Growth & Customers

How to fail successfully

Discover how a tech entrepreneur took an idea, dropped out of uni to pursue it, and eventually ended up creating multi-million-pound business SoPost.

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In this digital age, it is of no surprise that one single tweet could inspire a multimillion-pound business idea.

Jonny Grubin was a 17-year-old student when he saw a tweet that made him want to create a solution to a stranger’s problem. He saw an opportunity to create a business with other like-minded entrepreneurs from across the globe. However, things didn’t exactly go to plan.

After a failed attempt with no generated income, Jonny was still dreaming about making this idea a reality and after years of determination, the online sampling partner, SoPost, was born.

This episode will teach you how to preserve through unlikely setbacks, how to survive once you find success and how to use your copycats to fuel your motivation.

Dive into the highlights below:

SoPost: Creating powerful online sampling campaigns

How is SoPost different to other sampling channels?

A handful of strangers, one tweet and an idea making no money

Take qualified risks and build trusting relationships

Cold-contacting and networking can eventually lead to big business deals

Both your customers and copycats can help you to innovate and improve your business

How to prioritise and keep yourself focused

Surviving success and staff growth

Identifying your own strengths and weakness can catapult your business

Finding a business coach

Don’t wait around on decisions you know you’re going to make— just pull the plaster off

If your business feels like a burden and the sacrifices are too high, then maybe it might be time to re-consider

There’s always room for growth and a new challenge

SoPost: Creating powerful online sampling campaigns

Bex Burn-Callander:

Jonny, thank you so much for joining me today. How are you? Where are you?

Jonny Grubin:

It’s so nice to be here. I am in our HQ in Newcastle today. It’s raining a lot outside, but I’m really excited to be here recording this podcast with you.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I feel like you are one of Newcastle’s finest, because I always see SoPost and all these rankings like, fastest growing in the Northeast, Newcastle tech superstar. You are really flying the flag for tech in your local city.

Jonny Grubin:

We’re definitely trying our best.

I grew up here. I know I don’t sound like it, but I’ve been really passionate about building something in Newcastle.

It’s nice to be making a name for ourselves, but there are a lot of other amazing companies here as well who should be waving the flag for the city.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Well, on that point, SoPost, a lot of listeners might not have heard of you because you are this clever infrastructure that powers the sampling campaigns of all these big brands.

But maybe tell us a little bit about what you do and what’s made you such a fast growth superstar.

Jonny Grubin:

It’s funny that you say fast growth superstar, because we are coming up to our 10th birthday.

I think if you were to just come across us as a new business today, you’d be like, “Wow, they’ve grown so quickly.”

But you often forget that it’s taken a decade to get to this point. Also, a few years of work prior to even launching as SoPost. Our business today is very different to the idea that I originally launched with.

Today, everything that we do is really focused on helping brands, retailers, and publishers run incredibly powerful product sampling campaigns online. But I’m not going to lie, I never woke up one day and thought, “Oh, I know. I’m going to tackle product sampling.”

That wasn’t something that I even knew about. We do a lot of work in the beauty space and I can’t say I was particularly up to speed on what foundation was best, or even what fragrance sense I liked.

But today, we act as the platform that helps these brands and retailers run really powerful sampling campaigns online.

Essentially, we have a technology platform that makes it really easy for them to integrate sampling almost anywhere online, whether that’s within their advertising, on platforms like Instagram and TikTok.

Maybe they’re working with influencers, and you can swipe up on that influencer’s story to request a sample for yourself. Or maybe it’s through a piece of content on the brand’s website or with a retailer that they’re working with.

We have all of these different tools that make it really easy for sampling to plug in absolutely anywhere online. And then we power absolutely everything from that point onwards. The experience that a consumer has with the brand sampling program, that’s all powered by our platform.

There’s a lot of clever work that we do on the data side. Not just collecting names and delivery information, but we have some really cool machine learning algorithms that will analyse an order and make sure that the experience you receive is the right experience for you and for the brand.

The physical distribution of samples is all taken care of by us as well. And then once the samples have been delivered, there’s a ton of work that we do to measure the impact and hopefully, convert you to purchase if it’s product that you’ve liked.

The best way to think about us really is as the infrastructure for brands to run these powerful sampling campaigns online. It’s all focused on helping them do so in a way that is much more relevant than conventional forms of sampling, it provides a lot of data capabilities and really deep insights and analytics that typically haven’t been there in the past.

