Growing up in an entrepreneurial and business-minded family, it was only natural that this would rub off on James Eid.
A business management student at Lancaster University, the 19-year-old saw an opportunity in the very early, pre-lockdown days of the coronavirus pandemic and decided to buy and sell face masks on campus.
Since then, his small venture has expanded into Signature Masks, an online shop where he provides affordable face masks for all. He even donated masks to Beirut following the devastating port explosion that ripped through the Lebanese city two weeks ago.
In the beginning, James remembers selling “hundreds of masks”, but only made about five pounds.
“The masks were not expensive, and my prices were really low because I did not want to take advantage,” he told Retail Gazette.
“By the time I came to re-order masks from the same supplier, the price per mask had increased twenty-fold which really niggled me.”
Even before the real extent of Covid-19 was known, James would still visit his grandma and always wore a face mask as she has Behchets disease, making her immunosuppressed. However, as the virus was declared a pandemic and it quickly gripped the UK and much of the Europe, he discovered that not only were face masks suddenly so expensive but that they also were in such short supply.
“Even if I was willing to be ripped off, it would take weeks or months to get my masks delivered,” he recalled.
This was when James decided that, with the financial support of his family, he would open a manufacturing facility just north of London “to supply the UK market with low cost, quality face masks – and to be able to secure supply of these PPE products into the community in the event of a second wave of coronavirus”.
He describes Signature Masks as “civilian disposable face masks as well as high filtration, laboratory tested masks – the same specification as the Type IIR surgical grade masks”.
“We offer fair and honest prices with free delivery through our website; with no minimum order quantity or hidden costs,” he added.
“I feel that by introducing these high value, low cost masks I can make a real difference in countering the price gouging seen both in the UK and with imported products – especially as we enter Britain’s biggest recession since records began in 1955.”
James explained that by manufacturing in the UK using automated lines, he has been able to reduce the cost of labour as well as negotiating deals with logistics companies, hence allowing his online store to offer free delivery to customers.
“We make the savings and we pass these savings onto our customers – rather than profiteering off a tragedy like the pandemic, which many other companies have done and are still doing,” he said.
“I plan to make a fair and honest margin and will never take advantage by charging excessive prices for such a necessary item in today’s climate.”
Despite being only 19, James has already managed to use his business to help those in need. Soon after the explosion in Beirut, he has pledged thousands of Signature Masks to help with the relief effort.
“I am Lebanese by heritage, and if it were not for the coronavirus I would have actually been in Beirut for the summer when the tragedy took place,” he explained.
“Since I cannot be there personally to support relief effort, the least I could do is donate face coverings to those who are working so hard in my community to help with the immediate response and the subsequent recovery.
“I am only 19, so I have not necessarily had the opportunity or time to make a huge difference – however, with Signature Masks and the profits generated I would like to think that I am sufficiently active and will be able to make a positive impact in the event of such disasters.”
Signature Masks also works close to home supporting Behcet’s UK, a charity James feels strongly for, given his grandmother’s affliction with it. He has also donated thousands of masks to UK charities such as The Felix Project, “keeping them covered” while distributing millions of food items to Londoners who need support.
Some could assume juggling being a university student while being a business owner would be hard work. But James sees only positives.
“I am enjoying it very much,” he reflected.
“I am always busy, now typically working 18 hour days every day.
“Lockdown has meant that I have been unable to visit friends, but we stay connected through online video calls, sending memes on Instagram and funny selfies on Snapchat.
“All of my friends have been overwhelmingly supportive and it has kept me going during the low periods in my start up.”
Despite his successes, his business journey hasn’t been without obstacles.
“Every day there is a new challenge”
“I’ve learnt that there are highs and lows, and you just need to keep persevering until eventually, ‘Lady Luck’ will find you,” he said.
“You really need to appreciate the highs and not get overwhelmed when you face obstacles which might seem the be-all and end-all.”
He told Retail Gazette how one challenge which required a major shift in strategy was when Facebook introduced new rules which blocked the promotion of coronavirus-related products.
“I understand this policy was intended to reduce commercialisation of and profiteering from fear – but it was a blow when this blanket policy meant that good companies like Signature Masks were unable to advertise the great work we are doing,” he said.
“Nevertheless, we have been scaling up capacity quickly and are now able to sell into retailers.
“We have also started talks with major UK supermarkets who really appreciate the brilliant standards that we are operating to.
“This means that our low cost face masks can still reach our customers through various sales channels; online and offline.”
Since launching the business, a standout moment for James was when the first Signature Mask was made.
“Making my first Signature Mask was certainly one moment I will always remember,” he recalled.
“I actually have it framed at home, and it often reminds me to continue despite the many hurdles which present themselves.”
As the academic year edges closer, James said he plans to complete his business degree while continuing to focus on his business.
“I have learnt a great deal about this market and how to work with large retail organisations and would like to expand my product range with new innovative personal care products in the future,” he said.
“I have been involved in every aspect of my venture, including engineering and design, and I have some exciting new ideas to bring to the market.”