VetUK: Iain Booth
The founder of online veterinary shop VetUK on establishing the biggest brand in the sector, and why he’ll always be a vet at heart
Iain Booth is well on his way to veterinary domination. The former vet started VetUK, the country's leading internet retailer of pet medicines, and despite initially having no e-commerce experience, has grown it into a £10m turnover firm.
“It was really a development of ideas,” he says. “I had clients telling me there wasn't enough choice and products were too expensive, so I had thought about selling pet medicines over the internet. I tested my idea first selling via eBay, and when I realised people liked it, I launched the site.”
The business was entirely self-financed, which Iain maintains is its guiding principle. With his partner, Lyane Haywood, he set up an account with a wholesaler, with whom they had 14 days to pay after placing their first order. “It needed to fund itself,” he says. “We had absolutely no external funding but started off selling about half a dozen products, gradually adding more to our list each week.”
Fuelled by organic growth, VetUK has relied heavily on Google to market the website. However, it now boasts a mailing list of 120,000 people, with newsletters and word-of-mouth playing a crucial role. Iain says customer recommendations are fundamental to its survival. “It's a leap of faith for people to buy online for the first time, if you can get it right they will come back and also tell others about it.”
Iain says the jump from vet to online trader was a gamble given his lack of online expertise but believes his rigorous planning went some way to mitigating the risk. “We were also lucky with the timing, because the internet retail market was opening up. It was a good time to try it.”
There was also Iain's lack of general business experience to contend with. “Initially it was hard to know what works and I had to be careful who I spoke to and who I could trust, but now I have a mentor who has really helped me steer the business,” he says. Iain was introduced to Hugh Rudden – who set up business-advice company Probucon, via Reed, as a Business Link training incentive program. Having Hugh as a mentor has proven invaluable for the growth and success of VetUK, but has made Iain aware of his early shortcomings. If given the chance again, he says he'd have sought more advice to help with the business model, as well as invest more money in IT from the outset.
Since launching in 2005, VetUK has grown rapidly and Iain is predicting it to double in size every two years. He believes his business is barely scratching the surface of the potential market. “There are millions of pet owners who have not made the leap to buying products online. They don't realise they can get them cheaper and delivered to their door.”
With plans to expand into Europe, the opportunities for further growth are promising, although North America will logistically be more difficult – with legislation discrepancies, coupled with the distance from the UK proving taxing.
And while the idea of a flotation at some point in the future isn't out of the question, Iain isn't looking beyond the next five years at the moment. “Of course, there has to be an exit strategy,” he admits. “But it's a rapidly growing company that has not reached its full potential yet. There are still massive opportunities so I don't want to float it yet, although 10-20 years down the line – who knows?”
Whatever happens, there are no plans to leave the sector entirely. “I have always said that I am a vet first and a retailer second. Even though I may not be practising, I will always be a vet at heart.”