At a glance
Name of business: North Star
Business Type: Wholesale & coffee
Key Learning Points
Business as a tool for change
You don’t need to be a social, non-profit organisation to be able to make a difference. Rather than write your business values just to have a corporate social responsibility, you can build a business that is sustainable in everything it does and still be profitable.
North Star is proof that you can create an incredibly successful business that tackles critical issues in supply-chain responsibility through promoting awareness and simply refusing to sacrifice ethical responsibility for profit.
Don’t carry out all of your market research from your desk
Make your market research a practical exercise. Where possible, find and speak to people in your field. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much people are willing to share with people that are starting out.
Take the time to create a business plan and write your values
The direction that your business can take in the future can feel uncertain as new opportunities present themselves.
Taking the time to understand what you want to achieve as a business in the long term, and the goals which are most important to you can make difficult decisions easier.
Spending the time developing your core values can help anchor you to the path that you originally set out to follow without risk of getting lost along the way.
Social media can be more than a marketing tool
More than a tool to promote your company, the impact that social media can have on creating a supportive community for your brand can’t be overstated. When it was time for North Star to expand their operation, they looked to the community they had grown for support.
Through a Kickstarter campaign, North Star were able to raise an incredible £20,000 to buy a larger coffee roaster to keep up with growing demand.
I accidentally arrived 30 minutes early for my interview with Holly at the North Star Coffee Shop in Clarence Dock, Leeds because it was the second interview I’d run and so I was super paranoid about being late. You don’t get a second chance at a first impression right?
I‘m glad I did though, it gave me time to just sit and admire what founders Holly and Krag had created. To my right is a large glass wall – through it you can see a massive coffee roaster opposite a stack of burlap sacks filled with freshly imported coffee ready to roast. Behind me are huge windows which look out across the Clarence Dock boulevard and floods natural light into the large open café space.
The overall effect of the space is overwhelmingly calming and pleasant. I know I’m not the only one that sense it sense the space hums with the sound of happy conversations and laughter from the tables around me.
After a short while, Holly heads over to the table and we begin our chat. What followed was an incredible interview that I’m incredibly excited to share; not only is Holly one of the most knowledgeable, insightful and friendly people that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, but what she and her partner Krag have created is nothing short of incredible.
They are people that are using business to tackle the bigger issues that matter to them, and more than any other company I’ve seen it shines through in every single thing that they do. This interview is a must read for anyone that wants to carve out a niche in the market that previously didn’t exist using passion, knowledge and hard-work.
So I was wondering if you could start off by describing, to anyone unfamiliar with the brand, what North Star Roast is.
Holly: North Star coffee started off as a wholesale coffee roastery, but I would like to say now that it’s become an all encompassing coffee company that really gets behind the values of quality, ethics in the supply chain and just elevates coffee to be something more than a daily wake-up call.
Those are the kinds of values it stands for and now we’ve opened up a venue, we want people to be able to come in and get let into the world of coffee in general, from bean to cup. That’s what North Star is all about, celebrating the supply chain from seed to cup.
That brilliant, and so everything we’re drinking here, is that all coming straight from next door?
Yeah, this coffee shop is kind of a unique concept. In terms of the coffee supply chain; we’re involved in every step of it.
Most other coffee shops would tend to buy their coffee from a roaster and brew it in their coffee shop whereas here we have the supply chain tied up. We’re involved in the sourcing of beans, working with farmers and finding new producing partners across the world.
We then bring the coffee back into the roastery and learn how to get the most out of it from trying different roast profiles [and everything else]. Then it’s literally delivered from next door to here.
Absolutely every bean that has come through the grinders here has been sourced, perfected and roasted all by the same company.
That’s amazing – getting that off the ground, I can’t even begin to imagine what that process would look like. I mean were you already involved in, or had knowledge of supply chains before?
Yeah so my background is in green coffee. My first ever job having left uni was as a trainee green coffee buyer.
The way that Krag and I, my partner, got into coffee and starting North Star was through our final year dissertation at University. I studied the effect of fair trade coffee farming on social and economic development for small coffee farmers in Kenya, and whether it had been a positive factor or a negative factor.
