Oliver Bridge is renowned for his Cornerstone subscription shaving service. But his entrepreneurial life started with his size 13 feet as a teenager, writes Steve Dyson.
The turning point in Oliver Bridge’s life was as a keen 15-year-old footballer, when he was increasingly getting frustrated with the lack of boots available for his size 13 feet.
“It was driving me mental,” recalls Bridge, now aged 29 and the successful founder of Cornerstone, the £10m subscription shaving service. “It was just so difficult to find football boots or any shoes that I liked that were big enough to fit me.”
The resourceful teenager started to look around on the web and high street shops and was soon starting to list places that stocked large footwear. This impressed his mum who one day told him: “You ought to start your own business”. And so Bigger Feet – also known as biggerfeet.com – was born in the autumn of 2004: finding, buying and sending large shoes to customers all over the UK.
Bridge ran the business from the family home near Cambridge while he was studying for his GCSEs and AS-levels. But by the time his A-levels came along the workload got too heavy, and he found that packing and posting shoes wasn’t compatible with getting the grades he was aiming for.
“I sold it for a couple of thousand pounds to my brother,” says Bridge, “and he carried on running it for a couple of years, more than recouping his money, before technology took over and it became cheaper to buy from Amazon.
“But it had been a fantastic experience at a time when websites were still very basic, and I was running the business on paper and Excel spreadsheets. I learned loads from making tonnes of mistakes – like not keeping a database of the 1,000-odd people who were after bigger shoes. That would be worth a bomb now.
“And it meant that I didn’t have to work as a pot washer for my pocket money as a school boy, plus I got the entrepreneurial bug.”
It wasn’t long before that bug struck again. After succeeding at his A-levels, Bridge began a degree in politics, philosophy and economics at the University of Oxford, and he launched GenderChecker.com in the summer after his first year in 2008. The idea came to him during an internship trying to raise funding for a social enterprise when he was constantly guessing the wrong gender of foreign people he was contacting.
“A lot of the people I was contacting were not born in the UK and I was going crazy not recognising whether someone with a Nigerian name, for example, was male or female,” he says. “It was impeding my ability to form relationships, and I thought: ‘I can’t be the only person who has this problem’.”
Bridge began researching thousands of unusual names, mostly foreign, finding out which gender they usually represented. He then spent half his student loan commissioning a software developer to build him an easy-to-use website gadget.
“I remember my student pals asking me what the hell I was doing spending my loan on that, and telling me I was going to have a really crap term with no money,” he says. “But then I came up with a great idea to market it – a ‘guess the name of the teddy bear and win a case of Dom Perignon Champagne’ competition.
“I placed this on blogs, emailed everyone I knew and it went wild, ending up with tens of thousands of entries, and because no-one guessed the right name – it was ‘Werner’ – I never even had to buy the Champagne.”
The high-profile launch resulted in top Google rankings for GenderChecker.com and the website still gets up to 50,000 hits a month, bringing in an average of £500 a month from companies wanting to buy copies of the database.
“It’s money I first used to pay my rent when I moved to London after graduation,” says Bridge, “and it gave me another taste of what it was like to run a business.”
Bridge graduated in 2010 and started work at a company called Happen, advising clients like Unilever and Cadbury on new product development, and then as a technology investment analyst at Synova Capital.
But before long, he realised that he wanted to start his own business again. After years of dealing with sensitive skin and razor burn, Bridge was unimpressed by the choice of expensive, over-complicated and ineffective products, plus the unnecessary hassle of having to spend his lunch break queueing in Boots. That’s when he decided to set up Cornerstone in July 2014 – borrowing a £5,000 start-up loan and initially working from his kitchen table.
“I believed the industry was serving itself, not the customer,” explains Bridge. “Cornerstone is about bringing shaving into the 21st century. Our service is very simple: on our website, our members tell us how often they shave and which products they would like to receive, and we send them straight to their door on a subscription basis, meaning they never have to shop for shaving products again. We give our members complete flexibility in managing their subscription – they can cancel or change any aspect of their plan at any time.”
Example prices for Cornerstone products include a full shaving gift set for £30, a shaving gel tub for £6, and six replacement blades for £14 – with the first order including a complimentary, personalised razor handle. Orders go through a user-friendly site at www.cornerstone.co.uk.
