I’m pretty excited this morning, because here’s an interview with the representative of a brand I very much like and use regularly, and which anyone interested in stationery is going to love, Bureau Direct. I’ve been indulging my passion for ink pens and unusual coloured inks with them for a couple of years now and was thrilled to find they are the people behind a bricks-and-mortar shop I loved way back when! I’ve got a bit of a “thing” about European and Japanese notebooks – the ones with squared or – even better – dotted paper, and they make buying this a lot easier than going overseas! Anyway, rather than me ranting on about it, a) go and have a peek for yourselves, and b) let’s meet Dominic!
Hello, Dominic! What’s your business called? When did you set it up?
The business is called Bureau Direct although it was originally called just Bureau. We still call it Bureau ourselves but since going online 10/15 years ago we realised that Bureau was not such an easy name. Bureau Direct was an online presence and the name has sort of stuck since that is what people see.
The business was originally set up by my mother and sister – Kathy and Jo – back in 1995, as a shop. It had a bit of a cult following, since it offered smart, stylish and slightly exotic (back then!) stationery from far-flung places like France. The shop was between Leicester Square and Covent Garden and was something of a destination store, a place to stop by and see what was new.
My involvement came a few years in to try to get us online (this was real dot.com boom time). The business had been taken over by investors who briefly expanded to 5 shops in and around London. When they pulled out at the end of 2000 the business was left in the lurch and collapsed. We, as a family, decided to buy the business back out of receivership as we felt it had potential.
We did go online a few years later, and soon realised that our future lay online not in bricks and mortar. The shop was sold and so we became an online-only business back in 2004.
What made you decide to set up your own business?
I’ll have to answer on their behalf here as technically I didn’t set it up. I think both were at a point where they had jobs that had either come to an end or were looking for a change. My mum ran a successful small retail business back in the 70s and my early memories are full of that – a homeware business with shops in Camden Town and Islington.
My involvement came at a time when I was frustrated in my job at British Airways, feeling slightly lost in a huge company with no real sense of what my role in it was for, plus the politics of big companies. When I left and joined Bureau it was such a change and nice to feel that my role had a direct impact on the outcome.
What made you decide to go into this particular business area?
Stationery was felt to be an area that had real potential as the UK market was just dull and uninspiring. Stationery was so much better even just across the channel let alone further afield. The way stationery has changed since then validates this, and there has been a real explosion of demand and choice over the past 5-10 years. An antidote to the digital world.
I love that, and it’s very true! Had you run your own business before?
No, never before. It was a difficult time and a very steep learning curve for me personally. In fact, it has continued to be a steep curve as I often feel like I am learning so much, and wonder why I didn’t know that before.
How did you do it? Did you launch full-time, start off with a part-time or full-time job to keep you going … ?
As I took over in such unusual circumstances, I was already working full-time and just continued.
What do you wish someone had told you before you started?
So much! We did try to bring in an outside person soon after buying the company back, to help act as a sort of mentor and although a couple of people we knew did briefly become involved, they had other commitments and it didn’t work out. It was always a regret of mine that we didn’t manage to make that work early on as I do wonder how things might have turned out with their involvement. I think they would have brought an experienced business mind to the table, been more prepared to take difficult business decisions and ask more demanding questions early on that could have better shaped where the business went in that phase. The years from 2001 to 2004, when we finally sold the shop and went online only, were a very difficult few years.
What would you go back and tell your newly entrepreneurial self?
Go and do a crash course in business management, and better understand the nature of the business you are running (in my case a retail business).
What do you wish you’d done differently?
Been more ruthless at seeing what worked, what didn’t and focusing the business on its strengths rather than its legacy parts that did eventually get dealt with anyway. I don’t think we could have gone online much earlier as the demand and technology were not quite ready but I wish we had better understood some of the differences of trading online in the early years.
What are you glad you did?
Go online! It was what I had joined to do and I always think it slightly amusing that I worried we were a late arrival to going online, when now we feel like old-timers! Still, going online in the period from 2001 to 2003 was a strange time – the dot.com bubble had burst, enthusiasm had waned a bit and demand had yet to actually arrive to make it a serious activity. I think the history of broadband take-up will show that sometime around that period in 2003-2005 there was a tipping point and with that so it meant that online shopping was a serious prospect for all. Once that happened, so the marketplace for an online shop just grew and grew. And still is growing.
What’s your top business tip?
Get the right balance between the numbers and a gut feeling. If you are too numbers based then you are in danger of not seeing the wood for the trees, head buried in an Excel spreadsheet. If you rely too much on what you believe is right then however good your instincts you will be at odds with what is really happening.
I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule but for most of us a good balance of these two will go a long way.
How has it gone since you started? Have you grown, diversified or stayed the same?
After going online and then deciding that the business should be online only we have probably kept to a similar core business since. We have grown, considerably and consistently, since then but it has been slow and organic and with adapting to the changing world of online retailing. But the core of what we do now is the same as what we were doing 10 years ago. Even online there is a physical process that is required to get orders into customers hands and that just evolves gradually.
BONUS QUESTION: What question would you like to ask other small business owners?
How did you cope with your worst situation (and what was it)?
Where do you see yourself and your business in a year’s time?
We have made a lot of changes to how to run the business, taking out a lot of unnecessary costs and so in a year’s time I would hope that we are considerably stronger for these changes. In the short term they caused some problems, notably with the digital marketing side, but it will all be positive in the long run.
I loved reading all about how Bureau Direct started and grew – I don’t email people and demand that they do an interview with me very often, and I’m glad I did! I love Dominic’s comment about stationery being an antidote to the digital (in the middle of an interview about a retail website in particular!) – I keep records in books and write my book reviews in a journal, and it certainly balances all the screen stuff. Do pop over and have a look at the website – quite different from our last stationery interview, you’ll find delicious notebooks, pens to suit all budgets (how many pens does it take to become a collector?) and inks in every colour you can imagine.
If you’ve enjoyed this interview, please see more small business chat, the index to all the interviewees, and information on how you can have your business featured (I have a full roster of interviewees now so am only taking on a very few new ones). If you’re considering setting up a new business or have recently done so, why not take a look at my books, all available now, in print and e-book formats, from a variety of sources.