Young Guns: 10 years of Top Guns – but who will be next?
From MyVoucherCodes’ founder Mark Pearson to Olivia Burton’s Jemma Fennings & Lesa Bennett, read the inspiring stories of our 12 Top Guns
Over the last 15 years, Young Guns has had the privilege of identifying some of the UK’s most promising entrepreneurial talent aged under 35, with many going on to stamp an indelible mark on the nation’s business landscape and some even becoming household names.
For the last decade, one of those exceptional businesses has had the honour of being named by haysmacintyre as our Top Gun; awarded to the business the judges felt stood out above peers from 29 other hugely impressive companies.
As the countdown to the launch of the 2017 Young Guns begins, we look back at the 10 businesses and 12 individuals who have secured the title to find out about their inspirational achievements and what happened next.
So, what can we learn from the previous Top Guns, and how can you put yourself in pole position to take the title yourself?
Well, other than a prevalence for names beginning with ‘M’ (there’s a Marc, a Michael, two Marks and two Matthews), the following 12 entrepreneurs share a knack for innovation and disruption; one, Sara Davies, has an MBE, while a number have had their exceptional growth recognised by The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 – the newspaper’s annual list of the fastest growing privately held companies over the last three years.
Many have gone on to launch venture capital operations on the back of their success, to help fund and build the next generation of high-performing UK start-ups, while philanthropy is also a shared passion for our Top Guns.
Instrumental in selecting the identity of each year’s Top Gun since 2007, haysmacintyre partner Natasha Frangos says the deep consideration put into the decision-making has resulted in a group of incomparable quality: “The excellent quality of Young Guns never ceases to impress me, even after eleven years of supporting the programme.
“When selecting the Top Gun, the stand-out characteristics we look for are innovation and a strong, unique identity. Top Guns influence how business is done in their markets or are leading examples to others in their sectors, whom other entrepreneurs turn to for inspiration on how to be successful.
“As demonstrated by the stories below of the last ten haysmacintyre Top Guns, the individuals and their businesses are never accepting of perceived existing “business norms” and have made strides in improving areas such as efficiency, connectivity and value, or championed specific areas of the market which were being insufficiently served until they came along.”
Read on for their stories…
2007: Tom Allason, eCourier
The inaugural Top Gun chosen by haysmacintyre, then 26-year-old Tom Allason took the title as the founder of GPS-tracked courier service eCourier and remains the youngest person ever to have won the award. Founded in 2003 after a courier lost a pair of Queen’s tennis tournament tickets, eCourier was born from the building of an “ultra-smart” computer AIBA (advanced information-based allocation), which connects with couriers’ mobile GPS units and feeds back their exact location every 15 seconds. At the time of his win, eCourier had raised £8m and was on track to hit £7.2m in turnover.
Allason left the company in 2008 to work on a new venture, building on his experience in the e-commerce delivery space to launch Shutl in 2010 – featured in the 2012 Startups 100 index – where he remains CEO. The operation allows customers to send and receive packages in as little as 90 minutes or within a convenient one-hour time slot and has raised more than £8.6m to date across seven rounds. It operates across London, Manhattan and Chicago and has been incorporated into the delivery options of major retailers including Hotel Chocolat, Huggle, Karen Millen and Maplin. In 2013, it was announced that eBay had acquired Shutl for an undisclosed sum. The two companies have recently collaborated on a new delivery service that was built from scratch to help small businesses run more efficiently. After Allason’s departure, eCourier was acquired by Courier Systems in 2012, the trading name of Revisecatch Ltd and the brand name remains one of London and the south’s largest courier fleets.
2008: Neil Hutchinson, TrafficBroker (now Forward Internet Group)
Four years before being named Top Gun, Neil Hutchinson started a small digital marketing firm from his bedroom after reading an e-book called GoogleCash. TrafficBroker – as it was then called – specialised in sending traffic to clients via Google AdWords. His one-man band grew to become one of the biggest affiliate marketing firms in the UK, achieving sales upwards of £20m. At that point already working for more than 250 companies – including eBay, the O2 and Amazon – across 40 countries, TrafficBroker was expecting to reach £25m in turnover for 2008.
