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Courier produces useful, inspiring content for modern entrepreneurs. Our Friday newsletter features stories on working better and living smarter.
Friday 7th August

This week on the podcast we find out how Aishwarya Iyer of Brightland scaled her direct-to-consumer Californian olive oil company. Below, you’ll find tips on holding better video meetings, discover corporate swag that might avoid the junk-drawer, and see if rural coworking might get us out of cities. Enjoy.

Zoom has achieved the rare cultural feat of becoming a verb (‘Let me Zoom you’) – but it’s not the only service of its kind. This week we hopped on a video call with Øyvind Reed, CEO and co-founder of the Norwegian company Whereby – a web-based platform known for its privacy standards – which has grown substantially in recent months. ‘We've had 4x revenue growth in four months – it's just been absolutely crazy… The word game-changing is often used a lot. I think for us it's totally true,’ Øyvind says. Here’s what he told us about meetings.

We have too many of them. ‘Having back-to-back video calls all day, six or seven hours a day – that’s completely crazy. My advice is make sure you have time to actually get work done and not be stuck in video calls, because that can be a killer on productivity…. Most meetings are inefficient. They're not planned properly and there’s no clear action item at the end of them. Meetings that are run really efficiently, they're almost fun to be in, because there’s a clear agenda, it starts and stops on time, and everyone knows post-meeting what's being done.’

There are massive opportunities. ‘If you look at Zoom and, to a certain extent Whereby and others, sometimes we're retrofitting our use case to help someone get something done over video. But we're foreseeing huge growth in our API platform where we allow other companies to embed it into their own workflows. We're massive in healthcare in Scandinavia, for instance, where companies are using us to facilitate doctor-patient meetings. They’ll take care of the whole customer journey, but make sure the video call is taking place over Whereby.’

Privacy is in demand. ‘People are starting to see that big tech might not have their best interests at heart. So vendors and service providers that can guarantee more privacy and security will have a competitive advantage – but that requires you to make tough decisions on how you use that data. How does that impact your revenue and your ability to convert a free user to a paying user?’

There’s no one-size-fits all service. 'I spoke to an investor two days ago who said he’d been on four different platforms that day – Google Meet, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Whereby. Very often it's the person inviting or initiating the call that decides which platform to use. I always use the analogy of looking at your phone and seeing how many chat services you have on it. Depending on which of my friends is engaging with me, I’ll speak with them on [their preferred] platform. I won’t say ‘No, I can't use this, let's move to WhatsApp.'

The promotional merchandise industry is worth billions – but it’s fragmented, environmentally unfriendly and, depending on who you ask, stagnant. On the one hand are local, grassroots printers who might lack a digital presence, and on the other are bulk-buyers, importing cheap, mass-produced goods from Asia to sell on to corporate customers with a hefty markup. But with the rise in consumer interest in ethical supply chains, the corporate swag sector – think branded stress balls, t-shirts and plastic USB sticks – is starting to evolve.

Merchery , founded by Brussels-based Simon Polet and Benoit Fortpied, is gunning to be the sustainable alternative. ‘Consumption now is short-termist – you get something, you like it for a week and then you throw it away,’ Simon tells us. ‘Every organisation on earth brands items. And it’s so much driven by our short-term appetite and reflects our current consumer age, which I hope will soon be over.’ Instead, he and Benoit have embedded transparency into their model. The products – everything from water bottles and candles to golf balls – can be traced back to the factory where it was made. For long-distance deliveries, Merchery also relies solely on train or boat transportation.

Despite launching mid-pandemic, the two founders discovered a willing buyer in banks, consultancy firms, food retailers and startups who bought into the accountability message. Our question: in a time when big events and big offices are becoming relics of a former era, will corporate swag still have a place? Simon, perhaps unsurprisingly, says yes. ‘Even if people are spread across countries, tangible gifts will be a great way for brands to express themselves away from the internet.’

Monday saw the launch of Birch , a new 'hotel meets health club meets coworking space’ a short drive outside of London. It was an arduous process to get the project off the ground, co-founder Chris King tells us. He and his partner Chris Penn, former MD of Ace Hotel London, originally had grand plans for the space as a corporate retreat. But then, as the familiar story goes, the pandemic hit and changed everything.

