Where can I find that wedding present?

It was a desperate man desperately seeking an unusual wedding present which started the adventure. The man was Max Bishop, and that experience set him on the road to building the company he runs today.  He talked to Inksmith about buying from Euroffice when the office supplies company was only six months old and… how he’s still buying.

Max’s company, BTCbyDesign, sells “high-end, quality furnishings at an affordable price …  through home shopping, catalogue and website”. The furnishings are imported from around the world.  It all started when, after moving through financial journalism, art journalism, landscaping and an interior design agency, he was searching one day for a very specific present for a wedding and couldn’t find it anywhere.  At the design agency he says he had become familiar with using different suppliers and had seen how sometimes a client might want something, but sourcing it was quite another issue.

The unusual present and how to find it

“Why not set up a company that sells unique, bespoke pieces – furnishings from A to Z – to the general public at affordable prices, without the public seeing these pieces in design boutiques, or in design magazines, at inflated prices,” says Max.  “I wanted to make it affordable, so that was the blind spot in the market.”

When I asked Max how he’d describe his job at a party, he replies “I make people’s homes look beautiful and feel comfortable.”

But as all small business owners know, behind any outcome there’s a lot of thought and work, even in inherently creative businesses.

“To a large extent, it’s listening to your customers, reading, and being observant of your environment, seeing what people aspire to or are inspired by.  Or things that people really want, but are out of their financial reach.  It’s  searching and trying to translate those desires or design ideas and making them happen.
Take those to the suppliers, having had them designed in the UK, taking the blueprints with me and hopefully suppliers will produce what the customers will buy.”

For him the ranking is: customers first, then products and prices.

His verdict on Euroffice and how it can improve is straight to the point: “Service is very good,
as far as the dispatch.  And I’m up on that because it’s half of my business, home shopping. I’m impressed by that. It arrives when it says it’s going to, sometimes even earlier.  And they’re polite.  And it’s a proper box, nothing’s going to get damaged.”


Max is hot on recycling and asked (and we’ll get back to you on this):

“Do you take the boxes away and do you recycle?  That’s the one thing I asked one of the drivers and he didn’t know.

“Recycling is something that comes up with my customers – not all of them  – in our quarterly focus groups.    From memory,  I think that’s number two or three on the green issues.   I’m not sure if Euroffice offers the service of taking packaging.  A lot of the time customers don’t know what to do with the packaging and they don’t recycle it because they don’t have time, can’t be bothered or whatever,” Max added.

We couldn’t miss the chance to ask him how tidy his desk was!

“It’s not that messy, but you have to remember I was a journalist for quite a long time and there’s not much space in those sorts of offices, so you learn to put your stuff in a contained area in order to hold onto them.  In no way am I neat freak, but I’m quite orderly, but not in that kind of army organised way.”

No matter what type of desk you keep, everyone daydreams occasionally.  It’s a way for us to recharge our batteries and imagine our business’ future.  Max says he no longer has time for his sporting interests, but travel and photography are high up on his daydream list, although the recession has affected the reality.  “… Normally I would travel to different countries, to meet suppliers and the agents I’ve appointed, four or five times a year.  I like the experience of travel … The photography that goes along with that and the sights I see.”

For some, emails can be a curse, but what makes Max happy is “receiving them from customers, or even phone calls, just listening to a customer saying ‘It arrived on time, it’s everything we thought and more, it looks incredible, it’s made this room.  I’m going to hand it down to my children,’ or something like that.  It’s an appreciation of the service and that all the work I’ve done is worth something.”

The pen is mightier than the paper clip
So from to journo to landscape gardener to designer and now furnishing expert, what does he buy to meet office needs?

“It has changed slightly. I started using Euroffice when I was in journalism. Then I trained as a landscape architect and kept on using Euroffice and now have my own company and I’m still using Euroffice.