You asked about how you become a fast-growing business. I think one of the things for me was that I’d spent years and years trying to make this company something else, and I’m sure we’ll get onto that origin story and what SoPost was originally intended to be.

But I think the thing for me was that when we started exploring the world of sampling, it seemed like fundamentally it was a really powerful form of marketing. What I wasn’t trying to do was totally reinvent the wheel.

I was coming out with a better way to do something that had been done for decades, if not centuries or millennia. That meant that starting from a really strong foundational base gave us an incredible, I guess, launch pad from which to try and build something.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Because it’s true that sampling used to be pretty hit and miss. You were talking about beauty there, but I remember being a teenager and going into Boots or whatever, and the sampling was just grabbing the free things, just scrubbing on the back of my hand. Or usually, even more disgusting, actually putting on the lipstick and walking out.

And then obviously, the brand learns nothing about what you like or whether you are even the kind of person that would buy.

How is SoPost different to other sampling channels?

Bex Burn-Callander:

Presumably, the idea that then they know who this potential customer could be, do you look at things like how likely they are to buy? Can you tell that much about someone who swipes up an Instagram ad?

Jonny Grubin:

There’s a lot of things that we do at different points of the journey. You are absolutely right to say when you walk into Boots, there’s no science behind it. There’s a ton of wastage. Frankly, the brand doesn’t even know who you are or if you liked it.

What we are really trying to do is just improve on that and make sure that instead of it just being a case of giving away as many samples as possible and hoping for the best, it’s about saying actually, how do we flip that around and perhaps give away fewer samples, but make sure that each of them is performing and converting as strongly as possible?

We don’t know everything about people and there’s nothing creepy that we do on the data side. But obviously, being data enabled, really helps us out at certain points.

First and foremost, it means that we can be much more confident that once somebody receives a sample from us, they’re receiving it for the right reason. It’s not just, Bex has walked into Boots and wants to try some new lipstick. It’s actually, Bex is in the market for a new lipstick so let’s send her one.

And then once you’ve received a sample, even if you haven’t enjoyed the product, it’s still valuable to know that. But we can collect a ton of feedback directly from consumers.

There are some quantitative measurement that we can gather as well. We haven’t fully closed the loop from trial to purchase, but the insights that we have are so much deeper than what is available through some of those more conventional channels.

A handful of strangers, one tweet and an idea making no money  

Bex Burn-Callander:

Jonny, you hinted that basically, the origin story is quite interesting. It was all prompted by a tweet from Ben Way about wanting to get an item delivered to someone, he’s dyslexic, but he doesn’t know the address. And that you and like eight people from around the world came together.

But then I’m missing the bit in the middle.

What happened that took you from eight people around the world trying desperately to collaborate on this really groundbreaking and complicated bit of tech to Jonny’s on his own, launching a business from scratch again?

Jonny Grubin:

I think about that a lot, and part of me is amazed that we ever did that. You’re probably in 2009 at this point. I was 17. Ben sent out a tweet and I was just like, “That’s an amazing idea. I want to be involved with.”

It turns out a number of other people had the same view as me. What happened with this group of us who had never even spoken on the phone before, let alone anything else, we decided we were going to get together and try to build this company.

The concept wasn’t as advanced as my original idea for SoPost, but it was really all about allowing somebody’s Twitter handle or email address to be used as a facilitator for physical deliveries.

The hypothesis that we had was that people didn’t necessarily want others to know their delivery address, which also turned out to be wrong. Turns out if I’m sending something to a friend, they don’t particularly care if I have their address. It should be much more about the convenience and simplicity of it.

Also, if I’m buying something from someone on eBay, again, I trust that eBay seller. It’s not about privacy. It’s much more about, is it easy to use?

This group of us have got together and decide, yes, we’re going to start this thing and we are just going to take on the world and see what happens. We all got together. Everyone was doing different things.

I think I was studying for my A levels at the time. We had a couple of guys who were running their own businesses, all from very different walks of life. We decided that we weren’t going to raise any investment for it. We had some programmers who were doing the coding, we had some designers and so on and so forth.

When we launched, we launched a couple of weeks before I started at university. What we had done was we’d formed partnerships with two pretty big delivery companies in the UK, who had adopted our concept of an addressless label.

