Growing Your Business During A Global Pandemic With Leanne Bonner-Cooke MBE

by James Ker-Reid - September 30, 2020

Leanne Bonner-Cooke MBE Interview

Sales for Startups Founder & CEO, James Ker-Reid, sat down with Leanne Bonner-Cooke MBE to learn more about how her latest venture, e-Bate, has adapted to uncertainty in the market to double down on the areas where her business can add the greatest value and grow.

  • Thanks so much for sitting down with us. Could you share a little more about you and your business to start us off?

Of course! I’m Leanne Bonner-Cooke, and started my career by training to be an accountant back when I first left school in the 80s. I transitioned into technology in the mid-90s and had a corporate career in technology since, lasting until 2007. 

In 2007, I set up my first consultancy business which was called Evolve-IT Consulting. Although it was a consultancy business when it first started, it has since transitioned into a software development business. I exited the business in July 2020 and at the time we employed 65 people across our UK head office and an R&D center in Ukraine. 

In 2017, that business had bespoke rebate management solutions that spanned a number of years and sectors, which led me to believe that there was a gap in the market. We did some research into what tools were out there and there absolutely was a gap. So, at the end of 2017, e-Bate was born. We launched in 2018 and decided to build an end-to-end rebate management solution as a true SaaS offering. We felt we were the first to market in doing this in a specialist way. 

Later, in 2019, we managed to secure VC investment with a total funding round of £950K which has since enabled us to develop the product further and onboard our first clients. In July 2020 we secured a further round of £950K, which will help us acquire further clients.

  • Tell us a little about some of the changes you’ve made over the last few months, if any, as the leader of e-Bate.

I have certainly made a few changes here. We have ramped up our prospecting through various methods of communication, including email and paid search. We’ve done some account-based marketing which has been very effective – targeting accounts that we’ve been wanting to operate within. We’ve done dual-branded marketing to them, as well as LinkedIn which has maintained a flow of the pipeline. 

At the same point in time we focused typically on four sectors; pharmaceutical, automotive, construction and consumer goods/retail. Clearly automotive and construction have been heavily hit by the pandemic, so we have done less marketing in those sectors. We’ve really focused within the pharma and consumer goods/retail sectors which is far more buoyant. It’s just really trying to keep building up the pipeline. 

One of the other changes (which couldn’t have come at a worse time, talking about VCs) was that we were just going out for a second Seed round of investment when the virus first struck! So clearly that’s changed the markets, and we’ve had to revise our plan for investment. It means we have had to remodel to consider a potential slowdown as clearly the VCs are all a little nervous. The situation did affect the market, which in turn has affected the valuation of businesses. I was quite concerned that we would end up with a down round because of the market conditions, but fortunately we haven’t. 

We’ve recently secured another round for £950K so it just shows that VCs are still investing in businesses they believe in.

  • You talked about prospecting and pipeline building, but what other things are you focusing on right now within the business?

One is definitely team alignment. We want to ensure the whole team is driving in the same direction. Whilst we’ve always worked remotely as a business, because we are split across different countries and it works well a lot of the time, it does have its challenges. We’ve spent quite a lot of time during these last few months on having a really clear business vision that everybody’s aligned to, our ‘Gameplan’.

I think the key is to really build clear KPIs into each team, and each individual to ensure we can deliver the company vision. That will enable us to build and maintain a stronger team, both now and as we grow. For me, I think in early stage businesses you’re always short of resources, you’re always in a rush to make shortcuts and I think that can lead to a culture you don’t want within the business. 

  • What are particular areas within your team that you have had to reshape or remodel for Series A?

Largely around the development team. We have just recruited a CTO, who joins us full-time next week. Our development team has a lot of talent and senior people, but now that we’ve really started to scale, we need someone who can really pull together the business objective, and align that with the product vision, then orchestrate the engineering team to deliver. 

