Gruhme was the brainchild of Rob Hallmark, Gruhme’s CEO and Founder. Rob grew up in the West Midlands and studied law at Durham University, and after a short spell in the Far East, he returned to the West Midlands where he spent the next seven years working as a corporate lawyer before deciding to follow his heart and start his own business. As a consumer of men’s products Rob had struggled to find strong male brands that he truly identified with, so with a passion for creativity, design and aesthetics Rob was inspired to create his own brand encompassing the qualities he found mostly absent from the modern alternatives, and Gruhme was his answer.
“…There’s a quote from the former CEO of Coke describing life as a series of juggling balls, and the only one that’s made of glass is your friends and your family. The rest are rubber balls that will bounce back if you drop them, and I really think that’s important to remember with work…”
Rob, you’re an evacuee of the corporate world – what made you want to run free and set up your own company?
My answer has to be, “I had to go and try it.” It all became clear pretty quickly one New Year when I realised I wasn’t prepared to spend another year doing the same job anymore. Having my own business is all about learning how best to connect to people’s real feelings – including your own – not just focussing on what you think you should portray.
Much of the corporate world has become about a one size fits all, for good reason as historically there wasn’t the ability for large businesses to monitor performance or opinion within their workforces that you have at your fingertips nowadays. New businesses have been much quicker to respond to change but in many large businesses you’ve still got that trickle down linear management approach – where you just want to push a button and get a fixed outcome and anything that challenges that result is seen as harming the process.
That’s counter to what I’m all about, which is about people being able to be themselves. If people have a certain skillset then run with it, try to move them to a new position if needs be. At the core we’ve all got a lot more to offer than we’re often led to believe. There’s a lot that’s told to us by other people for protectionist reasons (i.e. “You’re not allowed to do it that way”) and I wanted to break free from all that.
I needed to give myself a bit of freedom of expression to let my mind come up with some entirely fresh ideas. Many large companies need to stop having a fear that chaos will result from giving people more freedom to operate under their own vision, only your most motivated people will try and make things better so why hold them back from getting the practice.
Above all else, authenticity is key in a start up (even more so than originality) but you can only be truly authentic if you’re being yourself. The only way you can be yourself is to de-shackle yourself from everything else and just go and do your own thing. I was determined to discover who the ‘real’ me was so setting out alone was a great opportunity to do that.
What gave you the idea and inspiration for Gruhme?
The idea was a much further back experience than the inspiration. The idea came from a trip to France with a couple of guys during a break from uni. We went to a town called Grasse and it so happened that Grasse is one of the pinnacle places for perfumery worldwide.
I was there for all the wrong reasons though. There was a lingering hangover to clear and I had nothing better to do aside from join the offer to go and buy some fragrance with my friend for his girlfriend back home – but it brought me into this delightful shop with this lady offering people the chance to make their own fragrance.
We just got talking and it suddenly occurred to me that this ancient art of perfumery is down to finding a few skilled individuals who really know how make fragrance. That broke away the mystique. It became an artist’s market in my eyes and not a corporate’s so it struck me as easier to compete in.
However, as I now learn all the time, it’s not just as straightforward as making the stuff, you have to market it and help people understand how your product fits into their world. That’s why the name and the branding were so important – they had to instantly conjure up engagement in the consumer. The story is also important but I believe the best companies are the ones built up by the customers not the PR teams so the best aspects of our story are yet to unfold!
Back to the story for now though! For ten years or so after the trip to Grasse I kept quiet on my idea, thinking, “As much as it would be quite good fun to make a real men’s fragrance that I would want to wear each day, there’s a lot more to it.”
However, the fragrance market I saw all around me continued to show me it wasn’t selling a product I wanted to buy, so the inspiration for Gruhme was twofold: Firstly – ending up in my thirties and deciding it was now or never. If I was going to start my business, quite possibly against the odds, because it was going to take many years to get established and I had no prior experience, it had to be sooner rather than later.
