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Thursday 29th February 2024

Diary of an SME Owner – my first paycheck

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

Michael and Helen enjoy some unseasonably bright skies at his parents’ house in France.

This instalment sees Michael visiting an unwell parent, defending consumer rights and celebrating his first paycheck. Find Michael’s past columns on his author’s page. 

January 1st 

Despite mildly malfunctioning with what I predict will be my last hangover for at least a few weeks, the dawning of 2024 finds me grinning like a Labrador that has just snaffled a slab of cheddar. My veins are pumping a fluid mix of plasma (11%), blood cells (8%) and optimism (81%). 

This is because I’m relieved to have seen off the interminable holiday period, which made my skin bad, gave me violent dreams and, too often, placed too many children in my field of vision for too long. 

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There were nice parts too. Helen and I spent four days in France with my parents, who I hadn’t seen for a few months. My mum is in a care home in Brittany, a few miles from where she lived with my dad until last May, when her health deteriorated to the point at which living at home became impossible.

She has a rare and aggressive neurological condition, which has taken away her ability to walk and, more recently, to talk. It’s called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy and whoever insisted on that first word, did so with good reason. Happily, my mum was still well enough to enthuse (genuinely, I…think?) when she opened her Christmas present, a posh scarf. 

It’s sad to think that if Helen and I make MDTea a big success in the normal time it takes to do these things, my mum will not likely be around to witness our accomplishment. This makes me want to move faster, although I know she already thinks everything I do is a triumph. Mothers do, don’t they? 

January 7th 

I’ve become interested in the niche field of retail ethics. Not so keen that I’d raise the topic with the guys at the gym or the gang down at the kebab house. That would be embarrassing, like when your brother or a friend starts getting into Jordan Peterson.

But I’ve been mulling (brooding) periodically over the question “when is the customer right?”. Well, *always*, says the received wisdom, even when the customer is wrong.  

So how about when the customer orders from your website a heart-meltingly beautiful ‘earthy oatmeal’ cup that was handmade by artisans in the Gifu prefecture of Japan – only to complain, upon prompt receipt of the item, that it wasn’t as advertised? 

For context, these £10 miracles of artistry are individually fashioned from clay before being kiln-fired, according to a method passed down through generations. To buy one is to participate in the revival of a proud handcraft tradition that began millennia ago.

Varying ratios of love, pain, sweat, blood, joy, tears and swearing are expended on each. I’d go as far as saying they’re all reasonably unique, if that weren’t like saying someone is “fairly pregnant” or “somewhat alive” (you either are or you aren’t). Certainly, each is fairly different from all the others.  

Spot the difference: the returned cup on the right and another from the same batch 

So what if that customer, having bought an earthy oatmeal cup, then requested a refund, not only for the item but also for the parcel postage in both directions (even though our returns policy doesn’t promise this service), because “the cup I received was lighter coloured than the one in the photo on your website”?

Well, Diary, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that I’ve come to a firm conclusion – and it is this: the customer is always right. That’s just basic retail. 

January 15th 

Thriftiness has spread like pox through the nation, emptying high streets, cash registers, and the souls of Britain’s small business owners. I felt like Father Mackenzie today. You know, the priest from The Beatles’ 1966 reflection on loneliness, Eleanor Rigby. We find him “writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear” and “darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there”.  

Yep, we had no customers at our shop at Brighton Open Market today, despite being open for six hours. That’s not a typo – it’s not shorthand for “nowhere near enough” – I was literally the only mammal breathing the oxygen in the premises for six straight hours. As it happens, there were moments when I thought about darning my socks but I settled for repetitions of squats and lunges behind the till, the boredom drafting me into the ranks of the demented. 

Yet again, I had to force myself to remember that 80% of our business is wholesale (which is growing nicely), not retail, and this led me to thinking about how far we’ve come in the year that we’ve been doing this. In 2023, we: 

  • Grew our quarter-on-quarter revenue by 4.5% in Q2 (compared to Q1), 310% in Q3 (compared to Q2) and 174% in Q4 (compared to Q3); 
  • Doubled our website subscribers; 
  • Sent c.12,000 personalised, automated emails and follow-ups to wholesale prospects without a single message being marked as spam; 
  • Added 11 major businesses – hotels, colleges, luxury retirement villages to our client base, as well as countless hot leads, to the pipeline; 
  • Launched a new wellness range for spas and health clubs. 

Most importantly, Helen and I are now paying ourselves, albeit modestly, having survived on savings and the odd freelance writing gig for most of 2023. 

This is why confidence courses through my arteries. In 2023, we had to get the patient out of intensive care and into the convalescence wing (don’t write in, nurses, it’s just an expression). In 2024, we have to get her out of the hospital altogether and into society. So what does that mean? (Behold! A metaphor so bad it has to be explained.)  

One word: funding.  

A year starting up a start-up has led me to realise that the “start” part of “start-up” is the easy part. It’s the “up” that I know will present the challenge, mainly in the form of securing money to buy tea in bigger amounts, find better warehousing and start employing people. 

But it’s the “up” that will, ultimately, I hope, make my mum proud. 

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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