30 years in business this year – that’s to be celebrated, as it’s a milestone too many companies will simply never achieve.
The start of Propoganda
In 1993, Stephen Taylor watched in horror as guest after guest dipped their hands in a bowl of complimentary mints on a hotel reception desk and thought: ‘There has to be a better – and more hygienic – way.’
‘It was utterly disgusting!’ he recalls, laughing at the memory. ‘I can see it clear as day, and can remember thinking how utterly unhygienic and how surely there was a better way to say thank you to customers than that!’.
From small thoughts, often come big ideas. But putting those ideas into practice? That’s something completely different. That’s dedication, effort, hard work, literal blood, sweat and tears – and not everyone has it in them.
And that’s what makes a successful businessman and entrepreneur stand out from the crowd, isn’t it? That innate entrepreneurial personality trait, coupled with a good dose of confidence and sprinkled with a light dusting of luck – that right there, that’s the recipe for success.
Stephen continues ‘I suppose it’s fitting to talk about recipes with a company which makes a living from selling sweets and confectionery items, but I never really thought about it in those terms, truthfully, I was always just trying to run the best business I possibly could.’
Why Stephen wanted to start the company
A terrible time as a bond trader after University, which he says definitely taught him how not to treat staff, was followed by a stint as a business consultant, ‘And that’, says Stephen ‘was when I definitely knew that I wanted to run my own company because I ended up wanting to run all my Client’s businesses for them!’
That’s when, at the end of yet another consultancy meeting, he sat in the hotel lobby and watched in horror as a customer after customer dipped their hands into an unwrapped bowl of mints.
‘I just thought to myself: this is such a missed opportunity. If those mints were wrapped with a little message, or a picture of your Hotel, or your logo, then imagine how much stronger that would be as a message. Not to mention the immediate improvement in hygiene offered!’ he laughs.
So I went home and thought about how I could best put this into action. I did my research and got myself an appointment at a sweet company to discuss placing an order. Of course, I had very little in the way of savings to invest in this, so I knew it would be an extremely tricky meeting!
I managed to persuade the salesman that I met that day, at this very well-known (and now sadly defunct) sweet company to give me 30 days’ credit on my first order – and somehow, he agreed!
So, from my desk in my bedroom (we’re talking about the days well before the Internet here), with the trusty old Yellow Pages in hand, I began to call restaurants and hotels begging them to take my new hygienically wrapped after-dinner “Thank You” Mint.”
The hard work behind Propoganda’s success
As a 23-year-old salesman, it was brutally hard work cold calling restaurants, and when I showed up on spec they were of course inevitably always at busy service times, so I was often getting thrown out of good establishments across London!
Obviously, all this work lays the grounds for the eventual establishment of the company, and objectively, looking back I wouldn’t have had it any other way: but back then had I been given a choice, or an easy way out, I suspect I would have taken it!
I recall standing in the rain on one typical rainy wet winter day having just left a Soho London restaurant during a busy lunchtime serving thinking to myself “This is tough but I know if I just persevere something good will happen”. There is no substitute for perseverance, effort, and self-belief. I have always believed with total conviction that minor setbacks were not going to stop me from achieving the success that I so desired, and that turned out to be true.
Stephen continues: ‘I didn’t stop walking around London’s hotels until I had sold them all, and so could repay the factory – and the salesman – that had enough faith in my idea to run me off that vital trial batch on credit’.
He continues: ‘It was a valuable and irreplaceable business learning opportunity too. I was inside the hotels (sometimes only briefly before being ejected, but still!), so I got instant customer feedback and the opportunity to develop customer relationships. I also realised that, instead of trying to sell whatever I had got, I needed to fulfil a demand, see what people wanted.’
Valuable lessons when starting a business
That in itself is an incredibly valuable business lesson. Thinking that your product and idea is the bee’s knees and that everyone will want it, when in fact they may want something anywhere from similar to completely different – the best companies out there adapt and change themselves in accordance with that customer feedback, and that’s exactly what Stephen Taylor’s done at Propaganda.
‘We’ve had to innovate, to evolve, to change: if we wanted to stay ahead of the crowd and our competitors, we couldn’t just stay the same. We’ve had to constantly evolve and adapt, that’s been an important part of our 30-year history.’
And when you’re talking about a company that’s been going strong for 30 years, with the company owner and founder, the best thing to do is to soak it all up and listen, surely?
Written after an Interview with Stephen Taylor, Propaganda and Sweet Concepts CEO – Part 2: From Sweet Concepts to Propaganda, coming in June.