Posts Tagged ‘business blog’

Axel’s and Sophie’s quirky guide to running a small business

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Here’s our list of things we have learnt over the last 10 years of running a small start-up and a guide to the way we do business. It’s all rather homespun and certainly will never find its way into books on how to run a successful business nor in any business school. After all, we are still a tiny business, even though we have been around longer than Facebook and Youtube. While these things might not make you rich, they help us sleep easily at night with a clear conscience and make us happy.

• Never wear a tie or suit
• Like your colleagues
• Avoid meetings
• Living is more important than making money
• Take time out to watch your kids and friends playing sport and music and acting
• Smile, laugh and cry
• Sing, however badly – and we’re really bad
• Never grow up
• Work hard – roll your sleeves up and get stuck in
• Be patient, act swiftly
• Don’t get hung up on sales or profits
• But keep a tight focus on cash-flow and balance sheets
• Don’t do budgets, except if the bank asks for one!
• Always pay your bills
• Avoid customers who are too posh to pay – this is an attitude of mind as opposed to a statement on anything else
• Never become that business or person that talks aggressively about “killing the competition”, just be different to them and do your own thing
• Never become that business or person that lies to get a call taken or to get money off
• Be compassionate – we’re all real people, with real lives
• Be honest to yourself, your colleagues, your customers, your suppliers and everyone else we’ve forgotten
• Reinvent the wheel – it can always be done better
• Break the rules
• Make mistakes
• Admit to your mistakes, understand them, then try not to do it again
• Spend your money wisely
• Spend your money morally and compassionately, doing good things that help make the world a better place
• If you’re not comfortable with it, don’t do it
• Don’t be bullied by customers and suppliers
• Best practice is just average practice with a positive spin
• Don’t trust suppliers who drive flash or expensive cars
• Don’t waste company money on flash cars
• Make teas and coffees for everyone
• Eat breakfast, lunch and tea
• Eat cake, biscuits and pies
• Listen to what everyone has to say – everyone knows more about stuff than you do
• Ask questions, however stupid
• Be fair
• What is fairness? Sharing risk and reward equitably
• Treat people how you would like to be treated
• Try and only deal with people you like
• The customer is not always right
• Never do favours for people you don’t really know, because they are never reciprocated, but bend over backwards for your friends and favourite people
• Shit really does happen
• Everything seems better after a cup of tea and cake, or a bath and a sleep
• Keep on dreaming

Where’s the money…for us?

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

In the last couple of weeks, I have been contacted by The Executive Chef magazine and St James’s House on behalf of the Royal Agricultural Society.  Both of them had the most wonderful advertising opportunities and we had been specially selected out of all businesses in the UK.  We really must appreciate the lauded company into which we have been specially allowed to enter. 

I think not; it really must be a deep recession if they are having to scrape the barrel trying to beg money out of me, a tight Northern curmudgeon.

The Executive Chef is running a one-off magazine and we were offered a full page at the heavily discounted price of £12,500 down from £22,000 (I perhaps correctly typed prize first as these really do sound like those spurious competitions you sometimes get rung up about, where you have won a special cruise trip around the Carribbean if only you can get to XYZ venue on a certain day to be flogged time shares).  The St James’s House offer was a mere £5,500 for an entry in some book that will be circulated around politicians and civil servants – not a market that has any particular interest for us.

What annoys me about these hard sell tactics is not actually the wasted time, although that does irritate nor the fact that Steenbergs could never afford these levels of cost – these figures are just not even in a negotiating area as they are so way off the mark.  Rather it is the fact that they need to explain the benefits to me, i.e. how is it going to enrich Steenbergs as a business and not what a privilege it would be to be part of this special magazine or book or event.  I am not interested in privilege or famous people, so that will not move me, nor am I moved by vanity.  Perhaps, the only thing that can ever sway my mind is a well-timed cup of tea.

For advertising and marketing, I am interested in its financial return; I expect to get a provable level of extra sales of 4 times the cost of the advertisement which some think too high a hurdle.  And that is where the sales pitch falls flat as the salesmen (it does always seem to be men) can never explain how much return they would expect Steenbergs to get, nor will they do a deal where, for example, we pay 10% upfront and the remainder on success.

And that’s why old style print advertising is really going to die out, as you cannot track the results as easily as online, plus the costs are way out of kilter with the rates available online.  So yes, it might work if you have a huge budget and are trying to create a general ambience around your brand as for a car or a lifetsyle brand, where you might put adverts in relevant magazines to support your more targetted marketing elsewhere.

So we will not be swayed from our chosen path of search engine optimisation, social networking and general online activity.  It is perhaps less sexy, but we feel much more comfortable with gentle and slow hard graft than fancy one-off jamborees.

A Big Shout Out To Small Business Owners

Monday, September 6th, 2010

We, the small business owners and micro-entrepreneurs, are the forgotten, ignored and trodden upon solid foundation of the British, American and every other economy in the world.  We employ most of the employed people and generate much of the new, ground-breaking discoveries that have shaped the world.  We pay huge amounts of employment taxes, local business rates and tend to have greater loyality to our fellow local businesses, supporting local support services rather than going for the national groups.

However, big Government pays little heed to our plight.  They presume that all business is big business with unlimited amounts of time and deep financial pockets, and so able to consume all the new bits of legislation, digesting and understanding the intricacies of what the legislature has to say for itself, while carrying the financial burdens of increased local and national taxes to pay for quangoes, pensions, sinecures and further layers of bureacratic inefficiency.

Sometimes it feels as if no-one really gives a damn nor that they will ever give useful help or advice.  They criticise; god, isn’t everyone good at telling you what you should have done, what you have done incorrectly and what they would have done better, but practical, helpful, apt advice never seems to be available.  Armchair advisers rarely seem ever to do anything themselves; yes, they have worked for big businesses or government, but actually to have done something starting from scratch and doing it all themselves, those people are really few and far between, then few (if any) of those ever have time to give you any help.