Krag looked at the slave trade – he did a history degree – and we both chose dissertation topics around something that would allow us to travel to get our research.
So we both spent about 3 months in East Africa between second and third year and 6 weeks of that was spent working with rural smallholders – tiny, tiny smallholders with farmers who had like a half-hectare of trees in their back garden.
We were just interviewing them and collecting qualitative data on how they felt about the effects of the coffee industry in their country, their own economic development and what they were able to do through getting access to the fair-trade premium.
Before that, I’d never really had any insight into the supply chain so it was really that trip which opened our eyes to the amazing people which were involved in the supply chain; the number of people that are involved and the number of things that can go wrong in it.
So that’s how our interest was peaked to the point where we both left uni certain that that was the industry that we wanted to work in.
Really? So by the end of that dissertation you…
– yeah we just knew that this was what we wanted to do. And being in the North of England people can always says that jobs are scarcer – particularly in fairly niche industries like this but actually the North of England has a really established coffee scene with the likes of Taylors of Harrogate and some fairly big coffee companies up here.
So that was my natural pathway from graduating with a degree in sustainable development and I looked to try and get into coffee using an ethical route in terms of how it could be used to develop economies.
I managed to stumble across a new-start company that worked by importing green, speciality-grade coffee. I did an unpaid internship with them for 3-4 months and learned how to taste, how to roast and I was sending samples out to roasters all over the UK.
That internship turned into a paid job thankfully. Because it was a really young and developing company, I was thrown in at the deep-end and so my own, personal & professional development occurred at a much quicker rate than if I was at a larger, more established company.
Within a year I was in Central America buying coffee, doing taster qualifications and things like that, so it was really about learning quickly on the job.
Through doing that role, I was selling green coffee to all the other roasters in the UK at the time and I realised that there was no one doing that in Leeds. There were 60+ roasters in London; there were 14 in Bristol and Bath, 7 in Edinburgh and things like that.
So there were pockets of really good quality coffee all over the country and then Leeds was just this barren, wasteland of bad coffee at the time *laughs*.
There were a couple of key venues that had been set up and were doing things really well; there was Lanes espresso which was set up over by the train station in 2011 I think – they were buying from a roaster down in London. There was also Opposite which was set up over by Leeds Uni and again, buying from the same roaster in London.
Then everywhere else was just a bit crap. There was just a real gap between the people who were doing things really, really well and everyone else who was just a bit terrible.
Yeah the supply just wasn’t there locally and people’s knowledge and training regarding how to work with coffee was just a bit all over the place. Everyone was doing things slightly differently depending on where they’d learnt things from – there was no set standard in place.
It was just very much about visiting venues, spending time with people, drinking their coffee and taking it from there.
At the time we were both living with my parents, and Krag had a part-time job working as a chocolatier for 2-days a week which was a pretty good job to be fair *laughs*, he wasn’t complaining.
But the fact is that we were in the position to be able to take a jump into doing something with the thinking of ‘well if it works, it works, if it doesn’t then it doesn’t’.
And so we started looking into how you get started as a coffee roastery and we tracked down a 5-kilo roaster from an old donkey hut in Wales.
*laughs* that’s amazing.
Yeah this pensioner had started to roast coffee in his retirement. He did one batch on this machine and realised that he had enough coffee for about a year.
So his hobby didn’t last too long but we managed to get a really amazing machine that had barely been used for a really good price.
How did you go about finding it?
There are catering machine companies, people that sell things like deep fat fryers and refrigerators and stuff. Coffee roasters get listed along items like that so we just kept an eye out and managed to get a machine in place.
We managed to get a unit with the council down at Meanwood on an industrial site and that was it. Krag was sent off to learn how to roast from some really well known roasters down south who I had some really good connections with through supplying to them.
It took about 6 months into it for us to get to a point for us to think that the coffee was good enough to start selling. It’s a really steep learning curve that’s just based on trial-and-error. I was tasting and saying thing like, ‘well maybe you dropped it in too hot there’ or maybe ‘the development time wasn’t long enough’ and things like that. Really trial and error.
I have to say though, it sounds like every step of the way you guys were having a good time with it – all of this sounds like you were having amazing fun.
