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Doing things differently at Bromford Lab. Because saying you’re different isn’t enough

We caught up with the team at Bromford Lab to understand the challenges to innovating in a large and traditional organisation. The Lab works across Bromford, a Housing Association of 30,000 homes, to reimagine services, inspire new thinking and design new ways of working.

It seems that all organisations these days are talking about innovation. It’s true of all sectors, but perhaps one of the fastest growing in it’s thirst for innovation is the public and social facing sector, which is seeing a huge rise in the number of teams being setup to ‘drive change’ and ‘promote new working cultures’. But, often the same organisations who are calling for such teams, are at the same time internally confused about why or how they will work; often overlooking the fact that meaningful innovation is disruptive by its nature and the impact that disruption will likely make on the fabric of the organisation.

We wanted to make sure that when we started upon our own journey of innovation we understood this impact, so we spent around a year scoping out what an Innovation Lab at Bromford might look like. We could see that there was a need to create a space for other colleagues to think differently about the problems they faced and come up with new types of solutions which could help drive the business forward, but the form that this took was set to evolve over time. Often, colleagues were having ideas, but increasingly found that they had no way of taking them forward, or even worse, took them forward without understanding how they fitted with the rest of organisational strategy.

“It’s fair to say that [as an organisation] our focus on doing the right things for our customers has sometimes meant we followed our hearts rather than our heads – designing services around gut feelings, instincts and myths, rather than data, analytics and research.” Philippa Jones, Chief Executive, Bromford

The problem the Lab was set up to fix was that innovation was random and unfocused at Bromford. It happened at will, and there wasn’t a resource to nurture and protect new ideas from colleagues. We describe it as ‘initiative-itis’- there was an initiative for lots of things – but they didn’t always solve the right problem and weren’t always effective. Bromford Lab was launched back in 2014 as a place to nurture innovation. The Lab was founded using Jeff Bezos’ principle of being a Two Pizza Team, that teams shouldn’t be larger than two pizzas can feed. Small teams make it easier to communicate more effectively and encourage high autonomy and innovation. Since then we have been working across the business to help colleagues capture, frame and realise their ideas, with no pressure to force bad ideas to work. In fact, failing and failing fast was one of our founding principles. Over the past few years the lab approach has evolved. These days our Insight team (data analysis and research) and Innovation work closely together, and that has been important learning for us. Working off instincts is an important part of the design process, they can often give us a position to start from, but when we make judgments based on instincts alone, without the evidence to back them up, all we are really doing is making judgments based on what we think we know.

Back in the early days we tried a lot of things that we would never have been able to do before we set up the lab. From Google Glass to Drones and Smart Homes to Loneliness, the spirit of the lab was to get on and try things out. These speculative tests provided a lot of learning about the future of our business and the future direction of work, and we were able to use that learning to help colleagues start to design better, more informed services. But a side effect of our different way of working was becoming known as the team who have the ‘wacky ideas’. This is both a blessing and a curse, because as anyone working in a social facing creative role knows, the lab is about more than ‘wacky ideas’, it’s about social impact. In early 2017, Bromford were about to embark on one of their biggest challenges to date, an organisation wide transformation programme called ‘Bromford 2point0’. The big question we were asking ourselves was how we could use this opportunity to embed the lab approach to innovation into the DNA of Bromford, whilst at the same time keeping true to the independent intent of the Lab?

Innovation & Organisational Change

The Lab has been asked to play a key role in Bromford 2point0, which is great because one of the things we have learned is that innovation cannot scale if it doesn’t have a place within organisational strategy. Alongside the organisational transformation programme, Bromford are also in the process of moving to a localities based approach to working. Our Housing Managers are taking on new roles as Neighbourhood Coaches – a £3.5 million approach developed in the Lab – and we’re reducing the size of their patches from around 500-750 homes to around 175 homes. We recognise the benefits that getting to know our customers better can bring. We also know that we can’t design services that our customers both need and

will engage with, without understanding more about their lives and without involving them in the design process. Making decisions based on what we think we know can be dangerous and costly. If we understand people’s needs and wants we can make decisions based on insight, both quantitative and qualitative. That’s important because if we just think we know, all we are doing is making stuff up. The Lab is actually, therefore, the antithesis of an ivory tower; what we are doing is moving Bromford to a position where everything we do is based on some form of evidence and customer insight. We have a great opportunity to pick up weak signals from our communities and act upon them in a way that will help us provide services which meet the needs of our communities.

