Taking its name from the turn of a card, the King of Shaves brand launched into the shaving market in the early 1990s and, despite some (non) hairy moments, today founder Will King is sitting pretty as a multi-millionaire, award-winning businessman and best-selling author. In January he launched Hyperglide, a revolutionary new razor that allows the user to shave simply by adding water. He describes it as his “iPhone moment” and the launch comes after a £7 million investment. Not bad for someone who wanted to be a yacht designer but didn’t get the A Levels he needed to get to Southampton University. As he begins the countdown to his 50th birthday next year, Alison Dewar went to his Beaconsfield HQ to find out more.
Born and brought up in Lowestoft, Suffolk, King was the eldest of three boys and spent all his time on the water, qualifying as the UK’s youngest sailing instructor and set his sights on working in the industry. After “fluffing” (his word) his A Levels at the local comprehensive, he spent a year sailing in New Zealand before returning to Portsmouth Polytechnic (University of Portsmouth) to study mechanical engineering. Although he gained his degree, he recognised he was unlikely to make a career in the industry and moved to London where his first job was selling advertising space for Marketing Magazine. From there he moved into corporate events and marketing communications, before the recession of the early 1990s brought marketing spend to a halt and he was made redundant. Not one to sit still for long, the fledgling King of Shaves business was born when he spotted an opportunity to move into the men’s grooming market and soon moved from kitchen table to full-scale production. Today, King, who has one son and is married to his second wife, advertising creative director Tiger Savage, is a successful entrepreneur and regarded as one of the UK’s leading practitioners in the use of social media from a company and brand perspective.
How did you make the leap from marketing to men’s shaving products?
I always wanted to make something, to have a visible product that I could be in charge of, rather than marketing a service. My then girlfriend’s parents came from the West Indies and I realised that when I shaved and used her bath oil on my face it stopped my razor burn. Shaving in the 90s was more of a scraping experience than the enjoyable one it is today, I saw that if I could solve my problem and could scale up production, then I could have a business on my hands.
What was your next step?
The market wasn’t very sophisticated, regulations weren’t what they are today and the barriers to entry were pretty low. I read a book on aromatherapy and bought my first oils from a pharmacy in Henley. A company in Bristol, Amphora Aromatics, did some initial blending for me, they were used to selling in 10ml bottles whereas I was soon buying 50 litre drums from the people that supplied them. I was literally filling small plastic bottles with shaving oil at the kitchen sink with a hand pump – 400 on the first day. Within a few days though, I was soon into a routine and filled 9,600 in two weeks. I loved learning about the oils, the way they worked intrigued me.
How did you go from the kitchen sink to being stocked at Harrods?
I worked on the basis that I was making the best shaving oil in the world and Harrods was the best department store in the world, so they needed to be stocking my product. Although I met with the buyer, there weren’t any orders forthcoming and I wasn’t earning any money. My parents and friends had invested in the business and I needed to make something happen, so I faxed Mr Al Fayed to tell him about the oil and got an order straight back. That was September 1993; from there it was another 10 months before I sold into Boots in May 1994.
Has it been plain sailing since then?
In the first year I made just £300 against a £30,000 loss, but by year three, sales were £250,000 and by 1997, turnover had increased to £1,250,000 and was doubling year on year. I used invoice discounting to help with cashflow and used the DTI loan guarantee scheme to help invest in the business. By 2004, turnover at my company KMI, which owned King of Shaves, was over £11m and we also produced ranges for Ted Baker, Orla Kiely and Fish, among others.
Tell us about some of your milestones
Originally we had our range of oils, then that expanded into shaving gels, serums and skin care. In 2002 I filed the trademark for “King of Blades” and Marketing Week picked up on it, splashed it; suddenly it was all about us going into competition with the likes of Gillette – the press referred to it as a David and Goliath battle. Designing a razor may look very simple but it’s actually very difficult, especially when you have to avoid existing patents. I had my background in mechanical engineering, as did Andy Hill, my operations and innovations director of 19 years, and we worked on it together for five years. In 2008 we finally launched our first razor, which was called Azor. In shaving terms it was about an 8 out of 10, we couldn’t expect to get above that because of the Gillette patents, but we priced it at £4.99 for a handle and three cartridges, and it gave us the confidence to go on from there, and eventually we came up with the concept for Hyperglide.
A year later, in 2009 I raised £4m and de-merged King of Shaves from KMI so it became its own limited company, which owns all the core IP and the technology. I’m no longer a shareholder in KMI, which is run by my co-founding business partner Herbie, but I am still a director.
What’s the technology behind Hyperglide?
Water softens stubble by 90%, but to “hold” the water on your face, and provide lubrication, you have always needed to apply prep – a shave gel, foam, cream or oil. For razor cartridges to perform well, they’ve also needed a lubrication strip – a Lubestrip – which was debuted by Gillette on its Trac 2 razor in 1976.
In 2009 we came across super-hydrophilic advanced technology, which had been developed by a spin-out team from Sheffield University for the medical device industry. We recognised its potential and between 2009-14 have invested £7m to bring this project to fruition. By coating the entire shaving surface of the razor cartridge it creates its own “HydroGel” so all you have to do is add water and shave. It delivers a level of glide, which is literally off the scale, the key patents have a lifespan of 18-20 years and is far advanced on existing products, which have been using the same technology since 1976.
Being able to shave just using water is quite revolutionary and, if you still want to use products, then it will be even better and prolong the life of the cartridge. It’s a win win.
When did you first use Hyperglide?
It was the day after Valentine’s Day, 2011, I knew as soon as I used it, that it was amazing and was going to change the face of shaving.
Did you always know you would succeed?
We knew it would work unless there were some problems which were impossible to solve, and nothing in there was impossible. It was difficult, but it was always probable we could do it, we just didn’t realise it would take so long and cost so much.
How did the launch go?
We launched in the UK in January this year, and the feedback and reviews were fantastic. In February it went into an initial 200 stores in the US, and it will roll out to other countries around the world including Australia and New Zealand later this year.
Do you adhere to the Made in England mantra?
97% of it is made here, we have a factories in High Wycombe and Chesham and employ five people at our Hyperglide facility, all of whom are PhD chemists. All of our other shaving products are made in the UK too. With Hyperglide, and the super-hydrophilic technology, we are the only people doing this in the world. We built the facility from scratch and it was important to me to manufacture it in England. We also have the office in Beaconsfield with 15 people and about 150 people are involved in the supply chain overall.
How do you give back to the community?
Both my parents were teachers and I’m involved with Speakers for Schools, which is an independent charity founded by the BBC business editor Robert Peston. I regularly go into schools to talk about being an entrepreneur and how to get started in business. I supported students in Bristol who put on a fashion, music and dance show in February called Fuze 2014, which raised funds for Anti-Slavery International, and I’ve also been involved in the Beating Bowel Cancer campaign through King of Shaves’ Prostyle range.
You will be 50 next year, what are your future plans?
I have a fabulous brand in a world which is increasingly dominated by a few multinational companies, and I’m focused on disrupting their monopoly on shaving. I have given myself two to three years to deliver on the promises that I know Hyperglide is capable of and then I’ll see where it goes. I won’t be the “I came, I saw, I shaved, I died” guy. There’ll be something else…
Do you ever have the chance to sail these days?
I haven’t sailed properly for about three years but my first love (after my wife and son of course) will always be sailing.
And to sign off?
The end is only the start.
Details: King of Shaves