now it makes total sense, at the time, to have an open stand, with famous Youtubers wandering around and launching a product at the event – this was unique.”

What followed was days of non-stop action, connecting with people who shared their passion for fitness.

“It felt less like a business to customer relationship, but more like a group of mates hanging around at an expo. It felt like everyone who stopped by our stand had something in common.”

After the event, athletes, staff and customers headed to the Ironworks gym in Birmingham.

It was a gathering of like-minded individuals, a Gymshark community forming right before their eyes.

Over the weekend, they sold everything they took.

“After the event we all lay on the floor, shattered from the non stop work we’d done over the last three days. More exhausted than I can remember being in my entire life.”

“I’ll never forget someone walking over from a nearby stand and just asking “how did you guys do that?” We just responded: “no idea”.

After the event, Ben returned to his parents’ house and late that night decided to switch all the stock on the website back on.

Posting on Facebook that the store was live again and thinking nothing of it.

All of a sudden, notifications came flooding in on his phone, orders coming in by the second.

“I watched the orders come in and and quickly excitement turned to dread as I realised the volume of orders was so high, we may not be able to fulfil all of them.”

Ben clawed at his laptop, going through each product to reduce the stock levels to zero.

In the first 30 minutes of turning the website back on, they’d sold more Gymshark product than in their entire history.

There was no going back now.

He knew he’d created something special.

But remember, this was 2013, a lifetime ago in internet years, before the word ‘influencer’ had entered the lexicon.

Before schoolkids wanted to be live streamers more than they did footballers.

So it was time to ride this new wave of influencer led marketing to shore.

The Trifecta of Opportunity

Back in 2012, the universe was conspiring in Gymshark’s favour as three forces collided.

  1. Self Improvement: First, there was the awakening. A wave of realization swept across the globe, as young people began to appreciate the huge value both to professional and sporting life of a structured weight lifting regime.

  2. The Digital Economy: Next came the rise of the digital age. Ben and Lewis knew social inside out – not through hard work, but because they grew up on it, and were the first generation to do so. They understood social media not as a tool, but as a language, speaking it fluently long before it became mainstream.

  3. Trust: Finally, direct to consumer brands were actually being listened to. With platforms like Shopify paving the way, a new frontier of commerce emerged. People no longer hesitated to buy from unknown entities; they craved authenticity and innovation. Shipping times were reasonable and the general public understood if they didn’t like what they ordered online, they could just return it.

Ben, fueled by his youthful vigor, seized upon this trifecta of opportunity, giving free apparel to weightlifting influencers and paying them $500/month.

This increased daily sales volume from $450 to $45,000.

From there, it was constant hard work, searching for opportunities to grow the brand every single day. Jumping on trends, understanding the creator dynamic better than any other brand on the planet.

But most of all, they had a ferocious understanding of what their community wanted, and obsessed over it.

A couple of months after BodyPower, Ben dropped out of university to run Gymshark full time.

It paid off, big time. Within just two short years, their annual revenue had climbed to £250,000.

But the journey wasn’t without its difficulties.

On Black Friday in 2015, the company’s website crashed due to a software issue which cost them thousands.

People were getting products when they hadn’t placed orders, and those who had placed orders weren’t getting them.

Ben spent weeks writing handwritten notes apologising to people and the business took around a year to fully recover from the ordeal.

But it led to a pivotal decision in 2017, when Ben made a choice.

A choice to set aside ego and embrace humility.

Stepping Down as CEO

In 2015, Ben met Steve Hewitt, former Reebok director, when he was introducing him to a local business person whom he met at the gym.

At the time Steve was working as an agent working between European suppliers and businesses.

Steve was lightyears ahead of Ben in terms of understanding how to build relationships and manage partnerships.

He later left the agency and agreed that he would work on a consultancy basis in Gymshark, one day a week.

His focus was on building the brand’s in a way that would allow them to scale globally.  

As Steve worked in the business more and more, his profound understanding of the industry's nuances breathed new life into Gymshark's operations.

A level of discipline and rigour in an area of the business that to Ben, was an after-thought.

With a focus on quality and efficiency, Steve revolutionized the brand's supply chain.

During this time, the business was split pretty much down the middle. Ben would manage the front end (brand, sponsorship, product design, marketing etc) and Steve managed the back end (logistics, operations, stock, financials).

But it became clear that they needed a CEO who would bring corporate structure to the business.

Steve’s one day a week soon became two, then three, and finally, in 2017, Ben made the bold decision to step aside as CEO, recognizing that leadership isn't about titles but about fostering the success of the collective.

This pivotal moment marked the birth of a new era for Gymshark, with Steve at the helm steering the ship towards Goliath status.

“CEO was not the right role for me when I was in my early 20s. Just because I’d started a business that had grown very quickly didn’t mean I was the most competent chief exec.”

