Andrew Tomlinson suffered many years of abject poverty before moving on to build his £25m company. His story powerfully demonstrates that businesses often mean so much more to courageous entrepreneurs than mere commercial enterprises with balance sheets. They frequently come with part of the founder’s soul attached. Professionals must be able to empathise and prove they understand and care about their struggles – if they are to win their trust…
Andrew Tomlinson is an entrepreneur in the true meaning of the word. He vividly remembers eating cold spaghetti from a rusty tin in a damp bedsit in County Durham. He also recalls attending employment-training schemes, being laid off from factory jobs and the feeling of hitting rock bottom with no obvious way out. Andrew now runs a £25-million-plus turnover business. So how did he move from such poverty to extraordinary entrepreneurial success? And what can we learn from his meteoric rise to fame and fortune?
His company is the e-commerce homeware website, Andrew James Worldwide. It has twice appeared in the Virgin Fast Track 100 Companies list (top 40), and last year won Virgin’s ‘Effective Use of Capital’ Award for its new £10m distribution centre in Seaham, County Durham. Yet the business sprang from nothing just 11 years ago. Andrew co-founded Andrew James with his cousin James Buckle from his garage in 2006. By 2010, it was turning over £1.5m. This rose to £3m in 2011, and then to £6m in 2012. It has expanded astonishingly each year since: and today it’s passed the £25m mark.
The origin of this rollercoaster ride can be traced back to the moment the 17-year-old Andrew opened his bedsit cupboard, took out his last tin of spaghetti – which he’d been saving to eat before his employment-training course. He says: “I remember thinking: ‘This is it, I’ve hit the bottom, things can’t get any worse’.” He’d run out of food, he was living one street away from where the TV programme Benefits Street was filmed in Stockton-on-Tees, and he was penniless.
“It dawned on me that I had to try something different,” says Andrew. “So I decided to launch a food-supply business. I knocked on the door of every eating establishment in Cleveland and amassed hundreds of letters of intent for them to supply me with work. I applied for and got a £6.5k grant from The Prince’s Trust. And I very quickly learned that it’s about getting off your backside, putting yourself out there, breaking down a few walls and making it happen.”
The business – prepping vegetables for local pubs – initially did well, and by the time he was 20, he employed 14 people and counted Bass as one of his clients. But it wasn’t to last. “It was tough,” he says. “I was getting up at 4am for the fruit and veg markets and working six or seven-day weeks. Then I got some bad debt from a customer and I was unable to pay myself a wage, and there’s nothing worse than not being able to pay yourself after an exhaustingly hard week.”
Aged 24, he sold his food business and returned to education for the first time since leaving school at 16 with no qualifications. “The other thing I learned from my first business was that I wasn’t educated,” he says. “I didn’t have any financial skills. So I went to Sunderland University to do an HND in business and finance, followed by a business degree at Northumberland University.”
Various jobs in logistics followed. Then, one night, it happened. If the spiritual birth of Andrew James Worldwide took place over a tin of cold spaghetti, its real-world genesis happened at a dinner party. “My wife and I were at my cousin James’s house,” recalls Andrew. “This was when ‘Come Dine With Me’ was popular. We walked in and saw a simple stone grill on the table. James said: ‘You’re cooking your own tonight!’ It was a raclette grill he’d borrowed from his mum. When I got home I tried to buy one online – this was back when Amazon just sold books so it wasn’t easy and I couldn’t find a raclette grill anywhere. That was my Eureka moment.”
Andrew and James flew to China a couple of weeks later and bought 3,000 raclette grills for £15,000 using their own personal credit cards. “It’s amazing how much space 3,000 raclette grills take up. They were everywhere – the lounge, the garage, the bathroom…”
They soon spent a further £7,000 on advertising in food magazines, which led to all of three orders. They very quickly realised that the mountain was not going to come to them. They were going to have to go to it, and fast. “We got off our backsides,” says Andrew. “We travelled the country doing trade shows with the help of our first employee, Barry Robertson, who still works for the business today. We did lots of live cookery demonstrations – it was hard work but good fun.”
The hard graft paid off. “A friend knocked us up a website and we printed loads of leaflets,” says Andrew. “This was around 2007 when people were spending lots on their credit cards. They were often buying on impulse and without thinking.” The recession hit soon after but rather than damaging the business, surprisingly it seemed to strengthen it. “Internet sales went boom during the recession,” he says.
By 2010, turnover had reached £1.5m and Andrew and James moved from their garage to a small council unit. In 2013, they invested in a 10,000sq-ft building – “I thought we’d be there forever,” says Andrew – but before they knew it, growth forced them to move to an 80,000sq-ft unit. And in 2016 they upped sticks again: to a much larger 124,000sq-ft distribution centre with offices – a £10m investment.
Andrew recalls the moment when he realised things were really kicking off for Andrew James. “The UK’s first Black Friday was in 2012: we took 45,000 orders that day. We didn’t recover till April because we weren’t geared up for that sort of growth. Our biggest challenge has always been managing our fast growth – not having the right systems in place or the right buildings to cope with it.”
Andrew James Worldwide went from nothing to £20m in 10 years and is now branching out globally, with international offices planned for Asia and the US. It is also moving into new areas: by launching AJ Fufilment Services, for example, through which Andrew aims to help companies move from the business-to-business to the business-to-consumer spheres. All of this means that more fast growth is likely to follow.
When asked to explain the key factors that enabled such extraordinary growth, Andrew does not talk about strategy or marketing, although there must surely have been plenty of both in the Andrew James story. He focuses, instead, on the fundamental drivers that have fuelled his remarkable story.
“It’s been about working hard, getting out there and doing something different. I’m not an academic. I’ve worked in various manual jobs, had a paper round and done door-to-door sales. I used to do things like return cider bottles to make a bit of money. My cousin James used to clean windows and gather sticks to sell as firewood. We even hitchhiked to Spain once because we couldn’t afford a holiday. But I believe that if you’ve got the right attitude, you will always find a way.”
“I think the word I’m looking for is determination,” he continues. “You have to believe in yourself. So many people don’t believe in themselves and customers most certainly won’t believe in you unless you have the courage of your own convictions. You have to forget about the doubters and just do it for yourself. How many people have a brilliant idea but don’t act on it? It’s about having an idea and then having the nerve to do something about it. That’s what I tell kids today: if you’ve got an idea, you might be scared, but try to conquer your fears, jump over that fence and go for it. But you also need to be able to identify your weaknesses as well as your strengths. I knew I wasn’t educated and did not have strong financial skills, so I addressed that by returning to education.”
The Andrew James story is extraordinary: it’s a tale of building something huge from nothing but an innovative idea, hard work and fortunate timing. It proves that it is possible to hit rock bottom and swim to the top against unbelievably strong currents. And it shows how an entrepreneur’s business is often central to their existence, built using chunks of their soul and seasoned with blood, sweat and tears. No wonder, then, that professional advisors – often insulated from such entrepreneurial risk – sometimes struggle to speak the same language. So how can accountants and lawyers bridge that gap? Andrew believes that it’s all about proving that you care. “My accountant has been like a father figure to me,” he says. “He cares. He’s trustworthy. And he’s self-employed, like me, so he really understands. You can tell when someone really cares. You just know that they are the real deal. And that is priceless…”