“Dressed in a T-shirt and a baseball cap with shoulder length hair,” 30-something Mike Smith “is anything but the traditional start-up entrepreneur,” says Esha Chhabra for Forbes. “I can’t even spell it,” he jokes. “I don’t build companies to make money. I do them because I get really excited about some issue.”
An ardent skateboarder, Smith started out in the non-profit sector, creating a skate park for his hometown in Nebraska to give local youths something to do. Without a clear plan to fund his new venture, he took to quirky fundraising measures, sleeping “under a bridge homeless for 27 days to raise $10,000” and skating across Nebraska multiple times, as well as taking speaking engagements. Schools are keen to call him in and hear the tale of a boy from “a town where there are 2,000 people and 100,000 cattle”, but who had “big ideas and big dreams”.
Six years later, Smith’s speaking company grosses more than $1m a year, while he also run a consultancy that has helped brands such as Vans and Red Bull to build campaigns that “tap into what young people are thinking and feeling”.
Cashing in on renewables
The home of energy start-up Bulb, with its curved windows and foliage-strewn corridors, “feels more like the Eden Project than a tech start-up”, says Jamie Nimmo in the Evening Standard. The aim is “to encourage creative thoughts”, says co-founder Hayden Wood. Former energy consultant Wood launched the business with Amit Gudka, previously a Barclays gas and electricity trader, after the pair concluded they could do better than the “Big Six” energy firms. The idea was to create an energy firm with one tariff: no “teaser rates, no exit fees”; to keep costs low by running things online; and “to prove that renewables can be affordable for everyone”.
They raised £1.3m from friends and family and the business has since grown rapidly. Two years later, Bulb has 70,000 customers and is already in profit.
Londoners are one of the least likely groups in the UK to switch energy providers, but their enthusiasm for Bulb – which has been cutting prices of late at a time when many rivals have been hiking charges – suggests that “those paying high rents in the capital are starting to dig around for savings”. The brand appears to have something of a cult following: Wood reports that he wore a Bulb T-shirt at a music festival over the summer. “Eight people came up to me and said: ‘I love that company, I get my energy from them’.”
The “country bumpkin” who made a million
Gangly Midlander Nick Grey doesn’t come across as a corporate bruiser, says Oliver Shah in The Sunday Times. In fact, he calls himself a “country bumpkin”. Yet he has made it in one of the toughest consumer markets out there – vacuum cleaners. Gtech, the home appliance firm he founded in 2001, now employs 200 people and is heading for £120m in sales this year. In 2015 the company paid Grey a £4m dividend. Grey grew up in Worcestershire and was one of seven siblings. He had mild dyslexia and left college at 17 with an A-level in technical drawing. He worked as a bathroom salesman, then a double-glazing installer, before he applied for a job as a lab technician at appliances maker Vax. While clearing up after the designers, he began to offer his own ideas and caught the eye of the boss. “I just felt that I instantly understood how building and making products worked.”
He became Vax’s head of engineering, but wanted to strike out on his own. In 2001 he resigned to live off “£18,000 of savings for 18 months while he worked on a prototype” for a cordless sweeper, the “Shark”, which proved a hit in the US. Then in 2012 he launched AirRam, a cordless vacuum. It won rave reviews and did well, but department store sales underperformed (partly, Grey believes, because rivals had briefed against the product). Grey had to lend all of his savings – nearly £1m – to the business in 2013 to get it through the resulting cash crunch. However, sales recovered when Grey decided to bypass retailers altogether with a direct sales campaign. He now sticks to selling via Argos and shopping channels.
Why would anyone burn £1m? The KLF have no idea
“The KLF are back, 23 years after burning £1m on a remote Scottish island,” says Annebella Pollen in The Scotsman. Ravers of a certain age will remember the electronic band that “provided many of the dance-floor fillers of the early 1990s”. Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, the band’s two core members, were long known for their outrageous antics, not least when they “fired blanks from a machine gun into a music industry crowd after being named best band at the Brit Awards in 1992”. But they outdid themselves in August 1994, when they took £1m to the Scottish island of Jura, and “in the middle of the night, they burned the lot”. Yet the public reaction proved unexpectedly hostile. “People were angry. How could they have done something so reckless, so morally indefensible?” Drummond and Cauty “imposed a 23-year moratorium on the matter”. Now they’re back.
The pair heralded their return by driving through Liverpool in an ice-cream van and launching a piece of dystopian metafiction called 2023, says Hannah Ellis-Petersen in The Guardian. It’s “a sharp reminder that all the pomp and circumstance of the music industry” and “the greed of consumer culture” that they tried to subvert has only grown in their absence.
But why did they burn the cash? Drummond himself told the BBC in 2004 “Of course I regret it – who wouldn’t!… My children especially regret it, but I don’t regret it all the time.” A panel discussion in Liverpool to mark the KLF’s return saw attempts to explain the burning as everything from an act of nihilism to an expression of Presbyterian moralism and a radical critique of the power of finance, says Pollen. Yet Drummond and Cauty themselves have remained silent – for them, there is “nothing more to add”.