In this edition of Growth Stories, we’re talking to a business co-founder who knows a thing or two about laying down the foundations for success. Since 2010, William Crawford of Concrete Canvas has seen his idea become a major part of the world’s biggest industries.
Talking us through shifting business focus, overcoming challenges as a company grows, and much more, William’s Growth Story is sure to prove useful for any businesses looking to grow in the near future…
Concrete Canvas was set up by myself and my business partner, Peter Brewin, straight after university. Initially, we had an idea to create rapidly deployable concrete shelters for disaster relief. However, we quickly realised that an even bigger opportunity existed in commercialising the concrete-filled fabric we’d invented to make the shelters work.
This fabric is now used to replace conventional poured concrete for a huge range of applications, and our clients include some of the biggest players in the oil and gas industry. Although we still manufacture and sell the shelters, they account for less than 1% of our turnover and our business is predominantly focused on the Concrete Canvas material.
In the early years, we grew very quickly, sometimes doubling or trebling turnover year-on-year. As you scale up, this rate of growth gets harder and harder to sustain but the business becomes more robust.
One of the biggest challenges as a rapidly-growing manufacturing company is that we are constantly having to balance our investment in growing our production capacity (the supply side) and increasing our sales resource (the demand side). To get this right, it’s important to have good communication throughout the entire team and a clear sense of direction to make sure everyone is focussed on the same goals.
We started selling our product in the UK 10 years ago and we’ve grown by expanding into new market sectors, along with growing our exports into new overseas territories. Investment in infrastructure in some of our markets, such as the mining and oil and gas sectors, is often heavily dependent on global commodity prices. So, you need to build a business that is able to weather the storm in the fallow years. Ultimately, it’s this that drives efficiency and creates a business which is more robust in the long term.
We’ve managed to maintain strong growth despite these external factors by building a diverse customer base with a broad geographic spread. Ultimately businesses need to remain flexible and be able to adapt to the changing global market.
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Concrete Canvas is a unique material that enables concrete to be used in completely new ways. When we developed the prototypes of the material, we knew there were a plethora of ways the product could be used. We learnt early on the importance of focussing on a few clear target applications, rather than taking a shot-gun approach. This is especially important as an SME where you have very limited resources and mistakes can be very costly.
As Concrete Canvas has grown, it’s just as important to retain that focus and make sure everyone is driving in the same direction, with a clear coherent purpose spread throughout the entire company.
Our success has come in a large part through expansion into international markets. When we started selling it was in our home market of the UK. That enabled us to work closely with customers, understand their needs and develop the right technical support and product improvements.
We then looked to replicate that success in other international markets by partnering with agents and distributors with shared values and complementary expertise. Exports now make up 90% of Concrete Canvas’ turnover, and we currently sell into more than 80 countries around the world, through a network of 65 sales partners managed through 6 regional offices across different continents.
A big challenge in starting a business from scratch is managing the transition of responsibility as you grow the size of your team. Handing over responsibility is a hard but necessary part of growing a business. As a business founder, you feel more acutely responsible for all aspects of the day-to-day operations and delegating responsibility is perhaps harder than in an established organisation.
I think in the early days I found it hard to delegate responsibility and if I started a business again tomorrow, I would try much harder to delegate and empower people from the outset.
Also – good coffee from day one!
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