Ben spent the next four years in supporting leadership roles within Gymshark — including chief product officer and chief marketing officer — to learn more about the ins and outs of the business.

“When you’re the founder and majority shareholder of a business, you end up becoming a weird amalgamation of a number of different roles. To liken it to football (or soccer, to anyone from North America reading this), you end up becoming a bit of a player manager. Someone who acts and works in the business, but someone who’s also a part of deciding who works (or plays), where. You then end up having to balance your time between day to day activities for the role you’re working in, but you also have the inevitable founder and director responsibilities – like understanding financials, business structures, managing risk, long term plans, attending board meetings and so on. This is a lot to manage for anyone, let alone a young entrepreneur who has little to no prior business experience.”

He said this gave him time to both work on his weaknesses and build on his strengths “without having to worry about failing,” because he had the full support of Steve.

Ben likened it to “being able to do an exam and just do it as often as you want until you get the result that you want.”

Ben picked up reading, started to take real time to understand the things Steve was great at, and watch how he works.

Thanks to the strong foundations that were built, coupled with a ferocious understanding of community, brand and product, Gymshark was able to grow faster than almost any business of their type globally.

They led the direct to consumer revolution and built a truly community first brand.

They also build a vibrant, addictive internal culture led by Steve.

It was finally time for Ben to leave his parents’ garage and take things to the next level.

Reaching Unicorn Status

In 2018, Gymshark left the garage behind and opened its headquarters in Solihull, a sprawling campus that occupies three buildings in an industrial park, where there’s space for 400 staff, as well as a vast gym and content studio.

Afropop blares out of a speaker in reception while multiple screens show videos of Gymshark-sponsored athletes in various states of physical exertion — shark logo always in shot.

“On my way to the boardroom, I pass messages of affirmation painted on the walls: “Be a Pioneer”; “Don’t be a Dickhead.”

They also started organizing popups called "We Lift This City" in cities around the world where fans could snag exclusive gear.

That same year, Ben was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Europe List.

Sales exploded once again, growing at an average of 62% YoY.  

By listening to the needs of international customers, Gymshark rose to unicorn status in 2020 (billion dollar valuation), becoming one of only two UK brands to do so with no external funding. A year later, they opened their first U.S. office in Denver.

And in August 2021, Ben stepped back into the CEO role, having learnt the ins and outs of the business. A chapter defined by wisdom, experience, and a renewed sense of purpose.

Gymshark has since opened offices in London and Hong Kong and has grown to a company of 900 people, reaching a valuation of $1.45 billion.

The location of the company’s new store in London—a six-minute walk from Nike’s flagship and just a block from Lululemon's—is a sign of where the college dropout wants to take his fast-growing brand.

“I really think Gymshark can be the U.K.’s answer to those brands, but that’s not saying that the U.K. is where it starts and ends for us. We also want to be a truly global brand.”

But it's not just about the bottom line; it's about the people—the millions of customers who have embraced the Gymshark ethos and made it their own.

And considering Ben Francis is only 31 years old it’s safe to say this story is far from over.

Top 4 Takeaways

1) Focus on the Fundamentals: With no lambos or flashy boat parties Ben Francis has always remained humble in the spotlight of success. His relentless focus on the basics: Going to the gym, speaking to his community and building great products is a great lesson for us all. The problem is we’re not willing to wait.

2) Solve Your Problem at Scale: The inception of Gymshark was because Ben couldn’t find clothes he liked - so he went out there and made them. Time and time again we see people who solve problems for themselves and then realize there are thousands of other people who could benefit. This is how you truly build a business around your passion.

3) Go Big Then Protect: In the early days of Gymshark Ben and the team bet the house on events that turned out to be life changing moments. Without these huge risks, they wouldn’t be here today. But what got you here won’t get you there. Now they have a a huge team that relies on them so risks have to be more strategic. Just like anything in life, it’s a process of evolution.

4) Leave Your Ego at The Door: Ben realized he didn’t have the experience to be the CEO of a fast-scaling start-up so gave the reigns to someone who could. This can be extremely challenging for something you’ve put your heart and soul into for years. But experience is live’s best teacher and sometimes you just have to accept there are people better than you. Thankfully for Ben he’s now returned to the healm.

If you enjoyed todays story be sure to checkout Ben’s behind the scenes documentaries on his Youtube channel here.

The business advice is on another level!

Until next time, keep dreaming like a Giant.

But fight and believe in your dreams like a God Damn Underdog.

Yours truly,

-Nigel Thomas

P.S. If you enjoyed this there are 3 ways you can get more involved:

#1: Not yet subscribed To David to Goliath? Subscribe Here so you don’t miss out on the next email!

#2: Prefer listening instead of reading? Listen to the Exclusive David to Goliath Podcast Here

#3: Check out my LinkedIn Content Everyday I post stories, tools and mindset tips to help you win in life and business.