Are you enjoying your business?

Some days, usually the sunny days, life as a small food business owner seems like the best thing in the whole world. When you find a solution to a problem or you meet someone who inspires you to keep going and the sun shines down on you and you think, “everything is going so well – I’m so lucky”.

Laura and me martini 2

You remember why you’re doing what you’re doing and that you love the whole thing. You are encouraged by the positive turn of the tide and start planning a few more of the fun things you have had in mind for a while because it feels less of a risk because things are going so well. You allow yourself to put the boring paperwork down and stop crunching numbers and second guessing sales forecasts and, for a moment, allow yourself to float into a world where it all goes to plan and falls into place at the time it’s supposed to.

In this lovely positive space you find that ideas and inspiration flow freely, that projects get bigger and funding seems like a trifle to step over like a tiny crack in the paving stone that you only really noticed because there was a buttercup growing out of it. Instead of of worrying how deep the crack goes you stoop down and pluck the buttercup and stick it in your hair as you float on down the road to success.

Why all days are not like these is a matter of many factors; some of those factors are external and unavoidable in the start-up world; some are internal and relate to the way in which you deal with the external.

You can’t really change the influx of rent, staff sickness, broken equipment, traffic, thunder-storm sales flunks. These are a given and part of the process. You can change how you see yourself and how that allows you to deal with the process.

I have recently decided to not beat myself up so much, to take more risks and not worry so much about the failures. I’ve been a lot happier and I’ve been enjoying the process more too which means I have much more emotional energy available to invest in growth.

So if, like me, you tend to have the bad habit of over analysing and being harsh on yourself when things don’t go to plan, I recommend giving it a go to just stop – see what happens if you let yourself have a bit more fun.

 

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Crowdfunding from Tent to Brick: The Colombian Cafe Project

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It’s been, once again, a very long time since my last post. So much has changed for the better and I have achieved a great deal more with Maize Blaze.

I wrote previously about whether it was better to grow a business by using personal connections or other means. Well, what I have been finding is that the bonds that you make with staff, suppliers and other industry contacts actually turn them into personal contacts so, potentially, my old query is now moot.

The people I have around me now are fast becoming my Maize Blaze family. With that, comes the trust and ability to explore new routes for Maize Blaze, knowing that I have a robust base of wonderful people keeping the day-to-day service running smoothly. In fact, without having inspiring, trustworthy employees and colleagues my next step would be impossible.

Me an Mariana in our Camden Stall

That brings me on to my topic for today: crowdfunding

In case any of you have managed to miss this phenomenon, crowdfunding is raising funds from friends, family and strangers that are interested in your project by using a crowdfunding website to promote the campaign.

I have decided to use Crowdfunder UK which is one of the most popular sites that I came across. For someone who really has started from zero marketing and social media knowledge, the whole process of crowdfunding as a “one man band” has been overwhelming, to say the least.

I have tried to get my friends and family to chip in where possible, but at the end of the day, (as with most things), it is a case of grabbing a few days’ worth of nuts and chocolates, making sure there is milk, tea and coffee a-plenty and holing yourself up with the sacred Google to learn the ropes.

I have discovered that creating a successful campaign is a huge marketing undertaking with a lot more to it that I initially was aware of. The main challenge, beyond finding the time to put together relevant content, is figuring out how I am going to reach enough people who will be interested in, and subsequently invest in,  my idea of a 100% gluten-free Colombian Cafe in East London.

Even if I figure out new ways to reach more people with my campaign, my main question is:

Why would people want to donate money?

I have been genuinely surprised at how generous everyone around me has been so far even in these early planning stages of the campaign. It’s not only been with the promise of launch date donations but with offers of their time and investment in the project.

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A wide range of family and friends, new and old, at home or spread right across the world have been watching Maize Blaze grow via blogs and social media posts and really want to see it succeed. This is a fantastic feeling to have engaged and inspired this response from a wide range of family friends and geographically distant old friends.

It is this commitment and emotional investment that I would like to expand further into groups of people who don’t know me personally but feel connected to what we are doing. I started this on my own with a couple of grand in my hand and in under two years I have a wonderful bunch working around me, we are making a stable profit, we have a good social media following and best of all our food just keeps going from strength to strength!20150812_115258

I want to share this feeling of excitement and boundless prospects with our followers. I want to invite people to join us in this journey and be part of our growth and part of the team that is driving towards a Maize Blaze Colombian Cafe in East London – just for starters!

