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Ever dreamed of your business actually becoming a verb? Byron Dixon did and he made it happen.
The founder of Micro-Fresh started off small by creating a product that allowed shoes to stop smelling, and now he is Micro-Freshing whole buildings to fit against the likes of Covid.
Byron came from humble yet difficult beginnings and talks about the gap in equality and how even manners will get your far in the world of business.
This is the story of how one man’s love for chemistry changed the course of his life and led him to running a multimillion-pound business.
Here’s what we cover:
Growing up in an environment that forces resilience
Welcome, Byron. Thanks so much for joining us.
Thank you, Kate. I love the title, Entrepreneurs Unfiltered, because I can be very unfiltered.
Good. That’s exactly why we’ve asked you on to this episode. We want those raw, honest stories.
So Byron, take us back to the very beginning. I know you grew up on a council estate in Leicester.
Tell us a little bit about that experience, and some of your earliest influences.
Yeah. Wow, okay. Our office now is not far from where I grew up. I actually drive past my Mum’s house most days, on the way to the office.
She still lives in the same house, and she still rings me, and says, “I need some milk. I need some…” Anyway, what mums do, right?
Growing up, and this was back in the early ’80s. When you grow up on a council estate, there are lots of things that you don’t know. That’s all you know.
When you get older, you move away, and you think, “Wow. I never knew there was an alternative to this kind of life.” There were lots of things I didn’t know.
We weren’t rich. We didn’t have a lot of things. We didn’t have fantastic Christmas presents. We probably didn’t have the greatest food.
But Mum, she did really well for us. She fed us, she ruled with an iron fist. Which, we now look back and say, “That was absolutely needed.”
We were pretty good children, but kids at that age need a lot of discipline.
It was tough. I went to a very tough school, Mundella, which is not there anymore. We had a very good headmistress, Ms Warren. We also had a lot of discipline.
Back in the ’80s, it was all about corporal punishment, which sounds alien today. And it’s what, probably 40 years later. I look back and realise that’s what shaped me into who I am today.
Of course back then, racism was rife. It was nothing like it is today. It was raw and in your face. I don’t need to emphasise the sort of things that were said. You can probably imagine.
And it was something that we just thought was normal.
You must have learned real resilience from an early age then. Did you feel different from your peers?
In a way, yes. I had friends of all colours. So where I grew up in Leicester, we were Indian, white, black. We had Hindu, Muslim, Sikh. So I grew up learning every bad word in lots of different languages.
We all just grew up together as a mixed pot. We all stuck up for each other. There was racism, as I said. But what I realised was, there weren’t very many black faces on TV. Of course, I didn’t know any black politicians.
So any time there was a black face on TV, we used to say, “Hey, so-and-so was on TV last night.” I can’t remember the names of any of them, some old comedians, and musicians. But you just didn’t see any.
I wanted to be a table tennis player. Which, for anybody that’s old enough to remember, they will understand. Because one of the few black faces that was successful was Desmond Douglas, who was a table tennis player.
So of course, you naturally wanted to aspire to be people that looked like yourself. Most of the people wanted to be engineers, or computer scientists, or chemists.
I just thought, “I want to be like Desmond Douglas, because he looks like me.”
School really can shape your career and your business
So you wanted to be a table tennis player. How then did you discover chemistry?
Well as a kid, I was, and I still am, people will say, “Byron’s like a child sometimes.” I’m excitable.
I think these days, it’s called some form of ADHD. That’s not to denigrate from people that really do have ADHD. I actually have a lot of energy.
When I went to school, although I could do history, and geography, and English, I just found sitting there with a piece of paper, writing, was boring.
Then you put a subject in front of me where you can burn things, and blow things up, and create stuff. I thought, “Why would you want to do anything else, when you can do this?”
Also, it captured my attention, and I didn’t realise until later that it is one of the most complex subjects. It actually filled my brain, which was not like the other subjects, where I just sat there feeling bored.
Did the teachers encourage you?
Yeah. Well my teacher, Ms Clark, she basically said, “Look. You can get off this council estate, because you’re good at chemistry. But if you want to carry on messing around, then you’ll be stuck here for the rest of your life.” That was the incentive to me.
The irony is, I went to, for the first three years, a boys school. Then it mixed to become boys and girls. The chemistry teacher on the other side, Ms Barrett, I think she’s been married 30 years now, something else.
But I saw her on Saturday night, and we were laughing because she said, “I always knew that you could do it.”
Yeah, they really encouraged you to go for it.
But then of course, I know you couldn’t afford to go to university. So what was the path for you?
What was the next step?
