Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Stuart Conroy, founder of Activ8 Distribution

LIKE his father before him, Stuart Conroy was set up for a long career in the Square Mile. A temporary job had led him into a well-paid post with a German bank. But a persistent ringing sound — from the mobile phones that were rapidly multiplying across Britain — convinced him to follow a hunch and start his own business.

His father, who spent more than three decades at the London Stock Exchange, was aghast. But a decade after starting Activ8 Distribution, which sells phone, tablet and MP3 accessories such as cases and cables, Conroy has the numbers to prove he was right.

Annual sales growth has averaged 151% over the past three years, placing Activ8 in 11th position in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 this year. Sales have topped £8m and the Watford-based company now has 32 employees.

Conroy grew up in Harrow, northwest London, where he attended Nower Hill High School. His father worked in computers and was the stock exchange’s systems manager at the time of the Big Bang in 1986. His mother was a book-keeper.

After reading history and economics at Manchester Polytechnic, Conroy travelled to India, Nepal and Thailand, taught English in Cambodia and spent a year in Australia, driving taxis and bartending.

He became a golf caddy on the European Tour, doing landscape gardening when not on the course. Then he joined Barclays as a temp and within a year he had become a business analyst at Bankgesellschaft Berlin, spending five years overseas before joining the London office.

Conroy first began thinking hard about the business potential of the mobile phone and the internet in 2000. Two years later he left the German bank to launch Activ8 Distribution with his brother-in-law, putting in £20,000 of his own money.

He did not agonise greatly about leaving the City: “I wasn’t banking born and bred like the younger guys. I was well paid but 16 hours a day in the banks wasn’t for me.”

Later, though, he had to confront the fact that he might have chosen the wrong business partner. “My brother-in-law and I did not see eye to eye on the company’s future.”

The future was uncertain. “There were dark nights when I didn’t believe in myself or what we’d created.” And after the two men split in 2007, Conroy was forced to remortgage his house. “That’s when real business life started,” he said.

His investment of another £40,000 and new-found independence gave Activ8 a boost. The following year the company turned over £500,000. By the financial year 2011-12, that had mushroomed to £8.3m.

“I believe in the business now. I know I can do the right things and make a success of it,” said Conroy. His father, too, has come round. “He thought I was mad, but he couldn’t be prouder now.”

Activ8 began as an online distributor to retailers. With the digital communications market going from strength to strength, it has developed its own brands and expanded onto the high street.

In September the company established a partnership with Fonehouse, which has a chain of 43 stores across Britain. It will stock Conroy’s own brands, including Shocksock and Terrapin. Activ8 has also branched into retail itself. Yoshie & Nico, an online store for the public, went live in March and Conroy is planning to open a bricks-and-mortar shop.

Once upon a time, phone accessories were largely practical — people bought a case simply for protection. Now, many want something that is fashion-led. For example, Activ8 is working with Mybunjee, which makes a brightly coloured curly safety cord that stops phones going astray. It won backing on the BBC show Dragons’ Den.

“It’s all about the exposure of different, fun brands,” said Conroy, 40. “Before, it was just about making money. Now we can design our own brands.”

His wife, Zoe, 38, a graphic designer, had always lent a hand with branding and ideas and in January she joined the business to head the design team. Activ8’s own products, including keyboards and touchscreen gloves, are made in China.

“At first we had difficulties because our manufacturers would try to bring down the cost, to the detriment of the quality expected of our products by the retail price,” said Conroy. “But we got there.

“The style of the brands and products we make and take on is a mixture of my wife’s taste and mine. I put my foot down when things got a little too feminine for my taste, though,” he joked. “We have a range of men’s cases coming out next year.

“Using Zoe’s design experience, we can look at a product and see it isn’t strong enough.” The couple live in Watford with their one-year-old son.

Conroy’s advice to budding entrepreneurs is be sure to learn from your mistakes, and enjoy the experience. “You have to try things. If it doesn’t work the first time, maintain belief in your product. It’s not hard work if you love it.”

Link to Sunday Times Website

PDF – How I Made It Activ8

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