A Startisan’s Guide to Employing Consultants…

To spend or not to spend…that’s the question.

I’ve been very fortunate that I have sat on most sides of business: I’ve been a buyer, I’ve been a seller, I’ve been a retailer and I’ve also been part of a start-up business. So I do feel fortunate enough to have quite a rounded view.

This post looks into a really tough question that faces all startisans: how should I spend my money?

You’ll find when you start your business that you won’t face a shortage of outlets for your cash and there will be a metaphorical queue at your metaphorical door of ‘consultants’ who can design a plan tailored to your needs (for an extortionate monthly retainer without any guarantee and a complicated set of T’s and C’s). So how do you start to sort through all the white noise and discover what is (non) essential?

I am fully aware that this post may seem hypocritical, as I consult, but I can hold my hands up in earnest and say that I will not be able to help every business. It’s just not possible. It really depends on what the individual business needs; by which I mean: where are you on your journey? what’s already in your tool box? where’s your destination?

Where are you on your journey?

Everyone has their own analogy but I think of a business owner as a parent; scared, unsure and learning on the job but the pride and feeling of accomplishment returns the investment ten fold. Now, to continue with my analogy, you cannot expect to apply the same parenting techniques to a baby as you would a teenager – you’d get some very embarrassing results if you attempted to carry an angst-ridden teenager through Manchester town centre in a papoose!

So the first thing you need to ask yourself is where are you at on your journey. If you consider yourself a startup or even pre-startup there’s little point in investing in a CRM consultant, that would be a little premature. However, you may decide that you need a branding expert to ensure you’re setting off in the right direction.

What’s already in your toolbox?

Now, the first point to note is that entrepreneurs are not good at everything. I don’t care what you say, they’re not. Even the most successful have strengths and weaknesses. However, the most successful entrepreneurs are very good at knowing their strengths and investing in their weaknesses. Conversely, it would be a monumental waste of money to outsource something that you consider to be one of your strengths.

So, early on in your startisan journey, you need to establish what your strengths and weaknesses are to make sure you’re only investing in weaknesses. There is no one better placed to sell your product than you, it’s impossible for anyone to be more passionate about your brand.

I have, unfortunately, made the mistake of employing someone to sell my brand for me early on in my business’ life and it ended badly. I have spent the majority of my professional life in either buying or selling functions so one thing I do know is how to sell so this should have been the last thing I looked to outsource. I believed that having the sales generation looked after by a third party was the right thing to do as it would allow me ‘to think bigger things’. Well, they were rubbish! These agencies promised me the world, as any good salesman would, and delivered nothing. Lesson learnt!

Where’s your destination?

This final question depends on the strength of your brand and your self-awareness of what you’re trying to achieve. If you don’t know the answer to this then I’d definitely recommend working with someone that can help you find your place. If you do then this will help you determine what sort of help you require.

So that’s a brisk walk through my thoughts on the use of consultants in start-up businesses. I have worked with consultants in various walks of life and have found that they are all very good at identifying issues and the solutions will spookily match the consultancy’s specialism. However, I often c0nsultants like getting career advice from a teacher at school – unless you want to be a teacher they’re not going to be much use!

That being said a good startisan will be aware of their shortcomings and seek out the right person to help so I am, contrary to the tone of this post, an advocate of investing into outside advice. Just be confident in what you do and fight the temptation to be bowled over by a sharp-suited, silver-tongued sales patter. Your brand deserves better than that.

Northern Munkee.

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Reap the research rewards…

My new series of blogs offering a peek behind the curtain of the mind of a Retail Buyer focuses on how to add value to your product presentation.

This is the second blog in the series and will focus on market data and research. So I can hear some eye rolls already but believe me, this is really important and it’s something that artisan producers just don’t do; so if you’re on board you’ll be moving to the top of the class!

Ok, so I do appreciate that most artisan businesses don’t have access to huge budgets and even if they do they don’t really want to be spending a large chunk of it on expensive taste tests, consumer panels and research. So how should you go about it? Well, in my opinion, artisan producers are in the perfect position to do it on the cheap. So you’re attending the Foodies Festival in Edinburgh this year with an anticipated footfall of around 25,000 people and you’re sampling your products. Let’s assume you manage to sample to just 10% of the total footfall and you ask everyone that tries a sample one question: ‘what do you think? Marks out of ten.’ You make a quick score and tot them up when you get a spare moment to get your average score. Now you’re in a position to go to a buyer and tell them that you sampled your product directly to your target market and the average score was 9.3 out of 10.

