Firstly, I guess I should tell you about my break for entrepreneurial freedom…
My brother and I left the security of good professional careers in June 1997 to buy a pub. Why? Well – it seemed like a good idea at the time, despite the fact that neither of us had even worked behind a bar in our lives! Despite a lack of experience, we raised equity from friends and family, got a loan from the bank and about a year later, bought and refurbished a pub.
Over the course of the next few years, we turned it into one of the most successful pubs in the area and in the process, more than quadrupled the turnover that the previous owners had achieved.
A big part of the original plan had been to produce our own beer; and once we had the pub operating well and a good operational team in place, we turned our attention to opening a micr0-brewery. Again, having no direct experience in the industry, we tracked down a consultant who advised us on brewery design and recipes. We converted an industrial unit in Battersea and started brewing. The beers we produced tasted great and sold well, even winning the occasional award! Sadly, the London market was not an easy market for brewers at that time, many pubs were tied and would not accept guest beers and the costs of distributing in London traffic meant that the brewery never did much more than wash its face.
One of our best sellers in the pub was a shot-sized vodka jelly product, until one day, our supplier stopped delivering. A (pre-Google) search on the internet did not reveal any alternatives, so we set about making our own. I got a recipe from an old friend, eventually sourced the pot and lid and started making vodka jellies in the pub kitchen. They sold well and after a while, we started getting calls from other bars wondering where we got the product from. One thing lead to another and we started selling nationally. Soon, we were attracting the interest of the big pub chains and it became clear that if we were going to have a proper go at it, a strategic investment was required. Nine months later we had a new round of investors, a new patented pot and lid, a manufacturing line in Wales, a storage unit in Liverpool and a full sales and marketing operation in place!
Over the next couple of years, we sold around 5 million vodka jellies. Sadly though, it wasn’t enough. The pub chains were demanding increasingly competitive prices and the big players in the drinks industry (and boy are they protective of their markets) muscled us out. The impact was sufficient to leave our whole business in trouble and we had to sell the pub to clear the decks financially.
Licking our wounds with no interest in returning to corporate life, I was contemplating what we might do next when I took a call from a friend, asking if we knew of any good accountants. She ran a PR agency in the area and was looking for a new solution. The door to the new business opportunity opened before my eyes and we jumped in! For a start my brother and I are both trained accountants, plus we had spent the last 8 years running 3 small businesses – I think we had a good mix of technical grounds and commercial experience to make an accounting practice for small businesses work. Haggards Crowther, as it is now called, is now well-established and looks after over 600 clients.
The entrepreneurial fires have continued to burn brightly, more in me than my brother. He has been keen to keep the accounting practice focused on core products, whereas I wanted to expand into new areas. Thus, whilst I remain heavily involved in Haggards Crowther, I have started work on Start-up venture number 5 – My Bookkeeping Online.
Launching in autumn, this is an online platform designed to help small businesses keep on top of their bookkeeping. From the outset, it has been really important to me that owners of the smallest businesses with no bookkeeping knowledge can use it…and designing it accordingly has been a challenge! It is under development as I write and it is coming together well.
Other than that, this blog is going to be about small business. No doubt my focus will head off in many tangents in the coming weeks and months, but the primary purpose is to talk about small businesses that are starting up, help with some broad advice and talk about the issues small business owners face in specific industries. Please forgive the occasional rant too!