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Sourceful: A lightbulb moment

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Thinking outside the box has delivered fast growth for Sourceful's revolutionary customisable packaging business.

It began with a lightbulb moment—quite literally.

In 2020, Sharon and Wing Chan met a stranger at a football game in Manchester. He was opening a new hotel in the city and, in the course of their conversation, he mentioned an unexpected frustration: it was proving strangely hard to find good, affordable LED light bulbs. The pair were convinced they could find some for him—and challenged themselves to do so. “Within a week, we had found a light bulb they could use that was affordable and immediately available,” says Wing. It gave the husband-and-wife duo a business idea: “Could we find products that were better for you, better for the planet, but affordable at the same time?”

That idea quickly gained a more specific focus: packaging. This was an area where Sharon had observed first-hand the need for a new approach. She had worked in global e-commerce and logistics for a decade, and had always been struck by how old-fashioned that aspect of the sector was. Sourcing packaging was a painfully slow process, supply chains were fraught with risk and the options offered by packaging suppliers were typically pricey and unimaginative. For most brands packaging was an afterthought but, notes Sharon, “It is the first thing your consumer is going to see”.

It seemed an opportune moment to fix the problem. Direct-to-consumer brands were on the up, and they needed to find ways to differentiate themselves from the competition. And so, in June 2020, Sourceful was born. Sourceful enables brands to create packaging that’s completely customizable—size, colours, branding, finish—and then routes the design behind the scenes to a supplier who can produce it. “Our mission at Sourceful is to use science and data to create the packaging that the world needs,” says Wing. “There are amazing experiences to go after but it’s hard to create them. We exist to make that faster and easier.”

Posting gains

Today, the Manchester-based business has offices in London, Amsterdam, and Shenzhen, and has raised more than $32m in funding. It can offer 60 billion different packaging variants, and it counts everyone from challenger brands to bigger players, such as Zoe and TRIP, among its customers.

There’s a theme that runs throughout Sourceful’s growth strategy. As Sharon puts it: “For us, growth really means building the community around us.”

On the one hand, that’s a community of clients. “The first few years, all of our marketing and outreach and discovery was through word of mouth,” says Wing. “A lot of our brands did the work for us: customers, and also many of our friends and family, actually gave us leads to talk to as we started to scale.”

On the other hand, it’s the community of suppliers and partners that underpin the whole proposition. Forging that network has taken graft. When the business launched, it was in the thick of Covid. While that did present an opportunity—global economic disruption meant packaging suppliers were happy to consider new sources of business—it also posed a practical problem. Sourceful needed to work with Chinese manufacturers, in particular, and the only way to quality-assure them and build the relationships was to visit in person. “I travelled to China three times during the first two years,” says Sharon. “I was in hotel quarantine three times—probably 45 days in total in hotels—and because of the quarantine situation Wing couldn’t go, so I was stuck in China for nine months to set up our office there.”

Thinking outside the box

Working internationally from the off required more than just a can-do attitude. Their supplier network was not only in China, and this introduced financial challenges. “At the beginning, we actually started off by using local banking partnerships,” says Wing. “But as we expanded to more and more territories, that actually presented a problem: how do I keep things easy and efficient for our small finance team?”

Just opening a bank account in a new geography could take months, and the proliferating array of banking partners made for a complex set-up. The company alighted on HSBC UK as a banking partner that could prevent those problems. “They are a bank that thought internationally—that is their focus. And that's how we think as well,” says Wing. “They gave us one central platform to use. It makes it easy for us.”

Sharon and Wing Chan

The Sourceful founders particularly valued HSBC’s personal approach. “Unlike with other banks, where you don't speak to someone face-to-face, it was great to have Mark, our relationship manager,” says Wing. “As we've been thinking about opening up new markets in Europe, in Hong Kong, that process has been super easy. It's great to have someone that we can trust to help us with this process.”

The founders counsel any other small businesses looking to follow a similar growth path to place equal weight on their choice of banking partner. And their experiences have taught them some other important lessons besides. “The first lesson is hiring,” says Sharon. “We grow really fast, but we want to hire really slowly. Because it’s important to hire the right people into the business. It’s not just for now, we want to build a business that lasts for decades. So we want our people to be able to go on this journey with us as well.”

Wing adds that another vital tip is to embrace learning. “For us, it’s something that we call PIR— which is ‘post-incident review’—which means that after everything that happens, we sit down as a team, and we go through what happened and how we can make it better. I think that process of PIRs happens at all levels. Even I do them, because I make mistakes all the time. Having that culture of how to actually learn and get better every single day is a key part of the ethos of our business.”

Delivering future growth

Sourceful has grown fast, but still considers itself an early-stage business. It is hungry to grow its customer base further, particularly overseas. “Right now, we service mainly the UK market on the client side,” says Wing. “We'll be expanding into Europe and also into the US, because brands around the world have the same challenges. They want to deliver amazing experiences, but they need to find suppliers that can do that for them.”

Achieving that won’t just be about having suppliers and teams in those countries, but also expanding Sourceful’s sales and marketing efforts. All underpinned, says Sharon, by HSBC’s infrastructure. “We are excited to be going on this journey with them globally.”

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