Stealing a lead

Having a monopoly in business is rare, so chances are you’ve got to jostle for market share with a host of similar businesses. Adam Jolly finds out how six entrepreneurs of growing firms are managing to outwit the competition...

Having a monopoly in business is rare, so chances are you’ve got to jostle for market share with a host of similar businesses. Adam Jolly finds out how six entrepreneurs of growing firms are managing to outwit the competition…

A fine edge

Name: Joe Sillett, 34, chief executive
Company: Woodworm, sales of £2.5 million, founded in 2002, based in Billingshurst, West Sussex
Profile: Modern languages grad and avid cricketer who still plays in the Surrey Championship. He started his career at Wilson, the golf and tennis brand, before joining Compaq and SAP. He nurtured his ambition to start a business by reading every book he could find on taking ideas to market.

‘Design an outstanding product and then protect it’

‘Go into a sports shop and you will find 15 cricket bats on a shelf. They are all the same shape apart from ours, which are the ones that Freddie Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen use. Although our design ideas are subtle, they’re a definite point of difference. Instead of the usual elongated rectangle bolted on to a handle, we have moon-shaped indentations two-thirds of the way up on either side. We have used the wood lost there further down in the sweet spot, where you hit the ball.

If anyone else wants to do anything to the front edge of the bat, adjusting it inwards or making a dink, then my patents stop them doing it. No one can touch us. It’s what you pay the money for. We have spent thousands on protecting ourselves in all cricket-playing countries. The last thing you want to do is to bring anything to market, then in the next trade season, see four of your competitors with exactly the same design that gave you the point of difference. You can’t afford to let that happen.’

Best in town

Name: Dorian Harris, 37, chief executive
Company: Skoosh, £1.5 million turnover, founded in 2004, based in Buckinghamshire
Profile: Began his career in the travel industry in 1992, but always wanted to sell the sort of hotels where he would genuinely like to stay himself. His current favourite? The Skt Petri in Copenhagen.

‘Enable customers to share their experiences’

‘When you book a trip, you know that your flight will get you from A to B and you have a good idea what your hire car will be like, but the most important part of your stay, your hotel, is a lottery. They can be depressing places. After I won a trip to Paris once and stayed with my girlfriend in a dismal hotel above the metro, I decided there must be a
better way to decide where to stay. So I set up Skoosh.

We have made a selection of what we think are the best hotels in various categories in cities across Europe, as well as North America and Asia. We only choose the top 20 per cent, but then our USP is that we ask our customers to review them after they have been to stay. People generally love passing on their comments and we give them a five per cent discount on their next stay. Our response rate is currently 40 per cent. If a hotel receives two bad reviews on the same point – service, cleanliness, location – then we drop it.’

Kids’ play

Name: Kevin Woolgar, 46,
managing director
Company: Meridian Golf, sales of £1 million, founded in 1996, based in East Sussex
Profile: Started in the warehouse at Trenden Sports in 1978 before joining the sales team at Wilson and Hippo, learning all he could about golf technology. Lowest handicap was two and still plays off five.

‘Make your name in a niche market’

‘Too many kids who take up golf give it up because they are playing with the wrong clubs and can’t get the ball off the ground. The heads are too big and the shafts are too whippy. They’re just cut-down versions of adults’ clubs, which is the only market that the major brands are really interested in. When my boys took up the game, I started designing clubs for kids from two to 14 years old. It’s not expensive – all clubs are made in China anyway.
The idea has really taken off and is now our biggest line of business. The US Golf Association liked them so much it placed its first ever contract with an English company and we are sending 4,000 kids’ clubs a month to the French Federation. For us, it’s better to steer clear of the big brands and concentrate on these more specialist areas. Our technology might be good, but it’s tough enforcing our intellectual property. So I’m now building sales of old-fashioned hickory clubs – people love having a go at how the game used to be played.’

A total ban

Name: Kevin Hartley, founder and head chef
Company: Mozart’s, a 36-seater restaurant in Nottingham, which he bought with his wife for £40,000 in 2003
Profile: Sales director for 25 years with Courtaulds and Baird, before turning his favourite hobby into a second career.

‘Have the courage to be different’

‘When the Irish banned smoking in 2004, we took the opportunity to follow suit. We run a small, intimate restaurant and always felt there could be demand for a smokeless environment, but had been too scared about losing business to do it before.
We were the first in Nottingham to go for a total ban and we announced it on national no-smoking day. We had fantastic publicity – all over the papers, on three local radio stations, featured on the regional TV news – you can’t buy that exposure. The phone didn’t stop ringing and we reckon our trade that year was up 15 per cent. Even though other local restaurants have introduced a ban, that figure has stuck and we are now listed as a source of comment by all the local media. For us, this kind of niche marketing is the way to go. We are now building up a speciality in dishes for people with allergies.’

Half price fuel

Name: Ingram Legge, owner-manager
Company: Green Fuel, turnover of £2 million, founded in 2003, based in Bath
Profile: A self-confessed petrolhead, Legge’s original ambition lay on the racetrack in touring cars, but he then became an accountant and took an MBA at Bath. There he met Noel Lock, an environmentalist, who became his business partner.

‘Help customers go green and save money’

‘Climate change is increasingly having a commercial impact, but people only really started to get interested in converting their cars to LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) to lower their emissions when they realised they might be exempt from the congestion charge in London. At the time, it was hard to work out whether you could install LPG on your particular model and then find someone to do a proper conversion. The whole market was a bit unprofessional. So, we set ourselves up to give an instant quote on switching to dual fuel on all 50,000 of the car models produced for the UK market in the last ten years.
To date, we have carried out about 2,000 conversions through our network of installers. Typically, it should cost you about £1,650 (ex VAT) for a family saloon like a Ford Mondeo. But your fuel costs should drop from £10 to £5 per hundred miles – and you can cut your total level of emissions by 20 per cent. The motor trade has always been a bit sceptical about the quality of conversions, but we are starting to win them round. Volvo are recommending us and we are the only installer listed by Lex Leasing. The future looks very promising for us.’

Cheap and cheerful IP protection

Name: Margaret Briffa, 45, managing partner
Company: Briffa & Co, founded in 1996, based in Islington, London, with fees revenue of £1.5 million
Profile: After working on corporate accounts at mega law firms, she saw how smaller creative companies were missing out on gaining value from their intellectual property. So she set up her own IP practice to offer a more straightforward service for people working in creative ventures.

‘Provide a clever solution to a perennial problem’

‘It can be frightening for SMEs when their IP rights are infringed. Even spending £500 to send a lawyer’s letter can be overwhelming. So, there’s no way most of those businesses are going to take action against a corporate which they know has the resources to carry on regardless.
As an SME, you could take out your own insurance on IP infringements, but it’s probably going to cost you thousands. So I thought why not see if we could find some cheap and cheerful group cover.
Through a broker, we now offer two £150 policies on trademarks and designs covering costs up to £25,000. As far as I know, we’re the only ones offering anything like this. We have 130 people on the scheme and one of my colleagues has just won damages for £75,000 at a cost of £2,000.’

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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