How We Grew Our Corporate Gifting Platform To $2M/Year

$260,000
revenue/mo
3
Founders
30
Employees
product
Bookblock
from London
started October 2014
$260,000
revenue/mo
3
Founders
30
Employees
786K
alexa rank
5.63K
followers
312
followers
sales

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hi, I’m Tom Strickland and I co-founded Bookblock. We’re a gifting business and manufacturers, creating anything from candles to chocolate to stationery, along with personalised cards and children’s books, which we sell through our gifting platform online.

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We began as notebook manufacturers, which is currently the mainstay of our business, but as time went on we’ve branched out into many new areas and see our growth mostly coming through our new gifting platform. We aim to be a one-stop shop if you need to send a gift and a card to someone, whether they be friends and family or a work colleague.

We currently have an annual turnover of £2m, and this is predominantly down to our corporate manufacturing arm rather than the new consumer arm which is about to take off.

how-we-grew-our-corporate-gifting-platform-to-2m-year

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

In 2010-11 I was just out of University and I took some financial exams. I realised very quickly that finance was not the way forward for me, but I did enjoy the world of entrepreneurism and business, so I decided this was the path to take.

In 2014 we decided it was time to quietly let Monsieur Notebook go, set up our own factory, and rebrand the business to focus on corporate gift manufacture.

This was around the time that Moleskine, the little black notebook, was really taking off around the world. I looked at their product and brand and thought it was such a simple, but well-executed, idea.

I decided to launch a real leather notebook at a similar price to the Moleskine, the reasoning being that for many people a side by side comparison would result in the customer choosing the leather book rather than a plastic covered one, like Moleskine. As a simple product it would also be easy to distribute globally.

how-we-grew-our-corporate-gifting-platform-to-2m-year

how-we-grew-our-corporate-gifting-platform-to-2m-year

Initial tests were good, selling at a few markets and some local London shops. Even with slightly dodgy prototypes, which varied from batch to batch, the product was popular, so I launched the brand Monsieur Notebook. The brand was playful, and an antidote to the seriousness of the Moleskine brand.

Monsieur Notebook sold in Waterstones, the largest UK book retailer, by the end of 2012. However supply-chain problems caused that business ultimately to fail. We could not manufacture the product at a price where we could maintain quality with third-party suppliers.

In the process of trying, however, we ended up manufacturing a lot of corporate notebooks for businesses that were not strictly the ‘Monsieur Notebook’ that was found on shop shelves.

In 2014 we decided it was time to quietly let Monsieur Notebook go, set up our own factory, and rebrand the business to focus on corporate gift manufacture.

And thus Bookblock was born.

As Bookblock has grown we have pivoted the business and are starting to focus more on the consumer market, but this was borne from our background in manufacturing quality products.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

The original Monsieur Notebook was an incredibly simple product that I had originally designed whilst travelling in India. With most notebooks a very thin bit of leather is stretched over cardboard, but this loses the supple nature of real leather, and ultimately lots of customers cannot tell the difference between leather and plastic.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Whilst I set up my business in my early-20s, it really took all of my 20s worth of set-backs and failure, and a lot of family and friends’ support, to pop out into the 30s with a viable business.

The Monsieur had a single piece of thick hide that had been skived on the spine to make it soft. It felt, looked and smelled like real leather. Whilst it was a lovely product we couldn’t make it sufficiently profitable. However, by trying to manufacture it we were exposed to all kinds of stationery manufacturing, and we gradually picked things up, which led to us becoming first experts in how books are manufactured, and then experts in actually manufacturing them.

Once we’d made the Monsieur Notebook, manufacturing products for Bookblock became a lot easier. Whilst leather is lovely to work with it can also be a nightmare, and we couldn’t make the notebook profitable.

We moved back to conventional materials for Bookblock, and spent more time on the design and style of the book, rather than fighting with unorthodox substrates.

Describe the process of launching the business.

I launched the notebook business in my early 20s and really didn’t have a clue what I was doing. There was a lot of trial and error, especially with basic things like accounts. Fortunately I picked things up quite quickly and had some accounting help from the family, so I got through OK. I was mostly interested in branding and manufacturing rather than the bureaucracy!

Over the years I picked up skills across leather manufacture, stationery, packaging and all sorts of other consumer products. Once I’d got my head around that, it became clear that selling was the harder part. The trouble lots of businesses face trying to sell consumer products is that most routes to market are very hard to get into.

If you are looking to sell to shops you often have to deal with huge discounts, bad credit terms and unfeasible requests such as the ability to return unsold stock. As a business we decided that the best way to sell our own products was to create our own route to market.

Fortunately for us we pivoted quite smoothly. In early 2015 it became apparent that the Monsieur was slowing down, but we found that lots of customers were coming to us for branded notebooks, not knowing where else to go. We commissioned Stefan, who is now a partner in the business, to build us a new website. We then went to find a new manufacturer for us, this time in Turkey, and gave it another shot.

We got lucky in Turkey. Although we worked with some pretty ropey suppliers, we managed to build up bit by bit, until finally we could set up our own factory. Things got a lot easier after that.

Fast forward to 2017, and we could begin to see that notebooks would not have infinite growth forever. We then realised we needed to be prepared, and started to branch out into other products, and in that process we came across the idea for the gifting platform.

