On 18th May 2018 I worked my last day at Sports Direct, the only employed job I’d ever known. I’d been there ten years (yeah, really), having jumped into it pretty much the moment I turned 16 back in July 2008. I worked the whole summer that year, and then crammed in as many hours around being at school as I could for the next two years. Seven days a week, a combination of school and work.
When I finished sixth form in 2010 I began doing full time hours at work but found myself with a strange novelty; two free days a week! I visited my girlfriend Grace every couple of weeks who was intelligent enough to have gone to uni in York, but I still had time for a project and wanted to utilise the money I’d been saving up from working. Surely there was another way of making this money go further than just letting it accumulate low interest in a bank account?
I decided I wanted to try my hand at buying and selling on eBay. I would buy things with my money and sell them at a profit, doing this on the side whilst working at SD. I didn’t know what I was doing so did something unheard of for me and bought a book. It was an eBay guide book, and I was immediately immersed in it; I’d read it cover to cover in a week.
I opened an eBay account but didn’t know what I wanted to sell long-term so called my business ‘see want buy love’ – I won’t try to explain it, I know it’s not great, but wanted to keep my selling options open. My book had given me the idea to get product that you know well, so I decided I knew trainers well enough to start with them. I got in touch with an unnamed UK retailer and enquired as to whether I could buy shoes from them in bulk. For some reason they obliged (which I now realise is an odd thing for a retailer to do), and I ended up landing 70 pairs of kids branded trainers at a tenner a piece. We were in business!
December 2011 was my first month trading, and without a feedback to my name sales were slow to start and I sold at a loss to get the ball rolling. In the first three months I’d sold just ten pairs, but clearly felt like I’d done well as I decided to buy a further 200 pairs of men’s trainers in what was, looking back, one of the stupidest things I could have ever done.
By the end of 2012 I’d made less than £1000 profit on the pairs I’d sold. Nowhere near a wage, nothing amazing but I was happy with it! I’d invested around £5000 and my return so far was considerably more than if I’d left it in a bank account. It was a good start, but I didn’t really have a solid supply. I needed more stock.
May 2013 saw me visit a local shopping outlet with my brother and a friend of mine. We stumbled across a sports outlet store and their prices were insanely low – you could easily make a mark-up on a lot of this stuff, I thought to myself. I asked a member of staff if they allowed bulk buying. They said I could take up to ten pairs per style, up to three styles – per person. I utilised this per person rule by buying 90 pairs on the spot. We rammed my brother’s tiny car with shoes and then went off to play pitch ‘n’ putt, with the car looking like it had been in a heist.
It’s safe to say that the new gear did well. I sold twice as many pairs in May as I had done in the entire four months previous. The demand was there and I now had a solid supply. With my brother’s support I continued to utilise the outlet, buying stock that was openly available to the public, and selling it on, to the public. I sold over 500 pairs in 2013 having sold less than 150 in 2012. The small side business was growing into something more.
I continued to grow through 2014, expanding my range by reinvesting every penny I made back into the business for more stock, as well as expanding my buyer audience by selling on Amazon too. I also rebranded to ‘SWB Sports’ as I was pretty set with sports products now.
2015 was a trickier year – the outlet supply had become unreliable, with stock harder to acquire. I needed alternative suppliers. I realised some online retailers were offering stupid discounts on products in their sales so began bulk buying online too; it was so much easier! Quick phone call and my stock was shipped to me the next day, didn’t have to move an inch, and once again it was stock openly available to anyone to buy. It was convenient and often great stock but still inconsistent.
…I was mentally breaking. Sports Direct was 50 hours a week, and the business was no longer a small side project. I was investing 20 hours a week into it most of the time, meaning on average I was working ten hours a day, every, single, day.
A breakthrough came in late 2015. I managed to find a sports wholesaler. The first lot of stock was crap; I didn’t like not being able to check it before I took it, but it opened the door to huge new opportunity for me. In January 2016 I took a massive risk (well, it felt like a massive risk for me at the time) and bought several hundred pairs from my new wholesaler. It was the biggest deal I’d ever done by a mile and set me back well over £7000. The line I’d gone for was a popular one – I knew it was because we sold it at SD…
The risk paid off as the new line was to become the defining success of 2016, but I was mentally breaking. Sports Direct was 50 hours a week, and the business was no longer a small side project. I was investing 20 hours a week into it most of the time, meaning on average I was working ten hours a day, every, single, day. It was unsustainable, so in June 2016 I dropped to part time at SD, albeit only dropping to a 40 hour week. It was still a massive pay cut, but gave me flexibility and something I’d been unable to invest in – time.
With time back on my side and the confidence my newest wholesale deal had given me I started pushing hard for more stock, buying large parcels of ex-retail stock from my newly found wholesaler. Sales for 2016 doubled the previous year’s efforts and momentum had started to build, surpassing 1000 transactions that year for the first time.
I continued where I’d left off with 2017 and was now spending amounts on stock that I never thought I would, buying an eyewatering £22,000 worth of stock in one go in May from another new supplier. But the acceleration of sales saw me hit a milestone I’d never wanted to reach. My turnover had suddenly hit the VAT threshold. This would ultimately hit my margins pretty hard as well as creating a lot more admin. I genuinely detested the idea of this new status and combined with an ever more challenging and competitive online market seriously considered selling up and cashing out.
Problem was, I had just bought the best parcel of stock the business had ever seen, so I couldn’t let it go. I stuck with it, though sales slowed somewhat towards the end of 2017. It was at this time that an opportunity arose at SD to go back to full time. As I was still not hugely motivated with the business I decided it would be a welcome distraction, and the lure of extra cash worked too.
The first few months were fine as I didn’t take on any more stock and could just let the sales tick over whilst I juggled both jobs. I soon began to crack though, as the busier months of the year came into play. Sales increased, stock started arriving and I couldn’t keep up. My now 75-hour working weeks weren’t enough to make it work and were unsustainable. Something had to give.
I decided it was time to give one of them up to allow the other my full attention. I handed my notice in at Sports Direct and said my goodbyes. I now worked for myself – the dream, right? Well, not completely. Come back in a week for the next post where I share my experience from my first 100 days of working self-employed full time.