What that meant was that you, as a consumer, could go to our website, you could purchase a delivery, but instead of giving you a label that had a postcode printed on there, it would just have a barcode. And because we’d integrated directly into these delivery companies, they knew what to do with the item.

But for your purposes, it was just going to this anonymous address.

We launched that and it was amazing. We had so much coverage. There was so much excitement from consumers and the media, and retailers and everybody. But critically, no one was really using the product and we weren’t making any money.

I remember at one point, we had some coverage multiple times over a weekend on BBC Click, which was their tech innovation show that went out globally on the BBC News channel. I think we sold about £5 worth of deliveries.

Bex Burn-Callander:


Jonny Grubin:

Yeah. It sucked. We decided not raise any money. I was just making the decision to drop out of university to go full time on this thing.

From the outside, it probably looked like we were flying, but it was awful. We eventually at one point, printed out the entire user journey that you had to go through if you wanted to send or receive an item from us.

It was like a 25-step process. Whilst we were trying to make the experience of sending or receiving items easier, it was so complicated to use our product.

Take qualified risks and build trusting relationships

Bex Burn-Callander:

Was there a moment then when you all had to be like, “Guys, we’ve reached the end of the road?”

Jonny Grubin:

I wish it had been as straightforward as that. In hindsight, one of the issues was that you probably shouldn’t start a business with eight people you’ve never met before.

In that startup pre-launch phase, it was amazing. It really did feel like it was us against the world and we could achieve anything. Frankly, we secured these two deals with these massive delivery companies. One of them committed a huge amount of marketing budget to it.

I look back on that and I think, wow, what an experience. How on earth did we do that? We had nothing that entitled us to that. We certainly weren’t qualified to do any of this, but we made it happen.

But I think one of the issues was that once we launched and once, we realised that the thing that we had launched with needed to change, we hadn’t built the perfect product on day one, that’s where things started to become harder.

Because we hadn’t raised investment because nobody owned enough of a chunk of the business in their own right, there was no real leadership or direction. When we ran into problems, there wasn’t really a way that we could get out of it very easily.

We had all these different factions forming, and then I was put in the CEO position. All along, I was just convinced in the power of the idea. I think I certainly turned a blind eye to it for so long because I was just in love with the idea and I was so emotionally invested in it that probably, for about two years, that was all I focused on. And honestly, we didn’t get anywhere.

Then a couple of people left the team and eventually I can’t remember what triggered it exactly, but we threw in the towel and said, “You know what? The idea has legs, but this isn’t something that we can tackle right here, right now.”

I went from trying to lead this idea, to getting a job working in a frozen yogurt shop. In the first two weeks of doing that, I made more income than I had had in the year-and-a-half since dropping out of university.

It was a lot less stressful as well, but I never let that idea get away from me. I went from frozen yogurt to working in a tech incubator/accelerator where I was leading product. When I was there, it’s going to sound cliche, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this other idea. I’d be in bars with friends, and I’d be thinking about it.

I think I had a number of dreams about it, and I knew that I wanted to have another crack at it.

That was why when I launched SoPost, I didn’t spend a year building something to then figure out whether or not it was working. It was about very quickly launching something, iterating, and going from there.

I had a great upbringing, but I wasn’t in this privileged position where I could just afford to go and test something. I needed to pay my rent. I needed to pay my bills. And I’m a great believer in taking qualified risks.

A lot of people often ask me, “Should I just drop out of university and try this idea?” I’m like, “Well, would you go into a casino and put all your money on roulette?” Maybe some people would. But for me, I don’t think it’s necessary to do that.

When I was starting SoPost, I had these restrictions that I needed to have some income, but I was also so passionate about this idea. So when I started working at this accelerator, I made a deal with Simon, who had founded it, which was that he knew that I wanted to go off and do my own thing at some point.

He said, “Look, Jonny, come in, start full-time on our products and our focus. But as and when you have something that you want to pursue, as long as you’re covering your cost within this business, spend a day a week doing your own thing. And then two days a week, and then three days a week.”

Actually, in the last year that I was employed by that company, 95% of my time was spent building SoPost. Of course, they got an equity stake in exchange for it, which is touchwood, incredibly valuable today.

But what that meant for me was that I could spend a year getting SoPost to a certain point without having to worry about whether I was going to be able to pay the bills, about whether I had a roof over my head or not.