It seems like a large leap, from manufacturing notebooks to a gifting platform, but the move is logical to us. We have the expertise in making, and then selling, something. Our gifting platform is, in our opinion, simply a more organised route to market. We treat everything as a gift, whether corporate or for an individual, and though you may need to twist the marketing slightly the core principles are the same.

From late 2017 onwards, over the course of a year, we gradually built our gifting platform, hiring in more and more designers, developers, photographers and illustrators. Ultimately the best way to learn is by doing, and whilst we may not have grown at the quickest rate we’re confident we’ve laid the right groundwork.

how-we-grew-our-corporate-gifting-platform-to-2m-year

We’ve now split off the notebook business to become ‘Bookblock Office’, whilst our gifting platform is ‘Bookblock.com’. The target market for the former is corporates and office, whilst the latter is 25-45 women. Although that’s a large leap in human terms, the concept of gifting remains the same, and given the nature of media businesses and modern marketing agencies, visually they’re very similar.

Fortunately all those years learning how to manufacture notebooks has really paid off and we’re one of the leading suppliers in the UK. The business is profitable, and has allowed us to grow the consumer side of the business organically, reinvesting profits to fund other business avenues. In 2014 we raised £93.5k through Crowdcube, and took out a loan of £130k in 2018 to fund working capital, but aside from this we’ve gone from £65k turnover in y/e 2014 to £2m y/e 2018 with no other outside investment.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

The most important thing for us has been to innovate and maintain our levels of quality. In our factory we have 2 or 3 quality controllers inspecting very product going out.

As manufacturers we have to have an eye for design, and we regularly attend trade shows to keep an eye on the competition and make sure we stay one step ahead. Precision, attention to detail etc. etc. There is no quick fix when it comes to maintaining quality.

The fact that we have a monopoly in the UK on manufacturing notebooks helps a lot!

We’re only just launching our gifting platform now, but aside from a great brand and service, we’ve sought to create some fantastic hooks in the form of offers through our subscription service.

how-we-grew-our-corporate-gifting-platform-to-2m-year

Our oldest competitor, for example, in the personalised gift market is Moonpig.com. They’ve been around for nearly 20 years, and they make the majority of their money selling a personalised greetings card for £3.25 + postage.

Our plan as a business is to allow a customer to send an unlimited amount of cards for £7.99 + postage. This means that once the subscription is paid for a customer only needs to pay for an additional stamp to send an additional card.

This is part of our acquisition and retention strategy - the idea being that a customer is much more likely to buy other products from us if they keep visiting our site to make the most of their subscription. We’re really looking to provide value for money on a superb service.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

As mentioned the corporate side of the business is profitable, and has funded the consumer side.

We had some bad luck on the consumer side just before Christmas last year, where the warehouse we hired space off went into administration, which caused us to pack up all of our equipment and stock just as we’d launched. We lost a lot of money this way, and it set back our plans by a number of months.

Fortunately the corporate side of the business was plenty strong enough to withstand this shock, and we’re now moving into our own warehouse so that we do not have to rely on third parties and can really make the most of our opportunities.

We are looking to raise a substantial sum of money to grow the business, however this spend will mostly be designated to marketing, rather than operations, which we now have sorted. The collapse before Christmas was an eye-opener, but ultimately it has worked out for the better as we started with a blank slate.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Throughout my time in business a popular mantra has been to maintain a lean business, outsourcing wherever possible and keeping your own team small and slick, ready to react to changes and pivot if need be.

However, having run a manufacturing business in some form or another for the past decade I can assure you that ‘if you want it done right, do it yourself’.

You’ll really know that you’ve made it if you can hand over the reins to someone else and delegate effectively. However, when you’re in start-up mode there often simply isn’t the opportunity to do this without risking your whole business.

This isn’t to say that you can’t run a lean business, but you really have to stay on top of people, especially in manufacturing, as you won’t have the processes in place to guarantee that your wishes are followed at every step of the way.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

For our corporate business we found that old-fashioned email and google sheets were actually the best way to keep on top of our clients as most CRMs were overkill, and we’d spend too much time dealing with the platform instead of just talking to clients.

For the consumer business, however, we will be using Salesforce as there will be a jump from 30-40 clients a month to thousands of customers almost overnight!

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

From an entrepreneurial sense one of the first, and better books, I read was from Duncan Bannatyne. I doubt he actually wrote it, but it did seem to make a few worthy points, mostly that a lot of business is common sense and just about joining the dots.

Don’t overcomplicate it. It also taught me the phrase ‘fag-packet maths’, which tells you that if you buy something for x and sell it for y, and there’s enough profit in the form of z knocking about, the business might be a goer.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Go for it. Just make sure you have enough money behind you and that you’re prepared for the stress that comes with it.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Whilst I set up my business in my early-20s, it really took all of my 20s worth of set-backs and failure, and a lot of family and friends’ support, to pop out into the 30s with a viable business.

Sure, we got unlucky with third party manufacturers in our early years, but it's the experience that has won out. At 31 I wouldn’t make the same decisions that I made at 21. I’d be mad too.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We’re always looking to hire, particularly on the creative side. We’re always looking for writers, illustrators, designers to send in their CVs.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
Tom Strickland,   Founder of Bookblock

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