Yeah, well the path for me, and when I look back, there are some traits in me as a person that are consistent. I’m one of these doers. When I say that, I actually just do stuff.
So I left school, I went to college and did A levels. Then I just wrote to ICI, or Zeneca, which at the time was the biggest chemical company in the world, and said, “Have you got a job?”
They were in Manchester. They sent me down to their local depot, which is in Loughborough. That was ICI/Zeneca, leather division.
So I wrote to them, and I saw a job advertised, and I got a job there, at Loughborough. The company was called Stahl, but it was Zeneca/ICI Leather Finishes. I toddled off to Loughborough.
My friends, who were living in Leicester doing all their normal, everyday hoodlum stuff, were like, “Why are you going to Loughborough? It’s in the country.”
But I just wanted the job. It was an international company, and that attracted me as well. So I toddled off to Loughborough.
I used to get home quite late, after catching the train, so I didn’t have time to do all that hoodlum stuff that you do at that age.
It took me out of that cycle with those sorts of people.
Taking the leap of faith to start your own business
You then did really well in your early career. What made you start Micro-Fresh? Because presumably, that was a really big risk.
Suddenly you found a comfortable job, you’ve got a decent salary. Were you worried about losing it all?
Okay, again there’s a common theme with me is, I do get bored. Even at this age. I’m not a spring chicken anymore, but I do get bored. So I was working in Loughborough. I was there for about 12 years, and I got bored.
I had potential, the world in front of me. I got headhunted by ECCO, the shoe company. They said, “Here’s a job in ECCO.” I thought, “Try something else.” I didn’t realise the job was in Denmark.
So I accepted the job, and then they said, “Do you want to fly from East Midlands or London?” I said, “Where to?”, and they said, “To Denmark.”
I was like, “Oh,” and I just thought, “Do you know what? Why not?” So I went off to Denmark. Hopefully some of my ECCO friends are listening to this at some point. But I had a great time.
Four years at ECCO, travelled the world. They made me what was called their global finishing expert. So all the shoes in ECCO, the way they looked, it was my responsibility, because I’m a chemist, and I knew about leather by then.
I did have a great time. I travelled the world, I learned languages. Totally broadened my mind. For this kid off a council estate, that did chemistry to stop himself getting bored, I now had a career where there was absolutely no chance of getting bored.
Fast-forward, four years later. A lot of Danish tax, and I felt the need to come back to England, so I came back. Again, I did have a great career at ECCO. I came back, I started my own business. At the advice of Karl Toosbuy, who was the founder of ECCO. A great guy. We have the same birthday, so we have a lot in common.
He said, “Listen, Byron. If you go back, that’s a shame. But you need to start your own business. I’ve seen enough in you that says you can start your own business,” and I did.
I started a leather finishing business. Pretty dull and boring.
Then I remembered that ECCO shoes used to go mouldy, when they were made in Asia and shipped to the West. So if I could formulate something to stop shoes going mouldy, maybe I’ve got a product that’s different to everybody else.
That was the start of Micro-Fresh.
Starting a business can be just as much for spiritual freedom as financial independence
Did you not worry though about losing that financial independence? Especially given your upbringing?
The short answer to that is no. I hope it doesn’t sound like a smart, I can’t say that word on camera, smart-behind answer.
Because I’ve never thought like that, and I don’t think like that now. I think that’s a natural trait in a lot of entrepreneurs that are from a similar background. Because we’re from relatively a modest upbringing, let’s call it that, you’re not scared of going back.
So yeah, I had a great career at ECCO. I came back, and I was actually skint. The money that I’d made in ECCO ran out fairly quickly.
In my business, we had practically hardly any turnover for five years.
But I had a vision, and I thought, “If this comes off, then I will have a combination of the financial security, and the freedom.”
I think freedom is another trait that you’ll see in my career. That I do like freedom.
Or you could call it free spirit.
So you did it for the free spirit, rather than the financial independence?
Yeah, and I think you’ll find that with most entrepreneurs. I love the title of this series, Entrepreneurs Unfiltered. Because entrepreneurs like me are not doing it for the money. We just don’t.
My financial control is continuously telling me, “You’re not taking enough money out of this business.” But in my eyes, you can only drive one car, you can only wear one watch.
So I do it for the freedom, and I absolutely love what I do.
Getting your business off the ground doesn’t happen overnight
So you bootstrapped the business in the early days. What was the pivotal moment?
How did you get the business off the ground?
Okay, so there are a couple of pivotal moments. I’m going to call a couple of people out in this video. Don’t worry, it’s all good, so no one’s going to be suing us.
Back in 2010, so I’d been peddling Micro-Fresh for three or four years. Not really a lot of interest. We found out how to stop shoes smelling.
