unLTD’s Ash Birch speaks to Mike Kent, managing director and co-founder of Kitlocker.com, a trailblazing Sheffield-based business who have scored huge success providing sportswear and apparel to teams across the UK over the last 18-years…

Kitlocker founders Mike Kent and Tom Ward met when they were around 15 years old, when Tom was flogging burned CDs, downloaded from Limewire, to fellow kids on England’s national youth volleyball team camp.

“Tom would come to the camps with a big duffel bag full of burned CDs,” explains Mike. “Some people may not know that reference point, depending on how old you are, but he would be selling CDs of what would have been Oasis or Dido at the time. It’s an interesting anecdote, because I think it showcases his early entrepreneurial instinct.”

Not traditionally a sport we, as a nation, succeed in, funding for the volleyball program was pretty sparse. Mike and Tom made do with the facilities on a disused army airbase, which had been reimagined as a training camp where they slept on squash courts and trained three times a day, in order to represent England at Youth Level and travel to other countries to play.

Kit Locker

As they approached their later teens, they were encouraged to apply to Sheffield Hallam University as it provided a national volleyball team programme that would sit alongside regular studies. Both were accepted and Tom began a five-year degree in Engineering, while Mike enrolled on a three-year Sports Business Management course.

On arrival in Sheffield, they remained close friends and continued to play volleyball together, before also becoming housemates. In his second year, Mike was tasked with writing a business plan as part of his coursework. In an effort to combine another aspect of his busy student life, he wrote the business plan around his experiences of organising the university volleyball team’s kit.

“Myself and Tom were heavily involved in organising all things volleyball for the university,” says Mike. “I saw some big failings in the provision of sports apparel. If you were trying to compete for a sports team, trying to kit everybody out was an absolute nightmare.

“The industry was really quite cottage. If you’ve got 100 people in a sports team who all want to order kit, at that time you would have to collate all that information, and the cash, for the supplier, who would then have to translate these handwritten notes. It was really just a disgusting process and inevitably, when you got your order back, there are all sorts of problems with it.

“The whole crux of the business plan was to take out a lot of the noise and add e-commerce into this space. This is back in 2005, when e-commerce was pretty rudimentary. In this fragmented piece of the marketplace, it was awful, if it existed at all.

“But, in the end, it was just a business plan that could be submitted as a passing piece of coursework. It was something I was semi engaged with. It wasn’t too much hard work to do, because it was part and parcel of what we’re already doing, and after submitting it, it was good to see the back of it.

“There was no thought that it was something that I’d take on to do as a business.”

“The business is like night and day from where it was, but at its heart, it’s still trying to do what it always set out to do – that’s providing sports kit in a super streamlined fashion.”

Fast forward three quarters of a year, when Mike was coming to the back end of his degree and applying to all sorts of accountancy jobs, while Tom was going into a placement year, where he had been offered the opportunity play professional volleyball in Sweden.

Mike adds: “Myself and Tom hadn’t really been discussing any of this since I’d submitted the business plan, but we began toying with the idea of setting the business up and just giving it a go, rather than Tom going off to Sweden and playing volleyball. We decided that giving it a go was the best route.”

They already had good contacts with universities and suppliers, so they embarked on the challenge of building a business that would streamline the process for university sports teams to order their kit online.

It’s a simple premise, but what they were trying to achieve, as just two people, proved to be quite an undertaking. Nobody had tried to tackle e-commerce with the amount of customizability and additional manufacturing they were attempting, and Mike admits they were probably quite naïve and full of youthful enthusiasm.

“With youthful exuberance, there’s also a big lack of experience,” he explains. “We set out with no clear expectations. We didn’t really have a clear idea of where we wanted to get to, and even now, we don’t have crystal clarity on that, but I think that’s been a contributor to the success because we’ve never put undue pressure on ourselves or had that barometer of success.

“It was just myself and Tom, so we didn’t just have the sales part; we were looking at spinning up a manufacturing wing, at how do we cover dispatch? How do we cover e-commerce? There was that much going on, we didn’t overly scrutinise success.”

Undeterred by certain suppliers telling them that the business wouldn’t work, and the fact that they didn’t have premises and were operating out of their volleyball coach’s attic, they just got out into the world and started to sell.

Kit Locker

There were, however, challenges to overcome at that stage. Mike told us: “We bought from eBay what we thought was an embroidery machine, but which turned out to be a glorified sewing machine. We spent about three days stitching one logo and, in the end, listed it back on eBay and made more money from that than the order.

“We realised that wasn’t the way forward, so we began to outsource our print and embroidery work, which we’ve subsequently brought back in house.

“We didn’t do too bad in the early days, but it probably took us 8–10 years to get to a critical point where we were really scaling up. We probably doubled the business as we went, but we were never fixated on that performance, as daft as it sounds. We were much more focused on making sure we delivered good customer service.

“In hindsight, there’s definitely stuff we could have done better, but actually, I think we learned an awful lot that’s helped to shape the business.”

