Loaf founder Charlie Marshall is a bad sleeper
24 September 2016 • 2:07pm
Ironically for a man who sells beds for a living, Loaf founder Charlie Marshall is a bad sleeper. But it was being awake in the small hours of a night in early 2012 that proved to be a key turning point for his handmade furniture company. It was at that moment he decided to rebrand the business. Its name at the time – The Sleep Room – didn’t quite fit with the company’s new sofa range, which was due to launch later that year.
“It was the middle of night and I was up bugging my wife, talking about the brand name. She said: ‘Well, if you could call it anything, what would you call it’? I said Loaf. It was the first thing that popped into my head. My school teacher always said that your first thoughts are usually right.”
For Mr Marshall, the name did feel right: it was four letters, easy to remember and summed up everything the company was (and is) about – furniture for lounging about.
“My wife said: ‘Go into the study and have a look online. See if it’s available, and then shut up and go to bed’.” After haggling with a domain name trader in the US, Mr Marshall finally had his website address: loaf.com. The company informed customers of the change and in October 2012, it switched over to the new brand and website.
“Looking back, it was quite a ballsy move,” says Mr Marshall. “I had a healthy, fast-growing business. We were turning over roughly £10m and making £1m profit a year. Suddenly we were switching the brand name and potentially compromising all that traffic. It was a nervy time.”
If Mr Marshall was anxious, it’s only because he had put so much of himself into the company, having launched it on Boxing Day in 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis.
“It was probably one of the worst moments in economic history to launch a business,” says Mr Marshall.
Charlie Marshall, founder of Loaf
He founded the company following a frustrating Saturday spent trying to buy a bed. He wanted to speed up the process and make the customer experience as easy as possible, so The Sleep Room was born: a predominantly online shop that stocked a select range of 12 beds and one mattress.
“I was really light in terms of costs from the get go,” says Mr Marshall, who at the time had just sold his first business, a soups and sauces company that employed 20 people. He went back to being a one-man band (or “a man and a Mac,” as he likes to say). Today, Loaf stocks products for the entire home. It has 100 employees and will hit sales of £33m this year. The company has made a profit every full year it has been in business, says Mr Marshall.
Loaf also recently launched two showrooms in Battersea and Notting Hill, London. The company calls them “Slowrooms” – large, deliberately quirky spaces where customers can play old-school arcade games and table football.
“We want them to come and flop around on our beds and sofas,” says Mr Marshall. “They’re places where customers can chill out, smell, feel and, through the music we play, even hear the brand.”
Getting to this point hasn’t been without its challenges. Trying to maintain the company’s personality and culture while growing so quickly has been particularly difficult.
The solution was to codify the brand’s values. “After five or six years, as the business was growing and the number of staff increasing, I decided it was time to write down our business’s core values,” says Mr Marshall.
“I started off with about 37 points we thought made us different, whether that was being a fusspot for detail or doing anything to make our customers say ‘cor!’”
He whittled it down to nine things that were absolutely key to Loaf, which are used to make sure the business employs people who represent each trait.
Whether you’ve got £1,000 or £10,000 in the bank – no matter your size – you should always be in control of your figures
“We hire for attitude rather than experience. Getting the right people was transformational. It fundamentally changed our business.It has meant that my role has been able to change too, from me as the face of the business very much defining those principles, to the whole team defining them.” It’s now a team effort, he says, with more like-minded people.
He advises growing SMEs to remember that employing new staff is much like completing a jigsaw puzzle. “You’re constantly trying to make people fit with the company. You’ve got to be very mindful of what kind of people are best for your business at that particular time.
“You may find you have certain individuals who don’t want to grow and who don’t feel comfortable. Equally, you can hire people who are too big for the business.” Don’t be afraid to make changes, even if that means letting people go. Ultimately it’s good for the business, and the individuals as well.”
Like any growing retailer, Loaf isn’t immune to customer complaints or negative reviews, but those can make you stronger, says Mr Marshall.
“It’s very difficult to hear customers complain about things, or hear someone who’s not a customer say why they don’t buy from you – or even staff saying what you’re not doing right. Be self-critical and self-analytical at all times.”
Mr Marshall offers another tip for SMEs, but it’s not his. “It’s from my accountant, who gave it to me in my early twenties. He told me to always, always invest in your finances. He would say that, of course, because he’s an accountant, but he was bang on.
“Whether you’ve got £1,000 or £10,000 in the bank – no matter your size – you should always be in control of your figures. From invoices to cash flow, everything should be up to date. If you’re in control of that, you will suffer 90pc less stress, which frees you up to make other decisions.”
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