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30 traditional firms that leveraged tech and online to scale and take on big players

Scaling a business often requires significant change, and for many firms that means employing new technologies. As it pays to know what works before you start investing, Real Business partnered with Microsoft to find examples of companies that embraced digital to solve issues such as supply chain management.
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Access the full Microsoft 30 Digital Champions guide here

We pulled together 30 of what we determined to be Digital Champions – and what an awe-inspiring ride it’s been! From an alternative confectionery brand dedicated to putting marshmallows on the map, to a married couple with an aim of creating “the ultimate vodka,” we rounded up some of their comments on the digital means enabling them to take on big players – and the hurdles that needed to be overcome.

For example, after setting himself the goal of having a business turning over £5m within seven years, entrepreneur Joe Fogel explained he used a wide range of digital tools which helped VaioPak Group become successful. It’s certainly worked – the company sports a client list of major brands many in the industry can only dream of.

“While we are not a technology-based company, tech has become absolutely critical to every stage of the business,” he said, suggesting the only real challenge of implementing tech was keeping up with its pace of change. “The reality of how the majority of people network and converse now is via digital platforms. And by using such means during the proofing stages, the invoicing and the order confirmations, it enables us to send manufacturers an order within just hours of an initial digital based interaction. Where we work with a lot of branding/marketing agencies for example, which are usually on extremely tight deadlines, the speed of this processing from start to finish is absolutely crucial to both securing the business for the agencies and ourselves.”

Technology, it seems, has helped VaioPak Group overcome communication and networking barriers that otherwise may have existed. “We can now contact and communicate with our production facilities and customers in other countries very easily and cost effectively, and instantly share ideas and visuals very simply by the likes of Dropbox, WeTransfer and Skype,” he said. But the biggest benefits of digital to the company, Fogel suggested, was the fluidity, simplicity and synergy it offered.

Driving Cornish tourism and adventure with vintage Volkswagens

Meanwhile, events firm Chillisauce has achieved remarkable growth since being founded at the turn of the millennium, with founder and CEO James Baddiley alleging the use of technology had brought together suppliers and made the customer experience more memorable.

“We optimise our digital communications in order to engage with existing and new customers,” he said. “The goal is to share our ideas, products and what we stand for whilst building a community to connect with. Having a strong presence online is also very important to us, so we focus on SEO and ways to improve our site visibility. Online reviews are also a great asset. Your happy customers can share their great experiences with others and help you acquire new leads.”

But things haven’t always been easy. “When a business is growing fast, scaling it can be challenging,” Baddiley explained. Check out the video below to further view how a digital approach has been a real boost to the business.

There are more 30 Digital Champions videos that can be viewed here

Likewise, The Counter – a small coffee chain that’s tripled the size of its business in just 15 months through innovative thinking that includes setting up in police boxes – cited how technology was vital in creating a seamless service.

Co-founder Alastair MacFarlane told Real Business that working from police boxes meant encountering problems such as setting up WiFi and having the right electrical supplies. He said: “Opening a conventional coffee shop would have been easy. We’ve done things a bit differently and we are all the better for it. However, when you see a traditional business in an unusual setting, people automatically expect you to be behind with the times and not be up to date with the latest technology. That certainly isn’t the case with us and we have truly recognised its importance.

“Being up to date with technology gives us a certain professionalism that customers don’t expect from a police box coffee shop. At the beginning we struggled to find an affordable option that would enable us to accept card payments. After lots of searching, we found mobile payments system iZettle – which has made life far easier for our customers and helped create a service that competes with the best. Not only has it made our lives easier, it has also made our business look more professional especially in such a crowded space.”

For luxury shoe firm Augustus Pili founder Jalil Rahman, digital means were incorporated to help boost its mission: “I founded the company with a strong sense that although the perception of Britain as a heritage society remains, we take for granted the things that earned us that reputation. Creatively, I see Augustus Pili as the reincarnation of the English men’s shoe. If tradition needs renewal to keep it relevant, I believe we will have the authority to challenge it to inspire rather than define what a shoe can be.”

As such, the single most important aspect of building the brand has been engaging with customers. He said: “We are building digital into the DNA of the brand from the very first sale. I’m very excited by what going digital on an ‘old world’ industry will allow us to do. It’s already seen us use digital platforms such as Facebook to provide a true level playing field when it comes to global engagement and potential for conversions. I have also been able to take international orders from markets as far afield as Kuwait and Angola via Facebook Messenger.”

However, manufacturing luxury goods in the UK comes with a very expensive price, he said. Essentially, commercialising products has become more challenging given that there are other markets which are willing to pay a fraction of the price that most British firms charge. See the below video for more insight into the unique challenges a luxury shoe firm faces.

The pop-up cinema brand that started in the founder’s garden

Social media has been a large part of many a firm’s strategies, and confectionery brand Mallow & Marsh is no different. Founded in late 2013 to bring quality and innovation to the category, chief whisk Harriot Pleydell-Bouverie explained that every obstacle was a challenge to overcome and learn from.

“Over the past two years, we’ve hit every kind of problem – cash flow, lack of resources, the summer of ‘mushy mallows’ as I call it, which is when I realised for the first time that marshmallows melt like chocolate in heatwaves. And part of the steep learning curve was how key social media was in growing a business. It is the one way we can talk to our customers, get honest feedback and tell them what we are up to.

“I have also found systems like cloud accounting, cloud storage and business apps invaluable. They’ve helped me to grow organically and enabled us to work on a professional level but without being huge and cumbersome. I even use WhatsApp as the base of my board communication. It’s great.

“But one of the biggest hurdles for us is stock management, distribution and supply chain. Managing what is where, when and where it’s going is very difficult. We have a short shelf-life so we need to react very quickly. Through a variety of new systems, and crisp communication we have been able to set up processes that mean we now know exactly where everything is. We have a new barcode warehouse technology so we can track cases and have instant visibility on what is going on.”

Read more about the Dutch sisters building a British beverage brand and the hospitality firm that gained praise from Airbnb.

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About Author

Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is a senior reporter at Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

Real Business