This is a case study featured in our From inmates to entrepreneurs report. Click here for the full report page
LJ Flanders’ promising future as an entrepreneur appeared to have met a premature end when he was sentenced to 14 months at Pentonville prison in 2011. While studying music business and management, he had begun setting up a company called Gig Trader that would enable fans to trade unwanted tickets with each other
Illegal touting was a big concern at the time, and LJ felt there was room for an alternative to existing platforms like Seatwave and Viagogo that extract a hefty premium. A month prior to his sentencing he had met with Sharon Hodgson MP at the Houses of Parliament to discuss the problem, but now found himself locked up in a tiny cell “with no light at the end of the tunnel”. LJ recalls watching a documentary on ticket touting while at Pentonville, and how it made him feel: “I was sure that Gig Trader would have been featured if I hadn’t gone to prison.”
LJ says the moment he committed his crime is mostly a blur. “I had never been involved in a life of crime, until one moment of madness and getting into a fight changed my life for good. After getting over the initial shock of being in prison, LJ begin to think about how to use his time productively, and decided he would become as fit as possible. Things weren’t promising at first, as LJ was kept in his cell for 22 hours a day – “I didn’t know what a ‘Cell Workout’ was back then” – but eventually he managed to sign up for a personal training course that taught him a great deal about getting into shape. As soon as LJ finished the course, other prisoners wanted to know what he had picked up, which gave him the idea of creating an exercise manual for prison.
“I was full of ideas and wanted to do some research, but couldn’t as there is no Internet in prison, which was very frustrating. Instead I shared my idea with my girlfriend and family on the phone, and they told me that nothing like the book I had in mind existed yet.” That was enough to convince LJ to get started, and he began working on the book in his cell, sketching hundreds of pages worth of exercise diagrams and workout instructions. Although writing a book as a self-described “borderline dyslexic” was a challenge, he kept himself motivated by reminding himself of the importance of what he was doing. “On a human level, many people in prison are really struggling, with problems such as mental illness or drug addiction. But exercise is the best drug there is, and once your body starts releasing those endorphins, things always seem to get a little better.”
“Before I knew it, I was standing outside the prison gates. I had heard from others how easy it is to lose track of one’s goals after release, so I did everything to make sure that wouldn’t happen – I knew how much people inside needed that book.” Just two weeks later, LJ was hired as a personal trainer at Virgin Active in Essex, after being honest with the manager about his record and convincing him he was right for the job. He spent two years there, working hard and building up a loyal client base, while working on his “Cell Workout” book in his spare time. LJ was initially quoted £25k by a publisher for producing his book – which also meant getting only 10% of each sale and “losing control”, as he puts it – which forced him to get creative, recruiting student photographers and designers to help him put his book together. “I called up LCC college, told them about my project, and asked if they had a photographer who might be interested. It just so happened that a student of theirs [Drew Sheeran] was specialised in bodybuilding photography, and he immediately wanted to be involved. He did an amazing job taking the images of me that are in the book and we remain firm friends.”
LJ sold his first book a year ago [In April 2015], and since then has sold over 1400 copies on his website [cell-workout.com] and through Amazon. He has been featured in the Telegraph, was a recent guest on the Jeremy Vine Show, and has seen interest in his book from places as varied as Mexico, Canada and Turkey. He’s been back to prison several times to speak about both his personal experience and exercise regime, and has even been told by several prison librarians that “Cell Workout” is the most popular book in stock – “it’s constantly going missing!”.
LJ concedes you can “only earn so much selling books”, and is now working on plans for separate equipment and protein supplement ranges. His ultimate goal is to sell his book directly to prisoners – currently they can only get it sent via friends or family – and continue to deliver his workshops in prisons. He’s struggled so far to get high-level support for his ideas, but is confident that it is only a matter of time. “At least they got rid of that stupid book ban”.