'I'm back!' - entrepreneur Colin Stevens on his new challenge
Colin Stevens turns 40 in July and he’s got his mojo back.
The award-winning entrepreneur recently bought a showroom in his hometown of Wigan for his new business We Love.
We Love is a bathrooms, tiles and home shopping retailer selling online welove.co.uk or in its large showroom in Wigan.
Despite COVID-19, which has forced the temporary closure of his showroom, Stevens predicts the company will reach £2m turnover in its first year of business after the pandemic.
“We’ve got big plans for We Love,” said Stevens. “We grew BetterBathrooms to 500 staff and I’d like to do the same with We Love. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t. It does get to me that so many jobs and careers were destroyed. I use this feeling as motivation, it really drives me.”
If all this sounds familiar then it should. Stevens is best known as the man who founded BetterBathrooms at the age of 21 in 2001, went on to win 21 awards, accepted significant investment from Business Growth Fund but left in November 2017after a boardroom revolt.
The business went in administration 18 months later and Stevens has never spoken publicly about what happened – and doesn’t intend to go into detail now.
However, what’s clear is that Stevens is a different man from the person who exited BetterBathrooms four years after selling a 30 per cent stake to the Business Growth Fund (BGF) in 2013 for £10m.
“After coming through an ordeal like I did at BettterBathrooms it’s fair to say my confidence wasn’t where it should have been,” he admitted.
“In a strange way seeing the demise of BetterBathrooms after I left was a confidence booster. Growing from bedroom to £30m and then to £60m with investment, to administration just 18 months after I left tells its own story. I tried to buy it back, but we fell short.
“The way I look at it now BetterBathrooms was the best teaching I could have had. I could have sat still and done nothing but that’s not me. I feel like I’m back and that the best is yet to come.”
As well as We Love, Stevens is involved in a series of successful eCommerce businesses but to understand his business philosophy we need to understand his first love - BetterBathrooms.
A proud Wiganer, Stevens left school at the age of 16 to play golf and try and emulate his hero Nick Faldo. To make ends meet he would sell golf gear before embracing eBay and selling it through that.
Stevens realised that he wasn’t good enough to become a professional golfer when a chance conversation with his mum changed the direction of his life.
“She asked how my business selling golf equipment was doing and I said it was going really well until my supplier ran out of stock,” he recalled. “She worked for a tap company in Yorkshire and said ‘why don’t you try selling taps?’ I looked at her and I thought ‘who wants to sell taps?'”
Willing to give it a go, he bought a tap for £62 and sold it for £189 within 24 hours of listing it on eBay and BetterBathrooms was born. He launched it from a back bedroom in 2001 and by 2007 it was turning over £1m. It was a compelling story.
As the growth continued at BetterBathrooms, investors started showing interest and Stevens sold a 30 per cent slice of the business to Business Growth Fund for £10m, turning the entrepreneur into a millionaire.
Stevens looked at buying several sports cars but opted to buy 38 properties in Wigan, giving him a bigger rental income from his houses than his BetterBathrooms’ salary.
The business won a clutch of awards and expanded under their CEO’s mantra: “Don’t follow the pack – look past what everyone else is doing.”
Stevens’ ambition was to hit £100m turnover within two years and £200m within five years. There was even talk of reaching £500m and Wolseley, the FTSE 100 building materials group, was reported to be considering a £100m bid for Better Bathrooms. The company quickly issued a statement to say it wasn’t for sale, although there were even rumours of a possible float.
BGF invested an additional £8m in follow-up funding although they still had a minority stake in the business.
In October 2017 Stevens told BetterBathrooms’ annual management strategy meeting that the company had been making monthly profits in the previous five months of between £200k and £350k.
However the feel-good factor came to an abrupt end at a board meeting in November 2017. Although Stevens and his dad Peter owned more than 60 per cent of the business, the board’s constitution meant they could be voted off with a simple majority - and that’s what happened. The young Stevens went first and his dad followed three months later.
Stevens’ mum and sister, who both worked for BetterBathrooms, were made redundant within two months of the board meeting of January 2018.
Things didn’t improve after Stevens left and on March 1st 2019, administrators were called in.
Stevens regrets the initial decision to ever take on outward investment.
“I was full of anxiety at the end with lots of regrets, especially about taking the investment,” he said.
“I’ve kept quiet, on legal advice, and I won’t be saying anything now. It was a bit of a nightmare but life moves on.”
Today Stevens has multiple business interests. He’s the CEO of rawsport.com and Revolution Foods, which describes itself as a vegan, dairy-free, soy-free and gluten-free alternative. The website describes itself as a premium-based sports nutrition suitable for sports enthusiasts.
“Within a year of starting our profits had doubled,” he said. “I switched to a direct-to-consumer model. It’s now been sold to 57 countries.”
He also founded CBDSport.com, a market which is predicted to reach £1bn inside five years.
“We’ve raised £1m for We Love and bought the 20,000 sq ft site store in Wallgate, Wigan, at the start of COVID-19, which is amazing. The entire family is involved and also some ex-staff members from BetterBathrooms,” he said.
We Love opened its doors in December 2019, just before COVID-19 hit the UK.
“We’ve had to close our store because of COVID-19 but we’re predominately an online model,” said Stevens. "I started BetterBathrooms before the recession and I believe We Love will grow fast after the pandemic.
"It was a strange moment deciding to buy a store to close it down: I had 24 hours to make the decision or we would lose the property. I have a lot of confidence and I believe in taking big steps to make things happen.
“There’s no doubt that the high street will suffer and jobs will be lost but I’m an optimist and all entrepreneurs see opportunities. I’m no different. I’m actually very excited about life after COVID-19.
“In five-10 years from now I see myself with a fund at my disposal which I’ll invest in entrepreneurs and SMEs because I think the current PE/VC model is broken. A story for another time."