Take a closer look at wildlife

Business feature on Gardenature and their nest box camera systems. Left to right, Brian Robinson (ca

Business feature on Gardenature and their nest box camera systems. Left to right, Brian Robinson (carpenter) and owners Simon and Angela Byland. - Credit: Archant

Watching wildlife has become something of a national pastime, particularly with the recent popularity of television programmes like the BBC’s Springwatch series. Sheline Clarke spoke to Simon and Angela Byland of Gardenature, the UK’s leading manufacturer of camera-fitted nest boxes, on how ‘tweets’ are important to their business, in more ways than one

Not only that, it is diversifying its product range, introducing innovative new digital wireless technology and exports a healthy 15% of its output. It has contracts with the RSPB and similar organisations abroad, has supplied the BBC and BSkyB as well as schools and universities across the country alongside its hard core of individual customers.

It uses only FSC approved wood, manufactures here in East Anglia and uses eco-friendly products and, crucially, sales are up.

The businesses is marketed mainly online through a clever combination of web presence and the use of social media and last month was honoured to be re-tweeted by business guru Theo Paphitis in his Small Business Sunday initiative, meaning the Gardenature message was beamed to his 3,500 followers.

There is a lot to talk about.

Simon has been involved in the business since its humble beginnings in the lounge of his then business partner who was off sick and built the first prototype with the help of his brother.

Simon’s involvement, as well as creating the business, was always on the sales side until 2009 when he made the decision to give up his day job as a financial consultant with a high street bank and bought out his partner. A little over a year later Angela, who also worked at the bank as a regional director, jumped ship too in order to join the business and make it truly a family affair.

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“It started off as more of a hobby,” said Simon. “I was working on it most evenings but as it started to take off, particularly with interest from the RSPB, I took the jump and decided to go for it.

“This is more about quality of life than income. Since we took over the business we have grown and it has proved to be absolutely the right decision and we don’t miss working 80 hours a week!”

That is not to say the couple don’t work tirelessly on their business, they do, but are growing it in a managed way that means it remains enjoyable.

They are rightly proud of their brand name which stands for the quality of the products, the unparalleled customer service and value for money.

“For us, quality is everything and I think we have seen a change in the time we have been in business whereby people are turning away from the big national companies and seeking out independent businesses who really understand their products.

“People are passionate about wildlife, it is their hobby, and by association they become passionate about our products and that is great for us and we take their loyalty very seriously. Price is important but actually it’s the quality of the goods and the service which people appreciate even more. The warranty lies with us; all of our products have a two-year warranty and if someone contacts us and there is something wrong then we deal with that straight away with a replacement and then we deal with the repair and that has helped us form a very loyal following and they are very generous in promoting our products and the feedback is outstanding.”

Diversifying the product range has worked largely thanks to that enviable reputation for quality and service. The nest boxes, which remain the core of the business, are seasonal and so Gardenature needed other products to make the business sustainable year round. So, in came other products such as feeding platforms fitted with cameras, or products like insect hotels, hides and camera traps and time lapse cameras that are activated by movement, hedgehog cams and even pond cameras as well as the right kit for watching owls, foxes and badgers. Talking further to their customers revealed a need for other products such as sleepers for raised planting and even bespoke planters.

The interaction between the company and its customers is crucial, which is where Angela comes in.

“Although we both had careers in the bank we have completely different outlooks,” said Angela. “I am more the marketing and networks while Simon knuckles down with the numbers and looks after operations in the warehouse.

“Social media is great for us; we set up a Facebook page a couple of years ago and now customers post their pictures and share everything with each other and it becomes a real community. People who enjoy wildlife love to share their enthusiasm and their photographs.”

It is a similar scenario on Twitter, which is how the connection with Theo Paphitis came about.

“It is all about brand awareness,” said Angela. “Being re-tweeted by Theo was great and then you can decide whether you leave it at that or try to keep it going. Now as someone who has featured on his Small Business Sunday slot I always go back and congratulate others, and then that is often re-tweeted, and there is also an event coming up where we can all get together and it keeps the momentum going.

“We saw a significant increase in traffic to the website and we have more followers on Twitter now as a result, and for a niche business like ours that can only be a good thing.”

“We constantly monitor where Gardenature is being mentioned and getting involved in chats and forums and that doesn’t cost anything,” said Simon, “and Angela is very good at that.

“When you are marketing a small business you have to run to budget and understand how much return you are getting for your spend. Because we sell directly to the customer, or through our resellers here and abroad, we can’t offer a face to face service but through our websites and our knowledge and service, it is as near to a face to face service as you could get, as we are always happy to talk to our customers and even make bespoke kit for them if we don’t already make the product they want.

“Working with the schools is also very rewarding. The children get really hooked and actually learn some important lessons.

They realise that wildlife exists in a harsh environment and they see how difficult it can be for a mother to feed and nurture her young and how lucky they are to be domesticated and protected and to have a roof over their heads and to be tucked up in bed each night. But so see them engage in that is wonderful and we get calls from the teachers saying they want more boxes, and then the parents want boxes too – I suppose it’s a bit like pyramid selling.”

What makes all that possible is the fact the Gardenature products are good quality and they work and deliver the desired results.

“Price isn’t everything. When we started this we had a monopoly but we don’t any more. There are keep cheap products out there but our experience is that people would rather have quality. Having said that the product represent value for money partly because now we are ordering in larger quantities so can demand better prices from our suppliers which means we stay competitive.”

Competitive but also innovative. After “painstaking research” Simon and his team have found a digital wireless system, with a range of 1km, that they are happy to incorporate into their products which inevitable costs more but which his customers can’t wait to get their hands on.

“Customers like our products and they come back. We don’t bombard them but there is a quarterly newsletter just to keep people up to date on what’s available and when that goes out the phones start ringing,” said Angela.

“When we worked at the bank it was about financial advice. Now we talk to people with a passion who want our product and talking to people about their hobby and their passion is the best bit of the job and makes it a pleasure.”