Since launching in January, IoD 99 member Jamie Gray’s fledgling promo products company Buddy Burst – led by bestseller Seed Sticks – has sown its seeds everywhere from fashion retailers to Arsenal FC. But what can he do to ensure his horticultural business also blooms abroad?
Whether it’s branded ballpoint pens, monogrammed mousepads or chipped mugs emblazoned with the logos of little-known insurance firms, every workplace seemingly comes cluttered with the detritus of promotional swag. But if Jamie Gray gets his way there will be forget-me-nots sprouting beneath workstations, mini-gardens of basil and thyme germinating on office windowsills, or even trees taking root by the photocopier, turning open-plan sterility into sylvan fantasia.
The customisable packets, grow-packs and sticks of seeds sold by Gray’s Buddy Burst business are part of his plan to stake a foothold in Britain’s £763m promotional merchandise market. With his company’s eco-friendly seeds expressing CSR values more visibly than, say, branded golfing umbrellas, Gray claims they inspire loyalty too. He argues that by lavishing the plant with affection, users also impart some of that devotion towards the brand which gave it to them.
“A core life skill is nurturing something and seeing it grow,” says Gray. “You can keep plants for years, whereas pens may only last for a few months. In terms of brand awareness, it’s more memorable.”
According to 30-year-old Gray, the benefits stretch further than publicity. “When you can tangibly use what you’ve grown – herbs, for example – it’s hugely fulfilling. They also offer stress release – pottering around outside, forgetting about work troubles.”
Since launching in January, Buddy Burst’s biggest seller has been its Seed Sticks. Packaged like a book of matches, and made from biodegradable cardboard, the sticks can be torn off and planted in offices. Over 200,000 Seed Sticks have been sold so far, with Arsenal FC launching its own ‘Grow Your Own Emirates [Stadium]’ giveaway, complete with grass seeds.
The Buddy Burst concept came from a family holiday Gray took in Cuba in April 2015. “I was in the sea with my dad, telling him I’d find it more fulfilling if I worked for myself [Gray was then at creative agency BBD Perfect Storm],” he recalls. His father’s response was simple: “Well, I’ve got a product…”
Twenty-eight years ago, Gray Senior was made redundant from Wilkinson Sword [parent company of match-making firm Bryant and May]. As part of his redundancy package from the company, he won the rights to a side-product: matchboxes that replaced flint-striking surfaces with seeds. Despite minimum advertising, Gray Senior’s Seedstick matchbook now boasts a six-figure turnover.
“If he can achieve that revenue with minimum marketing, I see an opportunity to double or triple that through my experience and energy,” says Gray, who has a 10-year marketing and advertising career behind him. During his final six months at Perfect Storm, while “squirrelling money away so I could live”, Gray “dropped Buddy Burst’s idea into every conversation to find out whether there was a gap in the market”. His research found a “catatonic industry … with no injection of personality into any products … I wanted to be a challenger.”
Quitting his job last September, Gray developed Buddy Burst’s website and social media presence, formulated a business plan, sourced suppliers through his father (“he’s got 25 years in the industry”) and found engineers to make safer stapling and a biodegradable glue formula. For funding, Gray approached his local council, taking advantage of the New Enterprise Allowance (NEA). By the time Buddy Burst was launched four months later, Gray was “raring to go”.
With a freelance art director designing the packaging – Gray soon hopes to source recruits from Remploy, which provides employment for disabled workers – the next challenge was finding clients. His initial strategy was “exhausting the list of contacts I made in advertising”, sending out thank-you gifts as introductions. Becoming an IoD 99 member, he says, has also helped. “I use 116 Pall Mall for client meetings – it’s such an impressive place.”
By June this year “everything fell into place, when everybody I’d pursued suddenly started ordering”. A recent client is US-owned The Original Muck Boot Company, which became interested after Gray approached its head of marketing at a festival. Having noticed the executive was handing out branded packets of seeds as well as his business card, Gray suggested: “Stop spending X amount on seeds and Y amount on business cards, when you can save costs by bringing it into one.” The company duly ordered 5,000 units and plans to double that next year. An order has also been placed with Poppyscotland, part of the Royal British Legion group of charities.
