Digital transformation: how to be successful at any size

There is no one-size-fits-all blueprint for digital transformation. Here, three businesses of very different sizes reveal what the process means to them
people working on laptops

The start-up’s story: a cheeky approach to digital-first

The Cheeky Panda may be a mere six years old but it’s already flourishing. The producer of bamboo-based paper products was recently valued at £75m, thanks to its focus on the double zeitgeist of hygiene and sustainability and its future-ready, future-proof digital set up. 

The two-person start-up was founded by couple Chris Forbes and Julie Chen. It has always been keen on adopting software as a service, an off-the-shelf product, and automating the back office as much as possible, enabling it to scale efficiently, Forbes says. 

“We started off as most start-ups do, using accounting systems like Xero or Sage. But in 2019, which was still very early, we adopted an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system with a view that all of our systems would hang off it. We can run a complicated order capture/order fulfilment process with one click of a button,” he explains. 

Forbes points to The Cheeky Panda’s tech stack, where each element is ‘plug and play’, whether it’s an ecommerce platform or customer relationship management (CRM) system.

“We have a component-based architecture: you can add things and take them away. It means that if you become outsized in one particular area, you don’t have to completely transform the whole stack. You just take that piece off and put another on top of it.”

Technology might be cool but what is it going to deliver for your business?

In fact, The Cheeky Panda hasn’t really undergone a process of digital transformation in the same sense that larger, legacy companies might. Rather, it started out as digital-first. However, the business’s tech make-up means it’s more than a match for the demands of future digital transformation trends. 

Forbes may have a head start in understanding how to build a digitally future-proofed business from the ground up, having helped build PwC’s consultancy business in a former life. “I’ve met thousands of architects so I’ve used the knowledge of what world-class architecture looks like and that’s shaped the foundation of what we’ve got.” 

Forbes’s architecture may be neat and highly customisable, but he believes it is vision, not technology that lies at the heart of successful transformation. “Technology might be cool but what is it going to deliver for your business? As long as you understand the fundamentals of the technology you’re using and what the end goal of the business is, it should give you a mid- to long-term view.” 

Striding into transformation: the medium-sized business 

To date, Walk the Walk Worldwide – the marathon-focused breast cancer charity – has raised £100m, with around half a million people taking part in its challenges. Starting out by posting sponsorship forms, the charity now runs a sophisticated website that also supports email marketing, event registration, fundraising and social media activity. 

Guy Aubertin is director of fundraising and operations at Walk the Walk. He describes how the charity’s process of digital transformation evolved from hiring seasonal staff – usually students – to key in all the data from the paper forms. “We had 20 temporary staff, like a typing pool. Now there are two.” 

According to Aubertin, perhaps the most significant contribution of digital transformation aside from customer experience has been in efficiency and flexibility. “It’s a great cost saver. We work with contractors who no longer have to come into the office. We can work much more effectively using tools like Slack. When there are fewer of you there’s greater pressure, so you need to offset that by giving people the opportunity to work in a remote location.” 

While the pandemic may have forced people into a somewhat unnatural existence lived almost entirely online, Aubertin believes true digital transformation for Walk the Walk is managing a more hybrid world. He says the organisation is operating both a physical and virtual event this year. 

“People want human interaction. There’s an expectation with digital that you’re always going to be new. How do I cut through all that other digital noise? Constant reinvention is very difficult and it’s expensive, so for us, physical events is where we’re at.”

Aubertin notes that the speed of Walk the Walk’s digital transformation was very much influenced by wider user habits, such as “the idea of a more connected world, the increase in the use of the internet, email becoming more than just a business tool and social media pushing things along”. 

However, the fundraising tea party is just as vital as a round robin email or YouTube video, he adds. He is also at pains to point out that for his business, social media is very much a sharing tool for donors. For a company of his size, the cost of engaging fully with social media is too high. 

“Social media is incredibly expensive. It sucked a lot of businesses in by being free but now they turn the supply off unless you pay for it and there’s no certainty you’ll get results. Social media is helpful but for us, picking up the telephone and talking to our fundraisers is even more important.”

Big business transformation: delivering the ‘fourth emergency service’

The pandemic drove a massive acceleration for Boots UK “in terms of what we needed to do from a digital perspective,” says ecommerce director Paula Bobbett.

Boots UK was one of the few high street retailers permitted to stay open throughout the pandemic. Still, lockdown forced a dramatic rethink of how it managed its digital and physical estate. “The lucky thing about being a huge business is you’ve got lots of stores, effectively turning them into micro-fulfilment centres and hybrid stores. That drove a real rethink about the role of the store,” Bobbett says.

Social media is helpful but for us, picking up the telephone and talking to our fundraisers is even more important

The pandemic accelerated plans that were already in place. However, it also revealed new ways of approaching not just digital but omnichannel retail. Collect from store became an essential tool during surge events such as Christmas and Black Friday, allowing the company to “flex up capacity”. 

It also transformed Boots UK’s role as an online business. “It’s fair to say online was underinvested so the year of the pandemic was about both tripling supply chain capacity and really rethinking how we trade our website,” Bobbett says. 

In its previous incarnation, the online store followed physical stores’ merchandising plans, such as eight-week-long promotions. However, “that just doesn’t work in the digital world because digital businesses are about fear of missing out, timed offers and driving calls to action.”

As a result, initiatives such as a delivery trial in partnership with Deliveroo meant the online presence could ape the convenience of the physical store, delivering healthcare essentials like headache tablets within 20 minutes. “That proved really powerful because suddenly we’re more convenient than some of our digital competition. We couldn’t do that without the strength of our stores.”

For Boots UK, digital transformation is less about ecommerce and more about “how you bring the two together and how you leverage the strength of technology across both your online platform but also in store,” Bobbett says. “The next big thing for us is to effectively measure your store in the same way as you measure your digital business.”

If it sounds like a ‘click your fingers and it’s done’ moment, Bobbett is the first to admit that becoming an agile, responsive omnichannel business is a work in progress, with Boots UK picking ‘pockets’ where it can act as a start-up. 

“It’s harder as a big business to transform because you’re working with a lot of legacy technology, you’re not buying off the shelf and you’re having to adapt old systems that aren’t necessarily fit for digital. But once you get the baseline right then you can really accelerate and become a lot more agile.”