This is exactly what I had in mind when designing the Rewards for the Crowdfunder UK donations. I wanted to give things back that would start to build a Maize Blaze community. Inviting people to physically come to write their names on our Hall of Fame so we can thank them in person and invite them into our world; a recipe book with the whole story of how Maize Blaze got started and recipes which we already use and ones we plan to use in the cafe to share what we have so far with our supporters; lifetime discount cards which are basically the equivalent of “mates rates” doled out already – just on a wider scale.

This is a small project with great possibilities and I want to make sure that everyone who helps us, who comes with us on the journey, is rewarded for their loyalty and support – no body is an island! (Haha-misquote!)

I’m hoping that those are the reasons that people who don’t yet know myself, the team and the project, will want to donate to fund our move from gazebos and street stalls to a brick and mortar cafe to call our own.

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Being OK with saying no to new business

It has been an INCREDIBLY long time since my last proper blog post and things with Maize Blaze have changed INCREDIBLY. From my one small ad hoc stall in Camden Lock Market a Street Food business has grown and spread into Central, East and West London. I now employ some great people who add a lot of value to what I do and I have even started paying myself a salary that I can actually live on realistically!

Well, that’s the Good News.

The Bad News, (which always follows Good News around like a lost puppy), is that it takes every last breath in me from dusk ’till dawn to keep things running. As you can imagine, this has had a huge impact on my lifestyle and ability to socialise with friends and take time for other interests. Now don’t get me wrong: I am not complaining. It was my decision to get into this business and a conscious one to throw myself full-pelt into it to make it work. A decision which has so far paid off. All I am saying is that I don’t have much spare time and there are some weeks where I feel so exhausted from the long hours and early starts that I feel like I am not going to manage to fulfill all my commitments. It is this level of exhaustion that turns a dream-turned-reality job into a nightmare slog.

It is this topic which has been at the forefront of my general ponderings while driving my van around our fair city.

On the one hand it is necessary to put a lot of work into growing the business (if I want to appease my impatience for progress!) However, on the other hand this was meant to be the perfect job. A job that would make me happy and let me be creative and give me the freedom to choose my own career path as I saw fit. It was not meant to kill me or even drive me to the brink of death by sleep deprivation and anxiety – was it?

No. My general conclusion is that it is just as important to keep some semblance of balance between the passionate drive and ambition for your business to succeed and giving yourself enough time to reflect on your progress by giving your brain a rest. I have found myself so wound up and exasperated by everything on my plate sometimes that I actually become less productive as I am just too anxious. In times like these the only thing that gets me back into a balanced and focused space is time off. A morning or afternoon off to see a friend and laugh and relax and talk about things outside the small realm of Maize Blaze is not just a nice pastime – it is an essential and non-negotiable part of keeping things running smoothly.

I know this too be true now. When I first started receiving job opportunities I had the feeling that I needed to accept everything, indiscriminately, because it could lead to more business even if it was not directly successful. I think this was probably a good move initially as you can learn quickly from your successes and failures and also figure out how much workload you really can cope with and still maintain a good level of service and quality to the customers. This is extremely important because at the end of the day there is no point running around frantically keeping things up in the air if the quality suffers. Firstly, it will affect sales in the short and long term, but secondly it will reduce your pride in what you are doing and I know that I have to love what I am offering in order to sell it. I can’t sell something I don’t believe in.

After some time, however, you learn to be more selective as it is easier to predict what will work and what probably won’t. Certain demographic features of locations in London, trading times, holiday seasons, equipment considerations and staffing all paint an educated guess of the likelihood of a job opportunity being fruitful and provide some insight into how to prioritise jobs and politely decline those which probably will not work for you.

It is still an awful feeling to say no to a job. I think the Fear Of Missing Out will always be strong in me and there will always be a great job opportunity that come up when you are already fully booked and committed to something else. That will always happen in business as it does in normal life. BUT…. at least now I don’t also have the unbearable guilt of feeling like I’m not working hard enough to add to it.

When you are working at your physical and mental optimum efficiency – this is your full capacity. It is fine to push that capacity a bit here and there to get things done but repeatedly working beyond your capacity will un-do all your hard work in the end. There will be more jobs on the horizon. There will always be more work, more markets, festivals, pop-ups and catering opportunities so if you are in the same boat as me just remember that it is OK to say no to new business if you don’t think it’s right for you or you simply cannot imagine how you would fit it in.

Ok, so now I just have to take my own advice.

Can you build a business solely on personal networks?

My new staff member, Anggie, working at the Maize Blaze stall in Camden Lock

Recently, I have been knocking an idea about in my head and bouncing it off family and friends. It would be interesting to find out what your thoughts are on whether you can grow a small business purely by utilising personal and local networks (comment below?)