With Buddy Burst having secured £50,000 in sales between January and August this year, Gray’s next move will be to start exporting. In March, he flew to the US to attend a trade show, where he found “nobody else doing what we do”. He also aims to find manufacturers who are based in the States, as “‘Made in the USA’ is a big selling point. Plus, this allows for greater flexibility with lead times and competitive pricing.”
Gray also wants to expand to Europe, but acknowledges “flying to every European country to find partners simply isn’t possible”.
He’s seeking advice over these exporting anxieties. “How do I find a ‘me’ in the US and Europe?” he asks. “I’d like an agent/partner who I can trust, who has the tools to sell to the right companies. I’ve no idea how to find these people.” Can our panel help?
Buddy Burst founder Jamie Gray asks: How do I find an agent/partner in the US and Europe to help sell and distribute my company’s promotional products?
Robert Ettinger, CEO, Ettinger
There is a company in the US, or say Germany in Europe, that is absolutely right for you – but the problem is finding them. There are hundreds out there, but how do you pick the right one?
We have always found that by showing at the right trade shows, one meets and talks to so many people and from that, ideas and connections come out of it. It is, to some extent, a bit of luck and won’t necessarily happen the first time, but don’t rush into it. It’s better to wait a bit longer than sign up with the wrong company. As far as manufacturing in the US is concerned, I’d wait a while, find the right partner, get the business going there, and then look for a US manufacturer; again, don’t rush into it. Finding a partner in the US is critical as many firms there prefer ordering and buying from a US company in America and paying in dollars.
You should also check on importing rules and regulations for your products as the US regulations can be very strict. Finally, remember that starting to do business in the US takes time. Be patient.
Joyce Kwong, managing director, Disruptive Business Consulting and a member of IoD Central London
As your main objective is to expand to US and European markets with the same products, why not explore an online sales and marketing strategy? I imagine your potential clients are probably sourcing their branded gifts and collaterals through either word of mouth or online search. It will be more efficient for a lean SME to invest in an online strategy combining digital marketing and e-commerce rather than an offline approach to find more people like yourselves in the US and Europe to become your trusted partners.
For potential clients, the key attraction to your products is your innovative idea and design – you are unique in a crowded, commoditised gifts and premiums market. These attributes market themselves well online with a multimedia content marketing and social media strategy across different languages and markets.
My suggestion will be to grow your export business to the US and Europe with an online sales and marketing strategy that optimises SEO and SEM [search engine marketing] with a combination of content, social media and search marketing complemented by e-commerce. Start marketing your bestsellers on the most popular social media platforms and global online marketplaces – you will find that selling globally and scaling your business are easier than you imagine.
Gareth Roberts, former CEO of multinational oilfield service companies a member of IoD West Midlands
Your target geography (US and Europe) needs to be refined as it is unlikely you’ll find a single partner who can cover all this territory for you. Once you’ve decided ‘Where?’ you then move onto ‘How?’
My first port of call in these cases is the Department for International Trade, which took over from UKTI in the summer. They have trade advisers in the UK who can help you distil your requirements and then I’d recommend commissioning an Omis (overseas market introduction service) in the target country.
This will provide specific market research material, some guidance on best practice for commercial arrangements, and direct in-country contacts. They will also help you set up your initial meetings in the target territory – an introduction from a UK embassy overseas carries a lot of respect when trying to make initial contacts. I have used UKTI support to help me set up new ventures in Vietnam, Siberia, Brazil and Turkey, and they have also helped me decide to avoid certain countries that were not appropriate for our strategy at the time.
I would also recommend using their export support services if you haven’t done so already, but always remember that they are providing introductions and guidance; the ultimate decision is yours.
Thanks for your expert answers. I believe patience is key and exploring my options carefully is important. There is no huge rush to expand outside the UK, given that the home market is currently my bread and butter and continues to provide ample opportunity. When I started trading, I did explore using UKTI but they were unwilling to invest too much time due to my company’s size. But now that business is thriving I will reengage with them and hope they can provide support. On Joyce’s point, this is more great advice and something I will action immediately. I’m investing more in social media and search marketing, as well as creating blog content – with guest writers and thought-provoking articles, this should help drive SEO.
Jamie Gray is a member of IoD 99
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