Picture this – it’s 2009 and Adam and James, two entrepreneurial childhood friends, are leaving Bristol University, minds brimming with innovative business ideas. After gaining experience printing flyers for club nights in Bristol as students, the two discovered their passion for providing a user-friendly and effective online print service – thus, instantprint was born. However, we completely understand that starting a business isn’t easy (we’ve definitely encountered a few bumps in the road). I went behind the scenes to talk to Adam and James about their own startup struggles…
Keeping Costs Low
When your business is first starting out, keeping the running costs low is a priority. I asked the guys what kind of corners they cut to keep costs down.
J: We didn’t heat the office, and it was numbingly cold. I wore a ski jacket for… 5 months?
A: Yeah, you’d just see James at his desk in his ski jacket and woolly hat.
J: And you had that little radiator you bought, didn’t you? It was a value range radiator that put out no heat whatsoever.
A: I got told that they were way more efficient!
J: So, Adam would sit at his desk with a radiator up his jumper. Actually, we used to take it in turns.
A: It was that useless, it didn’t burn you. You’d just get mildly warm.
If you know of any family or friends who might have some office supplies and essentials going spare, it’s always a good idea to ask them for help. This was another way Adam and James managed to keep their business costs low at the beginning.
J: So, Adam’s dad had some carpet tiles we could have for free. The only thing was, they were stuck on the floor in a unit somewhere in Yorkshire. It was only an hour and a half away and we thought it wouldn’t take more than 45 minutes to pull these tiles up, then an hour and a half back.
A: We set off at 6 o’clock in the evening, thinking we’d be home by 11 o’clock at the latest. We got down there, started pulling up these tiles – and it took us forever. We were there until about 1! It was seriously hard; we had no food, no water, just nothing, did we?
J: Yeah, absolutely dire. The worst bit was we’d set off back up the motorway and had forgotten that we’d left our car keys behind! We had to drive all the way back to Yorkshire and then back home again. We got in at 4 in the morning, and were straight back into work by 8!
Working Long Hours
When you’re running your own business, it’s common knowledge that you won’t be working a standard 9-5 in the office. What kind of things should you be aware of when working long shifts?
J: One night, I was staying late because we were busy and Adam – who is more mechanical and understands the equipment a lot better – told me “If a printer runs through the night, you need to check the fuser oil every so often and top it up if it gets low”. I noticed the oil had gone right down so I filled it up and pushed the container back in. Checked it again later on and the oil had run out again! So, I poured some more in… What I didn’t realise was that the pipe had come off at the back, so every time I was pouring oil in, it was just going straight through the machine. It was only when I saw the oil at the front of my feet that I realised something had gone drastically wrong!
Staying late and working shifts is necessary to keep the business running through the night, but be aware of burning the candle at both ends.
J: Another one on working all hours, Adam had worked through the night and had gone home, but he was the only one who knew how to get the data into the DPD label printer. We were ringing and ringing him and we couldn’t get through – we thought he’d died or something! He was obviously knackered from pulling an all-nighter and had fallen asleep!
A: Yeah, and my phone had run out of battery – it was on charge but hadn’t rebooted. The moral of this story is that more than one person needs to know the processes basically.
Here at instantprint, we’re a pretty friendly bunch. But, you’ve always got to be careful that all communications, both internal and external, are professional.
J: We used to have a phone system very much like we do here and one of the guys downstairs in printing always used to answer the phone, “Hello, Peter Andre”. One day, for some reason our phone system went wrong and started directing customer calls downstairs. I remember him coming upstairs and going, “We’ve got a customer on the phone,” and he’d answered the phone as Peter Andre! He didn’t even sound like Peter Andre; he was a Geordie! I think the lesson there is to always be professional.
Running a Website
Setting up your startup’s website can be pretty tricky, especially if it’s not something you’ve got experience with. Once it’s up and running, it’s crucial that you carry out frequent tests to make sure everything works perfectly.
J: When we first started out, we used to get four or five orders a day through the website.
A: Yeah, every time a website order went through, we had it set to go to an Outlook folder and it’d play a noise on the computer. We used to get really excited and high five every time we got an order through.
J: But the website was very basic. Pete, our Web Developer, was making updates for it and we’d just put out the latest version of the site and we had a day where we didn’t get any orders. We just thought, “Well, maybe it’s a slow day!”.
A: The second day went by and there were still no orders, so we decided to test out the site. When you got to checkout, you could fill all the details in but then there was no button to press ‘Order’. So that button had just disappeared. So, the lesson learnt from that story is to regularly check your website to make sure customers can get all the way through.
