How a humble backroom business laid the foundations for a booming ecommerce store.
A luxury gift box ecommerce store Foldabox has almost tripled its business during the coronavirus pandemic. The store, with a UK and a USA site, has modest beginnings. Nicole Hines, the founder and managing director, launched the company in 2005.
Foldabox’s unique high-quality, rigid gift boxes come in different shapes and sizes and fold flat for storage. There are slots to tie ribbons or other closures. Hines has added many more accessories to her store over the years.
Foldabox experienced a dramatic drop in sales when many countries worldwide announced severe coronavirus lockdowns. Hines describes business as having “fallen off a cliff” in March and April. “There was such global uncertainty. I thought this was pretty disastrous.”
Foldabox made an impressive comeback after the initial drop. Now, the volume of business has nearly tripled in comparison to the same time last year. “In June business went nuts and it’s been nuts ever since.” Hines and her small team have been scrambling to meet demand. “I’ve gone from thinking my business is going down the toilet, to not having enough stock!”
While it’s any business owner’s dream to see a boom in business, it came with a series of challenges for Foldabox.
Foldabox’s factory in China has been working as quickly as it can to keep up with the demand. The production team managed to produce a 40-foot container load of boxes weekly for at least two months. But despite this, Hines’s stock is running out faster than she can replenish it.
The current FoldaBox product page where the magic happens.
The business only uses a high-quality board for its boxes. In many cases, the ribbons as well as the paper used for the boxes are custom dyed. This means manufacturing takes time. “It’s incredibly challenging because you can’t just turn up on a factory’s doorstep and tell them you need a 40-foot container of boxes delivered next week,” says Hines.
Shipping problems added to their woes. All vessels were overbooked because of Covid-19, causing delays in receiving stock. The typhoon season in China and bad weather at the UK’s Felixstowe Port caused further delays. “We’re inevitably going to disappoint some customers because we don’t have the stock. And I don’t think we’re alone in that.”
Not having stock and disappointing customers isn’t good for business. But Hines handles it in the pragmatic manner that is characteristic of her. She’s honest with her customers about when certain products will be in stock again. “At the end of the day, honesty is always the best policy. We don’t have stock because we didn’t predict this level of demand. And that’s just the way it is.”
Hines, who initially wanted to become a barrister, has owned and run businesses for more than 20 years. At 18 she decided she’d had enough of studying and left college. Her second job was at a marketing company and it was here that she decided she wanted to start her own business.
“The wife of the managing director used to swan in, in these fantastic suits, and would look terribly glamorous,” recalls Hines. “Sometimes you wouldn’t see her at all because she was out getting a manicure or pedicure. I thought ‘that’s me’!”
By her late 20s, Hines had been made redundant twice in two years. She decided she had nothing to lose and set up her first business. Nile Consultancy was founded in a bedroom at the back of her mom’s house. Hines used her meager notice payout to buy a fax machine and letterhead paper.
What was meant to be a consultancy soon became a trading company. “I kind of fell into the beauty industry. I happened to find a client and I sold them some stitched wash bags. It grew from there.
“It was insane because I didn’t have any capital at all. I didn’t have a single customer. I sat there thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what do I do? I guess I’d better ring somebody and see if I can sell something’. I staggered around figuring a business out around an idea. If you were to show that business to Dragon’s Den or the bank manager nowadays, they would laugh you out of the room.”
Hines chuckles when she thinks back to how glamorous she thought it would be to own a business.
“I often laugh to myself that I must’ve done something terribly wrong because the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s unbelievably hard and relentless work.”
Hines always knew that she wanted to run a business selling a product. Through Nile consultancy, she sold custom-designed wash bags and beauty accessories. While she sold large volumes, it was to relatively few customers. “That’s a precarious position to be in because your best customer can switch off the tap at any moment. Suddenly you’ll go from thousands of pounds worth of annual turnover to zero, overnight.”
But Hines didn’t want to sell just any product. It had to be something that appealed to a diverse market and she spent years wondering what to sell. She found the ideal product in 2003 at an exhibition in the form of nifty gift boxes.
The novel folding box concept offered by FoldaBox
Hines started Foldabox soon after this discovery. Her initial market was high street gift shops, but those soon started going out of business. Then she approached the wedding industry which used the boxes for wedding albums and stationery. The business started growing and Hines launched an ecommerce store.
For the first few years, Foldabox had a small turnover. Then Hines decided to take a big risk. She borrowed GBP 50,000, using her mom’s house as surety, to buy boxes in the colors and sizes she assumed would be most popular. Business picked up and eventually Hines moved her website onto Shopify, which acted as a springboard for more growth.
Although Foldabox was slowly growing, Hines still had to run her original business, Nile Consultancy. “Nile Consultancy was the big sister bringing in the money to cover the overheads. Foldabox was being starved of any management time,” she says.
But business for Nile Consultancy had slowly started to decline and five years ago, Hines decided to let it run its course. She stopped pursuing new business leads and started focusing her attention on growing Foldabox.
