“If you’re waking up in the middle of the night because you’re scared, that’s powerful,” says Roger Wade. “As an entrepreneur, it’s that fear that keeps you alive, so embrace it.”
Boxpark’s founder and CEO is no stranger to sweaty internal monologues in the early hours. He experienced plenty of night-time terrors while growing British streetwear brand Boxfresh from a Greenwich Market stall to a multi-million-pound global brand. He’s had many more since, not least while creating his other big brand – Boxpark – a pop-up mall built from shipping containers. Now with three Boxparks under his belt – Shoreditch, Croydon and Wembley – plus a place in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 list, it seems those white-knuckled 2am moments are really doing the business.
The story of Roger Wade’s entrepreneurial career is a white-knuckle ride in itself: since 1989 he has launched two completely separate brands into the stratosphere. His tale contains valuable insights for founders and businesspeople, which we want to share with you here…
It was such an inauspicious start. Roger was fired from his first three jobs – all in advertising – within months, and in the late 1980s decided to travel to New York to lick his wounds. There, he found work as a copywriter, but he was more interested in clothes shopping than crafting sentences. “All of my mates in the UK wanted American sportswear, so during my lunch hours I’d visit Midtown Korean wholesale shops to buy college basketball tops and baseball hats. Then I’d send them back home,” he recalls.
He soon followed the clothes, enticed back to the UK by his then-girlfriend. With no job, he manned a stall on Greenwich Market run by a friend who’d been doing a roaring trade selling his imported US kit. Roger then met two designers and they came up with the idea of printing on blank T-shirts. That’s how Boxfresh – one of the UK’s most successful fashion brands of the 1990s – was born. Over the next 15 years, Roger piloted his company brilliantly and rode the crest of a wave before selling to Pentland Group in 2005 for an undisclosed sum. “I built up Boxfresh from a market stall to a multi-million-pound brand with a turnover of around £20m,” he says.
The idea for his second business, Boxpark – which has no direct relationship to Boxfresh – came a few years later. “In around 2010, I could see that independent shops in Britain were dying,” says Roger. “Every high street was becoming the same. I wanted to create a home for independents. That was my starting point. I love containers and I love industrial design, so a community of businesses in shipping containers seemed like a good plan. Containers are portable and low cost. So that’s how Boxpark Shoreditch came about. Boxpark Croydon and Boxpark Wembley soon followed.”
That’s a precis of how Roger founded his two brands – Boxfresh and Boxpark. Now let’s dig deeper to find the entrepreneurial gold because this is a story full of it. Over to Roger…
Insight 1: “The mantra I’ve lived by for 20 years.”
“I’ve used just one mantra for years. A guy called Ted D’Cruz once said it to me when I was running Boxfresh in my late 20s. At the time, Ted was one of Britain’s most famous brand consultants. We’re friends now and when we recently reconnected, I said: ‘Ted, you know that thing you told me 20 years ago, I’ve lived my whole life by that!’
“The mantra is this: ‘You’ve always got to be special to your customer. If you’re not, you won’t exist.’
“To be successful, you’ve got to touch customers in a way that no one else touches them. So, if you’re making streetwear, that means your customers say: ‘I’ve got to buy Boxfresh; their clothes are amazing.’ If you run Boxpark, it means your customers think: ‘This is a truly brilliant experience. I love it here and I’ve got to come back.’
“Thanks to that way of thinking, I’m always asking myself: ‘What are the reasons that the customer is here?’ I’m always putting customers first and centre. That’s what I think it takes to be successful.”
Insight 2: Do something you love. Find your wave and surf it (don’t swim against it)
“One thing I’d advise any budding entrepreneur is do is to build a business around something you love. But if you want to make money, the easiest route is to find the point where what you love links to a trend that’s growing. That’s what we did with Boxfresh in the ‘90s. I followed my heart. I was into streetwear, music and clubs, and I saw this colossal rebellion against high-end fashion. There was a massive music movement – hip-hop in the early 80s and rave in the late 80s and early 90s – and we exploded off the back of that. Kids wanted something different to traditional fashion. We just gave them what they wanted.
“As an entrepreneur you’ve got to look at patterns and see what’s going to be the next big thing. There’d be no point trying to grow a business based on selling into independent retailers alone today. Online fashion is a different story – that’s where I see growth. You’ve got to identify what the trend will be and grow with it.”
Insight 3: Content is king; traffic comes next; finances follow
“This is true in retail, but I believe it’s right for other sectors too: content is king. You have to be fantastic at content. If you don’t have somebody in your organisation driving your content and making sure it’s brilliant, you won’t exist. Boxpark’s content guarentees the quality of the tenants, the quality of the events, and the quality of the environment. For an online publication like CLIC.co.uk, it’s the quality of the interviews, the quality of people you’re talking to, and the relevance they have to your customers.
