What I Wished I’d Known Before I Set Out

There’s no two ways about it, setting up your own business can be really stressful!

Whether you’re a seasoned blue chip professional taking a well-earned career change, a high-flying entrepreneur looking to climb out of the depressingly dreary trenches of corporate life or a fearless, young self-starter with no appetite for climbing the ‘greasy poles’ of big business; there are many reasons why setting out on your own business adventure might seem like an adrenalin junkie’s dream.

And yet, there can be downsides. My consultancy, Purple Pilchard, looks after a number of ‘personality-packed challenger brands of tomorrow’ from the food and drink sector. We deal with many successful founders ‘in the thick of it’, who have kindly shared what they wish they’d known before they’d embarked on their new business venture for this article.

According to Dee Mapasure (K’s Wors Boerewors), “Being an entrepreneur can be a very lonely journey. With the hours I had to work I found that I lost touch with many friends who simply didn’t appreciate the stress that can befall a starting out founder.”

Amy Moring (Hunter & Gather Foods) concurs, “It can be really challenging talking to friends about what you’re doing. It feels like you’ve stepped out of the ‘real world’ and unwittingly joined a ‘self-promoting,’ parallel universe. To some friends a start-up 9-5 existence can seem very surreal, almost boastful. You might be ‘country hopping,’ picking up an award or meeting up with other inspirational business leaders. And yet, the cold truth is that the daily avalanche of discussions, dilemmas and challenges means that your business is often the last thing you want to talk about.”

“Biggest is not always best,” is one curious realisation that Susan Gafsen (Pep & Lekker) has come to over time. “When I started out, I was adamant that a supermarket listing was the be all and end all, but in hindsight, securing a major listing can generate a lot of stress if you’re small. Limited budgets can quickly be gobbled up:  sampling, marketing support, raw materials, packaging, etc... and however good your offering might be, if there’s only nominal awareness around your range it might well spend its time on the shelf gathering dust. Sometimes moving in the slow lane, building your brand’s reputation within supportive, brand-savvy independents can be the answer for meaningful, long-term growth.”

On a more positive note, Stefania Pellegrino (Purely Plantain) has been pleasantly surprised by the comradery that openly exists within the small business fraternity. “It never ceases to amaze me how when you ask for help there’s usually someone out there who’ll answer your plea. In our world (food & drink) mentoring communities like ‘The Food Marketing Club’ and ‘The Food Hub’ can be worth their weight in gold.”

Our other founders agree, adding that you just have to be aware of the self-promoting mentors who spend their days brandishing their books on Linkedin, whilst exerting a lion’s share of their energies shamelessly name-dropping.

“Success often starts with a little honest self-reflection. I was always determined to be truthful with myself, always asking people what I was worst at so I could seek out suitable back-up”, says Stefania. “There is no manual for a successful business, although it’s amazing how often trusting your gut turns out to be the best advice.”

“Patience,” adds Susan “is a skill that has taken me a little longer to master. I came from a corporate lawyer background where rigid timelines and unflinching schedules ruled the roost. With my fledgling vegan snack business I’m often exasperated by how long decisions can take and just how far down your potential customer’s priority list your personal angst levels rank. Once you understand this, you’ll be amazed just how much better you’ll feel.”

Amy wholeheartedly agreed with this. “Retailers are some of the most risk-adverse individuals you’re ever likely to meet, data-driven individuals who often need to analyse stacks of data or see your product 8-20 times before making a decision”.

“Finding the right manufacturing partner can also be a nightmare,” adds Dee, who also admitted that ‘you need to “kiss a fair few frogs before you find your prince! We had one manufacturer jump ship on us, on the eve of our first big nationwide listing, which was a debilitating body blow at the time.”

In my own experience, I’ve seen that being too differentiated can strangely also be a limiting factor to success. One might assume that avoiding the ‘me too’ trap is a top priority for a start-up business, however sometimes being too distinct or category pioneering can be a real issue. Consumers are typically reluctant to try things that reside outside their ‘comfort zone. Sometimes it takes customers time to cross the chasm at which point you simply have to wait until the penny drops.

Networking is yet another area where you can discover so much. I wish that I’d spent more time during the early years seeking out kindred spirits. Early on I was always rushing around like a hyper-active ferret, convinced that I simply didn’t have the time to seek out & foster meaningful friendships with peers. I’ve subsequently realised that I operate in a very small pond and that the people I met on Day 1 are the same people making key decisions 14 years later. Today I have a very different mindset and the benefits have been off-the-scale. Sometimes more speed, less haste really is the answer!

Finally, investment is an important topic to touch upon. Christine Kelly (of global franchising heavyweight Little Kickers) admits that it was all too easy to give away equity during the early days of her business. “Early on you’re a wonderfully optimistic soul about everything going on and the equity you’re throwing around like confetti is worth next to nothing. However, a few years down the line and I found myself in a position where I had to buy back shares in my business twice, remortgaging my house on both occasions.” Today, Christine is rather reluctant about giving away equity to anyone who isn’t a permanent contributor to her business.

On the flipside, Amy professes to always being amazed by the thousands of investor pounds seeking out exciting projects to back. “If you hold your nerve there are always deals to be done, especially towards the end of the financial year.” 

These entrepreneurs have all met with a range of challenges in pursuing their dreams, and none have had easy experiences. Their advice is a useful reminder that enthusiasm and passion are crucial to a successful business venture, but at the same time hardheadedness and the will to critically confront challenges is essential. However, their successes are a shining example of how you can carve a niche for yourself even in a crowded market. Who knows, with the right attitude and a pinch of luck, might you too one day find yourself standing where they are standing?

By Ian Hills, Founder, Purple Pilchard.