She launched new box sizes and colors, and introduced the slot boxes. She also added decorative accessories like gemstones that can be bought with the boxes. Foldabox’s turnover has increased exponentially since. “We doubled the business, then we doubled it again, and then it grew by half,” says Hines.
Hines is endearingly honest about what it takes to run a business.
“Our website portrays this image of a corporate company and that everything’s very controlled. But the truth is we’re actually quite small and things are often completely out of control. That’s the reality of business.”
In recent years she’s experienced an increase in people, especially younger ones, making unreasonable demands on businesses like hers. “It’s all about ‘I want this, and I want it now’. Or, ‘I want this cheaper, and if you won’t give it to me I’ll find somebody else to sell it to me’,” she says.
“I genuinely think people have lost the ability to negotiate. It has become a list of demands and time scales. There’s absolutely no consideration that perhaps it’s not the only inquiry you’ve got, or you’re busy doing something else, or you might be short-staffed.”
She says people are quick to complain on social media platforms if they don’t get their way and get it almost immediately. “Demands come with a veiled threat of running off to Facebook to publicize how awful you are if they don’t get what they want. I find that quite difficult to deal with. Maybe that’s just because I’m 52, not 22,” she adds, only half-jokingly.
The inherent nature of online stores is that customers can buy products at any time of the day or night. “Gone are the days when businesses close. We run a website, so technically speaking we’re open 24 hours a day. But realistically, we’re a small company, there isn’t someone monitoring the phone that entire time,” says Hines.
The seasoned businesswoman is an encyclopedia of anecdotes and advice. She openly shares the lessons she’s learned over the past 20 plus years.
“It’s our attention to detail that has largely been the secret to our ongoing success,” she says. Hines explains how even the white ribbons Foldabox supplies are dyed to be exactly the same color as their white boxes. “The ribbons make our boxes look off-color because they are a lot brighter. We really pay attention to detail and make sure we come up with innovative products.”
Hines has been a ShopCreatify client for several years and we’ve just completed a second website redesign for her. This redesign aimed to modernize the UK site’s look and feel, provide better product information for customers, and to make aspects of the back-end easier for Hines to manage herself.
She believes that finding a service provider who you trust and have synergy with is vital for a successful relationship. “Do your research and see if you like what that person’s got to say and if you like examples of their work. It’s really important to work with people that are on the same page as you.
“I see ShopCreatify as part of our business. They’re not just a vendor providing a service. They’re a partner that understands what we’re trying to achieve. We work together collaboratively to achieve that end result.”
Hines is also a firm believer in working smarter, not harder.
“It’s about infrastructure and automation. We’ve only added one full-time person and one part-timer, but the company has grown fivefold!”
Hines stresses how important respect, fairness, and generosity are to her. She endeavors to always treat her clients, suppliers, and staff well. This, she says, is part of the glue that keeps her small, close-knit team happy and working hard.
She calls her loyal staff the “lifeblood” of her company. “I think I’ve managed to keep the staff who work for me, by treating people well.” This kindness extends to paying her suppliers on time and supporting her staff, even if it means losing a customer.
“I believe that you should do absolutely everything to try and help customers. We always bend over backward for them. But ultimately, you must insist that customers respect your staff. I will not tolerate them being spoken to or treated poorly. At the end of the day, we sell gift boxes, not donor organs. Nobody’s going to die if they don’t get their gift boxes delivered on time. You need to keep that in perspective,” she says.
She hopes that after the difficulties so many have faced with Covid-19 that people will have become kinder, and more patient and understanding.
Many businesses are in the final throes of preparing for gifting season. But Hines says it’s been impossible to plan for what’s normally their busiest time of year, because of the unexpected increase in business. “The preparations we had in mind have gone out the window. We are just ordering stock as fast as we can possibly make and ship it. Gifting season sounds like far more of a structured scenario than it’s going to be this year. Planning for it is impossible.”
Hines is being wise about the way she uses the increased income Foldabox is generating. Some of it is obviously being used to buy more stock. She’s also investing in new product ranges as well as professional product photography. She, along with ShopCreatify, are upgrading the store’s printing app. And soon she hopes to redesign the USA site in the same way that the UK site was done.
She’s been prudent about saving some of the additional money in case business quiets down again. Hines is mindful that this increase in sales probably won’t last forever.
“I’m putting money in the bank so that if a bad thing happens, I can carry on paying people’s salaries. Nothing good or bad ever lasts forever. So even if you’re doing incredibly well, invest in things you believe are going to continue growing the business, or put money aside, but don’t get carried away spending it all.”
While Hines and her team deal with the challenges brought by the dramatic increase in business, they force themselves to remember how lucky they are.
“You almost feel guilty that we’re doing so well, because it’s on the back of something so awful, globally. The days at the moment often feel like one really long slog. It’s easy to lose sight of how incredibly well things are going. We should be very grateful for that and be a lot happier about it than we perhaps actually feel.”