David Cowell, managing director at Promo2u tells us how they help businesses create products that bring their brands to life for their staff & customers.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
David Cowell: My family and I have been very fortunate not to lose any loved ones apart from our aging Cocker Spaniel Monty during the pandemic, our work dried up, and that reduced the amount of money we had coming in, but if there has been one major learning in all of this, it has been to help us focus on what is truly important in our lives. For my wife and I, it is not money, and it is the more simple things that perhaps we previously took for granted, taking the dog for a walk, meeting a friend for a coffee, getting together with friends, getting a haircut, and generally helping people as we did at work. At the beginning of all this, I did attempt to grow my first beard, and my daughter said it was a bit salt and pepper (so much grey), but I loved it. After a few weeks, I found it itchy, so I decided to take it off in stages, creating many different faces over many days for a giggle – something we all needed in that early phase of being couped up together. As a team doing puzzles and having wild conservatory parties every week, we pulled well together, doing (badly) TikTok dances to my kids’ horror. In a way, you could say at the beginning it was a chance to spend more time together than we have in years.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Promo2u.
David Cowell: I have worked in printing since leaving school at 16. With little focus on education, I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I was lucky to fall into a role dealing with people as a customer contact which I loved. I trained in all aspects of printing, completing an apprenticeship then moving into management from the early age of 20. I have only ever worked for three companies in my life before deciding I could set up my own back in the year 2000. Initially, I was helping a German print management agency have a presence in the UK whilst managing their work with UK manufacturers. We helped our customers with all aspects of marketing print, sometimes I needed to purchase promotional items, but it seemed like every time I needed 500 stress balls, I needed the stress balls to get me through the process of buying them. Also, nobody seemed to know what they were made of and if they were safe for kids, allergies, etc. The market was fragmented, and there was no clear way for me to work directly with the manufacturers. Having seen this as a gap in the market, at the end of 2007, I launched Promo2u, focusing on selling sustainable promotional products sourced directly from manufacturers for business owners and marketing professionals in and around London.
How does Promo2u innovate?
David Cowell: We work closely with our customers and attend events both in the UK and internationally, showcasing promotional products and printing techniques. This ensures we are constantly finding on-trend and new products that can help our customers keep top of mind. We also have an in-house studio that keeps up to date on technology. They can visualize customers’ products helping us develop concepts and deliver innovation through the use of printing technology as well as cool products. An example of this was to provide our top transport customer with an online punch-out ordering system for name badges. We built our own cloud-based system that can be customized to work with any customer’s software (initially, it was Software AG’s SAP, but we can integrate with Oracle and more as we own the code and have an open API policy). This portal allows the customers to be working on their internal system, select a badge via a catalog link, personalize it, approve it, and then confirm the delivery address. The system then sends them back to their own software where they can raise the purchase order, and once the order is approved, it is collected from a secure FTP server (checked every 15mins) auto-matched to the order in our system, which then sends an order confirmation to our customers, tracks and notifies the customer when the items are shipped and delivers the invoice directly into the customer’s procurement system, saving hours of admin through automation. It is not all about the products, but how we deliver them.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
David Cowell: Coronavirus has dramatically reduced the events side of our business, taking over 2/3 of our work away over the last 12 months. Fortunately, we had learned to be financially strong, preferring to have excellent cash reserves to support our customers after our experience back in 2012 when we won an order for the London Olympics. I will never forget that experience as we had two business bank accounts (limited company accounts). I was so excited to have secured an order for the Olympics worth c.£150k. The problem for us was, we were only turning over c£250k, and pa I was going to need some cash to finance the orders. I wrote to the two banks and neither replied, I chased up and got pushed from one call center to the next when eventually a computer decided we were not worthy and said no loan even though I had a purchase order from the GLA and had always run a positive cash balance in the accounts. So since then, we have always kept at least four months overhead in the business and as much in reserve via the Directors loan account to ensure we do not have to rely on the banks, ever. We also learned to ask for money and got around the problem by invoicing proforma and telling the customer why (yes, we named and shamed the banks). Alan Sugar once told me businesses need to learn to cut their cloth according to their measure. This has never been truer than today.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
David Cowell: Yes, during my career, I have had to fire people and let them go when I really have not wanted to. Something I personally hate is when they leave because you have trained them so well they have outgrown the position, and you cannot offer them their next step. In the small businesses I have worked in and run, the team is like family, so when they have to leave the nest, it is hard to let go. Recently the young lady who worked for me handed in her notice to go and work for a competitor business to reduce the traveling after moving further away, and I was very disappointed but proud she had really developed and would continue to grow in a much larger company, and had found a new industry she loved to work in. Unfortunately, whilst working her notice the pandemic hit. The company offering her the position had to withdraw, meaning that at the end of the month, she would find herself unemployed. This was the first lockdown, orders were canceled, and it was unclear if the business would survive what lay ahead. The lady asked if she could stay on, and in the chaos of understanding furlough, the advice I was given was to not have her back. As time went on, the media were suggesting that companies could take back employees and legitimately put them on Furlough as they were not entitled to any other government support, having made themselves jobless. After continued consideration and a lot of time reviewing the business and the options being offered by the government, I went to a second and then third advisor. They too recommended what was best for the business was to not take back the employee as we could have to make them redundant if the work did not return. The young lady was furious at me and posted some stuff on social media about her situation calling for all businesses to support their workers, which surprised me and showed the extent of her desperation. I continued to try and find a solution as it did not seem right to me that no support was available for people caught between jobs. One night I was having a chat with a friend of mine about the situation, and it suddenly came to me that the issue was not if I could have her back; it was if I would be unable to terminate the arrangement at no cost to the business should I need to. So the next day, I agreed with my HR advisor that we could extend the notice period and review as time went by. I did take her back on, and it felt good to help someone who had been a loyal employee for many years. The lesson learned was that advisors are always going to lean towards what is the safest and best thing for the business. Sometimes you need to look more simplistically at things and decide what is right and try that. You can always change it later.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
David Cowell: Wow – such a great question, our customer relationship management is simple. Do what is right for your customer at all times. We have focused on providing an efficient on-time service, helping with ideas, and executing the production and delivery of all print and promotional items in a professional way. We are so bad at then keeping in touch with our customers, but thankfully they come back. I hope its because we are a small family business, running an honest and professional service, but perhaps we should ask them and start making the time to do what we know works, say thank you 🙂
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
David Cowell: Yes, we were fortunate to obtain a grant at our premises as well as take advantage of the Furlough offered by the government whilst all events were canceled, which had a massive impact on orders. Without both these grant payments and the bounceback loan we took, we would most certainly have had to close the business and seek other work for ourselves to survive. Both my wife and I rely on our income from the business as well as feeling a massive commitment to our employees, so the stress of potentially losing not only our business/income but that of people who rely on us for work was colossal and very much eased when we received the support.
Your final thought?
David Cowell: So what now? I know it seems crazy right, the UK is closed with no events, no face-to-face meetings, and half of its workers are at home doing pajama zoom, so the last thing on people’s minds is investing in promotional swag. Well, let me tell you a little secret, we are helping customers with sustainable goods right now, together we have devised ways to use promotional products to really maximize their return, successfully integrating branded merchandise into virtual events and seeing a whole new way to engage with people at home, at work, via live streaming. We have adapted and developed new products. We are the lucky ones, the survivors who focused on helping our customers through the storm. Throughout this crisis, we have all been in the same storm, but we have definitely not been in the same boat. I now look forward to the opportunities re-building our business will offer both our customers and us as we see an end to this as the summer approaches full steam ahead.