£1 Million Milestone: An Interview with TPBS MD, Craig Smith
There’s a whiteboard on the wall in The Printed Bag Shop office. It sits between printed bags of all shapes, sizes and colours from previous customers – some you’d recognise, some you wouldn’t. Drawn on it is a thermometer, with revenue targets in place of temperatures. The whole thing is coloured in, with some extra coins sketched on beside it.
The past 12 months have been big at The Printed Bag Shop. After 11 years in business, heavy investment in people and systems, and selling a lot of printed bags, this North East-based business has hit the £1 million milestone in annual revenue.
Founder and Managing Director Craig Smith sits in a separate office, adjacent to the rest of the team. There’s more bags in there too – but also a copy of the company’s first ever order, pinned to his notice board. Back then, when Craig first launched The Printed Bag Shop, this achievement couldn’t have seemed further away.
“We were literally eating beans on toast for pretty much every meal because we just didn’t have two pennies to rub together.” Craig says, thinking back to what drove him to start the business. Unemployed and spurred on by the fact his first baby on the way, Craig came up with the idea to start a new business. “I told the job centre about my idea, and they ended up putting me in touch with a business advisor, doing a business plan, a cashflow forecast, and from there it became a business model. I started to believe in the idea.”
“I realised I actually was getting more from the website than I was from knocking on doors. As I started to grow, I invested in a better website – and it spiralled from there.”
With a business plan in the bank, Craig was ready to start selling. “At that time, I went out with a suit and tie on, and started cold calling and knocking on doors for customers. The first one was an alterations shop in Gateshead. I walked in, introduced myself and the company…that was the first customer I visited and the first order The Printed Bag Shop ever got.”
Back in 2007, online businesses were barely off the ground. Paying just £40 to get his first website built, Craig was focusing on door to door sales – but then he noticed something. “I started doing the quotes, but I realised I actually was getting more from the website than I was from knocking on doors. As I started to grow, I invested in a better website, then decided it wasn’t worth going out and selling, so stayed in to just sell online – and it spiralled from there.”
The Printed Bag Shop is now a purely online business, with a much fancier (and more expensive!) website that attracts thousands of visitors a month. With an office to hold the team, some stock and for local customers to pop in, this is a company that aims to stay as lean as possible, whilst delivering the very best service for its international customer base.
So, why bags?
“I’d worked in my parent’s packaging company, and a side-line of that was printed stuff.” Having worked in several jobs over the years, including being a pipe fitting welder and nightclub doorman, it was a combination of Craig’s family history in packaging and natural entrepreneurship that pointed towards printed bags. But being in business hasn’t always been plain sailing for the Smiths – Craig’s parents business eventually, unfortunately, went under. “There were definitely people at the time that said, ‘after you’ve seen what your mum and dad went through, do you really want to start your own business?’”
Craig set about his first year in business with a loan of £3,000 from the Prince’s Trust and a prediction of £26,000 in sales. He ended up doing £100,000.
Revenue doubled again the next year and has grown consistently since then. The plan was always to hit the million-pound mark, but not just yet – the team had forecast it for five years from now. Having put the work in over the past 18 months or so to understand the market, refine their product offering and work on the business internally, The Printed Bag Shop have succeeded in levelling up to be the kind of business that turns over upwards of £1 million.
Thinking about the main things that got him here, Craig talks most about people. “The support I had at the start of the business from the job centre and the Prince’s Trust was huge…and being part of the Entrepreneur’s Forum at the time gave me so much more motivation to be good. I wanted to be like them, and now I feel like I am one of them.”
“And, not forgetting, the team. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Awards, too, have played a big part, in terms of both personal and professional development. Within the first 3 years of business, Craig had won the award for North Tyneside Entrepreneur of the Year in both 2008 and 2009, won the regional Pitch award and came 3rd overall in the national one, was part of the Prince’s Trust Celebrate Success awards in 2008, and was ranked 6th in the Natwest Enriched List in 2008 too. “Things like that, winning awards – it helped me believe that I could do it, that I could be successful”.
“I’ve never felt it’s real, never felt like I’ve been a ‘business man’ as such. Now, having the team I’ve got in place and the people around me, I feel so much more of a leader.”
Putting a big push on things like networking, connecting with other entrepreneurs and entering into competitions for awards in the early years has undoubtedly had a huge impact on building The Printed Bag Shop’s reputation, and getting the business to where it is today.
