LDN Muscle co-founder James Exton and his twin brother Tom turned their blogging hobby into a successful fitness guide business catering for those who want naturally lean and aesthetic physiques. With plans to tackle more global markets, he wants to ask our panel of leaders at what point they should give up their day jobs
Like most twins, James Exton and his brother Tom shared a lot growing up together – the same taste in clothes, music, sports, and the same entrepreneurial drive. The ambitious brothers, now 27, often talked about forming their own company, believing James’s diligent approach and Tom’s more laid-back nature would make them a formidable team.
But the south London-born siblings instead settled into the security of their individual careers. Exton pursued a path in the legal profession, working as a barrister specialising in criminal law, while Tom embraced top-tier banking in the City.
Their dream of setting up their own venture continued to bubble away beneath the surface, until one day the pair realised they had the perfect business formula right in the palms of their hands – in the form of barbells. “As teenagers we played sport together,” James Exton explains. “But when we went off to our respective universities we took up weight-training instead to stay fit.”
This was the beginning of LDN Muscle, the fitness company they established to provide premium online health and fitness programmes. Since officially launching in February 2013, they’ve sold 41,000 downloads of their guides, for up to £50 a time.
“It almost happened by accident really, born out of vanity,” Exton says. “Tom and I would work out in bodybuilding gyms and pick up tips, and we did lots of research on nutrition and training. The better we looked, the more people would approach us and ask what our secret was and whether we could help them.”
At the end of 2012, the twins joined forces with their training buddies, brothers Max and Lloyd Bridger, and decided to start writing a blog, offering people free advice and guidance on exercise and nutrition. Within months they had a Twitter following of over 55,000 and LDN Muscle was up and running.
“We realised then that there was money to be made out of our hobby and it was no longer sustainable to provide the service for free as it took up a lot of our time. So we set up a website and for LDN Muscle and began charging for the workouts. It all snowballed from there,” says Exton. Their ‘secret’ was adopting the principles of bodybuilding-style weight training and ‘clean’ eating but applying a healthy, holistic approach without the use of anabolic steroids, unnecessary supplements, or excessive hours spent in the gym.
“That’s the problem with the fitness industry,” Exton explains, “it is so saturated by supplements and fad products that people have forgotten how to do things the natural way. Training shouldn’t just be about looking good but about feeling good and looking after your health too.
“There was a gap in the market. Most of the bodybuilding websites and magazines catered for meathead types who wanted to get huge. But not everybody wants that, especially our clients. Many of them are company directors, top barristers or bankers. They wouldn’t be giving off the right image in the workplace if they walked into an important meeting in a suit about to burst at the seams and an orange tan. Most want to look lean and athletic.
“If we simply conveyed a bodybuilding image we would close ourselves off to a high-end demographic so we thought carefully about our brand, and the grammar we used. We wanted LDN Muscle to come across as intelligent and knowledgeable but also very approachable.”
The brothers had no capital investment when they started and spent just £1,000 on the website and £10,000 per quarter on social media advertising. They had just a handful of workout programmes. Now, LDN Muscle offers three flagship guides as well as 20 e-downloads and a full clothing range.
The pair are aiming to more than double their turnover to £750,000 this year. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. “We’ve had minor hurdles we’ve learnt from, such as releasing things in a more time-efficient manner,” Exton admits.
“Website-wise, we get peak volumes of traffic when we launch something new and our server often crashes. Unless you’re the size of a company like Asos it’s hard to avoid this, so it’s something we’re constantly working to improve on.”
What makes the LDN Muscle business stand out, Exton feels, is the direct relationship they have with their clients. The downside is the founders work up to 70 hours a week, managing day jobs alongside LDN Muscle. Ideally they’d like to grow the company while maintaining this ‘personal’ element but cut down on their hours.
Their guides have been downloaded in 181 countries, including Australia, the US and South Africa, with China and the Middle East on the brothers’ radar. Without financial backing from supplement companies, though, they fear this might be difficult.
