Notes From a 2020 Start Up - The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
If there's one mantra I have applied to Harrier and life in general it's 'fail fast'. I had a great manager very early in my career and I always admired how he never let set backs affect his mood or drive to succeed.
Below are some of the defining moments of starting this brand and business in 2020. A pandemic year as we all know has brought its own challenges, along with the usual headaches of a start up.
Here are some of the realities of starting a business and the person behind it 🙂
Where To Start?
I really had no idea back in 2019, I only knew I wanted to be my own boss. That came from;
1. I don't like being told what to do
2. I'm a hermit who likes being at home or running
3. I felt like I was held back in normal jobs
Something that appealed to me was online selling. I began on Amazon with non-trail running goods, namely hiking bumbags. I invested in 100 of these bumbags, put them on Amazon and sold them for a small profit.
I watched lots of YouTube videos and listened to podcasts to learn as much as I could about ecommerce and it became apparent that designing and branding your own products had the greatest potential in the long term.
Find Your Niche
Sometimes it can seem like all marketplaces are crowded, but the truth is with ecommerce there is so much opportunity you can really drill down and be master of a very small niche and make a good living.
The niche I stumbled upon even though it had been under my nose for several years was the mid-range market for trail runners. There are low cost sellers, good for a cheap price but probably not always as functional as they could be. Also I thought lacking in personalised customer service. Then a very crowded market place at the top end. High priced brands who go for quite an elite and performance based approach.
From my perspective, I felt the top end of the market probably only represented a small percentage of runners. My own experience made me feel the vast majority of people who trail run (or may try it) were more driven by enjoyment and modest personal challenge. This is where I knew I had to position Harrier.
In the early days I was lucky to have a friend who is a very successful business owner guide me with a couple of business chats. He knew nothing about trail running which was ideal, we only discussed core principles.
He gave me lots of guidance but two things stuck in my head the most.
1. I have to be the face of the brand and put myself out there
2. Incorrect postage costs can destroy an online business
I still got my postage costs wrong in the first 6 months but not as drastically as they might have been.
Time to quit
For the first 6 months I did my full time job and tried to get Harrier off the ground. I worked in the government agricultural sector, I have a degree in animal science.
I would wake up at 4am, do admin on my phone under the duvet whilst my partner slept. By the time he got up at 7am I had done a lot already but then ready to do the day job. In the evenings I would work until 10pm on Harrier. That was my life for 6 months, I worked 7 days a week.
There came a tipping point where I knew I had to quit the day job. It's a risk to say goodbye to your regular income, holiday pay and pension. But it was a calculated risk and I knew I could earn more and have a happier lifestyle if I could put more time into Harrier.
I had a 3 month notice period but I managed to negotiate 2 weeks and then I was free!
Now came the reality of what I was getting into. Harrier was taking off and I needed to invest more in stock but I wasn't yet trademarked. The lawyers set this up for me and it took nearly 8 months and thousands of pounds. It was a long slog.
In the back of your mind you also have the worry that if it is rejected, you have a load of stock branded up which potentially you cannot use now you've stuck your head above the parapet.
Here is one of the very first designs of the Harrier logo.
How To Compete
Not easy to see how a small fry company can compete with huge corporations but I always liked the idea of the David and Goliath approach.
- What I could not do - be an elite athlete, pretend to be perfect, have everything right the first time
- What I could do - speak and listen to people, be different, be proud to be small, tell my story, be fast, receptive and adaptive
AO Let's Go
I try to take inspiration from lots of different companies. I listen to a lot of podcasts about entrepreneurs, business and mindset.
One business I particularly like is AO.com, the electrical appliances giant. Strange right? They weren't always so big. They made their way to the top by two key methods -
1. Exceptional customer service
2. Solving customer problems
What is a headache when you buy a new washing machine? Getting rid of the old one and plumbing in the new one, right? AO does all of this for you.
They also have very responsive 24/7 responsive customer service.
If you look at customer reviews for different companies the vast majority of angry 1 stars are from frustrated people who have been ignored when they need help or knowing what's going on.
