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Aeolienne

How to run a successful business without computers and the internet

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(Not written by me)

Meet the music shop owner who runs his business with no computer or internet

Matthew Poulton has run a successful business for nearly 30 years without using any tech

A week ago, the i office received a letter. Three hand-written pages paperclipped together and written in an even-handed, clear script. 

There were two postscripts: the first, invited us to pop into his music shop for a cup of tea if we were ever in North Devon. The second was an apology that the letter wasn’t in joined-up writing but the writer, Matthew Poulton, wanted it to be legible. 

Matthew Poulton is a man who doesn’t use the internet, yet has managed to run a successful business, Discovery Music, for nearly 30 years. Reading the letter was calming. There was no loudly flashing subject box that said “urgent!”. It finished with the line: “I have time for people…and have respect for real, human contact. I think we need it as a society…as a species.” 

But how, when the world prioritises social media marketing, engagement, and “digital outreach”, can you run a successful business without using or owning a computer at all?

Poulton told i: “I started my business – selling second-hand and new vinyl records, in 1992. My father was an antiques dealer and I realised quickly that running a niche business relied a huge amount on great social contact, human contact.”

He hasn’t learned how to use a computer yet, but doesn’t feel as though it holds him back. He says people love receiving cards and letters: “It actually means something, that that person thought about them for longer than 10 seconds.”

“It takes a lot of knowledge to run a successful record shop. I make enough money, live above the shop and I love what I do” 

Surely in the cut-throat world of small business owning a computer and being online is non-negotiable? Yet Poulton says it’s important for his emotional wellbeing to only be available during core working hours, and being online would threaten that. “I am available between 10am and 5pm – after then, don’t even bother! I think respecting the boundaries needed for a well-balanced lifestyle is important, and in return, during core hours, I give great customer service.”

Being offline also helps him to connect with his community: “I get to know people, there’s a humanistic element to running a business which is necessary in my industry. It takes a lot of knowledge to run a successful record shop. I make enough money, live above the shop and I love what I do. I don’t have kids or need holidays – in fact, the last holiday I had was 20 years ago, but I don’t really think of what I do as work.” 

He’s the first to admit how frugal he is. “My accountant once told me that I rarely earn above the poverty line, but I’m richer than anyone else I know. It’s all about the little things in life, and making the most of them.” Poulton rents his house off his mother, which means he makes sure there’s a stream of money to support her too. “I’ve been renting off her since 1989 – it’s nice to keep it all in the family.” 

‘I’m good at keeping records’

There’s a warmness to Poulton that seeps through even on the phone. It’s easy to see how he’s managed to keep his business afloat without needing to rely on social media to seem personable. “I mean, I don’t eschew technology altogether. I have an accountant, and that’s how my taxes get paid. I keep very good records – I’m a great believer in doing jobs that need to be done today, and not putting them off until tomorrow, which helps me to run my business well.” 

Poulton doesn’t use Excel spreadsheets, but draws and writes everything by hand in notebooks. “When it comes to my finances, I draw my own graphs to show my outgoings and incomings, and keep a record of all the paperwork. Everything’s done very simply and my accounts are perfectly ordered. The trick is to be as systematic as possible. Of course it would be different if I was working in a bank – I’ve designed a niche for myself.

Like any authentic record collector, he has a slightly unorthodox way of filing. “All my crucial files, relating to business, the house and my personal stuff, are kept in three record sleeves. It’s very effective.” The rest, which includes long lists of records from suppliers, are kept boxed up in the loft. 

“It’s like being 15 again and seeing what’s coming out in the record shops.”

But how does not using computers or the internet impact the people he works with? “Companies who sell records to shops make you go online to order, but you can still get these long pre-release sheets. I love these lists, I’m going through one now and they’re a big part of my morning. It’s like being 15 again and seeing what’s coming out in the record shops.”

When he calls up and orders his records Poulton says the guys he speaks to at places like Cargo and Fat Cat love having a chat. “We end up in conversations about everything that’s going on in the world. There’s a place for technology for sure, but I think its role should be complementary – it’s certainly not the be all and end all. I know the guys I deal with on the phone appreciate the human contact.”

As the world becomes tech mad, and even our elderly grandparents can send emails and do online shops, does he ever feel left out, or that his business will struggle? “Never. I don’t have fear of missing out! Just because people have more information projected at them more quickly, it doesn’t mean they know more. I know more about what bands are playing or the records coming out than most people just from standing in WH Smiths reading the magazines or chatting to mates. The information is all there [offline] but we just need to learn how to use it better. I don’t think we have been given enough time to learn how to use technology, or how to make it work for us. In a way, maybe we’ve been corrupted.”

Some elements of discrimination exist if you don’t use technology, he says. “But I’ve found that if you’re politely stubborn and stand your ground, people will help you out.” He cites a situation where he found out there was a cheap deal on train tickets if you went online, so he called up and explained how he didn’t use computers. “At first they said they couldn’t help me, but as soon as you explain the situation, and also mention it’s slightly discriminatory, people will do what they can to help you out.” 

Will he ever get a computer? “I’m nearly 50 now, and I’m not saying never. My friends who have them always seem to have problems with them, and they need new systems and need a reboot. I get by very easily and contentedly. Smartphones are only 11 years old after all, and there are always way of getting around things without being hooked up 24/7.”


Expert view: Paul Dawson, founding partner at product innovation company, Fluxx, on running a business without internet

In a digital world, analogue alternatives do stand out. Tokyo bookshop, Morioka Shoten, only stocks one book at a time, forcing people in store to immerse themselves in the title, and spend time with the author. Customers that find you are likely to be more serious and given they may see you as more exclusive, not being digital might not be a concern. 

However, without a digital presence, you’re cut off from many potential customers, which people may interpret as a lack of customer service. What’s worked for the last 30 years won’t necessarily work for the next 30. To create a great business today, that reflects the consumer of today, then digital must be in the mix. How else would I have found out about the ‘one book bookshop’?

Source: iNews

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