“We don’t want that kind of investment because it goes against what we believe in and what we are trying to educate people about,” says Exton.
“We want to grow and maximise our business position, not just in terms of revenue but make it valuable in terms of a company in its own right too. We want to add value to the brand, not just profit, with a view to one day selling it on to the right buyer or attracting the right kind of investors.”
For now the founders dream of running LDN Muscle full time but worries persist. “It would drastically reduce our work hours but it’s tricky making that transition without suffering in terms of income,” Exton admits. Time will tell if they bite the bullet.
Exton asks our board of experts: How can we make the transition to work on LDN Muscle full time in a way that wouldn’t be financially detrimental?
Co-founder and CTO, Mr & Mrs Smith
There comes a time with any start-up when you have to take a leap of faith. Make sure you’ve set out ways to minimise the financial risk. There are four of you in the business. Decide whose skills are the most important at this stage, and perhaps for now only that person switches to full-time working. Can the others work shorter weeks with their employers?
Stay focused on where the revenue comes from. A total of 181 countries sounds great, but where are your core users located? Concentrate on the areas where adoption is most profitable. In hindsight at Mr & Mrs Smith we globalised too early, which took the focus off our core market. Look at cost-effective ways to market yourself – having spent £10k a quarter on social, you must now have some insight into what’s working.
We built our brand solely on PR when we started. When you’re new, you have a story to tell, so capitalise on that. It sounds like you know what your brand values are, and you’re right to stick with them. It’s a rollercoaster ride, but if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. Your site shouldn’t crash when you attract too many users. Host in the cloud and use auto-scaling infrastructure to scale the site with the traffic. It doesn’t cost the earth.
Managing director, The Tinnitus Clinic
Do you expect to take three holidays a year or have expensive hobbies? You may need to make sacrifices at this stage and your first step is to decide what income you absolutely must have to cover your outgoings, and then what you are most comfortable with.
Don’t look at the business in the same way as being a wage slave. Take a low basic salary and, assuming you are making a profit rather than simply increasing turnover, take a director’s dividend based on your shareholding. Your accountant can explain how this can be done without compromising the company’s financial health.
Put together a plan agreed between the leadership group (and families and supporters) for a transitional move into full-time working at the company rather than all moving together. It will ease pressure on the finances of the business.
Lastly, have the courage of your convictions. Look for quick wins, get customers to pre-register for new releases to avoid your website crashing, employ great people, trust them, continue to have ideas for growth and be your own company’s best marketing spend. After all, ‘you are what you do’.
Josephine Swinhoe is a chartered director. She is a member of the IoD’s Essex branch and an affiliated member of the City of London branch
Senior adviser, TEQ Solutions
Every start-up business has to suffer a degree of pain to move to the next level. The lowest paid or most competent all-rounder should drop out of the day job to drive the company forward, supported by the business itself and the salaries of the other three.
This would allow you to maximise profits by improving efficiencies, marketing and partnering opportunities that you are probably missing by working part time. As profits – rather than just turnover – increase, the case can be made for another team member to drop out of his day job.
Expect input to go up by over 200 per cent as the team starts to work together. By the time all four are full time in the business, growth should be exponential, with a different set of problems.
Concerns can arise with the three having to trust the fourth to push their start-up forward in the way they wish. However, if you have managed to work together this far there should be no reason why it cannot continue. On achievements so far, I can see you driving LDN Muscle to where you want it to be.
Steve Cappa is a Chartered Director and sits on the IoD’s Cheshire branch committee
Thank you for your insightful responses. Clearly the expansion from a hobby to a business requires a shift of mindset and the requisite transition of us four eventually working full time on LDN Muscle. The staggered approach suggested seems both fair and logical, and something we can work to implement. Being in essence a family-run business, with two sets of brothers, obviously adds a degree of difficulty – having both a blood and work relationship means even more reason to have complete transparency, fairness and trust. The technical feedback regarding auto-scaling infrastructure is certainly invaluable to us too and an easy revenue saver. It’s apparent that we have outgrown our initial foundations.