Molzi wasn’t my first business. It wasn’t even my first Molzi!
I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with making money (or trying to) since I can remember.
Even as young as 5 or 6 when I would make books and add a barcode and price to the back to make them easier to sell. It was an itch that I scratched pretty much throughout my life, but at varying levels of effort and success. There was a point that my wife would return from any weekend away with her friends to ask me what company I had set up this time, such was the regularity.
But of all the ventures, which I’ll cover below, only twice have I set-up a company that has actually been my job. Once at the very start of my career, and then Molzi which is my most recent job/venture. Looking back on all of the other things now, it’s clear I was starting to get desperate to return to the world of entrepreneurship, clutching at any potential idea with no real trend. It wasn’t until I was driving back to Boston airport after a brilliant family holiday in Cape Cod that my wife suggested “why not just start a company doing what you already do”. So not a cunning scheme or crazy app, just a company doing what I already do, but for myself. Genius! And after 7 hours of business plan modelling on the flight home, Molzi was born.
Anyway, you know that story (read it here), so lets focus on some of the rubbish ideas along the way…
My first entrepreneurial venture that I can remember was when I was in middle school, around 12 years old. I started a Fantasy Football league in the school where kids and teachers paid 50p to enter their team with the goal of winning the grand prize at the end of term. I got around £30 in and for the first couple of weeks of football results, calculated the points etc. At this point I learned that selling is fun, but delivering is hard. And as will become somewhat of a pattern throughout this blog, the shine wore off and I got bored. The next time I thought about the Fantasy Football was at the end of term when I emptied out my locker to find a tin of sixty 50p coins. I picked a random person to win the prize and swiftly left for summer holidays. Best we don’t delve any further into this one to avoid claims of fraud and illegal gambling.
I was super lucky to grow up as the internet started to become mainstream and it absolutely fascinated me. I never had great tech skills, but instead focused on finding ways to make things look better. I built myself a basic website called MolerDesign and contacted local businesses with some polite critique of their existing websites, suggesting I could do a better job. Interestingly this is basically the same sales strategy we used with early Molzi, but just critiquing Amazon pages rather than websites. I got a reply from the owner of Applebee’s Bookshop in Morpeth, who took great offense to my feedback and threatened to tell my mum what I was up to. MolerDesign folded quickly.
Hot on the heels of the internet was the mobile internet. I believe it was called WAP – super super super basic internet on non-smart mobile phones. Companies were making small fortunes from selling little black and white screensaver images that people could buy for £5 and send to their phones. Somehow, and I’m not exactly sure how, I managed to find a way to animate the graphics. Game changer. Animated screensavers for mobile phones. I called it Msaver (the good old days when basically any domain name was free!). I created a handful of different designs, but had no idea how to monetise it, so sent a letter to Nokia telling them about it, and also to an internet service provider called Freeserve (the TalkTalk of its time). A month or so later I was shocked to be invited to Manchester to meet the owner of Freeserve to see what I had developed with the view of them buying it. The big problem still remained that I had no idea how I’d made it work, and their team couldn’t even work it out via reverse engineering. Witchcraft maybe, but the deal fell through. 8 days later Nokia released their animated mobile screensavers. Msaver folded quickly.
Msaver could have been my route to riches - if I'd known how it worked!
Off the back of my tech failure I decided to turn to physical product to try and make my fortune. I was 16 years old by now and the internet was growing but nowhere near like it is now with sites like Amazon selling every product in the World. I had a couple of holidays to America and saw stores like Sharper Image selling products that couldn’t be found on British shelves. I thought low cost high volume products would suit my budget best (budget being zero). I settled on two products and contacted their manufacturers about being official UK distributor. One was RingPen, an ergonomically designed pen and the other was EarPlanes which were pressure filtering earplugs for flights. I’m pretty sure my parents still have ample quantities of both products instock if anyone is interested. I managed to secure UK distribution right and started contacting retailers. This was before the days of LinkedIn so I had to do it with phone calls and letters. Brutal, the kids don’t know how easy they’ve got it!. Success was limited but I did get an order for 150 pairs of the ear plugs from Bristol City Football Club for their stewards to wear during games. Apparently they worked great for blocking background noise, but still allowing you to hear people talking. Despite that big order, I wasn’t a millionaire and the demands of retail didn’t fit with my GCSE schedule.
Molzi v1 - Messaging service
God knows why, but at this stage I decided to move back to the World of tech. Selling physical product was tough and Msaver had almost worked, if only I’d known how the product worked! This was the first venture that used the name Molzi – a domain name that I owned since domains began. Rather than creating my own tech I found a phone to phone messaging platform that I could white label. A bit like I said at the start of the blog, my talent was always to take something that works and put a customer friendly UX on top. I got my friends at school to sign up and one of the main USP’s I identified (but didn’t necessarily verify) was that it wouldn’t allow viruses to be sent as there were no attachements. This led to the local newspaper creating one of my proudest headlines to date – Chris Gets To Grip With Virus Problems. As a 17 year old boy this really challenged the old adage that all publicity is good publicity. Naïve as I was back then, I again hadn’t thought about how it would make money and did it more for the challenge of creating something that people used. Little did I know that fast forward 20 years and multi billion dollar businesses would be created that also didn’t know how they would end up making money.
