What Maplin and Toys R Us Need to Do

It’s not a good time for physical retail in the UK at the moment. On top of business rate rises, the uncertainty of Brexit and dropping consumer spending, most potential customers are currently snowed in due to the weather. And if they do venture out, they’re panic buying bread and firewood. And then this week saw the news that Prezzo is closing 100 restaurants, and both Maplin and Toys R Us UK are heading into administration. While I don’t know how to help a restaurant chain, I do have ideas as to what Maplin and Toys R Us need to do if they want to survive.

What Maplin and Toys R Us Need to Do


What Can Toys R Us Do?

I’m old enough to remember when the first Toys R Us stores began appearing in the UK. And it was pretty special. It wasn’t magical in the same way as a pre-Christmas trip to Hamleys. That was always an outing similar to Harry Potter visiting Diagon Alley, with demonstrators throwing toys around the ground floor. Toys R Us was always about the overwhelming experience of a massive warehouse piled high with boxes, which worked well  30 years ago.

But it doesn’t work now.

Just as the inventory of Toys R Us gave it a big advantage over smaller, local toy shops which disappeared for a long time, so the almost infinite inventory online makes even a warehouse seem small. And a new generation of competitors has appeared with a slightly more diverse and interesting focus. After a pre-Christmas shopping trip or two, I found almost everything either online or in the likes of Smyths and the Entertainer which stocked slightly more niche toys. Meanwhile a lot of what was in Toys R Us isn’t just cheaper online, but it’s also found in the big supermarkets at a similar price or less. One recently closed seasonal Toys R Us in a Peterborough shopping centre not only had one toy missing from a set, but the missing figure was cheaper in the Tescos 300 yards away.

I’m not the only one that has the impression Toys R Us has stagnated, as articles on the BBC and the Guardian websites show. And the solution is pretty obvious. Put all that space to better use.

Smyths has capitalised better on current trends by monitoring the likes of Youtube. It isn’t hard, when for example, the Dude Perfect channel above has 27 million subscribers keen to see them do things with Nerf weapons, for example. So why does Toys R Us insist on having shelves filled with hundred of boxes of the same Nerf guns and bows I can also buy at Tescos, B&M and a million online retailers.

Stick the boxes out the back, or just offer next day delivery. And instead, set up a Nerf range in every store, with someone potentially able to demo and teach trick shots. Suddenly I not only have a reason to visit with my son, but also some free entertainment which keeps him busy, and means I’ll end up picking up some spare darts on each visit, if not a new gun, bow, targets, or other stuff to renact the trick shots at home. As the owner of a ridiculous amount of Nerf weapons, and still buying more, the idea of being able to use them without spending 30 minutes running around to pick up darts is an incentive in itself.

And why have bikes that can’t be ridden around enough to test properly? Or have Lego that you can’t actually play with? Or radio control vehicles and drones that can’t be tested before buying?

I don’t want to see 100 boxes on a shelf. I want to know that if I visit, I can find either the best toy, the cheapest toy, or something particularly cool, unusual or interesting.

Yes, there will be a cost in demo equipment and staffing. But it can still be profitable and sustainable. And it doesn’t all have to be the latest in high-end toys. Look at how many interesting channels are inspiring kids to play with toy cars again, for example.



What Can Maplin Do?

The demise of Maplin makes less sense than Toys R Us. Yes, it’s almost as easy to set up direct shipping from Shenzhen for a new tech device as it is to find a place to park in the local town centre. But although you can get lots of supplies, advice and tips online, sometimes it’s still helpful to get hands-on tuition and advice.

And the problems haven’t been attributed to the threat from online retailers, as the Maplin CEO has said in a statement quoted in this Wired article.

“The business has worked hard over recent months to mitigate a combination of impacts from sterling devaluation post Brexit, a weak consumer environment and the withdrawal of credit insurance,”

But again, there was a great opportunity here. The author on Wired talks about the advice for the older generation, but it’s as true for those younger as well. It’s not simply about being able to get the knowledge you need to make a purchase, but having a space to connect with other people interested in the same things.

And there are plenty of examples to prove this.

I’m involved with both Digital People in Peterborough, and Peterborough STEM Festival. Two incredibly successful non-profit events which bring together people around technology, digital, science etc. All things which could be done purely online perhaps. But which would then lose the chance to also make human connections, build offline friendships and be able to touch, play, and break things in person.