You can also say that you’ve advertised your brand to 25,000 early adopting foodies. If you wanted to go one step further you could even have a questionnaire on your stand that asks your samplers to rate the product versus their normal purchases. Here you can explore more in depth opportunities. When you’re constructing your questions put yourself in the buyer’s shoes for a moment and think about what data will allow an objective decision? Just imagine how powerful something like ‘70% of people surveyed said that they would be willing to trade up from their usual purchase because they loved the product’s quality, provenance and branding’ would be. Don’t underestimate how important this direct feedback is; anytime you’re getting someone to interact with your product or brand then you should be taking advantage.

A buyer would never expect an artisan supplier to act like a large blue-chip business. However if you’re adding value to your presentation by substantiating features and developing them into tangible benefits then you’re helping to facilitate a buying decision.

Northern Munkee.

Check out my mantlepiece!

It’s award season for the food industry with some iconic award processes already underway. This blog is looking at how relevant the awards are and if it’s important from a Buyer’s perspective that a product carries an industry recognised award.

So, you’re an artisan producer and you’re just starting out. You’re really happy with the product, friends and family think it’s incredible and your confidence is starting to build from sales in farm shops, at food fairs and even online. Now you need to start to think a little bit about marketing. It’s a scary thought; spending some of the money you’ve worked so hard to earn when there isn’t a tangible return on investment. Naturally you want your product to stand out. You want to give people a reason to pick it up and buy it.

So you reach the conclusion that your product needs an award, a badge of honour, a mark of trust; but which one? will it demonstrate an appropriate return on investment? will people care? These are all the right questions to be asking if you’re going to spend some of your hard earned cash but I want to consider this from a buyer’s perspective and discuss whether it’s important to a buyer.

Firstly, to answer the question of whether awards are important: the quick answer is yes. Awards are like a Masters degree for a job candidate, they’re not essential but they are important and they’re certainly not a deal breaker. What awards demonstrate to a buyer is that your product has credibility and it has been independently supported. You can tell a buyer how amazing your product is until you’re blue in the face but it’s your baby, you wouldn’t ever call it ugly even if it looked like a thumb! It also tells a buyer that your product delivers against expectations. A lot of awards are designed to assess a product’s suitability based on packaging and description.

OK, so which award should you go for? Well, there is a whole plethora of options to choose from so select carefully. The Great Taste Award is fast becoming the best-known and most subscribed to award for producers large and small. It is even beginning to resonnate with consumers as a recognisable brand in its own right so I would definitely be recommending that one – and it doesn’t break the bank. I would also advise that you enter any free award; there are a number of them out there and why wouldn’t you? Other than that it’s just about picking the right award firstly, that’s right for your product and seconly, that’s right for the person you’re wanting to sell to. If you’re focussing on a food service audience I wouldn’t be pushing the Farm Shop and Deli Awards. In my experience the most noteworthy awards that is recognised by buyers as a true mark of quality are The Grocer magainze’s awards. I would suggest getting a couple of years under your belt before attempting this one but it will make retail buyers pay attention.

I would give one word of warning when it comes to awards and that’s to be wary of the fate of Narcissus. It’s very easy to go overboard and spend a whole year’s marketing budget on accolades and ego-massaging trinkets but it’s really difficult to show a real return from awards. Whilst they do add value they certainly shouldn’t be the sole focus of your brand and marketing plans.

So, in summary…go get awards and be proud of what you’ve achieved. If nothing more it will give you more to talk about when you’re discussing features and benefits.

Northern Munkee.

Notes from the other side of the desk…

Part 6: So what?

I have had the pleasure of being a Retail Food Buyer for two years in the Convenience sector in the UK. As a result of the global financial downturn I noticed a dramatic difference in the size of businesses that were coming to see me; the big boys got bigger, the small got smaller and more niche and the middle got squeezed out. This meant that I had the pleasure of meeting with and, in some cases, working with some very young businesses and I really felt like part of their journey. I must admit some of them did a great job, others…not so much! So I thought I’d pull together a short series of blogs based on my experience and, if you’re a young business wanting to crack mainstream retail, I hope this might be a useful read.

This blog considers the most important question of the whole process: so what? You can argue that there are much more pertinent questions in the meeting like ‘so when do you want your first order to arrive?’ However I believe ‘so what?’ is the one question that you should always have in your mind. Everything you discuss, present or ask should be working towards your desired objective so make sure anything you do is always proceeded by an internal ‘so what?’ Play your own Devil’s Advocate.