It meant that I could test things and get it to the point where I could then try to raise some investment and gradually build it up from there.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s so lucky though, that you had this enlightened boss who was able to see that he was better off having you in a shorter term, but having you committed and then be able to let you pursue your venture, than it would’ve been to be like, “No, you have to be 9 to 5. There’s no time for anything else.” That’s amazing.

Jonny Grubin:

Yeah, I know. I’m very grateful for that because I think he could have easily said, “Well, no.”

I think it takes a lot of trust to let somebody do that. I think it was trust that went both ways. When I was working on their products, I treated that company like it was my own.

I think there was one period where I worked 60 days straight, which maybe not particularly healthy. But even though it wasn’t my name on the cap table, I still acted like it was my company. And I think he saw that.

Even when I was spending my time trying to get SoPost up and running, I was still making sure that I was covering my costs within that business. Whilst it wasn’t getting eight or nine or 10 hours a day out of me, the value, it was still coming through.

But I think the reality is, if he hadn’t allowed me to develop a relationship like that, I wouldn’t have been able to get SoPost up and running, certainly not in the timeframe that I had in the end.

Cold-contacting and networking can eventually lead to big business deals

Bex Burn-Callander:

And then back to your Avon connection. You ended up going on this different path because of this amazing woman who saw potential in the tech.

Then once you’d completed that project, how did you get more customers? Did word just spread like wildfire and suddenly the whole beauty industry was like, “Me, me, me”? Or did you have to do something clever to get the word out?

Jonny Grubin:

Over time, word did spread. But I learned very early on, prior to SoPost, probably when I was 14, that stuff doesn’t just happen.

I remember when I launched my first business and I expected to wake up the next day with just all these orders and it just didn’t materialise. I think as good as anything you’re doing is, you still need to make that traction happen. It’s not just going to come.

I think whilst I understand the tech side of things, as hard as it is to put yourself in a bucket, I describe myself as a commercially focused product guy. With that, I think I found myself in this really interesting position where I can talk in depth about the tech, and I can really build out roadmaps that are right for whoever I’m trying to work with. But also, I can go out and sell.

In the early days, I hate this word, but I guess I went out and hustled. I cold-emailed people. I went to networking events. I think every evening, I was out at a different event. Slowly but surely, I managed to get some traction.

But what I see a lot of people do today is, they’ll go on LinkedIn and then they’ll just blanket message 100 people with the same communication. That wasn’t me.

I would go and say, okay, I want to try and get into Britvic. So I would find the right contact, I’d personalise something, and I would pursue it, but in a friendly way. I would go to these people and say, “Hey, I’m building this thing. I’d love to come, and I’d love to get some advice from you.”

There’s that old adage that if you ask for money, you get advice. If you ask for advice, you get money. In my experience, it’s true.

I’d go and meet these people in very senior positions at this company, really just to show them what I was building and to try to get their input. But more often than not, that would lead to pilots, which would then lead to bigger deals. Then others would see it and it would go from there.

In the early days, it was very much, the business was coming off the back of me cold-contacting people or trying to find ways to meet people.

I’d see that a person I was trying to contact was going to an event. So I would just happen to be there and strike up a conversation with them, which was quite hard as well. I think it is very different today, but I’m not naturally extroverted. It’s something that I had to push myself to do, and I found it very uncomfortable. In fact, I still often do find that kind of thing uncomfortable.

And then as time went on, it’s different industry by industry, but certainly in my world, a lot of brands look at what their competitors are doing. Also, people move from brand to brand. But I think for me, there were certain points where I can see, okay, this was a big inflection point for the business on the sales side.

One of them was when we started working with Cadbury, and then the second was when we started working with Burberry. But really, it was just building on what we were doing, and building, and building, and building.

It was only until several years in that we actually went out and tried to set up a proper sales team. Based on my focus and experiences that I’d had in the past, I wanted to make sure that we’d nailed the product down first. Then I wanted to make sure that we had the best account management that we could have.

Only at that point, did I want to go out and start building out the sales infrastructure. On the basis that, if you’ve got a great product and you’ve got great account management, A, your customers are going to stick with you, but B, they’re going to generate inbound business for you because others are going to see what they’re doing.

That was the strategy we took. For the most part, it’s worked out really well, but I think for us, it has really been about that dedication to the customer. It’s going to sound cliche, but going above and beyond and just making sure that we’re delivering for them. And that we keep to our promises, really.

