Category Archives: Experts by experience

Voyages of discovery

Sri Lanka born entrepreneur Robert Rajeswaran is passionate about solving what he describes as the ‘digital skills crisis’ by training young people to code in after-school and holiday clubs. Taking young people on a voyage of discovery – into the world of web development – reflects his own journey from an early age as a refugee, through countries and schools across the world. This may also explain why he comes across as a man in a hurry.

Within 15 months of starting his own business – Robert is founder of the GoCode Academy based at NatWest’s Entrepreneurial Spark facility in Milton Keynes – he has reached 3,000 children aged 6 – 18 and now has four fulltime staff.

A thirst for control and change

The roots of his success can be traced back to Robert’s dissatisfaction with a career start in investment banking in London where his work-life balance was compromised by long hours and where low expectations meant that progress was slow. A frustrating two years of being a small cog in a massive machine was followed by a fast-moving, fast-learning period with a financial technology start-up company. This experience inspired Robert to start his own business – to have more direct control and to make a real impact.

Robert credits NatWest’s Entrepreneurial Spark programme with giving him the space to explore – to find out what works well, to develop an openness to change. He warns would-be business owners about what he calls the “ugly baby syndrome”. Giving birth to a precious new business can blind the entrepreneur to the shortcomings of the new arrival. “Take constructive feedback” advises Roberts who credits a mentor with giving him guidance on how to ‘unfail your start-up’.

Building the team

Looking ahead, Robert is keen to grow his business – to generate the cash to increase capacity, to employ more people, and get his own space. But scaling up is not without its problems, as Robert acknowledges “Letting go is still difficult. When the business is part of you and you breathe it all the time – you recruit people who think like you and are as dedicated as you are. I’ve always tried to hire people who are passionate and share my vision.”

This may involve recruiting people who work in different ways. This can be beneficial – bringing in fresh ideas – but when it doesn’t work? “Hire fast and let them go early” is Robert’s short, sharp reply. He also warns against hiring family and friends. “Keep them outside the business – to keep those relationships strong. You can ask them for help and advice but they probably won’t challenge you. A good thing about hiring strangers is that you have to really sell your ideas – to get your views across convincingly to get them onboard.”

Robert’s man-in-a-hurry persona shines through again when he reflects on his experiences of the Prince’s Trust Enterprise Programme which he signed up to in London before joining Entrepreneurial Spark. Describing the 4-day ‘Explore Enterprise’ course politely as ‘well-paced’, he is less complimentary about the pace of change that followed. “I like to move fast and it took 18 months to develop a business plan. You can spend too much time planning.”

This ‘fail fast, fail cheap’ mentality extends to Robert’s top tips for other young entrepreneurs thinking of starting a business. “Get out to your customers as soon as possible. Before you’ve developed your product talk to them – get further faster with early testing. Spend less time on details – like business name and logo – time and money are in short supply when you start a business.”

Further information:

About the business – http://gocode.academy

About the entrepreneur – http://tamilculture.com/child-refugee-tech-entrepreneur/#

For other profiles in the ‘Experts by Experience’ series, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/experts-by-experience

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Turning houses into homes  

Ask Sam Ryan to describe his business and his answer is clear and matter of fact. “I design and make wooden furniture and household items – to my own design for selling from stock, and on commission to the client’s specification. I’m also commissioned to repair, restore, and re-finish antique and modern furniture.”

Sam’s words belie the care and attention he puts into his work and the craftsmanship that oozes out of each item he creates. He has acquired those skills through three years’ study in furniture making and restoration and a further three years starting and running his own business – Sam Ryan Furniture.

His reputation is spreading and Sam was recently commissioned by a client in north Hertfordshire to re-size a large antique oval dining table made of solid oak. The client, Susanne Gallagher, was delighted with the craftsmanship. “I think Sam has done a great job with the table – it’s a complex piece and it’s now perfect for our dining room.  It must be quite a responsibility working on someone else’s treasured piece of furniture.” Sam was equally pleased with the commission. “The table is a really lovely piece, oak is a dense wood that’s easy and enjoyable to work with.”

