YOU may not believe it’s possible to run a multi-million business unless you’ve got years of training and a degree – but Oliver Cookson did exactly that with just one GCSE.
After leaving school at 16, he went from part-time work selling pies at Manchester City’s ground on match days, earning £15 for a shift, to far greater things.
At 36, he was named the UK’s "number one self-made millionaire under 40", with a net worth of £306million.
It followed the sale of his Myprotein business to The HUT Group, an e-commerce technology company in 2011.
Aged 44, he currently splits his time between Manchester and Monaco and is due to launch a new nutrition business later this month.
But life hasn’t always been this way.
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Oliver told The Sun: “I grew up with my parents in a bedsit in Stretford, just outside Manchester city centre, one of the more deprived areas at the time.
"Dad was a used car dealer. Mum worked as a secretary.”
The family moved to Bury in north Manchester when Oliver was around six months old, and then again, to Heald Green, when he turned four.
“I didn’t go to nursery and was an only child, so had mostly adults for company,” he said.
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“Moving around meant lots of upheaval.
"Every time I made a connection with new friends, we moved.
"The first few years of my life were full of isolation and instability – along with a boatload of dreams.”
At just eight years old, Oliver knew what he wanted to do.
“My mum found a note that I’d written, saying: ‘One day, I hope I become a great businessman.”
When his parents split, this had a big financial impact.
“I was living with mum and she struggled to make ends meet,” said Oliver.
“Around the same time, I started getting interested in gaming, consoles and technology.
"But with money being tight, I couldn’t afford to buy anything fancy.”
This is when Oliver’s entrepreneurial spirit first shone through, as he started buying second-hand low-spec Windows-based PCs, and using the skills he’d learned from a neighbour to upcycle them.
“It was never my intention to flip PCs for money,” he said. “But that’s how the situation evolved.
"My friends got to know that I was handy with computers, so it was only a matter of time before I started helping people out.
"I didn’t always charge mates for repairs, but had recognised an opportunity to make money.”
Oliver’s side hustle went from strength to strength, and before long he was buying several second-hand computers at once, improving them, re-advertising them, and making a healthy profit with every sale.
“Business was booming,” he said.
“Even at a young age, I quickly realised when and how I was at my most productive.
"I wasn’t academic, but I had ambition, ability and drive.”
It started with an apprenticeship
Oliver left school at 16.
He said: “I had one GCSE in science, and a character reference that said I was a bright kid with potential.”
As well as selling pies at Manchester City matches, Oliver’s other jobs at the time included pulling pints at what is now the Manchester Arena, as well as working late into the night in a kebab shop in Stockport.
While working here, he saw an advert in a nearby careers shop for a modern apprenticeship in computing and software development at a firm called Pantek.
Oliver said: “The problem was, the company was only considering applications from those with a minimum number of GCSEs at grade C or above.
"With my grades, they weren’t even going to look at my application form.”
However, the bosses of Pantek called the school for a reference and then asked Oliver to come in.
More determined than ever, Oliver went to the interview and was able to persuade Pantek to take him on by demonstrating his clear passion for computers.
“In my time at the firm, I was gaining valuable experience in the workplace,” he said.
“I was also going to Stockport College on a day release basis to study a Level 3 NVQ in Network Computer Operations – and later, a BTEC in Software Creation.”
In addition, Pantek provided its own training courses.
“As I wasn’t going to be able to get a degree, I knew I had to capitalise on my gift for spotting opportunities and making money from them,” said Oliver.
“I soon realised I drew more confidence from the workplace than from school books. I felt I could succeed without academia.”
In all, Oliver stayed at Pantek for three years.
From here, he quickly progressed to become a self-taught contact website developer.
“I had taught myself various programming languages from books,” he said.
“This took me all over the UK, including one stint in offices in Kendal, in the Lake District, and another in a motorcycle insurance firm in Bristol.”
Oliver quickly adapted to the life of a contractor – and being his own boss.
He said: “You are absolutely dropped in at the deep end, but the remuneration makes up for the pressure.
"In fact, I was able to have a sabbatical in Australia for a spell. I was also able to save for a house deposit.”
