Wednesday 24th July 2024

Diary of an SME Owner: we can network it out

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 re-lives a networking nightmare, mourns the demise of a neighbouring business and sets his sights on a second high street store.

May 5th

We’ve joined a networking club, called Network My Club. We don’t have a club, but we do want to network – so joining Network My Club seemed to be at least half a good idea. Permit me, Diary, to tell you a short story about my introduction to networking.

A long time ago in a land far, far away (Holland), I joined my boss at a conference. Let’s respect section 15, subsection 2, paragraph (d) of the Defamation Act 2013, and call my boss John Smith.

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I was tasked with acting as John’s wingman at about five events over the two days in Amsterdam, and my job at each was to chat effervescently with people in whom I had no interest, about things I didn’t understand, while proudly representing a company I hated and wanted to leave. I had been commanded to sparkle while all around me was dark and hopeless.

On the first evening, my suitcase not yet unpacked, I met John at one of those joy-sapping sponsored parties in city centre hotels that belong at airports. He was soon working the room, at the same time throwing judgemental glances back at me as I shuffled awkwardly on the outskirts of various groups saying nothing or worse.

Everywhere I looked, Billy or Willemina Big-Business-Bananas was loosing off machine gun rounds of pith, wit and gossip – carelessly lobbing incendiary opinions into random groups of delegates and piercing people’s armour with warheads of pure personality. I had turned up with a pea shooter.

Just when I was about to seek respite in the toilets for the fourth time, I spied a waiter offering attendees a basket of cannabis jelly beans. I presumed, of course, they were some weak faux version – surely one wouldn’t be offered drugs at a work event in a respectable city like Amsterdam? – but even a subtle effect might be enough to loosen my conversion cords, I reasoned. Ignoring a stricture to “please take only one”, I popped four in my mouth.

An hour later, I felt weird and sick, incapable even of a false smile, and certain only of one thing: I could not stay in that room. But surely I couldn’t just perform a French exit? I had a long fight with my conscience which, eventually, I won and I fled with The Clash’s most famous song trespassing in my tormented mind.

I was only vaguely aware of the hammering on my hotel door at 10pm and woke the following morning to around 20 missed calls from John, from John’s personal assistant (who wasn’t even in Holland) and from a takeaway delivery driver. Luckily, I felt fresh and managed to lie my way out of the trouble over breakfast, later completing the trip with my reputation only slightly ruined.

Those were very different times and I am now good at talking to people I don’t know while simultaneously tearing food from wooden skewers with my teeth and drinking warm wine – so let’s see what benefits Network My Club brings. I’ve signed up to an event at Twickenham Rugby Stadium early next month.

May 18th

News reaches me that a chain of hardware shops is to close after 120 years of trading in various sites across Brighton. Dockerills, a family-run business, is shuttering its single remaining store which itself has served locals since the 1970s. The owners are apparently despondent and are blaming the diminishing spending power of shoppers, as well as the huge hit Covid took on the business.

Like most sensible retailers, I know that the traditional high street is in decline. Yet, I have always believed that something different but good will replace it – venues offering experiences that cannot be found online, rather than just selling products that can.

But Dockerills is that experience-based business! You go there to talk to a knowledgeable staff member about the best ways to repair, restore or build the important things in your life. So maybe even these places are not immune to the dark clouds gathering over Britain’s shopping streets?

Machiavelli, who famously penned a treatise on The Art of War, observed that “whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times”. It’s a truth undiminished by time and of particular relevance to retailers in 2024.

So, fellow shop owners, I beseech you: diversify your income streams, spread your risks, get online, and, while you’re at it, stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, and disguise your fair nature with hard-favoured rage; for tomorrow we fight. A battle is coming.

For MDTea, I’m beginning to think leaving the battlefield – i.e. the high street – entirely might be the route to success.

May 24th

It’s good to change your mind. I’ve changed my mind about many things. For example I used to think Millennials were well-fed, well-watered, well-intoxicated, warm, dry, comfy, self-entitled whingers, who had an obsessive compulsion to declare themselves owners of bricks.

But now they’re old with bad knees and grey hair – and mostly still brickless – I realise I was being hard on them from my own entitled position.

You see, buying a house was easy when I did it so I didn’t need to whine about not having one. In fact, I got a 110% mortgage (read about that here). I also now realise it wasn’t the fault of Millennials that they were entitled.

They’d had a lifetime of being told “you’re amazing – have a medal for coming last”. I’d also allowed myself to become annoyed unnecessarily about their tendency to eat raw food and do yoga and to be sure to let you know they were doing both things. But I’ve recently discovered the downward dog, and while I don’t love getting into that position, I now understand the point of it.

All of which brings me to my Big Change of Mind: we’re going to do more high street-based retail, not less. Because, despite the misfortunes of Dockerills, businesses that offer experiences are indeed thriving. I know because I’ve done some Googling. Examples I found include the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, which hosts film screenings and public talks in its stores.

Zara’s flagship store has  interactive mirrors equipped with something called ‘radio-frequency identification technology’, which detects what item of clothing a customer is holding, and offers advice on what might go well with it! So we can do this too, offering in-store tasting events and learning opportunities. Ensuring people can see and smell the beautiful tea inside our packaging.

It just so happens that we have been presented in the last few days with an opportunity to collaborate on a new shop in a health centre in a reasonably affluent area of Hove (Brighton’s upmarket sibling). More follows!

June 6th

To the blessed turf of Twickenham Rugby Stadium for a Network My Club event – and, wow, did it leave my Dutch Disaster in the shade! You absolutely must not attend these events by seeking to receive, rather than give.

The idea is that, by paying it forward, there is a powerful long-term benefit from the relationships you will win with your kindness. Yet, in two and a half hours I was virtually bombarded with offers of business support and help. They ranged from expert advice about funding options for MDTea, to guidance on how to outsource our sales, to offers of introductions to key food and beverage buyers in the hotel industry.

My ‘to do’ list is bursting with follow-ups on ideas, opportunities and new relationships that sprang from that single event.

I sometimes think I’m wrong to think of business as a battle. When we talk of ‘Captains of Industry’ and ‘victories’, our rhetoric is – here comes another military metaphor; see how easy it is! – misfiring.

Maybe that’s because we’re not fighting each other…or anyone, for that matter. We’re actually all on the same side and if we can support each other when the economic weather is bad, we’ll all win.

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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