Secondly it was also about becoming a dad. My partner Ann and I had spoken in that year before I left my job about starting a family. I thought I cannot be a father who isn’t doing something he loves. My father is also lawyer, and still a workaholic, so I needed a new direction in my life to make it worth all the effort lest I become just a generation carbon-copy, albeit he’d at least achieved an OBE for his troubles so I would have struggled to be a complete match!
Whatever I would do in life it would still have to make enough money for the family to survive, but it had to be something I really, really loved, so when I came back to the home each evening, I was the guy I truly wanted to be.
The final moment of inspiration was just seeing yet another fragrance brand conform to the same white underpants, fake tanned six pack and I just thought, “This industry hasn’t changed. It’s still the same recipe. The same approach to marketing to these guys.” And I just felt so disconnected from that market, suffice to say it wasn’t making me rush out and put my hard earned money into their pockets.
I’d far rather been seen in a well-cut suit then a pair of tight pants (and I’m sure Ann feels the same way about that too!). But it was still a case of I’m either alone (and the business will fail) or I’m amongst a crowd of many thousands who are keen to see something new and less ‘faddy’.
As the product took shape I began to notice there were indeed many more guys out there who wanted a product reflecting a more sincere, authentic, genuine way of life, which was reflected in how they lived at a price that didn’t raise any eyebrows. None of those existing male fragrances suited that lifestyle of working hard for your precious cash.
We’re busy working on putting Gruhme out into the UK market first before exporting to others. But wherever we go I’m very conscious of doing it through interesting retailers, they have to really understand their own customers and how we fit into their experience too.
We started out in our homeland in Birmingham and we’ve had a very good reception here. We’re in the Hotel Du Vin and we’re in the Hyatt Regency, and we’re also where we started out last August, The Barber House, which is a fantastic independent barbers which opened up over the summer by a delightful master barber who was plying his trade for 20 years and had come to Birmingham to take it to a new level.
Starting a business is tough – did you have any hesitations in leaving corporate life behind?
Not at the time. Definitely not. I knew I was going out on a limb and taking a huge risk. I certainly felt that precipice sitting out ahead of me but I was weighing that against not doing it, the idea of another 25 years or so of doing the same thing day in day out – that was what I felt my life was going to be if I didn’t get out soon.
I’d seen people years ahead of me get promoted to where I needed to be one day, i.e. reach the coveted partnership, and if anything they even looked more miserable as a result. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the colleagues I had at my level but I also felt we’d all have to change our ways to make it to the next level so was thinking: “Well then, what is it I’m waiting for if I stay here? I don’t want it to just be death!”
There was simply no more hook for me staying in. I wasn’t enjoying the life anymore and I simply didn’t get enough job satisfaction out of it to plough on – I wasn’t one of those who took any pleasure from it whatsoever. I felt that was my ‘fault’ though – I’m a square peg in a round hole in that sort of structured environment and changing either shape to fit the other wasn’t happening in my lifetime.
It felt that even if all I was going to come across was complete and utter failure (at a catastrophic, worst case scenario level) it wouldn’t be as bad as staying in that lifeline, which sounds dramatic, but that’s actually the watered-down version of how much I wanted out. You can’t be half-hearted as a lawyer – it’s not fair on your colleagues or your clients and it will only get worse as you gradually become less inspired. I guess hearing the definition of “insane” given by the psychotic character Garland Green in Con-Air (i.e. by working 50 hours a week to just end your days forgotten about in a retirement home) struck a chord with me many years ago! Especially I was working well over 60 hours most weeks!
So the considerations I had at that time were that I wanted a happy family and I wanted that more than anything else, and we knew that a family was going to be the next goal in our lives, but I also wanted to start my own business. That was probably going to come at the cost of the wedding, because I said, “This business is going to take everything I own.” So that included the trendy loft apartment and the expensive car (that I really didn’t need).
Even though I knew I was going to commit all that personal resource I first had to ask Ann to support the family and me while I did it. It was not an easy lifestyle change for us but I knew then it was something I had to do if I was going to play a positive supporting role long-term. I also knew it had to be my own money to begin with as no-one else’s would make me learn as hard or as fast. I therefore definitely had no serious hesitations. If anything I felt the opposite – this is something I now have to do so get on and do it.
