A 'paradigm shifting' approach to post... Alice talks to NOT-ANOTHER-BILL founder, Ned Corbett-Winder...

Right, now this is a special Brains Behind a Brand, and a fitting one for January; NOT-ANOTHER-BILL. You might have heard of it, the company with - how to say it? A paradigm shifting approach to post. A service which mitigates the hideous stomach-lurching anxiety of another bill landing on your doormat, rewiring in the process all those neural pathways built up over a lifetime (bills/fear/Pavlovian response, gah), replacing them instead with the soothing, retail-inspired associations of a delightfully designed package, a gift delivered monthly (chosen from a sought-after list of designers), that brings a pass the parcel element of surprise to the rigours of the morning commute. Now there's a business model.

One decidedly more simple than the setting up this interview, as it turned out; founder Ned Corbett-Winder was getting married, then my car broke down, and finally, after much rescheduling, here we are communing in the hallowed week between wedding and honeymoon ('Thailand, Krabi, Phuket'), me peering via the auspices of the Skype interface into his five-strong office, the desk in front piled high with parcels, ready and waiting for dispatch by the lovely Lewis (but more of him later).

'I used to work in advertising,' Corbett-Winder says of life prior to NOT-ANOTHER-BILL. 'My brief was to come up with ideas for clients. I used to get sent a lot of stuff from photographers and designers who wanted me to use their products for a campaign. So I basically had a load of stuff arriving at my desk - this collection of interesting bits and bobs.' The exposure to niche brands, coupled with an awareness that 'receiving things in the mail was something that was dwindling,' is where it all began, and well - the rest is history. 'Everyone being on smartphones, emails... the whole shift to digital. It's a nostalgic thing; the human measure of receiving something physical and it harking back.'

As with every great idea, Corbett-Winder was amazed no one had got there first. 'I was building websites myself; very low level, just literally a very simple page with a PayPal shop button. The problem was I had never sent anything out. That kind of ruins the idea of “you’ll get a surprise each month”... So I had to basically build the site as an initial moodboard for the things that I thought were interesting. It was a real leap of faith; the first people to sign up. They had no idea what they’d get. The first few subscribers, I would actually make their presents myself.' Ah, bless; the thought of Corbett-Winder hunched over his desk, putting together a “take over the world” kit (a collection of 'old vintage maps, lead toy soldiers and cigarette place cards, all bundled together in a manila envelope') with the addition of a wine crate or two, makes you come over all fuzzy.

After leaving his role in advertising, Corbett-Winder no longer had access to the aid of his firm's postal service. 'I could just take my parcels down and it would all go on my bill. It was really helpful. Once I left there was this middle ground where I was working at home, which was a nightmare because I had to walk to the post office. The postman was the grumpiest man in the whole world! I nearly had a few fights with him. But once we got a franking machine, it was easier because you just put the labels on the parcels and you just drop them in the bins. We’re now almost at the point where we need to start looking at outsourcing.'

Ah yes, the infrastructure required to keep the venture going; a factor in the elevated price point, initially offered at £11 - £12, now resting at £18. 'I’d ship,' Corbett-Winder says of the old days, 'if it was your first order, I’d ship it as in tomorrow. But once we’d got about over 40 subscribers, the business model slightly changed. Then you can approach companies and say: “Look, can I buy this many off you?” rather than me making it myself. Essentially it’s linking. It’s linking a brand with potential customers. That is what our business model today is really.'

Humble beginnings, but it's the attention to detail that has led to the significant growth since those hallowed days in 2011. The brand now boasts 1800 subscribers. No surprise there's a vibe in this office; industrious efficiency coupled with a certain joie de vivre - I know because I'm given a guided tour, laptop in hand and boy does it look sprightly. 

The daily grind is 'a real mix. A lot of it will be conversations we’ve been having with companies for six-eight months; working out what the right present is. When people sign up we take details of the subscriber’s profile – male, female, how old they are – and there are nine categories of gifts that we work within. There'll be art-based, fashion-based, home products, and fun and nostalgic categories. You have to pick a minimum of three, but we find most people pick most of them. That gives us a profile for what to send to that person, so it’s not completely random. If you don’t like, let’s say, art prints - we’re not going to send you one. It is a surprise, but you’re potentially buying into a specific category. We filter it quite a lot. We want to give our customers the best, and sometimes the stuff that we’re sent isn’t great. There’s also crafts markets, trade shows, looking around other shops as well.'

