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The pigeon and the pint

The pigeon and the pint







Most good breweries will tell you that great beer starts with the finest ingredients. Timothy Taylor is one such brewery and maintains a very Yorkshire sounding principle of “not accepting second best”.

Their Knowle Spring brewery sits on a natural artesian well, which provides them with a constant supply of pure Pennine spring water; water that has been filtered through layers of limestone and is naturally soft and very pure. If you chose to drink it in its pure form, it is said to taste like melted snow.

Their unique strain of yeast, called appropriately but not surprisingly Taylor’s Taste, is over 1800 generations old. It was chosen to combine perfectly with their water and barley. 




Timothy Taylor is one of the last brewers in Britain to still use whole leaf hops. These hops may cost more, may be harder to store and take more looking after, but Timothy Taylor believes they’re vital to the flavour of their beer. 





However, it is when it comes to the barley that the brand’s commitment really shows. Not only do they exclusively use Golden Promise barley, which is the most expensive barley you can use for brewing beer – it’s the barley used in many malt whiskies – but they are notoriously picky about the batches of the barley they choose.




So who is it that scrutinises the barley? 

The Master Brewer?

No, someone even more picky than that. 

The quality assurance experts are none other than the pigeons of Yorkshire.



In 1966, Allan Hey was appointed head brewer and he introduced a new quality test for the barley. He would count out exactly 100 grains of barley malt and set them out on a cask that he then left  in the brewery yard. He would later return to see how many grains were left. Too many left meant the batch would be declined, only a few remaining and the barley would be used.

Allen retired and his pigeon test with him but the use of Golden Promise barley remains and it is now grown specially and specifically to a set of exacting Timothy Taylor standards, ensuring that every pint is clean and crisp and has the necessary fullness and roundness of flavour.

So the next time you have a pint, have the one the pigeon is having!


Refreshing the advertising – hit or myth

Refreshing the advertising – hit or myth

The British love beer

The British love their beer advertising

The British advertising industry loves an advertising myth

Heineken’s famous “Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach” campaign scores on all three counts.

The myth runs that one of the best beer advertising campaigns was created by a creative team who, without an idea in their heads fled the country with a one-word brief and the threat of being firing if they didn’t come back with a campaign. The second half of the myth is that the campaign was nearly killed by initial negative research but only saved by a client who chose to ignore the findings.

The myth

It was the early 1970s, a period when bitter dominated the UK beer market but lager was starting to grow rapidly, and copywriter, Terry Lovelock and art director, Vernon Howe from the agency CDP were given the brief to creating a TV campaign for Dutch lager Heineken. Their brief was just one word – Refreshment.

They were struggling and hadn’t come up with anything any good. They decided to try new surroundings and decided to head for Marrakesh. On their way out, they met Frank Lowe the head of the agency who told them to make sure they came back with a campaign or not to come back at all.

The story continues, according to the book ‘Inside CDP’; “Lovelock was now desperate. He walked around Morocco with pen and paper in hand searching for the idea. Lovelock said that, “At the back of my mind, there was a thought that if booze causes some strange metamorphoses, it must be possible to explain its effects on the body in a fun way”.  One evening Terry went to bed around midnight, notepad nearby. At 3am, he woke from a dreamless sleep and sat upright. He grabbed the notepad and wrote two lines. ‘Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’ and ‘Heineken is now refreshing all parts’. The following morning he wrote two scripts.”

Frank Lowe loved the idea and presented it to the key client, Anthony Simonds-Gooding while the pair were on a flight to St Petersburg. He had written it on a sick bag. Simmonds-Gooding loved the idea too despite the presentation material.

Despite this, according to the myth, the ads however nearly didn’t run. The research was extremely damning.

Reviewing the events in 2012 Campaign, the UK’s leading advertising magazine picked up the tale. ‘In these days of campaigns being researched to within an inch of their lives, it’s debatable whether “refreshes the parts” would have made the cut, let alone run for two decades. The story of how the ads made it through raises a question whose relevance has not diminished over time: how much should research results dictate whether a creative idea lives or dies?’

Had Anthony Simonds-Gooding, then the Whitbread marketing director, chosen not to follow his instincts after seeing poor feedback from the first three ‘refreshes the parts’ TV spots, the campaign would have been stillborn. But Simonds-Gooding pressed on.

