Rachel Cox & Keith Winhall – Heard It Through The Grapevine
Like in most other industries, communications and connectivity providers are often held to the standards of the poorest performing companies out there. Even reading this, your heart might have started beating a little quicker in memory of a particularly frustrating or negative experience trying to have a fault fixed or a new service provided. Whilst this shouldn’t be as common an experience as it sadly is, this state of play makes companies like Clyst St Mary-based Grapevine Connect really stand out. Their consistent levels of excellence and creativity have earned them a reputation for saving the day for businesses in Exeter, the South West and beyond. I recently sat down with Rachel Cox (one of their Directors) and Keith Winhall (their Solutions Architect) to catch a bit of their vision and hear about their journey in business so far.
Rachel started her career working as a Media-Buyer for industry-leading marketing agency Bray Leino in Filleigh, North Devon. Here she enjoyed a fun and successful six years, working her way into Account Management and predominantly working with automotive brands, spread all over the country – from Liverpool to Welwyn Garden City. In search of a role based closer to her Exeter home (and with less travel), Rachel then moved to regional agency Chalk + Ward before having her two children and, eventually, going freelance as a marketeer working with digital marketing agency, Connecting Element.
Rachel told me,
“I’m lucky to have worked in some fantastic places, with great people and a wide variety of clients. In my freelance capacity, I worked on projects with a major brewery, managing all the digital marketing elements of multiple pub launches across the country for some of the most recognisable brand names in the market”.
Alongside this, Rachel also started to build her own client base, and amongst others, worked with a local comms company where her husband, Martin, was Technical Director.
“Although Martin has always worked in telecoms, this was my first real insight into the telecommunications industry”.
“When the comms company we both worked for failed, there was a clear opportunity for us to create something different within the comms market. We could see the importance of having not only a strong and reliable product set, but also providing transparency, integrity, flexibility and above all, fantastic service. With Martin’s technical expertise and earlier experience in building a company, we knew we could bridge this gap and provide a much better offering for clients with a local presence”.
With this vision, Martin and Rachel set up Grapevine Unified Communications in 2011, and quickly gained a reputation for their creative use of technology, adaptability and exceptional service in a notoriously competitive field.
“For a short time I continued freelance work in digital marketing alongside Grapevine. However, as Grapevine took off it became clear that continuing with both roles were unsustainable due to the considerable commitments demanded on me, as well as being a Mum to our two children. I ceased my freelance work, joining Martin full-time at Grapevine. I had been instrumental in setting up the company after all, so it made sense to dedicate my full attention and energy to the new business”.
Keith, on the other hand, grew up in Totnes and had a very different entry into the world of communications. Growing up idolising his older brother (he still does on the down-low), he chose to follow in his footsteps and train for a career in communications. As young as thirteen-years-old, he managed to convince his school to let him travel to Nottingham to do his work experience at the company which his brother worked for.
This immersive introduction to the industry cemented in Keith’s mind that he wanted to work in communications, so he went on to study a Telecoms BTEC course at Plymouth College and, using the rarer-than-you’d-think characteristic of initiative, wrote to every communications company south of Bristol to see if they could offer him part-time work while he studied.
This move paid off and he secured his first role in communications as an apprentice, where he first met Martin. He has gone on to work with Martin in several companies since, most recently joining Grapevine fairly soon after they launched. So, what have Grapevine been up to since launching back in 2011?
Initially, they provided telecoms solutions (primarily VoIP, unified communications, fixed lines and broadband) but they identified a market for temporary internet and WiFi solutions and decided to launch a separate company to provide that service. For a short time they operated the two businesses side-by-side but there was significant crossover so, in 2018, they decided to merge both businesses into one under the name Grapevine Connect.
FLEXIBLE CREATIVE SOLUTUIONS
One of the things I was most fascinated to hear when talking with Rachel and Keith was about their temporary internet provision. Keith explained,
“We have a unique and more flexible approach to communications than many other providers. Our temporary internet solutions are a great example of this. They are typically used by construction clients who have a site in a field which pops up overnight and they need internet connectivity and phone lines immediately. Our supply is rapid, often providing next-day connectivity using cellular networks, using enterprise-grade hardware and run on optimised connections.”
“We supply a rugged hardcase (or two if both internet and phones are required) which have antenna inside. All that the client needs to do is open them up, turn the power on and then connect through a cellular network to the internet, allowing them full internet access and also access to their hosted telephony systems. This means that clients can rock up on site and, within minutes, have full access to their IT infrastructure and phone system – in the middle of a field, in the middle of nowhere!”
Rachel then added,
“The lead-time on this sort of scenario with a traditional fixed line approach is usually sixty days minimum. With Grapevine’s temporary internet solution, we provide a next day service which is a real game changer for the industry. We recently worked with a social enterprise in Wales who were opening a brand-new day-care facility in their community, to look after some of the most vulnerable residents in their area. Two weeks before opening, their telecoms provider notified them that they weren’t going to be able to install the phone lines and phone system which they’d ordered long ahead of time. Clearly, this would’ve been frustrating at the best of times, let alone the fact that they were offering a community service for vulnerable people and, therefore, needed secure and consistent connectivity for safeguarding and health & safety reasons. The local council wouldn’t have let them open without this technology being installed.”
Not to worry though as Grapevine Connect rode in on their white horse in true ‘knight-in-shining-armour’ fashion and set them up within a couple of days with a temporary internet solution, linking back to a new hosted phone system. This was back in June and the client is still waiting for the original fixed lines to be installed by the other company!
I was further impressed to hear that, despite their relatively small core team, they are able to scale up and down easily with their network of engineers to fulfil demand on national projects. For instance, they have project managed and installed WiFi roll-outs for multi-site retail outlets and hotel brands, right across the UK. This is part of the white label engineering resource which they provide for other comms companies.
REAPING THE REWARDS
This flexibility, agility and ability to think outside of the box recently lead to their first national industry award – the Comms Business Award for Best Small/Medium Business ICT Solution. In what was a truly creative and exciting project, Grapevine Connect worked with a film production company on a first-of-its-kind live-streamed, first-person shooter production where people could control via the internet a real human character in video-game type scenarios.
The award-winning project saw them retro-fit a disused power station near Southampton, which had absolutely no connectivity to speak of, with a full WiFi solution which allowed the film company to move seamlessly around the power station filming content which was then streamed in real-time by users online. The project went viral and had six million hits in the first few days. Not bad for an old power station with no internet connection!
“It was a hugely challenging but rewarding project. We filled a van with gear and worked a twenty-hour day to make it possible. We were absolutely delighted to win an award off the back of such a fun project!”
Based in Exeter but with a presence spreading throughout the UK, Grapevine Connect are truly becoming a small business who are making a big impact in the comms and connectivity world. Don’t forget. You heard it here first.
Visit www.grapevineconnect.co.uk to find out more about their unique and impressive work.
All content by Joff Alexander-Frye