Sam proudly describes himself a perfectionist, but he appreciates that attention to detail and high quality work take time. The master craftsmen status to which Sam aspires can only make for a viable business if there are enough people willing to pay for his upmarket handmade pieces. “It’s the perfectionism that people appreciate” says Sam “but it’s also a matter of getting a balance between quality and price.”    

Balancing perfectionism and productivity is just one of a number of issues confronting this young entrepreneur. On his professional journey since leaving college Sam has had to contend with periodic ill health following a major operation in 2007.  He bears that reality positively and has made the most of the support offered by The Prince’s Trust.

Sam’s involvement with the Trust started with a four-day Explore Enterprise business skills course in London in June 2016 after which he developed a business plan, with the support of a staff member from the Prince’s Trust London Office.

After a transfer between the Trust’s London and Stevenage offices, Sam successfully presented to a Business Launch Group in May 2017 and now enjoys further one-to-one support from a business mentor in Hertfordshire. Whatever the level of support from family and friends, starting a business can be a lonely affair and a business mentor for the first couple of years can serve as a valuable sounding board and ‘critical friend’.

This is confirmed by Sam himself. “The course was fantastic but the business mentoring has topped it off. It’s completely changed me from being a furniture maker and restorer to also being a businessman. I’m now more confident about running a business thanks to my business mentor.”

For Sam – the passionate perfectionist, ever keen to learn and taking pride in his work – a growing circle of satisfied customers is proof that all the effort has been worthwhile.

See Sam’s craftwork at www.samryanfurniture.co.uk

For profiles of other entrepreneurs, see  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/experts-by-experience

 

A passion for pallets

???????????????????????????????Creative flair, a willingness to roll up sleeves and ‘have a go’, to experiment and being prepared to fail, all make Dawn Taylor well suited to a recent, perhaps surprising, career development. Dawn is founder of York-based enterprise Purepallets which does what it says on the tin (or should that be timber?) turning pallets into crafted items fit to grace any home.

From wine racks and candle holders to what can only be described as ‘letter wall shelving’ (B anyone?) pallet product design and creation clearly excites Dawn.

But perhaps the new career move is not so surprising, as Dawn explains… “When I was young I was a tomboy. My dad was a plumber and built our extension by himself, and I helped him. I learnt how to mix cement and lay bricks, so from an early age I’ve not been scared to try new things.” 

So, practical from an early age and Dawn’s creativity – probably also rooted in her past – has been honed through a career in retailing, including 14 years as a visual merchandiser with a major UK high street store.

And what could be more creative than turning a much-maligned product – the humble pallet which many of Dawn’s friends think is only good for firewood – into a thing with real appeal, each one unique? Having “fallen into making pallet products by accident” – an unexpected commission to make a wine rack – Dawn was soon bitten by the upcycling bug. She has just started experimenting with paint effects but still delights in the beauty of the ‘pure pallet’ finish which, when embossed with the original owners logo adds to the story behind the product.

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Now taking a service break with her current employer, Dawn has nine months to see if she can ‘give birth’ to a financially viable business. The product range is developing nicely – mainly through commissions from a rapidly widening customer base that values the bespoke nature of each item. With low overheads to date – pallets are sourced locally at low/no cost, the workshop is a garage at home, social media and word-of-mouth are the main marketing tools – there may be a temptation to under-value the finished product.

But Dawn believes her promotional offer – quality and uniqueness at affordable prices – could create a sustainable business model. While pallets grow on trees (well, sort of…) Dawn’s talents do not. With these she may just be able to differentiate Purepallets’ product range from others and have champagne corks popping.

See Purepallets products at http://on.fb.me/1xtfc8T

 

Fast food, lifelong learning

Barry AllardDespite the best efforts of the slow food movement from Italy, the prevalence of ‘fast food’ and all it stands for disguises the real time it takes to put a nutritional, high-quality meal on the table and under-values the wider health benefits of cooking.

