Oliver Bridge reveals how frustration and fear of failure inspired him to make Cornerstone a success story with an edge
It’s not often that the queue at Boots is credited for sparking entrepreneurial creativity. However, standing in line to buy a razor would change Oliver Bridge’s life forever. “It was all a bunch of rubbish,” he says. “I’d wasted my lunch break walking there in the rain and waiting to buy an overpriced product that would end up cutting my face up when I used it.” But the experience made him realise that there was a better way to buy high-quality shaving equipment suitable for his sensitive skin. “It was a classic eureka moment,” Bridge says. And armed with this razor-sharp insight he set out to launch Cornerstone, the shaving-product-subscription startup.
And this was not the first time frustration had encouraged him to flex his entrepreneurial muscles. “I don’t see any other way of doing it,” says Bridge. “It’s hard to get passionate unless it’s either something that you care deeply about or that really frustrates you.” And looking back at his curriculum vitae, the Cornerstone founder seems to be quite easily irritated. For instance, growing up with size-13 feet, he found it excruciatingly difficult to find shoes that fit. In response the then 15-year-old launched Biggerfeet.com, the online shop for big shoes. Similarly, when working at a charity while at university he found it really embarrassing that he couldn’t tell by someone’s name what gender they were. Giving in to his entrepreneurial instincts, Bridge used one semester of his student loan to pay software developers to create Genderchecker.com, the search engine enabling users to find out whether a name is male or female. “My friends said I was crazy but it has paid back the investment between ten and 20 times over,” Bridge says. Clearly, launching businesses by being slightly ticked off has served him in good stead.
But compared to his previous endeavours, launching Cornerstone would prove to be a particularly challenging experience. For starters, Bridge was still working full-time as an investment manager for Synova Capital, the private equity firm, when he began to research the launch of his startup. “It was pretty brutal,” says Bridges. “I was up at 6am to do a few hours before work and then I did a few hours in the evenings at my kitchen table. I spent 18 months like that.” Still, his previous entrepreneurial adventures, studying economics at Oxford University and his job had made it clear to him how important it is to prepare before launching a business. So he kept pushing himself, did his due diligence and sought funding to launch his venture, which Bridge eventually found thanks to a £5,000 loan from the Startup Loan Company and £10,000 of his own savings. “So very humble beginnings,” he says.
And, having done his research, he knew exactly which razor manufacturer would give him the best bang for his buck. Unfortunately, the factory in Frankfurt wasn’t particularly keen on the idea. “When I got on the phone with the sales manger, he said ‘sorry, but the minimum order is §100,000 and it’s honestly not even worth generating the paperwork if you can only spend §5,000,’” Bridge recalls. “And I said: ‘What if I turn up tomorrow morning with §5,000 in cash?” He replied: ‘Okay, if you’re crazy enough to do that then sure.’” Not one to shy away from a challenge, the entrepreneur and his stepfather raced through the night and across several international borders. That’s how, when the sales manager arrived to work the next morning, he found the entrepreneur and the money waiting for him. ìHe thought it was hilarious,” says Bridge. “But that’s how we got started.” Having bagged the best shaving equipment for his venture, the last piece was finally in place and in the summer of 2014 Bridge quit his job to launch Cornerstone.
However, making a success of the startup required the founder to deal with buckets of self-doubt when the launch came and went without the company attracting many customers. ”But I couldn’t tell anyone else about my doubts,” he says. “Obviously you can’t tell your investors. And you can’t tell your girlfriend or your family either because they already think you’re mad for leaving your job.” Determined to not call it quits just because things had proven more difficult than expected, the entrepreneur decided to buckle down and power through. “I told myself that if this doesn’t work out then I’ll make damn sure that I couldn’t have tried any harder,” he says.
Still, even with Bridge doubling his efforts, attracting the first customers to buy his product was no easy task. “I had to convince customers who’d bought the same razors their entire lives to not only swap to a brand they’d never heard of but also to buy it online,” he says. In the first months Bridge tried everything he could think of: from teaching himself to set up ads on Google and Facebook to sending journalists samples and writing blog entries, all to no avail. The turning point came when he launched a campaign on Reddit. “It went viral and within a week we’d bagged our first 1,000 customers,” says Bridge. Not only did this boost his morale, the data also enabled Cornerstone to better target other potential customers, growing the number to 5,000 and employing his first staff members by the summer of 2015. Invigorated by his success he decided to set the target to grow his customer base to 60,000 by 2017. However, it soon became clear that Bridge had seriously underestimated the potential of the market.
The first clue was that Cornerstone wasn’t the only startup disrupting the shaving industry. “Two other companies, Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s, were both successful in the US,” he says. By this stage both companies had just raised rounds totalling over $75m. But rather than making the entrepreneur feel apprehensive about the future, Bridge realised that their momentum could work in his favour. “If these guys were doing so well in the US, we could easily capitalise on that if we had some more funding,” says Bridge.
Egged on by the competition, Cornerstone launched a Crowdcube campaign in June 2015 with the aim to raise £500,000. “We quickly ended up raising that in just two days,” Bridge says. At the end, the startup raised a total of £876,810. The money certainly proved handy, with some of it being used to develop the company’s products further, improve the packaging and hire more staff members. In a bid to sustain the momentum, Bridge decided to ask his shareholders – like angel investors like Andy Oldham, CEO at Quidco; Will Hobhouse, former chairman at Jack Willis; Nick Wheeler, chairman at Charles Tyrwhitt and Joe Middleton, ex-president of Levi Jeans, as well as JXC Ventures, the VC firm – to invest more, resulting in a second £3.5m round in 2016. The extra influx of cash was used to grow the team further, launch a TV campaign and to grow the startup’s customer base to 100,000 by the end of 2016. And it hasn’t stopped there: this summer Cornerstone raised another £1m from existing shareholders and £2.5m from Calculus Capital, the private equity firm. “It’s been absolutely bonkers,” says Bridge.
And this money will initially be used to extend the startup’s existing product line. “Essentially, we want our customer to never have to go into Boots again,” Bridge says. That’s why Cornerstone is set to launch its own deodorant, shampoo, shower gel, toothbrush and hair wax over the next six months. And just like with the razor, Bridge is determined to source products of the highest quality. “None of them will include any nasties and they will be well-priced with less packaging and a really high quality,” he says.
However, that’s not the only change in the pipeline. “We’re going to make shopping much easier,” he says. Not only is Cornerstone aiming to produce tech able to better predict how much individual users’ need and enable customers to easily change their orders as they like, but there are also plans to create an app. “It will strike at the heart of what Amazon is trying to do and it will be miles ahead of what Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Boots are doing,” Bridge says.
But the money hasn’t just meant that he can be confident about the future, it has also enabled Bridge to finally let go of the fear. “In the first six months I used to wake up and think ‘crikey, this is it,’” he says. ìIt feels like there are so many near-death experiences until you reach critical mass and it’s only recently that I’ve felt that we're out of the woods.” But the growth and the new product line will also mean that will soon be able to reach the goal he’d been working towards all along. “In six months, I’ll never have to walk inside Boots ever again,” he laughs.