After recently attending GLEE 2015, Chris Barker caught up with Joe Denham to learn more about the inspiration around his business, the challenges he has faced and the advice he would give other growing FMCG businesses.
Chris: What was the inspiration for VegTrug, how did you identify the niche in the market?
Joe: We recognised that the grow-your-own trend was in its infancy and while many thought that it was a ‘fad’we felt that a corner had been turned and actually, it had a long way to run. This was 2008 and we were in the grip of the banking crisis and the beginning of a major downturn. In this climate, grow-your-own was very much established. Possibly not as a necessity, but certainly people had an eye on food costs.
There were other reasons also. A slight backlash against supermarkets, the movement to eat healthier and just the growth of interest in gardening and nutrition all contributed to the timing of the VegTrug product being right.
There were many companies developing products for this market, but we were innovative both in the product design and also in offering a free education opportunity to those people who had never grown anything before. They could visit our website, or download our App and get free growing instructions. This was innovative.
Chris: As an entrepreneur, how did your previous business experience in the IT sector help you in the Garden Sector and to develop the VegTrug brand?
Joe: In a previous working life I owned and operated a company called CBT Systems and we produced and sold online training courses in the IT field to major corporations. Certainly this helped define the VegTrug education philosophy and was the inspiration for the original VegTrug iPhone and Android App.
I also had a stint on Shopping TV where I had my own show for four years. Shopping TV was an amazing education in consumer marketing for me. Each product and idea had to be conveyed in a story format that the customer could relate to. Benefits had to be visually and simply demonstrable to the end user customer which was something I had no real experience of. In the IT world I had always sold to other businesses. This meant that for VegTrug we developed a story to the product with a unique approach to the marketplace in the gardening industry.
We made excellent use of new technologies and I spent most nights for the first two years of the business writing on blogs, and posting on Facebook and Twitter. Of course these days every major brand employs a team of people who are social media experts. In those days it was just me in my spare time, blogging and interacting with real people. Telling the VegTrug story. It is amazing the traction we got in those first two years. But then, the harder we work the luckier we get!
Chris: As the business has grown, what challenges have you had developing people and processes, both externally and internally?
Joe: We have been very good at choosing the right people in the business as we have grown. We have a superb young team and we have built a culture in the business so that they are never afraid to disagree with Senior Management opinion and can express their views. As I have gotten older I very much appreciate that it is easy to lose touch with modern thinking and I am adamant that we must listen to every opinion in the business. Our 23 year old “Design Guru”started with us this year. She is a Brighton University Design Graduate and is the start of a major investment by VegTrug in product design going forwards.
The process of logistics, warehousing and distribution is something we have had to learn as the business has grown. We are not experts in this area and we have designed them as we have grown. Flexibility is the key here for a young business. We have used a mixture of our own warehousing and external which means we can switch off or switch on space as we need to. This is absolutely key in a seasonal business.
Our biggest expense in this area has been our accounts systems. We pride ourselves on our accuracy and efficiency when it comes to audit time and have had to invest heavily in the right system to suit our business.
Chris: You’ve had some great success with the export market, what advice would you give to up and coming businesses looking to expand and export their products abroad?
Joe: Take all the advice that you can. Find out who your local UKTI representative is and call them in to see how much help you can get. Also make sure you join your industry associations. These guys have such a network of people that they know. They also have events and seminars that are really informative and will put you ahead of the pack.
Look to successful businesses in your sector. Pick up the phone and call the Managing Director. Ask him for some advice. Most times he’ll call you in for a coffee and give you an education in how they did it. What have you got to lose?
Chris: Can you give some examples of how you have engaged with your consumers and the feedback you have had from the market?
Joe: We have sponsored the Skinny Jean Gardeners this year who are the guys who appear on Blue Peter and we also give VegTrugs to help promote the Food for Life Program in schools which we think is a wonderful initiative. Over the years we have given away hundreds of our products to support causes, especially for children and the elderly where our products come into their own.
We regularly receive the most heartwarming letters from schools and private individuals telling us how VegTrug products have improved lives and this gives us the biggest satisfaction. Here is one from a play school owner:
I just wanted to say that I recently purchased the medium VegTrug for my playschool, to allow the children to grow their own snacks.
My husband and I put it together yesterday and it was so easy! The instructions are clear and very easy to follow.
I am considering buying one for my house now! I hope the playschool children will enjoy learning about growing and eating using your brilliant product.”
Over the Rainbow Playschool
Here is a wonderful email we received from someone who won a VegTrug in a competition we sponsored. It really does speak for itself:
"My VegTrug has just arrived it is great I am so excited this has made my day. Until recently I have been bed bound and have been ill but am now up and have been out in the garden so having a special gift like this is a fantastic boost for me. I will use it to be able to grow some salad for the summer. Thank you so much it is so kind of you to organise this.”
The most wonderful email I received was from a lady who told me that her terminally ill aunt wanted to spend her last days in her garden again, so the family bought her a VegTrug that she could tend from her wheelchair. She said it was the most wonderful thing they could have done for her. Her last days were spent peacefully gardening and tending her VegTrug.
Chris: How important has marketing; social media, Apps, strategic partnerships/sponsorship been in building brand awareness for your business?
Joe: It is really all we use and has been so from the beginning. At the start it was borne of necessity as we had absolutely no money to get our name out there. So it was myself on the keyboard at night.
The iPhone App in 2009 was fantastic for us. We were probably the first company in our sector to think of using an App and reviewers were desperate to get their hands on new Apps to review. When we launched the VegTrug App it was immediately reviewed around the world and the VegTrug name mentions on Google went crazy. I don’t think you could get the same jump in exposure from a simple App these days, but back then, it had a significant impact.
Chris: What one piece of advice would you give to an SME looking to upscale and grow their business?
Joe: Cash is king. Never take on overhead that outstrips your cash supply as you grow. Even if it means growing at a more conservative rate. If you run out of cash you are dead.