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Consciously adapting your small business

Jeremy Stern, talks about managing a small business in volatile times. His advice? Make conscious decisions; otherwise, stick to your knitting.

9 min read

Jeremy Stern is the founder and CEO of PromoVeritas, the European leader in promotional compliance. As a result of Covid-19, in March 2020 the company started to see the cancellation of a number of major projects, mostly linked to sporting events around the globe. PromoVeritas realised that they would have to adapt rapidly to the changing circumstances if they were to continue to help their client base and retain their revenue. 

If you’ve ever seen a TV show that says “...and the votes have been independently verified”, the chances are that Jeremy is the man behind them! But PromoVeritas also runs prize promotions for some of the biggest food, drink and finance brands around including Pepsi, Cadbury, Barclays, American Express, Molson Coors and many more. 

As a result of their adaptive moves and subsequent success, PromoVeritas has been nominated as one of the Most Adaptive Small Businesses of 2020 by QuickBooks UK.

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Hi Jeremy! It’s such a pleasure sitting down with you today. Can you give our readers a little introduction of your business, PromoVeritas?

It’s great to be here, and yes of course. PromoVeritas is quite a unique business - we are the guys that make sure that all those fun prize draws, Willy Wonka-style instant wins and competitions that you see in the supermarket or online are run fairly, and in compliance with the relevant laws and regulations. So we pick the winners of the prizes draws, we are the ones who judge those photo competitions on Instagram and we also certify that all those ‘golden tickets’ for instant wins actually go out and are distributed fairly and randomly, ready for you to buy and then win great prizes. 

So in that sense, I am basically Willy Wonka: for Cadbury, we literally make up those special Creme Eggs, each with a prize-giving ticket, and we distribute them secretly, nationwide. Plus we oversee TV voting, for example for the forthcoming ITV National Television Awards.

“In summary, we enable creative agencies to run their wacky ideas safely, securely and compliantly.”

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You already win the prize for ‘Best Use of Metaphors’ of everyone I’ve interviewed! What has your journey into entrepreneurship been like?

For 25 years I was in mainstream marketing - I’ve worked for the likes of Unilever, Kenco Coffee, Tesco, Sega and Coca Cola. Working for these big multinationals, I started to realise that the prize promotions that they ran weren’t being managed adequately. The brand managers didn’t know how to run things fairly - often the secretary was picking winners based on personal preferences.

You see, here in the UK we have the most liberal sales policy in Europe, but in order to avoid stricter legislation, we need to run our promotions fairly and make sure we follow the rules. That is what prompted me to set up my own business 15 years ago. There was a gap - someone to help big brands run things right.

“I started in the back room of my house and since then PromoVeritas has grown into a multi-million entity, with 40+ staff,  several hundred clients and we run several thousand campaigns every year.”

Our clients include big names such as Kellogg’s, Cadbury, American Express, ASOS and Barclays. We operate across a range of sectors, but food, drink and alcohol are the big ones. Half of our work is in collaboration with agencies - they initiate the creative ideas, and we make them happen safely. We also work with influencers a lot, who run campaigns with us on Instagram and Twitter. All in all, I work in a very energising environment.

That’s great to hear! And how has this year been for your business?

In January, it looked like we were going for a record year. Then we started to hear the news about a virus in Wuhan, China - we thought ‘that’s over there’, but we forgot that ‘over there’ quickly becomes ‘over here’.

“In March, I caught Covid myself, and I was sick and at home for three weeks. Around that time, it also started to impact on the business.”

A lot of our work is centred around events - Toyota and the Olympics, Cadbury and the Premier League, Pepsi and  the Champions League… All of these major events quickly started to fall away in March and the associated projects too! We also started to see our forward orders drop, because shopping was harder in the new environment, and on top of that, brands don’t want to shout about amazing holiday prizes while there’s a travel ban!

Our turnover dropped by about a third in the first two months, but luckily we recovered: by the end of June everyone who had been furloughed was back at work, and our revenue in September was close to that of the same month last year.

How did you make that recovery happen?

