Bizpedia’s Member of the Month for June is Alex Stillman! Alex is the Sales and Operations Director of Datasharp Independent Solutions. Datasharp provide managed print and scanning solutions to SMEs and independent schools all over the UK. These include document, scan and print management software, as well as display screens and digital signage, and staff and visitor booking systems for desks, meeting rooms and reception areas.
Alex started working at Datasharp after finishing university. He worked his way up into management and bought out the company in 2008. He discusses how he adapted the business due to the challenges of Covid, the importance of building long-term relationships with customers and how he offsets carbon footprint for them, as well as his passion for flying. Read on to find out more.
1. What is an ideal customer for Datasharp?
An ideal customer for Datasharp is an independent school based in Hampshire, Berkshire, Surrey or London requiring printers and/or document management and scan management solutions. However, we also work with SMEs who have a turnover of 5 to 50 million pounds.
2. Tell us a bit about your journey as a business owner – how did you get to where you are today?
I had just completed my BSc in Business Management at Solent University and obtained a telesales role at Datasharp. A year later I switched to sales, and 2– 3 years after that was promoted to Sales Manager. Within 10 years, I was Sales Director. During this role, I became more involved in running the business, hence the operations part of the title. In 2008, the business was going to be sold, so another staff member and I decided to buy the business. At that point, I had been in the company for 16 years. The 29th of June will be my 30thanniversary!
When I discovered that the business was going to be sold, I asked myself, “Do I want to work for someone else or myself?” I also thought that, if we sold out, people I had worked with for 15– 16 years, as well as myself, could lose their jobs. In addition, there was a risk under new ownership that I could not supply customers with the high level of service that I wanted to. It was not something I enjoyed the thought of. So I decided to remortgage my house, cut back on school fees, take a leap of faith and buy into the business.
We have had some tough hurdles to face. The business has survived 2 recessions and Covid. The first recession started when I joined the company in June 1992. But Covid hit us hard. When Covid arose, we knew immediately that we had a problem. Our main income source was printers and charging for sheets of paper, and with people not being in the office they would not be printing. We had to generate a solution, and that was to diversify our products. We started to supply visual solutions such as large meeting room screens and visitor management systems, and other solutions such as desk space management.
Heartbreakingly, we had to let several staff go and downsize our premises. Our turnover reduced by 5 million pounds over the Covid period. Luckily, we are recruiting again now and looking for 2 technical staff as apprentices. We think apprentices are great. You can give them an opportunity and it helps us to give them skills.
I try to look at recessions as an opportunity. They are tough and challenging, but I try to use them to help people get better value, reduce their overheads and become more efficient. What Covid did do was improve our profitability level.
3. Tell us about the importance of helping customers and building long-term relationships to you
I love to help our customers. I love to help people full stop. Our company values are honesty, integrity and an ethical approach. Our industry is full of crooks – people are overcharged and stuck in horrible contracts. A while ago, I saved a group of schools a million pounds and they then became a customer. I like to think we are fair and flexible. We love building long-term relationships with our customers and giving a fantastic service; we have many customers who have been with us for 2 or 3 decades.
I believe that the key to building strong long-term relationships is having a good strong partnership with your client base, keeping in touch with them regularly, understanding what their needs are and seeing if you can help them. The impact I want to create through my business is improving processes for our customers. I want to make their lives better, even if it’s in a small way. To generate a solution for a client that can revolutionise the way their business works makes me really happy!
4. What about sustainability and security?
Sustainability and security are so important to us. If the products and software are not correctly set up, there is potential for people’s data to be hacked, which is particularly crucial for schools to avoid.
We recycle all our waste and we even have compostables, a bin for food waste, and a bin for cardboard and paper in our offices.
We have various different schemes for our customers to be carbon neutral. We bill according to usage, and so we know what they have used. With this knowledge, we then plant x amount of trees to offset the carbon emissions. A scheme is being introduced this month called GROWS, where, for a small fee, we can plant more trees so a company is carbon-positive. The company then gets to choose where the trees are planted in the world.
We make black and white printing a default to reduce carbon footprint, and also to help save companies money. We encourage clients to avoid printing colour unless they absolutely have to.
5. What do you love about having your own business?
I love having my own business for several reasons; the flexibility is one. I have never missed my children’s school plays or sports days and have always been there to put them to bed. The ability to control your own destiny and manage your own diary is amazing, as well as being able to have income and security for the family.
6. What is the biggest thing you have learnt running a business?
To treat other people as you would expect to be treated. Treat people kindly, with respect, and be empathetic.
7. What is the one piece of advice you would give your younger self if you could go back in time?
Take more risks as it will probably be all right, and, if you do fail, you will learn from the experience.
8. Where do you see Datasharp being in the future?
I see Datasharp being a more diversified business, so that what we currently offer is a fraction of our offering, rather than the core service. I want to evolve the business into electronic forms of communication, rather than printed form.
9. How has Bizpedia benefited you and your business?
I am part of the Basingstoke group and they are a fantastic bunch of people. I consider them my friends. I can discuss anything with them and it stays between us. Because the members are so diverse in terms of industries and personalities, you automatically get lots of ‘out of the box’ thinking, which is great. When you ask for advice, you get different and often better viewpoints.
I have adopted many ideas from the keynote speakers. They have helped me grow and helped make the business more efficient. For example, Alison Craig spoke a while ago about how to work with staff, make them feel valued and nurture their performance and progress. As a result of this talk, I set up bi-annual performance reviews and implemented quarterly staff get-togethers. We’ve hired a pub for June and have asked a staff member and his band to perform, invited staff and customers and will charge a small fee. All the proceeds will go to charity.
Every time I have gone to an event, I have enjoyed it and learnt something. I have been to about 12 events now.
I have also gained business through an introduction to a members contact, and we have now partnered with them. This led to £90,000 in business.
10. What has been your favourite thing about being a Bizpedia member?
The board meetings. They have been really helpful. They have helped give me ideas and reassurance. There was one session when I opened up about my personal life, which I rarely do, and I found that several other members were in the same situation. Everyone struggled during Covid, which made me feel like I was not alone.
11. What is the best holiday you have had?
A trip in which my friend and I flew a plane to Iceland and back in 2004. I am a trained pilot and I used to go away with friends for the weekend and fly to various places, including France and Germany.
Iceland was particularly challenging. You only have enough fuel to get there. There is a point of no return, about halfway, where if you face a problem, you do not have enough fuel to get back. You have to do calculations around weather changes with where you are flying to and make key decisions. We flew over the Faroe Islands, refuelled there and then flew to Iceland. The scenery was breathtaking though. The best thing, honestly, was getting there! If we had any issues, we would have died. We did not do much oversea after that, as we learnt from that experience!
12. If you could go back in time, who would you want to meet and why?
I would love to meet Sir Douglas Bader. He was a spitfire pilot in World War 2. In 1931 he was showing off in a bi-plane and looped too low, crashed to the ground, and lost his legs. He was one of the first people to receive prosthetic legs. He was determined to help out in the war, so he learnt to fly with prosthetics. He came up with ‘Bader’s Big Wing’ which fooled the Germans into thinking that we had more planes than we actually did, and he was a figure and mentor to many in the RAF. If I met him, I would ask him if he had his time again, would he still perform that loop and risk losing his legs?
We would like to thank Alex for his time. If you would like to find out more about Alex or his business, connect with him on Linkedin.