September 11, 2017
Airdrop Bikes is a small brand. We talk about that a lot; not because it’s a problem, but because it’s a good thing. True, our scale limits what we can do in some ways, but there are also loads of advantages.
I worked in big businesses for a long time, or at least companies that became big very quickly. Being part of the management team, we talked about numbers a lot. In fact we talked about numbers probably more than anything else; more than we talked about products, about customers, about quality or service, or anything more interesting. It was the obvious, and probably the sensible thing to do. It’s what most big businesses do. But not Airdrop Bikes.
Every Monday was spent on numbers. As a head of department part of my job was to manage, monitor and collate a set of metrics that supposedly would enable me to report on my performance and the performance of my team. (Side note - I was supposed to be the creative guy, managing other creative guys & girls. How you measure creativity in a spreadsheet, I’ll never know).
Having spent the morning putting all that together, the team would convene for a trading meeting in the afternoon. Ostensibly the purpose of that meeting was to keep track of how the business had done the previous week and put together a plan for the forthcoming week. Remember, we’re talking about highly successful businesses here, so you had a room full of people who were quite clever, highly skilled, or creative. Everyone was good at their job. Or at least according to the numbers, which were more often than not going up.
So we’d go through web traffic, click-through rates, conversion rates, footfall, average transaction values, number of orders, value of orders, work in progress, allocated stock, margin, cost of goods sold, warranty returns, cash headroom, sales this week, this week versus last year, sales this month, this month versus last year, year-to-date, 52-week moving average, sales versus target, sales versus budget, run rate, cash headroom, emails received, emails sent, calls received, calls made, average waiting time… and so on. you get the picture.
What was missing from all of that? People. Names. Reality. We had all the metrics you could shake a stick at and everything was under control, but we were also totally missing the point. By the time I left my job, we were selling 350 bikes in a good week. That means 350 people who have worked hard for months or even years to save up for their new bike. They’ve probably agonised over which one to buy, and we had probably worked really hard to convince them to buy one of ours. They’d read everything on the website, probably given us a call or an email, or taken a bike out for a demo. So they had been in touch with someone in the organisation. But not any of us in that trading meeting, and now they were all reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet. Completely anonymous. If there was a problem with an order, we talked about “order number 45650”. OK, I understand why we did that; it was for the sake of clarity. But we had lost sight of what it meant - we were talking about a real person who was waiting patiently (well, sometimes) for their new bike to arrive, there was a problem - which can and does happen - and we were dealing with it without considering how it might affect a real person. The 'waiting time' metric didn't express how satisfied or disappointed our customers were that week.
We don’t sell 350 bikes a week at Airdrop. Maybe one day we will, and at that point I like to think we’ll do things a bit differently to brand x. But for now we’re selling a handful of bikes in a really good week, and we always talk about people. This one is Joe’s bike. This one is Hannah’s bike. These are real people and a lot of the time, we’ve spoken personally on the phone or met on a demo. How did Joe and Hannah find out about Airdrop? From their mate, who found out from his or her mate.
It sounds so obvious but we have to resist the temptation to get too ‘professional' about things. I use inverted commas because I now think of professionalism as a very different thing to your standard data-driven, commercially oriented business. Confession: I do still keep metrics on some parts of the business; it’s my responsibility to apply enough business acumen to make sure I don’t let myself, my employee (that’s James) or my customers down in any way. But it’s not all-important. It’s just one way to understand what’s going on, and we never forget the people behind the numbers.
This is something I think about every Monday, so I thought it was worth sharing. I don't miss those trading meetings, that's for sure. Sometimes I miss having a proper salary and being part of a big, successful organisation but what I've learned is that kind of success - commercial success - is not that fulfilling and I've found something better. For Airdrop Bikes, professional means building great bikes and looking after our customers like they are real people, not numbers.
Ed is the owner of Airdrop Bikes. A former web and graphic designer, he sacked off his job one day and decided to start up a bike brand.
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