Yeah it was great, and the reality of setting up a business is that it’s definitely exciting but it’s really hard work and we didn’t take a salary from the business for about 2 years.
I think that was particularly hard for Krag at the time. I had another job and he didn’t. North Star was his life and he wasn’t able to go out with people on a weekend or buy clothes.
When Krag was able to get a few key customers on board we quickly realised we’d done the right thing because the demand for freshly roasted, locally roasted, ethically sourced speciality-grade coffee was really, really high.
It was a really tough period getting on the road with samples. Krag was only 22 at the time, and so going into restaurants which had been operating since before he’d been born and trying to say ‘this is really good coffee, you should try it’ was challenging.
Getting people convinced was a different matter as well, we were going against roasters that could offer much cheaper price because they were selling commercial-grade coffee rather than speciality-grade.
When Krag was able to get a few key customers on board we quickly realised we’d done the right thing because the demand for freshly roasted, locally roasted, ethically sourced speciality-grade coffee was really, really high. We experienced that classic rocket-growth from year 1.
It just felt like we got to a point where we felt like we were supplying every coffee seller in Leeds and it was amazing. That in turn creates a good problem, but still a problem whereby people want something different and unique, and so you don’t want to be ‘too everywhere’.
You also have to ensure that your coffee is in the hands of people who are going to look after it and show off your brand accurately. So that presents a whole host of other problems.
I imagine in the first year you’d think that things would be tight and so to be in that situation would be so unexpected.
Yeah, it is – you have to say ‘yes’ to everything at the start to make sure that you get beans through the roaster and money through the door to pay your costs.
As a roaster we have to purchase all of our raw products through our suppliers when we know that we won’t get a return on that until months down the line and so at the start you can’t say no to anyone.
Then you find yourself tied into relationships that aren’t really complementary with businesses that aren’t on board 100% with what you are trying to achieve and you end up agreeing to ridiculous things like ‘yes we will deliver your coffee to you free of charge’ and end up driving a 2-hour round trip to deliver one order.
Just things like that where you learn from your first year to where we are now where we’re much more structured and have clearer supply terms in place.
We were in unit that was really not very pleasant. It was window-less and there was no heating, a tiny roaster and just the two of us. We were both just doing absolutely everything from building a website to marketing to actually operationally roasting, packaging and delivering the coffee.
There are a couple points there that you touched on which I just want to swing back to. Through the process of conducting market research, how did you go about finding everything you needed to out?
When you get into the coffee industry you realise it’s a very open industry where you know of everyone that’s operating.
Also the good places tend to really shout about who they’re working with because it’s the thing which distinctly sets them apart from the rest.
So it’s actually quite easy to find out who people are supplied by?
Yeah. It was just very much about visiting venues, spending time with people, drinking their coffee and taking it from there.
A huge part of it is social media, that’s been a big part of our development in the early years for sussing out who’s who, and who’s operating in which cities.
And then with the marketing as well, initially I can imagine it’s difficult because you’ll be pitching to people that already have suppliers and are in a position of having to say ‘I know you’re using these people, but you should be using us instead and here’s why’.
Yeah you do have to put yourself out there for sure, but particularly in the independent industry that we work within, it’s really not your typical sales technique at all, it’s very gentle. We’re not salesy at all. As individuals it would feel completely unnatural to us to act as typical salespeople. But it was definitely difficult.
It was easier in the early days because we were doing something that was very unique, there was no one else really doing what we were doing and to put it simply, we really just let the coffee do the talking.
We’d invite people into the unit for tastings, we would send out to potential clients a supply for a week just to see how they got on with it and take on board the feedback from the customers.
It was very organic really, a huge part of our business is the relationships and traceability that we can offer to our customers in terms of the suppliers that we’re working with and knowing exactly where that bean comes from.
It’s definitely becoming more and more difficult as the market gets more crowded. There are a few different roasteries in Leeds now, a few in Manchester and Sheffield. So there’s more competition locally but it’s a really strange industry. I wouldn’t strictly class it as competition as it’s more people helping to promote what we’re doing.
When it was just us it was harder to shout about why people should spend more on their coffee or buy from a certain supplier when it’s just you saying that. So having a few more people makes what we’re doing seem less abnormal.