I think even today, we’re a company of 85 people today. Of course, I’m not involved in every customer conversation. Some of them I’ve had no interaction with at all, but they know that if there’s a problem, they can come to me, and we’ll fix it.

Everyone in the company cares but knowing that there’s somebody there who really cares about doing right by the customer first and foremost, rather than just trying to maximise the money you’re making from them, knowing that you’ve got me there, who my whole reputation’s attached to SoPost, it makes a huge difference.

I think it allows us to build relationships and do work that others might struggle to deliver on.

Both your customers and copycats can help you to innovate and improve your business

Bex Burn-Callander:

When it came to building out the technology, so figuring out what functionality to build in, what to prioritise, did all of that come from your customers?

Were you just basically asking them, “What else would you like this to do?” Was that the roadmap in terms of innovation?

Jonny Grubin:

I wish I could say yes, because we probably would’ve got to where we should have been a lot faster than otherwise.

When we launched SoPost as the sampling business, the one thing that we did was allow brands to let their customers gift samples to their friends. That was all that we did for the first few years.

My view on this, was that gifting experience was where the real value in SoPost lay. But we actually had a lot of our customers coming to us and saying, “Hey, we loved what you do with the gifting, but we want to use your technology in other ways. We just want a form that we can stick on our website and let somebody enter their information to get a sample.”

I was sat there thinking, “What’s the point in that? There’s no value in it whatsoever.” I very stubbornly, despite the request from our customers, despite my team saying we should go out and do this, very stubbornly I said, “We’re not going to do that. That’s not what our business is.”

But when I eventually stepped back and looked at it objectively, it became quite clear that yes, there was value in that gifting, but that wasn’t the main reason why brands were working with us.

The reason they were working with us was because it was a qualified sampling experience, but of course, you don’t just need a recommendation to qualify somebody. There are other ways to do it.

But also because of the benefits that the data provided and the analytics. Really, if you look at what we were doing with or without the gifting and compare it to sampling in store or with magazines or at events, there were so many additional benefits that we offered that they couldn’t get elsewhere.

In that scenario, it was very much our customers asking for something and me stubbornly say no, we don’t see the value in it.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You’re slamming the door in their faces.

Jonny Grubin:

Exactly. Yeah.

But no, I think we have to be very aware of what our customers are asking for. I think there have been a number of scenarios where we said, actually, we’re not going to do that, even though customers are really asking for it.

You know what? Most of the time they’re right and we end up building it.

But I think you need to be careful not to fall into a position where you’re just building things that a customer wants, or you’re not just building things that one customer wants, that isn’t going to provide value to your long-term strategic goals. Or isn’t going to provide value to your other customers.

I’d actually say the things that most impact our roadmap, aside from the customer requirements that are coming through, are firstly, our vision for this space. I very much do wake up and think about this stuff now.

I think we see the world of sampling in a very different way, probably to anyone else on the planet. We’ve got a very clear view of where we think it can go and what technology we need to build to get there.

And then the other thing which really does motivate us and drive us is seeing all the competition enter the market. Because when we started back in 2012, we were first to market. There was nobody else doing this.

Then really since the onset of the pandemic, because you haven’t been able to sample in those traditional ways, we’ve really seen a lot of people come and enter. There are a number of those competitors who I have a ton of respect for. I think that they’re doing things in their own way, and whether I agree with their approach or not, there’s a lot of mutual respect there.

But then you have others who come in and really just copy us, to the point where you go on their website and you’ll see our assets on there, or they’ve forgotten to take SoPost out of the terms and conditions.

You stop and think, “Hold on a second, these guys are just ripping us off and they’re trying to benefit from decade’s worth of work that we’ve done to enter the market.” What that does though, is it motivates us to keep innovating and to keep building, and really honestly push ourselves further with the development roadmap that we’ve got.

I look at some of the functionality we have today, around, for example, being able to intelligently filter orders to the best experience for that consumer. That was something that we’ve been thinking about for years and years and years, but we actually accelerated the development of it because we saw people come into the market and just try to compete in a way that we thought wasn’t fair.

They were just trying to rip us off as opposed to doing their own thing. There are a number of features that we’re going to be launching over the next year that are similar. We’ve been thinking about them for a while.

