On 30 May 2019, Will King was one of 14 of the UK’s most committed supporters of entrepreneurship inducted into the Great British Entrepreneurs Champions Hall of Fame in association with NatWest and JD&Co, a brand new initiative led by the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards.
In a special issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs magazine, Team GBEA sat down with King to look back at his entrepreneurial career so far.
Many have the drive, determination and desire to become an entrepreneur from an early age, often exhibiting the skills in the playground or as an after-school hobby. Not everyone follows this path, however, some find their passion for entrepreneurship later in life, almost by accident. One such entrepreneur is Will King, the founder of King of Shaves.
Will grew up in Lowestoft in Suffolk with what he describes as a “relatively normal upbringing for the 60s and 70s”. While recalling that the area was particularly deprived, a young Will and his parents, both teachers, would go on camping holidays every summer. Naturally, his parents were big champions of education and always encouraged him to be curious about why things are the way they and how things happen.
“They backed me”, Will says. “They taught me that if I worked really hard, was kind to people and had a passion for what I did, I would get somewhere. If you have a family that is supportive of what you’re trying to do, irrespective of what it is, it’s going to be helpful in having success.”
Struggling through school and later university, Will was very happy working as a marketer in conference and event production. But economic issues in the early 90s saw him made redundant.
Will says: “I doubt I would’ve become an entrepreneur had I not been made redundant. I didn’t lose my job because of my performance and I wanted to back myself, because if I’d got it wrong I would only have myself to blame.”
“I wasn’t what I’d call a ‘natural’ entrepreneur, I wasn’t selling sweets on the playground at school, I didn’t shift stuff for my mates in the hope of making some dollar,” he explains.
“I decided to go into a market I knew nothing about and take on a company that had delivered massive profits and a strangle-hold on the market in Gillette. I hated shaving and I had acne prone skin. My parents bought me an electric shaver for my 17th birthday, which I hated it, but at least I didn’t have the pain.”
Having studied mechanical engineering, Will thought he might be able to come up with a product that would work for his skin. The Body Shop was arguably hitting its peak popularity on the High Street and natural oils were growing, so that seemed like the ideal avenue. Will explains: “99% of people said ‘it’s great, but I don’t have a problem with shaving’. But I guess the 1% did have a problem, and it’s that 1% that allowed us to build a brand which had a reach in terms of being a substantial brand in skincare. There wasn’t an epiphany. It just worked for me.”
Initially called Sunrise as a throwback to the sunlit mornings of Lowestoft, Will changed the name to King of Shaves and purchased the domain shave.com in 1995. Over the next five years, King of Shaves would secure shelf space in Boots and Tesco, becoming the first mass men’s shaving and skincare range to challenge Gillette. However, Will attributes his breakthrough moment to a fax he sent to one Mohamed Al-Fayed, then the owner of Harrods. The next day, he received an order for 25 King of Shaves products.
“That gave me the genuine confidence to go up and down the motorway in search of new stockists”, Will says. His rationale was that if King of Shaves was good enough for Harrods, it was good enough for other retailers to take a punt on. “Boots put it on the bottom shelf in 250 stores, which kicked our sales from £300 pounds to £59,000. As soon as we were in Boots, other retailers took notice.”
A quarter of a century later and the King of Shaves brand is still going strong. But Will has set his sights on a more sustainable future for both his business and the industry. In April 2019, the entrepreneur launched the Code Zero range – a ‘lifetime use refillable’ range of men’s skin products. It is part of a transition for the whole King of Shaves brand to be free of single-use plastics within four years. While clearly caring and concerned about his business’ impact on the environment, Will believes that a product or idea that has purpose will beat one without, as long as it has a passionate, persistent and hardworking entrepreneur behind it.
As someone who has supported the Great British Entrepreneur Awards for a number of years, as well as other initiatives, Will initially claimed he wasn’t a role model for young entrepreneurs. However, further reflection humbly altered his thinking: “If a guy, born in Lowestoft who didn’t do great at school, got C and E grades in his A Levels, toughed it out at university to get a 2:2 and his first job was selling ad space over the phone, making 200 cold calls a day, then lost his job and got off his butt and got on with it, kept at it for more than quarter of a century, then I’d like to ‘yes’.”
Will is someone who stresses the value of launching and running businesses for the right reasons, and money, he says, is never the right reason.
“I see a lot of young entrepreneurs setting up their businesses in the ‘burn not earn’ phase – they raise money and burn it in the hope they might be able to scale it and get more out. But the fact they’re looking to sell the business usually means they’re only looking at money coming in. Most companies don’t start off with a mission to get bought out, they start to solve a problem. Working to scale it to a profitable solution is a by-product.
“I have a love for my brand. But the fact that I touch millions of people’s faces each day is amazing. I also love what people think about the brand, and more importantly, what we’re doing with Code Zero. Hopefully, when someone loves something they will do it all their life. Do it for love and you never know how much money comes out the other end.”
Will finished by adding to his stark message to young entrepreneurs: “Believe in yourself and don’t suffer from imposter syndrome. Impossible is nothing. Just do it. It’s got to be great, whatever you do has to be great. It can’t be okay or not too bad. Do it for the passion and do it for the love. Who knows, the money might come along for the ride too.”
Originally posted on the Great British Entrepreneur Awards website.