This is our brand new “Real Business” case study series. We are going to interview individuals whom we believe offer valuable insight into what it’s like to start up and run a business. Our very first victim is Alex Harrington-Griffin from printed.com.
We got to know Alex through our relationship with printed.com and discovered that prior to his current position as Partnerships Manager with them; Alex built up and sold his very own business, BusinessCrayon.com.
Founded by Alex in May 2011 (when only 27) BusinessCrayon.com was a B2B group-buying website that helped small businesses cut the time and risk of growing a business by introducing approved quality suppliers through exclusive first time offers. Suppliers were able to meet a handful of new clients in a short period, whilst only paying for genuine leads. Alex successfully sold the business in January to a competitor for an undisclosed fee.
Where did the idea for BusinessCrayon come from?
I left the job I was in for three years to start a business. I had the business plan in place and I had half the investment I needed. It was for a restaurant concept. Just before I was about to get the second part of the investment I got cold feet and decided it wasn’t the right business for me.
I was then interviewed by Groupon who gave me the idea. I thought the group-buying model made a lot of sense, probably more for businesses than for consumers. There is much more risk with a business spending money on new marketing, software and equipment than for a consumer buying restaurant vouchers or a massage.
Why did you not pursue the restaurant concept?
Passion is a huge part of it. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was passionate enough and that’s the thing that keeps you going through the long nights. I thought that it was a good experience at getting to that stage but it wasn’t the right time for me.
How did BusinessCrayon move from an idea to a reality?
The first part was going out and speaking to my friends about it. Don’t necessarily speak to people who you think are going to support the idea, speak to people who you think will pick holes in the idea. Negative people are sometimes the best people to speak to as they tell you things you don’t want to hear.
Once I felt that I’d ticked a lot of boxes and thought “there’s an opportunity here”, the next stage was to draft financial models. It’s about being prepared but at the same time recognising that there are so many entrepreneurs who have made so much money without 50 page business plans.
I put up a landing page on the day that I set up the company. Even though I was three months away from launching a working business, I had a landing page that allowed people to register. People signed up with their email address and gave an indication of what they’d be looking for. You then get the feedback. If 50% who land on the site leave their email then you know that they get what you’re trying to do.
Once the company was formed suppliers were the hard part. It involved a lot of asking friends if they knew someone. Trying to find suppliers in things you’re not experienced in is hard work.
How quickly did it take off?
It was a success very quickly and then it died down and I couldn’t work out why. It was a new business with no real branding and it started so strongly and then got quiet.
Then I had an idea for a competition about six weeks after I’d started and it just turned into this real big thing. It was all about partnerships and I thought this is going to work great for me, it’s going to work great for the partners and it’s going to work great for the customers. That gave me a real boost in profile and traffic.
Would you have been disillusioned if it weren’t for the strong start?
As a younger entrepreneur maybe, but having had experience with so many different businesses, I now know it can take a year or two to kick off. You’ve just got to be patient. You’ve got to have a plan in place. You’ve got to believe in your product.
What were the positives and negatives of working for yourself?
Positives. There’s a weird adrenaline when you run your own business. It’s a constant amount of energy. It’s incredible how long you can work and how long you can think about it. That’s an awesome feeling and I love it. I’ve had about 15 ideas in the past seven or eight years but when I had the feeling with BusinessCrayon it was overwhelming, I knew this was the one that I wanted to go with.
It’s a real insight into yourself, how you can handle different scenarios. I didn’t know this beforehand but I learnt that I’m a great project manager. I learnt that I can deal with a lot of things at once. You find things out about yourself that you never knew before.
The negatives. I didn’t take enough time away from the business. You get a bit obsessed. It’s your baby, you want it to do well and have the best chance in the world. I didn’t see my friends as much as I should have done and now in hindsight I should have just taken a day away from the business. I should have said every Saturday, “right, nothing to do with business, give your mind a bit of a break”. I think this is why when it came to sell it, it wasn’t quite relief, but I realised how exhausted I was.
One piece of advice for budding entrepreneurs
Test. There’s not an industry I can think of where you can’t test a concept to some extent. Even for your own sake to see if you like doing it. Are you passionate and can you do it? Also to find out if there’s a market for it. Do people want to buy it? Try and do as much testing of the concept for both your own sake and for your potential customers.
What lessons did you learn?
To be conservative about numbers. Be ambitious but don’t inflate the numbers too high because it’s depressing if you don’t get there.
To focus. A lot of ideas will come into your head but try to remember what you’re doing now. Be aware of opportunity but don’t go crazy and try to do everything that you come across.
You’ve got to say “no” to people sometimes. You’ve got to work out if it detracts from what you’re trying to achieve. As an entrepreneur your time is your money.
Did it go to plan?
My plan was to grow something that was UK wide and then explore international opportunities, but plans change. It was circumstance that made me sell it, I thought the market was going to go a certain way and I felt that looking at other opportunities I had available, selling was the better choice. It was a successful exit from an amazing experience and I’ve got some great “take aways” that I can take to the next opportunity.
Following BusinessCrayon Alex became Strategic Partnerships Manager at online print shop, printed.com.
How did you get involved with printed.com?
Printed.com’s recruitment team had come across some of the things I had done at BusinessCrayon and suggested I meet their founder. I was offered a position and loved where the company was heading, so joined them in February after a brief break.
Tell us a little bit about the company
With the UK’s first print reward programme, printed.com is perfectly suited to small and medium-sized businesses looking to order high quality print at the best possible prices. We offer over 35 print products, including business cards, leaflets, wedding and business stationery, bound documents, stickers and much more, all of which are ordered through the easy to use online shop.
What sets printed.com apart from your competition?
We offer the UK’s first print reward programme. We’re 99% green. There’s a “design central gallery” on our Facebook page for design buyers to meet designers for free. And there’s the printed.com “customer charter”; five promises we make to our customers.
A big thank you to Alex for taking the time to chat with us. If you would like any further information about printed.com just click the above links.
Read Alex’s blog here: Partnerships Marketing
This post was brought to you by Mathew Aitken at Companies Made Simple – The Simplest Company Formation Service
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