Five critical lessons for e-commerce entrepreneurs

Steve Adams co-founded Mattress Online from his spare bedroom in 2003. In 2022, the company bounced into the FEBE Growth 100 with sales of £33m. Read on to find out how Steve’s done it and what he’s learned along the way.

Steve Adams felt lower than the price he’d got for selling his e-commerce agency. It was 1999, the year the dotcom bubble popped, and he’d had to trade his start-up for a sickeningly small fee and take a new job. Now, sitting at his new desk in central London, he felt about as ebullient as a creature that suddenly finds itself in the perma-darkness of the Mariana Trench.


The founder-turned-employee now spent his days working 9-5, digitising annual reports – and it left him colder than the Thames in January. The cash was OK, true, and now he had actual free time, but that wasn’t the point. It was a horrifying yawnfest.

Months earlier, he’d been his own boss, creating cool websites and testing whizzy e-commerce tech. More importantly, he’d been building a business – his business – and it had been destined for greatness. But overnight, he’d become just another bloke in London grafting for someone else.

Sniffing out another chance

For three years, Steve worked hard at his unfulfilling job, dreaming of what might have been. During that time, the frustrated entrepreneur, primed like a bloodhound awaiting the fresh scent of deer, saved his corporate wage and waited for a new opportunity.

The sweet aroma finally filled his nostrils on September 29, 2003 – he remembers the date like his own birthday. He was at a party in Yorkshire, sitting at a roundtable next to a chap called Steve Kelly who, he soon discovered, worked in the bed industry.

Argos? Unbelievable!

The two chatted over drinks, and the conversation turned to business. Steve Kelly was looking for someone to help him to build a website selling mattresses. Steve Adams’ ears pricked up – e-commerce was his bag. However, he couldn’t believe mattresses would sell well online – surely people wanted to lie down on them in a shop first – try them before they bought.

“Nope,” replied Bed Steve. “In fact, do you know who the biggest mattress retailer by volume is in the UK right now? Argos.”

The beginning

Looking back on that 2003 conversation, Steve says: “It was a revelation – a lightbulb moment. I couldn’t believe Argos was the UK’s biggest mattress seller at the time. Back then, people were happy to grab a little blue pen, look through the catalogue, fill in the six digits, hand the form over, pay for their mattress and have it delivered two weeks later. There was hardly anyone selling mattresses online, so I realised what a massive opportunity this was.”

Following the chat, Bed Steve and E-commerce Steve co-founded Mattress Online. Steve Adams finally had what he’d been looking for: a big entrepreneurial opportunity.

A nervy start

Working from his spare bedroom he bought his brother on board as a freelance coder, Steve built and launched the mattress website in two months. It offered five products and went live on December 1, 2003.

On its first day, it received zero orders. On December 2, it pulled in zero orders. Two weeks later: zero orders. Steve says: “I remember thinking: ‘Bloody hell, this website is meant to be my golden chance.'”

But co-founder Steve Kelly remained relaxed, explaining that mattresses were a seasonal product and that people were, for now, focused on Christmas. “Just you wait,” he promised.

Take off!

On December 16, the first order arrived – a £499 mattress. Then the tumbleweed descended again, with no further orders until Boxing Day. But then it happened. Orders started to fly in and the two Steves – who’d split the company 50:50 – sold £10,000 of product in January 2004 alone – their first full month in business together.

“It was just the two of us, so we literally did everything back then,” recalls Steve Adams. “I’d write website content, answer emails and process orders with my headset on – pretty much all at the same time. I remember Christmas 2005 particularly well. I’d just moved to Yorkshire and we didn’t have a warehouse. But we were stocking up for the New Year rush, so our garages, hallways and living rooms were crammed with mattresses. I literally ate Christmas dinner off a mattress!”

Evolution and fast growth

The business grew and, as you’ll see below, became sharper, smoother and more professional with each passing year. Revenue rose and today stands at around £30m.

In 2019, Steve Kelly left the business to spend more time with his family. Steve Adams – the entrepreneur who’d feared his founder days were behind him when the dotcom bubble burst in 1999 – led an MBO and today remains the sole director of Mattress Online. Moreover, he shows no signs of drift, promising: “In three years, we will hit £50m. In five years: £85m. And in seven years: £100m.”

Five key lessons

Let’s now uncover the five key lessons Steve Adams learned while turning Mattress Online from a bedroom start-up into a £33m business.

1. Focus relentlessly on improving the customer journey – remember that incremental gains add up.

“Everything we’ve done since 2003 has been about making it as easy as possible for the customer. Most people go online to smooth out the buying process: they either don’t want to sit in front of a commissioned salesperson and be sold to, can’t be bothered to travel to a shop, or don’t know where to start. Maybe all three. So, they start researching online, and if they find an excellent buying solution on the internet, they’ll often take it. Therefore, removing small friction points during their online buying journey will increase sales.

“We’ve recently identified 46 friction points in our online sales process. We’re removing them one by one, and every time we do, we gain a small incremental increase in our conversion rate. When we’ve removed all 46, we’ll reassess and no doubt find more.