Then a guy at Next, Robert Wright, he called me back. I’d been to pitch at Next, and he said, “I just want to check something out. How long does it last?”
We did some tests. We did some accelerated ageing tests, and it lasted a minimum of two years. So he came back, and he said, “I want to launch a range of shoes called Micro-Fresh.”
I was like, “Wow.”
So in 2011, Next launched a range of back to schoolgirls shoes, with Micro-Fresh. They sold like crazy because kids wear the same shoes every day. They’re thrown away for two reasons.
One is, they grow out of them, while the other one is, they start to smell.
So Next launched in 2011, and the other retailers followed suit, because they do a thing called comp shopping. They go around and see what other people are doing.
They said, “What’s this Micro-Fresh thing? Wow.”
So within three or four years, we were in most back to school shoes in the UK.
So it was a real snowball effect.
Yeah, and another pivotal moment, there’s two more, but I’ll try and keep them short and sweet for the sake of the podcast.
John Lewis approached us in 2014, and said, “If this product is as good as it seems, we’d like to launch a range of bedding.” So that’s what happened.
They launched bedding in 2015. It was really successful, and they launched baby and nursery bedding the year after.
The consumer and also other retailers, said, “This product must be good, because it’s on John Lewis, an aspirational retailer. Baby and nursery,” so you can imagine what sort of testing and approval we had to go through, to get onto the thing next to the most precious thing in most people’s lives.
Then the third thing that was significant was, I’m not a businessperson, I’m a chemist that likes people. I realised that having a business creates a lot of pain.
A friend of mine mentioned a programme called, this is the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses programme. Which, I managed to get onto that in 2015, I think it was.
It rounds you as a person in business, so you learn about things that you don’t want to do, things like finance, things like why you’re the leader, things about sustainability.
It just makes you a more rounded businessperson, so that when you’re talking to your team, and your customers, and your suppliers, and your partners, you’re sounding a bit like you know what you’re talking about.
That again, they’re the three main points that made us what we are today.
Has that really helped you, in terms of that short attention span, and constantly getting bored?
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still got the short attention span, and I still constantly get bored. The difference is, I recognise that.
I think, where there are things where you need people with a proper attention span, or attention to detail, get people in.
Dealing with racism in the world of business
You’ve talked about clinching those big-name retailers, and then diversifying your product. I’d love to know about some of the challenges you have faced as a black entrepreneur.
You talked about racism growing up. Have you experienced that in the business world?
Do you know what? I’m actually going to turn that on its head because I try to be objective. Let’s just say we go for a pitch, and we don’t get the contract.
My first reaction is, it’s not because I’m black. It’s maybe our product’s not good enough, or it’s too expensive, or it’s too cheap. Or there’s something else.
Racism in business, I can’t say I’ve experienced it.
In fact, it’s worked the other way, because people remember me.
I can’t say, but Rob said, at Next back in 2011, when they talked about, “How can we innovate?” Rob said, “Do you remember that guy that came in, with that product? That antimicrobial?”
They said, “Which guy?” He said, “The smiley guy.”
The obvious elephant in the room is that I’m black. But he said they all remembered when he said, “The smiley guy.”
So it does, I think being black can be an advantage.
I always say to other black entrepreneurs, try to put your entrepreneur word first, before black.
So whether we’ve missed out on things because of my colour, I actually don’t know, and I try not to think about it.
Expanding your products to fulfil customer needs
Tell us a bit about how you survived through the pandemic, and how you’ve innovated your way through the crisis.
“Hey, somebody put some obstacles in the road,” right? Brexit, pandemic, Prime Minister…
Some big ones.
It’s like, “Just throw them all in,” yeah?
So yeah, in the pandemic, which was awful. It was awful, and lots of people suffered, and lost people, and lost their lives. It was a truly awful scenario. Nobody could have predicted that.
Business-wise, what happened with our business is, the consumer knew the brand. Especially parents, because we’re on baby and nursery bedding, and we’re on kids’ footwear.
Some retailers said, “Actually, when we re-open, rather than saying our stores have been disinfected or sanitised, which sounds like chemicals,” they said, “We’d like to say the stores have been Micro-Freshed. It’s a really friendly name. It’s green. It’s got all the credentials. It’s British.”
I’ve got a medal from the Queen, an OBE, for the business. So we’ve got all the credentials. What we realised is, a massive string to our bow is Micro-Freshing buildings. Building interiors.
In Next, if you go to Next now, you’ll see it says, “Micro-Freshed for your safety.” We’re working with one of the big four accountants, and with one of the big banks. Because as part of the return-to-work campaign, they want to say, “Our offices are Micro-Freshed.”