What’s our advice to others who are developing innovation in a traditional/ large organisation?

Create design thinking organisations

  • Part of the role of an in-house designer has to be to help colleagues spot opportunities, but we also need to help them understand the best way to exploit them. Not every improvement needs to be run as a formal design project, but enabling colleagues to understand the key principles of design thinking will help ensure that any changes they make are customer focused and considered as part of a wider ecosystem; promoting the evolution of the organisation rather than its mutation.

Start with problems not solutions

  • Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle. There’s a lack of penetration into the root causes of problems as most of our organisations have a cultural bias for execution over thorough problem definition. Innovation is all about getting better at being wrong. However it must be founded in a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve.

Nurture creativity

  • Organisations that are serious about designing great services understand the need to provide creative spaces, inspirational spaces and different ways of working. Creativity isn’t like a tap that can be turned on and off. You can’t just be creative when someone asks you to be. Creative space isn’t a luxury (physical and mental), it’s a necessity. After all, how can people think outside of the box if they are locked up inside it?

Autonomy over projects

  • As in-house innovators we need to find the projects that can really benefit from design input and then do them well. But we have also learned not to expect to run every design project through each stage of the double diamond. Even if this should be the case, practically it just isn’t always possible within the bureaucratic project frameworks of large organisations. It is true that there is indeed a balance to be found between taking a pragmatic, flexible approach to design and watering down the impact design can have.

Link with policy

  • Solutions simply cannot scale if they don’t have a place within organisational strategy. As part of our organisational change work with Bromford 2point0 we have a growing pipeline of exploration areas, tests, and design challenges, but in order to be sure that we are working on the right things, we must have a clear idea of how the work we are doing feeds into the 2point0 programme strategy.

Measure and Communicate success

  • In-house creative teams are a precious resource and we need to prove that we add value. Often when working on preventive services, it’s hard to prove that an intervention you designed will achieve a better outcome without access to a DeLorean fitted with a flux capacitor. We need to work with the people in the organisation that have the right skills to help us work through the data, but also challenge the organisation to look at different types of metrics, and work with them in order to design them, rather than against them.

Don’t keep talking about it – try it

  • Most of us can’t tell if we like something or not by reading about it in a report. We need to see it, feel it and experience it. That’s why the Lab focuses on what we call ‘tests’. Tests are typically time-limited, minimal resource and therefore low risk. The whole principle is to get things in front of people as soon as possible to reduce spending time and money on potential failures.

Fast failure is good risk management

  • The biggest barrier in most organisations is risk aversion – so anticipate this in advance. Show that you acknowledge risk and have put as much cotton wool around your idea as possible. Governance teams can be your greatest enemies or biggest friends

Be ruthless pulling the plug

  • Not every idea or project is destined for success. Stopping a project is a difficult decision but in certain cases, it’s inevitable. Making things work artificially is not always in the interests of the customer or the company. You need to know when to pull the plug early to avoid spending more money on well-intentioned vanity projects.

You cant save the world on your own

  • Labs should get better at sharing their knowledge and collaborating on projects. The problems we are seeking to address, certainly in the public and social sectors are wicked by nature, and because wicked problems transcend organisations and sectors, no single organisation can solve a given problem on their own. The solution lies in creating effective networks that work together to transcend silos. Labs should link up with each other in order to share, learn and exploit opportunities to improve social outcomes for all our populations.

Grandpa on a skateboard: innovation in a regulated world

We caught up with Tim Farmer last month to find out more about his business and ask his advice for anyone else trying to innovate or do something new in a marketplace steeped in tradition, rules and regulation.