Quality and choice are at the forefront - but how does the brand ensure significant enough profit? Corbett-Winder is more than willing to admit the margins on the subscription service at present 'aren't huge.' Primarily because he's 'really set in [his] ways of giving people something really great. It’s building a relationship with our customers at an early stage; the more trust we get, you will get in the future. It’s things like our online shop which we’ve pushed  towards Christmas. It’s doing really well because people come in to buy a subscription and then they might buy a couple of presents. Those margins are higher.'

The design of the website, alongside the products, is key. There's a very strong brand identity at NOT-ANOTHER-BILL - one that kicks off with a simple, clean yet decidedly quirky interface that appeals to its slightly edgy hipster demographic, or those who want to convince themselves they fit the bill. 'We wanted to make it almost feel like it's not a website. For me the “NOT-ANOTHER-BILL” is not another bill. But “not another” is part of our brand structure. Even the title of an email that we send would be “not another...” - you know at every level, just trying to play around with it.'

The journey itself has been replete with trial and error; 'You can do all the research in the world, but until you try to start doing something, you won’t know. Starting, actually, is the main bit.' Social media and a great blog are also core facets of the business, and of course there's 'the lovely Annabel,' the dedicated social media guru providing 'great content that's on-brand.' All of this takes time, of course; 'dealing with logistics,' is the company's bête noire. 'It’s not like we’ve got just one product and the packaging is the same for everything – each different thing needs a new bag, or the weight of it, what size parcel is it going to go in, and therefore how much is it going to cost and how much can we afford to pay the supplier. There is a lot of that. We really learn from conversations with our followers.'

But what of the man himself? Corbett-Winder is gregarious, sharp, resolutely up beat. I don't think I've ever laughed as much during an interview. He wears his business hat too however, emphasising the need for ongoing development, a spotlight in particular on 'distribution, logistics, websites' - the operational elements so core to growth. Next up will be a higher price tier of gifts, targeting the luxury market, available once a quarter as opposed to once a month. The NOT-ANOTHER-BILL shop is another revenue stream begging to be exploited. 'Just more in-depth contact,' with customers, 'on every level.' Hopes for the future include: 'To be able to offer our services abroad, hubs around the world. I’d also love to dice the actual subscription types – so for instance you could do art prints, or books or children’s toys – do a children’s subscription would be great, or perhaps NOT-ANOTHER-DOG.'

'We’re in a business where we want to make people smile and choose some cool stuff. It’s fun and it’s quirky. It’s also good value - it's something I hope our customers appreciate.' I can vouch for that, because the sight of a NOT-ANOTHER-BILL package, landing on the door step, has the same serotonin boosting high as another instantly recognisable black box, let me tell you. Overall the ethos is decidedly 'can do', an attitude Corbett-Winder has no doubt taken from mentor Johnnie Boden. 'I see him every three or four months. Even if it’s just for an hour; he’s kind of done it, been there, started everything from scratch. He’s really, really good.' Other entrepreneurs Corbett-Winder rates highly are: 'Paul Thelen from Big Fish. Who else? Paul Smith. I suppose it’s seeing different things that you find interesting and taking little bits from all of them.'

Would it be fair to say that the signs for Not Another Bill are auspicious? 'Getting in Selfridges' concept store was incredible. It was a really nice feeling. It’s a big sponsor that’s saying: "Yeah, we love what you’re doing and we’re taking you on." Clearly Corbett-Winder has been doing something right - which brings us full circle back to the lovely Lewis, beaming at me via the interface, fully kitted up in a fluroescent jacket, ready with his Santa-like bag of supplies. 'I'm doing an afternoon collection,' he grins. He looks - dare I say it - really happy. I bet it's a great company to work for... 'It is!' he laughs. 'And every so often I get my picture taken. So that's quite nice!' Where does that go then? 'On Facebook.' We got Lewis to hold a bag up,' Corbett-Winder adds, 'and then we hid an object in it, and we got our followers to say what they thought was in the bag. Then the next day we revealed it.' See what I mean? A very sprightly office indeed - and no 'bills' to speak of.

Interview by Alice Kahrmann

January 2014