Homegrown: Sampling success in the North East
Interview with Jonny Grubin, Founder and CEO of SoPost
Jonny Grubin was born in London but moved to the North East when he was three. After a short spell at university back in London he dropped out to launch his tech startup, SoPost. Learning very fast that he couldn’t find affordable tech talent in the capital, he returned to Newcastle where he found a ‘lot of really good, committed people’ and his business journey took off from there.
Today SoPost operates around the world, with headquarters in Newcastle and commercial offices centred near its clients in London, New York, Paris, Frankfurt and Sydney, with expansion planned in new locations.
Social Post – or SoPost as the brand became – was conceived from an idea that you could create a postal address from someone’s social media handle.
After a stroke of luck, SoPost powered a marketing campaign for Noel Gallagher that allowed people to gift his new DVD to a friend by tagging them on Facebook. This was spotted by someone at Avon who wanted to use the technology to help its recently acquired Liz Earle brand harness its customers in a ‘gift a friend a sample’ online campaign.
SoPost was first to market with online sampling technology as social media was growing and thanks to fundraising rounds in 2014 and 2015, it accelerated its expansion around the world – working with multi-nationals like L’Oréal, Unilever and Estée Lauder. Today the beauty market makes up its core business, but online sampling is now a commonplace marketing tactic for pharma, F&B and alcohol brands with more sectors realising its potential day by day.
“You can’t smell the internet” is Jonny’s favourite way of explaining why the beauty space in particular has embraced online sampling. “If you were thinking of buying a £100 perfume, you’d want to smell it first. Online sampling lets you harness your existing customers as advocates for gifting friends with a free sample or conduct mass sampling campaigns that support other above-the-line or influencer marketing campaigns.”
With 70 SoPosters around the world, including a growing team at its Newcastle headquarters across product development, design and operations, the innovator is today by far the biggest operator in its market with the most developed tech stack.
So how has brand and marketing helped fast-track SoPost to become a global leader?
“We have grown over the last 11 years with very little marketing, but our brand has been a vital part of our success.
“We need our brand to be everywhere and sit neatly alongside the likes of L’Oréal or TikTok as “the partner” for sampling campaigns.
“We deal only with very large global brand clients, so our brand has to be front of mind and be able to work across multi-brand portfolios or travel with marketers as they often move around in their category. When they want to do effective sampling, ‘Let’s SoPost it’ is what people say!”
The name itself has never changed but in the first six years it went through various iterations as a brand identity, until Jonny worked with a brand strategist to help define its values and purpose.
“We very much see ourselves sitting in the background, putting our clients’ brands front and centre, so our brand has to reflect that.
“From that day forward our brand hasn’t changed, because we nailed what it needed to stand for as we grew.”
So having changed the way brands deliver samples to customers worldwide, what’s next for SoPost?
New offices in Asia and America are next on the cards, as well as product developments and more new hires.
“We have no plans to exit, our focus is all about growth,” says Grubin.
“We’re just scratching the surface in some of our core areas, take the US for example. Plus we have big product innovation in play – we’re already working on the impact of AI in our data strategy and are very focused on sustainable sampling in packaging and fulfilment innovations.”
With so much on his plate, how does Jonny focus his efforts as the CEO?
“I try to focus on what I enjoy, what I’m good at and what accelerates the business. Our company strategy and key customer relations are my priorities.”
The business bought out its last round of equity investment in 2015 so future growth will be self-funded. “We get offers of funding all the time, but unless they are the right partner that brings something on top of cash to the table that would help us grow faster, we’re fine as we are right now,” added Grubin.
With such growth potential ahead, can the North East support SoPost’s ambition?
“There are some challenges now that we didn’t face prepandemic – most notably the fight for talent is now global; and we’re competing with roles people can secure in London, Silicon Valley or Europe, whilst being based in the region.
“Transport issues have been challenging. The beauty of Newcastle is it’s just three hours from London, but the cost and reliability recently of that has caused us some issues.
I don’t think our business would be what it is today if we hadn’t started it in Newcastle and despite these challenges, it’s where we will always call home.