Luckily people like Barry Allard and LEAP CIC in Norwich know how food and catering can give direction and purpose to individuals leading often chaotic lives. Some of these people are now benefiting from a new enterprise – The Feed – as Barry explains.

“At LEAP we’re about supporting homeless people, or those disadvantaged in other ways, to lead more fulfilling lives. We’ve recently launched a catering enterprise – The Feed – to develop specific skills, while also providing coaching and training; person-centred support. Learners achieve personal development goals – in self-esteem, taking responsibility, dealing with the past, planning the future, gratitude – all the time getting support for progression towards employment.”

leaplogoThe journey into work for LEAP clients may be relatively short, but for others it can be a long term association. People with complicated home lives, furthest from the jobs market, can get the kind of extended support from LEAP that other schemes often simply cannot afford to offer.  One trainee is now employed at LEAP, and it’s hoped others might follow as the enterprise grows.

I wondered how Barry and LEAP got into food and the idea of setting up The Feed in the first place. I discover that, like me, Barry is passionate about food. He also points to the creativity and health benefits associated with catering.

The Feed logo“With cooking, you can get tangible results by making something quickly – a sense of achievement for the person doing it. In the longer term we hope to set up an academy with a 12 – week programme so more learners so they can get their hygiene certificates and develop particular skills – in pastry, for example –  from local chefs”.

Healthy eating is an important part of the LEAP offer: “We’re modern in terms of street food and event catering, but the food still has that healthy kick” says Barry.” As a social enterprise we also aim to embrace ethical supply in the business – we buy local wherever possible.”

I wonder what Barry’s advice would be to someone thinking of starting a social enterprise and getting into catering?

“We’re there to help homeless people into work, but it’s not an easy busy model – working with unpaid trainees in low-cost at one level, but expensive at another- managing volunteers is demanding. So I’d advise you to get support and advice from others who have already been there. Finding mentors is really important. There are people around who can reduce the fear as you go into the unknown.”

“Catering is very hard work. People often don’t realise how much preparation goes into putting food on the plate. And it’s not easy to build all the preparation time into the price of the finished product. Planning, managing trainees, producing good quality food, and making money is a difficult juggling act.”

I leave Barry with a mental image of a chef in a busy kitchen frantically spinning plates on the ends of sharp knives and decide to stick with my particular passion for food – eating it – rather than Barry’s – creating a business with it.

Find out more about The Feed at http://the-feed.co.uk and on Twitter @TheFeedCIC

Barry is in the 2013-14 cohort of learners with the School for Social Entrepreneurs on
the Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Programme at the Eastern Enterprise Hub in
Ipswich http://bit.ly/1c6lQsj

Brendan’s dreams #3 – For the love of brewing

After 15 years of selling beer to pubs, the Iceni Brewery in Norfolk has scaled back production and founder Brendan Moore is a happy man.

Brendan Moore 2“I’ve now created the business people imagined I’d created when I started. I have time to go for lunch and I’m now where I’ve always wanted to be – producing beer for the known demand. In the past we tried to force demand which wasn’t good for the quality of the beer.

I work mainly on my own – Kathy comes in to help 15 hours a week. I sell direct to the public through the shop at the brewery and people contact us for beer for events. I limit the number of big events I brew for to limit the strain on supply (and the strain on me!)  I also supply a couple of farm shops, but adding the cost of travel cuts the margin.”

I suggest to Brendan that it sounds like he’s now operating at a scale he’s comfortable with?

“Yes – working hard should not be part of your business plan. The most successful business people are not physically working hard – guard against it. People think I’ve almost committed a crime when I tell them I stop for lunch. I do regret the amount of time I missed with my own kids, but I now have time with my grandchildren.”

IMG_4182Before letting Brendan go off to attend to more important business – brewing beer that people love – I asked him if there was a turning point that got him to his current happy state.

