Seventh heaven: the story of how Gymshark bulked up to a billion-dollar DTC fitness brand

With a lot of determination and some luck, founder Ben Francis has built a fitness heavyweight in Gymshark

If it were film, you’d think Hollywood had taken significant liberties with factual accuracy. And yet, the genesis of Gymshark, now a billion-dollar DTC fitness fashion brand, begins with all the hallmarks of a sappy Hollywood biopic. While working at a local Pizza Hut, 19-year-old Ben Francis, a dedicated weightlifter, founds his passion project Gymshark. After two years of hand-sewing clothes and barely making ends meet, he catches his big break at a local fitness trade fair, where he stumbles upon the marketing strategy that will catapult Gymshark into unicorn status. A decade after those humble beginnings, Gymshark has bulked up to heavyweight status and USD 1.45B valuation. In the OMR Podcast, Francis breaks down the marketing strategy that has helped Gymshark flex on the competition.

“At the time, we’d accidentally created the marketing mix that we very much use today,” says Francis in the OMR Podcast in reference to what happened back in 2014. At the time, his startup Gymshark is barely making weight generating GBP 300 a day, when Francis follows his gut and books a booth at Bodypower in his hometown of Birmingham. One of the world’s premier fitness and bodybuilding events, Francis ponies up GBP 3000k for an entry-level booth. “That was more than all the money that we had at the time,” Francis recalls. “I had this gut-wrenching feeling that we had to be there. I just thought, I’m gonna do it. I have 12 months to pay for it. I’m gonna find a way to make it work.”

A community that lifts together stays together

Until then, Gymshark was one of seven different websites and apps that Francis had tried his hand at. Primarily aimed at fitness and bodybuilding, his previous side hustles are middling successes at best and never afford him the opportunity to quit his day job, which is slinging pies at a local Pizza Hut. An avid lifter since the age of 16, it’s in the gym that Francis learns the discipline and structure he needs to improve in school and to continue when sailing is anything but smooth.

After the aforementioned booth at Bodypower, Francis and his team stick a lot of time and effort into the label and start to generate regular sales. By the time the next Bodypower rolled around, Gymshark had a little bit of extra cash to spend. “We booked an incredible stand and flew over some YouTubers we adored from the US, the UK and Germany.” Francis takes the Gymshark shop offline as they’re unable to produce during the event.

Bodypower is a huge success for Francis and Gymshark. The booth draws a massive amount of traffic, as fitness fans come by to see the YouTube stars and snap selfies. “And after the fair, the staff, the fans, the athletes, we’d all go and lift. People would post on Facebook; all of a sudden, Gymshark was blowing up that weekend. All of that, the product scarcity, the influencers, the offline event and the community was what is now the go-to way of marketing a business. We sort of struck gold.”

A marketing world tour

With the event now over, Francis reopens the online shop. “When I turned the website back on, we did 30K pounds of revenue in the first 30 minutes. We completely sold out of everything and that was the moment I realized, we were on to something truly special.” Gymshark then transferred production to external manufacturers and hit the road, taking the same recipe that was successful at Bodypower to other trade fairs around the world, from Cologne, to the States to Australia. “We spent the next year travelling the world,” says Francis. By exhibiting at these fitness events and then lifting with the community afterwards, “we were creating these communities across the world—and even now you see hotspots where we did these offline events.”

Revenue gains to the tune of half a billion

Francis says that Gymshark has generated over USD 500B in sales in the past year and operates highly profitably. Gymshark articles continue to be sold exclusively through the online shop and Francis has his eye on a stand-alone app. “We thought the future of brands was a community-focussed, direct-to-consumer model,” says Francis. “The old model led to slow, cumbersome brands that don’t truly understand their consumers, because you’ll always have the layer of retailer between.” With a current valuation of USD 1.45B, Francis and Gymshark appear to have known what the future held.

Check out this episode of the OMR Podcast to hear Ben Francis discuss more of the nuts and bolts of his marketing strategy, why less is more when it comes to content, how he has become a personal brand and where he hopes to guide Gymshark in the future.