The Entrepreneur: Stuart Conroy, Activ8

From curbing his enthusiasm to learning on the job, the wholesale and retail entrepreneur sums up business lessons from growing a £10m company

Founder: Stuart Conroy
Company: Activ8
Website: http://www.a8uk.com
Description in one line: Accessories retailer for digital devices and a online facilitator for starter brands
Turnover: £10.6m (2015)
12 month target: £13m

Business growth

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

  • Activ8 is a multi-channel business, bridging the gap between the manufacturing floor and end users.
  • Our business structure not only looks at how the business should be run in the future, but the reality of how it can be run today.
  • Its focus spans from manufacturing and global sourcing through to B2B and B2C.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Being on The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 of leading companies two years running would be the answer from an awards perspective,but really it was in changing the way a manufacturing operation could work with a UK company.

I created a separate model for distribution that puts more money into our manufacturing partner from overall profits which kept them incentivised to deliver continual quality and innovation.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

Revenue and profitability on a daily basis. I was a little naïve of KPIs until a couple of years ago; we are now engaging the team in a variety of indicators so we can create inclusivity within the company.

We were a little blind at the micro-level of our business beforehand and KPIs are one of those things you learn as you go along, especially if you haven’t been to business school.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

Most of our revenue is derived from overseas trade but we are buying in US Dollars so the devaluation of the pound right now doesn’t really help us, except for the stock we hold in the UK.

We have a good understanding of global online trading and we are working with partners to extend this element of the business. These days, you really have to have a global perspective on your products with a view to control of the supply chain, continuity of brand etc.

Describe your growth funding path:

The business was self-financed. In 2007 I remortgaged my house to seize the opportunity that we saw.

We have since invested funds in different ventures to grow the company while also building a risk management structure that has brought breadth to the company rather than just focusing on revenue today.

What technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

Apart from Excel (which is still the greatest invention for businesses ever!), we have tried to use the latest technology wherever possible and not get bogged down in to some of the bigger solutions. It means we can move quickly if we need to.

One advantage a start-up has over its competitors is the use of latest technology, as more established companies can become tied down to older systems.

We have recently moved from Magento to Shopify for a number of client projects because of the ease of transactions and the ability to use their POS solution in our iFix stores. I’m not dismissing WordPress or Magento but for a roll-out of a project that needed POS solutions alongside e-commerce, Shopify is such a simple and well thought out process.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

Our sector moves so quickly so we want to be a key player in our industry and I see us being ambassadors for the smart device accessory market.

Growth challenges

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

Letting people go. I was naïve in thinking I could keep a team through growing the business and the many changes that occur with that. We all talk of building business cultures and it becomes difficult during the course of that journey to let people go that you felt were integral.

We are more grown up in how we look at this now but, if certain projects don’t work, letting go of staff is part of business.

What was your biggest business mistake?

It’s always a difficult one to answer; if you hadn’t made mistakes you wouldn’t have changed and grown personally or matured as a company. My biggest lesson learnt was trying to do too much too soon.

We tried to take on a few too many projects and in business you’re always learning from decisions like this. We had to go back and build more solid foundations – my biggest challenge remains in curbing all of my enthusiasm into more focused projects. I don’t regret any of it as I don’t want to look back thinking I shirked an opportunity or feared failure through trying to be better.

To learn that you must fail fast is usually derived from having failed slowly in the past.

Piece of Red Tape that hampers growth most:

HR to me seems to be the one that gets most business time. You want a fair system that is not detrimental to businesses investing in people and projects.

What is the most common serious mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Working too hard in the business. A friend of mine recently recommended the E-Myth book by Michael Gerber and I wish I’d read it years ago.

It offers a fantastic insight into why so many businesses fail, as the entrepreneur becomes bogged down in the business and ends up not doing the bits they enjoy which would ultimately bring the best success to the business.

Aside from that, I would say lack of planning in not making sure that there are clear goals and expectation to measure against. In a fast-growing business, it is not always easy to look up so laying the foundations initially is basic but essential work.

How will your market look in three years?

We have always looked to evolve with the market and whilst we see more competition in our space, continually we are using our skill-sets to help other market sectors.

I like an environment that is new every day and we are always learning about new technologies and ways of doing things but we’re realistic that so many sectors are relatively short loved these days. We see the internet and associated logistics as a longer term requirement rather than our products within it so we’ll keep evolving.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

Set your targets for what you want the business to be. Plan for growth if that is the intention; knowing that key personnel you will need to be supported as the business grows. Too many fail where the main person is the focus of everything and the business outgrows them.

Be aware of the figures – too many businesses, particularly at the early stage of their lives, are not on top of their targets and goals.

Personal growth

Biggest luxury:

Running my own business and having to only answer to me!

Executive education or learn it on the job?

I’ve learnt everything on the job having been in banking IT previously. Sometimes you just have to take the leap. Nobody likes to fail at something but sometimes these failures are the greatest learning lessons.

What would make you a better leader?

Distancing myself from people and realising it is business. You want people to have fun, learn and thrive in a working environment.

I always wanted to be part of that as well but I think to have the respect of others you need that distance.

What one thing do you wish you’d known when you started?

Business itself. I wasn’t that interested in business growing up as I wasn’t from that type of background but you’re never too old to start so I’m focusing more of my attention on learning the elements of running a business away from being in the business.

One business app and one personal app you can’t do without:

Business: It would have to be 7Geese – it tracks objective key results through the business and we’ve already seen the benefits of providing transparency through all levels of the business!

Personal: My favourite personal app at the moment is SWORKIT for stretches and workouts, although really you can’t beat Hive for controlling your heating when the winter sets in.

Business book:

The E-Myth by Michael Gerber. Loved reading it and could relate to so much of it (see the point about business mistakes above).

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