How does running Gruhme allow you to balance your work and family life better than your legal career?
It depends who you’re talking to! I would say it does improve things, but I’m not sure anyone else has noticed – and I certainly don’t go out and party like I’ve been known to in the past! It does create a better balance in quirky ways too because I can still work really antisocial hours but I enjoy those antisocial hours a bit more now because I get to choose them.
So I can choose between half five and half eight to go dark, to go off grid. That’s family time, it’s not much but it’s probably but it’s better than getting home at 10pm when Hattie’s asleep.
I do often quite like to go back to doing work from nine until one, I never got to enjoy early starts like some entrepreneurs, it’s peaceful and I’ve had the benefit of time with the family beforehand – whereas in the past if I’d said to my boss, “I’m just going to pop home for three hours,” I may as well have just resigned! There would have been no: “That’s fine. Absolutely.” So in that sense it’s definitely given me flexibility. I can now choose my hours.
The hard part though, is ever switching off entirely.
So I’m getting there with the balance (sort of!), but I think it’s a really important discipline to work at. If someone says they work 24/7 I wonder whether I’m supposed to be impressed or feel pity (I would lean towards the latter for my part!). Family and business are not meant to be enemies, if used sensibly they will help each other become stronger.
Having said that, I wouldn’t want anyone to copy what I’m doing in the hope of finding it leads to a better life, I still spend far too much time away from Ann and my family but it’s a bit of a necessary evil to get a business started and I hope they’ll forgive that one day if things ever settle down.
However much you work at something it’s really important to stop yourself sometimes and remember, “The business will carry on.” If you feel you absolutely cannot step away from the business and take a break then you may be losing some perspective, which may become counter-productive if it leads to mistakes (albeit easy words to write, it is hard to practice!).
There’s a quote from a former CEO of Coke describing life as a series of juggling balls, and the only one that’s made of glass is your friends and your family. The rest are rubber balls that will bounce back if you drop them, and I really think that’s important to remember with work.
If I let Gruhme down, it should be temporary, whereas if you let you family down you may never forgive yourself, so despite the long hours, I believe I can do a better job of balancing life now, definitely.
What is the best bit about running your own company and being a dadpreneur?!
It’s definitely freedom. Freedom of thought, freedom of decision. I think above all else, that’s the bit I enjoy the most – the sense of freedom but full responsibility for what’s going to happen. There is no better feeling than knowing you’ve personally played a really significant part in something rewarding happening to you and others.
That being said, I also love the fact you can collaborate with people like there’s no tomorrow. When it’s your own business, there is no point being the CEO-come-dictator where you just go about telling people you want it like this, end of. There are times I will say, “This is how it needs to be,” but I never want to take the approach that means I’ve shut someone down.
In fact I really do like to collaborate, it keeps me sane too. I like finding people who are really good at what they do. I’ve never seen myself as someone who is above someone else just because I own a stake of the company, and I’ve never liked the idea that just because you’re more senior or more experienced you have to somehow shut down and not be open to learn from others who are just starting out. So active collaboration is something I really, really enjoy – working with people.
I’m also keen to discuss things in case of new ideas. I like to use people’s own creativity, get them to provide their own ideas before I share too much of my own, in case I steer them down my path too soon. The, “If not this? What then?” kind of approach also helps to open people’s mind to new ideas too. That sort of collaboration has been one of the bits I’ve really seen benefit the business.
When I get home I have to feel really fulfilled and then it’s so easy to just grab Hattie and have a big hug and that’s when work can stop – but I’m sure she’s getting sick and tired of that end of day routine already and wants me home all day, which is still the real dream for me!
One day I want other companies to follow our lead, to have people who will live and work in harmony. A happy person’s productivity outweighs an unhappy person by a big margin and I would love to see improvements to the 9-5pm culture we have in this country with more flexible working hours and finishing early on Fridays (some would call this naïve but I believe in making it work and I will be able to show the gains one day!).