“Once I decided to downsize, everything just came right. I stopped doing things that lost money, or didn’t make much, and started doing things I dreamed of, things I liked to do and which people wanted me to do. What I’ve learnt is that people want to buy beer from a hobby brewer! “

To find out more about the Iceni Brewery and, of course, Brendan’s very special brew, go to www.icenibrewery.co.uk

Brendan’s dreams #2 – Liquid assets… at a price

After dreaming about starting a brewery, Brendan Moore does just that. He learnt the art of the master brewer, and some hard lessons, along the way as he recalls…

“The Iceni Brewery [in Norfolk] started as a 64 cask brewery producing beer to go into pubs, which is what we did for 15 years. We’d got very bad business advice at the start – just to make more, to make as much as possible, and to sell it as widely as possible. That’s probably the worst advice we ever had. 

When you’re brewing for stock [without being sure of demand] you have all sorts of problems. And when you employ people they want to work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year so you tend to make beer because you have the staff to do so. That’s the wrong motivation and, as times goes on, you’re always trying to sell your worst beer. You have to shift the old stuff, or the beer that’s not selling very well, first. Your best beer – the beer people want – is sitting there waiting to get old!”

IMG_4194Scaling up was also taking Brendan away from the thing he loved – supplying beer that was brewed with love to people who loved the beer he brewed. And it wasn’t just the pressure to expand that was to take the business in a different direction, as Brendan recalls…

“Prices kept falling back until they were the same as the day we started, and all the time costs had gone up, so now we don’t go into pubs. We moved into bottled beers and concentrated on supplying equipment to other breweries wanting to start up. “

I wondered what Brendan had learnt from that period in the Iceni Brewery’s history?

“What attracts people to start small businesses is that it’s an opportunity for them to be themselves. What you sell in a small business is yourself, and you hope people around you will want to support you. In our case, we didn’t have products people could buy from us; they couldn’t help the business directly. Our salvation was opening up to sell direct to the public; we then discovered how much people did want to support us.”

To find out where Brendan has now got to on his brewing journey, follow this ‘Enterprise Essentials’ blog.

Brendan’s dreams

Experts by Experience: Profiles of entrepreneurs at different stages on their journeys, identifying and sharing some universal truths along the way. 

Brendan Moore’s professional association with beer is a story of three halves. First there was the dream, then came some hard business lessons and, more recently, Brendan has realised a new dream; to have a job with lunch breaks.

Iceni_Logo_Mono_curvesBrendan’s dreams # 1 – I had a dream

After a trip to the Iceni Brewery in Norfolk to interview its founder and brewer-in-chief Brendan Moore – who wasn’t actually there – I end up talking to him on Skype. If he finds the technology an effort, Brendan certainly isn’t constrained in telling me how he first got into brewing – a story I’ve since related to many others, over a pint of course.

“I was working in the food industry in Cambridge and we were to be made redundant but we knew we’d get a good redundancy package. I had time to think about what I would do next and I went home and dreamed – literally – of having a brewery!

The more I looked into it – I went to a couple of breweries that told me how they’d done it – the more it all seemed quite possible. It was also a good thing that when I told my wife about my dream she supported and encouraged me.

Our next door neighbours told us later that they worried about us because, in 1995 when I started, people weren’t doing that sort of thing as often as they are now. They thought it was a very risky thing to be doing.”

I was intrigued to know why Brendan has chosen East Anglia for his new venture.

IMG_4182“We did geography in Northern Ireland but it was mainly the geography of England for the English exam system. When we were studying East Anglia, it was easy for me to draw it – that big bulge – so I swatted up on that part of the country. I also thought it would be a nice rural area to be in – just like my background in Northern Ireland. I later discovered that the malt barley is excellent so it seemed to be the ideal place to brew in Britain”.

To find out what happened next in Brendan’s entrepreneurial journey, follow this ‘Enterprise Essentials’ blog.

For a cartoon telling of Brendan’s dream go to www.icenibrewery.co.uk/history.asp