Will King: King of Shaves

The King of Shaves founder on taking on the market leader, and enjoying the fight

“I had no perception of the scale of the market I was getting into,” admits Will King when asked why he was confident he could rival the likes of Gillette with his own male grooming brand King of Shaves. More than 15 years on, Gillette are still dominating the sector after being bought for nearly $60bn in 2005. But steadily chipping away at that market share is Will, with his range of shaving products and the first British engineered razor in over a century.

The formation of the company is every redundant employee’s dream. The collapse of the corporate communications firm Will worked for prior to the early nineties recession gave him the impetus to finally take the plunge with the product business he’d always wanted to start. Exactly what that product would be was still up for debate when Will was made redundant in 1992.

Some experiments with his girlfriend’s bath oils while shaving was enough of a spark however, and after formulating a shaving oil he was happy with, Will launched KMI which, until the recent demerger, housed the King of Shaves brand.

“I wanted to launch the product with a big retailer,” says Will, who secured Harrods as the first store to stock the product, but it wasn’t until Boots came on board that the venture had any real legs. However, it took a few months to get the pharmacy chain to sign on the dotted line.

“I got those first contracts by just picking up the phone and speaking to people. My background in ad sales meant I was used to getting 100 no’s before a yes. Often now that’s a skill that’s been lost. People just rely on email to open up a dialogue and rarely pick up the phone.”

Will ran the company from home for the first two years with just ‘a couple of dogs’ to keep him sane. First year sales were £300 with losses of £30,000. The next year the figures stood at sales of £58,000 and losses of £100,000. Finance had come from personal savings, friends and family but the pressure was starting to take its toll. “It was all getting a bit too much for me and that’s when Herbie [Dayal] got involved.”

Dayal had been one of the management consultants brought into Will’s firm before he’d been made redundant and the pair had remained friends. After he joined KMI significant restructuring was put in place and they secured additional finance via the government’s loan guarantee scheme. The sales continued to grow and in 1997 the venture brought home a profit of £125,000 on revenues of £1.25m.

Black ops project

Growth has been steady for the past decade. The company overtook Wilkinson Sword to gain second place in the shaving gels market, and a wide range of brands including Ted Baker fragrances and hair styling range Fish were launched under the KMI umbrella. Not content with overtaking one of the market’s best known brands however, Will decided to put his engineering degree to the test by developing the Azor.

“One of the questions I was most asked was ‘when are you going to do a razor’. What people don’t really understand is while a razor is a relatively simple piece of kit for people to use, the engineering and patents that go into it are really quite challenging.

“Gillette had pulled out a massive lead over Wilkinson Sword claiming 85% of the market share worldwide. It seemed to me the space was a monopoly that could do with some competition in it.”

With Dayal looking after the KMI portfolio, Will spent five years on his ‘black ops’ razor project, only starting to form relationships with the retailers on it when he was confident it was going ahead.

The Azor launched last June, and the response has been impressive. Current market share is just under 10% of handles and 2% of cartridges. Given the scale of the shaving market, it’s a remarkable achievement and one that has undoubtedly been fuelled by Will’s knack for clever marketing.

Pitching his product range as a shaving ‘without the ransom’ – ie, the incredibly high unit costs of Gillette – Will likens his assault on the razor market to Virgin’s challenge to BA’s transatlantic crown. A strong push on price difference had always been the plan for the Azor, but since what Will describes as our  ‘economic projectile vomit’, the value proposition is even stronger.

Marketing maestro

“People are now questioning greed, and those that are exploiting the system. We’ve seen it with MPs. I know what the profit margins in this space are and I know we can still make a good margin by pricing ourselves 50% cheaper than Gillette.”

Will says his biggest competitor now is lack of awareness and it’s not likely to be an easy enemy to defeat. A heavy presence on Facebook and Twitter provides cost effective marketing but the recent poster campaigns can’t have been cheap. But true to form, Will’s marketing prowess is always at work and he’s cleverly combined a financing strategy with some great press coverage.

After demerging from KMI in April, the King of Shaves brand is now issuing ‘shaving bonds’ to consumers. With an interest rate far higher than the average savings account, the bonds are set to appeal to those with cash sitting stagnant in an ISA. Will also gets to raise that all important marketing spend without giving away more equity.

Aiming for a 25% market share by 2012, Will has some serious work to do, but with a million men already using the product, the days of the home office and a couple of canine companions are firmly in the past.

 

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