For help setting up a website for your business, check out our how-to guide here.
Equipment on a Budget
Startup businesses rarely have the funds to invest in a state-of-the-art equipment, and we were no exception. With printing, the equipment can be very pricey – but it’s a necessary investment! Adam and James spilled the details on what kind of equipment they started the business with.
J: When we very first set out, we were trying to buy equipment and one of the pieces that we bought was a guillotine for cutting the paper. But what we ended up buying was a very, very old Ideal Ambassador. We didn’t actually know what it was, we just knew it would cut paper! The guy who came to service it was quite close to retirement and he said he hadn’t seen one of those since the 1970s or something like that. It was old-school, great machine, and got us through our first few months. It got us set up.
Having a keen eye for a good deal can also help you make some headway with equipment for your startup, and even as a larger business. It’s smart to keep an eye out for these kinds of offers.
A: We knew Xerox had their financial year end every year on the calendar year end, which meant that when they got towards the end of it, they were mad keen to do deals to make their year’s numbers look good. So, I think we did a deal on Christmas Eve, was it?
J: Yeah something like that, day before Christmas Eve.
A: That’s right, the 23rd of December. This involved them shipping the printing press to us in between Christmas and New Year from Holland. And then we had 2 or 3 engineers we had to commission in to set it up and calibrate it and the long and short of it, it all overran so it wasn’t going to be fully installed until 6pm on New Year’s Eve. We flipped a coin to see who’d stay, and, unfortunately, James lost.
Looking back, one of the challenges we faced as a small business was finding the right balance between working in the business and working on the business, and part of this involved figuring out which tasks to focus on.
J: To cut costs in the second building we were in, we decided we’d spend our evenings and weekends fitting the kitchen ourselves. When you look at some of the things we put in it, it was definitely over-engineered!
A: Yeah, this thing was absolutely bomb-proof. It took us forever. It had an electric oven, a sink. James’ parents were redecorating their kitchen at the time, so that’s where we got the dishwasher from. We joke about it, but we probably spent about a month and a half of our free time building this kitchen. In hindsight, we’d have probably gotten a much better return if we’d spent that time on the business and got someone in who was much better at building a kitchen to do that.
J: Yeah, bring people in so you can spend your time working on the business, not in it. That’s critical if you want to keep growing and moving forward.
When prioritising tasks, it’s important to look at how you’re using your time and whether you could be working more efficiently.
A: This was right at the very start. We were just desperate for anything. And one of the things we decided we needed, and I don’t know why, was a filing cabinet.
J: And weren’t we going to sell them some print or something at the same time? We sent them some Letterheads or something?
A: We found out that there was a filing cabinet going spare at Bawtry. Newcastle to Bawtry’s like a 2-hour drive, so for some mental reason we all got in the car, drove down to Bawtry, tried to sell them 1000 Letterheads, which was like £60s worth of print, picked up the filing cabinet – which is another story – and drove all the way back. So, we spent four hours in the car, and I-don’t-know-how much on fuel, for a filing cabinet.
J: For £60s worth of print.
A: Yeah. I remember at the time, we thought, “Yeah, good day’s work”.
J: So, I think the thing to focus on there is what costs you’re actually saving. Working clever not hard.
Finally, I asked Adam and James what advice they have for startup businesses that are facing some of the struggles they faced when instantprint was first established.
A: Keep plugging away is definitely a great piece of advice. What else?
J: Hire people based on attitude, not just skills.
A: Yeah, that’s how you can go from being a small business to a medium sized business. That’s when it really starts to make a big difference.
J: Another thing is to know you figures. Just know where you’re at financially, because it’s really good working hard, but if you don’t know whether you’re making money or losing money, you’re being daft. We used to work off the bank balance – if the bank balance was going up, you’re doing well, if it’s going down you’re doing badly – that is not a recommended way for running a business. So, yeah, know your figures.
It’s an emotional roller coaster, if you compare working for someone else versus working for yourself, the highs when you’re doing really well are absolutely amazing, but equally when everything’s going wrong, things are not so good. But you stick with it. It’s all about having faith that it’ll come back around. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go and do it again.
A: I mean, having the two of us helps massively. When one person’s feeling a bit low, the other person’s not normally down there. With us two it’s always coincided really well. And you’ve always got someone to pick you up and say--
J: “Come on. It’s not the end of the world. We’ll get it sorted.”