“However, you can have the best content in the world, but if you have zero traffic, it’s no good. You might have the best retail development in Britain, but if it’s in the middle of nowhere, no one’s coming. You might have brilliant online content, but if you’re not creating online traffic, you don’t exist. So you’ve got to promote your organisation. You need somebody who focuses on pulling great traffic to your amazing content.
“Finally comes the bit we all tend to get absorbed in – conversion. Once you’ve got brilliant content and pulled in traffic, it’s all about converting that interest into sales. Many businesses get so wrapped up in the conversion that they forget about the other two elements: content and traffic. If you forget the importance of content, you won’t create a great business.”
“Nowadays there are too many accountants and sales-focused people running businesses. Last week I was at a conference called, ‘How to Overcome the Retail Apocalypse’. I said to the accountants and investors in the room: ‘If you really want to stay ahead, you’re going to have to embrace the people who can feel change, the people responsible for content, and the people responsible for traffic. Yes, have business people involved too. But don’t start complaining that it’s really tough in retail if all you’re worried about is rental yields. It’s tough because you don’t understand the customer. You can’t resolve it with a spreadsheet; you resolve it by being special to the customer.”
Insight 4: Learn from your mistakes, welcome change, and don’t worry about being scared
“Over the years I’ve been most successful when I’ve embraced mistakes, change and risk. Doing that is what keeps you alive as an entrepreneur. If you don’t confront those things – and the fear that comes with them – you won’t resolve issues, improve or evolve. There will be times when risk paralyses you – when you have a young family, for example – but I equate it to racing driving. In that sport, fear is the worst thing that can happen to you. The moment you start worrying about risk, you begin to lose your power.
“With Boxpark, most of our success has come from mistakes and problems. Those mistakes would not have happened if we hadn’t taken risks. We built Boxpark Shoreditch in December 2011, and the London Olympics arrived in 2012. All the big independent brands joined us – the likes of Etnies, The North Face, Oakley – they all came to Boxpark. However, after the Olympics, they all left us, and we had 50% vacancy.
“That was the best thing that ever happened to us because it led to innovation. We started to really promote Boxpark via weekly and monthly pop-ups, as part of a co-ordinated marketing strategy. We improved our data capture and built up our social media following. We reinvented ourselves by thinking about what it takes to run a successful development. We went from an incredible launch to the lows of losing 57 brands, to then building it back up.
“In the first five years we focused on retail. We were trying to buck the online trend and it wasn’t working. Then, in 2015, I did the sums. If we carried on doing what we were doing, we were going to need about 20 Boxparks to break even. But the food and drink side of the business – the bit we’d added as an afterthought and hadn’t even planned – was a different picture. It was growing organically and thriving. That’s when, in 2015, we started to focus on food, drink and leisure. And that’s what has led to our success and growth.
“The point is, we found our success by mistake. By resolving issues – mistakes of our own making – we came up with new business ideas and creative solutions, which then led to business growth.”
Insight 5: Rely on instinct; not data
“Today, I see lots of businesses relying on numbers and quantitative data to find solutions. What I say to them is they need to learn from the fashion industry. There was a revolution in fashion when River Island promoted its designers and merchandisers to senior management positions. Other brands followed. That didn’t use to happen. Before that, business people ran those companies and, as a result, they were slow at innovation. But the CEO of River Island during its incredibly successful period was Richard Bradbury, a former merchandiser. Why was he so successful? Because he understood product and relied on instinct.
“So, for me, entrepreneurial success is about embracing your emotions and trusting your feelings. When you truly believe in your instincts, you are most effective.”
The big lesson…
Roger Wade’s entrepreneurial success – springing from his uniquely intuitive approach – is both inspiring and educational. No matter what line of work you’re in, there are lessons to be learned from his ideas and his story…
His concept, that mistakes and fear essential parts of entrepreneurship because they are intrinsic to a process of improvement and development, is particularly striking. So, too, is the simple yet effective way that Boxpark’s founder thinks about his business: content is king, then traffic, then conversion.
So, the next time you wake up in the middle of the night sweating about a risk you’re taking, or a mistake you’ve made, take heart. It means you’re thinking, learning and getting better. And it is that uncomfortable process that gives you a higher chance of finding growth.
If there’s one big lesson from our interview with Roger, it’s that, mistakes and problems – when you face up to them and respond boldly and correctly – lead to success. So, embrace it.