That’s a brilliant takeaway as well. When I’ve spoken to others and competition has come into it, people have gotten a bit cagey – but what a positive takeaway to have from what is essentially a growing market.
Yeah, we started out with the aim of trying to convince as many people as we could to convert to speciality grade coffee because we firmly believe it’s what has to happen for the industry to maintain growth and for it to still be there.
We have to wake up to the fact that if we want to get the same great quality coffee year in and year out, that you have to look after people now. There’s a lot of customers and coffee companies out there that are just buying for the present and not necessarily building that sustainable approach into their business plan.
I think from our perspective, yes we are a business and we’ve got to see some growth but I think we also appreciate the growth of similar businesses in our area because it’s important to the industry as a whole that more people are getting on board and buying that type of coffee.
That’s something I wanted to touch on as well; the passion you have for coffee is so evident in the blog on your website which is absolutely amazing. Your approach to writing on it could almost be described as academic in the level of detail included. Was that level of detail something that you looked to include from the beginning to give you an edge?
Yeah, I think that we always wanted North Star to represent the knowledge and expertise that it has as a business – the core team that we have in the roaster has very distinctive skillsets and experience to the point where we’ve become elevated to that level in the industry.
My personal experience is in sensory analysis and sourcing, I’ve got very unique qualifications in that field. Krag is very much the head, master roaster – he’s got an amazing breadth of knowledge and natural feel for roasting coffee. Ollie who works for us has amazing barista expertise and so he has an incredible knowledge of the consumer side of the supply chain – machines, equipment, brew recipes and things from that perspective.
So I think for the website, those are the things that keep us in coffee – growing our knowledge and, not mastering an element of it but certainly being able to give a considered, constructive perspective. So that’s come naturally to us as a team and when writing about something; not just going to be saying something for the sake of it but rather a considered article that’s intended to help people out that have those same questions.
I think we have had to adapt as other roasteries have opened up around us, it’s been about cementing ourselves as being as credible as possible in the knowledge that we have.
That’s part of the setup of the coffee academy, and being able to offer specialised courses where other roasters coming in and get their coffee diplomas here. It’s a key part of that side of North Star in terms of creating a real centre for excellence.
I wish you’d been around to work with some of my earlier employers. I remember working in pubs around that period where all pubs started to offer coffee and so places just bought machines but never really taught staff how to use them or make coffee with any degree of skill.
It’s a classic case. We get approached by people who’ve had a similar experience and it’s a really terrible situation for us to walk in on because of what we train people to do. If you haven’t had any training before, it can seem totally ridiculous.
You’ll see here the baristas weigh out all the coffee they use. You’ll see scales at every work area where people are weighing how much coffee is coming out of the grinder, how much coffee is produced by the machine, timing it and so it’s a very scientific approach which really is what’s needed with coffee to guarantee the consistency and quality and ensure it’s being shown off at it’s best.
So I think when you go into venues which have never had that or it’s a completely foreign concept, then it makes it difficult to try and say to people ‘no, you need to do this for good coffee’.
We always wanted to be really approachable as a business. Not your usual London-hipster, exclusionary type business where coffee is almost a bit intimidating.
We’ve approached it in the most Yorkshire manner that we possibly could, hopefully very down to earth and approachable – especially to people who genuinely come to us with an attitude of wanting to learn more.
But we have had to adapt how easily we take people on in terms of wholesale relationships because the brand has grown to a point where we’ve got to work hard to protect that.
To make sure that quality is being maintained in the way that coffee is served here and served at Cha Lounge (for example) to make sure that everything is consistent – to make sure that people aren’t having a great experience of North Star at one venue and then somewhere else it being terrible because of how the coffee is being made…it’s a challenge.
Absolutely – although I’m curious, how do you go about ensuring that? Say a new company approaches you and say’s we’d love to have some of your brilliant coffee and you start trading with them – is there an agreement where you say you have to make it in a certain way? I imagine that’s a really difficult thing to enforce without having a presence on-site.
It is and it’s difficult for us as people – you never want to give the impression of ‘oh, we’re too good for you’.
There’s a couple of things that we do; where we have minimum supply terms in place where you have to have a minimum standard of machine and grinder in order to trade with us.