The ads however did indeed run and the campaign was to stretch over the next two decades, including famous ads like Policeman, Spock’s ears and Majorca. 

Separating the myth from history

Like many myths there is a great deal of truth in this tale, but some parts have perhaps been distorted or exaggerated for effect over the years, so following a little research of my own I thought I would point out a few points of contention. 


It is true that Terry Lovelock and Vernon Howe of CDP had indeed been given the brief to create a new campaign for Heineken.  However while the key word they were asked to focus on was “Refreshment” – this was part of an overall creative brief which contained background, target audience and desired tone of voice. However, like many briefs of the time it was reduced to a single thought or word as shorthand summary of the requirements. They idea that they were only given a single word adds to the drama but not the truth. 

The notion that they just decided to try a new location and just head off to Marrakesh fits with ideas of the glamorous and free-spending nature of the advertising world in the 1970s. However, the real reason they left for Marrakesh was for a photographic shoot for Ford. Without the need for the shoot, the new locations would probably have been the local pub.

It seems plausible that Frank Lowe would have said to them to come back with something or don’t come back at all – whether he actually meant it was another thing.

Vernon Howe would have been focused on the shoot, so it’s not too surprising that Terry Lovelock “walked around Morocco” as recalled in the passage form ‘Inside CDP’.

The next area of controversy is the research and those negative findings. 

As we have seen, the Heineken campaign has long been held up as an example of the tension between creativity and research and used to highlight the danger of research. 

The counter argument which has more recently been presented by Kevin Wardle and others is that the research wasn’t the ‘blunt instrument’ which tried to bludgeon this great advertising to death. Rather it was then and is now a tool that “can and does contribute to great advertising.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting points to come to light is that the research everyone refers to took place in April 1974. What’s so interesting about that is that the campaign first appeared in March 1974 – so the research didn’t stop its running.   

What that research said, once it had been conducted, contained both negative and positive elements.

There were negative comments about the specific executions – ‘what’s beer got to do with ears?’ (Piano Tuner) and ‘not the sort of thing you’d like to see when you’re eating your tea’ (Policemen) and some respondents failed to get the connection between the beer’s restorative powers and refreshment – ‘beer’s supposed to refresh you, they say it’s a medicine’.

There was also a respondent’s snap judgement about the strapline, which the researcher passed on to the clients and the agency – ‘On its own it doesn’t stick. No rhythm about it’

However more positively the report also said that the advertising was on strategy, and endorsed the need to focus on refreshment as a point of difference and raison d’etre for lager and for this brand.

So like most good research it provided information and interpretation, which the client could then make a judgement call on and that’s exactly what Anthony Simonds-Gooding did.

A footnote

When Australian lagers arrived in the UK in the 80s, Heineken decided it needed to reinforce its European credentials and hired comedian Victor Borge for the voiceovers. This was an interesting choice, since Heineken is Dutch and Borge was Danish, so there is probably another tale to be told.


What the Heck! When you have to compete with yourself.

What the Heck! When you have to compete with yourself.

In 1999, Debbie and Andrew Keeble set up what was not the most originally named premium sausage brand. Nonetheless, “debbie and andrew’s” was to prove a success.

Both Debbie and Andrew came from farming backgrounds. Debbie had studied at agricultural college before working on the family farm as the pig manager. Andrew was a hill farmer. They met through the industry, married and farmed together.

One day Debbie realised her family would need more than farming could provide.

“I was walking across the fields; it was a beautiful day but I suddenly thought, ‘God, we will never be able to go on holiday’. It was then that I said to Andrew, ‘We’re going to have to do something different.’ I bought a computer and made a business plan. Sometimes you have to say, what the heck. And once you say it, everything seems all right – you’re committed.”

Whilst hard work the brand grew and proved to be a success but when a buyer came knocking in 2005, they decided it was time to hand over their majority stake, as the buyers JJ Tranfield said they could help the brand grow much faster. Debbie and Andrew stayed on as managing directors.

Initially things went well but Tranfield was taken over by Dutch food giant Vion. This second set of new owners started to change things. “The quality changed, the packaging changed and they didn’t really know we existed,” Debbie recalls. 