But what about retail? I’m mentioned the demos at the likes of Hamleys or the big Lego stores. But what about Games Workshop, which always has a group of tabletop and role-playing enthusiasts grouped around a table at the front of the store. It invites more people to come in and try gaming, and potentially become frequent customers.

Or my fairly recent investment and interest in vaping. Over the last 8 months, I’ve checked out reviews and tips online. And had advice from existing friends. But it’s still nice to pop into one of my friendly local shops to check out new products, chat, and occasionally get them to help me out with a problem or question. And it’s also just nice to be able to connect with the enthusiasts that tend to run the better vaping shops and find out what they’re up to. I can possibly save a couple of pounds each month ordering online, but it’s actually nice to catch up with the people who own and work in the shops.

Why isn’t Maplin supporting the likes of DPiP and Peterborough STEM Festival? Or running workshops on how to update your phone, use a 3D printer, or repair your hifi speaker cables? Where’s the weekend introduction to setting up a Raspberry Pi, or helping you out if you’ve struggled with one of the many cool circuit-board based projects you can order online? I recently had a go at building an electronic synth via Tech Will Save Us, and it was great fun. Right up to the point that it didn’t work when we’d finished. Fortunately, the lovely and thoughtful lady who bought the kit for my son and I as a present also happens to be a methodical and careful electronics hobbyist. So she went back through and remedied the wires I’d not connected quite far enough, and a capacitor I may have put around the wrong way. But in the absence of dating a patient and kind electronics geek, being able to actually pop into a local place for help would have been great in the gap until the next monthly DPiP meetup.

And it wouldn’t be too tough for Maplin to have a big trestle table at the front of the store and get an organisation like DPiP or similar to volunteer some people to come along. Or to hook up with local Coding Clubs, colleges, and other tech organisations.


The TL:DR for What Maplin and Toys R Us Need to Do:

It’s simple. Any retail business with physical stores needs to give people a good reason to pick them over ordering online.

And that means having a real, justifiable USP for the hassle of leaving the house and journeying into town. In the case of both Toys R Us and Maplin, that can’t be just having physical products available.

It has to be about offering something tangible that isn’t easily replicated online. And that’s always going to end up being about the human experience.

The saddest thing is that I’m not alone in talking about this years ago. For example, Becky Naylor back in 2013. In fact, if I can cope with the fairly wanky description I used back in 2009, the ‘bankruptcy of the non-descript‘, it’s something that’s been growing for 10+ years. If you haven’t got a clear proposition and a clear justification, then you probably won’t have a business fairly soon…



Photo by Marcela R on Unsplash

Patagonia ad shows a company taking a stand…

There’s lots of debates about corporate social responsibility, mission statements, and building a business around beliefs etc.

But this advert by Patagonia is pretty clear.

It’s increasingly clear that a company either has an obvious purpose beyond simply existing, or it will forever have to compete on attributes (price, convenience etc) that will be increasingly harder and less profitable due to competition.

The first supermarket had it relatively easy and profitable for a while. Now the margins are slim and there are rivals everywhere, from the low-end to the high.  But it’s much harder to compete with a company that has a clear and evident purpose. Is your outdoor clothing company going to go further in protecting the environment that Patagonia, for example? It’s possible, but it’ll be harder than cloning a jacket and charging 10% less.


Fascinating Read About Target Markets in Videogames

There’s an interesting article by Sergey Galyonkin on Medium titled, Your Target Audience Doesn’t Exist, and looking at how PC gaming data from Steam shows that there’s a ‘World of Warcraft’ audience, rather than one for MMORPGs, and a ‘DOTA 2’ audience rather than one for MOBA gaming.

So the result is that certain games create a specific market, but when companies and marketers plan releases, they assume there’s a general market for MMORPGs, MOBAs, First-Person Shooters etc, and that they just need to capture a percentage of it. Which doesn’t actually exist.

In addition to the data Sergey provides on Steam PC gaming, it certainly rings true in my experience. Even if Call of Duty isn’t the only first person shooter around, any gamer can probably name the 3 or 4 titles which own that vertical. In racing games, there are few cross-platform titles which capture the attention of Sony-specific Gran Turismo and Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport (And I’ve spent a fair while looking at FPS games and Racing games).

Picture of a market asking Is your target market really there?

Is your target market really there?

But I’ve started wondering how far that same effect occurs beyond videogames. Entertainment seems the next logical place to look – If people obsessively listen to Beat The Champ by The Mountain Goats (Spotify link), do they want more American indie music? More songs about classic wrestling heroes and themes? Or could it be possible that we only really need one eloquent collection of wrestling themed songs in our life?

