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Saturday 13th July 2024

Diary of an SME Owner: Eastbourne to be wild  


In this instalment of his monthly column, “Diary of an SME Owner”, Michael Taggart continues to tell all about the highs and lows of relaunching and running a tea company, MDTea, alongside his wife, Helen. 

This month, Michael gets hooked on a new tea, lands a big client and wears out some shoe leather on a day of face-to-face sales. 

February 3rd 

Part of the joy of running a tea company is getting high on your own supply. So enamoured have I become with one of our Japanese senchas, I’ve consumed far more of it than we’ve sold.

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It’s a variety called ‘gyokuro’ and is grown in the shade, making its leaves thirst for light. As a result, those little guys pile on the chlorophyll, like a weightlifter loading on carbs, the better to grease the cogs of photosynthesis in their twilight world.  

The result is a vivid green leaf (‘gyokuro’ is Japanese for ‘jade dew’) and an exquisite seaweedy taste. And there’s more – this magic brew seems to have seen off my lifelong need for midmorning snacks (I did not choose tight trousers; they chose me), making it much easier to swerve Greggs on my regular trips to the Post Office. 
 
The icing on the cake? We’re buying our gyokuro for only £14 per kilo, softening the commercial hit my habit inflicts on MDTea. Therefore, anyone hoping to catch this diarist in a good mood, should seek me at 9.30 on weekday mornings. That’s when I have my gyokuro in hand. 

February 7th 

Up here in the rarefied air of the management suite, Helen and I have always divided our roles so that she is in charge of ‘product’, while I direct MDTea’s sales and marketing efforts. So Helen and I have responsibility for devising, respectively, product innovations and client acquisition strategies that can be tested down there on the factory floor (yes, that’s also us). 

Accordingly, I’ve come up with the idea of abandoning our phones and laptops for a day and doing some face-to-face sales. As any musician knows, there’s only so much you can learn from jamming in a garage. If you want to improve your technique and learn what your fans love, you gotta hit the road. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re going on tour. 

While we’ve had reasonable success so far in prospecting with emails, calls, and online marketing, we’re changing tack for a day. To be precise, we’re going to a neighbouring town, Eastbourne, to drop off samples of tea. We want to see if we can catch senior managers and owners of hotels and entertainment venues at a good moment and charm them in person. The date we’ve set is February 28th, giving ourselves three weeks to contact prospects ahead of time so they’re already warm when we arrive. 

February 12th 

Woop! Pop open the corks, dance the jig, ring the New Client Bell and feel free to generally act like a dick for a few minutes! As I’m sure I’ve said before, there’s a gargantuan hunk of luck behind business success but you still have to ride it.

Which is exactly what Helen did when she called the catering manager of a major new tourist venue that’s opening fully in spring – an art deco lido with various restaurants and airstreams.

It turned out she’d caught him at the perfect moment and within hours, and a bit of negotiation, we had secured the business. They’re a famous venue here on the south coast and should be a fabulous client.  

February 17th 

Business leaders say there’s “smart wrong” and “stupid wrong”. An example of the former might be to make a considered decision to ignore a consumer trend, thinking it won’t catch on, only for your competitors to make a prolonged profit from that same trend.

Stupid wrong, on the other hand, might be failing to understand features of your own products. Turns out the gyokuro I’ve been selfishly quaffing is costing us £140 per kilo, not the £14 per kilo described above. I read it wrong. It also turns out that any fool would know that gyokuro is expensive.

That’s why Helen does product and I do sales & marketing.

We are at the frosty peak of Mount Stupid here, having vacated the balmy shores of Smart Bay a long, long time ago. My dreams have unravelled, like cheap twine.  

February 28nd 

To Eastbourne for our day of sales! We put Brighton in the wing mirrors of our VW campervan at 8am, giving us time to call in at our new client’s venue on the way to drop off their first order.

We ended up meeting the entire serving team and delivered an impromptu training session in a sparkling new commercial kitchen. My god, it was beautiful! And the enthusiasm in the room was even more impressive.

I’ve been a marketeer in local authority services, finance and tech and it’s liberating finally to be selling a product that people are genuinely interested in – that they can touch, taste and sniff. My cup runneth over!  

By midday, we were in Eastbourne hoping to ride more luck. Predictably, we hadn’t done the pre-contacting phase of Operation Tea On Tour. So no-one knew we were coming. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans, etc. No matter! 

Over three hours, we spoke to nine managers and owners and dropped off as many sample boxes. Everyone we spoke to was friendly and interested and I’d say we have at least three very good leads to follow up.  

I wrote earlier this month (and have long believed) that the road to business success is paved with luck – but is there even such a destination as ‘success’? People who believe it lies at the end of a business journey often find that, when they get there, they’re in a Potemkin village of possessions and property they never really wanted. 

Maybe success is like a walk to the horizon – you never get there. I prefer a third idea: that if you travel with a smile and a song, the success begins as soon as you set out. Helen and I are building something together and that’s the destination; we’re already there.  

At one moment today, we were in the rain-lashed VW, doing silly voices and laughing about the pleasant absurdity of our day and, in fact, of our lives. Fate may laugh at our schemes – but the striving together is its own reward.  

Michael Taggart

Mouthy Blogger

Ex journo turned media agency founder and now managing director of MDTea. As likely to be found ranting about trains or his misspent youth as doing anything useful.

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