By all accounts, Tom Dudderidge has it all: he has built up the UK’s leading Apple audio and accessories brand, GEAR4, which sells products in 60 countries, has a turnover of £30 million and an impressive growth rate of more than 50% per year, as well as building a family of four daughters and continuing a family tradition of entrepreneurialism. It’s quite a success story for someone who is only 35. Yet, as the ambitious entrepreneur tells Eleanor Harris, this is just the start, as the company focuses on becoming the global leader in accessories in a ‘post-PC’ era
Tom Dudderidge is founder and chief executive of GEAR4, based in High Wycombe. He was born in London in 1977 and left school at the age of 16 to work at Apple mail-order startup Computer Warehouse. He then worked in sales and marketing for mobile technology startups including UCP Morgan and XIAM. In 2004, at the age of 26, he founded Disruptive, and in 2006 launched the GEAR4 brand. The company, which today employs 76 members of staff across offices in High Wycombe, Hong Kong and Seattle, was a national finalist in the HSBC Startup Stars Awards in 2005 and won an Edison Award and a Red Dot Award in 2012 for its Renew SleepClock product. Dudderidge was a winner in the Ernst & Young London and South Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 awards. He is married with four children and lives in Coleshill, Buckinghamshire.
Why and how did you set up GEAR4?
I had a visceral need to start a company, but something always stopped me. This time it was different. I had a great job, but it wasn’t my baby. I was on a plane back from South America from a business trip and something hit me in the gut, I knew I had to do it. There was no idea, just this commitment to the business. I got off that plane, quit my job, started the company, set a sales target of £1m sales of ‘stuff’ in the first year and didn’t even know what that ‘stuff’ was. It was about that time that I got my first iPod. I love music and gadgets and I’d connected a few dots – I had a background working with Apple products and mobile technology, and my father’s in the music industry, manufacturing music equipment – but it wasn’t yet obvious what the parallels with my business would be. I went off to a consumer electronics fair with a mission to find some products that would work well in the market and came away having decided to create a brand in accessories for the iPod. I scraped together my life savings, begged, borrowed, and raised £23,000. We found some products designed and manufactured in Asia that hit the sweet spot, including one that allowed you to listen to your iPod in your car, and that first year we did sales of £1,000,700, just going past our target.
Can you tell me about the growth of the company from there?
At the end of the first year we got a call from Boots who had decided to get into the iPod and accessories and we won that whole piece of business, we did the whole range for them. Early in the second year the same thing happened with Dixons. We started to understand the scale of the opportunity. The market was growing faster than we possibly could, which gave us the opportunity to make mistakes without it being fatal, and we learned it all on the job. It was terrific: figuring stuff out along the way whilst growing a really successful business is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
And you have got ambitious plans for growth in the future?
We’ve always grown quickly, the annual growth rate is above 50%, and we’re very ambitious. The world is changing fast, we’re now in a post-PC era: the primary computing device in the digital world isn’t a PC anymore, it’s your smartphone, your tablet, eventually it will be your TV. For us, the ecosystem around those platforms isn’t just accessories anymore, and we think of ourselves as just as much a software company now as an accessories company. We’re making apps, we’re very involved in the content business – we secured a partnership with Rovio to create a range of Angry Birds-licensed products – as well as cloud services. Whereas for most of our history we’ve entered into product categories that have already emerged, and that’s good business, now we are also into real innovation, building technologies that haven’t been built before – we’ve built the unique SleepClock product, an ‘appcessory’ that measures your sleep, for example – and we want to be not just a global player, we want to be the global leader in these things. It’s not easy, but we’re really scaling up our international business, as well as our UK business, and we’ve started developing a philosophy of the global SME – being truly global whilst also being small. We’re less than 100 people yet we’re a global brand, operating in 64 countries, and we’re not even yet at critical mass. Every category we’re in is growing really fast. Because we’re still small, nimble, fast, we’ll be able to address these opportunities quickly.
Is that how you would account for your success?
