Many of us can see business opportunities that arise from every-day frustrations. It takes a shrewd entrepreneur to exploit such gaps in the market. When you achieve this when you are just 16 years old, however, it’s little surprise that the media beat a path to your door.
Oliver Bridge, a schoolboy from Cambridgeshire, has found himself in front of the cameras of the BBC and CNN, as well as seen his face staring back at him from various newspapers, since starting up Bigger Feet earlier this year.
Despite his tender years, Bridge has not been daunted by the exposure he has gained, displaying a business brain that belies his years. He has a plan and has put it into place – and he understands that gaining good publicity is an important part of that plan.
“We’re not interested in getting a venture capitalist on board, because they would want a big part of the business, but there are other avenues (to expanding the business),” he tells Startups.co.uk, matter-of-factly. “We could get a private investor on board by saying, ‘we’ve been on the BBC and CNN and got massive coverage - do you want a piece of the pie?’”
Bigger Feet is an online shoe retailer for people who are larger than average below the ankle. The business was born from Bridge’s own frustrating experiences.
“I was sitting in a shop saying it’s annoying that I couldn’t get any shoes and that someone should sell them,” he explains. “My mum just said, ‘why don’t you just start up your own business then?’ When I thought about it, I thought, yes, that’s a possibility.
“As I know someone who has set his own business (Paul Wilkinson, who is now Bridge’s business partner and adult guarantor for banks who get jumpy dealing with under-18s they can’t retrieve money from) it was a bit more realistic, it’s not one of those millionaire things you will never be able to reach. So I thought I’d give it a go.”
After realising that several people at school also required large shoes, Bridge dug up some research and found that about a million people in the UK have large feet – men over the size of 12 and ladies upwards of size nine. He decided to go for it.
“At first I was a bit worried, I thought I wouldn’t be able to run the business and do my schoolwork at the same time and that I should put it off until I was older,” he confesses. “But I thought I should go for the opportunity, it can’t do any harm, it’s not going to cost that much money and if it gets too busy, we can always hire staff.
“There’s been a great response, there’s only been a few comments about my age. People seem to treat me as an adult and, if anything, they respect me more because I’m young and going for it.”
Setting up in the family home with a small office space to store the shoes, Bigger Feet could be held up by internet providers as a demonstration of the low-cost flexibility of the web.
“So far, we’ve only put £4,000 into the business from our savings, which is a really tight budget,” Bridge says. “A website allows you to put something across very professionally at a very low cost. Our website probably rivals a medium sized business, when in fact we’re working from a tiny office.
“It’s so flexible. Because it’s all internet-based, we are going on holiday to Barcelona in a couple of weeks and we are going to be running the company from Spain.”
When you hear about the deal Bridge cut with a wholesaler to supply him with shoes, it’s again hard to believe he can’t yet legally vote or drink. After going to various trade shows in the UK and Europe, he agreed with UK Distributors to sell him shoes as and when he needs them. He therefore rarely has more than 30 or 40 pairs of shoes in his possession, cutting down on overspend.
“Because we weren’t ordering massive quantities in advance, they said that would be OK, we are not a credit risk to them,” Bridge explains. “We are only placing relatively few orders so if it all goes belly up, they are only going to lose a bit of money.
“We get them in as we need them, so we cut down on liability. If we get no orders for a month, all it costs us is out phone bill – we won’t go out of business, we’ll be stagnant for a month.”
A significant headache for Bridge has been the reluctance of Nike and Reebok to supply him with trainers. Despite approaching them directly, he got short shrift.
“They didn’t want to hear it at all,” he says. “We went up to a representative of Reebok at a trade show and he gave us a business card and basically told us to get lost.
“We wrote a few letters to Nike, and they just shoved us from department to department. The big brands aren’t interested in small business because they think it tarnishes their image.
“It’s silly really, they should be selling to everyone they find, because ultimately people are going to get hold of Nikes directly or indirectly. They would surely make a better profit if they sold directly to us.”
The media interest (and Google advertising) has understandably boosted sales – the 10 previous to this interview generated £2,500 of business, compared to the 15 sales in the first 10 days of trading. Bridge insists Bigger Feet is a “friendly, personal company” and has certainly benefited from the niche market and cheap prices he is able to generate, although he insists on quality – “We don’t import stuff from China that’s rubbish.”
With his family happy to step into the breach when his workload increases with A-levels and an array of impressed school friends, Bridge would be forgiven for thinking he has a career made. But he plans to go to university before making any decisions.
“The business may be able to pay off my tuition fees, which would be great,” he says. “I don’t think that it will grow into a multi-million pound business empire, although you never know – there aren’t many big shoe retailers out there.”