Meet the founder of thortful
Hi Andy, please tell us about the creator behind thortful.
I guess you could call me a serial entrepreneur, I started very young; I dropped out of university in 1990 and created my first business ‘Bin Clean’, I bought a van and a pressure washer for £500 and went door to door cleaning bins. I was only 19 and I struggled to get investment to grow it so sold it in 1992 for £40,000.
In 1993 I established Inkfish outsourced call centres, having worked in a call centre during my early teens I recognised one key issue all call centres had, I, like my co-workers, were just bums on seats. I decided to create a call centre that didn’t just do what all the others did. I cared about my employees, I trained and motivated them, I ensured they were rewarded well. That combination made sure that Inkfish grew to 2,700 employees and a turnover of £30m in just 7 years. In 1997 I sold Inkfish to Domestic and General Group plc for £12m.
In 2004 having been disappointed with the conference call service and the astronomical price we were paying to communicate with my disparate contact centres I turned my sights on conference calling, founding Powwownow the UK’s leading conference call brand. Growing the business to £16m t/o with a £5m profit and selling to PGI the world’s largest conference call supplier for £37,500,000 in 2013.
Inspiration is always a good indication of why people launch businesses. Who or what inspired you to get started?
When I sold my third business I was looking for my next challenge. I have always had a keen interest in all things design and I started to look into the online greetings card business. I learnt that the retail card business is worth £1.6 billion a year yet less than 5% of those cards are currently bought online. I found this weird; in this world of AirBnB, ASOS, Ocado & Uber to name a few why haven’t we changed our buying behaviour of cards in line with this? I then learnt that there has been no serious innovation in the industry since the launch of Moonpig over 18 years ago.
I spotted a gap in the market for a well curated, easily accessed collection of brilliant cards. We took the decision to pay designers an industry leading royalty of 30p for every card they sold. In this industry exclusivity is key and if we want original cards we need to pay our creatives properly for designing them.
How do you set yourself apart from the other businesses in your industry?
I like to think of thortful as ‘Notonthehighstreet meets Moonpig’, we’re an online card & gifting company in the traditional sense but our catalogue is forever changing and evolving, content is the most important element of what we do. We need a constant supply of timely, unique cards that really capture the zeitgeist. The fact that we run thortful as a creative marketplace means we can request our community create niche cards with mass appeal. Our fabulous Peaky Blinder’s card is a great example of this, we sold 9,400 copies in the build up to Valentines day.
We’ve also worked really hard on the usability of our app, customers take an average of 3 minutes to complete their transaction with us as apposed to 10 minutes with Moonpig or Funky Pigeon.
Who is your target audience?
Males and females early 20’s - 50’s. We never imagined that our audience would be so young, I think the greetings card industry had written off Millennials, especially young men, but we’re finding social media particularly Facebook is engaging them with the brand and they are buying cards in huge numbers.
How do you believe the evolution of tech will affect your industry over the next 10 years?
I’d be naive to think that this market is undisrruptable by someone doing something totally different, I am not sure what that looks like though as e-cards have proved to be an undisputed failure. We’re employing the best tech minds to help us stay ahead of the curve, I am particularly interested in what AI could do to help people discover our content.
What would be your number one tip for young entrepreneurs who are ready to launch their own business?
When you’re ready to lease an office space, make sure it’s in an area you want to spend the majority of your life! Consider transport links and amenities: how good the local eateries and pubs are, this is all criteria that will be considered by potential employees.
Recharging every so often, especially as a parent, and entrepreneur is important. How do you recharge when you’re feeling burnt out?
Kite surfing: when I am out on the water away from phones, tablets & laptops is one of the only times I really feel that I have a proper break. I am also concentrating on staying upright so I don’t have much headspace to worry about the business!
What habits do you think helped you to become successful?
I’m not an entrepreneur that micro manages my staff. I have tried over the years to manage by empowerment, I have habitually employed people who have the strength and initiative to deliver my vision. I also walk my dog Buca four miles into work every morning, I use it as a sort of walking meditation, it clears my head and sets me up for the day ahead.
What would be your top marketing tip, to grow a business that is so niche, yet incredibly timeless?
An integrated approach would be my top tip, use all channels available to you, both new and traditional:
Social media is a great way to showcase our cards and designers, engaging with our existing customer base and also to getting the word out to new customers, Facebook and Twitter were great channels for us around Valentine’s day this year, we saw a spectacular 10-fold increase in sales.
We then use other channels to build my profile as the face of the business, I recently appeared on Dragon’s Den, 25,000 people landed on the site during the broadcast.
What are your thoughts on failure as an entrepreneur?
In the UK we don’t accept failure as a learning process, there is still a huge stigma attached to it. In my eyes failure isn’t an option, yes there are things that don’t work and there are many set backs along the way but you never give up.