“Every time we tick one off, we make the customer journey that bit easier. For example, we’ll add a search function – that’s one friction point removed. We’ll add a cross-selling feature – that’s another gone. Next, we’ll improve the checkout experience – that’s a third.

“To succeed in e-commerce, you need the tenacity to be all over the detail, all of the time. You’ve got to keep drilling down to improve the customer journey, going deeper and deeper each time.” 

2. There are good reasons to consider a ‘clicks-and-mortar’ model.

“By 2005 – and this sounds weird coming from an e-commerce founder – I knew we needed a bricks-and-mortar shop to complement our website. The thing is, the mattress industry is traditional, and to gain the trust of traditional manufacturers, we needed an old-school shop.

“We found a property around the corner from our Rotherham HQ and called it The Bed Shop. It was strategically advantageous not to call it Mattress Online because some traditional manufacturers were, back then, still a little wary of the internet.

“However, our move into traditional retailing wasn’t just smoke and mirrors. We invited manufacturers into The Bed Shop to chat with us and told them exactly what we were doing. Once you’ve got somebody in front of you, face to face, it’s much easier to build trust. It makes the whole process much easier. So The Bed Shop worked really well for us – and continues to do so.

“And there’s another good reason for e-commerce entrepreneurs to consider a clicks-and-mortar approach. Google is focusing more and more on local search, so if you’re a generic online shop, you may start to drop down the rankings. The more local presence you have, the better you will do in organic search. We now have three bricks-and-mortar shops and plan to open more.”

3. Choose your KPIs carefully and monitor them obsessively.

“I’ve run this business for years on essentially three key metrics: conversion rate, average order value and ‘sessions’ [how many people are coming to the website at any given time]. If those three KPIs are in a good place – if we’ve got enough visiting the website, we’re converting at the right percentage and spending the right amount of money – I know we are in a good place.

“I have a dashboard that tells me these KPIs in real-time. I love being able to monitor them – it keeps us on track. And I know straightaway when something’s not quite right.”

4. Find a mentor who’s been there, done it and can help you holistically.

“At some point in my business journey, I became conscious that I was living in my own bubble. I no longer had a business partner to challenge me, and I began to ask myself: Who am I accountable to now? Who can I learn from – because I still have a lot to learn? Who’s going to ask me the tough questions?

“I almost joined Vistage [an entrepreneurial support group] and through this process I found an extremely knowledgeable mentor. However, that person was relatively inexperienced, and I was searching for a mentor who’d taken some hard entrepreneurial knocks and exited. I also wanted somebody to help me improve my health, fitness and work-life balance.

“Eventually, I found a mentor who’d worked at a high level in tech and run restaurant chains, one of which had failed. He’d been through a similar journey to me, and it felt right.

“Today, I meet him every fortnight for an hour and we go through the past two weeks and discuss my plans for the coming fortnight. He keeps me accountable and makes sure my quarterly targets are in place. He’s an effective sounding board and – crucially – helps me improve my personal relationships, too, which I’m not very good at because I’m too work-focused. He ensures I diarise time for myself, my partner and my family and helps keep my health on track.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard work – he gives me homework and asks tough questions! But it’s also brilliant for improving my overall well-being and hitting my business goals.”

5. Don’t get distracted by shiny new baubles.

“In 2015, things were ticking over well at Mattress Online. Everything seemed to be on track. The calm period lulled me into making what turned out to be a mistake. In my wisdom, I launched another business – LUXLO, a gin start-up, which produced lower-alcohol gins.

“I wanted to create something tangible, and I’m passionate about gin, so I went for it – but just because you’re successful in one area doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be successful in another area. Launching LUXLO was enjoyable but turned out to be a major distraction that ultimately bit me on my arse.

“I learned the hard way and ended up selling my new gin business for a loss. Even worse, if I hadn’t spent time, money and energy on the launch, there’s a good chance that Mattress Online would be in an even better place today.”

FEBE concludes:

Steve has many useful lessons to share. His down-to-earth character and self-effacing style make his entrepreneurial journey sound simple, but don’t be deceived. The intense focus and long-term effort required to take Mattress Online from a bedroom start-up to a £33m company – one of the UK’s fastest growing at that – are nothing short of Herculean.

Steve told us that he twice nearly lost the business. The first near-miss came in 2008 when a significant scaling-up project was brutally curtailed by the financial crisis. Then, two years later, the guillotine hovered once again when his website effectively stopped working, unable to keep up with demand. On both occasions, Steve dug in, fought back and got himself and the company back on track.

His resilience can be traced back to his first entrepreneurial experience, which ended in so-called “failure” and three years in the wilderness after the dotcom bubble burst. That “failure” in 1999, while painful at the time, taught him many lessons, built up his stamina and topped up his drive.

This shows that when it comes to entrepreneurialism, that famous old inspirational Churchill quote is bang on the money. The World War Two PM famously said: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts”.  

Or, to put it another slightly less dramatic way: there’s no such thing as failure, only learning experiences. Any entrepreneur who’s going through a tough time – and there will be many right now – should always bear those perceptive words in mind.


Disclaimer: The statements made by our interviewees are an expression of their own views and opinions and in no way reflect FEBE Ventures’ views or opinions, nor are such views or opinions endorsed or supported by us.