That was another area I knew I could use to my advantage - talk direct to customers and resolve issues quickly.
I also tried to solve problems such as providing bundles which helped beginners get key items they needed for trail running. The bundles were a defining marketing approach for the business and helped me stand out from the crowd and get some buzz.
Podcasts and audio books I love
- 4 Hour Work Week, Tim Ferris
- 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey
- How To Win Friends And Influence People, Dale Carngegie
- How I Built This, Guy Raz
- The Ecommerce Podcast, Hammersley Brothers
Dreaded Social Media
No one really likes posting social media right? There is always that underlying dread as you press the 'Post now' button of how it will be received.
I'm an over-analyser, introvert and dweller. Not characteristics that go well with having to put yourself out there. But it is practice and you have to be yourself and accept some people will not like you. However, I have found even just speaking in your own voice people respond positively simply based on the fact you are being yourself.
This post was a key moment for me. It was very early days and I was only selling bivvis and first aid kits. John (a potential customer) asked a question on a boring product photo post about how big it was. So, instead of just answering I thought I would just get in it and post a photo.
The engagement and positivity around this was ten times more than the original boring product post. The penny dropped and from then on I have tried to make the majority of social media 'real life' even if it's not polished.
The majority of start ups fail. I am not surprised. Have you seen Dragon's Den when people talk about their first year losses and how much investment they have had to make to even bring an idea to some sort of reality?
Stock investment, product development, legal and website set up costs are brutal. Not to mention all the stupid and costly mistakes everyone makes when they are starting out.
My previous job was a facilitator for farm discussion groups. Dairy farms in particular have such small margins from being paid a pitifully low price for their commodity products. Each area in the business has to be analysed for marginal gains to make an extra few pence per litre of milk produced.
It's from this process of working with farmers that has given me some business experience and I analyse my cash flows, profit and loss and projections with a certain amount of crazed Excel obsession twice a week. I enjoy the data.
I'm very happy to say that against all odds, Harrier has made a profit in the first year running. We are also now a registered limited company, and I have been able to do this without outside investment or share holders.
The quest to achieve these things has made it a relentless year but one that has set good foundations for years 2 and 3 which can be just as perilous.
When you are starting out and a small business you have to go with anyone that will make the MOQ (minimum order quantity) you can afford. This caused all sorts of problems such as late shipments, missing shipments, wrong designs, weird samples, all sorts of headaches and costly mistakes.
Covid this year has also seen shipping prices hugely increase and also delays that saw some of my key stock stuck for months in transit.
This put big pressures on because I had laid out cash but could not sell anything to keep my cash flow going. I got through it but it was a stressful time.
Luckily now I work with some great suppliers and because the business has grown I have a bit more weight behind me with purchasing power.
My first ever branded goods. The soft flasks in blues, greys and greens. I went to the local lake for a photo shoot - it was February 2020, I was freezing!
Two Ears and One Mouth
I've always been a good listener and think there probably isn't enough that goes on nowadays (sound like my grandma...) but it has been the listening that has got me the furthest.
The input on ideas for product development and finding out what is actually important to people has helped me grow and make things that people really love and feel a part of.
One person said 'I love Harrier, you really feel like you're part of something special.' That made me feel so great.
New year coming up. The plan for 2021 is to reinvest as much as I can into further improving the range and making stronger foundations. From seeing the sales data and reviews of products this year I will choose which to drop, and which to put more attention into.
I feel like I've gotten a bit more business savvy from this year, although I'm still expecting plenty of f*** ups. Probably by me!
I've heard from other start ups the problems never stop, they just change depending what scale you're at with your business.
So I will keep on failing fast, but trying not to make the same mistakes twice.
Although we are small, I think if Harrier ceased to exist tomorrow it would feel like now there is this void for trail running. Somewhere for people to see the lighter side of trail running. The funny stories, the amazing views, the mornings out shared with friends, the ridiculous snacks, muddy shoes, gorgeous dogs and epic trig points. Surely that is what trail running is all about?
Happy new year, run free.