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No-nonsense perspectives on startup growth

This article was published on May 5, 2021

When is it time for your startup to hire a corporate bard?

Huboo's novel decision shows startups shouldn't be afraid of weird ideas

When is it time for your startup to hire a corporate bard?
Már Másson Maack
Story by

Már Másson Maack

Editor, Growth Quarters by TNW

Már tries to juggle his editorial duties with writing the occasional weird article. He also loves talking about himself in the third person. Már tries to juggle his editorial duties with writing the occasional weird article. He also loves talking about himself in the third person.

Huboo — a British e-commerce fulfillment startup — hired its very own corporate bard. Yup, I’m not kidding. Just like the Celtic kings of old, they actually have a person on the payroll whose job it is to tell stories of the company’s achievements through song.

What’s weird about it though, is that I’ve been convinced this isn’t just a cheap marketing stunt. It’s actually a great lesson for startups on the magic that can be unlocked when you stay true to your founding ideals… it’s also just great marketing.

But before diving into the weird inception of Huboo’s corporate bard (always fun to keep some suspense), we need to explore the company’s original vision that led to it.

Human hubbub at Huboo

First up, despite being in a competitive market that relies on all the things VCs hate — people, buildings, and infrastructure — Huboo has grown from two part-time employees to 300 full-timers in just two years, set to reach 1,000 by the end of the year. 

Martin Bysh and his co-founder Paul Dodd managed this incredible growth by taking a different approach to traditional fulfillment, and sticking religiously to their niche. Huboo strictly focuses on providing services to SMEs, taking care of their stock, and fulfilling online orders across a host of platforms. 

Bysh says this part of the market had been totally neglected because they weren’t moving lots of products like larger companies, nor expensive ones with high margins. Before they knew it, Huboo suddenly had 60 clients without doing any real outreach. “We just sort of lumbered upon a genuine need in the market,” Bysh tells me.

Martin Bysh, CEO and co-founder of Huboo

Huboo’s solution is optimized for serving SMEs and they also provide a much needed human-centered approach to the fulfillment industry. Bysh explains their focus on ‘micro hubs’ makes their warehouses cheaper to run and easier to scale. They also have the added benefit of creating more diverse jobs.

“The industry has a 20% churn rate a month,” Bysh explains. “We don’t churn staff — and that to us is the proof that what we’re doing works and it’s the right thing for our staff.” 

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Scaling fulfillment back to micro warehouses has allowed Bysh and his team to merge together responsibilities that have been split up into repetitive and dehumanizing jobs across the fulfillment industry. At Huboo, each manager has their own domain which they have the autonomy to manage from A to Z.

“They manage the inbound, the outbound, the picking, the packing, the posting, and crucially, they’re also the first line of support. This means they actually deal with the customer directly, which you’d never imagine a picker at Amazon would get to do,” Bysh says. 

“It’s not uncommon for hub managers to receive gifts from clients who are so happy with the job they’re doing — and acknowledge this person is doing the job. So it’s a very rewarding, very rich job.”

So Huboo’s human-centric approach is actually their business model. It allows Bysh and his team to optimize their service for an unclaimed niche in the market, improves client relationships, and makes them a competitive employer. 

It also led them to hire a corporate bard.

Credit: Huboo
More manageable ‘micro hubs’ and better jobs are the key to Huboo’s success.

Then there was a bard…

I can see it clearly. You’re the CEO of a growing fulfillment company, you spend the day dealing with HR issues, onboarding new clients, strategizing for the next quarter. Then at the end of the day, you sit down and say to yourself: we need a bard!

Bysh laughs. “It didn’t happen quite like that.” He explains he and his co-founder, Paul Dodd, were discussing about halfway through 2020 how awful the pandemic must be for people working in entertainment. They started thinking about what kind of role they could come up with to help someone out in a situation like that — and settled on a corporate bard.

“Paul says it was him who came up with it, I think it was me,” Bysh chuckles. “So the mark of a good idea is that everyone wants to claim it, I think.”

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While it began as an off-hand joke, soon Bysh and Dodd started to explore what a revival of a thousand-year-old tradition would mean for Huboo and what its potential would be. They knew fulfillment isn’t a particularly sexy industry, so the buzz alone from advertising for a ‘corporate bard’ would make some waves. But Bysh says the real prize was to find someone who was “a content generation engine of the highest quality.”

After getting in candidates for interviews and having them make up songs on the spot, they finally found their bard: Jake Wright. This was his application:

Yes, your ears do not deceive you. That’s a medieval-style ode to Totally Seals — Huboo’s client which manufactures engineering seals (i.e. little rubber rings) — that then turns into a cover of Seal’s “A Kiss From a Rose.” You can’t make this up… but Jake Wright can.

“I figured if we could find someone that could write a song about engineering seals, that was it. We had a genius on our hands,” says Bysh.

And Huboo’s bard sure has been prolific. Here’s one he wrote for Huboo’s upcoming expansion to the Netherlands.

Then there’s a recruitment song:

And a song he did about Huboo’s partner Rich Insight:

Breaking the mold

Huboo’s bard’s songs have been a hit — or at least as much as content on fulfillment businesses can be. Business Live did a full story on it, which led to the article you’re reading now, and on top of that, Huboo’s partners are loving it.

“You can imagine how flattered a client is when they’ve got a song written about them,” says Bysh. “And everybody we wrote a song about shared that as widely as they possibly could. So really what we were doing was getting our clients to share the name of Huboo in a really positive way across their network.”

Just by adding one artist to the payroll, Huboo got its branding and name shared widely in a completely organic way. Bysh says they basically got their partners and clients to do Huboo’s marketing for them through the bard, without any additional cost, creating a win-win situation for everyone. 

Bysh credits Huboo’s human-centric vision with the creation of the corporate bard. Huboo optimizes its services for SMEs with human-friendly micro hubs, while bigger players like Amazon opt to serve everyone through monolithic warehouses, making up for the lack of optimization with costly and often dehumanizing automation. 

[Read: What the hell is a Chief Meeting Designer?]

So while they could’ve gone for the deeply technical route of putting all their marketing bets on SEO and paid Google ads, Bysh and Dodd felt that was too “by the book” and there wasn’t enough room for creativity — so they went for an organic approach that aligned with the company’s niche and mission statement.

“The bard is just an extension of how we think in general. We try to put people at the core of what we do, to build fabulous jobs that make economic sense as part of a huge business,” Bysh explains.

Which part of your startup’s growth journey is the ‘hire a bard’ stage?

Huboo’s unorthodox approach has definitely paid off for the company, but what lesson does this hold for startups in general? When can you as a founder indulge in ideas that at first seem completely off-piste for your business?

Bysh says the main thing is when the cost of the idea doesn’t stop you from spending that money elsewhere. They would never have hired a bard in their first year, when they were funding everything themselves, and not in the second year either. They took on their first investments then and were only making £20K a month, which cost them £40K to achieve.

“It was definitely a punt,” says Bysh. “We didn’t know if we’d find someone fantastic who would have the skills to be able to create funny song after funny song about ridiculously dull themes. But we figured the upside was so huge that it was an investment or a risk worth taking.”

The corporate bard won’t last forever though. Huboo’s contract with Wright was only temporary and he’ll soon be free to return to touring and playing gigs. But Bysh says Huboo will definitely try more experimental initiatives in the future — it’s what got them this far and it’s how they set themselves apart from other fulfillment companies.

So the big lesson seems to be: don’t be afraid to try weird stuff, especially when it aligns with your values.

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