The relationship soured and the Keebles left. They offered to buy the brand back but Vion refused. (They later sold the brand to Irish company ABP Food Group)

“We thought, we’ve got this money, do we put it into a savings account, or do we gamble it all?” says Debbie.

“It was another what-the-heck moment when we realised we had to start again,” says Andrew. “It was hard to let go of the last brand but we saw a gap in the market. People want to know where their food comes from.”


The new brand, Heck, is named after the Keeble family motto, “What the heck!” and because it sums up their ‘no compromise’ approach to quality.

The brand is still very much in the premium sausage market but is aimed at a slightly younger target audience. It competes with brands like The Black Farmer but also their old brand – debbie & andrew’s. “We’re sharing the shelf in the supermarkets with the brand that we put so much effort into,” said Debbie.

Heck! did well, with turnover of £3.5m in their first full year of trading and today, Heck’s produce is stocked by Waitrose, Tesco and Morrisons.

This time round the four Keeble children all work for the company. “We wanted to build a sustainable family business; it was our kids that made us do it,” says Debbie “They never liked sitting in a classroom, so we’ve encouraged them to come on board. They were in it from the start and helped us to develop the packaging, the brand and the products.”

This time Debbie and Andrew will not be selling out. “The plan is to keep it in the family and to keep control,” insists Debbie.


They couldn’t see the chocolate for the beans – how insight transformed Green & Black’s

They couldn’t see the chocolate for the beans – how insight transformed Green & Black’s

Sometimes you can get too close to something, where you can’t see the wood from the trees, or in this case the chocolate for the beans. The insight that helped transform Green & Black’s into a real contender came not from the original founders but from a later investor and their own customers.

Craig Sams had been a hippy, and later supplied the food for the first Glastonbury festival, before deciding to start the pioneering organic food company – Whole Earth. In 1991, a budding supplier sent him an unsolicited sample of organic cocoa beans


Curiosity peaked, Craig made up a small bar of 70% dark chocolate. He tried a bit and left the rest of the bar on his desk. A little while later his wife Josephine walked past the desk saw the chocolate and decided to try some.

She loved it. She had never tasted anything quite like it.

The couple decided they had another potential hit on the hands.

Looking for a name, they thought back to their childhood and some of the famous confectionary brands of the time. Brands like Callard & Bowser and Barker & Dobson. They came up with Green & Black’s, two names that reflected the organic origins and the intensity of the dark chocolate.   

A few months later Craig & Jo took a holiday to Belize. It was there that they learnt about the plight of a group of Mayan farmers who had planted cocoa trees on the understanding that their crop would be bought by a large chocolate company. The chocolate company had however pulled out of Belize leaving the farmer without a buyer for their beans. Craig and Jo decided to help out, and agreed not only to buy the crop but also to pay a full and fair price for it.

They used the crop to create a product based on a traditional Mayan chocolate and spice drink using orange, cinnamon and hint of vanilla. Mayan Gold was to become a star product and it became the first-ever chocolate bar to be awarded the Fairtrade Mark by the Fairtrade Foundation UK.   

Despite so much going to for it, the business failed to accelerate away and by 1998, it was struggling and was heading into financial difficulties. 


It was at this point that William Kendall and his business partner Nick Beart stepped in. Kendall had been a farmer but had turned entrepreneur when he help turn around the New Covent Garden Soup Company. He had helped sell the company for £20 million in 1997 and decided to invest in Green & Black’s. 

“We persuaded them that we could work with them, leaving the founders with a minority stake. [We] took an 80% share, but encouraged them to believe they could have a role going forward as spokespeople,” recalls Kendall “I was intrigued by the business model and products, and could see that Craig needed help turning his visionary ideas into a profitable business.” 

What Kendall and the new team they had put in could see was that the marketing wasn’t working. Whilst organic was becoming trendier, organic chocolate was something different. “They [customers] thought organic chocolate wouldn’t be as good,” said Kendall “It’s [chocolate’s] a sin after all, and who wants organic sin?”  

“Both organic chocolate and dark chocolate had an image of being poor in taste and somehow foreign, so we repositioned the product as a luxury chocolate with a traditional British image first and foremost, and an organic product second.”

With the new insight driving a new refocused marketing approach, bars flew off shelves.


