We meet founder and CEO Will King
King of Shaves boss Will King is on a mission to become the king of the shaving jungle.
From launching the first razor that doesn’t need any foam, gel or oil to being invited to shave Sir Richard Branson in space, he’s doing everything to take on big dogs like Gillette and Wilkinson Sword. To date, he claims to have provided five billion shaves worldwide.
Launched in 1993, King of Shaves boasts products including shaving oils, gels and razors. More than 97% of King of Shaves’ products are made in the UK and exported to countries including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Turkey and Brazil.
King’s Mission? To become the “iPhone of the shaving world”. How will he manage to do that? We ask him:
Q. How did you think of setting up King of Shaves?
In 1993, I was made redundant from my job in marketing and decided that I wanted to be my own boss and make something in the UK. I suffered from razor rashes, burns and soreness every time I shaved. I happened to use bath oil to shave and for once I wasn’t left with a rash. So I thought I’d make my own shaving oil because if it worked for me, it could work for others with the same issue. Twenty one years later, we’ve shaved over five billion people. Guess I was right!
Q. Where did you get the funding from?
I got £7,500 seed investment from two investors and £2,500 from my mum. I also spent £7,000-£8000 on my credit card to get the business off the ground.
Q. How did you crack deals with retailers?
I was burning cash, my mum’s especially, and I needed to get the product on sale. I rang up Harrods, got hold of then owner Mohammed Al-Fayed’s PA and faxed over a letter asking if “the world’s best department store would stock the world’s best shaving product?” I had an order sent back via fax the next day for two dozen bottles.
That led to Boots listing King of Shaves and other major retailers following suit. I did what I had to do but I wouldn’t recommend it as a strategy.
Q. What have been the biggest challenges in growing the business?
Our market is pretty unique. We have half a dozen major competitors, of which one or two have massive market shares. So, the challenges were first getting listed, then bought, and growing without having recourse to multi-million-pound marketing budgets.
The razor and blade market is dominated by one company and is a minefield regarding patents and IP. So, launching our Hyperglide razor for sure was a huge challenge that cost us millions and took five years. In fact, we first started work developing the razor about 11 years ago.
The past four years have been very tough. In 2009, we demerged the King of Shaves brand into a new company and took on £4m of debt and equity funding. We then raised a further £5m equity and also pioneered the ‘SME retail bond’ with our shaving bond in 2009.
These funds have been used to maintain market share in the UK, and for a short while, in the USA while we brought our Hyperglide system razor to market. At the same time, Spectrum Brands, the company that owns our US distributor Remington, wanted to buy us but the deal fell through.
This and a variety of other reasons led to our exit from the US market for two years. We re-launched in the US with supermarket giant Target only in February 2014.
All this and more took its toll, but we survived. In my opinion, we now have the best razor in the market and a potentially very exciting future.
Guess we overcame hurdles through belief, passion, persistence, amazing talent on the design and engineering side. We believe that despite not being the biggest, we could be the best. We maintained a sense of humour and humility throughout. However, it did put more grey hairs on my head, for sure!
Q. Tell us about the countries you’ve exported to? How hard was it to enter foreign markets?
We’ve been in the USA since 2000 and then out briefly in 2012-13 but now we’re back in. We must deliver at some stage a viable business in the USA, but it’s a tough market with our principal razor competitors being American. We’ve been in New Zealand, then Australia since the late nineties. We also launched in Japan and in Brazil for a short period of time.
We are in Turkey and are looking at a limited number of European countries. We’re also looking at China to export our products.
It’s been costly and complex selling our brand internationally. But with the internet and the fact we are selling more of less products, it’s hopefully getting a little easier.
Q. How have you marketed your products?
Without having had budgets for sustained TV and print campaigns, we’ve had to be clever and creative. We bought shave.com in 1995 for $35 and used that to great effect. Over the years we’ve had a number of well-known celebrities signed to promote us, and we’ve always done things differently, like sponsoring the ‘eBay sprinter’ James Ellington in London 2012 Olympics, when he was hoaxed. [Ellington auctioned himself on eBay in 2012. An anonymous bidder pledged £32,500 to sponsor him for the London Olympics but failed to come forward.]
In recent years, we’ve created a number of online viral films and always benefited from great press and PR. My ‘The King’s Speech’ parody that my wife and advertising creative director Tiger Savage shot in 2011 was fantastic. It cost us very little and was the fifth most re-tweeted viral video on the Oscar Night 2011, when the (real) King’s speech garnered 11 Oscars!
Q. What do you think the UK needs to boost exports?
Firstly, have products worth exporting! Irrespective of their nationality, people will only buy your product if you’re the best and offer a clear point of difference. We for sure can’t compete on manufacturing costs so support should be given to small companies and businesses by the government.
I think UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) is doing a very good job overall. It has been helping us with an eastern European country but we still have a lot of local issues there to overcome.
The internet of course can allow you to sell internationally without moving from the comfort of your mobile device in the UK. However, you must be on top of all the local language issues, translations and regulations.
For example, if you want to import a toiletries product into China, you must agree for them to test it on animals. Given that we’re against animal testing, it’s a big issue. If you make it there, you can get around that, but what if someone copies your formula?
Q. What’s that one key advice you’d like to give British entrepreneurs starting up?
Whatever you start up, it must be GREAT. There is now no place for average, samey, ok or alright. It’s the Tripadvisor “rate or slate” effect. You can be known instantly via the internet, with reviews and people seeing what you’re doing and why. So, you must come up with something GREAT as only then you stand a chance.
And, remember, as a start-up you need to have a ton of momentum to make up for your lack of mass. Think of you being a fly, you need to be travelling at thousands of miles an hour, so the windscreens you’ll invariably meet, you smash (a
nd survive) rather than one hitting you.
Q. What are your future plans?
I’m pretty sure I won’t be the “I came, I saw, I shaved, I died” guy. I know there’ll be something else. I’ve still a way to go scaling up King of Shaves, around our Hyperglide technology, and we have some interesting complementary commercial avenues to examine.
I’d love to finally get my Bat Yacht built – anyone out there who’d like to own this amazing piece of innovation, let me know!