Ben Allan, Head of Sales at Pufferfish tells us how they challenge flat technology by opening up a world of possibilities for better communication.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Ben Allan: It’s been extremely challenging, and also quite worrying, but in the midst of it all there’s been the opportunity to spend more time with one another, and to realize there are new ways of going about the business of being a family. Whether that be teaching Grandparents how to use Zoom, or doing virtual quizzes and virtual play dates with the kids. Family life adapts and goes on!
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Pufferfish.
Ben Allan: I was at Edinburgh University with the 2 founders of the company, and took a special interest in their final year project which involved gluing together plastic and projecting on to it in the basement of a Uni building. What sparked my interest was the immersive and interactive projection spaces. I quickly became fascinated by the idea, and what could be done with this kind of display.
I was living with one of the Founders at the time and was working in a job that really frustrated me, and so one day he said ‘work for us, and let’s see what we can do!’ – and that was it. I originally joined to do marketing, but that quickly evolved into doing the job the first Charmian told me I might be good at – but nobody liked the people who did it – Which was Sales! I’ve been with the company since just after our first sale, and at the point where we started building the team, and the concepts for what would become the main offering of Pufferfish today.
Our products and service offering has changed over the years, it’s moved from large format technology for events, parties, and festivals, to being a smaller format interactive technology for those same markets, and a much wider range of highly evolved sectors from corporate to museums.
It would be true to say that at the heart of what drove the passion of the business from my perspective, has been the potential power of the displays to engage people and delight them. It started to be mixed with a genuine sense that we could aid people’s understanding of really important processes going on in the world through data visualization of climate and environmental data. And that is something we found once we started to build these displays. We never set out to build globes! Will, Ollie, and I were drawn to the technology by default, but the nature of our spherical designs was (and are) really powerful. That formed the mission we have today.
How does Pufferfish innovate?
Ben Allan: It’s actually a mix of iterative learning and development, and sort of novel thinking. Although it’s all driven by market demand and customers, sometimes it’s been driven by the sheer will to do something new. To test something, to try something, and I think it’s that blend of the 2 that makes us who we are. Our software and services are driven by where we can generate traction and deliver value, but also the extraordinary nature of what we do can be driven by sometimes a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of technology and engagement.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Ben Allan: We make some of the world’s most novel touch displays, and they are aimed at a market that is characterized by high-end installations; whether for temporary events and conferences, or high-profile public spaces from museums to visitor centers and immersive business environments. So, that means that both our technology and our markets have been uniquely challenged amid a pandemic where concern over touching displays is only outweighed by the fact that the spaces in which they are deployed, are no longer operational. It’s been extremely challenging.
However, we have continued to engage with clients in all our main sectors throughout the pandemic; many of whom are undeterred about planning for the future, and many of whom we have been able to engage with around innovative solutions that improve their installations – not only in light of the pandemic but also in more general terms.
We are also really delighted to have been able to undertake a new level of innovation during this time, in creating our Wake platform. We have successfully brought some of the skillsets, discipline, and thinking that we deliver through our physical displays to an online platform that acts as a tool for mitigating some of the immediate circumstances of the pandemic; and adds value to us as a company and our client base as they plan into the future.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources and what are the lessons learned?
Ben Allan: One of our achievements we can be most proud of, is we got through this together. Whilst we haven’t been able to make new hires as we had planned, we haven’t had to reduce the size of the team due to the economic impacts of the virus. We have also found that we have been able to keep working together remotely throughout, and in doing that, retain the special dynamic and ethos of Pufferfish throughout the adversity. We now have new expansion plans for the year ahead too, so we continue to look ahead!
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Ben Allan: We have always been a business that is working to fairly low volume, high-end projects; and over the years our customer development has been conducted largely by having high attention to customer relationships on an individual basis. Cultivating those relationships has always been a key focus while remembering that the sectors we work in are relatively small globally, and we need to treat those networks as unique communities where we want to build a reputation and have repeat work. The fact we are still thriving today with a product as we have is a testament to the relationships we’ve had since the start.
As we’ve grown over the years, we have of course gained a bigger client base; and it’s become more important than ever to be in regular communication through many means. Those include consistent marketing and communications to our network, whether that be through social media, mailers, and other outbound efforts, managing our CRM – Zoho, and also introducing Project Management tools like Asana that help us work with continuity across the team.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Ben Allan: Over the history of the business, we have been lucky enough to have Scottish Enterprise as a major supporter – in various guises – over the years. In the immediate virus situation, we decided to keep the team working, so we haven’t needed to rely on government funding.
Now we appear to be coming out of it however, we are looking at various funding opportunities for innovation, and for developing our Partnership network into new avenues globally.
Your final thoughts?
Ben Allan: Some advice for new start-ups and fellow businesses – Firstly, put customer relations at the heart of what you do. Know your customers, and not superficially, but establish a relationship based on trust.
For individuals in a start-up, where it’s not clear how far you can go as a company, always try to be indispensable.
With regard to innovation, try to understand the wider context for your innovations. If you believe in it, don’t let others tell you that you don’t know what you know, or that you aren’t right to believe in it. Have faith in your ideas, and have the confidence to continue to test that faith so it has a basis in reality.
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