Interview: how the Uniqodo team launched a new service in lockdown

Chris Giddins on how his Croydon-based e-commerce team found a whole new audience in lockdown, and what they're planning next.

We caught up with Chris Giddins to learn more about his company, Uniqodo, and how he and his team have been adapting in lockdown with the design and launch of a new product: Forlocal. You can also hear what he’s missing most about the Cronx and where you’re likely to find him lunching in Boxpark!

Interview transcript

Asha:

Hi Chris! Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us today, it’s great that you can join us. It would be great if you could firstly introduce yourself and tell us about the nature of your business.

Chris:

No trouble at all, Asha. It’s great to be here and thank you very much for inviting me on to do this with you.

I’m Chris Giddins, founder and CEO of Uniqodo. We’re a Croydon-based business and we provide digital marketing e-commerce technology to big e-commerce companies – shops that sell online. We help them do more advanced and sophisticated marketing campaigns using voucher codes.

Nowadays, pretty much everyone uses voucher codes when buying things online to get an extra discount. It’s a marketing tactic that shops and retailers use to get customers to buy more online. We provide the technology for them to do so much more effectively, sophisticatedly and in a much more advanced way.

Asha:

Brilliant. Thank you for telling us a little more about yourself. Just in terms of how you’ve been finding things over the last 3 months, it would be good to understand how lockdown has impacted your business, if it has at all, and how you and the team are finding things at the moment.

Chris:

Yeah. Obviously, our office in Croydon has been closed for the last few months – we’re based down at the Sussex Innovation Centre, in the No. 1 Croydon or “50p Building”. Saffron and the team had to make the difficult decision that we shouldn’t be working in the office anymore, so we made the decision for the team to start working from home. I think that’s obviously been a practical challenge of running a company in lockdown. It’s been quite fun and exciting, but I guess the big impact we’ve had is just a general pressure on the business from our clients who are quite extensively in the travel industry.

We work with big travel operators, hotel chains, big online booking, online travel agents and travel operators. All of them have challenges right now and aren’t able to sell holidays, or weren’t able to sell holidays in March when these restrictions came into place, and the consequence of that is that none of them really want to spend on marketing, at that particular point in time. So, they start having their difficult conversations with suppliers like Uniqodo. We’ve had everything from cancellations, we’ve had clients asking for pauses in contracts and just invoices slowing down in being paid.

All of that has a knock-on effect to cash flow, but also revenue for the business. So, we’ve had a bit of a difficult time because of that. We were about to hire 3 new members to join the team, but we had to stop that even though unfortunately they were about to start with us. They have needed to find jobs elsewhere which wasn’t a nice position to be in. We couldn’t furlough them and take advantage of that scheme for them, so we had to let those guys go. Luckily, most of them later found opportunities elsewhere, but those are the big impacts for us really.

Asha:

Of course, it’s a particularly challenging time for everyone right now. Given what you’ve just said, Chris, what measures have you had to put in place, I guess to survive during these times?

Chris:

Well, most important thing is just keeping the team together really and making sure that they can be up and running, and productive from home. So, you know, we expected a lockdown and restrictions to come, so we had a practice day of working from home where we sent everyone home, and said basically “Don’t come into work tomorrow because we’re going to have a practice of working from home”, and tried to get everyone’s feedback on what that experience was like.

The obvious things that came up were like “The dining room table isn’t very comfortable” or “I really need an extra keyboard, or mouse, or another display, or monitor”, stuff to make a software engineer more productive and things like that. We learnt, we had our practice day from working home on a Thursday, and then on a Monday about 10 days later all the restrictions kicked in.

We sort of knew straight away what we needed to take home and have in our home environments. I’ve been moving monitors across the country to colleagues who have gone home to spend time with family and are locked down with family. I kind of stuck monitors in the back of my car and delivered them to random train stations up and down the country to meet staff and give them their monitors so they can work more effectively. It just takes some practical steps.

On the client side of things with Uniqodo we’ve had to take some decisions one by one with each client on what the best approach to help them through the situation is, to make you’ve got some good will at the end of it so that they come back to you. If they’ve had to pause or cancel their contracts even, we want them to come back. There will be a need to have holidays and hotels and flights being booked again, that confidence will come back to the economy and consumers. We want them to come back to us and need our help and services in a few months’ time, or whenever it is, so we get them back as a customer. It’s like having a pause or an end of a contract in an amicable way so that they come back in a positive way when the time’s right.