There seem to be two approaches to growing a business and I think it largely depends on how much capital is available to invest and the speed of growth. The first approach to build, grow and make a success out of a business idea is too keep all the processes, including hiring staff, totally standardised in corporate fashion. This would include screening candidates who have responded to job vacancy notices which listed a set of skills required, and preferred, as well as a brief personality profile. I’m sure you are familiar with vacancy postings that go something like:

“….The ideal candidate will be a highly motivated individual capable of working at a high standard under pressure and deliver to set deadlines….”

The advantage of hiring in this manner is that you cast the net wide across our beautiful city so, although you may have to filter through many old leather boots you may just snare a rare breed that you may not have found through your local networks. Of course, the fact that you have to filter through hundreds of CVs over time is not ideal, especially when there is no guarantee that a good CV transfers into a good candidate in person. Since time is the most precious and elusive commodity to a small business, this method – which I will call the ‘Corporate Method’ – definitely has its pitfalls.

The other method to grow a business, which I am referring to as the ‘Organic Method’, is to rely on personal connections to identify new colleagues, staff and opportunities. The advantage of this approach is that the people you interact with are vetted by your pier group and thus may be more likely to be a good fit to your business and management style.

I have recently hired a Colombian student who visited my stall by chance with some of her friends about a month ago. She was interested in a part-time job while she studies English for the summer. She has been working with me for a couple of weeks now and I have to say, she has learnt incredibly quickly and is efficient, clean and tidy in her work. Most importantly she is trustworthy and I can leave her to work while I get other tasks done. Suffice to say that I am very pleased with this serendipitous solution to my staffing search.

It seems to me that the organic method to grow a market stall is definitely the most effective as it is crucial that anyone you hire has an interest and understanding of your product which they can translate to customers when you are not there. Trusting someone to represent your whole brand is daunting, especially in terms of keeping the standard of service and product offering, which is core to building and growing a successful market stall (and beyond!).

The problem remains, however, that neither method can deliver staff that want to commit permanently to growing with the business. This could potentially be an area where job vacancy postings may have the upper hand as the long-term aspect could be emphasised and then screened through enthusiastic cover letters.

From my current position, I cannot rule out either option and I am sure that as I use all the resources at my disposal I will eventually formulate the best staff-finding method. For the moment I am keeping an open mind and using these initial experiences as a means to develop my own management skills and style. After all, it is one thing to find good staff and quite another to hold on to them!

 

Market Market Research……(aka Market Stall Espionage)

Brick Lane Market, London, EC1Firstly, my apologies for the title. I am, of course, referring to the wonderful task of checking out other markets and stall holders to get inspiration and ideas on layout, set-up and signage – all of which are extremely important in making a successful market stall. However, I cannot deny that the fact that my market research actually involves researching markets doesn’t amuse me!

Last weekend I set out on a solo undercover mission to Brick Lane for this exact purpose. It was a glorious, sunny day which meant I was entirely inconspicuous in my red sunglasses, milling nonchalant amongst the crowds of genuine market customers. I have been down this road many times before to shop and eat with friends on sunny days just like this one but this time it was a very different experience. What used to be a survey of what looked like lunch for the day had transformed into a calculating assessment of customer crowd size and then analysis of what factors contributed to this. A market food stall is now broken down into its presentation, how the stall holders behave, how the food is packaged and how this stall differentiates itself from others with similar products.

It seems to me that there must be a balance between the quantity of food on show and how the final product is presented. The stalls that looked the busiest had large vats, gastros or giant chunks of meat on display wafting out tantalising aromas and more than one stall holder, all of whom look very busy either serving customers or working on the prep. This creates a feeling that they are experienced and well-established in what they do and, in turn, I think this breeds confidence in the customer.

Another advantage of grabbing the customers eye (and nose) initially is that they linger at the stall for longer which encourages other potential customers to see what all the fuss is about. We are curious and social animals so where there are crowds we naturally want to know what our fellow humans are so interested in – “it must be something great – I don’t want to miss out”.

Surprisingly, the branding and signage in the indoor market was rather minimal. This may suggest that it is not necessary, although I do not believe that to be true. It could also be that these market traders already have an established café or restaurant somewhere else and do not feel the need to shout about it, or, the market stall is actually the end goal.

For me, I see the humble market stall as a stepping stone to expanding the brand across the city whilst honing the menu and making money to put towards a restaurant.

In summary, there seems to be three main ways to create an attractive market stall:

1. Have generous quantities of the food you are selling on display.

2. Make sure something is hot and steaming.

3. Create a buzz with busy staff.

I’m sure I will be adding to this list as I continue to learn and grow with Maize Blaze but, for now, I must park the car and run down to Camden Lock Market to get my stall allocation for the day.

A sunny Good Friday……should be great!