One good deed leads to another

One good deed leads to another

Charity brands do great work but not all of them have great stories about how they came into being. The story of Mary’s Meals is a great tale. In fact, it is so good that it’s now available as a book ‘The shed that fed a million children’. 

Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, Mary’s Meals Founder and CEO explains “A lot of my time is spent verbally telling people the story of Mary’s Meals. Over and over again I was seeing how much people loved that story and that they wanted to know more. I thought, yes, this is an amazing story, let’s write it down.”

I recommend you read the book but as an appetiser, here is a shorter version.

The story starts in 1983, when Magnus and Fergus MacFarlane-Barrow joined their parents on a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The family renewed their family’s Catholic faith and it led Magnus’ parents to convert their guesthouse into a retreat centre or ‘Family House of Prayer’.

Years passed and Magnus and his brothers got jobs on fish farms.

It was one night in 1992 while Magnus and Fergus were enjoying a pint in their local pub that they were reminded of their trip to Medjugorie as they saw TV news reports of the Bosnian conflict.

They decided they had to do something and after spending much of the night debating different options they decided to organise a local appeal and to volunteer to take the donations to Bosnia themselves.

Food, clothing, medicines and donations of money soon began to arrive at their home, where they were stored in the family shed.

In just three short weeks, the shed was full and the brothers arranged a week’s holiday. They bought a second-hand Land Rover, and joined an aid convoy driving back to Medjugorje, the site of their earlier pilgrimage.

A week later they returned to Argyll feel saddened but proud of having done a good deed. They were expecting to return to work but while they had been away the shed had filled up with donations again.

Magnus decided to give up his job and take a ‘gap year.’ He sold his small house so he could drive aid out to Bosnia-Herzegovina for as long as the public kept donating.

 The public, however, did not stop and Magnus was never to return to his old job.

It soon became necessary to set up a registered charity, Scottish International Relief (SIR). Over the next 10 years, SIR expanded. While it continued to deliver aid to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, it began building homes for abandoned children in Romania and helped returning refugees in Liberia by setting up mobile clinics and other projects.

Magnus was on another trip, this time to Malawi, when he met a young boy who would turn out to be the inspiration for Mary’s Meals.


Magnus himself picks up the story. “I met Edward in 2002, after his father had died of AIDS the year before, and he lived with five siblings and his mother Emma in abject poverty in a mud-brick house. Emma also had AIDS and did not have long to live”.

Magnus asked Edward what he hoped for in life. He replied: “I want to have enough food to eat and to go to school one day.”

His simple but powerful wish inspired Magnus to set up a new campaign Mary’s Meals – to provide meals at schools so that children could get both a good meal and an education.

In 2012 with the school feeding campaign having become the sole focus of its work, SIR officially changed its registered charity name to Mary’s Meals.  Edward’s words were translated into the brand’s vision statement:

Every child deserves an education – and enough to eat.

Our vision is that every child receives one daily meal in their place of education and that all those who have more than they need, share with those who lack even the most basic things.

Working together with those who share our vision, we believe there is no good reason why this cannot be realised.

In an interview with the Daily Record in 2015, Magnus recalls a second and equally heart-rending meeting with Edward.

“I was introduced to him again recently and I have to say that his story is unsettling for me and very poignant, because it reminds me how much there is still to be done. He is still living a life of terrible poverty and working the fields every day to get enough food to survive.

Mary’s Meals didn’t reach him in time but his youngest siblings have been helped in their schools and his son will soon be going to a school where they serve Mary’s Meals too, so I guess we have helped him.

He had heard of Mary’s Meals but he didn’t know that they had anything to do with him. Edward is [now] very aware of what his words led to, thank God, and I think he is proud of that.

I do often wish that we did more for Edward, because his words were the catalyst for so much work by so many people.”

Today Mary’s Meals is feeding over 1,100,000 of the world’s poorest children every day they attend school.

The original shed is still in use as part of Mary’s Meal headquarters.

Magnus has been presented with a CNN Hero Award.

His autobiography “The shed that fed a million children” was published in 2015.

But in his own words “His [Edward’s] story shows that there is so much still to do.”


Footnote: His autobiography contains many more snippets and anecdotes about the Mary’s Meals story, including the time he tried to invite Billy Connolly’s wife Pamela Stephenson to an event but got mixed up and invited Pamela Anderson instead. When the Baywatch star turned up it was a bit of a surprise but she was made very welcome.


