Ed Bussey: From the navy to women’s underwear

Ed Bussey used the skills he learnt while serving in the Navy and the Foreign Office to start his own business in women's clothing.


Ed Bussey: setting up a business is a marathon, not a sprint

Serial entrepreneur Ed Bussey, 47, has always been interested in business, setting up a small publishing firm when he was still studying natural sciences at Cambridge. However, he credits his four years in the Royal Navy, and eight years working on counter-terrorism in the Foreign Office, with honing his most critical business skills.

The Navy's basic training where new recruits have their heads shaved was "a levelling experience", he says. And his military career taught him how to get the best out of a wide range of people, "from ex-offenders to people with PhDs".

As a Foreign Office high-flyer, he had a lot of freedom, and his previous experience of running a small business had left him with a craving for more. So in 2000, he took the bold step of swapping the structured career path of the Foreign Office for a partnership with Michael Ross, who had bought his small publishing business.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Ross was running an internet company called easyshop.co.uk, which he was trying to turn into an online retailer. The pair rapidly realised that while most dotcom firms focused on male consumers (who then made up the majority of web users), there was a fast-growing audience of women online too.

So the duo rebranded the business "figleaves.com", with a focus on women's clothing (especially underwear and swimwear). Bussey admits he was nervous about whether it would work.It was a "challenging journey" and, with hindsight, he thinks they made mistakes, including spending too much time trying to establish a foothold in the US, where there was already huge competition.He also wishes they'd expanded the range of clothing on offer, ruefully noting the meteoric success of Asos.

Even so, figleaves.com proved extremely successful. Bussey can't indicate a "tipping point" sales grew rapidly from day one. By 2004 they had a cumulative total of more than a million customers in 16 countries. By the time he left the company in 2007 to help create mobile app company Zyb, figleaves.com had a turnover of £25.8m. As co-founder, Bussey retained an equity stake, allowing him to benefit when it was sold for $18.5m in 2010.

Bussey's experience with figleaves.com inspired him to set up Quill Content (originally iTrigga.com) in 2011.Quill Content manages a global network of freelancers to produce web and mobile content quickly and in multiple languages, a challenge figleaves.com struggled with.

Quill Content has already accumulated an impressive client roster, including online catalogue firm Shop Direct, health-club chain LA Fitness and STA Travel. Bussey has ambitious plans, including leasing its software to firms who want to produce content in-house. He's also pushing to develop the international business.

Bussey believes there are two main things an entrepreneur should concentrate on. Chief among them is honesty, whether being honest with clients, or realistic about the commercial prospects of a venture. He also cautions would-be founders to treat setting up a business "as a marathon, not a sprint". Your venture should be your main focus but it shouldn't dominate your life. Indeed, Bussey stresses that you "need something outside work to keep you sane".

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri