During the late 1980s, Will King was a high-flyer. After graduating from Portsmouth University in 1987 with a degree in mechanical engineering, he started selling advertising space for Marketing Magazine. Headhunted by a corporate events firm that specialised in product launches, he looked set for a rapid rise up the corporate ladder.
But as the recession bit in the early 1990s, companies started to launch fewer products and slashed their events budgets. He was made redundant, losing both his company car and his flat.
The experience convinced him to become “the master of my own destiny” by founding his own firm. Inspiration for the product came from a legacy of childhood acne. At the time, most professionals were expected to “wear a suit and be clean shaven”. The problem was that King’s skin was very sensitive.
The limited range of shaving creams didn’t help much. So, he developed his own shaving oil, which solved the problem. Since it worked for him, he reckoned it would also work for others.
Launching the cream – King of Shaves – was not easy. King worked out “on the back of a fag packet” that it would cost at least £15,000. The Smart Award, a competition run by the Department of Trade and Industry (now Business, Innovation and Skills), offered up to £45,000.
His entry, based on innovative packaging, failed to meet the criteria. But a backer offered him £7,500, and his friend Patrick Maris gave him the rest to set up Knowledge & Merchandising (now King of Shaves) in 1993.
Persuading a major retailer was the next challenge. After several meetings, a buyer from Harrods promised to put in an initial order for £75 worth of stock. But it never materialised, so King decided to contact the owner’s office directly, with a letter emphasising his respect for the world-famous department store and why his product “was good enough to be sold there”. The very next day, the money arrived in the mail.
Any “delusions of grandeur” were quashed by the fact that sales only reached £300 in 1993, and £2,700 the year after. But by the mid-1990s things had begun to take off, with sales reaching £1.25m by 1997.
There were few rival products, but savvy marketing also played a role: King slashed advertising costs by taking advantage of demand for editorial from “lads’ mags”. Rugby star Will Carling signed up as a “brand ambassador” for a reasonable fee. A web pioneer, King also bought the Shave.com domain for $35.
Of course, not everything has been plain-sailing. Things began to “hot up” with the entry of Nivea into the sector in 1999 and more competition from Gillette and Colgate. A planned deal with Remington (which valued the company at £40m) in 2011 collapsed, meaning King of Shaves was temporarily excluded from the US market.
However, the firm now has sales of £10m, 40% of which is from razors (which the company has been selling since 2003). The lesson of his success? “Never give up, whatever people say.” However, he adds that in the age of social media and Twitter, “you must have an exceptional product” – simply copying the competition won’t work.