How to take on the big boys

  • 18 Sep 2019

By Mark Livingstone, CEO of Pharmacy2U 

Even the smallest start-up can eclipse formidable competition. When I started with the movie delivery service LOVEFiLM in 2004 as CEO, it was a tiny operation. There were fewer than 5,000 subscribers, and daily dispatch envelopes were collected by a postman with a satchel. Around the same time, Blockbuster was a movie bemouth with stores all over country. Nobody gave us a chance. Yet online delivery was an opportunity to make movie watching easier. 

When I left LOVEFilm in August 2006, we were dispatching orders using 40ft articulated vehicles twice a day, before the business was later acquired by Amazon for a reported £200 million in 2011. 


Today as CEO of Pharmacy2U, the UK’s largest online pharmacy, I’m responsible for ensuring that over a quarter of a million NHS and private patients receive their repeat prescriptions every month. We’ve reinvented a business model that hasn’t changed since 1734, in which people went to a pharmacy and picked up their medication (assuming it was available) and waited ages in the store for their pills. The following are my tips for taking on the big boys: 

Keep it simple

 You don’t have to be a genius to run a company and grow a business quickly. You just have to be disciplined. Match demand with supply and customers will love your business. There is a horrible acronym, KISS (keep it simple, stupid), but there is no substitute for that.


At LOVEFiLM we had six daily performance indicators: the number of registrations; how many signed up for a free trial; how many of those converted into paying customers; how much it cost to acquire them, both through partners and our own media; how we were matching film supply to choice and driving customer satisfaction; and our stock holding. In real time I knew how many subscribers we had, how many sign-ups and how much it would cost to recruit those customers. These KPIs were all we discussed in our management meetings. 


A lesson hard-learned from a career specialising in fast-growth subscription businesses is the ability to prioritise tasks. Prioritisation is essential for dealing with the setbacks that come with high customer churn and logistically intensive companies. Simplify your processes and prioritise customers. 



Jeff Bezos puts customers first then runs his business around them. To be a customer-centric company, listen to what your customers are saying. My management team receives every Pharmacy2U review on Trustpilot. 

Mind your manners

The words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are so valuable in business. It’s amazing how many people don’t figure this out, because there’s really no substitute for politeness and decency in creating the relationships on which your business depends.   

Keep up with technology

Technology is changing the way businesses serve customers, across every single sector. At Pharmacy2U we’re using robotics to dispense an item of medication every second, which is necessary to serve our base of over 300,000 patients. It’s also vital to understand the innovations and technology which are important to our patients, so that we can enable them to order in the most convenient way to them. 

Invest in people

If you work with brilliant people, keep in touch. I worked with some great individuals at LOVEFiLM, and one of them wanted to raise money for what seemed like a wacky idea of mail-order fresh fruit delivery. He was having difficulty raising funds to back the business, so he came to me and other friends for help. We invested around £1.3 million. We believed in the person more than the idea, but we knew he was capable of delivering. His idea became a brilliant subscription snacks business called Graze. Your best asset is other people. 



Companies are like relay races: you need sprinters at the start, middle-stage diehards and great finishers. Different skillsets and attitudes are suited to the different challenges that come as a business grows.

I’m better at motivating smaller teams with a real focus on achieving fewer goals in a short space of time, but it’s not the skillset you necessarily require to run a more mature business. LOVEFiLM completed a merger and Simon Calver replaced me as chief executive. His skillset was very different to mine and he went on to lead the company to even greater success. Maintain a symbiotic relationship with your company and play to your strengths. 

In summary, technology has transformed industries from retail to healthcare and will continue to do so. By keeping things simple and focusing on your customers you can lead your sector. Just don’t forget to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ as you go!  

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