A lot has changed in the world of business since 1998. Arguably what hasn’t changed is what makes good businesses great. This is what the Growing Business Awards has continued to celebrate and support over the last two decades.
In preparation for this milestone, Real Business held an event dedicated to past winners of the UK’s longest standing business awards for growth-minded entrepreneurs. The Festival of Ideas saw over 120 entrepreneurs running companies as varied and diverse as the UK’s business landscape itself.
Some of the biggest names in entrepreneurship were recognised and celebrated early on in their growth journey. We called them back to talk through their growth stories, challenges and hopes for the future.
Where did they all get started?
These brands are now household names – but they all had to start somewhere.
Mayhew recalled how Go Ape was launched with a generous pinch of “blind faith” with bookings being scheduled on a mobile phone – but 16 years on there are 32 locations around the UK, and several in the US, too.
According to Fletcher, the first graze box was sent out on the day Lehman Brothers collapsed, but the effect of technology on the food industry has been phenomenal and the business has really utilised that to achieve success.
You may remember that Trunki was memorably featured on Dragon’s Den 12 years ago, where Law was made an offer – £100,000 for 50% of the business. He politely declined. It was a difficult start – luggage manufacturers told him he’d invented a toy, and toy manufacturers told him he’d invested luggage – but Law knew his idea was solid and kept ploughing away. Thank goodness he did – the brand has since gained over 100 awards from the nursery, toy, design and business sectors from all over the world.
Riding the wave
As prominent as these businesses are, to what extent do the entrepreneurs believe their businesses are having a moment of being fashionable? For Mayhew, this is certainly something to bear in mind.
“It’s all about the bragging rights,” she said. “The ‘experience thing’ is really interesting… it’s not just about the experience, it’s about it being new and different.”
She knows there are those out there that see new experiences as attractive, but once they’ve done that and ticked that box, they’re already moving on to something else. The challenge is to keep them coming back, which is why Go Ape is constantly innovating. For example, launching in cities to offer beautiful views of cityscapes for climbers.
Fletcher likewise agreed it is good to be mindful of changing consumer behaviour, but as graze is an online business interacting directly with customers, it has a wealth of consumer data to use to its advantage.
“You can see how quickly the products are rising and falling,” he said. For example, he can see that plant protein is popular in the US, and a growing trend in the UK.
Travel has also become increasingly popular with the general public, which Law has been able to use to his advantage. However, there have been ups and downs – Law launched the business as low-cost airlines were really starting to make their mark on the UK travel industry, but that same year the government banned hand luggage. Of course, as there are more airports opening up around the world, Law’s opportunities for international growth are accelerating.
Despite these remarkable growth stories, there is no denying economically it has been a tough time in the UK. The panel shared how this has influenced their businesses in recent years.
Mayhew believes people are being more cautious. People still want to have experiences and do things, but “currently people are holding back from spending, it has to be a special occasion and it’s much more last minute.” Essentially, she thinks consumers are less prone to taking risks.
Businesses are also struggling with cost inflations – Fletcher cited minimum wage, Brexit, FX challenges and the apprenticeship levy as current causes for concern for businesses.
He argued that the costs can’t be passed on to the customer, so businesses need to find ways to manage that while still delivering growth.
With regards Brexit, while there are still many things we don’t know, Fletcher also spoke about how this uncertainty can negatively affect recruitment and worry the workforce. However, while there are challenges, there are also opportunities – Law’s business has actually benefitted from the currency fluctuations as Trunki manufactures its products in Plymouth.
Making your mark
All of the panellists have their competitors, and in some cases have had to find ways to tackle copy-cat businesses. Graze has around 40 direct global competitors, and Fletcher warned that if you make it to a retail environment and do well, you risk opening up a new competitor stream in the form of the supermarket’s own brands. His solution is to be better, to outperform the supermarket brands and convince the consumers that your product is worth paying that bit extra for.
Mayhew argues that differentiating your business is “all about the emotional connection, the reputation, how people feel about you as a brand”. In this respect, really nailing your company culture early on is crucial.
Knowing what your consumers want from you and what new regions will expect from your business when it begins exporting can be tricky to get right, and Fletcher advocates going online first so “you can flex overnight should you want to”. Once you’ve found the right way to position yourself, the right branding and culture, you can take a more traditional route.
Fortunately, the word Trunki translates well, and doesn’t mean anything rude in the countries Law exports to. All of the business’ marketing is digital – most of its sales come through mums, so it targets them on social media platforms.
Social media may feel as though it has been around forever, but it is something a lot of businesses have had to adapt to. While it has opened up so many new sales avenues, Fletcher argued it also means brands no longer have anywhere to hide – although he personally enjoys the pressure of social media and believes it motivates the team.
Go Ape meanwhile relies on a lot of word-of-mouth marketing – but this is clearly working, as a quick polling of the audience found most of the room had been to a Go Ape experience.
All of these businesses have made their mark in their own way. They are household names; many people have had experiences with these businesses and bought their products. They are fantastic examples of our Real Business Growing Business Awards alumni – and clearly demonstrate the many paths a growing business story can take.
Don’t miss the opportunity to share your business’ latest achievements. Nominations for the 20th Amazon Growing Business Awards open July 2018.
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