I also believe that if you get just one thing totally right in life the other things will fall into place. I’ve seen so many people who are wealthy because they just went and did what they enjoyed and frequently it isn’t the money per se that makes them smile but the making of it (hence why I think we hear of so many lottery winners who still weren’t happy).
Don’t focus just on the money but how you will enjoy making it. It likely won’t be as much fun in the early days when you struggle to make surplus cash but those times will make it even more rewarding later and I keep telling myself it will help make me become more successful one day – you become more able to be successful when you have been through a few difficult times. I don’t think you’re just born to be successful. I really don’t.
However, depending on how you react to any given situation probably dictates how successful you will become, so by constantly putting yourself in challenging situations you’re constantly evolving yourself into the sort of person who will more likely go on to obtain success (in whatever form you want it to take). I love that.
So the more quickly you can get yourself to gain experience the more capable you will likely become. Hence a few long days can pay off! But shut your eyes to life and you will likely miss out on unlocking so much potential.
In just two and a half years of working on my own business I feel like I’ve become so much more accomplished than I was by working for other people over eight years – and that was in roles that most people in society would see as very challenging, demanding and (dare I say it) impressive.
Strangely though I felt that being a lawyer in those relatively large firms felt like I wasn’t learning anything of the real world. Some might say I was no good at being a lawyer (and I wasn’t particularly) but I would blame my lacking sense of accomplishment on not feeling any real connection to the business and therefore having no reason to engage at the level needed to push the boundaries of experience.
I feel so much more capable now however, (not go and make a fire and find something to eat capable but able to stick at it whatever the weather and hopefully make something great happen one day!). I feel it so strongly that even if Gruhme didn’t work out – and I certainly hope that’s not the case – I feel I’ve got the beginnings of a truly interesting skillset emerging now. In ten years it will be amazing to see where it ends up. I’m excited by that. I really am. I like a bit of the unknown but I like heading there with my confidence high.
It does intimidate some people though when you have lots of self-belief in something that appears un-realistic to most “normal” people – my parents for one weren’t too happy when I first shared the news of my plans, but when you’re being your own person, you’re unstoppable. If you love what you do, you’ll find your sweet spots and then it’s only upwards from there.
I don’t believe anyone is going to be lucky enough to start off on day one with something that will carry him or her through the rest of their lives or their business so be open to new (and perhaps better) options emerging. But if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll be unlikely to have the interest in climbing higher and it’s taking yourself to the highest heights you can go to that will help you to find something to be truly long-term satisfying. And a satisfied person is the sort of person who makes good company for others.
What is next for Gruhme?
It’s taking forward what we’re doing but not giving up on our values for the sake of greater progress. We’ll be branching further into personal care, so we’re going to be introducing shower gels, moisturisers, and obviously with a name like Gruhme we’ll be going into shaving products as well.
We want those to be the very finest that we feel we can introduce to the British male shaving market, so we’re not in a rush to bring those out. The Gruhme shaving range will be our piece de resistance, so if we’re lucky it will be in 2016, but if we have to wait to get it bang on, then I’m very happy to make it 2017.
When this happens we’ll have achieved our first major goal of becoming a full range of male personal care, fragrance and grooming products. Once that’s happened, we may be doing some more collaborating to enter into the men’s clothing and accessories markets.
What are you planning for Fathers’ Day?
I think psychologically I’ve always underplayed that day in life, my father was always quite happy with just a phone call or a quiet sit down but no more theatrics than that, but it’s more symbolic now because of what I’m doing and being a new father. It’s also important to show yourself that other things can come first, however much you love your business, and I always do a crazy amount, but on a day like that or a day like Christmas, Easter, even birthdays now you’ll find me trying to set aside some proper time with the family.
I’m also looking forward to doing something fun and away from all those screens that fill up lots of my life. I’m sure it will centre around Hattie rather than me, so I expect it will be a combination of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and the wildlife park.
It’s really important to me that she has a good day with her dad and also Ann gets time with me away from work too, so we’ll certainly be getting out of the house – though I’m sure Ann will find a place that hasn’t got 4G or wi-fi reception just to be sure…