Advancements in medical research and care mean that we are living longer – often with many different and complex conditions. This means that more people are also living with a reduced mental capacity to make decisions in their own best interests. If you are concerned about someone’s decision-making capacity, then you can request a mental capacity assessment. Currently, the average time for an assessment from a GP is four months and the standard of report is often poor.

Tim, a registered mental health nurse with over 20 year’s experience of working with individuals with reduced capacity was appalled by the length of time this sort of assessment can take. When someone requests a mental capacity assessment it is often when they are at crisis point and four months is just too long. Tim set up the, now multi-award winning, TSF Consultants to do something about it.

“The why is simple – I wanted to find a better way of doing it”

In 2011 Tim was working for the NHS and he was troubled by the four-month lead time for mental capacity assessments. He also felt that generally the quality of assessments was poor and did not always put the needs of the vulnerable individual at the centre of the process. He thought he could do better. He started to float his idea with friends and colleagues.

Tim was told it wouldn’t work. Mental Capacity Assessments are traditionally carried out by doctors – not nurses. “I was unconventional because I was “just a nurse” A friend told Tim “With all due respect, as a Consultant Psychiatrist I’m the gold standard. You’re just a nurse and will only ever be, at best, “bronze” Ouch.

“What do I need to do?”

Tim asked his friend Dave Nicholds, a solicitor, for advice on setting up a business to provide quicker and better mental capacity assessments. Dave knew the sector and was also not afraid to challenge Tim. His first question was “Can you do them?” (yes) followed by “Is there a reason why you can’t?” (no).

Tim drafted a letter to solicitors outlining the offer of a more compassionate, better quality and fast mental capacity assessment service. His aim was to reduce the lead time from four months to a week. Dave edited the copy to a more legal language that solicitors were familiar with. They posted the letters. Then they waited.

Three solicitors were interested. Tim met them and proved what he promised in his letter by completing a high-quality mental capacity assessment for them quickly. At the same time, he started to increase his profile by writing articles for leading journals. He used LinkedIn to connect with and meet key people in the field explaining what he could do to help them. Over time this approach gained momentum.

“We set out to provide the assessment in a week. Due to our current workload, we currently average two weeks, it means we have had to revise our target, but it’s still a hell of a lot quicker than the GP’”

Tim and Dave still meet at least once a month to talk through challenges, new ideas and successes. Tim has also added a mentor, Jeremy Nottingham to his list of confidants and finds “both these sounding boards are essential. They constantly challenge me, help me focus on the immediate issues and plan for the longer term. They are also great support for when things go wrong or don’t quite turn out the way I planned!”.

My evidence is as good as theirs.

The Court of Protection is a specialist Court that deals solely with issues relating to mental capacity. Every application to the Court requires a mental capacity assessment.

Tim encountered many barriers to presenting assessments in court, primarily because he was ‘just a nurse’ and he was trying to change a traditional and ingrained belief system – that doctors were the only people who could do mental capacity assessments and be a representative in the Court of Protection.

Healthcare, like many professions, is victim to traditional stereotypes and egos, some jobs are revered more than others and the disparity between the status of nurses and doctors couldn’t be bigger.

Tim had to overcome prejudice and demonstrate that his evidence was as good as a doctor’s evidence. He started with small simple assessments to prove he could do it and then moved to more complex assessments. At the same time, he built networks of high-quality assessors across the UK. He purposefully recruited unconventional healthcare professionals, for example, nurses and speech and language therapists. He is now recognised as one of the leading experts in the field and works alongside government bodies and industry accreditation boards. He is also an award-winning author and expert witness.

“My evidence is good enough to get to court so why not good enough to be considered by the court?”

In October 2015, the guidelines for giving evidence in the Court of Protection were changed from ‘medical practitioner’ to someone with ‘suitable experience’

Now TSF Consultants have over 40 assessors across the UK. 99% of all assessments occur in the individual’s home at a time of their choosing, helping to ensure they feel safe and they can be at their optimum during the assessment.