Headline of the year
So now we’re on to my first proper company. By this point I was studying for my A levels, and I was pretty checked out of school. I was good at all the bits around the actual lessons, but struggled (and still do) to learn things that I don’t think I’ll need to ever use. I was doing A level Chemistry, Physics and Technology. Because of my extra-curricular activities like Young Enterprise Scheme, Deputy Head Boy, sports etc I actually had an unconditional offer to study marine engineering at Liverpool University. So there was no pressure on hitting my grades, but to be honest I only picked marine engineering because I quite liked going on cruises. My mind started thinking about other money making ventures instead. At this time computers and laptops were common but still pretty expensive. I thought about all my friends going off to university in the summer and that everyone of them would need a laptop for their studies. And then the following year another load of new students would need one. Maybe rather than going to university myself I could just sell things to the people that do go. StudentDesktops.com was born. And when I say born, I registered the domain name and thought that I want to sell laptops to students. I still had the hard work to do.
I didn’t want to (and didn’t have the money to) hold stock of laptops so I contacted some local UK manufacturers to see if they would build the laptops for me, pop my logo on and then ship direct to the customer. After some factory visits they agreed and my supply chain was ready, and cash flow positive. I didn’t know anything about cash flow, this was just good fortune.
I contacted the various enterprise support schemes in the north-east were I lived and got great advice on bank accounts, networking, business plans etc. I didn’t really need any money to start the company off, I was living at home with my parents still, but I happened to contact a local company called British Engines that I had worked with on a Young Enterprise project. For some reason they wanted to get involved, gave me £25k funding, a free office and their web team built the first webstore. Talk about a spot of luck. I think this taught me a super valuable lesson, that you never know who can be helpful in the future so you should always just try and be nice/helpful to people you meet.
The site was ready, the supply-chain was set, now I needed customers. I contacted the NUS (National Union of Students) and told them what I was doing. I basically asked if they would recommend StudentDesktops to all of their student members, as I was taking on the big corporates etc. I didn’t realise that the NUS themselves were a big corporate, so they agreed in return for a nice slice of the £25k! It meant that 4 weeks before starting university, 300,000 new students were sent a leaflet telling them about us and why they should buy our laptops. Instant traction, the website started taking orders and the phone was ringing. The excitement of taking a credit card number over the phone still can’t be matched I think.
We had momentum and I thought a good way to get further awareness would be to get an article in the local paper. This article was then picked up by the Sun, and then a few days later I was in pretty much all of the national newspapers. The angle that I failed my A levels (oh, I forgot to mention that - D, E and a U) and then started selling computers to students was gold for them. Plus the fact that the Sun had decided that I must be a millionaire too because that’s what the internet does. Another choice headline emerged – A Level Dunce Strikes It Rich. Thanks Daily Express.
Just me and the Harry Potter crew, hanging out on the News of the World Rich List
From here I was on the Richard & Judy Show and Sky News. A very short window of fame which did wonders for the business. Of course I wasn’t really a millionaire, but I had a proper little business. After about a year I was contacted by one of the biggest PC brands in the UK who wanted to buy StudentDesktops and for me to join them and run their student division. I took the deal, mainly because it was a way to get a massive jump up the career ladder and start to learn about business from within. StudentDesktops was over but my little career was beginning.
All it took was another 20 years to live up to this headline!
Now came a stretch of 10 years or so where I had ‘proper’ jobs. I enjoyed them on the most part, I learned a lot, met some brilliant people, but the entrepreneurial bug was still there!
The Vegetable Trading Co
The Vegetable Trading Co was my big come back into the World of business. Basically an online site selling seeds. Mic drop. I aimed to make it a bit less stuffy and boring than the market leaders and had some cool branding and sold seeds in recipe kits like stir-fry, Sunday dinner etc. The site took me ages to build, mainly because of the amount of SKU’s and the research that I needed to do on each – time of year to plant, sun/shade etc. Eventually the website launched, I had my stock of branded seeds and some orders started rolling in (mainly from Morpeth, Northumberland where my parents live!). Then the reality kicked in again that I had to bag the orders up, take them to the Post Office and all for a pound or two profit per order. Another one bites the dust!
Molzi v2 - Furniture (clutching at straws)
Looking back on these next two ventures, I was clearly getting desperate! This one was my next use of the Molzi name and website. I noticed that there wasn’t really a brand name in the World of furniture, other than the big blue stores with yellow logo. I found a furniture manufacturer that would drop ship to customers so I just needed to set-up a webstore. It was all branded Molzi and again the website took bloody ages because there were so many SKU’s and ranges. Eventually it was live but I didn’t get a single order. I hadn’t really thought about how to drive people to the store etc. Who would have thought I’d end up running a digital marketing agency!
The Good Holiday Co
And the final venture before Molzi v3. I found a hotel booking platform that would let you private label their tech. One of the filters it let you pre-set on the search was Tripadvisor review rating. So my idea for The Good Holiday Co was that it was a hotel booking site that would only show you hotels at any point with a 4 star TripAdvisor review or above. I actually quite liked this idea, but again it was clearly the setting it up that I enjoyed rather than the follow through.
Molzi, third time lucky
And then finally, a company that I started that went on to actually do something. I have a separate blog planned about why this one was different, but in summary it’s because I quit my job. Nothing says focus and follow through like the stress of wondering how you’re going to pay the bills every month. The rest as they say is history and now that I’ve done it once, I’m filled with confidence that any future ventures might still be a bit crazy, but will at least be done properly. You can hear about the story of Molzi here. Thanks for reading!