Sunday 19 November 2017

Problem solver: How can I grow specialist plant business if I'm not comfortable making sales pitch?

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Feargal Quinn

Q: I grow specialist plants for the garden centre sector and this is where my passion lies. I really am not comfortable with being out there selling to shops and meeting buyers. Is this a problem?

A: I remember meeting a food supplier many years ago who told me that her business wasn't doing too well. On tasting her baked product, it was superb.

It was one of the best products in her category that I had ever tasted. I really couldn't understand why the business wasn't a roaring success until she said she much preferred to be in the kitchen than out making sales. It then became clear to me what the issue was. Sadly, her business closed some years later.

Someone has to be responsible for selling and usually in the early stages of the business you could be on your own and you have to assume the role of production, sales and marketing. While it might not be something that you are comfortable with, it is an essential part of the business process. In the early days, you won't have the money to employ someone, so it might be a case of having to motivate yourself and upskill in this area. Without a strong sales growth process in the business, there is a real danger that the business won't grow.

To help with your confidence in this area, go and talk with some other manufacturers and get some tips from them. Then set a task to approach four or five people you don't do business with. Make sure that you support your sales pitch with a good leaflet or information sheet and ensure you take product samples with you. Most importantly, find out as much as possible about your customer before you go and visit them, so you can demonstrate the gap in their range for your product. You will find it really fulfilling when you succeed with a few new listings.

Q: I am interested in food production and I have done some good research which indicates there is an opportunity gap. I am, however, struggling to raise money and have only €2,000. Is there any advice on where I can raise extra funds?

A: Congratulations on doing the research. That is sometimes the piece that people forget to do and they rush out full of passion and enthusiasm, only to find that they have made an error which they could have spotted through the research phase. You are well positioned to bring your product to the consumer.

With regard to funding, that is a bit of a dilemma. We know from experience that regardless of what way you go about your journey, bringing a food product to market does cost money. There are of course lots of great supports from your local enterprise office, and potential grant assistance of 50pc funding, if you qualify. The challenge is that €2,000 even with grant assistance will not be enough to support that journey. Your anticipated costs will arise mainly in the area of getting your product professionally branded, as this is a crucial step in persuading the customer to buy it. Other costs will include buying packaging and making the first production run.

Most importantly, what many new producers forget is that as you secure listings in various different shops, most will not be paying you for five or six weeks and you could end up with thousands of euro owed to you. Of course, this is all your money and will come back in to you in due course - but you must legislate to fund the cash flow in this initial period when the product is going out and no money is coming in.

My advice to you is to either go to a bank, credit union or even a family member who might be willing to provide you with some more money on a short-term basis. I read that the typical cost in bringing a product to market conservatively is around €8,000. It could be more assuming that you want to move at a reasonable speed and push the product out into the mainstream supermarkets.

Of course, if you are planning to sell at farmers' markets and direct to the consumers this is a slightly less expensive model, and once you have bought your stall, canopy, you are dealing with a simpler cash flow model in that the customer is paying you immediately for your product. I wish you well on your journey and if you have any further queries, don't hesitate to come back to me.

Q: I am starting a new floor-tiling business after many years of working for someone else. I am very confused about whether I need to be a sole trader or limited company and about other issues. Can you give me any advice?

A: Well done on starting your own business. It is a big step when you have been working for someone else, but you will look back in a number of years' time and wonder why you didn't do it sooner. I am sure it will be harder work at the beginning as you will both have to worry about doing the physical work for customers and doing your book keeping etc. The good news is many have gone on the journey before you and really enjoy the direction they have chosen.

Your local enterprise office has some great supports. They have a course specifically designed for someone in your situation called 'Start your own Business'. This will provide you with information on the steps you need to take and the options open to you on various different business aspects.

It will also help you to road test your business model to ensure you have thought through the financial aspects, how you will market the business, etc.

I would also suggest that you talk to someone else in another sector who you won't be competing with, about their experiences in setting up their own business. You can't beat advice from another business person as they will give you all the pitfalls and they will short-circuit things which might otherwise take you weeks to achieve.

There are also dozens of online sites which will give you tips and advice on your own business so it would be good to study these in parallel.

Good luck with your journey, this is a really exciting time for you.

Q: Can you give me any general advice on how to achieve success within my business?

A: For many businesses, success can be evasive, if not elusive. A lot depends on how you define success. For some it is about size and scale, for others it is a matter of recognition by customers that they are the best and for many, it is the level of profit they make on a yearly basis.

Many commentators viewed Superquinn as a success while others disagreed. We weren't the largest in Ireland, we didn't have the most staff and there were certainly some years where it was hard to generate the profit levels of many of our larger competitors.

For me, personally, the measure of success was meeting a customer leaving the shop satisfied and planning to return again and again because of the experience they had. For me, it was that same customer telling 20 others about the great experience they had and becoming an unpaid brand ambassador recruiting those customers on our behalf.

Success was also all those milestones that our staff and management achieved. Being first to market with self-scan shopping, being the first retailers in the world with DNA traceability and winning many awards for products like our famous breads and cakes. That was success also.

For your business, you need to determine what that measure is, but I would argue strongly that focusing on the customer will help you achieve success under many other headings.

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