Meet the speakers: Ben Francis & Seb Mills - Gymshark

We catch up with Canvas X speakers to find out more about what makes them tick and what you can expect to hear in November.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to chat with this year’s Canvas speakers to ask about their career journeys, their secret weapons, and the product mindset.

This week, I sat down with Ben Francis, Founder & CEO, and Seb Mills, Digital Product Director at Gymshark. We delved into the Gymshark story and the impact digital has had on its rapid growth to unicorn status and what the future holds for the Birmingham based company.

Connor // 

To get things started, Ben, could you tell me a bit about how you started Gymshark, your current role, and what you do?

Ben // 

I grew up in the West Midlands, literally about 20 minutes away from the Gymshark office. I started Gymshark because I was really into fitness and wanted to be involved in the industry and this was my way of being involved. 

Before that, I made websites, iPhone apps, and eventually just wanted a website that would transact. Originally, Gymshark was drop shipping supplements and after a while, we ended up hand-making clothes for a couple of years. Fast forward to where we are today, and my day-to-day is really varied. 

Previously, I’ve spent a lot more time in marketing, brand, and a little bit of time in product. Now as well as remaining as Founder, I’ve recently taken over the role of CEO from the great Steve Hewitt. I’ve been learning about how to become a chief executive for the past two years and now felt the right time to step into the role. I’m determined to make Gymshark to the UK, what Nike is to the US, or Adidas is to Germany.

Connor // 

Handing over to you Seb, when did you come into the picture, and what do you do?

Seb // 

I also grew up locally in the West Midlands and met Ben at university back in 2013. I’m the Digital Product Director at Gymshark and in terms of my day-to-day, I look at synthesising the board and Ben’s direction and what that means for our digital products. I then work with the teams to actually bring those experiences to life and support the business vision.

Connor //  

You’ve worked closely for six years. I imagine there’s been bumps in the road! What have you found works well to support one another and get the best out of your teams?

Ben // 

That’s an interesting one… Seb and I worked very closely a few years ago, whereas now because the business has grown so much and I ended up moving out of tech, into more product roles, it’s probably less so. 

But working with teams, it’s definitely around having an overarching vision. People first and foremost need to know where they’re going, otherwise it’s really difficult to galvanise a team around something. 

Seb // 

Yeah like Ben said, in the early years we used to be inseparable in terms of our workflow, we were working on gut feeling and going with the flow. Then as we’ve grown, the focus is on ‘doing less, better’. 

A big shift has been moving from a gut-feel driven business, to a data driven business. You can’t hide behind numbers. Before, it was my opinion versus your opinion, who’s the loudest in the room sort of thing. Whereas now, the facts are facts. 

We’ve moved from a gut-feel driven business, to a data-driven business. You can't hide behind numbers

Seb Mills,

Digital Product Director

Connor // 

I really like that ‘doing less better’, because there’s a lot of ‘move fast and break things’ in tech and that’s not always a good strategy because the impact can be very negative.

Seb // 

That’s an ongoing battle with engineering to get stuff out there. I understand they want to get stuff out, but I want to make sure it’s going to work. It’s trying to find the right balance. 

Connor // 

One for you, Ben. In the early days, how focused were you on digital and what were the critical decisions made back then that have had the biggest impact on Gymshark’s success? 

Ben // 

It wasn’t massively strategic. It just felt very natural because we were shopping online and spending time on social media. It made sense for us to build a brand around those things. So, digital has been in the business from day one, because that’s the way that we would work and consume media in our personal time.

Connor // 

Is that where the idea of having ‘influencers’ at your early events stemmed from – it was the content you were consuming each day, so it felt natural integrating that into Gymshark? 

Ben // 

Exactly. And again, it wasn’t a strategic thing. It just felt natural, because it’s where we were spending our time. We were in the gym, following YouTubers, watching YouTube, messing around on social media.

Connor // 

Where do you see digital playing its biggest role at Gymshark going forward?

Ben // 

Digital is at the heart of everything that we do, and it will be going forward. We want to be one of the greatest brands in the world, and we’re facing a fundamental shift.

Previously you had the high street era, where you’d create as much product as you could, for as many stores as you could, to please as many customers as you could. Now, because of the internet, you can build a really purposeful product range that is directly targeted to the niche that it’s designed for. It’s completely shifted things. And because of that, you can be cross border. It’s not a store in Birmingham that only serves Birmingham – our webstore serves the globe. So digital will 100% continue to be at the heart of everything that we do.

With digital, you can build a really purposeful product range that is directly targeted to the niche that it's designed for. It’s completely shifted things. 

Ben Francis,

Founder

Connor // 

Seb, as the Digital Product Director, how do you support that vision, and what challenges have you faced in scaling the tech department to support this?

