Rob Holmes

Enterprise success stories

Rob Holmes

What did you study at the University of Exeter? 

Geography. It was no help in my future career but I had a fantastic time and learnt how to motivate myself. 

What is your business all about?

The Gro Company designs and manufactures innovative products that help babies and small children to get a safer and better night’s sleep. It all started in September 2000 with the Grobag baby sleep bag and by the end of 2012 we will have sold over 4 million Grobags in over 30 countries. We are building the world’s leading safe sleep brand for children.

What is your business’s unique selling point (USP)? What is your main form of advertising? Who are your main competitors?  

Our main USP is that we specialise in baby sleep products, so parents know that by using a Gro product, it will be tried and tested. ‘Grobag’ has almost become the generic name for baby sleep bags, so this very much helps our brand awareness. Our main form of advertising is a combination of Point of Sale marketing in the 600 UK stores we are stocked in, combined with Google ad-words/social networking sites, such as our Facebook pages. Our main competitors are brands like Mothercare and Mamas and Papas, but no-one else really specialises in safe sleep products, so we are the leading safe sleep brand.

Where did your idea come from? What is the start-up story behind your business?

When our first son Sam was born, he did not sleep well because he kept kicking off his blankets and sheets. Our Austrian sister-in-law mentioned that many countries in mainland Europe used baby sleep bags, instead of blankets and sheets. After buying one of these European bags, Sam slept for 12 hours a night and we were hooked! By the time our daughter was born in 1999, we knew it was time to develop and launch our own UK version of a sleep bag, called the Grobag. We had hoped to sell a few thousand bags in the first year and turn over £70,000. In the end we sold a lot more than that and turned over £1 million in our first full year of trading. We had never thought the business would take off like it did….

What things helped you learn how to run a new business? Has there been anything or anyone in particular that has helped you along the way? 

My father and I set up a family business when I was 23 and this helped me learn to run a business the hard way – through trial and error. It was a 500 capacity nightclub with 25 staff and it really helped me to get the basics of running a business, ie. look after and listen to your customers, look after and reward your staff, look after your reputation with the Authorities and most importantly, take in more money than you spend out! I am very grateful to my Father for setting me up to learn these business lessons. He was dying of cancer at the time he bought the Nightclub and knew this was his leaving gift for me, to learn how to run a successful business. He died 12 months after the nightclub opened, but at least he got to see the business up and running and being successful.

What support have you received from the University? Were there any particular curricular or extra-curricular activities that were instrumental in your and your business development?

To be honest, I had no clue what I wanted to do after my degree and regret not getting more help from the University.

What do you think has been your key to success so far? 

Working hard, doing masses of research, having an attention to detail, working with my wife as my business partner, riding my luck and being determined –ie. never, ever give up.

Have you made any mistakes along the way? Is so, what have you learnt from these? And further, if you could go back in time, are there any things that you would change or would do differently?

People always make mistakes and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t learn anything! I think my biggest mistake was always not listening to my gut feel. I think your gut feel or instinct gives you most the clues you need in life. If I could go back in time, I would like to have been more focused on just our sleep products, rather than getting distracted with other people’s non-sleep products, whom we acted as a distributor for. I have also learnt that I should not have taken the boom years for granted and understood that all businesses and national economies ebb and flow.

What can we look forward to in terms of your business? Have you got any future plans for it?

Yes, but I can’t say in any detail! Our plan is to continue to develop and grow our range of Gro branded sleep products and maintain our position as the world’s leading safe sleep brand for children. We will also expand our export program, as there are a lot of babies born around the world that need our products.

How about yourself? Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years?

I would like to have started another business within 5 years, but I am not sure what business that would be. Whatever it is, I need to be passionate about it and know that it’s helping other people in some way. In the meantime I am splitting my time between being a non-executive Director of the Gro Company and helping business students at local Universities, which is something I love doing, passing on what I have learnt to the next generation of entrepreneurs.

What advice do you have for University of Exeter students who are looking to start their own business?

Get some experience working for a small business first. Muck in, roll up your sleeves and learn from other successful people and businesses. Then plan out your new business before jumping ship. Remember that proper planning prevents poor performance. Don’t just rely on friends and family for advice, as they will not want to hurt your feelings. Talk to your potential customers and ask them for feedback, especially at events like trade shows or industry conferences. Buyers love to be asked to express their opinions and even if you don’t like what you hear, it gives you a chance to adapt your business idea or even abandon it, before you commit a lot of time and money to an idea that does not have a chance of making a profit. Be honest, be passionate, work hard and never, ever give up!