They have to have an automated grinder, not a manual one like a paddle grinder where you can’t control how much is coming out and the machine needs to have temperature control. A lot of cheaper machines at the lower end of the market, they just jump massively from anywhere from 82C to 94C which has a massive effect on the coffee’s flavour in terms of how much is extracted from the bean.
So that’s the starting point, if people have that machinery in place then we’ll talk with them extensively – particularly if it’s at the early stages of them setting up, we try and be as involved as we can be from day 1 to ensure things like they’re getting the right cup sizes, the right milk jugs, using the right milk…
What a customer experience! I can’t think of anyone else doing it they way you guys are.
It’s really labour intensive; we take a really engaged approach to wholesale relationships.
We don’t just sell someone coffee and never talk to them again – we have to vet them to make sure that they’re going to appropriately serve it and so we visit them once every 3-4 months. Sometimes we let them know we’re coming and other times we just pop in and just have a quick scout of the machine to check if it was clean, if the coffee was tasting good and we also have monthly wholesale events where we invite all of our wholesale customers to come down here and learn about an aspect about coffee.
When we take someone on as a wholesale customer we make it our responsibility to help grow their business as well in terms of how much coffee they sell, how well known they are in the industry and so we do whatever we can from that perspective.
I think our customer base is extremely loyal and proud, I think, and that’s probably been one of our proudest achievements – to see the relationships that we’ve developed with businesses across the region.
We don’t tie people into contracts and don’t force people into relationships where we say things like ‘if you buy our machines then you have to use our coffee’, we don’t do any of that.
We’ve approached it in the most Yorkshire manner that we possibly could, hopefully very down to earth and approachable – especially to people who genuinely come to us with an attitude of wanting to learn more.
We want people to buy from us because they want to buy from us.
I think the relationships we have are really solid. We’ve worked with most of them for years, since we’ve started and we’re happily seen their coffee sales double and triple because their quality is better and they’re becoming known as a coffee destination.
I mean yeah, I can attest to that from Cha Lounge – it’s the first time I’ve ever gone to somewhere which sells drinks where they go into detail about where they get their coffee from. It’s not a conversation I’ve ever had before, it just shows that you’re giving them something to shout about.
It must be rewarding as well to come away after this process of development and see that enthusiasm come off on the people you work with; even after this conversation I feel really enthusiastic and just like I want to be drinking loads more coffee!
It’s strange, some people have that experience where their eyes are opened up to this whole new world that coffee can be really amazing and interesting and other people are really business focused and if coffee isn’t their main product – say they’re a pub or have food on offer or something like that where coffee isn’t their main push then from a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense to approach it in that way.
North Star for us was always a passion project in the sense that we never did a business degree, we never thought that we wanted to start our own business and for us to be someone’s boss is a horrible idea, we never wanted that.
So generally, we tend to find ourselves gelling with business owners who have opened businesses from a similar perspective where they want to do things as well as they possibly can rather than people that are solely focused on the bottom-line profits.
Just, this being a passion project for you guys and working with people where that’s a similar case and everything about that makes the whole process seem so much more enjoyable.
I imagine there are frustrations and concerns during the process of starting a business but it just sounds like every decision you guys have made comes from a place of you guys enjoying what you do – you do the things that you enjoy and have turned that into a business rather than starting out with the goal of earning money.
Honestly, the downside of having your own business can occasionally far outweigh the perks and I think that if we didn’t live and breathe everything that we do here then the business wouldn’t keep going.
People always assume that coffee is a really great business to be in – there are coffee shops opening up on every corner and people are always talking about the margin that you can make on a cup of coffee and everything and the fact is that if you come at it from a quality perspective where you want to be ethical then it’s really hard to make money in coffee. Really, really hard.
You have to sell a lot of coffee and I think if we were coming at it from that perspective then we would have given up a long time ago because you need to love what you do to be able to continue getting out of bed every day.Reading the blog and reading more about how closely ethics ties into your values, sourcing coffee in the first place how does that value tie into your process of finding and working with new suppliers
I think that lots of the relationships that we have in place now were established when I had my previous role as a green coffee-buyer and that was what I did 7-days a week –
This is probably going to sound like me being really simple but…‘green coffee’?
