Quintessentially: Ben Elliot
There are numerous advantages to aiming your business at the very wealthy, as Ben Elliot explains
There are a number of advantages to aiming your business squarely towards the very wealthy, as the co-founder of Quintessentially, Ben Elliot, explains to Growing Business.
It’s not what you know it’s who you know. We’ve all heard that before. But if you’re going to launch an exclusive concierge service that specialises in acquiring members everything from a reservation at a top restaurant to the perfect holiday home, it’s less a cliché and more a hard fact.
Ben Elliot, co-founder of Quintessentially (and nephew of Camilla Parker-Bowles), is suitably well-connected. But it takes more than that to get to where he and Aaron Simpson are today: presiding over a recession-defying global brand in the making. “Nothing’s easy in life,” he says. “If you want to do something, you’ve got to put some serious work into it.”
Elliot was fresh out of university and had become “involved with restaurants and nightclubs”, when he met independent film producer Simpson. “We believed, naïvely probably, that we could deliver a service to people in the film and music industry in London.” Not so naïvely, as it turns out. Self-funded and launching with just three employees, their first members came from contacts in the film and club industries. Making a gross profit almost from the get-go, and a net profit within two years, they were able to reach beyond both their target market and London remarkably quickly, opening an office in New York just two years after launch and adding seven or eight international offices every year since then. The company now has a presence in 52 cities across the globe.
With Quintessentially membership costing more than the average person’s annual salary, the service, without any doubt, is directed towards those with some serious money to spend. So it must have been a worrying time when the recession started to bite. However, although membership fell, the über-rich didn’t cut out ‘essentials’ like luxury concierge services and Simpson has said that in terms of revenue and quality of members, the business actually saw an increase.
“I don’t think for a moment we had any clue that it would happen outside the UK or there would be other things we would try to do under the auspices of the Quintessentially brand,” says Elliot. “Aaron might pretend that he did, but it would be a lie.”
The bigger, the better
While others might recoil from the rapid and ambitious rate of expansion undertaken by Quintessentially, Elliot explains that the proposition is only strengthened by becoming bigger. If a member – typically someone who lives a decent part of their life at 30,000 feet – can access your services anywhere around the world by dialling a number on a little black card, they’re receiving a better service and are more likely to renew. There’s a certain element of grow fast or don’t grow. The same principle applies to the equally ambitious expansion of Quintessentially’s offering. By sprouting over 30 sister businesses (a number that’s rising all the time), the business can cater for the discerning member via brands such as Quintessentially Butlers and Quintessentially Aviation. Happily for the founders, they have been able to do it all without taking on any debt.
“Most things we’ve done haven’t been that capital intensive,” Elliot explains, “so we’ve been able to cashflow them off our membership base. Of course, this may change in the future, especially if we start to be involved in more bricks-and-mortar stuff.”
Elliot remembers the moment when he glimpsed the potential of the business he co-founded at only 23 years of age (although “I’m still glimpsing now!” he insists). It was at the launch of the New York office ( a launch funded directly from the profits of the UK business), held at Sotheby’s, no less.
“It was snowing,” he recalls, “and I looked out of this building and there were queues of people trying to get in and hear about what this small British firm, punching way above its weight, was trying to do. I remember thinking: ‘If we can achieve something here, we might be able to create a service that, as a member, you can access whether you are in Moscow, Beijing or Miami’.”
He followed this vision through, and thanks to its subsequent quick growth, the business has retained its entrepreneurial nature, with Elliot speculating that the larger corporate organisations probably still see the company as far too entrepreneurial for comfort.
Although the brand has now got firm roots here in the UK, in London in particular, Elliot protests when I describe it as established. “We’re established here, but in other places we’re trying to become established and that takes a minimum of three years,” he insists.
The upshot of this constant start-up process is that entrepreneurial people are attracted to the company. “And if you’ve got good people you can do anything,” says Elliot. This is particularly important for the range of sister businesses.
“A lot of people think we just license our brand, but we own those businesses ourselves,” says Elliot who notes that two elements have to be present: an idea, which often comes from having been let down by a third party “making us think we can do it better ourselves”; and an individual within the group identified as being able to deliver. There are plenty of opportunities for employees to move up the ranks, with the company valuing entrepreneurial spirit.
“I don’t care if people fail,” says Elliot, “but I am impressed by people who try and do things.”
This spirit speaks of Elliot’s seven years in America after Quintessentially set up its New York operation, and his admiration for the US way of doing things is evident. “They get up and do business,” he says. “They’re relentless. That American dream thing does run deep, they believe it.” He agrees he was lucky to head to the States when he did. “America’s much more difficult now than it was,” he continues. “Although our membership is holding up well, some of the projects we’ve got involved in – hotel or real estate developments, for example – aren’t growing the same way they were between 2003 and 2008.”
So although the business has weathered the recession very well, Elliot is “not counting any chickens”, and warns that “it’s going to be very difficult for the next three or four years”.
Regardless, Quintessentially will continue to grow, with many more cities being added to its existing 52. Other plans are in the pipeline, too, including hotels, further members’ clubs to join Quintessentially at the House of St Barnabus (the pop-up club with a philanthropic edge that Elliot hopes will become permanent), along with more projects with a social conscience.
Elliot recalls getting the name out there in the business’ early days. “We just had to keep saying the name over and over again, until people started to know who we are,” he says.
If the last 10 years are anything to go by, Quintessentially will be a name many more will have heard of by 2020.
“No one could accuse us of not being enthusiastic and not trying,” Elliot says. “By and large we do a really good job. And I’m as harsh a critic as they come.”