Oliver worked as a contractor for four years, until he was 23.
He then took a full-time job as a web developer with 3T Productions, a software house.
On the side, in 2004, Oliver decided to capitalise on his love of fitness and nutrition, and embarked on launching a sports supplement idea.
“Body-building became an all-consuming passion,” said the businessman.
“It wasn’t just a hobby to me, it was a way of life.
"Looking back on things now, I can see how my obsession with it was just another manifestation of the same traits that helped me to succeed in business.”
As he deepened his knowledge of nutrition, he got drawn towards supplements.
“I’d been using them for around two years and was seeing the benefits,” said Oliver.
“But they were expensive. Whenever I’d consider using one, I’d read the blurb and study the nutritional values table to find out the benefits, and assess its value versus its cost.”
After having a "moment of clarity" when drinking his pre-bed shake one night in his mum’s kitchen, he started to read up on an ingredient called whey protein.
“Once I understood how these protein supplements were made, my curiosity went into overdrive,” he said.
“I asked if there was a better way of doing this – a quicker and less expensive way.”
This was the start of Oliver’s journey into making his own protein powder, with the aim of offering it more cheaply than other providers.
“This was my eureka moment,” he said.
“But then I needed funding to help buy even just a sack of whey powder. HSBC refused me a £5,000 start-up loan.
"I got the same answer at NatWest – though they did offer to extend my overdraft from £150 to £500.”
While Oliver was grateful for this, he still needed more than £1,300 toget started, so decided to approach the dairies directly.
After a lot of knock-backs, he was able to strike a deal with one of them.
“The agreement was that I had to buy two sacks of whey, and be back within a week to buy two more, or he would never sell to me again,” said Oliver.
“Within a week, I had converted those two sacks of whey into sales, and doubled my money.”
This was to lay the foundations for a multi-million pound company.
“I was one of the first to build an online sports nutrition brand,” he said.
“The whole business was me at first. I blended it, flavoured it, marketed it online and sold it via e-commerce.
"I also did the fulfilment, and all the aftercare customer service. Every day we had more orders.”
At that point, Oliver had to expand the start-up with more systems and specialist staff – including his mum.
“She was employee number one,” said Oliver. “Having the business online was key.
"And, my passion not only for body-building, but also for IT and programming, gave me a real advantage – as did my obsessive-level knowledge of both.”
With huge amounts of hard work and determination, Oliver built the business up to trading in six countries with 100,000 customers and a large staff.
In 2011, Oliver sold Myprotein to The Hut Group in a deal worth £58million in cash – plus shares in the group.
Those shares earned him another estimated £283million when The Hut Group debuted on the stock market in 2020.
“It was hard graft, but incredibly satisfying,” said Oliver.
“I don’t even think of it as work, it’s just life. From starting the company to selling it, it was everything.
"But when the money landed in my account, it wasn’t as if I’d won the lottery.
"Weirdly, it made no difference to me in a way. It looks sudden, but it isn’t.
"From day one I’ve seen the orders go up, the sales climb higher and so on. It just feels like another step.”
Oliver's top tips for starting a business
For anyone keen to start their own business, Oliver’s biggest tip is to have passion.
“Successful entrepreneurs need it,” he said.
“You can teach people many skills, but you can’t give someone passion.
"You’ll need it to help you ride the highs and pull you through the lows in your journey.”
He is also a big advocate of being productive.
“I hate wasting time,” said Oliver. “I love contributing to the world. I’ve always enjoyed feeling as though I’m using my time well.”
Being a "social chameleon" is also helpful, he adds.
“You need to be able to relate to young and old, skilled and unskilled staff, customers and high-finance buyers.
"Being able to adapt to different people is a great skill.”
Another of Oliver’s top tips is being a ‘trend-spotter.”
“I’ve always been able to spot patterns by paying attention to changes taking place now, and how they relate to what has happened before.
"If you see them earlier than everyone else, you have the chance to stay ahead.”
Finally, he adds that ‘curiosity is key.’
“Had I not been curious about whey, how would any of this have happened?
"Questioning presents you with more possibilities when you need the solution to a problem.
"Curiosity broadens your mind. But you don’t need a degree to have it.”
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