They’re really going to change the way this space works completely.

But the reason we’re launching them now, and the reason we hadn’t launched them in the past is actually because it’s just going to set that really clear distinction between us and those people who don’t really have any innovative thoughts of their own and can’t just come in and copy those things.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s really interesting to know that it’s like the copycats, they put pressure on you. But it’s positive pressure. It’s pressure to actually keep excelling.

How to prioritise and keep yourself focused

Bex Burn-Callander:

But I wanted to know, so do you take yourself off in a dark room when you’re thinking about what to focus on? How do you prioritise? How do you work out like, this month, we’re going to do this?

Because you mentioned how there can be distractions, and you’d want to know that what you’re working on is actually a value driver. And not something that it’s going to send you off on some crazy tangent, but sometimes it must be hard to tell the difference.

Jonny Grubin:

It’s really difficult.

I’d say actually, as the business has grown, it becomes more difficult and not easier. In the early days, there was a team of five of us and it was very much me leading the product development. The feedback loops were so quick. We could go to a brand and test something and then rework it.

Whereas now, we constantly have activities running. I think we’ve got 30 or so people in the product talk, 30 or so in the commercial log. Even just understanding what customers are looking for, I’m not as connected to those conversations as I was when it was me leading all of those conversations.

I’d say a few things to that. One is, part of it is really about having this conviction that what we think about the space is right and we’re going to build that out. But I’d say for the most part, it’s about really trying to ship early and often.

In that when I launched SoPost before the sampling, I didn’t spend a year building something. It was a case of we hacked together something over the course of a few weeks, and tested and find that easiest possible way to test things. And that’s what we do today.

When we launch a new market, this isn’t specifically about a new product development, but when we launch a new market, we don’t go into Australia, hire five people, and then try to build the business there.

What we do is we test it from the UK. It’s like, okay, we are going to find a way to prove out positively or negatively, whether this is a market that we should go into.

It’s only once we’ve generated a little bit of traction from brands that we say okay, we know there’s something here. Now, we’re going to go and make that investment in the team.

I think it’s very similar on a lot of the product things. Sometimes it’s a case of we’ll go to a brand and say, “Hey, we’re building this thing out. Do you want it?” And if 10 of the brands say no, then we might kill it before we’ve got very far down the development road.

On the other hand, if we have five or six brands coming to us and saying, “Hey, we want to do something in this space,” we know that the demand is there, and we know that we can build traction off it.

These two things contradict, but I think part of it is just about having the conviction that what you’re trying to build is the right thing, even if your customers don’t see it. And then on the flip side, it’s really taking on board what they are saying and pivoting quickly, if you see that they are taking something up or not.

And then I guess the other thing I’d say is that internally, you really need to build a lot of communication channels. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by an incredible group of people who get the business and are senior leaders on the product side. They get more than just the product.

Likewise, our senior leaders on the commercial side, they understand more than just the sales figures that sit behind this. Having that team who really can look in depth at these things and who I trust to come with the right insights and to figure out what we should be doing.

It means that we can scale up and do a dozen different things at the same time and have more than just a hope. Have the knowledge that we are building in the right direction.

Surviving success and staff growth

Bex Burn-Callander:

Jonny, I want to hear a bit about the terrifying consequences of success.

Because I think when I first spoke to you, it was like 2017 or 20 18. SoPost had grown. It was more than 2000%. I remember seeing that and just thinking, how do you do that, in terms of how many new staff you must have had to hire, all your back-office functions?

It’s not sexy to talk about it, but how do you survive a leap that big? Can you share any of your learnings from that crazy time?

Jonny Grubin:

Even in the last year, we grew from 30 or so people to 60 or so, and we’re 85 today. The revenues have accelerated at a pretty astronomical rate as well.

It’s funny, because I remember not long after we raised our seed round of investment, I was sat in a board meeting. We were eight people at the time I think. I told my board, I said, “Hey, just to let you guys know, when we get to 20 people, you’re going to need to replace me because I’m not going to be the right person to lead the company at that size.”

I’ve only ever been in small businesses, and for me, a team of 20 people was huge.

The board said, “Jonny, thank you for letting us know, but we think you’ll be fine.” And today, we’re a team of 85 people.

Now, I’m sitting here thinking, gosh, when we get to 300 people, they’re going to have to replace me. But they would probably say the same thing, which is, “Jonny, thank you for your concern, but we know you’ll get there.”