TSF consultants are continuing to push boundaries. They are now developing a product to challenge the finance sector to make mental capacity assessments at the point of lending to help protect people from taking on unmanageable debt and an academy to teach healthcare professionals to conduct mental capacity assessments to a high standard that puts the person at the centre.

“There will always be naysayer’s whatever industry you are in – that’s why your own belief is important”

Tim has tackled a lot of challenges in setting up TSF Consultants. They constantly change their approach to get around obstacles. Tim’s feels his knowledge of Martial Arts has come in handy. “In martial arts, we often talk about water. I approach any challenge like water approaches an obstacle. When water comes up against something in its path it either seeks out an alternative route, a nook to pass through or a different way around or it simply waits until it’s build up enough momentum to go over the top.”

Everything TSF Consultants do is built from Tim’s original driver of providing a service that puts the needs of the person requiring the mental capacity assessment first and getting the right outcomes for vulnerable people.

Tim’s advice for anyone trying to innovate about anything is…

  • Understand why it’s important to you. Know your values and drivers and stay true to them. Make sure as you develop your products and services you always come back to why you are doing it.
  • Find allies – people who can be a sounding board, have insight into the topic and have also got your back.
  • It’s a roller coaster ride. It’s fantastic when you are up there and very isolating when you are not. You have to be resilient to get through the low times.
  • All good business books say “surround yourself with people who are better than you” but it’s hard when you don’t have money. Identify and prioritise the key areas that you need help with.
  • Ideas and products develop over time, understand what people want and evolve, develop and fine-tune.
  • Don’t be afraid to voice your own opinion.
  • Listen to the people who challenge you and overcome their objections. You can use this response to counter the next person with the same objection. If you can answer one objection you can answer them all.
  • Don’t give up – if the first incarnation doesn’t work then find a different way. There will be a different way and it’s up to you to find it.
  • Just do it – get out there and do it. Better to try and fail than not to give it a try. “Trying and failing results in learning. Failing to try results in a lifetime of regret”.
  • Expect it to go wrong at some point.
  • Don’t be scared. Have faith in yourself. Be brave.

Tim is the founder of TSF Consultants, a registered mental health nurse with 20 year’s experience and author of the bestselling book Grandpa on a skateboard.

Would £26,000 motivate you to have a good idea?

My dad, Stan Gower started working as a sheet metal worker for British Airways in 1974. We lived about 7 miles from Heathrow and I remember he used to avoid the traffic jams by driving there and back every day on a Lambretta scooter.

In 1988, British Airways was in a period of change after its privatisation the previous year. When they re-launched their staff suggestion scheme called Brainwaves, it was heralded as one of the biggest and most successful company savings and suggestions schemes in Britain at the time.

According to a British Airways staff news supplement the Brainwaves re-launch, was designed to give a fresh boost to the scheme and encourage all staff, and in particular more people from non-technical areas to get involved. The top award was doubled from £5,000 to £10,000 and the application process made more user-friendly. They also pledged to speed up response processing times to just six weeks! Their target was to save £2million over 12 months. That was big money back then.*

Brainstorm your way to a £10,000 bonus

Stan Gower likes a challenge and I expect the “Brainstorm your way to a £10,000 bonus” headline in the staff paper piqued his interest. (£10,000 is worth about £26,000 in today’s money)

Before joining British Airways Stan had worked in small companies where he was used to finding alternative ways to making a job more efficient. This is especially motivating when you are paid on the quantity and quality of your output.

Stan was the first British Airways employee to win the top prize of £10,000 for his brainwave.

Stan was spending a lot of time on a recurring problem with a Rolls Royce RB211 engine used on Boeing 747s. In laymen’s terms a bit of the engine called the ‘front bellows’ was subject to rubbing from other pipes located next to it and practically every time an engine went into the workshops the front bellows of the engine had to be replaced at great cost. Apparently the job was called ‘the trouser leg job’ in the workshop owing to the shape!

Stan’s first suggestion was to bend the offending pipe out of the way. However, experts in engineering disagreed. It’s fair to say that Stan doesn’t like being told ‘no’ and wouldn’t let it rest there so he went off to think of another solution.

