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How it started: Furlough. How it’s going: We made £1m in revenue in five months

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Colleague Box

Faced with furlough and all the challenges the pandemic brought with it, Natalie and Adam Bamford turned a thoughtful idea into a million-pound business—all from their spare room.

Colleague Box has exploded from one version to 60 boxes and counting, with a selection to suit every taste and occasion. But just how did they do it, and what’s the plan post-pandemic?

Here’s what we cover in this article:

Colleague Box fact file

How did you come up with Colleague Box?

When did you realise that you had a budding business on your hands?

Did either of you have any experience running a business, or was it a completely new adventure?

How much cash did you need to get started? Did you need any investment for this sort of thing?

When you took your side hustle full time, how many hours did you put in on average?

Have you ever had any moments of doubt? Any moments where you thought you might give up, and if so, what made you turn that around?

How did you build your customer base?

How have you used social media?

Could you tell me a bit about some of the success that you’ve seen a year down the line?

What’s the Colleague Box vision for the next six to 12 months?

What’s your piece of advice for anyone dreaming about taking their side hustle full time?

Business name: Colleague Box

Founders: Natalie and Adam Bamford

Year started: May 2020

Location: Derby

Adam and I worked for the same company, and I was put on furlough in May 2020.

It was the middle of the pandemic, and a lot of my colleagues were forced to work from home. Our CEO wanted to send something out to everybody just to put smiles on people’s faces and boost morale because it was such an uncertain time.

He had this wonderful idea, but he didn’t know how to make it happen.

The brief was a letterbox-friendly gift box full of some treats and exciting things that he could personalise, and put a message in from the CEO that would just put a smile on people’s faces.

It might sound like an easy ask, but in the middle of a pandemic—when you couldn’t just nip to the shop, and we didn’t have suppliers or anything at this point—it was difficult.

And to find something that can fit in a letterbox-sized box as well.

But we got it done.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. A business that we sponsored got wind of what we’d done because quite a lot of our colleagues had put it on their social media.

They got in touch and wanted to do the same thing for their furloughed staff. It just snowballed from there.

I think it was when we sent them out to the Lincoln City Football Club—that was pretty big. A football club like that could have chosen anything, but they chose our boxes and loved what we were doing.

They even wrote a press release for us to talk about who we were and what we’ve done.

At that point, we kind of just thought: “Let’s go with this because it’s definitely got legs, even if it’s just for temporary, there’s something in this.”

But remote work seems here to stay, even if that’s in a hybrid capacity. Staying connected is as important now as it was when we started; that was a big part of what we want to achieve through Colleague Box.

No, we had no e-commerce or retail experience whatsoever.

I think we just got so excited by the initial feedback from the first batch we sent out and, then the demand came organically.

I learnt about things like social media marketing and e-commerce on the job.

For example, when over Christmas we had a huge amount of cardboard to recycle, we had to think about the best way to navigate that. And that’s something that we didn’t think about before.

So, you kind of learn by responding to situations like that—it’s a continuous learning curve.

I suppose it’s a bit skewed for us because those initial boxes that we sent out were paid for by the company that we worked for because it was in-house.

We only purchased very little stock to begin with, so we didn’t have any overheads at that point because we were just working from our home office.

So, we didn’t need to have masses of money to get started.

Of course, when we got further down the line, we looked at wholesale suppliers to keep the costs down for the products that go in the box. But we didn’t need any investment or loads of cash in the bank to start with.

Honestly, I think that’s the best route, because if you’re starting with heaps of debt, you feel that pressure immediately to claw that back.

And even now, it’s all self-funded. The money that we make, we put back into the business.

It got to the point where I was even dreaming about it.

It still happens sometimes, but I honestly felt like it didn’t ever stop.

I’m always thinking about new contents, new products, or new ways to shout about us on social media.

Early on, I would work on the business during the day, and in the evening Adam and I would just talk about it and then I’d go to bed and dream about it. It was because I was so excited about it, and so passionate about growing the business.

I’m quite fortunate that I’m able to—most of the time—fetch my little girl from nursery at five and take my eldest to school. So, it’s like a nine to five for me.

