Darren A Smith of Making Business Matter (MBM) has seen it all in his 12 years working as Category Manager at a big four supermarket in the United Kingdom. While working at the supermarket, he saw that suppliers had to improve their working relationships with retailers.
According to the MBM website, Darren A Smith saw many low points for this relationship, having sat through more than 2,000 supplier presentations. Once, a man spent 3.5 hours and 126 slides presenting frozen carrots. Another time, a man showed up without a pen, a paper, or even a bag to a business meeting. Some presentations also did not help the retailer at all, because they offered no insights they could act on.
While there were also many suppliers who did their tasks effectively, such as presenting, negotiating, and influencing, Darren A Smith felt they still needed to take their game to the next level. He wanted to make the “good, better, and the better, best.”
After 12 years at the supermarket, Darren A Smith founded MBM to help suppliers and retailers “work better together.” He specializes in developing people, the world of food retail, and category management. For people development, Darren says he is passionate about helping people become the best version of themselves. He also says he believes in “’growing the pie’ as opposed to ‘splitting the pie.’”
For his work, Darren A Smith has received the IGD Award for Consumer Understanding, and he has worked with major clients like Cranswick plc, McDonald’s, Sainsbury’s, and Tesco.
Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Darren A Smith: A gang of 14-year old boys were huddled around me in the playground. Sniggering. Joking. Handing over their money. I’d found a sports bag 2-days ago on the way home from school, dumped in a field. When I opened it, I was surprised. Rammed full of ‘Gentleman’s magazines’ — if you know what I mean. What was a 14-year old boy to do? I took them to school to sell them for 10p each. This was my first taste of being an entrepreneur and I loved it. Sadly, the venture was limited. I’d also learnt about supply and demand. There was no more supply, even though I had stimulated demand.
‘Do you use bottled water?’. The year is 1989. I am fresh out of senior school and starting my first, maybe second, business — Depending on whether selling magazines at school is defined as a business. Unfortunately, this is not a Richard Branson story. I am sad to say. More of a guy that never gives up and is still yet to make his fortune. I had seen an advert in a paper to sell water filters — A pyramid selling type of affair. I was 16. Having the door slammed in your face 50 times a day at that age, or any age, really does toughen you up. Six months later, and with my face looking like a front door, I decided college was the way forward. A 2-year business course — ‘That is what is needed’. I thought.
I emerged from college a more rounded individual, had made a lot of friends, and knew a bit more about business. I placed my first advert in the paper. Send me all your pictures that you have in the loft, in shoeboxes, and squirrelled away, and I’ll put them into albums for you, for a cost. A nice idea. The part I missed was that no-one would send their treasured memories through the post. Maybe someone might still respond to that advert from 1991? ‘Great idea — here’s all my treasured possessions young man and a fat cheque’. Maybe not.
My Dad had worked all his life in a supermarket. From selling rabbits outside the store to becoming a Regional Director. An Eastend London lad done well. Incidentally, moving-house, as he got promoted took a strange turn when we moved from Essex — an area known for its unusual accent, to Oxford — One known for the Queen’s English. The first day in an Oxford school at 11 years old, you’d think that the school would have provided a translator to help the other kids understand me! Anyway, back to the supermarket. Not wanting to work in a store, I applied to be a buyer at head office. It didn’t dawn on me that if I got the job, the 4-hour round-trip commute I had just done, might become a permanent fixture. It did. For 15-years I stood on the train to London for 4 hours a day!
After re-applying for my own job 8 times (Supermarkets are not really people focused) I chose to start out on my own. When I say, I chose, I meant that my wife, Gayle, said, ‘I’ve had enough of this. Take the day off sick and figure out what you want to do’.
I had achieved a great responsibility, both in leading a huge team and managing over £1bn of goods. I thought my business knowledge had grown significantly, but nothing prepared me for what was about to happen as a start-up…
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Darren A Smith: I didn’t once think of giving up. I thought of doing over a 10,000 times!
My daughter had just been born and I had left a secure job with a great package, company car — The whole works. To start ‘Making Meetings Matter’. I had seen that meetings were ineffective — nothing changes even 30 years on. MMM was a minute-taking business. My third attempt at business. My business plan was an impressive 84 pages. Complete rubbish. There was nothing I hadn’t considered. Yet, it was doomed from the start. College had taught me some theory. The supermarket had taught me to negotiate and be a corporate businessperson. But I had learnt nothing about starting a business to make it a success. Limited resources, limited time, and the magnifying glass was on me at every step.
Not dissuaded, I continued.
I remember it being December and working from the garage. It was so cold that I was wearing a coat and gloves whilst trying to type at my laptop. This was 6 months after I’d left the well-paid job. Money was running tight. I’d gone from not being able to fit the numbers on a calculator, to only having to use my hands, and maybe occasionally, toes, to calculate the sales, profit, and margin. There was only one thing to do…
I asked the bank for a loan for ‘windows and a conservatory — home improvements’. We used the money to pay the mortgage and to live. I’d not recommend it.
In the same week my Mum and Dad came to visit us. All four of us were writing addresses for a mail-out to over 2,000 businesses offering the minute-taking business. A reply came a few days later in the form of a very official envelope. I was so excited. Then I opened the letter — We were being sued. Oh! The mail-out was designed to look like an internal memo of a company, at an attempt to be intriguing. Someone had been completely taken in by it. I question their IQ, but they were intelligent enough to get a solicitor to sue us. That was the first time I cried. Was small business this hard?