I think a lot of it is just about that. It’s about learning with the business and really a commitment to your own development.

I’d say in particular, that growth from 30 to 60 in a very short period of time was really hard for me, because you go from being at a size where you know everybody’s name, you have personal relationships with people, to needing to put a lot of these back-office functions in.

So you need a proper HR department now. You need to think about processes and all this stuff that as an entrepreneur who’s only ever started things, rather than grown things, it’s all of those things that you hate and also, you just have no experience of.

That coupled with the pandemic not only had the business doubled in size, but I couldn’t get to know the team in the way that we could in the past.

I think one aspect of it is really surrounding yourself with the right people. Our CFO, he’s been with us for, he’s going to kick me because I’m going to get it wrong, but for four or five years now. He joined us from Mediacom, one of the largest media groups in the country, where he was responsible for 1,500 people. He joined us when we were about 20 people.

But having someone there who has seen a bigger organisation and has been able to adapt to a fast-growing startup was incredibly valuable for me. Particularly when you start modeling out cash flows and P&Ls, because I tell you this, having a wage bill of 80 people, again, it’s very different to a wage bill of 15.

But I’d say the thing that was probably the most valuable for me is, about a year ago, I got myself a leadership coach. Because whilst the business was growing, I recognised in myself that I wasn’t developing at the pace that the business needed me to.

Getting a coach who could help, firstly, she could look at things objectively. She had no connection to the business other than being my coach. But she really helped me work through things. She helped me tackle assumptions that I had around what my role should be.

I found myself in a position where I felt like I was doing a lot of things that I thought the business needed me to be doing, but that I didn’t enjoy doing and I wasn’t particularly good at. She really helped me understand that actually, it’s not a bad thing if I focus my efforts on the areas that I am great at. Or as she termed it, where my magic lies.

For me, that’s been incredible, and it makes me less daunted now about going from 80 to 150 people, because what I do today is very different to what I did three years ago. I know that I can mold my role around my strengths and also selfishly, the things that I enjoy.

Because I know that operationally, I’m not that good. Actually, it’s of no help to the business if I’m trying to be operational and not being customer-facing and failing it at both things.

Identifying your own strengths and weakness can catapult your business

Bex Burn-Callander:

Was it obvious to you the things that you were good at and the things that you weren’t that good at though?

Because I can imagine that if you’ve been doing that role for a long time and you’ve learned so much and you’re so competent at lots of things, it can be quite tricky to work out exactly what you need to jettison from your timetable.

Jonny Grubin:

Yeah. Well, I think it was the other way. I was jettisoning the things that I was good at, because I felt like I had an obligation to do the other things.

For me, and it might just be that I’m lucky or unlucky in this respect, but the things that I’m not very good at, it overlaps with the things that I don’t enjoy doing.

Once Tia and I sat down and mapped out where I was spending my time, it was pretty clear to highlight what my strengths were and what my weaknesses were.

Even today, I’m still having to do a lot of stuff that frankly, I’m not very good at and I don’t enjoy doing. But because I’ve acknowledged that they’re not strengths and I don’t feel bad about not being great at them, I don’t feel the weight or the burden of it like I used to.

For me, that’s been critical because I don’t think you can grow a business at such a pace if you, as the leader, aren’t developing yourself.

I’ve seen so many other entrepreneurs who haven’t grown up at the same rate, and it can be really crippling just in terms of the stress that you often feel yourself in there.

Finding a business coach

Bex Burn-Callander:

How did you find your coach? Was she a recommendation? Did your board help you? Or were you Googling at three in the morning, help me?

Jonny Grubin:

She was actually one of our very first customers.

She used to run digital marketing at a big beauty company. And then fast forward a few years, she left that career and she set up a coaching business.

For me, she was a perfect fit because also, I’ve never had a therapist. I’ve never had a coach. The idea of that, where you have to be completely vulnerable and open with somebody, it was difficult anyway.

But then also, when you are mid pandemic and you can’t do this stuff in person, I needed somebody who I knew and trusted. So I went with her for that reason.

But actually a lot of my team work with her or her colleagues now. Not just for my benefit, but I think the business is doing better because Tia and her colleagues are helping us all figure out what our strengths are, and figure out how we develop in the direction that we want to.

