‘We were the fastest growing e-commerce business in the UK last year’
Founded in 2013 by Will Vaughan, Bluefin has been in the top 15 fastest growing firms in the UK for the past two years. Over its eight-year existence, the company has experienced double revenue growth year-on-year and has grown to have over 45 staff based across the world. Business Leader spoke to sport and wellness e-commerce brand to find out about their exponential growth.
This year, total income is set to exceed £40m for the firm based in Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. Business Leader spoke to the Founder to explore Bluefin’s journey so far.
Growing up in rural surroundings, Vaughan’s business journey began in school where, at the age of 10, he set up his ‘chicken empire’, selling eggs from his father’s workplace. Then, from the age of 16 and through his time at university, he made his first steps into the world of e-commerce.
He comments: “I like to go to the gym and I used to play rugby; so I have always been around that type of environment. However, the real reason I got into this industry was to pay my way through university, through my interest in e-commerce. I was selling a wide range of items on online marketplaces – primarily on eBay.
“Whilst my mates were working bar jobs on the side, I was buying catalogue returns on online auctions. I acquired some Argos returns fitness equipment. Following this, I hired a van, brought them back, set them up in my garage, and then sifted through to see what worked.
“One of the products that did really well was a vibration plate – a weight loss and toning piece of equipment. I bought 30 units and sold them all in a day.”
Following this initial step into the world of retail and global business, Vaughan was hooked: “I then found a manufacturer in China, for this specific product, and spent all my savings on them – about £40,000. I bought 600 units and sold them all in a couple of weeks. Everything just snowballed from there.
“After I graduated from university at 21, I set up Bluefin Trading. I carried out a lot of product research myself and reached out to a lot of manufacturers in China and started selling fitness equipment.”
In less than a decade, Bluefin has become an industry leader and one of the UK’s fastest growing firms.
“Over the past eight years, we have grown to become a global e-commerce brand. Our main marketplaces are within the EU, Australia, US – and here in the UK. We predominately sell through Amazon, which is around 50% of our business and the other 50% is through our website and other smaller channels. In that time, we have gone from zero to 45 staff, and from no turnover to this year, where we’re on track to hit over £40m in revenue.
“We are fully self-backed, received no outside investment and have grown organically. Under the Bluefin Trading group, we have three main brands that drive our growth. Our success has partly been down to spreading risk across multiple brands.
“The one that drives the most revenue is Bluefin Fitness. That’s a direct-to-consumer home gym fitness equipment brand selling rowing machines, treadmills, bikes, and a wide range of similar products. The other brand that’s incredibly fast growing, which we set up about three years ago, is Bluefin Paddleboards – an inflatable paddle board brand. That brand has gone from nothing to the market leader in the EU within three years. The third brand is our latest venture, Bluefin Hoverboards”
Vaughan set up the company HQ on the picturesque hills of West Yorkshire, on his own farmland, where half his staff are based. However, due to Bluefin’s international presence, there are also staff members based in China, Spain, across the North West and other freelancers around the world.
However, having such relentless growth creates challenges for companies in this scale-up space.
Will comments: “We grew very quickly and we reached a point where we had a very stretched team. To overcome this, I realised that we needed to optimise what we had already achieved and build the team internally. Rather than just driving forward, we built an incredibly strong foundation for future success. We did this to avoid crumbling from the inside, like some companies do when in the growth phase. I built a senior management team that could take some of the weight off my shoulders.
“What we’ve got now is a senior management team of six that deploy the Bluefin vision. They implement the strategy that I’ve created, which has allowed us to continue growing. I’m hoping over the next four years we can create a £150m-revenue, global company.”
Building international relationships
Due to the international nature of the business, Vaughan and his senior management team have had to develop relationships with manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, and customers across the world. Much like how the company overcame the troubles of fast growth, Bluefin adapted their supply chain and how they operate.
“At the very start, we utilised sourcing agents to build a relationship with the company. They go and negotiate with the supply chain for you. We did that for about three years and then realised we can cut out the middleman and build a team that will go directly to the suppliers.
“Fast forward three years, we’ve got three guys on the ground out there that have helped us grow. I’d advise anyone to find a good sourcing agent and then meet suppliers at trade shows and build relationships with them. You can then utilise that relationship to benefit your own business. You can create good payment terms, and with us, that has allowed us to sell a stock before we have to pay the supplier. That’s one of the reasons why we managed to grow so well – building those strong commercial relationships is vital.”
With the majority of the company’s revenue coming from overseas, Bluefin has had to build, expand and adapt to different international markets to maintain its consistent levels of growth.
Vaughan explains how the company has repeated its process for growth in each country: “We didn’t start selling internationally until about three or four years ago. The first launch we did in Germany and it was really simple. We used the same recipe that we did in the UK. We hired copywriters to translate our entire website listings to German. We then did the same in France, Spain, the Netherlands and beyond. And then, you realise the US is the biggest market globally for e-commerce. So, we then got started over there.
“What we do is really simple. Our team are sat in the office, selling our product range online, and we let a third party manage the operations side – it’s not rocket science. We just opened up for the US as a market and the biggest hurdle is supply chain operations. After the US, we are looking at Canada and Japan.”
With the business trading internationally, Will says that Brexit has negatively affected many businesses at the same time within his sector.
Vaughan comments: “The price of everything went up for people in all industries – and then it became difficult to get stock of crucial items. As most of our EU business is in Germany and France, we have had to employ a new supply chain specialist, because now you cannot cost effectively send a product from UK to Germany or France. Prior to Brexit, we could.
“So, we’ve had to set up a new warehouse, a new partner in the Netherlands, and retain our current warehouse in the UK. It has been insanely difficult. We thought we had something implemented in place which meant we could fulfil cross border order but pay quite a bit more in duty and shipping rates. However, we did that, but all the couriers were not geared up for the paperwork for the cross-border requirements.
“We’re now in a place where we we’ve got the right amount of stocks in the correct locales, and we’re ready to scale again.”