You are celebrating 10 years in business, congratulations, but how did it start and why?
James Strachan and I met studying Manufacturing Engineering at the University of Cambridge. After we graduated, we tried a few entrepreneurial ventures together, which didn’t take off, and we ended up working for an online honey seller to pay the bills.
They used an outsourced fulfilment provider to store the stock and send it to customers, but the service was entirely paper-based and consequently unreliable – they once sent every order out twice!
We looked around for alternatives, but were surprised that every other provider was similarly dated. Nobody was using web-based technology to connect with eCommerce platforms like Shopify and process the orders automatically. We saw an opportunity to create that technology.
We originally planned to sell it as software. But the clients we spoke to really wanted a service. So we hired the corner of someone else’s warehouse and started offering the service, powered by the software we’d developed.
In 2016 you moved from Cambridge to Brackmills, Northampton. What attracted you to Northampton and which other locations were you considering?
We’d ended up working out of two small industrial parks around Cambridge, but we’d outgrown our latest building again and needed something bigger. Most larger properties in Cambridge are part of science parks and the rents are similarly expensive, plus we wanted to be closer to major transport routes and courier hubs. So Northampton was an obvious choice. The move meant we could get more frequent and later collections from couriers, which of course led to faster shipping services for our clients and their customers.
You have embraced technology from the outset, and are leading the way in your sector, most notably with ControlPort. What investment have you made in technology to date, and how important is technology to your business moving forward?
We’ve invested several million pounds in ControlPort over the last decade. Technology has been a key differentiator for us – we were the first company to develop real-time, cloud-based fulfilment software and we won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for that innovation in 2016.
Today, some competitors are starting to build their own platforms. So it’s important for us to listen to feedback from clients, continuously improve what we’ve got, and add new features that make their job easier and enhance the experience they provide to their customers.
We’re also looking again at our original business model – licensing the software to retailers, to use in their own facilities, and to franchisees, to expand our global network of fulfilment centres.
What impact has COVID-19 had on the business and can you give an insight into the type of decisions you have had to make because of this?
Lockdown has meant that many more people are shopping online, so our clients are seeing many more orders than normal. We’ve continued to operate, to get essential products to shoppers, and help keep the economy afloat.
Those team members who can do so are working from home. Those who work in the fulfilment centre are still working there, and we’ve put stringent hygiene and social distancing measures in place, as well as new technology such as a fever-screening camera.
Every decision has involved weighing up the needs of our clients and their customers, the safety of our people, and the guidelines that the government has put in place. But based on the thank you notes we’ve had from clients and the feedback we’ve had from staff, it feels like we’ve made the right call on most things.
Fast forward to your next milestone, 2030 and you are celebrating 20 years in business, where is James and James as a business?
In March 2020, we closed our first external investment round – £11million from LDC, part of Lloyds Banking Group. And in April we won a second Queen’s Award, this time for International Trade, based on the growth of our export revenues over the last few years.
The next 10 years are really about using that investment to grow faster and expand at home and abroad. We’re looking at another building in Brackmills, which will be about six times the operational space of our current one, so that’s the first step.
What has been your proudest moment to date?
It would have to be winning our second Queen’s Award earlier this year. We won our first in 2016 for Enterprise and now we’ve received another for International Trade. These awards are particularly special because they’re not commercialised – they’re a prestigious way to be recognised for your contribution to enterprise, and winning one undoubtedly gives the whole team a real boost.
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