I’m David Saker. I started working with balloons in 1982 at The Kite & Balloon Company in London. In 1989 I launched Balloon Attack in Birmingham (a very small decorating company) and later expanded buying Balloons ‘n’ Things (EST 1982), running & owning 2 retail shops when retail was good. In the 1990’s balloons were extremely popular at Weddings so business was rampant at the weekends.
In 1998 I took the simple idea of releasing balloons and expanded it to supply every School in the UK. This was the perfect small business for a while as I only stocked 3 items – 10″ Balloons, Race Labels & release nets (the helium was delivered direct from BOC). Everything went well until releasing balloons was pretty much banned in 2008.
In 2006 I launched PrintedBalloons.com. A website where you could design your own balloons live online. The site was extremely good to me for 4 years. Unfortuantly it was built using FLASH which was phased out after the iPhone launch. This together with Google algorithm changes killed the site.
In 2008 I pioneered the first online Virtual Balloon Race. This site is still live but it turned out not to be one of my better ideas.
Today I still have 1 retail shop I keep for inflating balloons (I don’t allow customers in). I travel the UK installing balloon drops, arches and other balloon projects. I pretty much don’t accept phone calls so please email or tweet me @balloon.
I can bore you with some more details if you’ve got the time:
Looking back on my career I would say that between 1998 to 2008 everything I touched turned to Gold. I had success with 2 retail shops, my School balloon releases were getting better & bigger and the printedballoons.com site was bringing in print orders from all over the world.
Then I lost my Midas touch:
I then became over confident and couldn’t see the risks in future projects like buying ‘balloon.com’ and spending £50k on a virtual balloon race. With hindsight I really should have built a minimum viable product and tested the market. Instead I built something very complicated with all the bells & whistles before I knew whether the market would accept it.
As the 2008 recession hit I was at my maximum borrowing (borrowing £80k to finance my virtual race and buy the domain ‘balloon.com’). As the 2 new projects distracted me my main business (retail, printing, helium hire & balloon releases) took a turn for the worse.
Retail – In general across the UK retail took a hit but also balloons at weddings and parties were suddenly no longer trendy.
Printing – Google got savvy with it’s algorithm and stopped sending me customers from all over the world. Things seemed to be going more local.
Releases – By 2014 these were pretty much banned across the UK for environmental reasons (this accounted for £250k of my turnover).
Helium – The helium hire market changed with the launch of disposable cylinders. Prices rocketed in 2012 because of a helium shortage and this reduced the margins. The market couldn’t take the price increase.
The only way forwards was backwards. To counter the market change I started reducing my overheads on a massive scale, I looked at everything and cut it.
In total I reduced my overheads by over £7000 per month, you have to sell a lot of balloons to make a £7k profit. This became a mission and It still goes on, the more overheads that go the more focused I become on the ones that remain.
On the other side of the fence I did the same to all my personal overheads. Moving to a smaller house and paying off all my HP and borrowing.
On the business sales side of things I turned my back on retail and stopped supplying small events and parties. I no longer focused on trying to build a massive turnover (£505,000 in 1998), I now wanted to sell stuff with a good margin (air filled balloons) to clients who paid on time. I concentrated on a niche – large scale balloon drops and outdoor retail arches. By focusing on just 2 products I was able to satisfy corporate customers and give them 100%, rather than trying to do a million things (badly).
It might seem ridiculous to some that I needed to borrow in 2008 with my past turnover. But….. if you’re sales are £50k per month and your clients take around 60 days to pay it is impossible to get by without borrowing. On one occasions Schools owed us £74k and we hit the summer holidays (the Schools were then closed for 6 weeks).
The only constant in business is change, the above took 8 years and it was like turning around the Titanic. I’m ready for the next change anytime soon but now days I think simple is best. The less keys on my keyring the better.