Almost as bad as getting diarrhoea is buying diarrhoea medication. "It's embarrassing," says Mitesh Soma, 33, founder of online pharmacy Chemistdirect.co.uk. "When I was researching my business idea, I stood in pharmacies looking at the labels for a very long time and thought, if I'm embarrassed shopping for these, so are others." He spotted that people wanted anonymity selling drugs online seemed to be a good way of giving it to them.
The son of an engineer, Soma grew up in Leicester, but moved to London to do a degree in business and computing at London's City University. Later he became a management consultant at Deloitte. But it was walking through his wife's small pharmacy in Westminster that he first got the idea for selling drugs online. "I noticed that some of the prices she was buying products in for differed drastically from what she was selling them on for." Hay fever tablets, for example, cost pennies, but the pharmacy was selling them for £8. "I thought if we were able to offer these types of products to the public nationwide at a lower price and take lower margins, it would be something that would be really popular."
In November 2007, using £100,000 of his own money, Soma launched the website Chemistdirect.co.uk from his garden shed in Leicester. Using contacts from his wife's old business, getting suppliers on board wasn't difficult. Keeping them was the problem. Pressure was put on some to stop doing business, with one firm ending a contract to supply pregnancy kits. "We were selling them for knockdown prices, but they said it was too cheap and that we were undercutting community pharmacies." Soma had to track down another supplier.
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Thankfully, the website's keen pricing attracted online shoppers early on. But so did the range of products it stocked. "We have more shelf space than a small pharmacy so we can stock more products. So instead of selling just one Lynx deodorant, we can sell the whole range." In the first year of trading to the end of November 2008, the business hit sales of £4m, despite a small marketing budget. "If people are looking for items and can't find them at their local pharmacy, they would often ring the manufacturer and ask where they could get it." They pointed to Soma's website and word of mouth spread.
In 2008, Soma opened a 10,000 sq ft warehouse in Birmingham and started selling prescription drugs, such as Viagra and malaria drug Malerone. "It's on an industrial estate, close to lots of small delivery companies. That means we can process until late in the evening." Sales reached £10m last year and should get to £15m as the company moves into the pet medication business. His latest venture, Stationerydirect.co.uk, launched in September.
"I'm always thinking of ideas. I had loads during the dotcom boom but then so did everybody else. That's when I realised it was all about implementation. Lots of people have good ideas, but then it's about how you go about making it happen."
Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.
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