It’s being fast, decisive, and making great quality products which are better by design but also accessible. That’s part of our DNA. Our success in the speaker business was deciding early on, when the average selling price of an iPod speaker was way above £200, to make mass market speakers that were less than £100. People thought we were crazy, we really met resistance, but we stuck to our guns.
Has your age been an advantage or an obstacle to your success?
My age has never been a barrier. I’m a great believer in the capability of young people to do great stuff. Sometimes businesses put too much value on somebody’s CV, but if people are talented, not knowing the rules is quite often the very best thing, because doing things the same way as everyone else is not going to get you anywhere. Funnily enough I don’t feel like one of the youngsters anymore, I certainly don’t feel like that in any boardroom situation or when I’m talking to the banks. I don’t feel like I’m this young kid chancer anymore, although I enjoyed feeling that way back in the day!
Do you think you would have done things any differently had you set up the business when you were older?
One of my only regrets is that I didn’t do it sooner. I don’t think I was much better equipped at 26 than I was at 21 – I’d done my 10,000 hours by the time I was 21. I had some brilliant ideas back then, but I just didn’t feel confident enough. If only someone had said to me “just give it a try”. That’s what’s wonderful in Silicon Valley, there is a special magic to that place but I don’t think it’s something that we couldn’t replicate right here in High Wycombe. The special magic there is people saying “yes, you can do it. In fact, here’s 10 million bucks!” We just need a few people in this country saying “you can do it, give it a try, you’ll figure everything else out along the way”. My father once said one of the greatest things anyone has ever said to me: “There’s one thing you learn along the way and it’s that the guy sitting opposite you, he’s winging it too. There’s no such thing as someone who knows what they’re doing.” In fact the day you think you know what you’re doing is probably the day to give up. I’ve retained that philosophy and it’s become my comfort zone. My comfort zone is being in a different universe where I don’t know the laws of physics and it’s time to figure them out to survive. That, for me, is an exciting day.
Your father was a sound engineer for Led Zeppelin and then built up his own audio business — do you think entrepreneurialism runs in the blood? And how much is your passion for audio and music part of your success?
Very much – I come from a music family and many members of my family are associated with the music business, that’s how I ended up in business. I spend as much time as I can hanging out with bands, and the business stays very close to music – in the early years we brought unknown British acts together for a weekly new acts night in London. My father is the first entrepreneur in our family, but I think my grandfather was an entrepreneur, too – he was a teacher but his big achievement was getting canoeing to be an Olympic sport, in which he competed. People often ask me if I’m doing this because I want to be terrifically rich – I’ve got no idea what I’d do if I was terrifically rich. The real goal is to create something, to become the global leader in accessories in a post-PC era; that’s what makes us get up in the morning. It’s exactly the same thing that drove my grandfather and that drives people to create families and to create a better life for themselves, it’s trying to create something that’s better or bigger. It must be something you’re born with.
Would you like your children to follow in your footsteps?
I’m delighted that they’re all very different. One has got a bit of what makes me tick making her tick: determination, belief, and a certain approach to risk – a clear idea of the risk and the willingness to push it to a certain degree. My greatest achievement is my four children, giving them opportunities in life and not allowing my obsession with this business to mean that I am an absent father.
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
I haven’t fulfilled my ambition of turning this company into the global leader. I sometimes wonder whether this is a practice run for the next one – we’re constantly talking about new businesses and we’ve got a wellness business currently within the GEAR4 umbrella which we’re putting a lot of energy into, and that might ultimately spin out into something that has its own kind of life – but right now we’re still focusing on building the GEAR4 brand and getting to critical mass. I’ve got millions of unfulfilled ambitions: I’m starting to mentor other young entrepreneurs through a brilliant organisation called FEBE, I haven’t had more than a week off since I was 16 so I wouldn’t mind taking a month off one day, I’ve never owned a motorcycle, I’ve never seen Led Zeppelin play, I’d love to have more time for cooking, my big passion, and I haven’t yet been to one of my daughter’s weddings. There’s plenty more to do.
Resources: GEAR4 website