Doing one thing well helped Black+Blum double revenue in two years
When Black+Blum launched 21 years ago, founders Dan Black and Martin Blum designed and manufactured any product they thought was a good idea. The result was a wildly eclectic product range that included lights, fans, barbecues and candelabras.
This approach was fun for two young designers, but the business lacked direction and struggled to achieve brand recognition. With no target market, scaling was also a challenge.
In 2014, Dan took over the reins and steered Black+Blum towards the food and drink on-the-go market. The business focused on high-quality and eco-friendly lunch boxes, water bottles and thermoses.
After recognising that his skills weren’t necessarily in company management, Dan decided to bring in Nick Cornwell as MD in 2018. This move enabled Dan to focus on his strengths in design while Nick stepped into the shoes of leadership.
Since refining its strategy and streamlining its offering, Black+Blum has become a key player in the market, increasing revenues from £2.2m to £4m in two years.
In the latest episode of It’s The Small Things, we spoke to co-founder and lead designer Dan about the importance of having a niche and how leaders must recognise where they add the most value – even if it means stepping back.
Choose one area to focus on
In the early days, Black+Blum sold myriad products to a range of customers. The best decision the business ever made was to focus on doing one thing well.
“You'd go into a John Lewis and find one of our products in one place and a completely different product from us somewhere else. There was no brand awareness. People would know our products but wouldn't know our brand, which was frustrating,” Dan said.
This approach sometimes led to difficult relationships with suppliers who would expect seasonal updates, only to be informed that the product had changed.
But after concentrating on one market – food and drink on-the-go – and drastically reducing its product range, Black+Blum doubled revenues.
“This growth is purely from focusing our brand and making our offering much cleaner. Making the transition to phasing out all the non food and drink on-the-go products was a challenge, but it's been the best decision we've ever made."
Dan Black – Black+Blum
Not all founders are MDs
Part of the company’s success was down to Dan recognising that he’s not a natural MD. Rather than continuing in a role that didn’t play to his strengths, he recruited Nick and returned to what he does best: innovate and design.
It was daunting to bring somebody in at such a senior level. However, Dan believes that many founders struggle in the MD or CEO role for too long, instead of bringing somebody in with experience managing a company.
“To start a company and take a product from concept to market, it takes a certain personality. A certain type of energy. But often when you look at a company which is successful, there are two people in the marriage. There's one person at the start with the ideas and the drive. Then there's got to be someone who's backing them up,” he said.
Under Nick’s leadership, Black+Blum developed clear brand guidelines and a company vision. Nick also set goals and benchmarks to measure progress so that all employees were aligned.
“It’s so much better having someone who is disciplined and doing that side of a business. It allows me to focus on what I'm better at, which is the ideas."
Dan Black – Black+Blum
Build discipline around product development
Black+Blum’s disciplined approach to product development has helped it get products right the first time and develop good relationships with factories.
Previously, the company went straight from prototype to manufacturing. While this approach generally worked, potential improvements were sometimes missed. This led to halted production runs, costly updates and, in the worst case scenario, the manufacture of thousands of products that weren't right.
The first step now is to write down 100 ideas. Next, the design team interviews employees about the ideas, always referring to the company vision, and whittles them down to ten or 20. The next stage is to use a 3D printer to produce a prototype.
“The 3D printer was a big investment but it's just brilliant. You get instantaneous feedback which makes the whole product development process so much quicker and better,” Dan said.
Once the prototype is signed off, the business does a small trial production run. Products are then given to potential customers – without any instructions – and feedback is collated.
“It's amazing how you think a product is finished. But when you put it into production, you've got 10,000 on your hands and find there's one thing that's not quite as good as it could be,” he said.
“A trial production run probably adds four months to the whole development process. But it's worth its weight in gold because the end product that reaches the market is what it should be.”
Dan Black – Black+Blum
Ask staff to share ambitions and challenges
Even with a relatively small team of 16, it takes work to keep everybody up to speed with the overall business strategy.
The team has structured weekly meetings where every employee briefly shares their successes, ambitions and challenges. The meetings are recorded in minutes and shared.
To encourage staff participation, Dan tries to create a laid back atmosphere in the meetings. Measures such as selecting a different genre of music to play at each meeting help people to feel relaxed.
“Some people, when they first join, aren't comfortable about speaking in front of everyone. But the more they do it, the better they get. These meetings aren't long, but they’re so useful for the whole company,” he said.
business size: 10-49 People
business type: Consumer Goods
Black+Blum has boosted revenue by cutting the number of products it makes and then improving that core range.
Dan realised he was better away from day-to-day leadership. Are there changes you could make to better utilise your real skills?
Dan discovered that his team do have useful ideas and challenges, they just have to be given the regular forum to share them openly.