Product idea #5: Cornerstone
The young founder tells Startups about the thrill of being an entrepreneur and how his subscription-based product business was born out of personal frustration
Founder: Oliver Bridge
Location: Greater London
Date launched: June 2014
The product: Quality and inexpensive men’s shaving products
Cornerstone is the latest venture from serial entrepreneur Oliver Bridge, who first appeared on Startups when he was just 15 after launching an innovative shoe company for men with large feet – BiggerFeet. After studying at Oxford and launching a second venture, Bridge is back with his third business – another product business he felt the world was missing.
After a eureka moment whilst waiting in a queue to buy razors, Bridge came up with the idea for his flexible subscription service that provides high-quality shaving and skincare products – delivered directly to your door according to your unique ‘shave plan’. And by cutting out the retailers, Cornerstone is able to deliver quality products for a fraction of the retail price.
Financing the start-up himself and building the company in every spare hour he had he kept his day job working for a venture capital fund. Bridge sourced initial finance and created partnerships with experts in the industry – including manufacturers that have been creating razors since the 1920s and specialised skincare chemists – to gear up for launch in June this year.
With a business proposition of a simpler and better way to shave; the start-up has launched when subscription businesses are thriving in other industries, and after successfully obtaining further backing from angel investors and promising initial market interest, Bridge’s third business seems set to succeed.
Below, the 26 year-old founder discusses the essentiality of packaging, being transparent and the various funding routes he went down to make sure his product idea came to life.
Can you briefly describe your background Oliver?
I’ve been running my own businesses for 20 years, my first serious venture was BiggerFeet.com after I became frustrated at not being able to find large shoes for my size 13 feet.
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I then studied at Oxford University and, in my second year, launched Genderchecker.com, which is a search engine that helps identify the gender of names. When I left Oxford I worked for an innovation consultancy and a venture capital firm, focusing on the technology and consumer brands sectors.
Once you’ve experienced the thrill, freedom and responsibility of running your own business though, it’s hard to resist pursuing that again – if you’re an entrepreneur at heart, then having a ‘normal’ day job working for someone else is pretty much impossible.
Where did the idea for come from?
Cornerstone was born out of frustration – I have always hated shaving. It’s something that I’d been forced to do for work and never quite got on with it; my skin reacted badly, buying razors is incredibly expensive, and the process of shopping for toiletries is inconvenient.
Standing in line at the supermarket one day to buy razors, I had the Eureka moment that I could create a regular delivery service offering quality, better value products – which would solve all three problems at once.
Firstly we offer a better way to shave. Men generally don’t understand much about the science behind skincare and most men don’t follow some of the most basic techniques that are required for a smooth, comfortable shave. This is where Cornerstone is different.
We sell a range of products that are intended to be used together, and complement each other to deliver a genuinely superior shave. On our packaging, we also very clearly explain what each product is for and how to use it. We give honest and clear direction rather than resorting to some of the space age phrases and incomprehensible acronyms you might find on other products – it’s all part of trying to help give our customers a better shave.
Secondly we offer a fair price, our razors and our skincare are exceptionally good quality, and are comparable to many of the premium brands you’d find in department stores, but we can offer them at very competitive prices.
And finally, convenience. We sell our products through what we call a ‘shave plan’ – a flexible, regular delivery service. In essence, we automatically re-stock their bathroom cupboard based on their specific shaving routine so that they never run out of razors or skincare products.
What market research did you conduct to learn more about the sector?
I spent a lot of time speaking to other men about their shaving and skincare habits. What emerged quite quickly was that most were frustrated at the shortcomings of their current products or routines, but weren’t sure where to turn for help or what to change.
It was clear to me that if we could put together a simple, elegant solution that helped men achieve a better shave, then men would be willing to switch to Cornerstone.
What have you done to protect the IP of your products?
We own the formulations IP on our skincare products – this was relatively easy, a simple contract with the team of chemists that helped us develop them. We designed the razor handle ourselves so we own those designs, though the patents on the razor blades are owned by our German manufacturing partners.
The main IP protection we have spent time and money on is trademarks for our brand (EU and US registrations) and ownership of the data and code, which our website is built from.
How did you finance Cornerstone?
I initially financed the business with a £5,000 Start Up Loan and £10,000 from savings – this paid for the legal set-up costs plus the initial product samples and a website mock-up. Once we had those, I went to a number of high net worth investors and raised £160,000 in angel funding through SEIS.
Describe your business journey to date, from having the idea for Cornerstone to bringing it to the market.
Having had the initial idea, I spent a couple of months researching the market and putting together a rough plan of how everything would work. Then I registered the business and began to get things moving – that was January 2013.
My next step was to bring on board some expert partners to help turn Cornerstone into a reality. I couldn’t afford to quit my job as we hadn’t raised any funding at this point, so I spent nine months working full-time in my VC role, and then doing this at weekends, in the evenings and during my lunch hours!
Once the supply chain was set-up and we had mock-up products and a website, I raised finance from angel investors – this allowed us to put the skincare products and razor handle into production, and provided resources to build our e-commerce platform. After a series of frustrating delays and hold-ups we finally launched in July 2014.
We have now been up and running for five months and not much has changed from the original plan. We have tweaked our marketing strategy to follow the ideas that have worked well and ditch the ones that haven’t, but otherwise our mission of giving men a better shave is unchanged.
Do you manufacture the products entirely yourselves?
Whilst we worked closely with chemists and industrial designers in developing our skincare products and razor handle, the actual production itself is handled by external manufacturing partners. Locating quality, trustworthy manufacturers and convincing them to work with a pre-launch start-up was probably the second hardest thing I’ve had to do (getting investment was the hardest!).
Our razor blades are manufactured by a team in Germany who have been making razors since the 1920s. Making razors yourself is an extremely difficult task, so we knew we’d have to find another partner to work with on this – we spent months trying razors from manufacturers all over the world, and finally settled on these guys as they were simply the best.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs considering launching their own shaving products business?
Stay away! No seriously, it’s a tough market to get into – there are significant start-up costs involved in buying stock and tooling, and the marketing challenge is a difficult one – whether you sell online or through retail.
As Will King pointed out to me recently, there is a reason that very few new men’s grooming brands have managed to achieve scale in recent years: it’s a tricky sector.
What are Cornerstone’s future plans?
Eventually I’d like to think we could expand overseas and potentially move into new product areas, but I’m conscious that we should stay focussed on what we’re good at, and for the time being, that’s helping men in Britain to have a better shave each day.