The company evolved into, and rebranded, as Forward Internet Group, diversifying its offering and starting to invest in, create and acquire other internet companies through Forward Partners. Hutchinson remains the principal investor of the group, which now has more than 20 companies in its portfolio across two investment vehicles: Forward Dimension Capital and Forward Partners. Forward Internet Group appeared in The Sunday Times Top Track 250 in 2013, with sales upwards of £202m and 460 employees; and The Sunday Times Profit Track 100 in 2014, with annual profit growth above 46%. Hutchinson was also included in The Sunday Times Rich List in 2014, with a staggering personal fortune estimated to be £586m. By 2016 he made the list with wealth estimated at £75m. In 2014, Hutchinson founded NEON Adventures – a London-based finance and property company that focuses on investing in finance, property, lifestyle and philanthropic causes through the NEON Foundation. NEON Adventures has a particular focus on education technology and has invested in a number of edtech firms as well as London-based edtech accelerator Emerge Education.
2009: Marc Boyan, Miroma
Marc Boyan was 33 years old when, in 2009, he was bestowed with the Top Gun title as the founder of media bartering company Miroma. It was the wake of the financial crisis; many firms had been left with unsold inventory and a smaller marketing budget – Miroma’s nifty solution was to allow its customers to pay for a percentage of their advertising with their own products or services, opening up additional revenue streams for struggling businesses. That same year the company made The Sunday Times Fast Track 100, with its revenue more than doubling from £9m to £20.2m. It was already expecting to more than double again to £50m by the end of 2010.
The organisation continued to thrive, growing turnover 77% between 2008 and 2011 and appearing in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 in every one of those years (one of only three companies to do so). Boyan set up Miroma Ventures in 2010, which focuses on media, technology and consumer investments. In its portfolio are Miroma International, Who What Wear, Outdoor Plus, Pinterest, SB.TV (the media company owned by Jamal Edwards), Startups Awards-winning Appear Here, and Blis Media. Boyan also sits on the executive board of the Rays of Sunshine Children’s Charity, which grants the wishes of seriously ill children aged three to 18.
2010: Michael Phillips, Consumer Choices
In 2010, it was the turn of Michael Phillips to take the title of Top Gun. The 34 year-old founded ConsumerChoices.co.uk in 2005, a price comparison site that helped consumers save money across broadband, home phone, gas & electricity, and insurance. In the five years to its win the company saw 80% growth and reached more than £4.5m in turnover, while its website was seeing 950,000 unique visitors a month. Phillips was looking to start building his brand offline and was in partnerships with “a very large retailer” to start selling broadband or home products in store.
The company rebranded as Broadbandchoices in 2012, by which time it was attracting 1.8m visitors per month and turning over a cool £11m. It also launched operations in Spain, France and Germany and, after a £10m investment from the Business Growth Fund, planned further international expansion. It now operates under the Decision Tech brand, alongside schlaubi, Mobile, Comparemymobile.com, Sellmymobile.com, and Partner Services. Founded by Philips in 2006, Decision Tech creates destination websites and apps to help people discover the “very best” products and services. Phillips contributed a blog to Growing Business in which he discussed lessons he’d learned from his years of experience in the business world, including the importance of location and launching a TV ad campaign.
2011: Mark Pearson, MyVoucherCodes.co.uk
Having grown his voucher and deals network MyVoucherCodes to profit margins of more than 90% on an impressive £10m turnover, Mark Pearson was the obvious choice as Top Gun 2011. Started in his bedroom, the entrepreneur managed to fund the whole operation himself and retained 100% of the equity. He even appeared on the Channel 4 show The Secret Millionaire in 2010, in which he donated £115,000 of his own money to three different charities. Markco Media -the parent company of MyVoucherCodes – was in the Sunday Times Tech Track 100.