It’s starting to have that more joined up thinking as we grow – we now need some dedicated resources in that area and in our C Suite prior to our Series A. Equally, I have been carrying out the sales function within the organisation and before our Series A we will now start to ramp up on that side of the business as well. I think we are in a stronger position now to know what we want, how we are selling and what that sales playbook looks like. We felt it was too early to bring somebody in before, but now we are starting to see those sales come through it’s probably the right time.

  • What do you see as some of the opportunities for you in the next 6-12 months?

I think the positives that have come from the pandemic are that we digitise a complex rebate management process and generally it’s a process which is undertaken using Excel spreadsheets and lots of work done by multiple people / functions. I believe what’s driving us through lockdown is that, as many people are remote working, it’s highlighted the challenges for some of these organisations and therefore bringing problems to the forefront of people’s minds. I see that as a real opportunity. 

For us, in terms of the conversations we are having with people, we have created an eBook which is all about giving information about rebate management – and that’s getting real traction. The other opportunities I see is that, whilst people are working from home or have been furloughed, I’m finding they have more time to read social posts and to interact on LinkedIn. I would say my LinkedIn requests are about 60% acceptance, but normally it’s around 30%. 

We’re seeing a lot more quick-fire communication with people because they are very present right now and I think people have actually got more polite as well – people generally have more time. I know for myself, I normally run life to the clock, taking time in travelling to the gym and back, etc. and even though I’ve still been doing gym workouts at home, I feel I’ve got a lot more capacity and a lot more thinking capacity. I think that’s the same throughout senior leaders and people that we are targeting. That helps, and by having that time without quite so much pressure, they are being more polite. Even if it’s a ‘no thank you’, they’re doing it in a nicer way than before! 

  • What advice would you give to other founders of tech companies right now?

At the moment, I would say re-address your market and identify those sectors that still require your product and services. Really focus on those at this moment in time. The other thing is I would take time to review your own business strategy and your continuity plans. I’m sure for different companies, depending on where they are and what they’re selling, they’ve been affected in different ways. It does give you time to reflect what your business strategy is moving forward. 

I also would say if the business has slowed down, look at ways you can reduce your costs. We’ve been quite creative in getting rent reductions on our premises, furlough opportunities. Negotiate too with your software suppliers – there are companies that are offering discounts during these times. Every penny counts.

Remain focused – don’t leave your vision and why you did this in the first place because that is still there. Although we may have to pivot and look in a different direction, don’t lose sight of what it is all about in the first instance as that hasn’t gone away. 

I’m a believer that, when we hit times of uncertainty and unprecedented events, (I started my first business in 2007, predominantly in the construction industry which was impacted in 2008) we never go back to the day before they happened ever again. It is about maintaining the vision, pivoting and trying to tweak things. The way I see it sometimes is that I feel we’ve gone on pause for a few months, giving us that time to be able to realign and readdress certain aspects of the company, before it all starts off again. 

  • What is some beneficial advice you could give to founders that they can implement in the next few weeks?
  1. Revise your marketing strategy. Take advantage of these people having more time. If you’re not a user of social platforms yet, then get out there and use them. 
  2. Potentially look at a different sales approach as well. Say you’re in telesales in the first instance, again – potentially look at more use of social media like LinkedIn. 
  3. Keep on talking to people, even if your sector is not buying at the moment. Keep your business at the forefront of their minds as it’s a great time for prospecting and you still have to continue building a pipeline. 
  4. Really take a strategic view of the business. Make sure your business vision is aligned to where you’re going with your product and services. 
  5. Keep communicating to the teams. Whilst teams are working remotely, some businesses are used to it, some aren’t. There clearly are some individuals who struggle working at home remotely – just keep on communicating and make sure they know where you are and what is happening with the business. 
  6. Don’t beat yourself up. Some companies are having to make some tough decisions about staff and resources – take advice and look after your own health and wellbeing because if you’re not there to look after the team, no one else is.

Thanks so much Leanne, really motivating for many in our community to see how it’s possible to continue driving business growth, even during this period of uncertainty.

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