Kipling, Lennon and Lury

Kipling, Lennon and Lury


What brand connects Rudyard Kipling, Mary Norton (author of ‘The Borrowers’), John Lennon and my dad?

The answer is what many believe to be the best biscuit in the world to have with cheese – Fortt’s Bath Olivers.

The biscuit itself can be traced back to the 18th Century and Dr. William Oliver.

William Oliver was born in Plymouth and studied medicine in Cambridge where he become a M.D. in 1725. He later moved to Bath where he was a great advocate of the curative waters, and founded the Bath General Hospital (now Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases).

While looking after his many patients he invented the Bath Bun – a sweet roll made from a milk-based yeast dough and including dried fruits like candied fruit peel, currants or sultanas. It had a lump of sugar baked in the bottom and more crushed sugar sprinkled on top after baking. Unfortunately, they proved so delicious that his patients started eating them in abundance and consequently started getting fat.


He started experimenting and finally produced a modification of the original recipe than was plainer and less caloric, but still delicious – it was the Bath Oliver Biscuit

It proved an instant success with his patients, and soon non-patients were enjoying it too

Shortly before his death, Oliver willed the recipe to his coachman Atkins, also giving him £100 and ten sacks of top grade wheat-flour. Atkins immediately set up in business at 13 Green Street and became rich by making the biscuits.  

After various changes in ownership, the Oliver biscuit recipe passed to James Fortt whose name still appears on the pack. 

Like many famous brands, the Bath Oliver has a number of famous advocates and references in British culture

In the first chapter of Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling: “[the child heroes of the story] were not, of course, allowed to act on Midsummer Night itself, but they went down after tea on Midsummer Eve, when the shadows were growing, and they took their supper—hard-boiled eggs, Bath Oliver biscuits, and salt in an envelope—with them.” […] Everything else was a sort of thick, sleepy stillness smelling of meadow-sweet and dry grass.”

Mary Norton in ‘The Borrowers’  describes an evening ritual “and it would comfort him to see, each evening at dusk, Mrs. Driver appear at the head of the stairs and cross the passage carrying a tray for Aunt Sophy with Bath Oliver biscuits and the tall, cut-glass decanter of Fine Old Pale Madeira.”

John Lennon taste was the more indulgent Chocolate Bath Oliver. Developed and introduced in the 1930s it is a Bath Oliver coated in thick, rich dark chocolate. He once famously requested payment for a TV appearance on the BBC music show The “Old Grey Whistle Test” in Chocolate Olivers rather than cash.

Finally on this list was my dad a lifelong fan who introduced me to their deliciousness.


It started as a joke… but is male laundry a laughing matter?

It started as a joke… but is male laundry a laughing matter?

Leif Frey, who started the FREY brand with his brother Erin, says the inspiration for their new brand was a college joke.

“We were finally doing our own laundry and we found that all the detergent was clearly tailored towards women.”

“Later, we realised it was a genuine problem. It perpetuates the stereotype that women should do the laundry”.

Their solution was based on the insight that “the modern man has his own hair products, grooming products, deodorants, and everything in between. He deserves his own detergent. Challenged to find a men’s detergent in the laundry aisle, we created FREY to fill the void.”

In its first incarnation as a Kickstarter project in 2014, it was called “Real.”

Research and testing led to the brand being renamed as FREY, repackaged in a sleeker, more prominent, black bottle and slightly repositioned with more sophisticated messaging, including giving increased prominence to its oak and musk “cologne-inspired masculine fragrance”. 

It now uses a number of lines, such as “The detergent that works as hard as you do”, which just so happens to have been used by a number of other ‘masculine’ brands like Chevrolet, Clif energy bars and Carhartt.


Leif says the company is seeing a 50% month on month growth rate and is in talks with big retailers and brand partnerships.

Although the brand is not yet making a profit, the brothers are aiming high. They want to start a revolution. Their website says the “detergent industry… is clearly genderised and outdated” and the brand’s purpose is “absolutely to change that”. They hope “to help break down stereotypes about who should do which household chores.”

“We are helping to catalyse an important discussion and people are paying more and more attention,” Leif says.

They are not the only brand aiming to change the washing world. There are other male detergents on the market including Dirtyboy, Hero Clean and Distinctive. 