Looking at his company both then and now, how has Craig’s approach to running the business changed to help it hit the million?
“I’ve always felt like it’s all a bit of a game; I’ve never felt it’s real, never felt like I’ve been a ‘business man’ as such. I’m no better than anybody else in my team, but the fact that I created this, that is was my idea…there’s a lot of things I’ve put in place to get us to even having a team, and I think I sometimes forget that.
“Now, having the team I’ve got in place and the people around me, I feel like so much more of a leader.”
Being the Managing Director of a million-pound business is much different to that of a £100k or even £500k one. Giving members of the team more responsibility and moving away from the day-to-day has allowed Craig to focus more on developing and growing The Printed Bag Shop.
“I used to think it was all about sales, about me doing sales – not replacing me with other people to do it. By moving away from that, it’s made me realise how I can do things to grow the business.
“As well, control. I created the business, it’s my baby. I’m probably more passionate for it than anybody else could be, and so to give control to other people, it’s massive – especially the bigger you see the company getting. But letting go of control where it’s needed, that’s another thing that’s definitely helped us grow.”
The Printed Bag Shop has manage to cultivate a positive and relaxed atmosphere of teamwork. The quietly humming radio provides background noise in the office as the team chat about orders, customers, and the latest telly. There’s a whole wall dedicated to tracking which orders have been processed and paid for – the fuller, the better.
When it comes to celebrating this milestone, the team come first there, too. “It’s not about me” Craig says, “The way I’m celebrating is inside.”
“I might have an extra special glass of gin, but it’s more about the people that got us here. The team around me now, they’re the ones that have made the difference, so it’s about appreciating them. We’re going to crack open a bottle of champagne!”
But Craig must be keeping a little of that celebration aside for himself?
“I feel so proud of myself. I think hitting that million has been a pat on the back for the 10 years of hard graft that I’ve put in, the staying up late at night to do things with the business.
“It’s a massive achievement, and I’ve even found out that only around 4% of businesses will ever achieve hitting the million. I think out of all the companies out there, for us to do that, it’s amazing.”
“It’s not a case of being lucky. I’ve worked hard to get what I’ve got, and anybody that wants it can get it – they just have to make the move.”
With over a decade of experience in running his own company, through all the ups and downs and ups again, what advice would Craig give to any fellow entrepreneurs just starting up, or with their eyes on the million-pound prize?
“The first thing, as everybody says, is cashflow, and being careful with your money and what you spend it on – especially in the early stages. There’s a couple of times through the years where we could have lost the lot but have been fortunate that we didn’t. That’s an important one.
“Secondly, hire people better than yourself. There’s never any point in hiring someone worse than you, so find people better than you in the area you need help with. And if your time costs a lot of money, get someone to do it better than you for cheaper.
“And the third thing is…” He pauses. “Always believe in yourself, even if others don’t. If you believe what you’re doing is going to work, go for it. Believe in your gut instinct. Gut instinct is a huge thing – I’ve taken on most of my staff from it, grown the business from it. I’ve made a hell of a lot of decisions based on gut instinct, and I do massively believe in that.
“People often say to me how lucky I am to have a nice car, a nice house, a nice salary – but I worked bloody hard for it. The first three, five, eight years…I put so much effort into growing it and getting to a position where I could buy a nice car. I didn’t have one when I started – I didn’t have anything when I started. So, it’s not a case of being lucky. I’ve worked hard to get what I’ve got, and anybody that wants it can get it – they just have to make the move.”
Making your first million in sales is a huge achievement, but maintaining it is a whole other task, and one that Craig’s not taking lightly. When it comes to future of The Printed Bag Shop, he’s focusing more on being consistent than astronomical growth. “The main goal is to sustain where we are now. We have invested a lot recently in new systems, equipment, hiring more people – we’ve invested to make sure we’re ready for growth, but a big part of that is providing security for what we have now.”
With all these people, purchase orders and printed bags around him, does he feel like a real ‘business man’ yet?
“The size The Printed Bag Shop has now grown to, and how we’re perceived from the outside, it’s made me realise – wake up, this is not just a game, it’s not just a one-man company. We’re turning over a million pound plus now, have some of the biggest customers in the world, and I’m just really grateful for what we do.”
A million pounds in revenue – not too bad for something that began because of beans on toast.