"The most successful entrepreneurs never give up."

Volunteer in the Spotlight: Rob Holmes

'In the Spotlight' is a regular feature which shares the stories of some of our alumni volunteers. In recognition of Global Entrepreneurs Week, this month is the turn of Devon entrepreneur Rob Holmes (Geography, 1990), founder of the highly successful Gro Company.

Rob has been supporting the University with his time and skills for a number of years, giving careers talks, hosting workshops, undertaking mock interviews and more besides. Here he tells us about his entrepreneurial journey and why he is so passionate about volunteering his time to support Exeter.

Tell us about yourself and your line of work

 I am 45 years old, married with 4 children, the oldest is just about to do his A-levels and the youngest is 8 years old. I live in South Devon, down near the Avon estuary, close to the beaches of Bantham and Bigbury.

 Having successfully sold my second business in March 2013, I am currently on a kind of sabbatical, doing some voluntary work, being a speaker for a charity called Mary’s Meals, a business mentor, giving talks at universities and business events and planning my next business venture!

 Can you briefly describe your career journey to us?

 My career journey? In a word, random.

 I was brought up in an entrepreneurial family. My father built and sold businesses and then retired aged 40, so I knew I wanted to create my own businesses too, but aged 18 I had absolutely no idea what that business might me, so I studied Geography at Exeter between 1987 and 1990 and had a wonderful time!

After a ‘year off’ at Exeter Art school I then worked for a small publishing company in Oxfordshire for two years until I had had enough of working for other people and moved back down to Devon to help my Father, who after 3 years of retirement was thoroughly bored and needing my help. After running a restaurant for him for nearly a year (which was hideous, but all good character building stuff), he then asked me to project manage and run a 500 capacity nightclub in our local town called Kingsbridge.  

Bearing in mind I don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, don’t like dancing and don’t like nightclubs, this seemed like the most insane business for me to run but as luck would have it, I was the perfect nightclub operator! Not tempted by any of the booze, smoking or dancing (we didn’t have drugs), I was able to keep my mind on the job of providing customers with a fantastic, safe night out. I ended up running the nightclub for 16 years  - it was a rewarding, highly profitable and cash-positive business.

Whilst running the nightclub, in 2000 my wife and I started up ‘The Gro Company’, initially selling baby sleeping bags which we trademarked ‘Grobag’.  Having stumbled across these clever little sleeping bags for our first son, we found they helped babies to sleep better and more safely, but no-one was marketing them in the UK. So we started off with just two employees in spare offices above the nightclub and the business took off in way we could never have expected.


Instead of a first year expected turnover of £70,000, we did £1 million in sales, followed by £3 million in year two and £5 million in year three. By the time we sold our shares in the business last year, annual sales were over £13 million, with our innovative sleep products being sold in over 30 countries around the world. We also donated over £1 million to safe sleep research to the cot death charity, called the Lullaby Trust.

So from selling beer, to baby sleep products to who knows what next!

So this seems like a totally random career path, but actually it was all meant to be. In both businesses, the common theme was an absolute obsession with customer service and if we had not had the bricks and mortar of the nightclub property to secure the bank funding for the fast growing Grobag business, nothing would have worked out as well as it did. 

My advice – follow your instincts and go with random. Life is what happens to you while you are busy making career plans!


What do you/have you enjoyed the most about your working life so far?

As I mentioned above, the most enjoyable parts of running my own businesses have been seeing the positive effect on the customers.

The best part of the nightclub experience was seeing hundreds of people on the dance-floor, dancing, singing, having a ball, having a safe night out and coming back week after week.  I also got a kick out of exceeding people’s expectations for customer service.

For example, one very upset lady complained that she had accidently flushed her purse down the loo and asked if I could help find it! I put on my rubber gloves and felt around the U-bend, but the purse had gone. But then I remembered that a few years before that we had a blockage in the drains outside the club, so armed with the rubber gloves and a torch (it was 1am, so pitch black) I lifted a manhole cover in the car park and down there in unspeakable filth, to my great surprise and joy was this lady’s purse. After a quick clean off, she was unsurprisingly over-joyed and grateful.  She recommended the club to everyone she met for years afterwards. 

When we started the Grobag business, we received incredible emails from parents saying how we had changed their lives and given them a good night’s sleep for the first time in months. It was so amazing to think we had made such a difference to people’s lives. In the first 10 years of the business, we actually reduced the national cot death rate, just because baby sleeping bags are safer than traditional baby bedding. It’s rare to create a profitable business that helps people so much and saves lives.

The other upside to running the Grobag business was the opportunity to travel overseas. All our products were manufactured in China, so this meant frequent trips to Shanghai, but as a result having export partners around the world, I was fortune enough to travel to places like China, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, USA, Canada and much of Europe.

As a Geography graduate I knew a little bit about these countries, but nothing is the same as actually visiting them, staying with locals and walking the streets. Back-packing maybe the really authentic way to see the world, but flying around the world in business class was a good alternative and something I am really grateful for.

Global Entrepreneurship Week takes place this month. What are your top tips for students thinking about setting up their own businesses either now or in the future?

 Go for it!!

Keep in mind this quote from the car pioneer Henry Ford; ‘Whether you believe you can or whether you believe you can’t, you’re right’.  Self-belief is everything.  Believe it, achieve it.  Corny, yes, but true. If you don’t believe me, google the Law of Attraction.

Personally, I benefited from working for someone else first, as it gave me confidence, experience, training and helped to set a benchmark of how to do things better.  

Make sure you carefully research whether enough people are actually interested in purchasing your service or product.  Never just rely on friends and family for feedback – most people don’t want to sound discouraging. Go to trade fairs and talk to retailers – they love being honest and critical! Don’t be defensive  - they had something to say that you needed to hear.

Be passionate about what you do, because if you are not, then when the first hurdle comes up, you will give up. The most successful entrepreneurs never give up. They just keep going. We nearly lost the business twice in two periods of recession, but each time we just down-sized, re-invented ourselves and came out leaner and stronger.

Another quote I like is this one about the definition of success…”which is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm!’

And finally, what inspires you to volunteer so much of your time to help Exeter students?

Ok, one final quote to explain my answer to this question and perhaps surprisingly, it’s from the first Buddha, who lived over 2500 years ago.

“All the happiness in the world comes from wishing others to be happy. All the suffering in the world comes from wishing ourselves to be happy.”

Think about it. When we do things to help people, it makes us feel happy, but only if there was nothing expected in return. The more you give, the happier you feel.

Personally, I like feeling happy, which is why I like helping Exeter students or for that matter, any other person who asks for help.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed my story. Go and keep creating your own story. If you can create any life you want, why not imagine the biggest, craziest adventure possible, but just be prepared for what may happen next!

Date: 7 November 2014

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