In spite of their best efforts, the lobbyists for small companies are pretty ineffectual as they do not have real, small business entrepreneurs at the centre of government that understand the difficulties of small businesses – what did Alan Sugar know about small business, having built a large empire and so assuming that all small businesses grow like big oaks from a small seed; most of us just run around in a never-ending wheel, getting tired but not much further forward despite our heavy exertions and great, grand schemes.

Nor am I talking about the bright and sparkly, sexy start-ups that find media favour on TV programmes like Dragon’s Den, nor techie startups that can find early stage capital from Enterprise Ventures like Yorkshire Seedcorn and live by cash-burn and flip on to a new buyer, rather than building a profitable, cash-generative business.  Our newspapers are full of these successful, media savvy small companies. 

I mean the small retailers, the pie makers, the painters and tilers, the gardeners and the tea shops, as well as the small butchers, brewers and shoe shops etc etc.

We toil.  We busy ourselves.  We strive.  We have business dreams.

So from us, we say well done, you are all doing a great job.  It is damn hard and at times soul-destroying, but carry on and you never know we might all become successful one day. 

But do not expect any useful help from Government, bureaucrats and bankers as they do not genuinely have your best interests at heart; you are just there as cannon fodder to win elections, to tax so they can create new jobs, to busy themselves with in inventing mindless regulations to tie you in knots and waste your valuable time and so prevent you growing your sales, and to charge humungous arrangement fees and overdraft rates when you need leaner margins and overextend loans to you on low rates just when you should not be taking them.

This is a big shout out to all small business owners.  You are doing great.

What is Steenbergs?

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

We have finally decided to start a blog after running our business – Steenbergs – and our website since early 2004.

I thought we should start the blog by trying to explain how we started and what Steenbergs is about.

I (that’s Axel Steenberg) used to work in the City (mostly Leeds, rather than London).  Later, I became Finance Director for a Sport Media busines and very briefly for a Minerals Exploration business (although we never found much). However, I was never comfortable with the lifestyle and the work, even if the pay was fairly good. So after the Sports Media business was taken over and I parted company with them, I started thinking about what we could do.

The answer was for my wife (Sophie Steenberg) and I to set up our own business in herbs and spices, as we felt that the quality in the shops was not great. We took the keys for the factory – 5 days after our daughter’s first birthday, our eldest child being then all of 2 years old. Sophie had previously worked for business-to-business PR and internal communications and lastly – and more rewarding – she had been working on a fundraising appeal for Macmillan Cancer Relief in Harrogate.

We never really thought about the ethics of the business in great detail – it just was natural for us that Steenbergs would have to be organic and we would be as ethical in everything we do as was practical. This is our family philosophy as well as our business philosophy.

So in a nutshell that’s what Steenbergs is about – great herbs & spices that are organic and ethically sourced!

Getting the suppliers has been the most challenging part of setting up. We had to do everything from scratch and no-one gave us any guidance or help. Except to ask us whether we wanted conventional spices, or told us that of course their spices/herbs were organic (even though they had no certification for this) – always the end of the conversation. Everyone thought we were mad – but we think we’ve proved that you can get organic spices, ethically sourced, packed with flavour and keep the variety of spices and blends.

Also, there was no concept of Fairtrade spices at the time. We managed to get Fairtrade certification for some of the teas that we were importing direct from producers. We then put a proposal to Fairtrade that included detailed spreadsheets on the costs of growing pepper, including lots of wonderfully useful facts and figures on farmgate prices and yields from conventional and organic farming of pepper. We have never quite understood what happened to this document after we sent it to Fairtrade, but it obviously landed at some point on the right desk.  Some time later, we did become part of the first group of spice merchants to become Fairtrade for spices (the other 2 were Italian businesses), followed by our import of the first Fairtrade spices to the UK and the subsequent launch of the first Fairtrade spices for retailersto the UK, Irish and Finnish markets.

We still are trying to innovate in this area and continue to pioneer in this area. We were the first to start producing Fairtrade vanilla extract after The Fairtrade Foundation asked us whether it would be possible to do this for a well known chocolate bar.

Getting the back-room stuff right still remains the hardest. What is the most environmental form of packaging for spices – we still think it is glass. We do not have machines that pack thousands every few seconds, or fancy labelling machines – most of our products are blended in small batches by hand, packed by hand and labelled by hand. Glass is the only off-the-shelf product (other than plastic) that allows you to do this. Plus glass is genuinely recycled, unlike plastics which are rarely recycled in the UK. It’s the same for our teas – these are hand-blended and hand packed to order.

Having said that our packers are amazing and fast – so it’s not a limiting factor! Most of them have been with us for over 3 years and have helped to develop the systems we work with and are always fantastic when there’s a new challenge to be faced.

We still struggle on the best cleaning materials for us and how to package our bulk products – we have to use virgin blue plastic in this area to meet Food Contact Legislation and the “even more stringent” requirements of the food manufacturers who buy our products.

Transport is another real issue and one that is almost impossible to answer – our products are all imported and we need to use transport to distribute our products. But we do not have our own distribution capability and so do not duplicate networks that are already out there. We rarely fly our goods in – they usually come on boats – the only products that are flown in are saffron and vanilla – where the minimum quantity by boat/truck is five tonnes.

So where are we now? We’ve moved factory once and were delighted to be able to incorporate a number of eco-features in it – as it was a new build – but that’s for another day. We are stocked in Booths, Wholefoods, Fenwicks and Oxfams, as well as 3 UK distributors and 2 overseas and independents nationwide. There’s still a long way to go – but that again’s for another day…