Pearson sold Markco Media for a reported £55m in June 2014 to financial services technology firm Monitise – founded by fellow Young Gun Alistair Lukies – and is now estimated to be worth an estimated £60m. Bolstered by this significant windfall, he founded technology investment fund Fuel. Ventures the same year, which invests in high-potential, early-stage companies. A month after launch, he opened up the fund to the public on crowdfunding site Seedrs in what was thought to be a world first, giving them the chance to access previously exclusive venture capital opportunities. Young Gun-founded Paddle is in its portfolio and it acquired VE Interactive out of administration in April this year. In 2015, Pearson was selected to be a Startups Awards judge. Find out more about the MyVoucherCodes founder with these five must know facts.
2012: Matt ‘Mills’ Miller & John ‘Sinx’ Sinclair, ustwo
2012 marked the first time a pair took Young Guns’ Top Gun title after Matt ‘Mills’ Miller and John ‘Sinx’ Sinclair (then both 34) won as founders of digital products firm ustwo. Started in 2004, ustwo works with its clients to develop multi-platform digital experiences, products and user interfaces. At the time of its win, the company employed 120 staff across London, Malmö and New York and had worked with the likes of Sony, Channel 4 and Barclays.
In May 2013, the company launched ustwo games – a now 20-strong team of developers producing independent mobile games, including the BAFTA award-winning hit Monument Valley, which has been downloaded a staggering 30 million times to date. ustwo has now also opened an office in Sydney and employs more than 250 people. Mills was one of the entrepreneurs invited to Brent Hoberman’s Founders of the Future initiative last year; a network of tech leaders aiming to uncover and nurture future tech stars aged 16-35. Despite having consciously steered clear of external funding themselves – in order to retain full control – the founders have also launched a small fund, which helped co-found and invest in ticketing app DICE – a Startups Awards finalist – and was an initial investor in fellow Young Guns alumnus Richard Baister’s latest venture Brainwave. Baister spoke to Startups.co.uk about how meeting Mills at the 2012 Young Guns event kickstarted a bromance that would eventually lead to investment.
2013: Mark Kanji, Apptivation
Mark Kanji was chosen by haysmacintrye as Top Gun just one year after launching Apptivation in 2012 – a full service app development consultancy providing mobile solutions to the banking and retail sectors. It was clear Apptivation was headed for big things when Lloyds Banking Group was signed as its first big client; others, including Camelot and Mitie followed.
Kanji remains as CEO of Apptivation, which had reached £14m in turnover by 2015. After discovering that he had managed to accumulate 402,000 loyalty points with his favourite airline without knowing it, and with billions worth of loyalty points estimated to be left unclaimed in the UK, the entrepreneur started on his latest venture Loyalive in the same year; a free app that allows users to store all their loyalty cards in one place, check their live balances and access rewards they receive from loyalty programmes. The company managed to expand out to the US in the year of its launch where Kanji says there are three billion active loyalty memberships.
2014: Matthew Hayes, Champions (UK) Plc
With growth of 700% over six years and clients including Rolex, Santander, ITV, Sir Alex Ferguson and Ronan Keating, the success of Matthew Hayes holistic brand agency Champions (UK) belied its origins in a small Leicestershire village. The year before Hayes was named Top Gun, his company turned over £15m and was already on target to hit £20m the following year. The company was in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 in 2012
With Hayes remaining as managing director, the last few years have seen Champions continue to expand, widening its scope to 10 different services including digital, media, publishing, advertising and web, alongside its original areas of marketing, events, PR, creative and celebrity. It counts Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Dior, Barclays, IKEA and Jaguar as clients and also represents a huge variety of celebrities including the winner of the first series of Big Brother and DIY TV personality Craig Phillips, snooker player Jimmy White and Coronation Street’s William Roache. The company recently created a new division called Influencer Champions, which helps vloggers and bloggers to form online partnerships with brands. In order to accommodate these expansion plans and its “ever-increasing” team of 80 – the company is hoping to employ 100 staff by late 2018 – Champions has invested £1m in building out its current site to 13,000 square feet. This is ahead of an ambitious £50m turnover target for 2022.