“The first year I was ordering Euroffice supplies, it was Post-its and cartridge ink for printers and copiers… All the stationery; paper clips, erasers, sharpeners, a lot of pads, a lot of paper.  I bought a briefcase.  Really, a kit that I needed for going out and interviewing people, basically, alongside my computer.

“Then it changed because it was landscape architecture.   There was quite a lot of travel involved, so I needed things that had to be portable. I remember I bought a whole case of stuff that I would just pick up when I was going to meetings, whether in London or overseas – I was basically designing public and private gardens… You had everything, you had the special pens I needed, the artist pens, pencils, rubbers, a lot of the paper I needed, graph paper, stuff like that.

“The next order was pretty much how I kitted most of my office.  Well, out of the two offices we’ve got, most of it’s Euroffice. I’m looking at it now.  My desk, my chair, my side cupboards, printers, my photocopiers, all my stationery, everything that I’m looking at.  Even the lights.  I think I even bought a plant as well!”

But what’s his favourite bit of office stuff?

“I’d say a pen. I’ve tried a lot of pens in my lifetime and this is a pretty basic pen, but you don’t need a fountain pen, you don’t need an expensive fancy Cartier pen or anything like that, this pen works.  It’s a Pentel, Superball 0.6mm.  And Euroffice have always produced them and you’re more competitive than Viking, Staples, WH Smith and my local stationery [place].”

Inspiration and doing the homework
A pen may help sketch out the designs and ideas for the furnishings he creates through his network of suppliers, but how does he keep at the top of his game design and business wise, for ideas and contacts?

“Firstly, I will read things like Architectural Digest, World of Interiors. There are some design bibles which are quite useful. I obviously look at a lot of my competitors’ catalogues and websites and discuss that both with the marketing manager, merchandiser and certain directors who are very involved with that side of the business.”

Networking is important and several people have really influenced and helped him.

“The inspiration is probably drawn from Andrew Martin; he is involved with interior design, but he’s a very influential collector / supplier. He buys things because he knows they will sell and he’s done exceptionally well.  He’s used his eye, and his taste and he’s had fun doing it.  Someone like that is quite inspirational as far as the design side of the business [is concerned].” He adds that Andrew makes sure every customer, high or low budget, benefits from that “eye” and his unerring sense of taste.

Another influence is Johnnie Boden “… it’s not home-ware or furnishing, it’s clothing… I guess the way he started off is the way I started off.  You have to sacrifice quite a lot, fundraising wasn’t easy … All the areas of marketing; you have to learn this, meet the people and make the mistakes. He’s incredibly driven. He’s very in touch with his customers, as I am.”

His third person is, in fact, a couple. “Chrissie Rucker, founder of The White Company, and Nick Wheeler who founded Charles Tyrwhitt, the shirt company.  They’re kind of like a power couple in retail. I’ve been inspired, influenced, listened to them. ”

He said all these people affected the early stages of the business and have been very helpful with advice and contacts.

Follow your star
Max says you need to be bold – if you see a maverick designer’s output or a décor guru’s work in a book and spot them when visiting a fair or exhibition then go and talk to them. “They will probably try to make time for you – I was amazed by that.  They were in exactly the same shoes that I am, or others are, when you start off and they remember and so they’re there to help”.

For startups it is about going back to the philosophy of the business you have in mind.

“Invest the time in research and develop the core area / system of the business within the first year and let the other areas grow so they’re manageable for you.   It’s when you don’t have enough funding and when things take off too fast and you haven’t the management, the system, the employees, the stock or whatever [that problems can arise].”

And the news man in him still knows how important the journalists out there are, albeit less important than the customer!

“The press are very important to me.  And they’ve taken a genuine and sort of loyal interest in our collection. So, when they want something sent, images or products, I make sure I reply to them quickly to maintain that relationship.  It’s the same with customers … It’s really just getting things done.”

If you’d like to see some of the beautiful things Max sells, just head over to BTCbyDesign.com

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