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North-east entrepreneur on borrowing £500 to launch gym gear business he later sold for millions

Ben Leonard had to clear out his bank account and borrow £500 from his parents to get his fitness firm up and running.

Ben Leonard started his fitness business as a hobby never realising the success it would be. Image: Ben Leonard.
Ben Leonard started his fitness business as a hobby never realising the success it would be. Image: Ben Leonard.

When Ben Leonard first had the idea to start his own fitness business he battled with all the reasons why he shouldn’t or couldn’t succeed.

He worked in the Aberdeen oil and gas industry and had no experience in running a business with his background in marine ecology describing himself as a “whale and dolphin nerd by qualification”.

Clearing out his own bank account and borrowing £500 from his parents to help place his first order he gambled everything on making it work.

It was then the Beast Gear journey began for Ben.

But the lead up to its creation had not been easy and it was a health scare that led Ben to pursue his dream.

Beast Gear creation

When he was 25-years-old he was diagnosed with pericarditis which is swelling and irritation of the thin, saclike tissue surrounding the heart called the pericardium.

The former Ellon Academy pupil said: “I was working in oil and gas like most people in Aberdeen but I got quite unwell several times on and off with pericarditis.

“By the third time I got it they threw all the drugs at it and I was signed off of work. I couldn’t train. My thing is sport fitness.

“It was my way of destressing and I was struggling at the time with both physical and mental health.

Ben Leonard who sold his Beast Gear business for millions. Image: Ben Leonard

“Third time was early 2016 and I had really bad chest pains in the middle of the night.

“Before I knew it I was in an ambulance. They checked me out and said it was peri again.

“About four years before that I’d had the idea to start a fitness brand and had done nothing about it.

“You tell yourself all these reasons why you can’t or shouldn’t. You don’t have business experience and aren’t an entrepreneur.

Enterpreneurs are other people. Inventors or people with design degrees or something.

“My wife Katie was studying at the time and encouraged me to do something as a distraction so I started this idea of a fitness brand as a hobby.”

Online Beast Gear selling led to success

When Beast Gear started in 2016 it was aimed at boxers, martial artists and crossfitters.

His initial aim was to sell to gyms in and around Aberdeen but it didn’t quite go to plan.

Ben said: “I remember pitching several gyms in Aberdeen and there was no uptake.

Ben with wife Katie and children Isobelle and Arthur. Image: Ben Leonard

“I realised I could sell online. There was platforms available that allowed people with no experience to start selling.

“So I developed a website and started selling on Amazon.”

Multi-million pound Beast Gear business within three years

Ben’s first order was for 500 skipping ropes and he needed £2,500 to place a minimum order with his supplier.

But he only had £2,000 in his bank account.

He said: “I actually borrowed £500 from my parents to get the deal across the line.

“From there I boot strapped the whole thing.”

The brand continued to grow and with him achieving sales of £300,000 in his first year which increased to £4 million by 2018.

Ben, dad to four-year-old Isobelle and two-year-old Arthur, said: “My background in science and marine ecology did help.

“In science we watch what happens and tweak something then go again.

“That meant my approach was more refined than just random trial and error.

“I would test the products, make improvements, and then test them again with friends and professional athletes I knew.”

‘I didn’t know I’d be an entrepreneur’

Ben admits he never expected to be an entrepreneur but drew inspiration from his grandparents on both sides who were entrepreneurs.

Ben finally quit his job working as an environmental advisor for Genesis in 2018.

He said: “My boss was amazing from the start of the business and highly supportive.

“I could’ve quit earlier but I was risk averse.

“My sales from year one to year three were just bananas.

“When I started I just thought it would be a hobby and give me some pocket money.”

It was in 2019 that Ben made a decision to sell the business to an American private equity-backed firm who were acquiring e-commerce businesses for a mid seven-figure-sum.

Transform Business Festival will return to Aberdeen next month. Image: Big Partnership

Ben said: “I realised I was sitting on an asset that could be worth a lot and e-commerce businesses were selling really well.

“I didn’t know when that bubble would burst. We wanted to move house and my wife was pregnant. It felt like the right thing to do.

“I was at a crossroads and running around like a headless chicken.”

Business ventures

Ben, who lives in Stonehaven, has now launched a new boxing brand, Byakko, along with his Aberdeen-based business partner Sean Cowie.

He also does some consultancy work and has recently launched his first book called Quit Stalling and Build Your Brand, which promises to help readers learn the strategies necessary to successfully start and scale an e-commerce business.

Ben’s current project is developing a new baby carrier which he hopes to bring to market in Spring next year with his new business Tuko along with business partner Mark Jennings.

Ben pictured with his dad Andy at the Elevator Awards finalist evening held in 2019. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

He said: “I didn’t like baby carriers we used with our baby daughter Isobelle so I started working with a top rucksack developer.

“We wanted to take the rucksack side of it and really get the weight more comfortable around your waist and your shoulders.

“We spotted a gap in the market and it’s for outdoorsy families.

“It’s taken a little over two years and we are on our sixth prototype now.”

Looking to inspire others

Ben is now set to speak at the Transform Business Festival, organised by Business Gateway and Elevator, which takes place in Aberdeen on November 14.

The festival unites entrepreneurs, start-ups, and businesses of all sizes from across the region.

After his success at the 2022 festival, he has been welcomed back to discuss customer personas and the ‘hero’s journey’.

He will also speak at Aberdeen’s Music Hall on Tuesday night as a “warm-up” guest before fellow entrepreneur Steven Bartlett takes to the stage as part of the Ultimate Masterclass Festival.

Ben said: “The trajectory my life has taken was somewhat unexpected.”