Living Without Limits
The evolution of a £7,000 business to a £1.5 million watch brand
Courtesy of William Adoasi - Vitae London's Founder & CEO. Named one of Forbes Leading 25 Black British Business People To Follow 2020
I always say Vitae was birthed out of frustration on a few different fronts. Firstly, I was working a job that I wasn’t particularly passionate about as a recruitment consultant. Although I was making good money, it got to a point where it was just grinding on my soul, that day to day motion of waking up purely just to make money. Alongside that, I’ve always been creative in my endeavours. I felt like I wasn’t able to use my creativity in that sense on a daily basis.
Secondly, I look at my father’s family. My dad was the first in my family line to learn to read and write. That broke a cycle of poverty that was affecting us for many generations. Prior to Vitae launching, my wife had visited South Africa where she realised how a little bit of money from us here in the Western world would go a long way to actually removing barriers to education for children. Having those frustrations ahead of me, I wanted to create a solution, a solution ultimately named Vitae London. Whenever we sell a watch, we help support a child through education in Sub-Saharan Africa, demonstrating our mantra of being the watch brand changing lives - Vitae meaning life in Latin.
I was still working in recruitment when I had the initial idea right around December 2014. Initially deciding to launch Vitae as a t-shirt business, I sat back six months later, ready to go live, and said: “No, this doesn’t inspire me so how do I expect it to inspire others with what we’re building and our story.” I had always been passionate about watches and I felt like it would be more of an example to the world of living without limits. It’s a market that not many young people get to enter and do well in, especially young black people.
I ended up quitting my role as a recruitment consultant in October 2016, two months before launching Vitae London, which was a bit crazy of me. In hindsight, I would always recommend people trying to balance the two. You don’t have to put yourself in that position. However for me, I was just assessing the market. I’d worked in sales job after sales job, and I had generated all this money for these different companies, breaking records while making six figures a month for different businesses. It just made me think: “if I’m able to generate all this money for all these companies, why can’t I back myself and believe in myself to generate revenue?" Even if it was a fraction of what I was generating before, I’d be able to live. I may not have the infrastructure I once had; however, human beings built that infrastructure, so what’s stopping me from being able to do the same? In a worst-case scenario, if everything goes belly up, I'd just go and get another job. So what really is the risk? Our deposit.
My wife and I had saved up about 7 grand towards a deposit on a house. That’s all we really had to start the business. I was able to order in a small amount of stock with that money, and from there I just used social media know-how to scale awareness of the business so as soon as we launched, we were able to sell some product. As much as I was watching our funds, our priority was to make sure our product was of great quality, the first of those being the Vitae classic. For me, I believe having a name that people respect goes far beyond money. It’s a marketing exercise in and of itself. The customer’s first experience, their first touch of your brand, is crucial to the evolution and growth of your brand. So instead of trying to order a whole load of watches that may be cheaper, we worked really hard speaking to factories to reduce our minimum order quantities. That allowed us to bring in a smaller amount of watches that were of really great quality. That enabled our brand to naturally and organically sell. Through some PR efforts and word of mouth, our business has been able to grow from £7,000 to £1.5 million in value. It was only up until early 2020 when we started using paid acquisition within social media because we believe now is our time and our opportunity to scale. However, in the early days it was about ensuring our early adopters had the best experience possible.
Because we have had such high organic traffic and sales, platforms like Facebook and, to a certain extent, Google are able to better ascertain what’s known as a look-alike audience. It’s an audience that looks like the audience that you present to them. Consequently, we’re getting increased value and response from our paid acquisition because we’ve focused on organic growth for so long. It’s not even in your face like you’d expect. It’s day by day, putting in the work and having two or three people find out about it and creating a ricochet effect through referrals. When you look back and see the numbers rolling in, the website hits, the conversions, then you begin to understand the impact of growing a community over a sustained amount of time.
About a year and a half into the business we had no debt and were profitable, having already done over six figures in revenue. Although we were profitable, we didn’t really have cash. As such, we applied and were successful in drawing down on a £20,000 business loan from start-up England via the Virgin start-up scheme as one of ten thousand applicants. At the time, I was paying myself simply to cover my expenses which allowed all the money to be spent on the underprivileged children or reinvested back into the business. For our business, cash flow is a key thing. It’s always this game of selling the products fast enough to ensure we can get more stock, meaning you’re always balancing the books. That loan enabled us to bring in a bigger batch of watches and scale our 'influencer' marketing which generated more growth in sales.