Don’t wait around on decisions you know you’re going to make— just pull the plaster off

Bex Burn-Callander:

If you cast your mind back for me, Jonny, and you think about the first few years of the business, if you could go back and tell yourself, don’t make that particular decision, is there a mistake that sticks in your mind that you would love to warn other startup entrepreneurs not to make?

Is there just one real doozy?

Jonny Grubin:

Is there a mistake I would warn others not to make? Gosh, I’ve made too many to count.

I think I’ve often been scared of making decisions. I think when I’ve looked back on them, whether it’s about, should we take the product in a certain direction or is this the right person for the team, I’ve always known what decision I should have made.

But for various reasons, I delayed making it.

I’ve never regretted making any of those decisions. What I’ve regretted is not making them sooner. I think that’s it.

If you know or if you feel like you know, just do it. Pull the plaster off.

It’s always going to hurt regardless of whether you do it now or in a month’s time, but you’ll be better off knowing.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Do you follow that advice now? Are you quite quick fire now on decisions? Or is this still an ongoing battle?

Jonny Grubin:

It’s an ongoing battle, but I’m trying.

If you’re business feels like a burden and the sacrifices are too high, then maybe it might be time to re-consider

Bex Burn-Callander:

You dropped out of university to focus on the first iteration of the business that then became SoPost.

I want to know, do you feel like you’ve made a lot of personal sacrifices to be successful at what you do? Or have you managed to have a balance throughout your career? Do you look back and think, oh, you know what I had to give up on X or Y to be here?

Jonny Grubin:

Well, I definitely did. But I think this idea of balance is a slightly flawed concept.

When I was starting SoPost, I’m not ashamed to say I overworked myself. I was working probably 12-hour days, seven days a week, on the regular.

That’s definitely not something that you can do for an extended period of time, but I don’t think I would’ve got the business to where it needed to get to or get it to that next stage had I not made that commitment.

The honest answer is yes, I have made sacrifices, but they’re exactly the sacrifices that I wanted to make.

Today, I’m traveling constantly, which makes it hard to fit in all the running I like to do. Sometimes it makes it hard to hold down relationships. I don’t even keep fresh food in my fridge because I know it’s going to go off.

Those are all sacrifices, but it’s easy to sit back and moan about them and say, “Oh, I wish I could sleep in my own bed rather than on a plane tonight.” But I stop and think about it and it’s like, actually I’d rather have what I’ve got than the thing I’m missing out on.

The reality is, particularly now, if I wanted to change any of that, it’s all in my power. It’s all in my control. But I think at the start, I never stopped and thought, hey, my friends have it better than me, because I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. I knew that in order to move forward, I had to make that commitment.

I think that’s maybe something people should be asking themselves. If you are weighing up how invested in something you are, maybe the good test of that is whether it feels like a burden or not, whether you feel like you’re missing out.

When I was at home working late and my friends were out clubbing, I never felt like I wanted to be doing the other thing. Which maybe sounds really nerdy to say, but that’s just the reality of it. I think if it was the other way, maybe that would’ve been a sign to me that I should perhaps be doing something different.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You don’t want to regret your choices.

Jonny Grubin:

Exactly. Yeah.

There’s always room for growth and another challenge

Bex Burn-Callander:

But you were always the startup guy.

Do you miss the cut and thrust of creating something new? Do you feel like at some point maybe you’ll be wizened and gray, but maybe you’ll be back with another startup?

Or is this challenge the right challenge now for you?

Jonny Grubin:

I love building things. There’s a lot that we still have to do with SoPost and I’m not thinking about a time when I’m not doing this. I think the position that I’m in now is great because not only am I getting this new experience of growing and building something, but also, I’m now able to start new things within the company.

For example, a couple of months ago, I ran a pilot to see whether we could build out our own local delivery network or not. Part of that was actually me going out and hand-delivering items to understand how it works.

Even though we’re this company with dozens of employees and multimillion-pound revenues, I’m still able to test an experiment with things. In some ways it’s better, because I’ve got resources behind me now.

Whereas in the past, it was literally like, I had no investment, nobody around me. Just go and try to figure that out. I think I have the best of both worlds, but if and when the next thing comes along, I’m 30, I can’t imagine I’m going to retire anytime soon.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I can’t see that happening. There’s just the energy just pouring into the screen. I just feel like you could do 50 million things at once.

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