‘I just think I’m happiest blowing things up’
Marc Wileman’s Sublime Science parties and exhibitions have wowed over a million children since the company’s launch a decade ago. But now, as IoD award-winner Marc prepares to leave the business behind after its recent sale, we asked him, what’s next – and why sell?
Possibly befitting a scientist, Marc Wileman has a simple formula for business success: take a leaf out of the science lab rulebook and follow the old ‘predict -observe - explain’ strategy: you won’t go far wrong.
It’s a strategy he’s been happy to put into practice with the stunning success of Sublime Science, which has been delivering educational but fun science sessions to primary school-aged children for over a decade.
“I launched the business to put the fun back into science,” he said. “I really wanted children to engage with the subject, to have fun but to learn at the same time. I wanted to embed a love of the subject in them from an early age.”
The growth of Sublime Science has bee nothing short of phenomenal, with Marc growing it from start-up into a business that has now entertained and informed over a million children through its network of science teachers. Whether it is a party at your home or a fun session at your local school, Sublime Science’s combination of wacky, mad scientists, hands-on experiments and practical, authentic science lessons has been a winning one with children, parents and teachers.
But after a decade at the helm, founder Marc is handing over the reins to others after agreeing to sell. With such a success on his hands, it begs the question, why?
“It felt like the right thing to do. I’d been running the business for over a decade, we’d hit our milestone figure of a million children at our parties and the next step felt like it should be made by ‘serious’ business people, not me.
“I suppose it happens a lot with founderled businesses – I’m happiest meeting the kids, blowing things up and having a good time with them. That’s a lot more fun than wading through a balance sheet or drawing up expansion plans in a boardroom.”
It’s a stunningly honest admission that few other business leaders have made; that perhaps, the skills, knowledge and talent that led Marc to form Sublime Science in the first place didn’t necessarily mean he was the right man to take it forward.
“We’re looking at expanding and taking the brand international, making it a global name. There are better people to do that than me.”
So if we’re edging near to the end of Marc’s Sublime Science story, how did it begin?
“After I left university I spent some time travelling in Australia and while I was there, I worked for a company that went out into remote outback villages and taught science in schools. I’d drive for five hours to get to the school through an absolute wilderness, and then deliver the lessons from the back of a pick-up. We’d be teaching children in really small schools where the teachers just didn’t have time or resources to cover science. It was great fun.”
It also tapped into Marc’s lifetime love of science. “I had a masters in physics from Nottingham and studied in Toronto, too, so I’ve always been fascinated by the subject, but I’d also studied science communication and that helped me develop the best ways of getting the messages across.”
On his return to the UK, the fledging business began to take shape thanks to a loan from the Prince’s Trust of just £1,750. From little acorns… “I started off without a car, a phone or a computer – nothing. I spread the word about the parties by word of mouth.
“The best thing about it was that repeat business flowed in from the start.We’d have a party and 20 children would rush out with big smiles on their faces having had a great time, and badger their parents to host a party, too. It was like I had 20 Sublime Science ambassadors selling the parties after every event.”
That was back in 2008. By 2013 the business had grown significantly, with tens of thousands of satisfied customers – and Marc decided to raise the business’s profile, going on BBC’s Dragon’s Den.
His entry was remarkable, with a white-coated Marc firing smoke rings at the somewhat bemused Dragons. While at first assuming this was a joke act, the five potential investors soon realised Marc was a serious proposition, with Dragon stalwart Peter Jones admitting he was shocked by the figures Marc was quoting. It was no surprise when two of the five – Nick Jenkins of Moonpig.com and Sarah Willingham – came forward with the £50,000 Marc was looking for.
“It wasn’t just the investment I was after,” Marc admits. “I wanted the experience, the know-how. I was only 28 and I’d never had a proper job – just this one. I’d never worked anywhere so the company’s growth and direction was just my gut instinct. I wanted to bed down some stable foundations.”
The Dragons brought an over-arching business experience that built on Marc’s work, giving Sublime Science the sturdy base it needed for further expansion. “Nick and Sarah were great for me; it was a relationship that really worked.”
The lessons they brought convinced Marc that perhaps after all, business isn’t that complicated… “I don’t know anything about other businesses but it strikes me that all successful ones share certain characteristics: strong governance, great service standards, staff who want to go the extra mile. If you’ve got that, you are on your way to success.”
What attracted the Dragons was Marc’s enthusiasm and genuine desire to do some good – a feeling he maintains to this day.
“I always said Sublime Science set out to make the subject fun and to give children an insight into why science was something they should get involved with. It isn’t for everyone but we’ve got to try harder to embed a positive feeling about science into our young children. If you catch them early, you’ve got more chance of keeping them interested for life. And as I think we all appreciate now, having children leaving school with a good grasp of science is good news for the workforce.”
Some people could see the success of Sublime Science as a slight against the education system and the efforts of primary school teachers, but Marc does not think like that at all. “I think teachers do a great job. I’d never be critical of how much science they can teach at primary school. They work really hard but it is difficult to focus on science. They have to teach 10 topics,and no one is ever going to be an expert at everything; its impossible.
“They might come into teaching withan English degree – how are they going to teach chemistry or physics? 90 per cent of primary school-teachers don’t have a science background, and the curriculum pushes maths and English so time left for science is always going to be limited.”
Cost constraints don’t help, as science kit can be expensive – though as Marc points out “it’s possible to put on fun, interesting science lessons without breaking the bank. There are ‘101 awesomely fun science experiments’ you can do at home with just ‘stuff’ you’ve got in the home, on my website.”
Business leaders – particularly successful ones – are often linked by a common theme – a burning desire to bring their product or service to the public. Marc was no exception – indeed, his desire to make science fun for children always superseded thoughts of the potential financial reward the business might bring.
“I didn’t do this for the money. I never thought it would be this successful. I did it because I wanted children to experience the same burning desire to learn more about science that I did when I was young. That was what drove me from day one.”
So, given that, if he could go back through time and chat to his younger self as Sublime Science was starting out, would that fledgling businessman be shocked by its success? “Well, I’m a scientist first, so I’d be questioning the whole ‘time travel’ idea,” laughed Marc. “You do know it’s impossible, don’t you? But seriously, back in 2003, I’d never have believed I could have achieved so much. I’d be shocked. I’ve won IoD awards, the Queen’s Award, I’ve visited No 10 Downing Street, it’s been incredible.
“But I often find that people who start off with a great idea and just plough on with it, without thinking too much about how it’s going to develop and grow in the future, do the best.”
So what’s next? “I’ll still be working with Sublime Science for a while but I’ve a few other projects on the go. I’ve a book deal to work on, about science and getting children to try stuff at home, and I’m going to be doing some work with the Prince’s Trust.
“They were so important to getting me started and I want to go back and help the next generation of businesses off the ground.
“It’s such a great organisation for young entrepreneurs – I’d recommend all IoD members check it out and see if they can get involved.”