In movies, studios tend to emulate the best guesses of other studios and recent success. After all, it’s an industry where William Goldman’s excellent ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ has been endlessly quoted;

“Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

So if you’ve watched every Fast ‘n’ Furious, do you need the Need for Speed film?

I can answer that question, because you can enjoy the increasingly unbelievable and trashy action adventure of the Fast ‘n’ Furious series, but Need for Speed manages to make racing supercars tedious. Meanwhile 200MPH is often claimed as the worst car film of all time for good reason.

But does it go further than that?

In business and marketing everyone has obsessed over data as the answer to all uncertainty. With enough big data, we can examine the past and present to apparently predict the future as well. Hence the problems when a target set-in-stone isn’t met and exceeded on schedule. And the potential business collapse when share prices are affected.

But the data on videogames suggests that existing general markets don’t necessarily exist. Do we need more than one Facebook or Twitter? How many apps does the average person actually use? (The answer is a handful)?

How much of the explosion of craft beer, coffee and food companies is due to forecasting the potential to steal a 1% market share of the 30+ male beer buying consumer, and how much is based on making something brilliant and then getting to know customers personally?

It’s not about discarding all your data. It’s about using the right data in the right way, and not seeing it as the sole motivation. And with that, we go back to the likes of Henry Ford and Steve Jobs.

“If we used data on existing target audiences, all we’ll build are faster horses”, as Ford might say now…


Why I envy designers and developers

It’s relatively common to find people who will happily admit they’re not technical, or can’t code.

It’s reasonably common to find people who will admit they can’t draw or design, even if they still have a habit of making ‘helpful’ suggestions.

It’s not very common to find people who are aware that they can’t string a decent sentence together. It’s somewhat understandable when all our days are increasingly filled with texts, emails, and social media updates. And that’s even if you don’t have a job which requires written work.

Workbench by

Workbench by (CC Licence)

All of the work I do for my business is around content and communication. Whether it’s client explanations and updates, consumer-facing writing and media, or improving the meta data and information structure for SEO and increasing conversions.

I’ve been employed full-time as a writer, formally studied literature and journalism, and taught writing, journalism and marketing (including on behalf of organisations including the Press Association). Out of the top handful of magazine publishers in the country, I’ve worked for, freelanced or trained at almost all of them.

And I then spend my spare time attempting to bootstrap a digital publishing company, which started literally with nothing. For a long time, I was the sole writer, editor, sales and admin person for any website I worked on.

So hopefully by now, I can string a reasonable sentence together. Although I still get nervous every time I start to write, and a compliment for work I’ve produced can put me on a high for days.

Which begs the question why it can be so difficult to explain the situation to someone who needs great writing and content to promote themselves, or their business. And why they often find it hard to accept that they might not be doing the best possible job – especially when they want to dump it all on the cheapest intern or member of staff they can find.

Those are the times when I really wish I was a proficient coder. Or welder. Possibly an electrician like my father.


The highs and lows of bootstrapping a business

Starting a new business can be tough a lot of the time. Bootstrapping a new business without the right preparation is tough almost all the time.

The sensible way to start working for yourself or to launch a business without any funding or loans would be to make a plan months before you make the leap. Start saving some cash to use as a buffer at the beginning and if you have any emergencies. If you can, perhaps trial it as a sideline while you’re still in your previous job – the best way to test demand from potential customers or clients, and also a great way to find out whether you’ve really got the drive and determination to make it work. Better to figure out you’re not bothered when you have a safety net, rather than when you have 0.01p in your bank account and it’s weeks until payday.

I wasn’t sensible.

When I started working for myself it was at short notice due to plans to restructure by my employer. I could have potentially stayed, but felt like it was time to do something different for personal, as well as professional, reasons. I’d learned to tolerate commuting, but didn’t enjoy the expense in time and money, particularly when it meant missing out on so much time with my young son.

So I didn’t have much of a buffer saved. And that quickly evaporated in the first couple of months as I started to realise that I wasn’t as motivated to find a new role for an employer as much as I was to work for myself.

And when things are going OK, or even well, that’s fine. Thanks to great friends, former employers and colleagues, lovely clients and new contacts I managed to survive and at times I even thrive. At the start of 2013, I reached the stage where I had enough income to bring in someone fulltime to help me run the business, in addition to the various people we’ve employed on a project basis.