This year, we’ve adapted our range of services. Although on-pack offers are still big, we’ve developed a digital offering, giving us the ability to run online campaigns at very short notice. A recent campaign was for Rakuten, an online ecommerce platform that sponsors FC Barcelona. We built a web service that would create a digital mosaic of famous players based on images submitted by fans. The resulting image is now a massive poster on the side of the Nou Camp in Spain. 

In addition, as many of our clients were working part-time and therefore strapped for time this year, we developed a one-stop service for promotions: we can now do everything from sourcing influencers and building microsites to doing the draws, supplying the prizes and contacting the winners. Our clients don’t need to work with multiple suppliers anymore - we can facilitate a seamless delivery.

To further improve our service to clients, we now operate in client-focused clusters that combine both the relationship manager (who brings in the business) and the Project Managers (who deliver the project). This way, we can create unity and a common purpose even when the team is working remotely. Investing ahead of the curve, we recently recruited five more people on the client management side, whose job is to talk to clients and help solve their problems. 

“We see opportunity for growth: last week alone, we received 29 new briefs!”

40% of the work we get comes from overseas, or from UK-based businesses that want to run competitions overseas. For example, the Cadbury Inventor campaign, where you can pick the flavour of their new chocolate bar, started in the UK but is currently being rolled out across several countries. 

In that regard, Brexit isn’t coming at a good time. We are most concerned about its impact on data flows. GDPR makes intra-country movement of data easy, but from 31 December onwards, the UK will be outside of the EU, and such movement will only be allowed if the EU approves the UK legal regime as being up to its standard. Of course it will be, because nothing has changed, but it is likely that the process of approval by the EU could take up to two years. As a business, we’re going to have to be agile again to adapt to the changes ahead.

What have been your top tips for managing your business finances in 2020?

When the coronavirus hit, we instituted a four-day work week and a few people were sent on furlough. We were lucky to have laptops and cloud-based software, and on top of that we were ISO27001 accredited, which meant that we had a business continuity programme already in place. We certainly put it to the test this year - so my top tip: do have a plan for even the unlikeliest of events. They might just happen.

My main tips for managing business finances in volatile times like these would be:

  • Say no to bad business. When your business is in crisis, it can be tempting to take on any new clients that express an interest, but make sure you do proper credit checks and when in doubt, get payment upfront.

  • Pay your suppliers on time. Even when I was ill with Covid, I always continued to pay our suppliers early or on time. You never know when you might need a favour from them, so being reliable is beneficial to both parties.

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  • Continue to reward your team. Even though we missed out on our half-year targets this year, everyone still got a good bonus for the half-year. It was my way of making up for the four-day week.

  • Get some non-execs on board. As an entrepreneur it is easy to let your ego drive your business decisions. A good set of challenging non-execs can give a valuable second opinion.

That’s good advice, indeed. Would you like to give a shout-out to the people who have helped you cope with the uncertainty this year?

Exactly one year ago I recruited a Managing Director. As any small business owner will understand, this was a huge step for me, because PromoVeritas is my business, my baby, my idea. To bring someone on board to be the buffer between me and the rest of my team was challenging. However, Shelley Davies has been invaluable to the business this year, especially when I was ill - the same goes for Gemma Cutting, my Deputy Managing Director. It’s been very useful to have two heads instead of one to discuss our next steps in these challenging times.

Throughout the year, Jorja-Leigh - our Head of Legal - and our team of in-house lawyers have been giving legal direction on a broad level, which has been incredibly useful. 

And on a personal level, my wife has been a pillar, being by my side throughout all the turbulence this year.

What inspiring or encouraging words would you like to send to your fellow entrepreneurs?

If you’ve found a niche and it works, stick to it. Lots of times we’ve been asked to branch out into creative ideation, advertising etc., but I feel that our speciality is our uniqueness. 

We do upsell to our clients on other things, of course, and that’s how we expand our business. But that is not how we get NEW clients in. They come to us because of what we do best: promotional compliance. Then we can add on other components, most of which they did not know we did, nor that they even needed. It’s a bit like a restaurant: if you are famous for your falafel, people come for the falafel - but once they are there, they’ll also have dessert! 

“You’re only truly adaptable if you’ve made a very conscious decision to move in a certain direction. If you haven’t: stick to your knitting!”

For more inspiring stories from small business owners like Jeremy, discover the Quickbooks blog.

This interview has been edited for clarity.