Posted: Tue 12th Jul 2022
Ben Coomber is a man who has been through it all. From tough experiences in military school to tackling obesity, Ben's had things the hard way.
However, he now runs a hugely successful nutrition and fitness business with three very unique strands:
The BTN Academy – A nutritional education business
Awesome Supplements – An e-commerce business specialising in high-quality fitness supplements
bencoomber.com – Ben's personal brand
Sitting down with Enterprise Nation's Ryan Elliott, Ben takes us through his colourful and inspirational entrepreneurial journey.
Ben is also an Enterprise Nation member and has made full use of the multitude of learning resources on offer within the platform.
Let’s go back to where it all started. Tell me about your background, and whether you always wanted to be an entrepreneur.
I’ve literally just finished a social media post about this topic: ‘Are you a natural-born entrepreneur?’. And I’m not convinced, not in my case anyway.
My mum always said I was because I sold ‘tuck’ to my friends at school (I was at a military boarding school). That was me seeing an opportunity. But I actually think I did that to be liked. I was bullied at school for being obese, so I think I actually sold tuck to be of value and be liked – even if it was for a moment, and because maybe, deep down, I knew eating all this ‘tuck’ (sweets, crisps, noodles etc.) would contribute to me being obese.
Then, when I left school, I wanted to be self-employed because I was fed up with military school and being told what to do – it made me hate any form of imposed routine. I felt I wanted to do things on my terms, in my own way for a change, and to be a rebel with detention!
So, am I a natural-born entrepreneur? I’m not convinced!
After that, it all started because I decided to take control of my health and weight, and at 18 I started my physical transformation. After losing 5.5 stone in eight months, I was inspired by the power of eating well and adjusting my mindset, which started my career in the world of nutrition and fitness.”
You've also had a business venture that hasn't worked out. What was that business? And what were the lessons learnt that have benefited you this time around?
Yes. My first ever online business. In my second year of university in 2008, when I was 22, I started yourdietadvisor.co.uk. I got a grant from the uni, borrowed some money off my mum, and used some of my student loan.
The concept was to coach people nutrition online, using a testing service developed in the US, with my coaching service bolted onto it.
While it was a decent concept, fairly new at the time, and well-presented because I got a bespoke website made, I made all the classic mistakes of not fully identifying my avatar, setting the business up in a simple and user-friendly way, and setting up my marketing to attract my ideal customer.
As a result, I attracted the wrong kind of clients to my business and ended up hating it. I had a string of clients I wasn’t inspired to help or coach, so after one year of doing that I threw in the towel. Luckily I had good people around me to help me steer my way through a proper brand process, and built a new company, of which still exists today – The BTN Academy.”
Your business appears to have three ‘arms’. Tell me more about this.
Correct. There is my personal brand, Ben Coomber, as a coach, speaker and podcaster, which I have always built as I know how powerful a personal brand can be in helping drive a business’s growth, and helping with any future pivots one might want to make in business.
I have an education company, The BTN Academy, which was the coaching company I recreated in 2009 after my first failed attempt. That ran as an online nutrition coaching company for around four or five years, and then morphed into coaching other coaches’ nutrition qualifications in 2014. And we are now one of the major online companies in this space.
Then in 2016, I launched a supplement company, Awesome Supplements. I was fed up with the lies and poor-tasting supplements in the market. I was able to launch and build that company from the profits generated from building The BTN Academy.
Which is lucky because building a product business can be a very capital-intensive process. It requires a long-game approach, as turning a profit can take a long time.
These businesses have done well over the years, being run with a team of between seven and 10 people (at any given time) turning over £1.5 million at its peak, all splitting time across the three brands.
But over the last six months, we’ve been putting in more strategic growth plans and splitting brands off with dedicated heads of department, run by an expanded leadership team with me moving into a fully CEO/head of brand role.
In terms of the team you’ve built around you, what were your processes in finding talented people who buy into your ethos?
This is where the power of a personal brand can also benefit a business. We’ve mostly hired from my social media, posting job adverts on my social channels and hiring from there. That means you’re already getting people who follow you and buy into your brand and what you do.
We’ve only hired outside this method when I looked to expand our leadership team and needed to find top talent that is often not floating around on social media. Not young bucks shouting about nutrition online but people who are hunting down their next opportunity and using job sites to find what’s right for them.
So, my new e-comm director, for example, came from an Indeed job advert. Either way, it’s imperative that every business owner spends a lot of time on hiring. Getting a bad hire, especially in terms of mindset and culture, can take so much time away from you, believe me.
