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Hot Tub

Daniel Thomas: Hot Tub King

Can you start by telling us your story – how did you become a hot tub salesman? 

I set up my business when I was 17 and started by selling small items on eBay. I had a touchscreen mobile phone that I needed a screen protector for and tried to find one on the site. The cheapest was £12. Rather than paying the £12 I decided to see if I could find a cheaper supplier. I found a company in China selling them for 30p. We sold the products on eBay for £2.99 undercutting our closest supplier. The college library became a small factory where friends would pack and prepare the protectors for posting. From there I was introduced to multiple suppliers and I sold everything from golf trolleys to showers to plasma TV brackets. Eventually, I decided to settle on building a brand around a single product, and I picked hot tubs! Hot tubs seemed a little more interesting than the other products we were selling and we didn’t need to hold as much stock – all we needed was three sizes, small, medium and large.

You rejected a chance at educating yourself at Nottingham University, much to the dismay of your parents. What did they say when you told them?

My mum was reluctant for me to turn my back on the place I had at the University of Nottingham but as soon as she realised the potential for success, she was happy with my decision. At some point I would love to go to university and carry on with my studies but at the moment I don’t have the time to commit to it.

My younger sister will be going to university in September which my mum is over the moon about. At least one of her children will be following in her academic footsteps.

You mother has reported been continuously trying to get you to go back to studying. Has your relationship been strained at all? 

No it hasn’t. Ultimately my mum wants me to be happy – and she knows that I am. I love what I do and am making a success of the business.  The business was relatively profitable very early on and that helped to sway opinion.

Does a tiny part of you regret not being able to enjoy the university lifestyle and all that comes with it? 

Not at all. Deciding not to go to university wasn’t a difficult decision for me. I started the business while I was still at college and by the age of 17 I was taking in more money than most of my teachers were earning and certainly more than the starting salary of most graduates. I didn’t see the point of going to university when I could learn about business by running my own. The only thing I do regret and have missed are the ‘power relationships’ people form with likeminded friends who end up working in similar businesses.

You’ve recently reached the £1m annual turnover mark. Did you go out celebrating?

We had a low-key celebration – we all went clay pigeon shooting which was great fun and something new for all of us. We’re quickly focusing on the next big milestone which is to get to £2.5 million within three years.

How has this changed your mum’s attitude towards you and the business? 

My mum’s really proud of what I’ve achieved, She worked as our accountant for a few years – it was great having her support as I was establishing the business.

What’s the next step for the business? 

Our main focus over the coming year will be to re-enter the French market on a trade basis. I hope to start a new brand where we will sell to showrooms, garden centres and trade specialists in France. It will mean freeing me up from the day to day running of the business to allow me to focus on this and other large projects. We’ll be taking on more staff to enable me to do this. I will also be focussing on completing the transition from being a company offering cheap hot tubs, to a company offering a hassle free service. Our staff will allow us to take our service to a whole new level. We’ll be able to book cranes, electricians and other tradespeople for customers and will handle the whole process from the initial order to the installed, functional hot tub. This is unheard of for an internet based business – usually they just deliver and the customer does the rest. We also need to increase our range of consumables to keep our current customers coming back to purchase from us. Our present range is poor and this is something we’re addressing.

You have some famous names amongst your customers. This must give the business plenty of gravitas, no? 

They do and it’s great taking an order from someone in the public eye. As a business, it’s good at helping raise our profile. Customers are happy to spend if a big name is associated with the product.

Can you reveal some high profile clients? 

Dizzee Rascal, Sophie Ellis Bextor and Fulham goalkeeper David Stockdale.

Whom have you met? 

I’ve met Dizzee Rascal and Sophie Ellis Bextor – they’re just normal, nice people. They’re very welcoming; we offered the team tea and biscuits – the same as all our customers.

Do you ever have time to chill out in a hot tub yourself? 

Unfortunately I don’t have a hot tub at home as I haven’t got the space for one. However, when we have them in the office, I will almost always close the blinds after work and take a dip.

What else do you like doing to relax? 

I love to travel whenever I get the chance and make good use of BA Air-Miles. I’m also an avid reader.

The website has undergone a redesign. Is it not incredibly risky to change branding aspects? 

The website has only ever undergone one change. Our most recent redesign is the first in five years. From now on, we’ll be altering it almost weekly. Website changes are not risky, it’s about finding out what works for the customer and how to make the purchasing decision easier for them. We intend to start testing multiple versions of the same page to work that out and will be carrying out tests weekly.

How have you found managing people at such a young age? 

It’s been very difficult – you have to learn through your mistakes and it’s hard when you make those errors. In the early days I found it emotionally challenging and tiring.

It’s difficult to not be taken for a ride when you’re young. How would you advise other young entrepreneur to be taken seriously? 

Simply, work hard and play hard. I remain firm with the things that are important to the company and our customers but with everything else we enjoy ourselves as much as we can.

How do you keep the team motivated? 

By working hard and playing hard. I’m also transparent with information so the team know what we’re trying to achieve, their role in reaching those goals and what they need to do to help.

Your mum kept an eye on the books for the first couple of years. How was it working with her when you knew she wasn’t completely satisfied with your decision to run the business instead of studying? 

My mum simply submitted the accounts at the end of the year. She’s my mum so as long as I’m happy, then she’s happy.

Can you recall any disastrous arguments? 

No.

Was she offended or relieved when you decided to start paying for professional accountants? 

Not at all. She didn’t have the time to follow our numbers properly throughout the year and that meant our financial information was always out of date. We were trying to fix problems months after the problem occurred. Now we have real time financial information all the time.

We’ve heard you give speeches to local school children in deprived areas on how to run a business. How do you get them to listen? 

It’s not that long since I left school so I can relate to them and them to me. I talk like them, sound like them and in many cases look like them. I always show the students photos of me at school and they’re hooked from there on.

Why is this an important activity for you? 

Many of my close school friends ended up taking drugs or in prison. I was just like them except for one huge difference; I had some amazing role models around me as I was growing up. And that’s what these children need, role models. The more the better as far as I’m concerned.

What kind of upbringing did you experience? 

My upbringing was relatively religious – my granddad is a pastor. I’m the first grandson on both sides of the family, my oldest cousin is seven years younger than me, and so I grew up and matured relatively quickly.

I definitely get my ambition and drive from my family. I remember my uncles telling me when I was young that they’d retire when I hit 18 – and they did. My mum’s priority was always how I performed at school – I did have a rebellious side but as long as my grades were good and I stayed out of trouble, then my mum was happy.

Any last words for our aspiring entrepreneurs? 

My advice is simple – if you think you have an amazing idea, then go for it, particularly when you’re young.  At the age I started out I had no mortgages or bills to worry about so if I failed, it didn’t matter. It’s also important not to fear failure – it’s a big part of the learning process and will eventually teach you what works.

Just aim to get the failures out of the way as quickly as possible and move on.

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