Voice of the Industry

Agility, disruption, and the right D2C approach – Gymshark's journey to becoming a unicorn startup

Thursday 7 October 2021 08:45 CET | Editor: Raluca Constantinescu | Voice of the industry

Steve Hewitt, executive chair at the UK-based retailer Gymshark and keynote speaker at IRX, elaborates on Gymshark’s journey from being an entrepreneurial startup to securing the ‘unicorn’ status


At its heart, Gymshark has an essentially entrepreneurial spirit, driven by our founder Ben Francis. When he launched the business in 2012, Ben was determined to do things differently. For example, he incorporated influencer marketing from the very start – a rarely-used tactic almost a decade ago. This helped us to develop, from an early stage, a deep understanding of our community and what they want from our brand. Since then, Gymshark has gone from an entrepreneurial startup to a global brand with millions of customers in over 180 countries and a large social community – close to 18 million followers at the last count. We’ve been able to grow faster than almost any business of our type globally and have joined the list of less than 25 British companies to have secured the 'unicorn' status. 

Innovation – the driving force behind Gymshark’s growth 

Driving this growth is innovation or – as I prefer to say – agility and disruption. This means we can respond swiftly to trends and changes in the ecommerce market in a way that our competitors are unable to. Over the past 18 months we’ve created a separate team entirely dedicated to innovation. What can we do to drive evolution and revolution? These are the questions that are front and centre for us. The innovation team now numbers over 20 people, all tasked with looking ahead and responding to what’s around the corner. We’ve also invested heavily in technology and recruited a team of crack data engineers. 

Our staff sit at the heart of our organisation. The average age of our nearly 900 employees is 29 years old, and many of the senior management team are under 30 years old. We’re firm believers in handing over trust and responsibility and also recruiting with a laser focus on the culture fit. This approach not only ensures a synced-up team working in a fast-paced environment, but also helps to keep the wants and needs of our target customer – 16 to 35 year olds – front of mind at all times. 

Our direct to consumer approach 

We’ve led the direct to consumer revolution and built a truly community-first brand that’s dedicated to uniting the fitness community. Our aim is to extend our brand and therefore expand our community. Around 80% of our business is international; the US is our biggest market and we’re also expanding into other key markets such as Germany and Australia. The key to expanding globally, while remaining authentic to the consumer, is a localised approach with strategy tailored to the communities we want to reach. For example, the products are sold through 14 regional websites rather than a central one, allowing for a better understanding of local needs. 

Keeping customers happy across multiple international markets requires a carefully considered logistics strategy. Smooth logistics and stress-free supply chains have become even more important to international retailers under the UK’s post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union. 

We want to be able to under-promise but over-deliver to our customers. In the UK, for example, we say that our standard delivery is two working days, but most customers will receive their order the next day. As a direct to consumer brand, it is important to inspire customers across all touchpoints, including final-mile delivery. Too often, the customer experience gets worst the further they go through the purchasing journey. A bad experience at the last-mile stage can deter a customer from returning and could result in them advising their friends not to shop at that brand. 

Consumer interest in health and fitness is at an all-time high as a result of the pandemic, so the future continues to look bright for Gymshark. We’re expanding our offering beyond fitness apparel and have launched a training app, with more new launches to follow in the future. That’s not to say we don’t always have our eye on the next challenger brand on the horizon. We’re aware that we need to keep evolving and that’s where agility and disruption have a key role to play. 

About Steve Hewitt 

Steve Hewitt is executive chair of Gymshark. He joined in 2014 as an external advisor and went on to become managing director the following year, when he began building the foundations to prepare Gymshark for its next stage of growth. In 2017, Steve became CEO and spearheaded the building up of the senior leadership team that has been responsible for the exponential growth of the brand. With Steve at the helm, Gymshark has grown from a leading startup to a global brand. Throughout his career Steve has held many senior roles, serving as CEO of Sport Brands Group, a specialist in establishing licensing and distribution partnerships with international brands, and Commercial Director of Reebok, responsible for the Europe, Middle East, and Africa regions. 

About Gymshark 

Gymshark is a fitness apparel and accessories brand, manufacturer, and online retailer based in the UK, supported by millions of highly engaged social media followers and customers in over 180 countries. Created in 2012 by teenager Ben Francis and a group of his high-school friends, Gymshark has grown from a screen-printing operation in a garage into one of the fastest growing and most recognisable brands in fitness. 

About IRX 

IRX (InternetRetailing Expo) & eDX – the UK’s number one digital retail show taking place on 13 and 14 October 2021 at the NEC, Birmingham – aims to provide the retail industry with knowledge, insight, inspiration, and connections to ensure you are one step ahead of your competition and can thrive in the new digital world. Register for free here.


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Keywords: direct to consumer, retail, Unicorn, startup
Categories: Payments & Commerce | Ecommerce
Countries: World
This article is part of category

Payments & Commerce