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Saturday 2nd March 2024

Diary of an SME Owner: How to open a bricks-and-mortar shop

Michael Taggart tells of opening his company’s first shop, a disastrous advertising campaign and a near ruinous flood in Diary of an SME Owner


In the first instalment of our new monthly series, Mouthy Money co-founder Michael Taggart launched his “Diary of an SME Owner.”

Michael took us through the trials and tribulations of getting a small business off the ground with his wife, Helen.

This month, he tells of opening his company MDTea’s first bricks-and-mortar shop, a disastrous advertising campaign and a near ruinous flood. 

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July 1st

We have three days until we open MDTea’s first retail premises, a quirky former fabric shop on a pleasant avenue leading into Brighton’s Open Market. 

Helen has run a customer-facing business before – but my only such experience was as a salesman 30 years ago at a low budget shoe shop.  

The footwear was cheap and the owner could only rustle up a profit by forcing sundry products on his customers. My job was to push polishes, sprays and suede brushes, mostly to gullible mothers, as if my entire wage depended on it. Which, it turned out, it did.  

I was sacked after failing to shift a single shoe accessory for 20 days straight. At just 17, my sales career was in tatters. While many had spotted in me a lackadaisical streak and a certain indifference to the art of the deal, no-one had yet called me ruthless – which I took as a small positive. 

But, here in 2023 I’m feeling upbeat about my role in giving consumers what they want. The premises are already well-furnished with decorous shelving and a back room in which Helen and I will pack tea and have heated arguments. It’s perfect. 

July 2nd 

Excitement for the next business year is growing at MDTea Corp. A well-known SEO agency has been running our Google Ads and we’ve just put our first monthly review meeting in the diary for 10 days’ time.  

We know it’s a long-term investment (£1,500 a month plus VAT) – and, while we’re not expecting to break even in the first month, we hope soon to be converting online tea shoppers to MDTea customers, who will buy from us many times, maybe for many years to come.  

To be honest, I haven’t spent much time analysing the agency’s performance and separating the online sales they’ve been driving from the ones we’ve been generating through our own marketing. Too much prep to do for the big shop opening. But reviewing performance is what the performance review meeting is for. 

July 10th  

We’ve put the agency on pause. Disastrous results. We’ve spent £900 so far on ads and another £600 in management fees and generated only four sales, totaling about £80. We’re going to wait until we’ve launched our new website in a month before we restart the campaign. 

July 14th  

Not feeling like writing. It’s nearly midnight – 10 hours until the shop opens – and there’s a real risk of me short-circuiting my laptop with the forlorn tears of someone who’s just spent five hours inputting product descriptions and prices into the backend of a point-of-sale payments system.  

Michael, if you’re re-reading these words, years after writing them: this was your low point; be sure to remember the trauma of this day and, as your cheeks drain of blood and a fog of hopelessness descends, know that life will never be that bad again.  

July 15th 

Opening day – a ruddy triumph! Many of our Brighton friends have dropped by to support us by buying our teas and infusions. Customers signed up to our e-newsletters and maybe half of our visitors remarked on the pleasantly exotic aromas emanating from our blends.  

July 16th 

A very quiet day today, yet I’m sanguine. Lows follow highs as inevitably as death follows life. There will always be peaks and troughs in business – it’s the monthly graphs, not the daily sales figures that deserve attention.  

Also, we’re not just a shop. At least a third of our business is wholesale – we supply to an increasing number of health clubs, spas and hotels across the country – and we’re also a national online retailer.  

Thirdly, the day finished with a very promising Zoom call with the food & beverages director of a highly exclusive private members club in Mayfair, whose menu has been designed by a celebrity chef, a regular on TV.  

They’ve tried our tea and are keen to serve it in their bars and restaurants. This will be a great name for our client list, if it works out. 

July 17th 

Social media posts from our opening are doing the rounds and several people have private messaged me to ask me WTF I’m doing with my hair. It might sound silly to say that running a business is about growing your hair but in a way it is. I haven’t had mine cut since resigning from my previous role to concentrate on MDTea last October.  

This is a symptom of the condition of freedom. I’m growing my hair not because I think it looks good but because I can. I sometimes work very early or very late and often at weekends. But I never *have* to, which means I don’t mind it.  

I make bad decisions but they’re always *my* decisions. I’m broke, but I’m happy; I’m poor, but I’m kind. I’m short, but I’m healthy, yeah! 

July 18th 

Today will forever be known as The Great Flood. Helen went to the shop at 9.30am to open up and water was pouring out from under the front door. Some plumbing had burst overnight.  

A fair bit of damage – packing boxes damaged, laminate floor wilting and dirt everywhere. We spent almost all day on our hands and knees mopping up puddles. But it could have been a lot worse. Tomorrow is another day. 

July 20th 

A short meditation on ghosting.  

No-one has a duty to respond to cold sales pitches, no matter how relevant they are. We all get many of them in our inboxes and we could spend hours of the working week responding if we felt we needed to – but, in my view, we don’t.  

However, when you engage with that salesperson, when you ask for samples of their products, when you invite them to Zoom meetings and then call them into your head office, a four-hour round trip away, because you like their teas and infusions (or whatever) so much – that’s definitely the moment you owe them a “thanks but no thanks,” let alone some valuable feedback, if the deal doesn’t work for you.  

Ghosting – the act of ceasing all communication without an explanation – is just rude at this point. Just a thought.  

July 25th 

Shop quiet. 

July 26th 

Still quiet. 

July 27th 

Busy today. Ebbs and flows, you see. Maybe we’ll be inundated when Summer finally starts, as is predicted, sometime in mid-August. 

Photo Credits: Michael Taggart

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.

2 Comments
  1. Michael and Helen, you guys are very courageous but it’s clear you are passionate and focused on building a successful business. Small acorns turn into big trees, so I’m sure this is just your acorn moment and the tree will follow.

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