Small British businesses that made it big

  • Growth
  • 7th July 2021
Written by Adam Barrett Brook

When you’re a small fish in a big pond, the key to success is disruption. Taking an established product, concept or market and creating a twist that helps you stand out from the crowd is key – whether that’s through clever tech, process innovation or next-level marketing.

We’ve pulled together some of the brands who started small but hit the big time thanks to their disruptive approach to well-established products, services and markets. What ties them all together? Always putting customer need first.

#1. Beauty Pie

Buying big brand beauty products is an expensive business, with the latest wonder ingredients, wrapped in elaborate packaging reinforcing the myth that money = youth and beauty. When industry disruptor Beauty Pie came on the scene it set out to smash this elitist culture, creating a beauty buyers’ club sourcing quality beauty products from top labs, offered to its members at discount prices in exchange for a small monthly subscription. With monthly subs from £5, and products that cost up to 80 per cent less than they would in high end retailers, Beauty Pie appeals to the quality-focused, brand agnostic beauty buyer. Wrapped in simple but sophisticated packaging, Beauty Pie’s business model allows them to give shoppers the luxury product they want, more sustainably packaged, and without the elitist price tag.

#2. Starling Bank

When you’ve worked in an industry for years, it’s easy to get bogged down in doing things the way they’ve always been done. But banker Anne Boden took her industry’s challenges and turned them into opportunities back in 2014, when her disillusionment with the banking industry – and an emerging consumer need for more smart phone based services – inspired her to create financial services disruptor Starling. Starling introduced features like real-time transaction history, blocking transactions made at a different location to your mobile phone and tracking spending habits and available cash in easy-to-read dashboards has seen Starling grow its customer base to more than half a million in just seven years.


Owning your own manufacturing operations can have its advantages, but when launched in 2010, it spotted an opportunity to offer the latest designer furniture to customers without having to have its own factories or warehouses. Made operates entirely online, with showrooms to showcase but not sell furniture commissioned from different designers. It groups customer orders before putting them into production, so every piece is made to order. It topped £1bn in sales in 2020, and continues to expand into new products and territories as customer loyalty and demand continues to grow.

#4. Seedlip

There was a time when, if you weren’t drinking, your options at the bar were limited. So, at a time when gin was having a bit of a resurgence, Seedlip founder Ben Branson spotted an opportunity to tap into a growing need for interesting drinks that weren’t packed with sugar or artificial flavours. Using a 300-year old recipe, he create Seedlip – a distilled non-alcohol drink with all the flavour of an artisan gin but none of the ABV. His first thousand bottles sold online within three weeks, the second thousand in three days, and the third in 30 minutes. Seedlip now sell three varieties of their non-alcoholic drinks, in bars and retailers across the world, with big name brands now jumping to get on the booze-free bandwagon.

#5. ASOS

Online retailer ASOS may have joined the mainstream fashion giants when it bought Topshop and Miss Selfridge for £330m at the start of 2021, but when it launched in 2000 as ‘As Seen On Screen’, it was in a league of its own. Using an efficient purchasing model and partnering with tech innovators to streamline and speed up its systems, it took the celebrity trends of the day and replicated them online, allowing customers to order and wear the hottest looks within days of spotting them in their favourite glossy magazine. One of the first big online only UK fashion retailers, ASOS has evolved with its customer base over the last two decades, introducing more than 850 big name brands, genderless fashion ranges, bespoke customer look boards and shopper-generated photography and social media marketing to really connect with its fans.

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