Join us in conversation with Cubo member, pioneer and marketing powerhouse Max Poynton, Project D
From winning industry awards, becoming proud market disruptors, to forging a course that will soon make them a household name; I can, of course, only be talking about Project D.
In the week leading up to their five-year anniversary, we managed to grab some time with the formidable Project D’s very own co-founder and Marketing Director, Max Poynton, to talk all things doughnuts, world domination, what’s next for the team and more.
So here we are, having a good old coffee and catch up at Cubo Derby. Speaking of which, why is Cubo your workspace of choice?
Cubo is amazing, I love it! I base myself mainly at the Cubo centre in Derby, although I have also visited the Nottingham space, and I just love how friendly everyone is, across the board. The team you’ve got on the ground in Derby is ace, always welcoming and helpful. Nowadays, I walk in and settle down to work in the hotdesking area, and all of a sudden a coffee appears for me – they even know how I take my coffee – it’s incredible!
The facilities are great, obviously the in-house barista goes without saying, but also the tech is spot on, it’s comfortable, the bar is a nice touch and I really value the contacts I’ve made through the people I’ve met at Cubo.
In a broader sense, I really like what they’re doing with their own growth plans. I follow the directors on LinkedIn and it’s great to see the direction the company is taking, with new locations being announced and high profile corporates taking up memberships. They’re so ambitious, it’s quite inspirational really. It’s a privilege to work in an environment that inspires me.
That’s so good to hear, thank you. Shall we start with you doing a brief introduction to your role at Project D?
Sure – I’m Max, and I’m the Marketing Director at Project D. I oversee the creative team here alongside one of my co-founders, Matthew Bond, who’s our Creative Director. We work closely on our marketing and brand strategy, to push Project D and accelerate all of our activity, which centres around building hype for the brand, promoting new product and communicating our pop-ups. We also manage both our in-house teams and two retained agencies; one of whom, Alphageek, we met through Cubo!
So you guys are two of the founding fathers, who’s the third?
That would be Jacob Watts, our Strategic Director. He oversees internal operations and processes, he keeps us efficient and innovative in our ways of working. He’s recently implemented Cybake, which is a core programme that will allow us to automate a lot of the communication between the office team and the manufacturing team in the bakery.
Having said that, whilst we all have our distinct roles, there’s an awful lot of crossover in how we work. We’ve always been willing and able to pitch in and help each other out, particularly at peak times. For example, this weekend just gone has been our busiest yet in terms of pop-ups and activations, with a brand presence at Slam Dunk Festival, Creamfields and ComicCon – not to mention the ten stands we had at Wembley – so I was out and about lending our Events team a hand.
Quite the whirlwind! This must be a world away from how you started in 2018 – what did life look like back then?
Well we started with our first premises in Derby, which was only 1,000sqft (compared to the 11,000sqft bakery we have now) and our time was spent learning how to make doughnuts under the tutelage of a freelance patisserie chef. Alongside actually baking the doughnuts, we were running the pop-ups, doing the marketing, managing the admin – all the invoices, VAT returns, payments etc – so it was a fairly crazy time!
From that point, we just carried on, reinvesting continually into the business, which allowed us to open our first couple of retail outlets, which was great – until the pandemic hit.
What did you put in place to weather the commercial storm of lockdown?
After furloughing our staff, Jake, Matt and I had to plan next steps. We worked with the council to set up Covid-compliant pop-ups across Derby, selling not only our doughnuts, but eggs, flour and yeast too, such was the home-baking craze we saw during lockdown. We actually also ran a delivery service for those ingredients, too. Happily these tactics were successful enough that we were able to reinstate our staff quickly, and felt that we’d provided a genuine service to the local community by stocking items that weren’t always readily available to purchase elsewhere.
As young entrepreneurs, what were the biggest challenges in those early days?
I’d say probably cashflow during the early days. We were trying to grow and develop, but that all costs money, so we had to think outside the box a fair bit. We really capitalised on guerrilla marketing and other activity that didn’t cost too much, all of which was designed with the idea of going viral, and saw a real result from it. Social media has been our most powerful tool, for sure. Thankfully, what we didn’t have at that point in terms of budget, we made up for in creativity and zero fear of doing things differently.
What would you say have been your biggest learnings over the last five years?
I don’t know where to start, to be honest! I’ve learned so much, but I would say I think having the right team around you is key. Keeping people happy, giving them a nice environment to work in, perks and benefits, it all goes a long way. Having a proper HR structure in place is so important, it creates a sense of safety and security for employees, that they have a framework around them for help, and it gives us reassurance that if there’s anything that needs fixing, there are the proper channels in place. Communication can make or break any organisation.
Ultimately, you want people to want to be at work, to feel actively engaged and invested in working towards shared goals.
Speaking of goals – Project D has had so many high-profile collaborations, from British Airways to Brewdog and beyond, so who or what is the dream collaboration for you?
Vans, without a doubt! We’d love to work with them to design a doughnut-inspired trainer, I really believe people would understand the concept and, more importantly, want to wear them. We’re not in conversation with Vans as yet, but that’s definitely on our wish list.
Perhaps that’s another proud moment in the making? Although you’ve already racked up a fair few to date!
Yes, absolutely. You honestly never know what’s going to happen next. I mean, both British Airways and Brewdog approached us, not the other way around, so that was momentous for us. We actually met some of the guys from Brewdog on the plane when we did the British Airways collab, and they ended up reaching out to us after that, which was pretty cool.
Also, winning Online Bakery of the Year at the 2022 British Baking Awards was huge for us, especially as the previous year’s winner was Marks and Spencer! I think being invited to the Houses of Parliament this year was equally massive, as we were asked to showcase our product to MPs there.
Other than that, I think being part of the Formula One event straight off the back of Covid restrictions lifting was epic; it was so high profile and the atmosphere was amazing, so having our brand in front of so many people was incredible.
The brand personality and tone of voice you guys have created for Project D obviously makes people sit up and pay attention. What was your process for getting that just right?
Starting with the name, we wanted something that could be universal, that could be applied to more than doughnuts in the long term. By that I mean, it’s easier to imagine yourself drinking ‘Project D Water’ rather than ‘Project Doughnut Water’! After that came a huge amount of market research, even researching colour theory, what responses different colours evoke, going back and forth with mood boards, and ultimately pink just won for us. It’s associated with sweet treats, it’s bold and has standout, and it’s happily now become synonymous with the Project D brand; people see it and know at a glance it’s us.
So, we’ve talked about your journey to date, but what’s next for Project D?
We’ve recently launched a crowdfunding campaign which has started really strongly. I think we’re at 60% of our target so far, and we’re really pleased with that. The funding from that will drive forward our growth plans, which include opening retails stores and allowing us to pursue our idea of franchising Project D. Wholesale is going to be an area of focus for us, too.
In the more immediate term, we’re really excited about a forthcoming collab with LoveRaw, who are the second biggest producer of vegan chocolate in the UK. They’re in most major supermarkets now, and do some really cool stuff, like vegan versions of bestselling chocolate bars like Kinder Bueno, Snicker, Mars etc. We know how big the vegan market has become – we actually did a pop up at Europe’s biggest vegan festival last year and we’ll be there again this year – and it’s growing all the time, so it made sense to us to find and work with a brand we love on expanding our range in that direction.
Our thanks go to Max for his time (and to his colleagues for sparing him for a coffee break with us!). Visit the Project D website to view the full range of delectable doughnuts, get the ‘Dream Factory’ behind-the-scenes experience over on their TikTok, or click here to explore how you can be part of their crowdfunding.
WORDS: Daniela Rix