2015 Sara Davies MBE, Crafters Companion
Sara Davies became Top Gun in 2015 as the founder of Crafter’s Companion. Started a decade earlier while Davies was studying at university, the arts and crafts marketplace employed 66 across offices in County Durham and Silicon Valley. It had achieved turnover of £11m and was already on track to reach £15m for that year.
Sara Davies was awarded an MBE for services to the economy in the Queen’s 90th Birthday Honours in 2016. The company saw its UK workforce swell to more than 70 (and over 90 globally) as it opened its first retail outlet next to its corporate headquarters at Aycliffe Industrial Park, which sells suppliers and offers the opportunity to learn about craft and socialise with other enthusiasts. In March 2016, Crafters Companion announced a partnership with craft TV channel Hochanda moving all its TV distribution business and its shows to the channel’s premises. Davies and Crafters have continued to create innovative crafting tools and supplies, and the company – which had sales of more than £15m in 2016 – is now thought to be one of Europe’s leading manufacturers and suppliers of crafting products.
2016 Jemma Fennings & Lesa Bennett, Olivia Burton
Our most recent Top Guns are the founders of fashion-led watch brand Olivia Burton Jemma Fennings & Lesa Bennet. The pair started the business 2012 after meeting and becoming best friends on their first day at London College of Fashion. The brand went on to secure listings in Selfridges, John Lewis and Anthropologie in the UK, as well as in retailers in the US, Australia, Japan, France and the Netherlands. Still 100% owned by the founders, Olivia Burton was on track to generate more than £13m for 2017.
Time moves on fast and Fennings and Bennett no longer own 100% of the company’s equity. Just six years old, Olivia Burton was acquired by US watchmaker the Movado Group in July 2017 for a staggering £60m. The brand had seen strong growth in the US market, available in 117 Nordstrom stores by January 2017. It’s not hard to see what attracted the US firm: Olivia Burton’s revenue rose 64% to £15m in 2016 and the company is expecting that figure to rise to £25m by the end of the fiscal year in 2018. Bennett and Fennings will continue to run the company and its 33 employees from headquarters in Shoreditch, reporting to Movado CEO Efraim Grinberg.
Upon inking the deal, Grinberg told sector website WatchPro the reasons Olivia Burton held such appeal. “A lot of things: the level of creativity in the product is amazing, as has been the brand and the DNA that Lesa [Bennett] and Jemma [Fennings] have built. I get offered watch companies to buy all the time and a lot of these new start-ups that are out there have been offered to us. But this is the only one that I was interested in and instead of them courting us, I had to court them. I have spent the last year doing that, and I am delighted that we made it happen.” The brand has also continued to launch a new collection of styles every two months – in order to keep in step with seasonal trends – and made the jump into jewellery just in time for Valentine’s Day earlier this year with its ‘Busy Bees’ collection, featuring bracelets and bangles that can be stacked alongside its watches, as well as necklaces and earrings that all incorporate its 3D bee designs.
Discussing Fennings and Bennet’s major news, Frangos adds: “In their award acceptance speech last year, I recall the owners of Olivia Burton referring to how an adviser practically laughed them out of the room when they described their plans for their business.
“Standing firm and being committed to their idea has clearly paid off massively in light of their recent exit to Movado Group in an impressively short number of years post business launch. This steadfastness is a common factor amongst the Top Guns – it is a trait to be admired and encouraged amongst other business leaders.
“These hero entrepreneurs have not only created businesses which match the demands of today’s (and often tomorrow’s) customers, but, in doing so, they have often created a distinctive culture, an aligned team of workers and an inspired group of shareholders.
“And where the Top Guns have since exited, they have continued to have a positive influence elsewhere, whether that’s advising or investing in others’ businesses, championing a philanthropic cause or starting a new innovative business idea. All these are reasons why it’s important to celebrate hero entrepreneurs and why we, at haysmacintyre, will continue to support Young Guns.”