To make it through recent months they had to be agile – putting the business into hibernation mode, cutting costs, accepting government support, stopping paid advertising and creating an organic content strategy using team members (such as ‘Farmer Tom’ ). To accommodate for social distancing ahead of launch, they’ve tweaked some services, such as the size of their fitness classes (‘Clearly, we can't pack 30 sweaty bodies into a spin studio right now – class sizes have halved’) – but they’ve also altered the business model of the company itself.

Previously, Birch had a four-pillared model – membership, rooms, food and beverage, and corporate events – and they were pretty evenly spread, Chris says. ‘We had great interest in [the corporate events pillar]... but that market has just disappeared. We now have a three-pillared business. Inevitably that market will return… but we're certainly not relying on it or placing too much on it at the moment.’

Those areas previously reserved for blue-chip company retreats have since been repurposed and turned over to members: ‘There are some lovely big spaces which typically this time of year you’d expect to be full of corporate events. But at the moment, nobody's booking those events. So we've got more space for members to spread out. For those who were travelling into the city, working in WeWork or Soho Works in a much more congested environment – because the business models dictate that you can't spread out as much – we've got 55 acres here. There are plenty of rooms with plenty of doors open.’

We’ve been keeping close tabs on how working habits are shifting – from video conferencing habits (above) to new ‘work near home’ brands – and the close-to-a-city model (Birch is 11 miles outside of London) is an interesting one. ‘Will people dump their WeWork membership in London to come here? Will they dump their Soho House membership to come here?’ Chris asks. We’ll check back in a few months to find out.

We recently grabbed time with Dianna Cohen , founder of haircare brand Crown Affair, which launched only weeks before lockdown (keep an eye out for our ‘How I Live’ interview with Dianna in the next issue of our print edition). One interesting insight from the conversation was that hair might be following skin as the next big ‘care’ sector – i.e. the market's centre of gravity (where investment is happening and new brands are appearing) is shifting from beauty to health and self-care.

'It's been interesting to see a lot of other players in this category pivot towards care,' Dianna said. 'Haircare as a category hasn't been as democratised as skincare and colour cosmetics. And it's cool to see a lot more people wake up to being like, "Oh, my hair is a part of my wellbeing. And if I'm stressed, it will change. If something happens to me medically, it will change." It's not just about running to the salon or colouring it. Don't get me wrong, I love a good blowout, but you don't even know what they put on your hair – that's the crazy thing.'

As businesses adapt to what seem to be constantly changing market conditions, it's a good time to pause and look at the way you do things with fresh eyes. But how can you get a different perspective on your business when you’re so close to it? The Proximity Paradox by Kiirsten May and Alex Varricchio addresses that. ‘If you’re an expert in an area and you need to do something innovative, you’re going to need a set of fresh eyes,’ Kiirsten and Alex told us. Here are their tips to get some distance from business-as-usual…

  1. Invite newer employees or junior staff to your next brainstorm or problem-solving meeting. Take advantage of their fresh perspective.

  2. Interview a creative professional from another industry; ask them about their creative process to refresh the way you look at problems. 

  3. Give your company a fake name and pretend you’re a new disruptor that’s just entered your industry. How would you structure your business?

  4. Brainstorm with kids! Break your challenge down into the simplest, most-relatable form, and then recruit the little people in your life to help you solve it.

  5. Be conscious of your innovation and execution ceiling. Your innovation ceiling is the furthest reach of your imagination; it’s your ability to think creatively. Your execution ceiling is your ability to get things done with the resources you have available. Bring your innovation ceiling to blue-sky brainstorms and leave your execution ceiling for the project planning meetings.

1. Retailers are anxious at the future of back-to-school shopping. 

2. Why face acne can help you sell more products – maybe.

3. The gig economy is failing – here's what's replacing it.

4. A tale of two Honduran  coffee farmers .

5. 'Disabled people love clothes, too' – on an underserved market .

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