His winning idea was to fit a protective cover over the front bellows. It was trialled for a year and it worked so well that front bellows replacement is now rarely necessary.

“When it comes to changing something in a large organisation, not only do you have to have the idea – having recognised the problem but also sufficient tenacity to see it through because you have to jump through hoops, whereas in other, smaller places you just get on with it.”

Below is Stan with British Airways Chairman, Sir Colin Marshall receiving his certificate. The Gower’s went on a nice holiday that year.

Over the years the British Airways employee suggestion scheme received 100’s of ideas. Small ideas like descaling the toilet pipes on planes, making them lighter and saving fuel, replacing glass wine bottles with plastic bottles, washing/cleaning the engines more regularly, switching to lighter catering trolleys and cargo containers and the introduction of lighter cutlery have added up to save the company over £20million.

However, since the 1980’s, research into employee motivation has meant that employee suggestion schemes have evolved, many are moving away from the monetary reward ‘carrot and stick’ approach and focusing on how to inspire employees.

For example Dan Pink, author of books about work, management, and behavioural science uncovered a surprising truth about what motivates us.

The British Airways Brainwaves scheme is a typical way to reward top performance ideas; where ideas that have more impact on profitability get bigger rewards. Dan found that this works up to a point. His findings show that it works as long as the task involves mechanical skill – like Stan’s work in smaller companies where you get paid on your output. However, once the task involves creative or conceptual thinking monetary rewards actually lead to poorer performance.

Let’s be clear that money is a motivator, in that people have to be paid enough. If people are underpaid they struggle to be motivated. However Dan Pinks findings, as well as that of other sociologists, psychologists and behavioural economists indicate that the true key to motivation lies in three interconnected areas.

  1. Autonomy – the permission to be self-directed in your work and your development. When managers get out of the way and let you get the work done in the way that you want to.
  2. Mastery – this is our urge to get better at stuff, why we practice sports, music, writing or whatever it is that we want to master.
  3. Purpose – how we make a contribution, whether that’s making life better for customers or for co-workers. Having purpose makes coming to work better, attracts talent and over time research has shown, leads to profit.

For more check out Dan Pinks RSA animate film.

Who knows what happened to the Brainwaves scheme. Does it still exist or did it evolve? It’s been impossible to talk with anyone at British Airways about how they approach innovation. If you are reading this and can help please do get in touch.

*That’s just over £5million in real terms today.

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Consistent persistence and travelling solo

I frequently travel on my own for work. I enjoy it, but there are moments when at the end of a long day I just don’t want the effort of humouring waiting staff who don’t know how to behave around a woman travelling on their own. In my experience we’re either ignored, are over attended to or are treated to wry amusement mixed with pity.

I’ve had some amazing solo trips including, diving in the Red Sea, driving across Australian deserts and exploring floating markets in Vietnam, but I do make different decisions when I’m travelling on my own because I’m always thinking about my own safety.

There is a lot of joy in solo travel but sometimes when you feel unsafe and opt for room service over exploring the local eateries it can feel like a missed opportunity.

That’s why I particularly enjoyed speaking to Carolyn Pearson recently, a kindred spirit, solo world traveller and founder of Maiden Voyage, a business that supports lone women travellers.

Maiden Voyage provides a global network for women travellers, travel safety tips and advice and accommodation recommendations for hotels that have been vetted to be safe for women travelling on their own by Maiden Voyage inspectors.

Carolyn told me about the beginnings of her idea for Maiden Voyage back in 2008 when she was working in LA and decided to have a mini break and stay a few extra days. Downtown LA was deserted at the weekend, which was fine during the day, but at night it felt different. For example, taking a taxi back from nearby beaches in the dark was riddled with uncertainties. Things you wouldn’t worry about if you were with other people or in a familiar place, like, “is it safe on my own?’ and ‘do I just hail a cab or should I order one?’ Being confined to a hotel in the evening because she felt unsafe on her own felt like she as missing out on the whole point of staying a few extra days – to explore and have fun. It made Carolyn wonder how many other women had been in the same situation.

