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Celebrating 20 years of Firebox

What! 20 years? Where on earth did they go?

When we first started Firebox in 1998 we used to take credit card details over the phone and manually input payment on a machine. It wasn’t until 1999 we even had a transactional website!

Back in the ‘old days’ security fears were a huge factor. Consumers were nervous about this new way of shopping and convincing customers their data was safe in our hands was paramount. Of course, in some ways data privacy is more important than ever (the GDPR process being a timely reminder) but with every generation, we become much more comfortable trusting technology and expecting a brilliant, fast, frictionless service.

We were built on innovative products, customer service and tech - and they still provide the foundations for everything we do. Sprinkle our irreverent tone of voice liberally over the top, support it with smart, curious people and amazing customers and you have Firebox today.

In many ways, we’re a tech company at heart. We do everything ourselves (possibly to a fault). We’ve built and continued to evolve all of our own website, infrastructure, admin, backend and fulfilment systems. Although we work with a 3PL now, we ran our own warehouse for over 10 years (including a few years in the same place as our office). All customer service, marketing, PR, design, copy, buying, product development, tech, operations, sales and finance are done in-house. You probably wouldn’t start a business now in the same way, but all of that learning and knowledge is a significant contributor to our longevity. You can’t buy that experience. 

"The biggest change in the last 10 years has been technology – and in particular the smartphone"

We’re proud autodidacts and love getting our hands dirty! We all wear ‘many hats’. We’ve hand delivered orders. We’ve pulled all-nighters and slept under desks. Over the past two decades, we’ve adapted to countless macro and micro trends. We've survived a dot com bubble bursting and a global recession. And we’re still here. As passionate and creative as we’ve ever been. 

The impact of the smartphone

The biggest change in the last 10 years has been technology – and in particular the smartphone. Entire product categories and businesses have been created, reshaped or destroyed! Thankfully we’ve ridden the waves every time. Many haven’t.

The iPod and iPhone were huge. They shifted what it meant to be a gadget (we were the original ‘online boys toys and gadget site’, after all) into huge ecosystems and brave new worlds. They also killed industries, brands and product lines. The phone now takes care of everything: photography, music, work, gaming, news, communication, socialising, dating, banking, entertainment and countless other areas of our lives.

The only thing it doesn’t do is phone calls! Where we used to once take half our orders over the phone – we now only take a fraction. With social and live chat picking up the ‘realtime’ slack when customers have a query.

Broadband, WiFi, 4G all enabled more online shopping and put even more power into laptops and mobile devices. Global became glocal. Of course, the biggest thing the rise of the smartphone did was to grab consumers most important resources. Time and attention (and not just with social media – which of course has changed EVERYTHING).

Changing trends

However, what is great for the consumer can be troubling for some businesses.

Where once Firebox could play, we could now play no more. Tech and gadgets like digital cameras (we were the first to introduce 0.1 megapixels(!) digital keyring cameras into the UK in 2001!), portable DVD players, handheld camcorders, WiFi photo frames, MP3 players, USB converters (vinyl, tape, CD, negatives to digital files!), fitness wearables and r/c toys like drones and flying helicopters (people would rather swipe right and gather likes!) have all vanished.

This is, of course, the natural march of time and progress. However it left little scraps of products and categories for a few retailers to fight over. Which they did. Until Amazon squashed them all with free shipping and low prices (and a disregard for worrying about making a profit).

Thankfully for us – we’ve always adapted and done things a bit differently. We curate and create exclusive selections of hard to find, imaginative, alternative gifts. We then showcase them with wit and flair. And that takes time. And effort. And brainpower. Most of our competitors don’t fancy it. That’s why we remain fresh and relevant. We try. And that counts for a lot.

Throw in the amount of effort we make both making our customers happy and on our site experience (highlighted recently by our cutting-edge UX for our personalised products) and that helps us remain relevant and interesting.

Trend setter

I joined in 2002 as our 35th ever employee (we’ve had over 500 since) as a customer service agent and I’ve been Managing Director since 2012. Since then we’ve shipped over 4.5m orders to every corner of the globe. We invented CrapWrap™. We kicked off a global secret Santa.

We started Firebox after inventing The Shot Glass Chess Set and now we’ve disrupted the Gin industry with our Unicorn Tears Gin creation. When not creating our own products, we’re curating the most imaginative gifts from around the world.

Twenty years have gone by in a very long blink of the eye. We launched at the same time as Amazon and Google (in the UK) but unlike one of them at least we’ve tried to be profitable! Who knows, maybe we’ll outlast them too. OK, so our trajectory might not be quite as hockey stick shaped as theirs – but we’ve enjoyed an amazing ride and are as excited as we’ve ever been about our future.

What that future looks like is up for grabs. The increasing importance of a rich, intuitive, delightful and fast mobile Firebox site is obvious. The same goes for our approach to social media channels (not just as brand and marketing but as a customer service offering). This is where people spend their time.

We will also invest more energy into creating a delightful personalised user experience (both in UX and our hugely successful product offering). All the while we keep an eye on how trends move and habits change.

Finally. It would be remiss of me not to underline the following as the ultimate key to our success. Our culture and staff. We truly are a work family. With all the love, friendship and frustrations that come with it. I met my wife here (there have been multiple Firebox marriages and children!). My daughter exists thanks to Firebox.com.

To not dread waking up in a morning at the thought of having to spend another day ‘at work’ is an incredible achievement. We’ve created a collaborative, fun, inclusive atmosphere and that means the world to me. To all of us.

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