Hearing others experiences of the lockdown can be quite reassuring. So we thought it would be useful to share with you how our MD, James Biggin is coping through this strange period of time. James also offers his business tips for what you can be doing now as a business to prepare for the future.

James Biggin MD of Steel City

1. Tell us a bit about yourself

My name is James Biggin. I am managing director of Steel City Marketing: a UK wide branded merchandise distributor. We supply any manner of promotional items to businesses to use in their marketing activity. As a business we are 40 years old this year and I have been full owner / MD since 2012. We have a fantastic team and culture. I believe over the last few years we have really differentiated ourselves in a saturated market, through our customer journey and value proposition. We strengthen our clients marketing campaigns and objectives with branded merchandise; combining our expertise and passion to spark ideas and make THEIR brand stand out.

I am quite obsessive about us being as good as we can be at what we do business wise. I think we do pretty well, but there is always an opportunity to make percentage changes of improvements. This is where the sport angle comes in for me. I have always been sporty and competitive. I see business and sport closely aligned in terms of striving for improvement and to the be best you can be.

So it might seem obvious to state, but I like to keep as fit as I can. I am a keen squash player and do both road and fell running. As a family we all love skiing and have had some great holidays in the French Alps. I play a bit of fair weather golf. Will basically have a good go at anything that involves competition!

I am 44 years of age, Rachel is my wife and Rosie 15 and Archie 12 our children. We are a pretty busy and active family, especially following the addition of Alby the Sprocker Spaniel who is 1 and a half – he has a lot of energy.

2. What was your initial reaction to lockdown?

I underestimated the virus and its impact at the outset. I’m sure I am not alone in that. I didn’t expect any of what has happened to actually come into play. I have a strong business support network in my Goldman Sachs 10K small business cohort. It has been such a positive group since we met. When our collective language started to change and sound concerned, I began to worry myself. Things had to then kick into gear quite quickly. It was only a few days between thinking that we would be able to function in the size of team we are from the office, to arranging it so that every member of the team could operate from home.

It seems surreal even now looking back how that all came together. Our IT company, Resolve were brilliant, but it was quite a crazy few days. I think for a couple of weeks I felt numb from what was happening. To see suppliers closing down by the minute, clients working from home, events all cancelled. It was like watching a movie that we are all starring in. I guess it may feel like that for some time for all of us!

3. Have you got any coping tips to help survive lockdown?

Lockdown Business Tips

The tools that we already use in the business for our communications and efficiencies have worked well. Whatsapp has been good for keeping in touch and the social side, especially as we have staff on Furlough. We have been using Workplace by Facebook for a number of years and that has been really good for video catch ups, updates and text based chats. It helps massively to keep as much internal communications off email as possible but even more so when remote working! I am in the process of moving the guys over to Microsoft Teams as I see that better for us moving forward.

Lockdown Personal Tips

Fitness helps me cope. There is more time in the day and I am doing something every day, be that HIIT or Crossfit based, or runs on the road or on the stunning fells close by our house. So my tip would be for everyone to find one thing that gets them away from work, and tests them or gives them a challenge.

Working from home is a struggle. I know I thrive at the office and in a team environment. All the tips about hitting a routine are exactly right. Whilst I may never get used to it or totally enjoy working from home, I make sure I have a structure to my day. As a business owner during COVID-19, I have found the firefighting and all the work that needs to be done to protect the business hard. It feels like every day is wading through treacle and not really getting anything achieved. It is all necessary work, is needed and most definitely not exciting! If I didn’t have that ability to walk away and challenge one of the squash team to a 5 km run wherever they are vs wherever I am, I know I would feel very low! And I have felt low at times before that routine kicked in.

As a family of 4 and effectively 2 teenagers, there can be daily flare up moments. I do my work separately and away from the rest of the family and I also try and make sure I stagger my lunch so that we have that meal separate from each other. I think that is important to ensure that we are not on top of each other from morning til night!

4. How has your business changed during the lockdown?

Things have changed during lockdown to an incredible degree! To consider that we could function as a business remotely through necessity is something that I couldn’t have ever imagined. To have been introduced to something called Furlough, what it meant for every business and to put it into play within days of getting to grips with a scheme. We can operate in the same way, although with events universally being cancelled and the changes to so many businesses, we are doing so with a smaller team like so many are! Product demands have changed significantly too, with far more demand for PPE and hand sanitisers. This is more wholesale and has been a landscape that has been changing by the day. I think as we move forward to a new normal, that PPE and fashion masks will be used and required in almost all walks of life so this is a product area we will have in our sector for sure.

Team interaction has been important to maintain throughout the lockdown. It is difficult at times as the days do disappear in a haze. Zoom social catch ups along with video call and messaging has been vital for the smooth running of the business.

5. What would your advice be for businesses right now?

If I was to give any tips, I would first ask them if they feel they are over that initial shock and have found more of a routine about work and the task at hand. Furlough, finance and protecting the business in the very short term could be in play. If that is the case, then I would suggest stepping away and considering what you can plan now for when things return to normal. I would suggest this planning time will allow a company to get ahead of their competitors, understand what their customer landscape could look like and how their business needs to be set up to function. It may be that target markets have changed or even the product/services offered has been adapted and new clients need to be acquired. For that, creativity and time to plan is needed. I strongly believe there will be a new normal and this will be very different to what we were used to. Considering how that will look and planning to cope with it is a hugely important task.

We are already seeing clients planning their marketing activities for the future. That’s why we are busy providing branded product ideas, visuals, quotes and putting products into production. So that when everything is back on track, our clients are ready to bounce back.

If you would like to kick start your future marketing activities with a bang, we would love to spark some creative ideas with you. You can take a look at our other blogs for inspiration or have a chat with us! You can reach the team by email or you call us on 0114 275 4150.