Carolyn had the idea of Maiden Voyage as a way for women travellers to connect with fellow business travellers. Coming from a tech background her approach was to test her idea. She made a prototype, developed a website and put it online.

According to Carolyn, Maiden Voyage wasn’t ever meant to be a full-time business. It was a sideline set up to help fellow women travellers. Carolyn just wanted to cover her costs as she juggled a hectic day job.

However, the Maiden Voyage site was live and gaining traction. Then a lady asked for a recommendation for a hotel that would be suitable for single women travellers in Beijing. This led to the idea of vetting hotels and providing references under the Maiden Voyage certified brand ‘Female Friendly Hotels’.

Maiden Voyage was featured on CNN, the New York Times, on the BBC and in the Guardian. It was only then that Carolyn started to consider Maiden Voyage as a business. She quit her day job of Head of e-commerce for easyJet in 2013.

Today the business has developed its business model and is primarily a corporate membership programme and clients include Leeds Beckett University, Richemont, BP as well as a number of Silicon Valley and Hollywood big hitters. They also deliver training for women travellers on how to stay safe and train hospitality and hotel staff on how to help women travellers feel safe and comfortable, for example when eating in a restaurant alone – simple things that unless you’ve been a single woman traveller you wouldn’t think of, like sitting looking out into the restaurant rather than at the wall and to refrain from wry sympathy, over attention or keeping a wide berth. They have recently released their training as an e-learning package to make it more accessible for the larger Corporates.

“I wake up and do my best every day to achieve as much as I can for the company – and that’s the best I can do”

As with anything new, there have been challenges for Maiden Voyage. Carolyn says that initially sales were a challenge “I didn’t want to be a sales person – selling hotel advertising”

The business model has shifted as Maiden Voyage has developed from making money from selling advertising space to a corporate membership model. Carolyn has also discovered that sales for Maiden Voyage are about owning their space in the market and raising their visibility so that people come to them. “Cold calling is demoralising, you need to be able to make deals without picking up the phone. I’ve found that the less we sell the more people buy. You achieve that by building relationships and being passionate about what you do”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help “Finding the right mentor is like dating – it’s about equal roles”

One piece of advice from Carolyn is not to be afraid to ask for help. Get a mentor. She has five or six different mentors, each one has their specialist area, for a tricky sales question she’ll ask the mentor with sales experience, for a motivational shove she’ll ask someone else. Finding the range of skills and experience that you need might not all be in one person.

“Sometimes you can have too many mentors – especially if they don’t all agree you can be debilitated by conflicting advice”

You also have to seek opportunities to meet the mentors you want, for example, one of Carolyn’s mentors is Lara Morgan, an author, motivational speaker and venture capitalist. Lara and Carolyn met when Lara was speaking at an event at Cranfield School of Management. Carolyn was in the audience and asked a question. Lara asked a question back. At the end of the event, Lara took Carolyn aside and offered herself as a mentor.

Carolyn’s two pieces of advice for anyone thinking of getting a mentor are:

  • Don’t make yourself look miniature in comparison to them. Plant an idea in their mind so they want to mentor you.
  • If you are in awe of them it reduces the value to them – they are busy people and have to believe in you and what you do.

Consistence persistence

Carolyn’s advice for anyone trying to innovate is….

  • You never know how close you are to a breakthrough – don’t give up. Her mantra is “consistent persistence”
  • Don’t over think it – the product, service or invention you are working on now, won’t be the final thing.
  • You can spend forever over engineering something that no one wants. Get your minimal viable product (MVP) into the market as quickly as you can and see how your customers respond.
  • You have to be resilient and so ‘apply your own oxygen mask first’. Take regular exercise, get enough sleep and look after yourself. Don’t feel guilty about doing that either.
  • Days off are important. Carolyn says, “I have my best thinking on days off. Once I was watching a deal like a kettle waiting to boil. On my day off with a bit of space, I realised that there could be a better way with a different partner which could have a 20 fold impact to the way I was currently approaching the situation”
  • The key is consistent persistence. Whatever the problem, by persevering you’ll work it out.