William gifting Sir Richard Branson a Vitae London watch. Courtesy of William Adoasi
However, that experience went beyond revenue. It was a pivotal moment for us because I was chosen as one of twelve entrepreneurs out of the thousand successful loan applicants to become a Virgin Start Up ambassador in the UK. That involved spreading the word about the Virgin Start Up brand and how other people can secure funding. The great thing about that is we got to have mentoring with Sir Richard Branson as well as some great publicity and PR pushes out of it. A year later, I was chosen as one of two from the twelve to have one-to-one mentoring with Sir Richard Branson, which gave me an opportunity to present him with a Vitae London watch during one of our live interviews. To learn from one of the greats, someone who’s been able to scale business after business, that’s been brilliant for myself as an entrepreneur.
Following that season of growth and the birth of my daughter, we took our feet off the accelerator for a short period. It allowed me to come back once again as the visionary of the business, with a bigger drive and hunger to ensure the business will succeed at any means necessary. It pushed me to realise that there was no Plan B, and once you realise there’s no Plan B you do whatever it takes to make Plan A work. So when it was time to pitch to Backstage Capital, I was able to pitch a fresh vision of the business going forward, and that is a lot of the fruit we see in terms of our scale and growth today.
Because our business is so capital intensive, it was important to have injections of cash to get in enough stock, to bring in enough cash. So even though we had been able to do six figures in sales revenue again, most of the businesses we were competing against would have already started with £200,000 or £300,000 in a family and friends’ round. To be able to continue to compete, having already started with a little amount of money, we needed additional funding. That investment from Backstage Capital of $100,000 at a $2 million valuation led to the Seedrs investment, which was a continuation of this round. It was an opportunity for our customers, our community, to own a piece of the investment that Backstage had committed to.
I could have carried on banging the drums at VCs, speaking to investor after investor. But what would the value in that be, when the alternative is to open it up to a whole community of people who will have a vested interest in our growth, in our success, in our progress because they own a stake in the business. To me, the value of that is so much higher.
The level of support we received from our community was surreal to say the least. We set up a pre-signup sheet and the level of interest was amazing. That was the first sign that we were really on to something. However, what a lot of equity crowdfunding platforms don’t tell you is that before you even launch on their platform, they expect you to secure a portion of the funding before coming onto the platform. That enables the rest of the crowd to see it as something that is en route to being successful. With our campaign, we didn’t in hand secure a penny because we wanted to genuinely do it by the crowd. And from day one, we saw awareness, buzz and commitment, people talking about it on a bigger scale. Ultimately, we ended up raising over £100,000 and exceeding our target by more than £30,000.
From then onward, we’ve been getting a lot of offers for non-diluted investment, investing into our marketing efforts and taking a percentage of the sales that come out of those efforts. That represents an option for us as well as the traditional investment route. We have also seen a lot of interest from the community wanting to back us again. I see the future of business not being the structure that just favours a small amount of people. There’s going to be more and more structures that favour people in mass amounts and that’s what I believe and hope for.
Thus, to VCs and traditional investors my advice is to look intently at diversity, to be able to understand the value of having insight into multiple markets, multiple revenue streams, instead of just having one lens. I think the reason why we do well as a business is that we’re uniquely positioned to reach the diaspora for instance. A typical brand coming up in our space won’t be able to so easily access a market that we’re able to get into, such as a cultural festival in Accra called Afrochella. A VC firm working with us will be able to gain entrance to a market that they wouldn’t have been able to get access to before at a lower value. Understanding the power of diversity in the fact it makes actual business sense, as well as for the impact it would provide, is my advice to traditional investors.
For early stage business owners, try and partner with an accountant as early as possible. Long-term it will pay off so much better to have your books in order at an affordable price point. Moreover, I encourage early stage business owners to think about how they can invest heavily around marketing. Even if the product isn’t where you want it to be, you can still prove its potential by selling it to the market and over time improve the quality to where you want it to be. An analogy that I always hear is that if you wink at someone while it’s pitch black, it doesn’t matter how well dressed or how well prepared you are because if they can’t see you it’s irrelevant. You can spend all this time building the most phenomenal business, the most phenomenal product; however, if you haven’t thought about your marketing strategy, how you’re going to illuminate your brand because you haven’t allocated budget to that, then unfortunately, you’re literally just winking in the dark.
Ada Midnight Classic watch collection. View More
William Adoasi - Vitae London's Founder & CEO. Named one of Forbes Leading 25 Black British Business People To Follow 2020