So we developed a fogging machine. You can Micro-Fresh a whole area. We pivoted, although I hate that word. It’s a bit corny.
But yeah, so we made our offering available to a lot more companies, and a lot more potential clients.
I love the way you’ve become a verb. You’re saying, “We’ve been Micro-Freshed.”
Ironically, when I did the Goldman Sachs programme, on the first module they said, “What’s your aspiration?”
People talked about turnover with their business, and whatever.
I stood there, and I said, “I want us to be a verb,” so that people say, “Have these offices been Micro-Freshed? Has this cushion been Micro-Freshed? Has this gym been Micro-Freshed?”
We’re getting there. We’re getting there.
You’re getting there. That’s what clients are asking for now.
How British businesses and the government can help the next batch of entrepreneurs
Talking about a crisis, obviously we’re in the midst of one right now in the UK.
We’re in the grips of the worst cost of living crisis since the 1950s. 14.4 million people living in poverty, including 4.3 million children.
So what practical initiatives would you like to see from British businesses, or the government, to support the next generation of entrepreneurs?
Yeah, I think what we’re going through, Kate, it’s unprecedented.
Some days I wake up, and I’m driving the car. I’m thinking, “In a minute I’m going to wake up, and this isn’t really happening.” It’s tough on a scale that most people could never envisage.
Entrepreneurship in the UK is pretty high. We’re third in the world for startups, I don’t know if you know that. But we’re 13th for scale-ups.
Now, that gap is I think down primarily to, we find it very difficult to grow our businesses. There’s not that much support in the form of independent support, so government support.
Now the government have launched Help to Grow, which, we’re actually one of the featured businesses on that. But there is definitely a barrier between starting a business, and scaling it.
I think that the support that’s out there is too difficult to navigate. It is.
If you’re a high-growth business, which is by definition 20% turnover growth year-on-year, or 20% staff, it’s difficult to navigate that support.
I think the government need to really find those businesses that are aspirational, that are going to grow the economy, and they’re going to create jobs, and really get in there and help them.
Really help those startups to scale up.
That’s right, yeah.
Is the business world in favour of those from wealthy backgrounds?
Do you think the business world is skewed in favour of those from wealthy backgrounds?
Oh, without a doubt. Absolutely. That is one thing that I will definitely stand by.
If you’re from my sort of background, it’s tough. You don’t grow up with the same aspirations. You don’t grow up with the same connections. I’ve made my connections from a very young age.
But if you’re wealthy, which you can’t help being wealthy, it’s great, but you have an advantage, definitely.
In the US, the US has its problems. But they do do affirmative action when it comes to disadvantaged people growing the economy. They have things in place, like supply diversity. It’s mandated by the government.
So if you supply the government in the US, 20% of your supplier spend has to be with minority businesses. That means that the wealth does, trickle-down is actually real over there. Over here we talk about it, but no one really puts their name to it.
I think that’s something that the government should really look at. Because that would create a natural ecosystem of businesses growing, for people like myself.
Having some of those stronger diversity and inclusion targets in place.
Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. That’s not to say it’s excluding people that are not diverse. It’s just spreading the wealth, it’s spreading the knowledge.
It’s spreading the ecosystem. It’s spreading the contacts. To say that we are all actually the same, rather than just talking about it.
Setting up foundations to give back and inspire the next generation
In terms of spreading the knowledge, spreading the wealth, I’d love to know how you’re giving back.
Tell us a little bit about the Micro-Fresh Foundation.
I’ve managed to navigate away from a potential adulthood that wouldn’t have been pleasant, let’s just put it that way. A lot of my friends were not so fortunate, you could say. Or not so proactive about getting out of where they’re from.
So the ones that are still there, and there are a lot, don’t get me wrong. But a lot of my friends have been to prison. Some of them are not around anymore. They’ve had really tough lives.
I recognised that in young kids, especially young black kids, some of us don’t have two parents, and then your friends become your parents. We’ve got to change that.
So I do some work with a couple of schools. Especially, there’s a school close by to here, where they have excluded children, and spend time saying, “Hey, what school did you go to?”
Then when they tell me the primary school they went to, or the junior school, I say, “I went there.” You can see their faces like, “Hey?”
When I talk to them in everyday language, like this. Or I can even talk to them in my Jamaican dialect from my Mum, which I won’t do on camera.
But they just say, “Wow, he’s one of us. We can do that. We need to stop doing all this other stuff.”
So I spend time in that school. I also spend time with youths, typically 16 to 20. Which is a sweet spot for drifting off the system, or into the system, depending. The criminal justice system.
