Book publishing is one of the many industries that has undergone a huge transformation since the internet came along and changed the way we do things. The way books are financed, distributed and consumed has altered completely but that hasn’t meant the end of book publishers – it has just heralded a new era.
John Styring had worked for mainstream publishers Penguin and Parragon and felt there was room for a new publisher with more dynamism and drive. He decided to go it alone and set up Igloobooks – a publisher which focuses on children’s books as well as food, drink and hobby books for adults in 2003. Since then the business has since featured in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 and was a finalist in last year’s National Business Awards. Gabby Griffith caught up with Styring to see how his work with larger businesses has affected Igloo Books.
So John – did you learn from bigger businesses when you set up your company?
Of course, I learnt the good things that my previous companies taught me and also benefited from joint shareholder Sir Roger Martin, who was already a successful businessman having sold his business to Penguin for a number of million pounds. I still regularly look at the accounts and assess our larger competitors’ strategies whilst learning from other successful businesses outside our industry.
So having a relationship with larger businesses is important?
Yes, for a start, doing business with larger companies can give a more stable cash flow which is of course invaluable. Many larger companies who have been there and done it can offer an insight into how to develop and the pitfalls to look out for.
How did your first collaboration with a larger business come about?
We have always targeted the large book retailers, including the supermarkets in the UK and abroad. One of our first customers was Borders in the US, who, of course, unfortunately are no longer trading.
How did you get the connection with Borders?
It is all about getting your foot in the door. I had some relationships outstanding from my previous work within the industry, but when you start up a business, you really do start again because you are working with a new product and a new team. There really is no short cut to hard work and long hours.
You research and plan, look at competitors, and then you have to really refine your sales pitch. If you are confident, and have faith in your product, then bigger companies will listen. You have to be prepared to work really hard for that moment to share your product, and then you need to make sure that the moment you do get a foot in the door you dazzle them – but don’t over promise on what you can deliver.
How did you deal with the challenge of having Borders go out of business?
When Borders went into administration, it was a highly stressful time, and we did lose money. Realistically though, all we could do was pick ourselves and move on. If you are a small company you have to be tough and quite resolute – you need to be able to pull yourself together and be nimble. Of course, lots of companies do just go bust, because they sustain too heavy a loss.
Has that happened again since?
We also went through it with Woolworths. A new business is happy to work with whoever will do business with them. It was a steep learning curve for us, and it was a tough time – but it’s also something that all businesses have to go through. We couldn’t have foreseen what was going to happen, but you live and learn.
The thing that worried me most during that time was that my workforce would worry about their own livelihoods. Carrying that responsibility on your shoulders is the toughest thing about being the boss, and my primary concern was always to ensure that my workforce knew that their jobs were safe. It’s my belief that managers, not staff should carry that burden.
Is there any way to try and avoid that happening again?
You can mitigate risk, and we do pay very close attention to this now, by choosing to work with companies who have no, or very low, financial risk. The luxury of that choice is something I have been most pleased with as Igloo Books has grown.
What would you say are the other challenges of working with big businesses?
As a smaller company, first of all it is hard to get big businesses to give you the time to hear about your offering. For example, starting up operations with Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco was equally difficult but, once we proved ourselves, we found them to be very reliable and consistent in their requirements.
Late payment is also an issue. One thing I realised very quickly is that smaller businesses rely on regular payments to keep working, There isn’t the flexibility there that large companies have and this can prove challenging as larger company can be unaware of the problems late payment can create. Credit is of course a challenge for the smaller businesses that have not yet proved themselves. Fortunately, we are now past that point.
Do you see any solutions to these challenges?
In all instances, the smaller growing businesses must show tenacity and determination to prove themselves worthy of working alongside the more established players. Of course, the smaller nimble companies like us have a lot of strengths too.
How could big businesses help smaller businesses better?
Supporting small businesses can be very fruitful for the bigger businesses. The small businesses will do anything to demonstrate how they are capable and worthy of doing business. A large business can nurture and enjoy the benefits of unique and innovative thinking from the smaller partner.
How do you approach big business now?
With excitement! We’re going strong and expect to double our business by 2016.
Fantastic – thanks for your time John, best of luck.
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