Tom Greenwood of Wholegrain Digital tells us about London’s design led WordPress agency for positive businesses and charities.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Tom Greenwood: I’m very lucky, to be honest. So far most people I know have been healthy and my life has been disrupted a lot less than many people so I am very grateful for that. It’s been strange and I miss seeing people, but I am fortunate to live in the countryside where there is plenty of space to get outside and enjoy nature.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Wholegrain Digital.
Tom Greenwood: I studied product design at university and wrote my thesis on sustainable design. I worked for a few years in design and engineering but was itching to make a difference by using design to help create a more sustainable world.
In 2007, my wife Vineeta and I decided to start our own agency to help positive organizations use design and technology for good. It was just the two of us at first and we both made the leap from the design and engineering of physical products to the world of digital design. Our goal was to see whether we could create a truly sustainable business that had a positive impact on the world, and we believed that there was an opportunity to use design thinking and digital technology to achieve that.
How does Wholegrain Digital innovate?
Tom Greenwood: We innovate by constantly asking ourselves difficult questions, about the world of work, our relationship with the natural environment, our clients and wider society. By having a clear mission to guide us, and a passion to continuously improve, we are able to keep finding better ways of doing business and opportunities to help push ourselves and our industry forward.
For example, by asking ourselves the question “Is digital technology is really good for the environment?”, we ended up researching the topic in-depth, building the world’s first carbon calculator for websites and pioneering new tools and techniques to design and build energy-efficient web services. I even ended up writing a book, Sustainable Web Design, to share what we had learned.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Tom Greenwood: As a digital agency we have so far been lucky to be in an industry that has been both in demand, and allowed to operate during the pandemic. Some of our clients have faced serious financial challenges and that has been a challenge for us too, but we’ve been fortunate enough to have been in a sufficiently resilient financial position that we could help those clients who were really in financial trouble.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources and what are the lessons learned?
Tom Greenwood: At the beginning of the pandemic we had to imagine what a worst-case scenario would look like and we decided that our top priority was protecting the job security of the whole team, so we temporarily stopped our own salaries as directors and held back on discretionary expenses to build up a bigger cash buffer. This has thankfully meant that so far, we have not had to make anyone redundant or put any team members on furlough.
In some ways we’ve then ended up having the opposite challenge, that we have had a lot of demand for our services, we have been conscious that many of our team have had a pretty high workload in recent months, yet we have to be extra cautious about growing the company at such an uncertain time. We’re trying to find the perfect balance but it’s not easy.
What we have learned is that when the finances of the business and the difficult decisions faced are discussed openly as a team, everyone pitches in together to get through the challenges collaboratively. Transparency has been one of our greatest strengths and has brought us closer together as a team.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Tom Greenwood: We were already well geared up for home working as everyone at Wholegrain Digital has been doing this at least some of the time since the company was founded. However, there are some things that we would ordinarily do in person with clients like discovery workshops, that had to be moved online.
The online whiteboard tool Miro has been a real asset in making that possible and clients have adapted to it really well.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Tom Greenwood: We made a conscious decision to maximize our cashflow position and not apply for any grants unless we truly needed them. Thankfully we have so far managed without any grants.
Your final thoughts?
Tom Greenwood: I think it’s important to recognize that like many businesses that have faired well so far through the pandemic, it is mostly luck that we happen to be in a resilient industry and we should pause to be grateful for that.
There are some things we have done that helped maximize our resilience though and that I think are good principles to carry beyond the pandemic. These are to put our people first, prioritize cash flow as the lifeblood of the business, and to pursue ever greater levels of transparency in our team culture. We did these things already, but we’ve really doubled down on them in the past 12 months and we have seen the benefits.