‘To be a true disruptor, you need attitude and to be bold in what you stand for’

Growth | Interview | Retail

Business Leader recently caught up with Matt Lumb, the former CEO of Tangle Teezer – an exponentially growing haircare business – about what it takes to be a true disruptive force, the challenges he faced and what to look for in an investor. Lumb is now the CEO of men’s make-up brand War Paint for Men. He spoke to us about leading another innovative start-up looking to scale and breaking down negative perceptions.

Can you give an overview of War Paint and how you came into the business?

War Paint for Men is a men’s make-up brand that was founded at the end of 2018 by entrepreneur Danny Gray. He set up the business because of a mental health issue called body dysmorphia, where he obsesses over, and worries about, how he looks.

Unfortunately, he got a lot of attention quite early on in his journey at War Paint, following an advert on Twitter that went viral for all the wrong reasons around toxic masculinity. However, it did get people talking about the brand. A few weeks after that he appeared on Dragons’ Den in May 2019 and ended up having all five investors fighting over him. Straight after that, he was asked by L’Oréal to go and talk to them about the business – and he pitched to their investment incubator programme.

He was a 33-year-old business owner with a lot of attention on him. He had a great career to that point but had never scaled a brand before. It was just him and one other member of staff. He was looking for someone who had been on an exponential growth journey before and a friend of his, who I had met at a Sunday Times Fast Track event, suggested me.

At the time, I was doing some consultancy work for a couple of beauty brands – but as soon as I met him and looked into the business – I had an amazing gut feeling about the company. The company was only six months old, but I joined as the CEO. I loved the story of the brand and why Danny founded it, and he and I hit it off straight away. Since then, we have gone from strength-to-strength. We have quadrupled monthly sales, more than doubled our annual turnover and successfully secured a round of funding to grow the company further by expanding our team.

How has the company grown since you joined?

Last August, it was just Danny and myself. But we have had six more join since then, and have quadrupled monthly sales during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are now in premium retail at Harvey Nicholls and John Lewis – a first for a men’s make-up brand. We are also available on Virgin Atlantic flights, and have expanded to be sold in Ireland, and soon in Japan as well. As a brand we are primarily direct-to-consumer (DTC), but over the last few months we have seriously expanded our retail presence. Our goal is to be just a big a household brand as Tangle Teezer. To achieve this, we are trying to be first to market in as many places as possible.

At Tangle Teezer we grew exports from 2% to 82% in just six years. We grew sales in that time period from £1m to £30m. So, that just shows the importance of exporting and being the first to market, when trying to expand a fast-growing business. The goal is to achieve this at War Paint as well! With our goals and message – we are more than just a cosmetics brand, we are a disruptive force within the industry.

Can you tell me about your business history prior to War Paint?

I am an accountant by trade, and I was a financial expert for the first 20 years of my career.

Tangle Teezer was launched in 2007 by Shaun Pulfrey, who I met in 2010 at an accountancy software seminar – and the business was turning over circa £1.5m.

At the time, he was the only full-time member of staff and we got chatting about the company. I said he would need management information at his fingertips if he wished to scale as quickly as he wanted too. Following this, I did some consultancy work for him. I’d talk to him each month about the business, cash flow, results and targets. Through this we formed a great team and a great friendship. Six months later he asked if I would join full time.

Although my family and job were all in the North West and Shaun was based in London, I didn’t hesitate for a second. I joined full time in January 2011, primarily to look after the finances and see where the role went. But, within two weeks I was helping Shaun in running the company and then doing the finances in the evenings.

As we scaled, we had several amazing people join us, and we built the expanding team around them. We just kept growing from there. In the seven years I was at the company – in our first year our turnover was £2.2m, then year-on-year, it went to £4.4m, £8.5m, £13.5m, £23m – and then £29m in 2016. During this time, we won two Queen’s Awards, and were on the Sunday Times Fast/Profit/Export Track lists each year.

What were the main challenges you had to overcome at Tangle Teezer to achieve such exponential growth?

Shaun created a whole new category in haircare products. Prior to Tangle Teezer – a hairbrush was a hairbrush for more than a century. Tangle Teezer broke the mould and created de-tangling as a category. Now, every hairbrush company in the world has a de-tangling brush in their product range.

One of the challenges for us was to be first to market in as many places as we could, in the category that we had created. The first to market is often overlooked and undervalued. If you can be a disruptive force and first to market in any category it stands you in good stead – rather than playing catch up.

At War Paint, we are playing catch up in South Korea for example. Men’s make-up is popular, driven by the K-Pop generation, which has made it mainstream. So, we are entering a market with a lot of competitors who are already established.

Another challenge we faced at Tangle Teezer was – can UK supply meet international demand? We would have our tenacious sales team driving international interest in the product – and we just couldn’t make enough hairbrushes! When we were looking at increasing production, you then need to look at increase costs for tooling and parts – these provide their own challenges. You need to look at how much cash you have in the bank, as you cannot get asset finance on the tooling – because if you went bankrupt, all we had was an expensive paperweight. So, managing cash was a huge challenge.

What are the unique challenges facing fast growing businesses?

Once you have established a successful product and brand, you then have to deal with the copycat companies and counterfeiters. This is a challenge you need to keep aware of, especially as a scaling business – and we made it clear that it was our intellectual property. Taking a zero-tolerance approach helped us stay ahead of the competition. In the early days, this was a daily challenge.

People have this assumption that managing a fast-growing company is easy – I disagree with that 100%. The fact that it is growing quickly is a result of something that you are doing right. However, this means you are constantly managing cash flow, stock numbers and many other factors. For example, if you are on the growth journey and you constantly run out of stock on your website – people will stop coming – and this is especially true for DTC brands like War Paint.

Can you take me through War Paint’s recent investment and what you learnt from it?

The DTC model can be very cash heavy and customer acquisition costs are also very expensive. You are trying to acquire new customers in a tough retail environment – and then you have to convert them to repeat customers. There are many different avenues to go down to try and achieve this, whether it be advertising on Google or elsewhere online – and it is not cheap. It is not like we are just selling men’s deodorant, which isn’t remotely divisive within our industry, or have a negative stigma to overcome. We are trying to change mindsets – and that is a huge challenge.

If you want to scale quickly in a DTC environment, and in a fast-moving industry like ours, you need the money behind you. What I would say is to find the right investors. If you are on a fast growth trajectory, this is of the upmost importance. You need to build a relationship between the owner/founder, CEO and investor. The founder is the creative influence, but can sometimes be impulsive and passionate about the company. An investor is none of those – they want to deal with someone who is more level-headed and can analyse the business from within – and that is the role of the CEO. Getting an investor is not all about the money – it is about getting people onboard who really get the brand, and who can open doors and make introductions for you that you wouldn’t have had before investment. Getting ‘smart money’ onboard is very important – especially for early stage start-ups and scaling businesses.

What does it take to be a true disruptive force within your sector?

There are three key assets you need to have to become a successful, disruptive brand. First, you need a proven, game-changing product that works, and isn’t just all marketing. Secondly, for modern businesses, you need a brand that people trust. People don’t buy from brands anymore, they buy into brands. Finally, you need the right team to drive the business forward. If you have one or two of these, you will struggle to build a successful business – you need all three.

To be a true disruptor, you need attitude and be bold in what you stand for. You need to wholeheartedly believe in what you are doing, as you will get negative attitudes – but you need to trust in your product, brand and team, and stand by what you are creating through being a disruptive force.

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