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Agency to MBE: how Bulldog co-founder Simon Duffy’s thirst for adventure led to a quest of entrepreneurship

Benjamin Roberts is vice president, talent management, APAC at Essence, a global data and measurement-driven media agency which is part of GroupM.

In a new series, Roberts speaks with leaders in the industry to find out the story behind the career.

Simon Duffy, co-founder of Bulldog Skincare for Men talks to Essence's Benjamin Roberts

This week Roberts speaks to Simon Duffy, co-founder of Bulldog Skincare for Men, on his career, journey and challenges in building a fast growth, award-winning skincare brand for men.

Simon Duffy, born and raised in England, was following a traditional pattern in one’s career. He left school, did a graduate internship at Arthur Andersen (then one of the “big five” accounting firms), went to university and studied Modern History. One of his terms was spent at Dartmouth College in the US, where his eyes were opened to a new world of excitement, exploration and curiosity.

Upon completion of his degree, he took a position at Arthur Andersen, where a career of accounting and a nine-to-five life beckoned.

Then nine months in, he received a call from a friend who had relocated to New Zealand, who asked: “There’s an opportunity down here to work for an agency in innovation, for a project on P&G, would you be interested?”

Without hesitation, Simon packed his bags and left for what he thought would be a one-year adventure on the other side of the world, in a country known for its good-natured people, beautiful scenery and can-do attitude. He ended up staying for four years, met his wife and the innovation team became so successful that they relocated to the city that never sleeps - New York.

Working on blue-chip brands across categories, Simon’s role in providing strategic insight gave him access into the research and development functions of these companies, and the opportunity to look behind the curtains of how innovation works and what does not work. Seeing how long new technologies could take to be embraced and the frustrations of bureaucracy in getting innovation-led marketing solutions signed off, Simon got itchy feet.

He loved innovation, and his time in New York and New Zealand had given him the confidence that if you believe in it, you can do it.

He got connected with a British investment manager and they started to talk. They both were at the stage of their lives wanting to figure out what was next. They both agreed they wanted to move home back to the UK.

It was a cold, snowy evening in November 2005 when Simon went to the local Whole Foods to pick up some natural beauty products for his wife. Not a big user himself, he thought he would buy some male grooming products. His “aha moment” was when he could not find any.

Simon and his business partner decided there was a gap in the market that could be filled with natural male grooming products.

There was a lot to learn. They had no knowledge of formulation, regulation and running a business. Crucially, they also wanted ownership of the idea from the beginning, to see it on the shelves.

Of course, all brands need a name that has an impact. With the competitive landscape filled with female-focused brands for men, they opted for something masculine that represented something.

Bulldog, a man’s best friend.

Now with a name, the first year back in England was spent finding factories and developing product ideas. The hardest part of this journey was raising seed investment. With no experience, no product, no distribution and being young, there were many challenges to overcome. It came down to their confidence, their attitude, their determination, and the importance of building trust and relationships.

Quickly, they worked to get the products made and started to present these to retailers. They got a lucky break when Sainsbury’s agreed to distribute Bulldog in 300 of their stores, Simon shared.

Just over a year from the initial idea, they were already on the shelves of one of the UK’s biggest supermarket chains.

What was important now was to have a mentor/chairman to help them make good decisions, learn to focus on the right things and not be seduced by the wrong ones. Luckily, they chose an experienced marketer from the confectionery industry who was not only a sounding board but a connector.

Simon says having that invaluable advice and experience to draw upon helped them to focus on the important things, such as being well-prepared for investor meetings, only entertaining conversations with companies with the right intentions and always thinking of the big picture while dealing with the day-to-day.

As the ambition was to be global, there was more to learn with exporting and regulation. Sweden became the first market, where today Bulldog has a 50% share of the male skincare market, whilst in the UK they are no slouches either with 20% market share, according to Simon.

The US and Korea were next, but going slow and not rushing into these markets helped the brand grow and be successful.

And then at some point in time, as with every startup, interest started to appear from bigger companies to purchase the brand.

They spent a long time listening, learning and waiting to see who could share the same beliefs in Bulldog.

In October 2016, they reached an agreement with Edgewell Personal Care, which helped Bulldog expand from 12 to 26 markets.

As for Simon, he has faced a lot of challenges along the way, such as learning about a new industry, building a brand and dealing with all sorts of regulations, but his key challenges were ones we all face: How do you keep your culture when you are growing? How do you learn not to micromanage and give people room to grow? How do you inspire and get the best out of people?

Through trial and error, Simon learned to hire the right people, give them the flex and trust to deliver the Bulldog vision, and also to know when to step away and demonstrate belief. In just over a decade, Bulldog has become one of the most successful male grooming brands globally and Simon was awarded as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2016.

After thinking he was set for a life in accounting, having those experiences in New Zealand and New York where he was exposed to different ways of thinking and working, his career path changed completely.

Experience is a great teacher.

And what is next for Simon, who knows? But surely Bulldog will continue to thrive and there will be new challenges on the horizon.

Benjamin Roberts is vice president, talent management, APAC at Essence, a global data and measurement-driven media agency which is part of GroupM.

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