The business of balls – more to it than you think

In my quest for finding real stories about real people driving innovation, a friend said to me “you should talk to Helena about her husband’s balls”.

So, I did.

Helena’s husband Paul has been running the UK arm of Euro-Matic – the world’s leading manufacturer of hollow plastic balls since August 2016 and Helena joined the business in August 2017.

Paul, an engineer by trade with 20 years experience in plastics, packaging and product development (Marmite lovers you have him to thank for inventing the squeezy lid on Marmite – but that’s a story for another time) spotted an opportunity in the Euro-Matic product range.

Helena has a background in commercial growth, product development and marketing and has held a number of Directors posts for major UK charities. She has bought commercial rigour to the charities she has worked with resulting in successful initiatives for fundraising and home shopping as well as commercial partnerships which adopt the principle of a “win-win” for all parties. She is used to doing things on a shoestring, so between them, they have all the skills to grow a successful business in plastic balls!

 

Established in 1967 in Hungary, Euro-Matic is a global giant in plastic manufacture producing over 140 different types of hollow plastic balls. The UK was just a small part of their international business and a long-established agreement for distribution in the UK was coming to an end. Paul had a hunch that there was a lot of potential in the UK market that was being overlooked as small fry. He took the initiative to approach the owners of the factory in Hungary and made an offer to take the UK and other under-serviced countries distribution off their hands.

The factory said igen. (yes)

When Paul and Helena really got started in the business of balls they realised it was a much bigger opportunity than Paul had initially thought. The application for what is seen as a simple product – a plastic ball – is surprisingly vast. It includes:

  • Playpen balls for children (and adults).
  • On open water, for example, ponds and reservoirs to stop flocks of birds settling. Euro-Matic bird balls are used on any open water such as airports, for example near Heathrow Airport to reduce the risk of bird strike.
  • Protecting emergency water supplies in large-scale manufacture from clogging up with algae etc.
  • In reservoirs to stop algae forming and reducing the amount of chemicals your local water authority has to put in your drinking water while enabling natural wildlife to flourish.
  • To keep your Koi carp ponds, and the Koi carp they contain warm in winter. The balls are scientifically proven to raise water temperature by up to 10% and are transparent to allow light into the pond enabling the carp to stay healthy and grow.
  • Art installations that change with wind and currents.
  • Cost saving in the production of aluminium.
  • Heating or cooling chemical or water tanks during manufacturing processes for a range of different products.
  • Every Henry Hoover made by Numatic has a Euro-Matic ball inside as part of the valve system.

With such a vast range of completely different markets, Paul and Helena knew they needed to be strategic in how they approached the business now they were in control.

They started with the basics. They created a UK website and a range of marketing materials to appeal to their different customers. They bought every domain name anyone would ever think of if looking for plastic balls and focussed on getting their SEO working hard for them so they came top of organic searches

Then they prioritised their existing customers and old databases.

They wrote to all Euro-matic current UK customers to let them know they were running the UK business, to find out what their customers thought of Euro-matic and for feedback on what their customers wanted. Overall the feedback was that the product was good but the customer service has been poor. However, customers were surprised and delighted to be asked their views for the first time and were hopeful that the service would improve based on their feedback. Paul and Helena responded and put processes in place to ensure better service and increased stock levels so that delivery was much faster.

“With the likes of Amazon and next day delivery, it increases customer expectations and we have to compete with that”

Customers were so pleased there was a friendly UK team who understood their business and requirements, Paul and Helena went with the mantra that ‘no order is too small and every customer is important.’

Then they visited old customers in person to dig a bit deeper and get more insights about the problems their customers had, and how their business could help them. “We listened to a fair amount of moaning about the old distributors, which helped us make big improvements to our service and also reassured customers we were serious about supporting them in the future”

Having done as much as they could to keep their current customers happy, they turned their attention to attracting new customers.

