You get better insights into the worth of TV’s entrepreneurial talent shows when you talk to someone who’s been auditioned.
It was New Year’s Eve 2013. While others celebrated, Darren Williams and his partner Angey were at home together in Ryhope, Sunderland, baby Ty having arrived five months earlier. “I’ve got it,” said Angey suddenly. “Why not apply for The Apprentice?”
“I gave her one of those looks,” Darren recalls. “But I applied. At 11.59, as new year’s chimes went, I pressed the Go button on my application. A few weeks later a producer rang. I’d been successful and would have to audition in Manchester. I went, head full of ideas, wisdom and curiosity.
“They took us through a strenuous interview application process. You’ve seen people told ‘thanks for your time, see you later’. I kept getting moved to different stages. Finally I was in front of a camera, one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. You could probably pick up Mars looking through it.
“Afterwards they said ‘thanks very much. If you’re successful we’ll contact you’. A couple of weeks later, another call. The producer said ‘congratulations, you’re through – to the final 60’. Off I went to London, down the A1 like a dog on heat. I turned up in my polished shoes.
“In a daunting London studio I was stood among what felt like enemy soldiers – snipers thinking ‘I’m going to win this’. Your mindset changes from nice businessman to the cut-throat dog eat dog world of TV business.
“Normal business rules go out the window. Who’ll shout loudest? Who can dominate? A crazy concoction of loud voices and fake tan. You’re set challenges that include putting a wardrobe together.
“You must stand in a row of 10 people without talking, from the ugliest to the most beautiful, then negotiate. Mind boggling. Finally they just said ‘thanks for your time. If you’re successful the next phone call will tell you you’re being invited onto the show’
“That call never came. So here I am,” he laughs heartily. It’s a last laugh.
While the other aspirants acted as stooges, Williams co-founded what looks like his sixth successful business, Redu. And one year on it has won a Durham and Wearside Newcomer of the Year award, sponsored by Virgin Money.
“To some degree I’m pleased how the audition turned out. Shows like that are entertainment not business, we know, but they bring out the best and worst in people. I got off lightly.” He had a couple of start-up ideas for The Apprentice 10.
“But Redu far exceeds them,” he says. It’s a collection of online and social marketing channels to help consumers save money. A few weeks after TV’s rejection he’d got a phone call from a friend, Gary Hunter, who’d grown a million pound website business called Lease Cars Direct, and sold it successfully to Vertu Motors.
“Listen to this idea,” said Gary, 37, now chief executive of Redu based at Seaham. “It doesn’t involve customers or suppliers. You pass customers across but never have to deal with complaints or returns.”
Redu, then, connects consumers with retailers by promoting offers. As Williams, executive officer, explains: “We’re sent more than 500 offers a day from retailers, ranging from ladies’ shoes, once £50 now £10, to perhaps a 20% cut across a children’s range.
“We hear about that before it’s public knowledge. Our team of 10 pick the best (highest discount) to put to the audience. We’re doing what would be hard work for the public with a 10-1 advantage.”
The business has eight brands, three of which were acquired. Together they provide an audience of around 300,000 – “fans”, as Redu calls them. “We work with 4,500 retailers, and we’re a top 10 affiliate of M&S, John Lewis and Amazon. We’re making waves.”
Holiday deals may be their next focus. Meanwhile Ashleigh Moneysaver, the main page, has 220,000 followers. The brand differences are fashion related – Redu is promoting British brands to British people.
He points out: “The Chinese are starting to take over the likes of EBay – countless Chinese sellers vending almost directly from the factory. It’s increasingly hard for businesses elsewhere to compete. Yet, for the consumer, not only can it take two or three weeks for ordered goods to turn up, but also quality isn’t being vetted by British retailers’ quality controllers.”
However, a TV producer rated Williams, Sir Peter Vardy – himself a multi-millionaire master of business – considers Williams at 33 one of the North East’s most dynamic young entrepreneurs. James Ramsbotham, chief executive of the North East Chamber of Commerce, finds him “most impressive”.
Williams’ previous success, Harland Corporation Ltd, won 15 awards (one national). Its hair and beauty offers attracted over 1m unique visitors a year to its six ecommerce stores, and with 18 staff and a 7,000sq ft warehouse it turned over £1m a year with a 73% growth rate amid recession. Around 10% of its 10,000-plus products sold monthly went to more than 37 countries – from Barbados to Afghanistan. He exited with a six figure sum. Does he get bored and want to move on? “That last business did start to lose its start-up magic. You become big and established in a market and, let’s face it, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse. After nine years it was right to move on. It had a phenomenal run over three years in particular.”
With some life security gained from the sale, he tried retirement. That lasted two weeks.
“There’s only so much Jeremy Kyle you can watch on telly,” he observes. Then Gary called.
Williams admits that besides building and selling with success five previous businesses, he’s also had four failures. “You see opportunity, get a burning desire, a butterfly feeling this will be huge,” he explains. “That’s the kick-start, the big drive, the push to see it through.
Sometimes I’ve done that, then realised it wasn’t necessarily working as much as I’d have loved it to. That’s when I tend to tip it and follow where the money is.”
Half the battle, he maintains, is finding someone to join you on a new journey – someone different to bounce ideas off. Enter, Hunter. “Our chemistry works well,” Williams says. They also surrounded themselves with other competents.
One is Sam Morton who created 21st Century Media, another million pound business and winner of around 15 awards. Being involved in an App business already, he made a sound third director. Fourth cornerstone of management is Laura Middleton, who’d won a competition with her own business.
“I remembered how passionate she was in social media with Sunderland Parents. Social media was something we also wanted to push,” Williams says. This is done through Ashleigh Moneysaver. Yes, there is an Ashleigh – Ashleigh Swan, now an employee.
“She’d started the moneysaver page earlier, and we contacted her. She said she loved bargain hunting but worked full time at something else and would love to do moneysaving full time with help on the business side. We got together and the brand is a massive success.”
Redu is short for ‘discount’ in French. “Our keyboards lack the little accent on the ‘e’,” Williams explains. “In branding I like names that don’t mean anything. It doesn’t help if your ‘North East Something or Other’ plumbing business suddenly becomes nationwide, or something like that. Sage plc got its name from a picture of that herb on the wall.”
Said now to generate high street retailers more than £2m a month, Redu is targeting £10m turnover by year three or four.
The enterprise has attracted £100,000 of venture capital and attracted to the board two notable executives of other North East businesses. It has been ranked in the top 50 Apps worldwide in the Apple and Google Play App stores. Hunter says: “We didn’t expect to grow so fast so soon. In a year we’ve reached where we thought we’d be at after three years.”
The present six figure turnover is doubling percentage growth in turnover monthly. “What I’m keen to shout about is the 75% net profit margin,” Williams says.
There are nine employees with more to follow, including apprentices. Hunter gives credit in all this to East Durham Business Service (EDBS), which helped the company choose its offices at Novus II on Spectrum Business Park, and charged half-rent for some months, enabling money to be reinvested.
Denise Fielding, operations director at EDBS, suggests Redu’s growth underlines how Spectrum can enable new and growing businesses to realise ambition.
For more information on Ashleigh Moneysaver, click here.