It took a lot of groveling, negotiating, and persuasion that my intentions were innocent. They finally yielded on the agreement that I, or MMM, never darkened their door again.
Stubbornness. Determination. Being like a Jack Russell is a calling. It’s a strength and a weakness. Sometimes the right thing to do is to give up. To stop. Sometimes it’s not. The JR’s never do. I didn’t. Unfortunately, at the expense, of family, friends, physical health, and mental health. There has to be consequences to being relentless. I continued…
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Darren A Smith: Remember that I mentioned the water filtering business? Selling it door to door. Well, it wasn’t an absolute disaster. Someone actually bought one. Yes, it surprised me too. ‘We’d like to buy the ‘20S’. This was the under-the-sink product. Imagine a 2 litre Coke size bottle fitting under the sink and filtering your tap water so that the water you drank was purer. Like having Evian on-tap. Aha — the patter returns. My first sale!
Being the smart individual that I thought I was, I didn’t need a plumber to fit these things. I’d seen a video. Remember there was no YouTube back then — This is the 90’s. It was a cassette of a plumber fitting these things. 1.5 hours of Ron the plumber sharing his experience. Any minute I expected a buxom woman to walk-in on Ron. Sadly, it was just a boring plumbing video.
‘Yes, Mr. Hammersmith, I’ll be round on Saturday morning to fit your 20S. Should take about 45-minutes’. All arranged. I’d borrowed some tools from my Dad, forced myself to read the instructions (most unlike me), and was ready to conclude my first sale.
Basically, you clamp this tap-like thing onto the pipe under the sink, to make the flow go through the filter and then out of the tap on the sink above. I’d taken out all the household cleaning products, drawers, and other paraphernalia to give me the very best chance of installing the 20S well and in under 45 minutes. Tools laid out. Instructions clear. Ready to rock and roll. Plus, they’d made me a cup of tea — nice people. Though that was to change.
Surprisingly it went well. The water was not bouncing off of the ceiling and the kitchen roll was showing no signs of leakage when I wrapped it around the fitted bits, as Ron had showed me on the cassette. My god — I’d actually done it. Proud was not the word. I was about to remove my underpants to now wear them outside of my trousers. Though professionalism stopped me.
Before I put everything back, I asked Mr. Hammersmith to take a look. He filled-up a glass with water. Drank it. Remarked at the purity and thanked me. ‘So, I’ll just tidy-up, put everything back and then ask you for payment. Be about 5 minutes. Ok?’. My first payment — I had a vision of buying myself a tracksuit top later to celebrate. I lifted up the drawer and slid it onto the rail things and pushed it back. Donk! Tried again. Something was stopping the drawer from sliding back. I bent down to take a look. The clamped-on tap thingy was in the way. <Insert many, many, many swear words>.
I had to pay for a plumber to fix what I could not. Plus, give-away the product for free. I was severely out of pocket.
My take-away? I am to DIY what Houdini was to glass blowing. Realize your limitations. Accept them. Capitalize on your strengths. Accept that most triumphs come from a team effort, and don’t try to cut corners because they’ll always bite you in the bum.
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you please share your “Five Things You Need To Know To Delegate Effectively and Be Completely Satisfied With the Results?” Please share a story or an example for each.
Darren A Smith:
- Listen to Stephen Covey’s Habit #2 — Begin with the end in mind. Not only are all the habits a powerful tool for life, but habit 2 is a great way to see how easy it can be to delegate.
- Understand BJ Fogg’s model for forming habits. Again, it will help with so many things in life. Want to go to the gym and don’t? You’ll understand why.
- Nick Kolenda is an amazing person for helping us understand the world around us. In his new guide: https://www.nickkolenda.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/IRTB-Audiobook-PDF.pdf he shares an insight on how to change our diary to get us to the gym — fascinating.
- Buy your team into what you are trying to do. They will help. Plus, as a leader it shows humility, which is always a good thing because, well, you don’t know it all, and that’s ok.
- Continuously improve. Ask for feedback. A simple benchmark — How is my delegation? 4/10, and then 4 weeks later, ask again.
<My five things video, as mentioned on your last page: https://youtu.be/6QkqkCTRMA0 >
Jerome Knyszewski: One of the obstacles to proper delegating is the oft quoted cliche “If you want something done right do it yourself.” Is this saying true? Is it false? Is there a way to reconcile it with the importance of delegating?
Darren A Smith: It is true and so many of these sayings are born from seeing it actually happen. The flaw in the thinking is that we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. We want to believe that we are the best person, so we poorly brief and wait for the inevitable poor result.
We prove it every day by giving poor explanations of what we want. Getting frustrated and quietly being pleased that we were the best person.
Getting good at delegating is the first step. There is a second step…
This is the more challenging part: Coaching. You’ve heard the phrase about feeding a man a fish:
‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’
The next stage after delegating effectively is to coach. Google completed a study called ‘Project Oxygen’. They analysed over 10,000 documents about people performance. From appraisals to reviews to studies. Their findings were damming about line managers:
What is the one skill that line managers need most? Coaching.
What is the one skill that line managers are worst at? Coaching.
Coaching is the next level of delegation. Coach your team, rather than tell your team, and your ceiling will be the same as when Charlie Bucket gets into the elevator with Willy Wonka, at the end of the film.
Want to know more? Start with a pack of coaching cards. Only £5. https://www.makingbusinessmatter.co.uk/product/grow-coaching-cards/
Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?
Darren A Smith:
Please follow the articles I write on our blog: https://www.makingbusinessmatter.co.uk/blog and also the articles of other great writers.
Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!