In 2009, Thomas Evans began working alongside Marcus, the creator of a radical new cricket bat named the Mongoose. After spending over $130,000 on glitzy marketing, and failing to break through the heavily traditional cricket market, they were forced to shut down.
Hi Tom! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?
Hey all! My name is Thomas Evans, I’m 28 and based in London. I’ve worked my way through a number of startups, the majority successful with one notable failure, to a point where I now find myself at EmailOctopus, an email marketing platform, as COO.
That notable failure was Mongoose, a sports equipment manufacturer, which was most widely known for its introduction of a radical new cricket bat in 2009. At Mongoose I managed the production and distribution of those bats, sourcing the bats from contracted manufacturers in Sussex, Huntingdon and a place called Meerut in India.
The business model was relatively simple, initially launching as a direct-to-consumer brand in 2009 selling via our website, before moving into retailers in 2010. We were mostly widely known for sponsoring Matthew Hayden during the Indian Premier League.
What motivated you to start Mongoose Cricket?
I cannot take any credit for starting Mongoose, that belongs to Marcus who designed the bat and brand, but the story of how I ended up working alongside him from launch through to our eventual failure is an interesting one...
Back when I was 16, I was fascinated with sports equipment. Cricket was my chosen sport at the time, following England’s relative success, and I found myself enamoured with the manufacture of cricket bats. I ran a cricket equipment comparison website and forum which covered the best brands, to the point where I was banned from using the internet at school as I was too busy running the website.
Leaving school following my GCSEs (exams we take as a 16-year-old volunteered to work a couple of days a week on a farm in Crewe sanding and finishing handmade cricket bats for a small family run business. Bringing in money by working at Toys ‘R’ Us and handing out newspapers the other 3 days a week. Through saving my salary, I eventually saved up enough to travel to India where I worked for 2 months in a factory in Meerut (where 90% of the World’s cricket bats are made) learning the ins-and-outs of the trade.
I returned to the UK on April 2009, and within a month I was contacted by a friend who had heard of a new cricket brand launching and I was introduced to the man behind that brand, Marcus.
Marcus, is an expert in branding and had spent his career in the advertising industry, however, like me, his passion lied in cricket. Within a week of our initial meeting, I had moved down to London to work with him, managing the production of the bats. The hope that my understanding of the industry and batmaking, alongside his encyclopedic knowledge of branding and infectious energy would be a match made in heaven.
How did you build it?
The initial idea for the bat, as the story goes, was dreamed up by Marcus as he watched a cricket match from his hospital bed, recovering from a stroke. Cricket bats hadn’t changed much in design since the turn of the century, but the game had with the introduction of faster paced Twenty20 games (T20 games last for around 3hrs, compared to the 5 days of a test match) where the sole focus was on attacking.
Following the initial idea that cricket bats should be updated to match the changing demands of the game, we worked with a small manufacturer in Cambridgeshire to design the bat. And following some tweaks, such as re-positioning of the ‘splice’ (a cricket bat is made up of 2 parts, the join is called the splice), the unique design was born.
An explanation on the bat, as featured on C4 news:
The bat was initially code-named the ‘Albert Trott’ bat, in honor of the only person who had hit a ball over the Lord’s Pavilion (Lord’s is a cricket stadium, colloquially known as the home of cricket).
After some deliberation, the bat was renamed the Mongoose, as it was small and ferocious, and 22nd May 2009 the new bat and brand were launched. There was quite a big, glitzy, PR launch planned at Lord’s where a conference room had been hired. Our PR agency arranged almost all of this and through contacts, we’d roped in a number of ex-professional cricketers to show off the bat in a practice area. Lord’s made an amazing backdrop for all the press photos and interviews, giving credence to this unusual looking bat and from a PR perspective the launch was a roaring success receiving coverage in every British newspaper, a 5-minute segment on BBC Breakfast TV and a 10-minute segment on Channel 4 news.
The website at the time we were using for our direct-to-consumer sales was a Wordpress site, customized to power our e-commerce sales. Over the first week since the launch we sold 24 bats via the website, making around £5,000 in sales.
We had no idea on how the launch would be received and no cash to build up stock, so the bats were all handmade to order by Hunts County, the manufacturer based in Huntingdon. They were a small, family-owned business, who made bats the old school way, by hand, with a drawknife and spokeshave so their knowledge of technology was limited, to say the least. To get our orders to them I would have to email across a manually updated Excel doc every day and then follow up by phone to check they understood it!
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
We initially relied a lot on PR from the launch to get the brand in front of people and very quickly we become recognizable as a cricket bat brand. It was hard not to be recognized when your product looks so different!
Once the brand and bat were recognized, the next battle was to gain acceptance in the market and that could only be done through usage. We raised a round of investment from a number of high net worth individuals, who worked in the City, and went to work on signing up professional cricketers who could be sponsored by us and use the brand. The first player signed was Stuart Law, a veteran of the game who was playing for one of the smaller County sides. As an elder statesman of the game he lent some credence to the brand, however, he only played a single match with the bat and that match was not televised. We therefore needed to branch out and sign additional players, who would ideally be playing in televised tournaments.
In total over the 2 years we sponsored around 30 players, ranging from the photogenic England bowler James Anderson, through to star Australian batsman Matthew Hayden.
Mongoose produced 2 bats for our players, the small, famous MMi3 bat and a more traditional bat called the CoR3. Players were heavily incentivized to use the more famous bat as it would result in lots more coverage for the brand if they performed.
By relying solely on endorsements through professional players the whole success of the brand in turn relies on the performances of those players when the cameras are turned on them. An injury, an unlucky shot, or seeing the player dropped from the side would still see the player earn their retainer as a sponsored player of Mongoose.
For a star batsman of a side in the Indian Premier League (the premier Twenty20 tournament at the time) we were needing to pay around $100,000 in fees, for what was a 5-week tournament. A player, if selected, would play 14 games in that tournament so we were needing to pay around $7,000 per match before they’d even hit a ball.
This montage was put together by ITV, just after Hayden had score 93 off 43 balls:
Within the sponsorship contracts were also some fun bonuses and incentives. Some of these were realistic and were designed to reward the player for strong performances, others were completely unrealistic and had almost zero chance of every happening - however they made a good PR story. Remember the Lord’s Pavilion that Albert Trott hit the ball over? If a Mongoose player were to clear that he’d receive £250,000 ($350,000) in cash. Trott cleared the pavilion in 1899, no-one had done it since and they probably never will - but it helped make a few headlines when we signed one player who probably wouldn’t have made headlines otherwise.
Which were the causes of Mongoose Cricket failure?
When there is such an aggressive launch and growth strategy with a business, it’s significantly more risky than running a steady, growing, bootstrapped software business. With the risk involved, there were a number of bets we had to make.
We had to bet our budget on sponsorship. As a new product to a very old game, we needed to build confidence in our new product.
We had to show faith in the product and be aware that if it did have the success we’d hoped, then it would be copied. Securing the copyright, design registrations and trademarks across the large cricket playing nations cost almost $30,000 in legal fees.
We had to bet on the Indian market, as the largest cricket playing nation in the World that our bat would be wanted over there following the IPL.
All these things meant that we had to raise and then spend a lot of money (around $300,000 in total), before we had the sales to show for it. It was a classic venture-backed business and with those businesses that are so reliant on investment in the early, you can always say if we had had more funding then things may have been different.
I think it all boils down the product though. I don’t think cricket is a sport which adopts innovation well. It’s a classic, reserved, classically English game. We were aware of that challenge early on and felt we could overcome that as mentioned earlier, in India. The Indian market is very different to any other market, it’s incredibly fragmented. Selling across their 29 states into retailers is an incredibly difficult challenge (the internet had less than 10% market penetration at the time) and reaching the right customers at the right price point is something we just didn’t do.
With our glitzy launch and player sponsorship during IPL 2 (held in 2010) we spent well over $130,000 trying to crack what could have been an incredibly lucrative market - but we sold fewer than 60 bats in the country. We fared a little better in the UK, selling 3-4,000 bats, but it was miles away from covering our marketing spend.
Which were your biggest mistakes and challenges you had to overcome?
The biggest challenge, as I’ve mentioned a few times, was building up brand recognition and faith in a new product. And as said previously, that meant persuading professional cricketers to use it.
We hoped to persuade them by paying them lots of money and incentivising the usage of the bat. The MMi3 bat was to form as the standout piece of our range, and where we planned to generate the most revenue. Also at the time, Nike, Adidas, and Reebok decided to enter the market and sponsor cricket players. Now, when these multinationals are sponsoring a players cricket bat, they are not looking to recoup that spend in sales of cricket bats - they’re looking to build brand recognition, associated themselves with a hero, and sell their trainers. It pushed prices up and meant we had to spend more than we would have done only a few years earlier, or later when they left the market.
Another challenge was the production of the bats. As someone who now runs a Software business, I’m much happier now I don’t have to stock a physical product. Physical products, such as the bats, kit bags, and protective pads/gloves were almost all produced in India which meant lead times were in excess of 60 days. For an order of 1,000 bats we would have a 45 day production time, then a further 30 day wait as they were shipped across on a container to Felixstowe.
That lead time, historically, has worked okay for cricket brands. Brands who have made bats for years have a predictable business. They’ll sell those bats to in September, send it straight for production, before delivery in November (Christmas) and March (just before the cricket season).
