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In this instalment of his regular 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 celebrates his 200th day at the helm of the Brighton-based company and wonders whether the universe is talking to him. Find Michael’s past columns on his author’s page.
Sometimes, I pause as I pass the full-length mirror in the bedroom, the better to inspect my nude self. The idea is to catch anything softening, sprouting, shrivelling, shrinking, drooping, dropping, dripping, growing, fading or creasing early enough that a swift visit to the sports shop, dietician, travel agent or surgeon will head off any problem before it gains purchase.
It works the other way round too. A pleasing ripple or bulge can be identified during the examination and, as a result, a course of action can be plotted to encourage the development while it still has momentum.
You would, of course, expect this trading between fat and muscle, smoothness and rough, to be stacking up on the negative side of the ledger at my age (a shade off 48). And, yes, I suppose I have acquired the beginnings of a portly aspect in the last 20 months or so.
Yet, I fancy I still cut something of an elegant dash in my birthday suit. I’m no rippling gym gerbil but who needs all those lumps? I’ve nothing against it. It’s just not what I look like.
I look like someone who’s spent 33 years going to the gym twice a year – every year – and that’ll do. What excites me these days is my internal health: Danny DeVito on the outside and Arnold Schwartzegger on the inside!
Which is why I’m currently feverish with anticipation about our new health range – The Wellness Collection – which launches in about a month. Helen, MDTea’s taster and blender (as well as my partner in love and crime), has crafted the recipes with thoughtfulness, care and precision. And the duty fell on me today to design the packaging labels.
It’s crucial that they pump the would-be shopper full of desire for the blends within. There are five in this first tranche: a green tea for mind fog, a valerian concoction to aid sleep, a chamomile infusion for gut health, a mint tea for hot flushes, and a rooibios for adrenal care.
Summer arrived this morning – and it’s supposed to last for at least two weeks with overnight temperatures topping 20c!! It’s our 12th wedding anniversary tomorrow.
Maybe I’ll surprise Helen with an expensive meal on a balmy beachside terrace, from where we can watch the moonlight dancing on the waves. Yes, we’ll drink in the floral air, listen to the nearby laughter of promenading sweethearts and wonder how much love a human heart can hold before it bursts.
Hang on, though. She forgot last year and possibly even the year before that. No doubt, she’ll forget again tomorrow if I say nothing. So that’s what I’ll do.
Woke up with Helen pushing a card and a massive bunch of flowers in my face, beaming in anticipation of the full day of rigorously-planned romance that she, no doubt, believed lay ahead.
Oh well. I’ll make it up to her by becoming a millionaire.
£4.20. That’s how much our shop took today. If we had someone managing the place, it would cost at least £100 a day to open. So we’d need sales of about £200 just to break even when you factor in the cost to us of the products we sell. It’s just as well Helen and I can carry out the endless screen-based tasks required to run a tea business while simultaneously manning or womanning the store ourselves.
The online shop also had a fairly abject day today. Look, diary, I don’t feel like I can say this to anyone else but on days like this I worry we’re not going to make it.
It’s not rational: our business is not the shop – we’re a wholesaler and that’s how we make our money – we’re adding clients every month and doing as well as I’ve always hoped.
But it’s hard not to worry about the small stuff when it’s right in front of your face. Lesson: a director can’t direct a scene if he or she is on the stage with the actors. Get up into the Gods a bit more often.
I was riding my bike into the shop this morning when, in the corner of my eye, a car swerved off the road, piled over a bike share scheme and slammed into WH Smith. I later learnt that no-one was hurt.
Any fool knows that anthropomorphising the universe is tedious. But the proximity of my business and a spectacular car crash troubled me.
It’s amazing how many people come into the shop and ask whether we sell coffee.
Him: “Do you sell coffee?”
Me: “No, I’m afraid not.”
Him, spinning on his heel: “Well I’ll be going somewhere else then, sir.”
The ‘sir’ seemed designed to imbue my interlocutor’s petulant announcement with an 18th century panache. He must have thought I’d suddenly realise my place and spend the next seven evenings calling people ‘guv’nor’ and offering to shine their shoes.
Me, shrugging: “We’re a tea company. We don’t sell coffee.”
I get this all the time. We’ve launched a tea company in a city of coffee drinkers. Even so, asking for coffee in a speciality tea shop is no more sensible, if you ask me, than walking into a church and asking the vicar where Screen Two is.
Look at the effing sign outside the shop and we’ll get on like pie and chips.
I started keeping this diary 100 days ago. That means it’s 200 days since I quit my job heading up the marketing team at a Brighton-based tech consultancy to take up the leading role at MDTea. At the 100-day milestone, in my first diary entry, I set out what I’d learnt about running an SME. Here’s what I’d like to add.
- Silicon Valley’s irritatingly self-regarding start-ups cannot have been the first to say you need to “fail fast, fail often” on the road to success and they won’t be the last. Not least because I’m saying it now.
You have to try things and ditch them quickly when they fail (and they almost certainly will fail). We ran a second month of a Google Ads campaign through an agency this month – and lost a second £2,000 for nearly no gain. We should have bailed after month one. The quicker you chalk up the failures, the sooner you’ll score some luck. Business is about capitalising on luck.
- Never put milk in your tea after 10. And when I say ‘10’, I mean ‘years old’, not ‘o’clock’.
- Remind yourself as often as you can that life is better now you’re working for yourself. I achieve this by walking home from the shop through Brighton Train Station.
It’s a significant detour but I feel happy when I see the despairing commuters looking up at the departure boards, knowing they’ll miss little Jessica’s leading role in the school play or the gig they’d been looking forward to. I’m so glad that’s not my life anymore. So. Bloody. Glad.
- Don’t imagine that being in business is anything like being the director of a play. It will seem like the wisdom of a genius when the idea first strikes you. But you’ll spend the next two weeks finding flaws in the analogy when you should be thinking about growing your business.
The month ended, as every month should, with a banquet. Brighton-based food group Bite Sussex hosted “The Regency Banquet” at the historic Royal Pavilion and MDTea was asked to supply a tea flight to go alongside the wine flight.
It was basically Cinderella’s Ball minus the stressed out teenager worrying about post-midnight taxis. In other words, a massive success, with something like 30 businesses and other organisations working together to pull it off.
The event reminded me that running a business is not just about making your own success. You become part of a community and have obligations and rewards that you’d be a fool to ignore.
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.