No, not at all. Green coffee is the term for raw coffee before it’s been roasted. So a green coffee buyer is essentially someone that sources coffee. My job was to go and find new producers that were producing coffee in a way that paid homage to the quality and the surroundings that it grew in.
There are certain areas and farms in the world that have better growing conditions then others so it was very much a case of maybe having a connection with a marketer or an exporting agent and then just flying to Guatemala and saying ‘let’s check out this farm’.
Then when you get there someone tells you ‘oh, my brother has a farm just over that way that’s 1800m above sea level and he’s experimenting with a new way of processing it’ so you think to yourself that you’re definitely going to go and check that out.
Then you just start a relationship by receiving things like samples which we roast here and then we taste them and if they meet our scoring guidelines – to be speciality-grade coffee it needs to score 80/100 based on different attributes like acidity and body.
Is this something you do in here or do you bring someone else in to do that?
No, so I’m a qualified Q-grader, so it’s kind of like a sommelier but for coffee. Like a coffee taster.
And that’s how a relationship starts really, if the samples are good and it tastes good then it means that we can buy it because we only roast speciality-grade Arabica coffee so if it tastes good then it’s up to us to ensure that everything’s in place for us to buy coffee from that farm.
From an ethical standpoint, we developed some guidelines which are based on some of my experiences in my past employment for sourcing coffee and an understanding that just because a farmer grows quality coffee, it doesn’t mean it was produced ethically.
A lot of people just assume just because something tastes good that it must come from someone who really cares about the plant and the people they work with and it’s just not always the case. So we developed some guidelines which dictate that we have to buy from rainforest alliance certified farms in Latin America that are like larger estates.
What that certification says is that it has to run in-line with international labour law, so there has to be a minimum wage and a minimum age in place, different accommodation for men and women, first-class protein in every meal which is provided by the producer to the workers and the environmental guidelines that are in place are in line with sustainable agricultural networks so there are safety signs, evaporation ponds in place to remove any of the coffee processing water and by-products in the water.
If we taste a sample and there’s no certification in place then we basically don’t do anything until we can arrange a trip to go and see it. So if the coffee was that good, and it’s something that we were looking at creating a long-term partnership with then it means going to see the farm and checking those things out for yourself and making that call when you’re out there.
And if something wasn’t or didn’t feel right, then we wouldn’t pursue a relationship with that producer.
For the producers we work with, we pay a price that guarantees to cover the full cost of production and at least a 50% quality premium on top, which is way above the minimum Fairtrade price which is set.
We like to work with farmers that are innovative and aware of the challenges that are going on around them. So we work with a lot of farmers that put time into working with different varieties of coffee to get around disease and things that can be brought on by climate change and things like that.
We invest our own money into projects which will improve quality and therefore increase the price that we have to pay for the coffee in the long run if that makes sense.Absolutely brilliant, so what advice would you love to go back and give yourselves now with the experience that you’ve built up since then?
I think that we’ve always waited too long to bring someone else into the team if that makes sense? We’ve always been super, super cautious. I don’t feel like we’ve ever really taken a massive leap outside of starting the business in the first place, when it was established we always tried to run ourselves as if we’re a big organisation when we’re just two members of staff.
There was definitely times where if we’d brought someone in earlier, the business would possibly have been further on in terms of what we’d have been able to offer with the resources we’ve had.
We’ve always just been so aware of the responsibility that you have when you bring someone else on when you’re paying their salary and it’s someone else’s livelihood in your hands really.
you have to really understand what you want to achieve as a business in the long term.
I think if you feel confident in your offering, approach and structure in terms of your pricing and margin and things like that then I would advise people to go for it and just take a leap at times and not overthink things too much because I think if you feel confident in your knowledge, experience and offering then that will in turn create good.
We’ve also always written a business plan, always. That’s a real practical piece of advice, always have goals for each year. Whether you do one each year or a 5-year plan in terms of what you want to achieve, I think that’s really important to track and help you understand which decisions to make and keep you on track.