I think when all these challenges were happening, I also started thinking about how we can take our technology and use it to help or find another use of our technology during the times of coronavirus. We looked at our technology, which is a promotion engine, a way to generate voucher codes, turn them on, turn them off, expire them once they get used. We took that technology and thought “How can we supply that to small businesses, independent businesses, that aren’t typically Uniqodo’s clients, and help them use vouchers and voucher codes as a way of having confidence in their business over these tougher times?”

What we came up with was a piece of technology on top of Uniqodo’s promotion engine to generate voucher codes, and those voucher codes are associated with voucher values so that when a customer or a business signs up, your local pub can sign up to the For Local service at forlocal.uk. Sign up, create themselves a listing for their business and then sell vouchers that customers can buy for a certain value, that can be used when that business reopens again.

It’s great for those hairdressers that have been shut, pubs, restaurants, cafes, any business that’s had to close their doors. We’ve been able to give them a marketing tactic and a tool to use to help them get a little bit of revenue now, but also now have a way to still communicate with their customers and having conversations with their customers about deals, offers, promotions. Incentives for those customers to keep buying again from them in the future when they are able to reopen again. You can buy that voucher now to spend when they reopen, or you could get an offer or deal to spend or use when business reopens. Back in April as restrictions were all starting to happen, we got a team of engineers on board to get that proposition up and running.

Asha:

That sounds like an absolutely fantastic initiative. I’m sure there are some challenges that you’ve faced on that journey. Can you tell us a little bit about that and where you guys are now really?

Chris:

There’s a few. There’s technical challenges and go-to-market challenges. The technical challenges are building a platform from scratch. We had some technology that we could already use but essentially it’s a platform built from scratch. We had to get some engineers on board to do that. First of all, we had to find the money to invest in that project. We got that money, put it aside and go “Right, there’s a budget for this, let’s give this a go. Let’s see where we can take this.” Then we selected some external developers to help us. We’ve got some good contacts in the industry there and one of our close suppliers and partners helps us with that. We’ve then got a team up and running for engineers to build the platform.

Very rapidly we were able to build an MVP, a Minimum Viable Product, to get the technology out there. Within about 3 weeks we had a piece of technology out there that allowed businesses to sign up, list their business and sell vouchers. Then it’s about improvements and solving all the problems we saw and the bugs, and the improvements we needed to make based on feedback from the clients and the businesses and the customers. They gave us lots of feedback and just going out to our network of contacts and getting in people to try things and getting people to kind of test it and make sure the technology was working. Your own colleague Neil was a great person for feedback, Neil Williams. I sent it across to him and he gave us back some good constructive feedback about improvements we could make.

All that goes into the platform and it got it to where it is today, but all along during that period, the next big challenge for us was going to market. How do we find and how do we communicate to the small independent businesses when they’re shut? When chances are, they’re not picking up the phone or not answering emails?

We started approaching businesses, having a referral system within our local platform. We also started going out to industry bodies and organisations and local business improvement districts, and obviously Croydon Council to try and get some support. To get the message out there. Because of Uniqodo’s background in voucher code marketing, we were able to use some of the relationships that we had with big bounce code publishers. My Voucher Codes and the Daily Mail voucher code site all did some marketing campaigns for us and gave us some support and got the message out there to their audiences. Obviously, a whole load of deal hungry savvy shoppers who shop regularly online and search around for promotions and codes and vouchers. We were able to get a message out there to tell them about the Forlocal proposition.

We’re now with around 700 businesses listed who have been referred by customers searching for them. I think we’re pushing 60 businesses that are signed up and listing their promotions, deals and offers. So, the big challenge has been getting those businesses on board and that go-to-market strategy.

We worked with a PR team, we had a lot on board, and they were great at getting the message out there to mainstream press. We were able to get some coverage on local radio and local press and quite a lot of internet content, linking back to us and talking about Forlocal in the Guardian and the Metro and many other such publications, which was brilliant coverage to get. All that driving traffic and driving noise and getting some noise out there about the Forlocal proposition. It’s kind of a mixture of a lot of things that’s helped us to get where we are, and now things are starting to reopen again. It’s taking itself into a new journey really, and we’re seeing some new opportunities for the future.

Asha:

Fantastic. Well, it sounds like you’ve made very good progress in a relatively short amount of time. Well done to you and the team for doing that. Which brings me on to the future. What are your plans where do you see this going, Chris?