Again, talking to them in plain English, to say, “You don’t need to do that. In some ways, you’re acting how you’re expected to act, and you’ve got to stop that.”
So that’s something that we do through the foundation.
Realising your success can be bittersweet
I know your Mum still lives in the same house. How do you feel when you go back there?
I go back to being a 12-year-old kid, who does everything his mum says. So I act like I’m 12, because that’s what you do.
Yeah, but it’s bittersweet. Because driving around this area, it’s weird to think I actually grew up around here, walking around the streets, looking for things to steal. Looking for cars that are open. It’s just how you did when you grew up.
You thought, “Someone leaves a car open, they must be stupid.” To now drive around it, I make sure my car doors are locked.
Because crime rates are very high in Leicester, aren’t they? They’re much higher than the national average.
They are, they are. In Leicester, it’s segregated. What I mean is, you’ve got areas of Leicester. But it’s a bit like US cities, where you have areas of affluence, and areas of social deprivation.
The crime rate on average across Leicester is higher than some of the cities that we think about.
But to answer your question about still being in the same area, it’s bitter-sweet, because of course I like to see my mother.
But then I do grow up and realise that some of the things that we grew up with as kids, which I now know are not correct, are living and breathing in front of me.
Even in business, manners will get you far
How did your Mum cope with five kids, doing it alone, growing up on the council estate? How did she make ends meet?
Well, at one point my Mum had three jobs. That’s just what she did.
She always brought us up to say, “Nobody take a penny off the state.” Which, for those without subtitles, that means work, and don’t take benefits. That’s how we were brought up. So she had three jobs.
My sister looked after us when my Mum went to work. We all learned to cook, and do things, at a very young age. So when I left home, I could cook, and look after myself completely.
A lot of discipline. Which, at the time you don’t appreciate. But when you leave school, you realise that that was actually needed.
I remember when I went to Denmark, the head of HR, who is now the vice president of ECCO, he said to me, “You have impeccable manners.”
To me, it’s just normal. Because if we ever strayed from that line, our mother would let us know straight away, with a bit of disciplinary action.
If anybody’s got the time, listen to Grandma’s Hands, by Bill Withers. That’s exactly how we grew up.
So you grew up with that real discipline, and hard work ethic. Do you think you got that from your mother?
Absolutely, without a doubt. That is trickle-down. That’s waterfall-down. It’s like, “This is how it’s going to be, and it’s not debatable.”
But she taught us, and that’s what made the difference.
Growing your business internationally
Give us a snapshot of Micro-Fresh now, and where that growth is coming from.
Micro-Fresh now, we’ve had an absolutely crazy year, or should I say six months.
So we’re in most retail stores, in bedding and footwear, as I’ve said. We’re now going into the facilities’ management arena, hence I mentioned buildings.
In February, I was in New York. We’ve got a US office. We have 13 offices around the world, by the way, in nine countries.
We’ve now opened in the US. We’re on the NASDAQ tower in New York in February, which is great, because now US brands, it’s a massive marketing edge for us to say to US brands, “You want that name in your offices. You want that name on your clothing.”
So the big jumps for us are, the facilities’ management offering. You can go into a workplace that’s Micro-Freshed. Also, US expansion.
You want to crack the big nut that is the US.
We want to crack the big nut that is the US. I’ve been there. I’ve been there three times this year. We can do it. We’ve got some good connections.
We deal with some good UK companies that have US branches. So that’s easier to transfer. We are going to crack the US, absolutely.
We’re hoping to make Micro-Fresh a global verb, not just a European verb.
Listening is the key to being a successful entrepreneur
Then in terms of practical tips that you would pass on to the next generation of entrepreneurs, for them to take their startups and scale them, what would be your pieces of practical advice?
Wow, okay. I know it sounds corny, but just listen. When people say things, in business, the consumer, the public watch The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den, and they get an idea of business, which is not correct.
Because most people in business just want to help. Even your competitors. Everybody wants to help everybody.
So I would say to young entrepreneurs, talk to people. Ask them to help you. Say, “Can you help me?” That’s one of my doctrines.
I did a talk at De Montfort University. One of the students there sent me an email afterwards saying, “Can you help me?” Lauren Robinson, her name was. She’s now at Morrisons.
But it got my attention because it’s a doctrine. I’ll say that to young entrepreneurs. Always ask.
Say, “Can you help me? How can you help me get to the next level?”
Listen to people, and also, realise what you’re good at.
But more importantly, realise what you are rubbish at. I’m rubbish at most things, and I get people around me to do those.
What an amazing story. Thank-you so much, Byron.
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