Vanilla Underground’s recent growth has been formidable, with online sales of its officially licensed clothing and apparel going – to use a technical term – completely ballistic. Armchair shoppers are ordering Minecraft T-shirts, Peppa Pig slippers and Harry Potter rucksacks faster than Sonic the Hedgehog. And the trend has handed the company’s Tamworth-based co-founders, married couple Deniz and Jason Yarnell, a heady combination of excitement, joy, and – because you can’t run a business without it – worry.
Let’s go again!
Reaching this point has taken resilience, vision and attention to detail. Before Vanilla Underground, Jason ran a business that didn’t survive. The experience bruised him and his wife but also imparted many valuable lessons. You can’t keep an entrepreneur down, and once the couple saw the potential of e-commerce, they jumped back into the saddle in 2010, launching Vanilla Underground via eBay. They began slowly, working from their spare room.
Jason says: “As an entrepreneur, you find yourself saying, ‘Let’s go again’ quite a lot. We had some stock left over from the first business and saw e-commerce as a fast-growing trend. So we went again – of course we did! It was a case of buy ten, sell ten; buy 20, sell 20; build, build, build. And that’s how Vanilla Underground began.”
The company now employs more than 50 people and sells products from over 150 licensed brands across TV, movies, music and gaming. Its newest annual sales figure – £12m – equates to more than 70% growth. Yes, the pandemic turbocharged the business, but sales remain high compared to pre-2020, suggesting fast growth is here to stay.
Deniz says: “Orders went wild during lockdown. People were stuck at home lounging in their PJs and slippers, watching movies and cartoons, wanting to buy and wear fun things. If you were working from home during lockdown and your kids begged for a Spiderman T-shirt, you said yes just to keep them quiet! We benefitted from that.”
Follow the data
That makes sense, but Vanilla Underground has grown consistently since launch in 2010. The pandemic may have boosted things, but Jason and Deniz had positioned themselves cleverly before that and continue to marshal the company cannily and carefully. So much so that they fully own Vanilla Underground and have taken no external investment, despite recently upgrading to a larger warehouse. How have they done it?
“Attention to detail,” says Deniz. “We constantly capture detail such as customer behaviour and trends, analyse the figures, and react accordingly. We then share that detail clearly with the team, which keeps us moving in the right direction.”
Keep it simple
Jason agrees: “In the beginning, we focused on products for adults but we then moved towards children’s licensed products – Minecraft, Pokemon and so on – because that’s what the data told us to do. It’s not complicated – if something sells well, we expand that product line and put more into selling it. For example, Minecraft products accounted for 30% of turnover a couple of years ago, but that’s now slowed down a little and we’ve reacted accordingly.
“You have to think on your feet. I’m really interested in what we sell, and I love being on top of it. If I see a product shifting fast, I’m straight onto the team to encourage them to push faster and harder.”
Vanilla Underground is a story of 12 years of small, intelligent steps, with a pirouette towards a ‘Baby Shark’ or a ‘Frozen’ when the market demands, and then a hair-raising turbo boost during the pandemic. But it’s also been about keeping enough money in the business to allow constant evolution and reinvestment.
Most importantly, it’s been about staying strong and together as a family. A boardroom of directors handling supercharged business growth is one thing; a married couple dealing with it while raising a family is another. So how have they dealt with the pressure?
Deniz says: “Jason builds the strategy and I try to make it happen, so he’s the head and I’m the neck! But I’ll admit, it hasn’t always been easy. It’s sometimes essential to put personalities aside and remember you’re working towards the same goal.
“We have tough days, but we have resilience. For a relationship to thrive amid the pressure of jointly running a business, you have to work at it. Pressure can break a relationship. But we stick together; we overcome difficulties. And the more we do it, the prouder of our relationship we become.”
These resilient co-founders have a business to be proud of too. And one that’s set to grow even more. They plan to stick to their golden rule of following the sales data while adding a UK production facility (“to give us never-out-of-stock products”), increasing packing automation, and investing in new logistics software.
Follow the mantra
In 2010, a shell-shocked Deniz and Jason drew a line under their previous business, dusted themselves down and courageously said: “Let’s go again.” Twelve years later, they have built a company the size and growth of which was once beyond their most optimistic dreams. And today, as the couple watch their daughters working for the business – the eldest as a buyer and their youngest packing T-shirts for pocket money – the co-founders hope their girls have absorbed that vital lesson in resilience too.
So that’s why ‘Let’s go again’ could just be the ultimate entrepreneur’s mantra – three little words that, if followed with heart and soul, will always give you a chance, and may even lead to incredible things.