Seb // 

There’s loads of challenges that we’re always facing, and they’re amplified because of the scale at which Gymshark is growing and how quickly we adapt and change direction and vision. 

In terms of specifics, scaling the tech team is always going to be a hard job. We’re based in the West Midlands, so we’re now looking at more remote options. And then it’s about how we best work together – what are the frameworks we’re going to use to grow and scale, because the same frameworks that took us from year one to three aren’t applicable from year three to year six, and so on. 

The main challenge over the last few years has been around our massive growth and managing expectations internally. Everyone has their own demands in the tech and digital team and it’s about how we communicate and make it very clear why we prioritise things in a certain way and manage expectations.

Connor // Ben, I’ve heard you talk about the culture of Gymshark as something that’s really important to you and the brand. How do you maintain your culture when people are remote and have you found it’s changed the way that your teams communicate and collaborate?

Ben // 

Culturally, it definitely makes it more difficult. I think you have to be more purposeful with your time and you have to think things through a little bit more. You’re going to have those organic conversations in the office and you have to make sure that these things are well communicated to everyone, not just the people that are in the office. 

It’s certainly more difficult in certain respects when it comes to creativity and brainstorming, but I think the benefit of having the option to employ a wider workforce and the flexibility that everyone gets outweigh the cons.

Connor // 

When it comes to techniques or processes, is there a secret weapon that you couldn’t work without, what’s in your toolbox?

Seb //  

What we’ve come to learn is that having a specific technique is nothing. It’s all about figuring out what works best for you and your teams. We got caught up in the ‘agile and scrum way’ and doing it to a tee over the last couple of years. But the whole point of agile is that you change to whatever the team needs and requires.

I think it’s all about being fluid – doing your research on the different ways companies operate, the different frameworks, and then grabbing the best bits that you think will work for you. Then, it’s a constant iteration process – see what’s working, what isn’t working, and keep iterating. 

Connor // 

How does Gymshark ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and they feel their opinion matters?

Ben // 

I think it comes down to good management and that you can’t treat every individual the same. When you’re in meetings and working collaboratively, make sure that everyone has the space to speak, think and present their ideas.

Seb //

I completely agree. When we have an area of discussion or debate, we tend to have someone from each discipline such as design, insight, engineering, product ownership – everyone has their time to talk. And the whole reason we have a person from each discipline is that way we ensure everyone voices their opinion and what they’re thinking.

Connor // What made you want to speak at Canvas? 

Ben //

This is the first tech conference I’ll be speaking at and I’ve heard it’s the best one in the Midlands. Similar to Seb, my background and interests as a kid were around tech and building apps and websites, so it’s one of my passions as well. I’m fascinated by it. It also helps that Gymshark long term is investing more and more in tech. I think we need to become more of a brand that’s at the forefront of people’s minds when they’re thinking, ‘what is a tech brand?’.

This is the first tech conference I’ll be speaking at and I’ve heard it’s the best one in the Midlands.

Ben Francis ,

Founder

Seb // 

Yeah, I want people to think of Gymshark as a tech and digital brand, rather than just apparel. That will enable us to attract better talent in the future and do bigger and more exciting things. 

Personally, I’m also a Brummie as well. I know how big Canvas and 383 are in Birmingham, so I want to represent that. We get invited to all sorts, all the time, but when we hear about Canvas and 383, these are the local places for us. I’m also a big believer in trying to build out the digital and tech ecosystem within the West Midlands and Canvas is key to that.

Connor //

Fast forward to your talk on November 18 – what can our community expect to hear about? 

I know how big Canvas and 383 are in Brum, so I want to represent that. We get invited to all sorts, all the time, but when we hear about Canvas and 383, these are the local places for us

Seb Mills,

Digital Product Director

Ben // 

You can expect to hear our story and where we’ve come from, but from a heavy tech angle, and what we think the future holds. I will lay out the Gymshark vision and Seb will take you through the tech that supports that. We’ve had some very large catastrophic tech failures in our time, so we will definitely talk about that a bit…

Seb // 

We’ve never had any tech issues… only messing! Yeah, we don’t want this to be a typical talk where people just share what’s been successful for them and how everything’s great. We’re transparent, and that’s one of our values, so it’s important that we don’t only talk about what’s going right for us, but share our failures and lessons.

We want to talk about where we had the occasional ‘car crash’, and run through some real-life examples of what we’ve done to overcome those issues to give the Canvas audience some insights so they don’t make the same mistakes. 

To see more from Ben & Seb, you can find them on their social links below or catch them on stage at Canvas X – tickets are available now!

Ben – LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube

Seb –  LinkedIn, Twitter

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Tags:
customer experience
design thinking
digital culture
digital innovation
digital product
digital product design
product development
product strategy
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