After leaving the attic, the business has moved location within Sheffield seven times, including the upstairs floors of a house in Stannington, an old takeaway in Kelham, the building that now houses Ryan Rhodes’ gym on Shalesmoor, and more recently as neighbours to popular street food market, Peddler.

They’ve seen what they describe as a hockey stick trajectory, characterized by a sharp increase after a relatively flat and quiet period, which kicked in around the ten-year mark.

“We set out with no clear expectations. We didn’t really have a clear idea of where we wanted to get to, and even now, we don’t have crystal clarity on that, but I think that’s been a contributor to the success”

“After the house in Stannington, we took a small unit just around the corner from the EIS,” says Mike. “It was 800 square feet, so the embroidery machines came in, and that was probably the tipping point where it really felt set up.”

Since then, as well as the various premises moves, there have been significant milestones along the way that help chart the success of the business.

“Early on, we needed supplies. There were no real UK sportswear manufacturers at the time, so we had to look a bit further afield. We picked up a couple of Italian suppliers in Errea and Macron, who do a lot in football in the UK, but they have a big multi-sport catalogue.

“We had a meeting at a hotel on the M1. These 60 plus years old guys from Errea came across from Italy to see these young guys from Sheffield. One of them, Fabrizio, took a shine to us and said, ‘I see something in these guys, let’s sign them up’, and that helped us get up and running.

“We did some really good work with Errea, particularly early on, but the big turning point was when Nike actually engaged with us, maybe around six or seven years in, simply because they really liked what we were doing from an e-commerce standpoint.

“They saw e-commerce in the grassroots sports space as hugely important and no one else was doing it. At the time, because we didn’t have a traditional storefront, we were precluded from selling the likes of Nike and Adidas, which is bizarre looking at it now, but this was 2010.

“That was hugely significant for us, because as soon as Nike came on board, it was a catalyst for building big relationships with some really quite punch universities, like Oxford and Glasgow, as well as from a profile point of view.

“Nike now restrict their distribution, so, nowadays, it means even more to be part of a select amount of accounts worldwide that have access to Nike product.

Kit Locker

“Through the deployment of our e-commerce into different relationships that Nike already had, we started to work with the FA, The Premier League, and lots of their football clubs. It threw up some really weird and wonderful relationships and projects, so that was a huge turning point.

“Working as a halo site for Nike, using e-commerce in this way had never been done before, that’s not to make it sound overly grand – no one had been stupid enough to do it!”

Those relationships and others continue to this day, and as we speak sitting in the break room, Mike and I are surrounded by mountains of cardboard boxes that are part of a Premier League project they are currently working on (unbelievably, due to their exponential growth, they are already running out of room in this mammoth space!)

They moved into the Stevenson Way space four or five years ago, and they now employ 125 people from the local area. Their position in Sheffield has meant that they have always fostered a strong commitment to getting the most talented people in from the local area, and still hold strong connections with the local universities, particularly Hallam, with 60 per cent of their current senior management team being made up of Sheffield Hallam alumni, who predominately came through placement programmes.

“We trade very much nationally, so we’ve sometimes been switched off to that local piece, but from an employability standpoint, we’ve always engaged with the universities to bring people in on graduate programmes.

“However, The University of Sheffield was our first real contract. Andy Cox, who is the Director of Sport, saw something in the business and thought you guys are good guys, what’s the worst that could happen?

“You wouldn’t get away with it now because of procurement, but it’s interesting because, coming from Hallam, we’d always had a sort of sporting rivalry with Sheff Uni, so we used to hide that we were Hallam graduates.”

Kit Locker

As physically manifested by the Attercliffe unit, they’ve come a very long way in 18-years, and while the business is still Mike and Tom’s business, they’ve naturally stepped into different leadership roles, with Mike taking on more of a Managing Director position, overseeing the business as a whole, while Tom’s skillset and entrepreneurial mindset has naturally led him to be more focused on building new relationships and creating new opportunities for the business, as well as focusing on procurement and purchasing.

Mike said: “It’s still very much a collaborative effort – through thick and thin, I think.

“There’s a complimentary element to the way we both work. People told us that going into a 50/50 partnership was a bad idea, and it hasn’t been plain sailing, but we’ve been fortunate to avoid any huge catastrophes that could have tested the relationship. Touch wood, that continues.

“The business is like night and day from where it was, but at its heart, it’s still trying to do what it always set out to do – that’s providing sports kit in a super streamlined fashion. The principle has always been using e-commerce to supply product, but every other aspect of the business is radically different.”

For the first time, the last six months has seen the senior management team compile a coherent strategy. Mike explains: “We’ve made a conscious decision to grow up as a business. Our strategy will see us round this year off around £20m and over the next three years, we think we’ll double the business again.

“We’ve seen where the opportunities sit, and we’ve become a bit more intent driven. It’s probably seen as doing the stuff that’s a bit more boring, but it’s adding a lot more structure. There’s still an entrepreneurial aspect to the business, even if we are a little bit more selective. The business outlook is really quite positive.

“As a business, we’ve done some really cool things, and I put that down to the cool people working in the business. We don’t attract d**kheads, and I feel that’s a measure of cultural success.”

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