I can relate to the founders of the Harris+Hoole coffee shop and admire its decision to let Tesco take a chunk of the business. Every small business has to start somewhere and, as we experienced at Debbie & Andrew’s, you eventually reach a point where you have no more money to take your brand where you want it to go.
Fifteen years ago we were struggling pig farmers who diversified into sausages to make ends meet. The early days were fun but hard graft and we were proud to grow our Debbie & Andrew’s brand from zero to £5m with no outside investment.
But we truly believed someone out there held the key to greater success, and when opportunity came knocking in 2005 we jumped at the chance to become a part of a larger, well-respected British food company. Life was good and we continued to prosper until our parent company was sold overnight to a bigger food giant and, sadly for us, this was the beginning of the end.
” When small businesses stumble we need to pick them up”
For three years, the stress and pressure were terrible as we battled with people who didn’t share our values and ideals, and investment went out of the window. As brand ambassadors, it was our job to uphold these values and protect the brand and all it stood for, but it actually ended up making us feel like the enemy and, with a heavy heart, we walked away at the end of last year.
Of course, there have been success stories. Innovation at big companies often comes from the small companies they absorb. Ben & Jerry’s, Green & Black’s, The Body Shop, Pret a Manger and, more recently, Innocent are just a few companies that have started small, built a loyal army of fans, and then sold out to bigger companies.
But it will only work if the parent company understands and respects your brand and its values, and lives up to its promises to really support you and take your brand to the places you want it to go. Big isn’t always beautiful. In our case, it was slower and less efficient, production costs were much higher and quality and waste management were big issues.
On the plus side, it hasn’t stopped us from starting again. We’ve invested every penny we walked away with into a new sausage business set to shake up the category, a brand that will carry all the values we hold so close, and we are well financed and fit to supply any of the supermarkets. Yes, the prospect is daunting but sometimes you have to say what the heck and give it another go.
When small businesses stumble, we need to pick them up and keep them moving, not force them into compromising buyout deals. Defra grants were our lifeline when we started, so how about more government-backed schemes to give financial access to small and medium-sized business to help them grow and perhaps maintain their independence for longer and resist the lure of the corporate giants?
With news that the brand that carries our name has just been bought by yet another large food company, we fear the brand will face the same issues in the future and we have to be clear to consumers that we’ve moved on.
Andrew Keeble is the co-founder of Debbie & Andrew’s, and soon to be launched Heck sausages