Unless a candidate after many hours of chatting with you is a 100% yes, don’t hire them. Spend longer looking, because down the line you’ll pour countless days into HR issues around this person.
And if ever in doubt, pay more, because getting an A-player in your team is the difference between you managing them one hour a week or five hours a week.
We also have several agencies working for us in marketing, mainly on Awesome Supplements with paid media and now Amazon and eBay, but also for BTN in campaign periods, and a non-exec director who advised our board with strategy and finance.
We now, mostly, work in brand-specific ways, but still come together once a week on a Monday to talk as a team about what’s happening across the whole business, and then knowledge share on specific projects where needed.
I’ve heard you have a podcast! How has this extra channel of content benefited you, your business and your customers?
Hugely. Now I will say this: I’m lucky because I started early, and at a time when traffic was easier to drive to a podcast. It’s much harder to do that now.
I’ve sat at 30,000 monthly downloads for around two years now. My show has been going for nearly nine years, so I think it was the first-ever health and fitness show in the UK.
Over the years I hunted down the biggest guests in our field and interviewed them in a no-holds-barred way, in a raw and unedited show format. It worked and saw us gain good traction for both my brand and our education company.
Now, it’s not so much of a new business driver because traffic is much harder to get now. But it still helps nourish the brand, and that’s why I did it, to take people on a journey into our world and help educate and inspire.
Would I start a podcast now? Only if I had a bit of a following on other platforms to help drive the traffic to it. Otherwise it’s a very hard platform to be successful on without being able to drive some traffic to it and get it going. I know many amazing people doing a show with 80 downloads a week because they can’t get the traffic to it.
If that’s 30% of your marketing time a week, it’s probably time you could spend better with a higher ROI.
Is there anyone that you take inspiration from (either from the world of business or from the wellbeing space)?
Of course, there are almost too many to mention. In the digital age, there are so many great people doing great things. From the world of business, I’ve read hundreds of books and studied under many people: Daniel Priestly, Tony Robbins, Ryan Holiday, Robin Sharma, Naval Ravikant.
In my space, there are many again, such as Hazel Wallace, David Birtwhistle, Ross Edgely, Brain Keane, James Clear. I could go on. Following inspiring people is key – use them for inspiration and chase their success.”
How long have you been a member of Enterprise Nation? Have you taken part in any of our online or in-person events?
I can’t remember, years now! I’ve been to many of your in-person events, the small half-day ones, and nearly always your wellness event, which I had the pleasure of being a speaker at a few years back.
I much prefer in-person events to online ones as I like the day out, meeting people, connecting, getting inspired with the environment, and getting out of the house. I think the best thing is to learn what other people are doing.
After you’ve mastered the basic principles of business, it’s about hearing how other people are putting those principles to creative use in the market we are in today. How are people getting e-commerce growth and why? What makes a video go viral? What are customers responding to right now? All stuff you can quickly learn from others in the months/years ahead of you, which is why such events are always so important for me.
What’s next on the horizon for you and your business?
I’ve finally reached a business milestone of getting a mainstream book deal. So later on this year, I’ll be publishing ‘How to Live an Awesome Life’ with Hachette, an 11-step process for getting the most out of life and living big.
That’s a big focus for my personal brand, which will help the whole business. Aside from that, we’re now getting serious about our growth into new markets, wanting to expand more aggressively, and continuing to impact many people with what we do.
I’ve also had two kids during the pandemic and had long COVID for over 14 months, so I feel like I’m having a rebirth into my business after such a challenging time. Pouring a lot of time into my personal brand again, and really pushing the team to achieve great things. Ultimately, growth!
What have you learnt recently that you’d like to pass on to other business owners?
Good question, there are a few things. First, hire A-players – again this will create far fewer headaches and they will really know how to drive their department forward. Do it even if spending the extra money makes you feel uncomfortable because trust me, it’s worth it.
Secondly, get out of your team’s way. I thought I was quite an empowering boss, but I often interjected too much, wanted to have the ideas, and wanted to always be in meetings. If you want a team to run a department, really be hands-off and let them do it. If you have hired the right people they can and will do it, but only if we let go – truly!
Third, look after yourself. There is a strong hustle culture in business, and I’ve hustled hard. But there is a point at which you will break if you don’t know how to read properly. I broke in a big way in 2020 and have really struggled to get back to full health – and it had a major impact on my business, losing 40% of our revenue in a year.
While that was due to market forces somewhat, I knew it would have been very different had I been on my A-game, which I wasn’t, so please do value your health and rest, get the balance right.