What started as a family challenge with a £10 budget has now turned into an internationally successful business which made £130,000 within one year. Taking into account the criticisms and mistakes made by the contestants in The Apprentice challenge, the pair founded Systemise Fulfilment.
Mr Blackburn and Ms Thomas were inspired by a specific challenge on the show, where Lord Alan Sugar gave the two teams of contestants £500 each.
The teams were then to choose products, supply and sell them for a profit, with the team earning the highest profits winning.
The winning team on the episode printed T-shirts and sold them in a market, which the entrepreneurial duo say was their main inspiration for focusing on physical products.
However, they noted: “Instead of in-person selling, we looked to online and eCommerce as the industry was growing exponentially year on year.”
The pair, who were 25 at the time, thought it would be fun to create their own family apprenticeship game based on this challenge.
However, the Scunthorpe based entrepreneurs had no idea how much it would transform their lives.
Mr Blackburn and Ms Thomas have been together since they were 17 and said they had always had an interest in starting a business, but lacked guidance on what business would be suitable.
They commented: “When we watched the episode of The Apprentice, we really resonated with the idea of something practical like eCommerce – an industry we knew and came to see was the future. Selling physical products also allowed us to get hands-on really quickly with ordering, preparing, shipping, organising our then home into a system that allowed us to receive inbound products and ship outbound products.”
The family challenge was simple: a £10 budget to buy something they could sell for a profit.
Vitally, it wasn’t just inspiration that they took from The Apprentice but they also made careful note of the blunders contestants made, specifically that there was a demand for the product they planned to sell.
The couple shared: “One of the teams had selected a product that had very little demand so they were struggling to sell the product. We knew there must be a way of trying to identify demand in a marketplace for products that people were already interested in and looking for. This is what led us to the second-hand charity store to look for a product we felt would be of use to someone else in the country.”
At a local charity shop they found porcelain birds in pristine collection, dated and signed, and immediately knew there should be collectors or bird lovers seeking these items.
The birds sold on eBay for an incredible profit as the initial £10 turned into £60-£70, which the pair noted was “like a lightbulb moment going off for us”.
The couple continued selling items on eBay, expanding to purchase Monsters Inc teddy bears from Tesco and reselling them online for more than double the purchase price.
The family began setting up what started as a side business alongside their successful hairdressing and engineering careers, a task that both noted was not easy.
They said: “Working full time, having Harper at only six months old was a challenge to line up at the Post Office to get orders shipped out as it took so much time. This is when we learned about Amazon FBA (Fulfilled By Amazon) where we could ship all products to them, and they would ship out to the customer within 24 hours. The potential for scale was then possible – knowing that we could sell potentially thousands of products at volume by shipping into Amazon and them handling the rest for us.”
In just their second month of what was now clearly no longer a little family challenge the pair grossed £15,000 and by the end of their first year in business they had hit the incredible six figure mark – making £130,000.
The success of the business meant both Mr Blackburn and Ms Thomas were able to quit their mainstream jobs and pursue their business dreams full-time, however Mr Blackburn noted it wasn’t a decision they took lightly.
He said: “Having studied for eight years to become an Electrical Engineer and Kylie a Hairdresser and also having a young family, making a decision of this magnitude was something we discussed and thought about for a long time.
“We continued to focus on what our vision for our lives was, for our children and being able to work together which, ultimately gave us the courage that we must make this decision and quit our careers.”
Now, barely eight years later, the pair employ 21 members of staff, run a training programme which has so far seen 4,000 trainees follow the entrepreneurs footsteps in their own businesses.
Aside from their financial successes, the pair highlighted that the true freedom of being entrepreneurs is something they will never give up.
They said: “Instead of living half of our lives separately in our careers, we now are able to work together and be together.
“We have no intentions of ever going back to traditional employment as we have a mission in our business that we are passionate about and work hard for.
“We have been blessed to have experienced so many milestones such as spending time with family, experiencing the early years of Harper, our daughter, being able to share with family and friends to support them to achieve their goals, some of whom have quit jobs, hired teams and moved into warehouses too.”
The young family has also been able to purchase their own home and take their two children to Disneyland, a trip they described as “a family dream”.
They are also big contributors to their local community, consistently donating to charities and sponsoring a project by one of their team members: Scunthorpe’s first Baby Rainbow Memorial Garden.
They added: “We feel really blessed and are grateful every day for what we’ve achieved and never take anything for granted. We focus on taking action as much as possible every day for a better future.”
The family added that they are still big fans of The Apprentice: “Just like Dragons’ Den, we have great admiration for others that are working hard to build a business from nothing, with just an idea, willingness to work really hard, and having the courage to work until successful, through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.”