In India, Ariel is taking a different approach. Using research that showed how little men did at home and how even 2/3 of children believed doing the laundry was women’s work they launched an advertising campaign to encourage men to “share the load”.  In one ad a father is shown apologising to his grown up daughter for not having set a better example around the house and ends with him helping with the washing. 

Ariel says the advert has been shared 26m times across social media platforms since its launch in February. The initiative has spread and Ariel has partnered with washing machine manufacturers, retailers and even clothes manufacturers. It has been supported and endorsed by a number of famous women too including Melinda Gates and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, the latter describing it as “one of the most powerful videos I’ve ever seen”. 

And more importantly, over 1.5 million men have now pledged to “share the load”.

(A summary of that campaign can be seen here )


Three little words – location, location, location.

Three little words – location, location, location.


From the ashes of the blitz rose a successful brand, which still leads its market today.

On 15th February 1944, as the Second World War was drawing to a close, an estate agent called Harold Samuel decided to buy Land Securities Investment Trust Limited. It owned three houses in Kensington together with some government stock.

It was only the first of a number of acquisitions that Samuel was to make in the following years.

To some his strategy seemed odd, he focused on what to others might have seen ‘dumps’, properties that had often been left in ruins from the regular night-time bombing London and other UK cities had endured during the war. 

Samuel saw past the ‘ashes’ and recognised their potential. His unusual strategy was to buy and redevelop bombsites, but not any old bombsites. He choose his sites with care.

He understood that as interest rates were low and development was slow in coming forward, the value of the right assets would rise rapidly. He seized the opportunity and started to build his brand by borrowing at attractive rates, buying sites in the right places, developing and then capitalising on his now higher valued and often sought after assets.


He had predicted the upswing in the property and even coined a phrase that summed up his approach: ‘There are three things that matter in property: location, location, location.’

He had recognised that location was, and is the most important factor in a property’s value.

Success came quickly the 12 March 1948 issue of ‘Investor’s Chronicle’ reported: “Meteoric seems the only fitting term to describe the growth in earning power of The Land Securities Investment Trust. For the year March 31 1938 [prior to Samuel’s purchase], earnings on the Ordinary stock were equal to 3%. Ten years later they are running at an annual rate of 83%.”

In a relatively short time, Land Securities established itself as the UK’s leading property company. A position it still holds today.

In 1963, Samuel became the first developer to receive a knighthood. He was made a life peer in 1972 and remained Chairperson of Land Securities right up until his death in 1987.

What he would have made of Channel 4’s programme named after his famous quote is not known.

And the moral is if you can see past the present and accurately predict the future, then that future can be very successful. Can you see opportunities where others only see problems?


Absolutely Fabulis? No. Fabulously Fab, absolutely! How two wrongs led to a right.

Absolutely Fabulis? No. Fabulously Fab, absolutely! How two wrongs led to a right.

Are you willing to admit you’re wrong? Not once but twice. 

Are you brave enough to go to your million dollar backers and tell them you’ve got it wrong?

Luckily for Jason Goldberg and Bradford Shellhammer, they were. Even more luckily, their backers were willing not only to listen, but also to agree to the changes.

Jason and Bradford got together in 2010 to start a company they called Fabulis. Their aim was to create a social network for gay men but competition from the likes of Facebook and Grindr meant uptake was limited. They quickly realised there was no gap in the market. 

So, in December 2011, the pair decided to change direction and Fabulis became, a daily deals site for gay men. Their new ambition was to become the Groupon for gays. They raised $1.75 million from First Round Capital, The Washington Post Company, Baroda Ventures and Zelkova Ventures to add to the $1.25 million they had already raised in angel funding. got off to a reasonable start, reaching several thousand customers and earning tens of thousands of dollars in revenue in just 20 days of sales but for the ambitious duo, it still didn’t feel big enough. Interviewed by Inc. In 2012 they recall: “we just didn’t see how that [it] had a path to become a huge business.”

Looking more closely at those initial figures they saw that less than 1% of the most popular selling items were gay specific and in fact, over half of the people making purchases weren’t gay; they just appreciated the selection of products and the discounts.