But when things aren’t OK, the lack of preparation 3 years ago still comes back to haunt me. Bringing in a fellow director essentially meant my income from the business was halved – not a long-term problem as we were showing plenty of progress and growth with a lot more planned.

Then we were hit by an external financial issue which was outside our control, and which cost us thousands. That essentially wiped out our small safety net in one go, and took months of hard work to recover from. All the time we’ve been dealing with the day-to-day issues of delivering quality work, chasing late invoices, securing new clients, etc. By the end of the year things have been looking better, and we were planning some big steps forward in 2014 when another external factor hit us just before Christmas.

The big lesson, and advice I’d give to anyone, is to plan for everything to go horribly wrong most of the time. Make sure you have cash,contracts and a minimum viable level of income for surviving in place at all times. And ensure that you are constantly thinking about what happens if something goes wrong before it actually does. I remember reading that most successful entrepreneurs tend to resemble rabbits rather than lions, because they’re constantly slightly nervous, paranoid and scanning around for potential predators and threats. More than that, you need to know what action to take, and to get on with it, in the face of problems.

That may mean cancelling services and lowering your costs in advance of problems, or it may mean taking a gamble and actually increasing your spending on advertising or marketing before a competitor becomes an issue. The important thing is to not end up paralysed like a deer in headlights as the problem gets bigger and bigger.

As for me and my business? While the bad news is that we may not be able to invest in some of the plans we’d put together quite yet, the good news is that we still have a growing client base, we’re able to refocus some of our efforts, and it’s an incentive for us to innovate more quickly. And thankfully I also have someone I respect a lot working alongside me to share that journey with rather than doing it alone… By the end of 2014 I expect to be writing about the best aspects of building a business from nothing but a laptop, and how we’ve progressed so far in 12 months….


The selfish business gene

…although evolution may seem, in some vague sense, a ‘good thing’ especially since we are the product of it, nothing actually ‘wants’ to evolve

From The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary edition and as true of business as it is of organisms.

And it seems to be as true of every new, disruptive, company or idea as it is of traditional businesses. Has Google, Facebook or Twitter shown any inclination to evolve without changes being forced upon it by external factors?



Bauer Media acquires Absolute Radio – thoughts from an ex-employee of both

The news that Bauer Media has bought Absolute Radio in a deal close to £22 million wasn’t a particular surprise, and there are plenty of great radio minds who have written about what it means in terms of scale and advertising, such as Matt Deegan. All interesting reading as people try to second guess what the acquisition will means for the various Absolute Radio brands, particularly the 60s,70s,80s,90s and 00s stations, and the crossover between Absolute Classic Rock and Planet Rock.

While that’s interesting, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the culture and approach of both companies. I started my career as Emap, and left a while after the acquisition by Bauer Media, somewhat ironically now, to join Absolute Radio, before starting my own business a couple of years ago. I’ve got enormous respect for the skills of both companies, and for many of the individuals working at Bauer and Absolute – I haven’t spoken to any current or former employees before writing this, so I’m purely going on my own memories and perceptions of how things may play out.


Absolute Radio at One Golden Square - Christmas 2009

Absolute Radio at One Golden Square – Christmas 2009

The main reason I joined Absolute Radio, and went on to have a great experience working at One Golden Square, wasn’t the prospect of radio, or bumping into celebrities. I’d admitted in my interview I already used streaming music services, and literally bumping into Colin Firth, or realising I was stood next to Robert Carlyle when I was having a cigarette break soon became fairly standard.

The best thing about Absolute Radio is the culture.

The combination of history, location, environment and leadership made it a cool place to work. The number of employees was somewhere round Dunbar’s 150 number, which meant it was soon possible to know everyone, compared to the large number contained in each Bauer Media building. And there was always something going on, whether it was a live performance by a band on the 3rd floor (also home to the studios, eating area with free drinks, and conference room), or a summer game of rounders in the park.

In addition, there was a very big focus on being entrepreneurial and innovative. It always felt like Absolute was the fast-moving underdog which was punching well above its weight to claim itself from both the Virgin legacy and take on far bigger radio companies, which tended to result in great ideas and quite a number of awards.

But it was clear that the then COO Clive Dickens and the board were also very engaged in staking a digital claim, both in terms of DAB and streaming. Whether it was working with radio manufacturers like Pure, meeting with the likes of Apple and achieving success via iTunes and apps, or working with Nokia on an app for the launch of a new phone, every day seemed to be bringing new and exciting challenges.