Adam works more than that, and at some points last Christmas he was working 14-hour days and coming home for three hours a night, and then going back to work.

Because of the warehouse that we’ve got obviously we can have access to it whenever we want, so yeah, coming in for three hours, having a quick sleep and then coming back down to work.

Absolutely. Particularly over Christmas.

We had one bespoke order of 23,000 and it was really, really great. A big box, an Advent box, so 12 gifts in this bespoke order, and 23,000 of those 12 gifts.

On top of that, we had customers asking for different bespoke boxes and we just said ‘yes’ to them all in October because we thought it’d be fine.

But everyone ended up wanting their boxes at the same time, what with virtual Christmas parties happening around mid-December—I think that was another 14,000 order on top of the 23,000.

There were times when I just hated it, because I felt overwhelmed and out of my depth and I don’t know how I got through some days.

But at the same time, I didn’t want to let people down whether that was our colleagues or the customers, Adam, myself, or my kids.

As a business owner you’re thinking: “What I really want to do is just go home and go under the duvet.”

But I knew we could get through it, it was just going to be tough for a couple of weeks and then we’d be back to the fun bit.

When we came back in January and it was quiet, I craved that buzz again.

I think with us, every recipient of the box is a potential customer. So, it’s mainly word of mouth.

A great example is one lady who received a box from her company. Her husband owns a company and seeing her reaction to this box from her employer—seeing how happy it made her—made him want the same for his team.

It’s almost a ripple effect that every box we send out, the more customers we get.

It’s pretty much our only form of marketing, which does make me feel quite a lot of pressure, because I do our social media!

But that is where most people hear about us.

And even though we don’t have a huge amount of followers, they’re genuine followers.

I know you can buy lists and follows for Instagram, but I don’t want to be that way. I want our followers to be authentic people who actually want to engage with us and get excited about what we’re doing.

People hear about us through there, and then they go on to contact us, or purchase through our website.

There are times when I think I’m not the right person for this. We need an expert in, we need someone who knows what they’re doing.

But at the same time, it’s working for us. And I enjoy it because I feel connected to our community.

Hitting the £1m mark after five months was just unreal. I still don’t quite believe it. When we set out, our accountant at the time said we needed to sell 7,000 boxes to break even.

We’ve sold over 100,000 and counting. And that just blows our minds.

We’re really grateful of the support we’ve had and the way the business has been received by companies all across the UK.

We have a great customer base in Derby where we’re based now, and Lincoln where we were originally.

Colleague Box is seeing orders from all over the UK now, with many returning customers which is lovely for us to see.

People are coming back to us time and time again, and not just for their colleagues anymore.

We’re getting a custom, bespoke website built, which will really help us expand our corporate gift services to include, for example, where we include higher-end hampers.

We’re also looking at offering more subscriptions and experiences.

We currently offer a monthly beer tasting one called Beers & Business Club, which is Adam’s baby.

It’s something people can enjoy remotely—you get sent a box with different beers in local, independent breweries, as well as snacks from a local shop.

You get a Zoom link and sit down for an informal chat with a surprise guest, a business leader who’ll share insights from their journey so far.

We hope to take these kinds of experiences face-to-face at some point too.

As well as the beer subscription we have also launched an Office Snack Box subscription for companies to order for their team to enjoy over the week, a fab little staff perk.

Another thing we’re expanding into it more are ‘experience’ type boxes.

For example, we have an Escape Room Box where the recipient has to crack the codes in the puzzles to discover who the sender is and what their message is.

And we are launching Craft Kits, Cook Along kits and Mindful boxes too.

We are always looking for new, exciting innovations that still fit in with our ethos and core aim of delivering happiness and putting smiles on people’s faces.

It’s really exciting that we are established yet small enough to quickly adapt and change.

Just do it.

It doesn’t have to take a lot of cash or risk to start, so use your expertise and those of the people around you.

Ask for favours, trades, or if you can have a chat over some beers to pick someone’s brain about your product.

When it comes to building your customer base, be reliable, deliver what you promise and shout about your successes. And be ready to adapt in an ever-changing world.

But, most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

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