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Nick Mowbray is the 31-year-old director and co-CEO of Hong Kong-based toy company ZURU, which is on track to reach NZ$500 million in revenue in 2017.
ZURU was started by siblings Nick, Mat, and Anna Mowbray in 2004, and today employs 3,000 staff (13,000 including outsourced manufacturing), and distributes to 121 countries. It has achieved this without raising any outside capital or taking on any significant debt.
Originally from Cambridge, Nick and his brother Mat moved to China when Nick was just 18 years old, sleeping in bushes outside an airport for the first few nights to save money and stay lean.
After several years of hard slog, they had their first success in the form of Robofish, a robotic fish that swims in water. Robofish was the fastest selling toy globally in 2013, and has sold over 30 million units to date.
In 2016, ZURU produced the best-selling toy of the year in the United States, the famous Bunch O Balloons, which have sold over 4 billion individual balloons so far.
Jake Millar interviews Nick Mowbray for Unfiltered. This is an edited extract from the video.
For the full interview visit unfiltered.co.nz
When you first moved to China at 18, what did your daily schedule look like, and how hard did you have to work?
We worked really hard. The first years in China were crazy because there weren’t really any other Westerners around. We were going a little bit crazy because it was just me, Mat, and a little bit later on Anna, and it was just this weird vibe. All we did was wake up and work.
I remember in the apartment, my bedroom was my office and the lounge was our company office at the time. I’d push my mattress up into the window edge every day and then behind that were my clothes. Then at night, I’d just drop the mattress down and sleep there and I had a little desk in the corner and then I’d just sit there and hammer potential customers every day for I don't know how many hours a day. Because of the time zones, I’d ring the US, I’d ring Walmart, I’d ring Target, I’d ring Toys R Us, I’d ring all these retailers cold at 12 a.m. or sometimes 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. I’d just sit there and email and phone as many people as possible to try to break down some barriers.
You’ve been growing at 70 per cent year on year for the past few years, and you haven’t ever raised outside capital or relied on large bank loans. How have you managed to grow so fast without raising money?
I think, first of all, we did it pretty tough those first few years. We really didn’t spend any money whatsoever. I think we lived on a couple of dollars a day in terms of food and not much more than that on rent every month. So we essentially lived in the factory. I lived in my showroom. We really saved and scrimped every penny.
I think as well as that, our model’s really unique in that we looked at China not only for manufacturing but to build the whole core of our business. So design, engineering, QC, QA, merchandising, finance, creative, the whole nine yards, we’re doing out of China. This gives us this huge competitive advantage, because our base cost to bring product to market is so much less than a lot of our competitors that have their main bases in Western countries.
So that’s a massive advantage in terms of the company’s profitability. We also have a very direct-to-retail model globally. So we’re always thinking of Return On Investment (ROI). From the beginning we drove a very low-cost model on our side but we drove for profit very early on, and that allowed us to grow so quickly as well and self-finance the whole business.
What business leader in the world do you look up to the most, and why?
That’s an interesting one. I like looking at someone like Steve Jobs, of course, because of the business of simplicity – the fact that he tried to make complex simple, and I think there’s a lot of lessons that can be learned from that. The hardest thing in any business is “How do you make it more simple, how do you make it more streamlined?”, because we have a tendency to make things more complicated, and it’s a tendency for business as you get bigger to get more complicated. So I've taken a lot of learnings from him in terms of “How do we make our business simple?”
I think another one is someone like Sir Richard Branson, in terms of how he’s built a brand and how he’s done that through marketing. I look at other people like Howard Schultz from Starbucks – I always say that anyone can go and open a corner coffee shop but not many people can build Starbucks. How he’s made a simple concept what it is today, and how he’s taken an essentially very simple, formulaic business model and built that in such a big way.
What is your best piece of advice for the world of business, entrepreneurship and making things happen?
I think be hungry. Be hungrier than everyone else. Just absolutely be relentless in whatever you do. Choose your path and decide you want to be the best at it and then set that big vision. Think big, be hungrier than everyone else, and push harder than anyone else to really make it happen. Nothing happens without hard work and a certain degree of relentlessness. So that would be my advice: think as big as you possibly can. Always play in the top tier and not down here.