High Streets Initiative · 22 November 2018

The high street’s saviour? How a 16-year old vaping pioneer built a £1m business

MIST founder Fred Cassman

In 2008, a year into the UK’s indoor smoking ban, the concept of vaping was almost unheard of. Bar a handful of entrepreneurial individuals selling electronic cigarettes in nightclubs and online, the market was still simmering beneath the surface. Nobody predicted the £1bn goldrush ten years on.

Back then, Fred Cassman was just 16 years old when his Mum bought an electronic cigarette over the internet, but the would-be entrepreneur was instantly fascinated. Almost a decade on, the founder has built an impressive customer-centric vape brand, MIST.

Since launching in 2011, Cassman’s business has expanded to three bricks and mortar stores, with its strong online presence enabling growing international sales. With MIST now hitting £1m annual turnover, Business Advice caught up with Cassman to hear about his entrepreneurial journey.

  1. Where did the idea for your business come from?

I first discovered vaping in 2008/9 when my Mum watched a news piece about electronic cigarettes on BBC. She purchased one online, and although the product wasn’t amazing, I thought the concept was fascinating. I wanted to read everything I could find on the topic, so I started to research online, obsessively.

  1. What makes your business unique?

Vaping is a highly competitive industry, so you have to find ways to stand out. My biggest focus with MIST ensuring we stock the best products.

There are hundreds of new products released to the market every month, so it can be incredibly difficult for people to navigate this, and find the right product that suits their needs.

Our website is highly informative and user-friendly, making it incredibly easy for new users and seasoned vapers to navigate and find suitable products on our site – we approach things in exactly the same way across our high street stores.

One of MIST’s Brighton stores
  1. What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

The first things I check are daily sales, gross and net profits, and cash flow.

I tend to keep a close eye on daily product sales to ensure I know what is selling and if there is anything trending. I also keep a close eye on the traffic that’s coming to the website, and what pages/products are seeing the most engagement and conversions.

“The best piece of advice I can give is to ask a lot of questions and seek answers from the right people.”

Vaping: The high street saviour?
• 381 new tobacconists in 2017
• Sales increased 50% in 2016 to £1bn
• Most smokers buy in-store
  1. To what extent does your business trade internationally?

Currently, about 5% of our turnover is generated from international trade. The majority of which is coming from Scandinavia (particularly Norway and Finland).

The market for UK e liquids is huge, especially in Asia. This is something we are looking into getting more involved with further down the line, but right now we are focusing on the UK.

  1. What has been the biggest challenge for your business?

There have been multiple challenges since starting MIST. The biggest challenge was the passing of the Tobacco Products Directive in 2016.

These new regulations caused a real stir in our industry, and at one point I thought they could put an end to the company entirely! We had to invest a lot of time and money, and if we hadn’t had the support of our suppliers, 50% of our range would no longer be available.

  1. Have you made any mistakes along the way?

Absolutely! My biggest mistake was playing it safe in the early years.

MIST was my first business, and I was just 16 at the time, so I didn’t understand quite how big this opportunity was. I didn’t listen to my intuition, and things could have been ramped up if we had secured funding early on.

As a result, I have learned to trust myself, listen to my intuition when it kicks in, and take more risks; even when it feels scary!

  1. What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to start their own business?

The best piece of advice I can give is to ask a lot of questions and seek answers from the right people. The way I did this was through industry forums. This is a fantastic way to tap into the “behind the scenes” areas of your market; find out what people want, want they’re missing, what they think could be done better etc.

The infancy stages of your business are the most important, so I would also advise that you experiment (experiment a lot!) before you finally commit to anything, you will know when it feels right.

Finally, remember that the customer always knows best!

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  1. Executive education or learn it on the job?

I’m a big advocate of learning on the job. Although it can be scary, especially when going into things with a lack of experience, but I have found that the best way to grow, both professionally and personally, is by making mistakes and learning from them. 

  1. What one thing do you wish you’d known when you started?

I was only 16 when I started MIST, so I really lacked experience. If I could do things again, I would have found a business mentor. However, as I have mentioned above; the best way to learn is by making mistakes! 

  1. What would you be doing if you weren’t running your own business?

If I weren’t running MIST, I would love to be part of a business incubator. I’d like to help small companies by offering support and guidance from my own research and experiences.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Simon Caldwell is deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and communications from the University of Liverpool, and has previously worked as a content editor in local government and the ecommerce industry.

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