This is a follow up story for Ferrotype Ltd. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published over 1 year ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
We are Ferrotype and we launched in February 2019. We originally launched in February 2019 as a B2B branded stationery provider. Since then we have expanded initially into gifts, but more recently into web design which is obviously quite a big change.
Back in 2019 we had very quickly launched Ferrotype after our retail business had folded. One of our suppliers had asked us to start up again as we had some very good B2B clients for branded stationery (a spin-off from the retail shop at the time) and so almost overnight we went with that. The ‘we’ is me and my sister, Jo. Just the two of us, no office, no overheads. We embraced the opportunity and went virtual, which was lucky considering what was around the corner a year later!
Our core business is branded notebooks, something that some people are surprised by in a digital world. However the demand for analog technology and pen-&-paper really is as analog as it gets, is very high. Even the biggest tech companies make good use of stationery as it is an excellent way to complement technology. Paper allows for clearer thinking of new ideas, encourages better and more productive working habits, and branding affords a good marketing opportunity.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
Our first year was tougher than expected, as some clients didn’t move over to the new company as we had hoped. Disruption is never a good thing and inevitably some people use the break-in service to reevaluate their buying. We started to diversify into gifts, as this is an area that is often quite downmarket and cheap. We have only a small selection of promotional gifts but our focus is on high quality and sustainability. Too much of the promo gift market is disposable 'straight-to-landfill’ items. We have added items such as high-end water bottles, including known brand names like Chillys.
We have also added a selection of new notebooks which are more sustainable, including books that don’t require any plastic (normally used as a cover material on Moleskine-style notebooks) and even a notebook without paper. The Karst notebook is a truly high-end luxury product that is made from crushed stone and is even nicer when you get to touch the paper which is unlike any traditional paper.
After an up-and-down first year, we were focusing on how to take the business forward into 2020. As with many business sectors, the promotional gift market was severely hit by the pandemic. Many of our clients run conferences or events and use the branded goods to give out to people attending. It’s fair to say there probably hasn’t been a single corporate event like that since March 2020. The initial impact of the pandemic was swift and immediate - zero sales from mid-March 2020 through to around May, when inquiries and sales slowly crept back up. The pattern was stop-start all year and has continued into 2021.
We spent some time during 2020 looking at alternative services we could offer, but a series of fortunate events led us to web design. This is something we have done for ourselves since I built the first website for our shop back in 2002, coding it myself. The world has moved on a long way since then, even if some people’s websites look like they haven’t! We were big fans of the Squarespace platform but had never considered offering it as a design service to others.
In just a few weeks we set up a new business alongside our branded goods site, offering web design for small businesses and individuals such as artists. This was launched just before Christmas last year, and so has not really got going yet. The current focus has been on recruiting new clients to build a portfolio up, hampered yet again by a UK-wide lockdown in 2021 that is still ongoing.
The focus of the web design business is to target small businesses locally to us here in West London and build up a network of referrals. The original plans had involved getting involved with local networking events and also the basic but often effective act of going round to local businesses face to face, but obviously, all such activities are on hold for now.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
The past year has been a massive challenge for everyone, and what it has shown to me is that you need three things to survive, let alone prosper.
- Not to be in constant survival mode. This is fairly obvious, I know, but having run a business before that constantly struggled to keep going I am aware of how that business would have folded the moment lockdown hit. You can’t prepare your business for every eventuality (who saw a global pandemic and mass shutdown and then prepared for it?) but you can ensure you have a financial buffer to cope with what might happen. This time around we were reasonably well buffered to cope with what was lost, and we took steps to ensure that we used all available help to add to that buffer, such as the UK Government interest-free, fee-fee, redemption-free loans.
- That leads to the second point, which would be that no matter what your business is, you might need to think on your feet and adapt to the changes. I have seen other businesses, many of them local, which have adapted quickly. Restaurants turning to home delivery for food, shops moving online, people starting a new business where they see potential. As for us, we did struggle to adapt at first, but as our prime market had slipped through our fingers almost overnight we knew we did need to come up with an alternative income plan. That was what led to us launching a web design service.
- Luck, sadly. As events have shown, some businesses got lucky and were able to trade, or even still had a market to trade with, whilst others lost everything. I guess the adage about luck being where preparation meets opportunity holds true and since 2020 proved you can never know what’s around the corner, it also proved you need to be prepared more than ever. Were we prepared? The honest answer is no, and we need to work on that.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
Our plans for the future are currently quite limited. We are in the midst of discussions about where to go next, and one potential route is to embrace the world of sustainability more. Stationery is not a bad product, by any means - it’s practical and needed, and is mostly paper-based. Even the worst offenders, such as a disposable plastic ballpen, are useful and last a long time compared to many of the straight-to-landfill products out there.
No matter what your business is, you might need to think on your feet and adapt to the changes.
We also struggle with much of what the promotional industry puts out and see an opportunity there. Sustainability is filled with a lot of smoke and mirrors, and greenwash is everywhere. However, the past year has caused us to focus even more on the here and now of surviving.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
I don’t feel in a position to offer advice on this right now considering the struggle we have had, but constantly asking the question of yourself - why would someone buy from us and not someone else? Is a great reminder of why you need to always be providing something of value.
Value could be price, but that is a trap where most people can fall into and there is only one way, and that’s down. Better to try and see how you can add value and keep profits up as a result. By providing a service, by doing something better or unique. It’s easy to look at the competition and feel like they have it all figured out. Look closely and there is always something they are not doing, so maybe do that and do it better.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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