Originally written for the npd. blog.

Following on from Part One, which I published last week, below are another five key learnings I took away from my time in the FMCG industry designing consumer electronics accessories.

6. Relationships with your customers are important, but ultimately cash is king.

I have been lucky enough to be exposed to customer meetings throughout my career.  In the beginning it was just meet and greets, but as it turned out, the customers really enjoyed speaking with the team who developed the product, rather than their account managers, so that soon evolved into; ‘Ben, we need you to pitch the new product range to the customer’.

Although sales is definitely not my strongpoint, I can talk about design and my work until the cows come home.  I quickly found that the actual business wasn’t done within the meeting room, but outside or in the restaurant/bar later that evening.  Quickly adapting to the ‘schmoozing’ lifestyle, I built great relationships with the key decision makers at our customers – some of which I’m proud to say I still keep in touch with.

These relationships made business easier and more relaxed, and for a time it almost felt like we could do no wrong.  However, there came a time when it wasn’t enough for us to be pals with the customers buying manager (along with an industry-leading product portfolio, obviously) but instead we were being squeezed on product margin and being compared to Competitor-X ‘who’s happily given us 80% profit margin’.  

I guess my point here is that it is important to try and find common ground with your customers or buyers, as the personal touch really does go a long way.  However, if that buyer isn’t hitting their profitability targets then you’ll be the one paying the price.

7. Stay away from commodity product industries.

This one is a big one for me, and ultimately the reason I walked away from this industry.

Consumer electronics accessories was a fledgling industry when I started out, and as such we were one of only a few brands across the world making products.  We had a simple approach; to use smart materials to protect the technology, rather than the American ‘bigger is better’ method.  We pioneered integrating non-newtonian materials into dual-shot mouldings, therefore producing drastically thinner yet more protective products.

Over the years though, more and more brands appeared from all over the world.  The word had got out that phone and tablet accessories were a profitable business!  The next thing we saw was our designs (and similar materials) appearing elsewhere in slightly different guises, therefore we were not able to pursue them for illegal copying.  All of a sudden, every major brand in the industry had their own version of an impact absorbing polymer and were offering transparent covers.  

Despite our innovation into sustainable and compostable materials, NFC-connected accessories and other new project pipelines, our core product had become a commodity within the industry, and customer ranging decisions came down to profit margin rather than product performance.  Once this happens, it is simply a race to the bottom on price – who can make it for as little as possible and offer the biggest profit margin for the retailer.  

8. End of life ‘scrap’ is an environmental nightmare.

I don’t know when it was decided that we’d need a new iteration of a mobile phone every single year, but it has created an environmental waste nightmare.  In the early years of smartphones, technology was moving so quickly that each new handset was a marked difference from the last, but recently I really struggle to see the benefits of an iPhone 13 over an iPhone 12.

This rapid development cycle, combined with frankly ridiculous supply planning demands from almost all accessory retailers, meant that we would be required to manufacture and distribute millions of accessories across the world to coincide with the new handset launch.  This is all fantastic until the retailer realises that the new smartphone hasn’t been selling as well as they expected, therefore they’ve got excess stock of cases which they can’t sell.  Wait long enough and the next handset comes out.  Now they’ve got no chance of selling that stock because everyone wants the new handset.  

There are a few outlets for old stock like this, but if the quantity is massive then there’s no chance of selling it off, even at a huge discount.  This is where retailers will ‘write-off’ their stock and call in someone to scrap it.  They’ll recycle what they can (cardboard and plastic packaging etc) but the case itself is co-molded with at least 2 different types of plastic, so this just gets ground up and then put into landfill.  

This equates to hundreds of tonnes of non-degradable waste that is getting put into landfill each year, from all over the world, just from one product category.  As much as I attempted to steer the industry from within, it just wasn’t possible to make a big enough difference.

9. It’s OK to say No.

Again, this was something that took a while to grasp.  When I was young, I was incredibly eager to please and would always go above and beyond to meet the needs of the business.  Don’t get me wrong, this enthusiasm and willingness is something that we should all aspire to have, but it is important to have boundaries.

Far too often did I immediately say yes to additional tasks or specific design requests, without so much as another thought.  It soon became apparent that some of the things I was being asked to do were counterproductive or just turned out to be dead ends and time wasting activities.  Time that could’ve been spent on doing an amazing job in another area, rather than a mediocre one.

I guess I had to go through these challenges and learn from my past experiences, at least enough to challenge my superiors when being given a task.  When I started doing this, even just the open dialogue about ‘why’ the task was needed would end up bringing up more reasons not to do it.  This then was invaluable as I was able to focus on what was truly important to the business as a whole.  It is far too easy to get distracted with the micro-projects surrounding a major project, meaning you fail to meet your primary targets.

There is definitely a knack to saying ‘No’.  I mean, for a start you can’t just say ‘No, I won’t do that’.  As I mentioned above, I found the best way was to ask ‘why’?  But another way to balance your workload properly is to say ‘Yes, I’ll do that.  But *this*, *this* and *this* will have to wait’.  You’ll then find out what the true priorities of the business are.  But more importantly, you’ll have a manageable workload and be able to focus on delivering excellent results.

10. Don’t forget that it is just a job.

This lesson was definitely one that I learnt after I left.  It’s so easy when you’re working in a fast-paced environment to get caught up with work.  So much so, that it’s easy to neglect things at home – family, friends, pets and even yourself.

I feel that in light of the pandemic, there is a much greater emphasis on mental wellbeing nowadays, especially in the workplace, which is obviously fantastic news.  But when I look back over my time within FMCG, I do reflect on the fact that I had some very bad habits which I didn’t realise at the time had a negative effect on my personal life.

With a business spanning the globe, I was in contact with people from both the West and the East, meaning there wasn’t actually a time in the day when somebody wasn’t asking me for something.  With emails on phones, it was far too easy to sit in front of the TV at night answering emails rather than having a conversation with my wife.

I had the opportunity to travel (a lot) through work, most of it long-haul.  In order to make the work week more efficient, I would usually fly on weekends.  Not only did this cut short my family and personal time, but it reduced my own time resting and recuperating ahead of the work week.  

Whilst working abroad, I also made the excuse that ‘I might as well work late tonight because I’ve got nothing else to do’.  This was a very bad habit that I corrected in later years, as it meant that I came home even more tired and jet-lagged than normal.  If you’ve got the opportunity to travel for work, make sure you make time to see the local sights, eat the local food and get to know the people.  When else are you going to get an expenses paid trip to the other side of the world?!  Make the most of it.

These experiences, spanning 8+ years, have really defined myself as both a designer and business owner. All of this experience is now being applied into what I do, ensuring that I am delivering world-class design services to my clients, but with a genuine focus on sustainability, wellbeing and a balanced approach that ensures everyone in the process and supply chain is winning.