But how did Bridge initially discover what he claims are “the best” razors and shaving products? “It was my personal experience to start with,” he explains. “I’d always found it really horrible to shave and had tried every type of razor, gel and moisturiser, but still suffered from a bad rash and ingrowing hairs.
“So, I talked to friends and – importantly – barbers who shaved as a service, and realised I was using both the wrong products and techniques. Barbers talked knowledgably about dermatology, and the trick of using good-quality products. They advised me to pick a gritty face scrub which helps lift in-growing hairs from the skin, and they urged me not to shave against the grain, as that goes too low and causes the ingrowing hairs.
“I found out what makes a good shaving gel, and realised that what you needed was a thick, lubricating product – not the much-advertised foam, which is pointless. And you should use nothing with alcohol in it. As well as stinging like hell it dries the skin.
“With all that knowledge I knew what I wanted and contacted 20 or 30 companies to ask if they’d help and, from the few that replied, I selected one in the South of England that is a specialist in turning concepts into products, dealing with the chemistry, the checking and certification.”
Finding the right razor was another challenge, as most manufacturers own dealt in orders worth millions of pounds. But after approaching a company that has been operating in Germany for more than 100 years, Bridge managed to talk them into selling him a small stock of high-quality blades.
He remembers: “When they said they couldn’t supply me with what was a tiny order, I asked them what they’d do if I turned up with €5,000 at their door, and the chap said: ‘If you do that, you’ve got a deal.’
“So, I did. I asked my step-dad to drive me over, went to the bank and got the cash, and arrived at the factory door in Frankfurt 24 hours later. The supplier was so shocked he gave me a few hundred extra blades for free.”
This got Cornerstone started but, after a while, feedback from customers told Bridge that he needed an even better razor – users telling him it was difficult to fit the heads on the handles, or that the lubricating strip didn’t change colour enough to indicate when it needed to be changed. The original supplier couldn’t adapt its product, so Bridge found a new manufacturer in Dusseldorf who could, this one with a 200-year history in razor blades.
Bridge says: “We found that 99.5% of our customers liked the new blade. It worked because we are constantly speaking to customers to find out what they want, what they like, and what they need to improve. We apply the same principle to all our products, then approach manufacturers knowing that our customers will like the end-product. It results in the highest possible standards and de-risks the whole exercise.”
At the beginning, business was tough – including lots of late nights and early mornings. And the new business soon needed serious investment. But Bridge has been successfully crowdfunding around £1m a year since launch, acquiring 100,000 members in less than three years. He’s recently finished a new investment round worth £3.5m from angel investors and a venture capitalist, and will soon launch a huge expansion of Cornerstone’s product range.
Bridge, who’s now married and lives in Wimbledon, says: “Our mission is to completely redefine how men shop for bathroom toiletries and transform this multi-billion pound category into something much more customer-friendly.
“We currently provide high-quality, British-blended skincare products and German-engineered razors. And this year we’re expanding our product range by launching a two-in-one shampoo and conditioner, deodorant, shower gel and multivitamins designed for men, plus a new dental care range.
“As with any small business, we’ve encountered a number of barriers – dealing with heavy-handed legal challenges from larger competitors, raising funding in a post-Brexit environment and, perhaps most significantly, convincing customers to ditch brands they’ve used for decades and switch to a new start-up.
“The magic ingredient for tackling most challenges is a spirit of determination, something the Cornerstone team has in spades. The main driver of our success has quickly become the energy and resourcefulness of our team – there’s only so much you can do on your own, and unless you surround yourself with top-notch people, you won’t get far.”
With an anticipated turnover of £10m in 2018, the fast-growing London-based business now employs 33 full-time and two part-time staff. Yet Bridge has managed to remain the largest shareholder in Cornerstone, alongside his recent angel investors and the venture capitalist.
One thing you notice about Bridge is his clean-shaven looks – the light literally reflects off his chin. “It’s because I’m a daily shaver,” he laughs, “and I have to be, or I’d get abuse all day from my staff.
“But seriously, I follow the Cornerstone shave guide to the letter: take a warm shower, use face scrub, shave only with the grain, splash with cold water, then use a moisturiser to finish off. Before I started Cornerstone, I found shaving very unpleasant, but now, genuinely, it’s a pleasure each morning.”
From his teenage days finding football boots big enough for his size 13 feet, to his journey towards becoming a shaving millionaire, Bridge certainly insists on throwing his whole body – from toes to chin – into his businesses.
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