They sat down again and this time asked themselves what Jason explained was to prove an inspirational question “If we could do anything what would we do? Which was a great exercise for us and we kinda had this decision matrix of looking at three things; One is, what are we most passion about? The second is what could we be the best in the world at? The third is could we do it in a great market where there’s a big opportunity? And every answer of those questions came down to design, design, design.”

The certainty of their answer spurred them into action and a dramatic three weeks followed; “We went from 10 employees here in New York to three. We really wanted to focus just on the people who were gonna be part of the next phase of the business. The second thing was we went and got our board of directors to, very quickly, say; ‘Hey, we’re behind this and we support this move.’ The third thing was we immediately shut down the old site. “

The clarity of their answer gave them focus and direction; “We immediately took this mentally that we’re gonna do one thing, do that one thing better that anyone else in the world, and we don’t want to be distracted at all by anything else beside our one thing. We are just focusing on design. That’s all we do is design. Everyday we wake up and all we think about is design. And basically [we] went from dinners in February where we said, ‘We’re gonna change the business,’ to shutting down the site in March, to launching some initial features in April, to launching ourselves in June to 1-1/2 million members, 50 million plus run rate at the end of the year.”

Looking at the business now they can smile and indeed they think part of their success is in making others smile too; “We’re growing fast because we make people smile everyday. We’re breathing kind of freshness, color into an otherwise, kind of fairly black and white, kinda boring e-commerce world. And everyday we delight people with the daily dose of design and it’s just stuff that makes people smile.”


Seeing the bigger opportunity and teaching yourself the skills to seize it – the redBus story

Seeing the bigger opportunity and teaching yourself the skills to seize it – the redBus story

It was approaching Diwali in 2005 and Phanindra Sama was trying to get a bus ticket from Bangalore, where he was working for Texas Instruments, to his hometown Hyderabad. 

His regular travel agent didn’t have any, nor did the many others he approached. Tickets for buses in India are traditionally sold in lots of little kiosks, but none of the ones Phani, as he is widely known, visited, had any left. 

So disappointed, he returned to his flat in Koramangala, a flat he shared with six friends, all of whom had studied engineering at BITS Pilani.

There after bemoaning his bad luck, he got to wondering was there a travel agent somewhere in city who had had a ticket left. Had that ticket remained unsold? In which case everybody – him, the travel agent, and the bus operator – had lost an opportunity.

And how many other opportunities had been missed too?

It didn’t take long before Phani could see a bigger opportunity.  

When his flatmates returned, he put his idea to them. Could the internet be the solution, a web site where all bus operators could put in their seat inventory and people could buy those online.

It was simple. It was brilliant but there a problem. “We didn’t know anything about the bus industry. We didn’t even know anything about software or websites. I was designing microchips and he (Charan Padmaraju, one of his flatmates who would join him in the venture) was doing embedded design. We actually bought textbooks on how to write software and started learning,” 


They met with various people – bus operators, passengers and venture capitalists – to gauge how well the concept could do. Everyone they spoke to was excited. 

They then put together a business plan and presented it to TiE – The Indus Entrepreneurs, Bangalore Chapter who act as mentors and inubators. The idea didn’t need much selling to TiE members either. 

The founders decided to quit their jobs and the real journey began.

India has more than 5,000 inter-city bus operators with 5 to 500 buses each. They were used to dealing with traditional brick-and-mortar travel agents, so changing their mindset of the bus wasn’t easy. Along with developing the website, it took a few months for everything to fall in place.

The name redBus is a combination and a bit of borrowed inspiration: “We wanted a colour in the name of our site. And an easy, short word is always best for the Web. ‘Red’ was the shortest. It also denotes energy, youthfulness. I was then reading Richard Branson’s autobiography and that was hugely inspiring, and his Virgin was red,” Phani says.

Finally, they were ready and in August 2006, they took their first booking. Perhaps surprisingly there was as much nervousness as there was excitement at the website’s office. Would the conductor allow the traveller in? He might never have seen a computer printed bus ticket before.

“We were scared,” recalls Phani “So we all went to the bus stand to board the customer, who was a lady from Infosys going to Tirupati. It was an auspicious beginning.”

Since then the brand has gone from strength to strength. They now have 1500+ bus operators and 80,000 routes covered. They sell over a million tickets a month. In 2012, ‘Fast Company’ named redBus amongst the world’s 50 most innovative companies, alongside Apple, Facebook and Google