Chris:

So, Forlocal, what we realised is that we have a great piece of technology that powers Forlocal and Uniqodo. We’re a B2B business so we sell our technology to businesses. We don’t typically see our technology to smaller businesses and independent businesses and have a consumer proposition like Forlocal is. It’s not our area of expertise, so what we’re looking at doing is having Forlocal as an entry point into Uniqodo. There’s the entry point into Uniqodo which is Forlocal, and then the enterprise end of Uniqodo which is provided to big e-commerce companies. So, it’s great for adding a bigger range to our product stack, and essentially having solutions that cover small, independent businesses through to big enterprise e-commerce companies.

That’s kind of where we’re taking it, so we’re looking for partner organisations which could be bids, could be councils, could be industry bodies for certain sectors, so hairdresser associations, the organizations that are backing pubs and restaurants and cafes. Getting those organizations on board to have a version of Forlocal for themselves that just lists their members, and essentially providing a white label experience where the Forlocal platform is co-branded with these organisations, so they can take this to their members and their audiences that they have and help us drive the scale we’d like to get out of Forlocal and the technology we’ve built. So that’s an exciting thing we’re trying to tackle right now.

There’s also the core business Uniqodo, there’s still our core clients that we need to support in a great way. We’ve lost a few clients but it’s still a great core client list that we have, and they have high demands of us, and we need to keep supporting them. That’s why it’s been so important to keep the team together and keep the team productive and delivering for our clients every single day.

We’ve got so many great plans for the Uniqodo core technology set, for those medium and large organisations that use e-commerce to add more sophisticated tools, more advanced reporting and just generally solve every challenge those clients bring to us every single day and provide an answer to all of their problems really. It’s an incredibly exciting time.

There’s a lot of opportunity that now comes from potentially a recession. I’ve seen the 2008 to 2009 recession go incredibly well for internet businesses that are focused on driving a bigger e-commerce operation, and it was a period of growth back in the last recession. I don’t see it being any different to now if we do get into a recession. Online shopping grows every single year and when times are tough, and people have a little bit less in their pockets to spend, it’s more important for their money to go further. E-commerce companies need to be competitive and savvy shoppers will be searching around for discounts and promotional codes and voucher codes, which Uniqodo’s power is a key tactic to use by these retailers. We see this as a period of growth now long into the future to scale the business further and have a really exciting growth period.

Asha:

Brilliant. Thank you for that, Chris. Well it sounds like there’s lots of exciting things to come and lots of plans, so we will definitely be watching you and following you on that journey, and hopefully speaking to you about it further along the line.

Lastly, it would be great for you to tell us the top 3 things that you are missing about Croydon, because you’re obviously based in Croydon so what are you missing at the moment?

Chris:

Number one, it’s having a team around us face-to-face in the office, our office. We really miss having the team in the office, and the office we’ve got is a nice space at the Sussex Innovation Centre. We’ve got a good couple of rooms, we’ve got some nice meeting space, we’ve got some nice facilities to use, and it’s a shame to not be using them to their full capacity. I know Saffron from the Sussex Innovation Centre will be appreciative if I give a little plug for them, but they’re great landlords for us and great supporters of our business. I know there’s space there for other organisations to go and get that support right now at the innovation centre. So yeah, the team in the office spaces is the number one thing, really.

And then just the location of being in Croydon. We’re up and down the country, down around London on a regular basis, and there’s not a better place to be as a business, I think value for money wise and location, than Croydon, because we can get everywhere fast and I’ve got clients the other side of London in Luton. I’m going up there all the time and it’s easier to get to Luton from Croydon than it is from West London or East London, or even the city sometimes.

We love Croydon for that ability and our drinking establishment of choice, which is probably the Cronx Brewery in the Boxpark. I see the Boxpark is opening very, very soon, which is exciting, good to be back in there. Gotta get down to Coqfighter for one of their chicken burgers, amazing. But also get into Cronx Brewery in their bar in the Boxpark and have their beer again, because that would be – it tastes better out of the pump than out of the bottle,  so can’t wait to get back in there.

Asha:

I agree. Excellent. Thank you so much, Chris. It’s been really great to chat to you and hear what you guys are doing. We wish you all the best in that journey and hope to catch up again soon.

Chris:

Thank you very much, it’s been great to speak to you today. Thanks for your support.

Asha:

Thank you.

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