A bolshy Buyer will make this tip very easy and pose this question out loud each time they think you’ve stumbled across a pointless point. So prepare and pre-empt by asking the question yourself. You need to be constantly aware of what it means to the Buyer, how it will make their job better or easier and why it’s important that they continue to engage. I have experienced too many presentations with reams and reams of category information that only serves to act as a white noise and filler. I didn’t want to see it. Or may be I did but I was led to the right conclusion by an inept seller. There’s nothing worse than a boring presentation where you’re just watching the slide count drip away and the enthusiasm sneak out of the room in search of better things to do!

Pointless presentations: please please please avoid adding slides to your deck just to ‘add meat’ or ‘context’. It’s irrelevant. You might find that your Buyer takes a paper copy of your presentation as notes from the meeting and they’re going to re-visit it in a couple of months – will it still make sense when you’re not there to explain what the point of each slide was? Make it emphatic!

Questionable questions: think about your questions. You won’t be able to write a script because that’s not real life but you will be able to ensure that there’s always an answer to ‘so what?’ when you’ve uncovered a gem of information.

Confusion conclusion: never ever let your Buyer leave the meeting still thinking ‘so what?’ You want your Buyer being absolutely crystal clear on what you were there to achieve, what the key discussion points were and what the key action points are. Doubt and confusion can be like seagulls at the seaside: the first time you look there might just be a few white specks around a discarded tray of chips but in a short amount of time there will be a sea of white and the whole landscape is coloured with doubt and confusion. Chase those pesky seagulls away and don’t let the swarms get near your Buyer.

The next section of this series will assume you’ve got the listing and ask what next?

Northern Munkee.

Notes from the other side of the desk…

Part 5: Take control!

I have had the pleasure of being a Retail Food Buyer for two years in the Convenience sector in the UK. As a result of the global financial downturn I noticed a dramatic difference in the size of businesses that were coming to see me; the big boys got bigger, the small got smaller and more niche and the middle got squeezed out. This meant that I had the pleasure of meeting with and, in some cases, working with some very young businesses and I really felt like part of their journey. I must admit some of them did a great job, others…not so much! So I thought I’d pull together a short series of blogs based on my experience and, if you’re a young business wanting to crack mainstream retail, I hope this might be a useful read.

This part of my monthly mini-series is more about attitude than anything else. It is designed to induce confidence in a difficult situation. Sales people are taught that Buyers are always playing games, they always use tactics and they have the power in the room. This simply isn’t true. It is fair to say that there can be a balance of power in terms of size of businesses, who needs who more or who is under more pressure from their business; but at the end of the day there’s just two parties in the room, so let’s dance!

The reason that I felt it important to include a section on confidence and taking control is that I’ve been in a few awkward situations where the seller was almost waiting for permission to begin. They’d sit down opposite me, get out their pad, their pen and tablet computer and then…nothing. So dance monkey dance! If I was feeling that way out I’d just sit back, arms folded and let the silence engulf them. I know it sounds mean but come on! Don’t let this be you. You’ve called the meeting and the Buyer’s agreed to give you their time. They aren’t in the game of wasting time so they obviously want to hear what you’ve got to say so take the bull by both horns and drive.

Don’t be afraid: the expectation is that you take the lead. Set out your objectives and how you want the meeting to go when you first sit down. That way the Buyer is fully aware of what to expect and has the opportunity to add or subtract from proceedings if necessary.

Invite questions: questions are a good thing although it can really throw people. If a Buyer is asking questions it means they’re engaged it means they care. I remember asking a artisanal supplier ‘So what makes your product different to others? What makes it special?’ The suppliers looked really offended that I’d asked this. How could I? It’s their baby. Yes I get that but questions like this mean two things: firstly, that they hadn’t answered that so far in the meeting and secondly, that I’d just offered an opportunity for them to hit me with three or four strong USPs. Don’t be offended and don’t let it throw you off your flow. Pause. Acknowledge. Then deal with the question and be flattered that you’ve hooked an interest.

Never overpromise: a Buyer is trained to put unnatural pressure on you with anything from commercial demands to time pressures don’t succumb unless you’re comfortable. I used to hate suppliers missing deadlines, I found it rude. However I wouldn’t have any issue with someone coming back to me saying, ‘I can’t come back to you tomorrow. To get you the right answer I need a couple of days and will come back to you on Wednesday.’ That’s fine. The supplier had set my expectations and not rushed into anything that they can’t really deliver.

Next month’s issue will consider the most important question in the whole process…

Northern Munkee.

So what: