Leila Francis Coleman – People over profit
We all have dreams in life. Whether it’s that new car we’ve had an eye on, the family we’ve always thought of starting or perhaps the burning desire to be brave and start a business. Just imagine if that dream was realised and fulfilled overnight and to an extent that you could never have hoped for. That is exactly what happened to Leila Francis Coleman, Co-Founder of AquaPhysical; an award-winning water-based fitness company based here in Exeter which has an enviable list of clients spread across 55 countries around the globe.
After recently returning from a family skiing holiday in Colorado with Tom Whelan (her Sidmouth-born partner in life and business), I caught up with Leila on a balmy Friday afternoon to talk about her exciting journey so far, the fast-growth of her business and why the Russian word for sweetheart is meaningful to her.
Hi Leila. Thanks so much for your time – I know it is a precious commodity! And sorry that we didn’t manage to talk last week as arranged.
Yes, we were away skiing in Colorado and, for some reason, my phone wouldn’t work. It’s nice to finally connect though as I’ve been hearing such great things about Grow Exeter. You seem to be everywhere at the moment!
Thanks Leila. We’ve certainly made a good start, but we haven’t quite managed to match your success in that regard. I can’t wait to talk a little more about the exciting growth story of AquaPhysical. Before we do, perhaps you could tell me some more about your background?
Sure. Well, I grew up in Dorset and come from a happy and hard-working family. My parents are both very entrepreneurial and I think, amongst many other things, this has been passed down through the family. One of the other things that is part of the core DNA of our family is a love for the water. My parents bought a full-scale reconstruction of Sir Francis Drake’s ship, The Golden Hinde, and sailed it around the world as a floating museum, stopping in ports for locals to look around and enjoy. Amongst other things, my father has also pioneered a sea safety device which he sells to this day. It’s no surprise really that I’ve ended up starting a business that is water-related! My parents have always been extremely supportive of my life and business choices. I’m very fortunate really.
So, what took you from that nurturing family atmosphere in Dorset to where you are today?
I moved to Exeter to study Sociology at University and loved the city. It felt young, vibrant and, importantly, was close to the beach and the sea. It is small compared to other cities but really ‘packs a punch’ and has everything that you could need in a city.
Once I had graduated, I moved to London where I worked in Management Consultancy for almost five years. Whilst it isn’t what I really wanted to do with my life, it gave me some excellent training and experience for what I’m now doing. It was during a trip home to Dorset that I went for a walk with Tom on a beach in Portland. I looked out to sea and saw someone on a paddleboard doing some yoga. I knew that paddleboard yoga had taken off massively in the U.S and Australia and I suddenly had then thought, “Why couldn’t we do a similar thing in the U.K but as a group exercise activity in swimming pools?”. That simple idea very quickly became our obsession and, eventually, we quit our jobs in London and moved back to the South West where we founded AquaPhysical. Our main product is called AquaBase which is a low impact, high quality exercise platform used on water within FloatFit classes. The instability of the water means that the core muscles of the user need to work continuously in order to maintain balance.
We formally founded in late 2014 and properly launched the brand in the Summer of 2015, so the company is just about to celebrate its third birthday.
And what a first few years it’s been! Tell me a little more about the first year of that journey?
We started well and were growing slowly but steadily. David Lloyd became one of our early clients and we were slowly looking to branch into other locations. Then, in May 2016, we uploaded our first proper video onto Facebook, hoping for a few thousand views to give us a little more exposure. We uploaded the video on a Thursday night and by the weekend it had received over 100,000 views. By the following Tuesday it had reached its first million views. And from then on, every time we refreshed our screens, the views just kept going up and up and up. First in hundreds per second, then thousands. It was truly mind-boggling.
And how many hits has that one video now received?
Quite unbelievably, it has now received over 150 million views.
And was there any hope or inkling that suggested you might achieve a fraction of that number. Were you secretly hoping for 1 million hits, for example?
No, absolutely not. We only had 1000 followers on Facebook at the time so, genuinely, we would have been over the moon with 25,000 views. That would have felt hugely successful for us. I could never have even dreamed of 1 million, let alone 150 million views. Remember, this was when going viral wasn’t a common thing! It still amazes me how it all happened.
Due to this quick-growth we moved to Exeter in July 2016 and started to recruit a team of people to try and keep up with the pace of everything.
Have you given any thought to why the video performed so well for you?
Yes, it’s something we’ve wondered about from time to time. I think it was a mixture of luck, timing and an interesting new product. We haven’t managed to recreate the success of this first video, but we’ll continue to try!
As exciting as that must have been, describe what that looked like day-to-day for you and your young company?
It felt really exciting and scary at the same time. I was the only full-time member of staff at the time and Tom was part-time (as well as my parents helping where they could!). We were receiving 500 enquiry emails a day. We just couldn’t keep up with reading and replying to them all, let alone processing the associated orders and answering questions about stock availability. We didn’t even have the systems to record the right information if I’m honest. It felt like going from 5mph – 150mph in one second flat. It was a crazy, crazy time.
I know this all sounds like we were a poorly organised company but, I promise you, there is simply no way that you can be prepared for such a sudden influx of business. There are only so many hours in the day and, with such a small team, we did our best, but I know that we ended up disappointing some customers.
And how did you manage that, particularly bearing in mind how little time you had?
Well, our level of sales shot through the roof which meant that we ran out of stock. When our next delivery came in, all of that stock then instantly left again and we struggled to fulfil some of our orders. We also had some people getting frustrated at the amount of time it took for us to reply to their enquiries (in some cases up to a couple of weeks). At the time we didn’t have a landline, so the only phone number on our site was my personal phone number, which was ringing off the hook!
We did everything possible to manage people’s expectations. Simple things like setting up an automated reply on our email addresses and recording a tailored answerphone message warning people of our extremely high levels of enquiries helped us a great deal. But you can’t please everyone all the time and some people simply wanted a quicker response from us.
It’s horrible to think that we let some people down and this has certainly educated our customer-service approach and policy as we have slowly caught up with the backlog of enquiries. As part of our culture, we always try to turn negatives into positives, so we have tried to learn our lessons from that period of chaos at the beginning of our business journey. We have a ‘no quibbles’ return policy and we do our very best to go above and beyond for our customers.
I suppose the concept of customer service suddenly feels very different when it is your business. I can certainly say that has been the case for us at Grow Exeter. It’s no longer just a theory but is a very real and present reality.
You’re so right, Joff. You really can’t hide from bad customer service and people are more likely to share a negative customer experience than a positive one. The bottom line is that happy customers are central to a successful business and, although challenging sometimes, it’s vital to keep caring and stay focused on delivering the best possible experience for them.
There are pros and cons to caring so much though. Particularly when it is your business, it’s hard not to take criticism or negative feedback to heart.
How do you deal with it when it comes?
One of the best bits of advice I was ever given was that ‘You can only do what you can do’. That isn’t a way of justifying lazy business practices, but rather that sometimes you have genuinely done everything that you possibly can, and it still isn’t enough. As long as you can hand-on-heart say that you’ve given 110%, you have to be kind to yourself and not carry the burden of other people’s unrealistic expectations.
Very true Leila. So, having got through such an exciting and challenging time, what does the future hold for you, your team and your exciting company?
We now have thirteen staff, eleven in Exeter and two in Dorset. This covers a variety of disciplines, including marketing, admin, operations and finance.
We have been lucky to work with some incredible companies, for example, collaborating with Speedo International. They own a fantastic range of ‘gym-to-swim’ clothes which perfectly complements our business, so we have been all around the world working together with them at joint launch events. In the last year alone, we have done a 5-city launch tour in India with them and Tom flew to Australia for three days to do a joint launch at the Sydney Olympic Pool too.
We’re also very excited to announce that, after recently securing a £320,000 investment from the Bristol Private Equity Club (BPEC), we are on a recruitment drive and plan to hire an additional four or five sales staff to take us to the next level. This is a strategic move as, currently, more than 90% of our clients are based abroad so we are intentionally looking to focus on the U.K market and move from start-up to scale-up.
That’s so cool. Well done to you and your team for navigating such a turbulent and challenging time of growth. Looking back over the last few years, what values would you say have pulled you through?
Personally speaking, family is hugely important to us and the support of our families has been vital in our journey. It really is the most important thing in life.
As a company, people are our highest priority (both internally and externally). We promote mutual respect and a culture of openness in our office. For example, we often invite feedback, opinion and ideas from our team. We are at our strongest when we benefit from the whole team rather than just a segment of it.
We have a very strong work ethic in our team too and believe in noticing and rewarding staff who go above and beyond. Take Tamara for example. She started as an intern and is now our Marketing Manager.
That’s so positive Leila. I’ve heard you have a very hard-working canine member of your team too? We’ve recently had a canine addition to our team as well; Birdie our new Commercial Influencer!
Yes! Our Social Secretary is called Dushka. She’s a black Cocker-Spaniel and is a core member of our team. Her name is Russian for ‘sweetheart’ and I can’t imagine our office without her.
Well, Leila, let me congratulate you on such an exciting and positive growth story and thank you for choosing Exeter as your base. Our city is all the stronger and more exciting for having companies just like yours in it. I will continue to watch the AquaPhysical journey with great interest.
You can follow AquaPhysical’s journey on Twitter @aquaphysical or check out www.aquaphysical.com for more information
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye, Photographs supplied by AquaPhysical