That’s something we’ve had from day one, there’re several parts to the business which present several opportunities for growth whether that’s wholesale or education or retail – you have to really understand what you want to achieve as a business in the long term. It helps you understand which opportunity might be the right one and when it’s not. So that and spending time working on your core values because that has made it easier for us to never stray.
Yeah, like to define who you want to be.
Yeah, we’ve had approaches from things like supermarkets and really large, corporate chains who’ve expressed and interest in working with us but we’ve …you know, sometimes those opportunities can make you think ‘Oh my god, this could be the one, this could be the thing that transforms the business’.
But one things that’s always helped us make those decisions is our values or quality and ethics so if something comes along which makes us stray from those ethics or compromise either the quality of the coffee that we buy or the ethics in how we source them then that’s when we know it’s not right for us.
Having those brand values from day one and making sure that everyone agrees makes sure that everyone’s very much on the same page when making decisions. That helps you stay on track with what you’re doing when competition strikes up, so you’re not looking around at the competition and thinking ‘oh god, they’ve got this and maybe we should do this’, you’re able to stay really focused on what you want to achieve.
That’s a great tip! Thank you.
The next question is, what were the most useful tools for you when you started to get North Star off the ground? The things that you’d find yourself relying on most.
I mean Excel spread sheets played a massive role in everything from stock control and counts to customer lists like a CRM system so, Excel was a key part of what we did.
Most important would be social media as a platform. That was something that really enabled us to speak to our customers and create a real brand and create a message about what we do right from day one.
It’s a great free resource at your fingertips, so we utilised that as much as we could. We didn’t have a set social media strategy or someone that was taking care of that, we just made sure that we kept in touch with our customers and provide them with bits of information that would be interesting or supporting them and shouting about them in social media as well.
That really played a massive role, we’d hit a point in 2015 where we’d run out of capacity for the roasting machine that we had and really needed to invest in a bigger machine and so we run a kick-starter campaign to fund it which raised £20,000.
Sh*t, that’s amazing!
*laughs * Yeah, but that was done really off the back of the social media following that we had and the community that we had created with people that had been popping down to Meanwood to buy their coffee on the weekend since when we got going.
I think that’s had the most influence on our business to date, that goal we purely achieved by using those platforms really.
Fantastic, and the final question I’ll wrap up with is…I’m trying to think of a better way to phrase this question because it always comes out so rambly but one thing I try and do with Inkbike is to try to create value…I was wondering if there was any area which you might not know too much about which you would love to learn more on to help you with the running of things or any kind of personal or professional development which I could go away and research and write about.
That’s a really good question, I wish we were asked that more. I think one thing that’s been really difficult with setting up the retail side of the business is the sudden explosion of personnel which we’ve had. We’ve gone from a team of four, to 16 literally overnight. So that side of things with HR and staff management, the legal requirements of having staff.
We have those things in place before with employment contracts with holiday entitlement but I think it gets to a very different scale very quickly when you have that kind of expansion. That’s something we’ve had to absorb into our job roles. I’ve spent hours looking online for guidelines from the government on different types of contracts and statutory obligations.
We’re not quite at the stage where we can afford a full HR person or office manager but if that kind of information was…not more accessible, but more understandable – written in a way that you can understand without having to Google every single phrase – that would be useful to a lot of businesses which experience the same journey we’ve had.
Things like music licences, insurance, suppliers of plumbing or electricians, all of that information. If there was something local, like a resource that people could share and utilise…that’s been a real headache. Things like who to contact if the electrics go down, or who to contact if the drains back up.
I’m sure there are other businesses around here that maybe have used one company which have been extortionate and another which has been reasonable and reliable and it would be good to get to the point where that information is shared.
That would be a benefit to a lot of people.
It’s sounds like one of those things where unless that is literally your business, it’s not something that anyone would have time to start.
No, exactly. It needs to be a dedicated forum where people can share experiences and things.
We’re going to start a ‘How to start a coffee shop’ course because it’s just things like that that we’ve learnt by doing things ourselves. Trying to get information on anything, what music licences do I need to get, does it need to be PPL or PRS, what do you need to do to get an alcohol licence and just things like that. It was agonisingly difficult to figure that out from different resources.
Hopefully we’ll get that on the curriculum going forwards because I think people would benefit from.