Reef One Ltd: Matthew Stevenson

There's nothing fishy about this company's rise to the top

Matthew Stevenson started his own business straight from university. But he wasn’t your typical Oxbridge bio-chemical entrepreneur, in fact, he admits he’s not really that academic. Instead, Reef One was born out of a hobby in aquatics. With a £2 million turnover and now expanding into Europe and the US, Matthew has proved it’s not just the red brick universities that are producing the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

Name: Matthew Stevenson Age: 28 Business name: Reef One Ltd What does your business do: Designs, manufactures and markets innovative aquariums and aquarium products Number of employees: 20 Turnover: £2 million in 2003 (has doubled each year since start up) Website:

What made you take the plunge and startup your own business? I decided to start Reef One Ltd because the aquatics market was ripe for innovative new products, and as a hobbyist I had plenty of new product ideas.

Where did you get the funding to start your business? I used a combination of my own money (selling my car etc) and my parents’ money. I only made the decision to involve my parents once I could see I had developed a strong product. It was still a big risk for them and a great incentive for me to make it work. The main reason for me not borrowing money or looking for other investors was so I could retain ownership of the company and the decision making process.

How much did it cost to startup your business? To develop a marketable product it cost £40,000. Looking back now I don’t know how we managed it! I suppose in the early days we learnt to cut our cloth accordingly and re-invest the cash we were generating back into the product and its marketing.

At what age did you decide to go it alone? I suppose I had always been interested in business – as a child my parents always had interesting jobs and my mum ran a small electronics business from home. It was great for me because, as they were my role models, I could see how hard they worked but also the results that were possible. I was making choices at about 19 which I guess, looking back, were leading me towards having my own business. It was at this point I started looking at what degree to do and ended up doing ‘Product Design, Innovation and Marketing’ at the University of Derby. It was really aimed at encouraging entrepreneurs and giving people the skills to go it alone.

Where did the idea for your business come from? The ideas stemmed from my personal experience with an aquatics hobby and the dissertation I did at university. The product ideas were refined by using groups of people and measuring their responses to certain ideas and concepts presented.

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How long did it take from your startup idea to your first day trading? For the biOrb (TM), our first product, the incubation period was about 12 months but this included getting our first 1000 orders.

Did you have help from friends and family? My family was always supportive and in fact Reef One Ltd has developed into a bit of a family industry. My father and I now run Reef One Ltd together.

What academic qualifications did you get? Having never been very academic at school I questioned whether to bother going to university. I’m glad I did, as it got the cogs turning. I never expected to get a first class honours degree when I started at university.

What jobs did you do before you started your own business? I had the usual part time jobs during my school/university days – supermarket, building, and some IT work. I went straight into starting my own business after university with no real commercial experience because I knew it would be harder to make the decision once I was comfy and had a mortgage, etc. I suppose the jobs helped but only really in giving me life skills, for example being able understand and talk to people.

What skills and personal characteristics do you need to start your own business? I think you need to have a lot of self-belief and determination, as other people don’t always see what you are trying to achieve. Good people skills are essential – it’s important to be a good listener. It’s often said that gut feeling is an entrepreneur’s best tool, and I would agree with that.

Tell us about your website. The Reef One website is important. It serves two purposes: marketing to new customers; and support for existing customers. We don’t do e-commerce – when we started the company during the boom people thought we were mad but we had strategic reasons. The only thing I would do differently is to find a good web-based design and marketing company rather than doing the online marketing ourselves. It’s all very well having a beautiful website but it’s more important the site is accessible through search engines so people actually know it exists.

What’s the single most important thing that helped your business succeed? Being market focused. Too many companies are only looking to create cheaper and cheaper products in the belief that that’s what customers want. The truth is that, when you talk to customers, price is not always the major factor in their buying decision. We set out to create high quality products that fit more with people’s modern lifestyles.

How many hours a week do you work now? 50+

How many hours a week did you work when you started? 80+

What has been your main business problem? Growth and all the problems associated with that. I have seen a shift in my daily work more and more towards issues such as HR and HSE that aren’t always going to add value to my business. My next task is to look for some management folk who help manage these growth issues for me. I need to remain market and product focused for the business to succeed.

What is your top tip to anyone wanting to startup his or her own business?Don’t go into business because you think you can do something cheaper than established business. Try to make your service or product better, rather than cheaper, than your competitors’. A famous person (can’t remember who!) once said: “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten”. We charge a premium for our product so we can do things such as having customer helplines. It is rare in our industry for this type of service but we feel it’s a cost that should be built into the product, as it’s a service customers do need.

Is there anything you would do differently today? Chose employees very carefully as they are the competitive edge and having a good team is the difference between success and failure.

Where do you see your business in a year’s time? We have only been selling in the UK to date but during this year (2004) we will start selling in the US and Europe, so our business will grow significantly. We have managed to double our turnover each year in the UK since start up and want to see this trend continue.

Are your main ambitions financial (to make a lot of money) or lifestyle based (to enjoy what you do)? I enjoy what I do; every day is different and brings new challenges. The money is a bonus.

Would you start another business? Yes.


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