For a new brand to the market, though, it was tough. We were so reliant on players using the bats and scoring runs, that retailers did not want to commit to large orders. And those retailers that did order, we’d need to wait 90 days for payment with us fronting the cash for manufacture - so yes, there were regular cash-flow issues! When players did use the range and score runs, as Matthew Hayden did in 2010, we couldn’t produce the bats quickly enough and get them into retailers fast enough, resulting in upset customers.
Of course we tried to forecast as much as possible and look at key televised games which would cause spikes in demand, but with around 300 SKUs (individual products) it was hard to ensure we had stock in the right places.
I’ll touch briefly on SKUS and explain why a seemingly relatively simple business ends up having over 300 unique product barcodes. Again, this is another nuance of physical products which we don’t suffer from in SaaS. At Mongoose, we produced, to begin with, 2 distinct models of cricket bats. Sounds easy? Though when you look at those 2 models, there were 4 grades pitched at different price points from beginner to professional level. Those grades then had to be offered in the 7 Junior sizes along with at least 3 variations in weight for the adult range. And that was just the bats. We offered protective pads, gloves, thigh guards and bags which all needed to be stocked in different sizes and dexterities.
Take it from me - stick to software!
Which were your expenses? Did you achieve some revenue? In the end, how much money did you lose?
We did achieve revenue through sales of our bats, the equipment was stocked in every major cricket retailer here in the UK from the behemoth that is Sports Direct through to the online specialists like Owzat Cricket.
Our last season as Mongoose Cricket Ltd, was the 2011 season (September 2010 - September 2011), where we sold in the UK over 2,000 bats which would have worked out at around £130,000 in revenue of which around £55,000 was net profit.
The revenues, though, were dwarfed by the expenses and it was no surprise that player sponsorship was the largest expense. Our largest single sponsorship contract was just shy of £100,000 before bonuses and our total spend, across all players at its peak, would have been in the £200,000 ball park.
An expensively put together press launch and video for the signing of one of our players
Staff was where we ran a very lean team with only 4 of us forming part of the team covering Sales, Production, Accounting, and Marketing with all of us wearing different hats to try to drive the business forward. Sales was a particularly tough job, involving driving up and down the UK to retailers to check-in how they were doing and whether they needed more stock. Those travel costs easily exceeded £1,000 each month just in fuel - I was glad I didn’t have a driver's licence. Consultancy was where our staffing costs soon added up, though. A contract CFO was hired to help us with our 2 rounds of fundraising (and a potential 3rd) and legal fees were racked up in protecting the Mongoose brand and unique design.
If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
From a personal perspective? I probably wouldn’t change much at all. Aged 18, I was working in an industry that I loved. Over the space of 2 years I was introduced, or rather learning on the job, to fundraise, account, develop a brand, launch a product, mass produce a product, and most importantly, to never lose sight of your outgoings. It’s important to remember that when a business fails, it’s not just those within that business struggles, the whole ecosystem around it does too. The investors lose money; the small family run suppliers who support you do too. Seeing this happen first hand taught me to be a lot more responsible and thankful.
From the business perspective, speaking 10 years on, I would have spent more time researching on the size of the market and realistically forecasting as to how big we could be. Which would result in us being less optimistic with our assumptions. Ultimately, Mongoose felt we could conquer, very quickly, a large share of the market; that’s very tough to do.
I must stress, that whilst the business was a failure, entering into administration. We did have our successes along the way. The feeling watching one of the World’s best players smash 93 runs in the IPL using your bat was unparalleled. Seeing your brand trending on Twitter, as thousands of people talk about it, gave a sense of pride. Walking up and collecting an award for the best technological innovation in sport, in front of sporting legends such as Haile Gebrselassie and Sir Alex Ferguson, is something I’ll never come close to either.
Business can give you so much to remember, even when it ends in failure.
Which are your favorite entrepreneurial resources?
I now spend a lot of time reading IndieHackers. That style of business, following such a grand failure, really appeals. Seeing small teams grow profitable, sustainable businesses is amazing and I love jumping on there to support others too.
In the same vein, I enjoy reading books such as Rework by the Basecamp team and I’m just reading Technically Wrong, a book by the excellent Sara Wachter-Boettcher, on the impact technology can have on the broader world. Like most who work in tech, I’m fascinated by it, and want to ensure we grow EmailOctopus responsibly, so it can at the very least not detract from society.
Where can we go to learn more?
I’ve written a little bit more on the Mongoose story over on Medium, though it’ll probably only interest the most hardcore of cricket fans.
You can still buy a Mongoose Cricket bat today, the brand was bought out of administration and lives on though none of the original founders, staff or investors are involved any longer.