They looked at each sector in turn (children’s playpen areas, open water, manufacturing, airports, fishing enthusiasts etc.). They explored what was important to each sector, what problems their product could solve and which channels to use to reach them. For example, they researched all the UK organisations that might be interested in children’s playpens. They called them, mailed them and wrote blogs about how their products had helped other playpen users and what was unique about their offer in comparison to competitors e.g. Quality guarantees, certifications, range and convenience factors. Then within the playpen ball category, they looked at other segments. For example, ball pits are used in nurseries for children, but also in bars, for corporate events and nightclubs for adults. Some people wanted a ball pit at their events including birthdays, summer fetes and weddings. Then there is the charity fundraising marketplace who use playpens for active events like Tough Mudders

Where possible Paul and Helena encourage customers to share their stories of how Euro-matic balls have helped them. Check out Ian and his Koi Carp pond and his snug, happy and healthy Koi Carp.

Scaling your balls

Due to their hard work and increased profile Euro-Matic UK were approached by Dubai Municipality in Dubai. They wanted to explore Euro-Matic balls to cover water near a new airport that was under construction. It was a massive potential order which forced Paul and Helena to think about how they would scale Euro-Matic UK. It highlighted the problems they would have to solve in order to scale up including being absolutely clear on their unique selling points.

“Every time we get a quiet spot we plan for the future”

Rather than buy expensive equipment to increase production Paul and Helena are investigating manufacture in the UK with existing factories. Their idea is to convert existing machines to manufacturer their plastic balls and optimise production in one factory. They have also developed a robust system for keeping stock and assessing their production capacity as they prepare to scale

Within the first month of Euro-Matic UK, Paul and Helena had achieved 50% of their annual target. They closed their first financial year (7 months trading) with a healthy profit and this year they are set to triple that. They put their success down to being focused on the markets that have the most potential, networking and meeting people face to face to build relationships and an understanding of their customers’ needs. They work pretty well as a team too.

“It’s not rocket science – it’s just a drive to succeed.” We had to create new networks with people who are influencers or advocates for our product”

Their biggest challenge now is that potential customers don’t know that the Euro-Matic balls could be a solution for their problems. And they need new customers because their other challenge is that the balls last forever, so there is limited scope for repeat business. Heathrow has had their balls for 17 years and they won’t need replacing anytime soon. That said there is a lot of water on this planet what could benefit from a Euro-Matic ball.

As of today, they have around 7 large scale tenders for water authorities, gold mines, airports and reservoirs as well as supplying to the largest play equipment manufacturers in the UK who supply playhouses and pubs.

Advice

Paul and Helena’s advice on innovating is…

  • It’s not enough to have an idea or a product – you have to consider what makes it unique and how you let people know about it.
  • Do what you can yourself with your own skills – just get on with it. Doing everything yourself will help you fully understand the true costs and what is required for the business to be successful.
  • Treat your small organisation like it is a big organisation from the start with processes, formal reporting and structure.
  • Know your numbers, your stock management and profit and loss every month. Have an admin process. Euro-Matic has a lot of systems and have developed the perfect systems for their needs – rather than adapting an off the shelf system.
  • Core business happens every day and it’s important to keep an eye on the bigger picture. “We have an opportunities log on a ‘white board’ day to day so we don’t forget about the big vision”
  • Never sit back and accept, you have to constantly drive things forward. We are always thinking “how do we get x product developed and what is the route to market?”
  • Explore all channels, from e-commerce to eBay and Amazon, trade shows, PR opportunities, magazine subscriptions and relevant membership organisations. You have to be everywhere.
  • Don’t ring-fence yourself into one product or sector – think fluidly to look for new opportunities.
  • Know your finances – know the minimum you need to survive on and take from the business only what is necessary.
  • Find mentors but don’t just take everyone’s advice – challenge everything and make your own decisions.
  • Make sure that for anything that you create, you own the intellectual property, you have legal agreements in place where necessary, have a Non-disclosure agreement (NDA) in place when discussing projects to protect your business.