That came from both a very flat hierarchy, in that a good business idea pitched in a meeting could be given the go ahead before the meeting ended – and a very talented group of people across the business. Most of my work involved the relatively small digital and technology teams, and both had a talent for knocking out projects which were brilliantly designed and implemented, and in a far shorter period of time than you could have predicted…

As the latest RAJAR figures are being analysed today, it appears that approach is still creating healthy growth for Absolute Radio.



Meanwhile Bauer Media has very different strengths. My career was largely spent in the digital side of the consumer magazines business, although in the later stages I did also work with some of the radio stations on their social media strategy and digital innovation.

Bauer comes with a history and legacy stretching back decades in both the UK, and Germany. And both Emap/Bauer had a very well-honed process for churning out efficient products at a large-scale and reach. That doesn’t mean that innovative individuals and projects can’t surface, but my experience was that it involved a lot more procedure to get them approved, funded and built which also meant larger expectations for results.  Much of the work completed quickly tends to be done under the radar by the intrapreneurial types who went ahead and did things, asking for forgiveness later if required.

It means that Bauer has industry-leading brands, which have dominated their markets for many years, and as a result, direct competitors have stayed away, such as Motorcycle News, for example. There’s consistency and reliability inherent in the business model across the company.

It also means that there is resource to be thrown at any challenges if required. On the occasions where the company had reason to rouse itself, it always did so pretty well.


Ideal and reality:

The ideal outcome of this acquisition in my mind would be that Absolute Radio is supported by Bauer with increased resource to continue in the same vein of innovation and entrepreneurship, without adding huge amounts of oversight and management. And that approach could be infused into the main Bauer business to a larger extent. Many years ago I suggested splitting out smaller teams particularly on digital projects, rather than constraining everyone within the large confines of the three main offices, and Absolute could be a great example of how that can work effectively.

My fear is that Absolute will become just another Bauer property – meaning that they’ll be brought into the main offices and the Bauer business process, which won’t harm the end product in terms of on-air output necessarily, but will limit the digital and technology innovation that’s possible. It won’t be stopped by a ruling, but by the motivation and perseverance needed to get new ideas through a much larger company.

To compare experiences at different times, both Absolute and Emap launched quite radical properties which I had the pleasure of working with. In the space of around 12 months, Absolute proposed, built, launched and closed Dabbl, which was an online streaming service powered by listener voting which was well-received by a core group but wasn’t really sustainable in the face of other opportunities and the costs of streaming services. Meanwhile back in my Emap/Bauer days, a new social ranking service named Ditto was launched over the course of many months, but failed to grab enough advertising cash early on to be kept running, despite the fact I still believe that the core mechanism could have worked well, particularly if it was tied into Facebook etc.

The difference for me was seeing the scale of the task for the Ditto team, versus the Dabbl project, which was well supported by senior management and the rest of the Absolute business, but was essentially led, built and run by a handful of people in the digital team alongside their other responsibilities.

The technology industry is littered with acquisitions which have seen small, innovative companies subsumed within the larger whole (Flickr into Yahoo for example), so I hope this will be different, but only time will tell. I can only assume Bauer will be coming to make an offer for TheWayoftheWeb in a few years!



Nice interview with Joss Whedon on getting things done…

I’m a big fan of pretty much everything Joss Whedon has done, so it’s interesting to hear him talk about how he manages to do it all. And particularly as he admits to not finishing David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’. I’ve had a similar experience with 7 Habits of Effective People…

The full text is at Fast Company.


Motorcycle inspiration… Identifying new market opportunities

I find this video feature and interview interesting for a few reasons. As a biker, the motorcycles and interview are interesting, and I’m always interested in how people shoot automotive videos. Plus I do have a small role in helping out with bike site, and have clients in the motorcycle and car spaces.

As a business owner, I also found it interesting to see how Cleveland CycleWerks came up with their new bikes, in terms of doing something different to the established brands. The market previously had brands like Harley-Davidson at the high end, or unknown Chinese brands at the low end – so it certainly seems like there’s a very valid gap for affordable, American motorcycles.



For musicians

I have a fair number of talented musicians as friends. Quite often I’ve seen them posting some of the popular image memes around people not paying for music anymore, despite paying for a cup of coffee.
I explain that I don’t buy CDs much any more, aside from the occasional secondhand bargain. But I do pay directly to a variety of artists for their work, even if I can already access it via Spotify or I’ve already downloaded it, and I’m increasingly buying gig tickets, merchandise and other items.

This TED talk by Amanda Palmer has just been posted, and I think it’ll be my default response in future: