Thursday, 16 July 2020
When Harriet Hastings set up Biscuiteers in 2007 her vision was to offer a different kind of stylish and personalised gift. Today, her luxury hand-iced biscuits are available through the post, in Selfridges Food Hall and at the Biscuiteers’ Icing Cafés. She discusses the importance of brand generosity, thinking far enough ahead, and how the pandemic has changed her way of working for good…
What in your routine is essential for success?
We are a marketing-led business and try to be very responsive and topical on our social feeds and in our design planning, so putting effective structures in place around our seasonal planning, product development and sales and marketing is essential for success. As a team, we meet every Monday – these days by Zoom – to review our plan for the week ahead and make last-minute changes if we need to in response to sales or current events. We also take the time to review our successes and those moments that haven’t perhaps been so good at the end of each month, so that we can take the learnings and build on them. When I started the business, I relied on my instincts, but with a bigger business and growing team, I find a structured approach really helps to keep everybody moving in the same direction, and gives every member of the team a chance to have input on ideas. The key for me, though, is to make your structures agile and flexible so that they can move with you.
How do you manage your digital balance?
Not terribly well in general, but for me these things are not black and white. Technology is a great liberator in so many ways. I had four children when I began Biscuiteers and one of the reasons I started it in the first place was to give me more flexibility in terms of looking after my family. I try to hang on to that idea, but being able to work as you want and where you want means being available, so for me it's always been a trade-off and one that I'm prepared to make. I expect to be disturbed seven days a week. I don't generally set rules; I just try to make sensible day-to day-judgments on when I'm needed and when I can turn things off. I am not good at compartmentalising and I admire people who say they can. It's definitely an ‘always on’ thing for me, but I think entrepreneurs tend to be made that way and are always happy to be thinking or talking about their business.
Where did you get your entrepreneurial spirit?
I used to be head of consumer brands at a top 20 PR company and also headed up the consumer tech division throughout the dot.com boom. I met a lot of young entrepreneurs there and helped them create a communications proposition around their e-commerce businesses, which really opened my eyes to the potential of direct brands. Working in an agency environment taught me how to work across many different projects simultaneously with lots of different people, and how to step in, add value and move on.
Is there a winning formula for being a successful entrepreneur?
I don't think the label ‘entrepreneur’ is necessarily limited to people who start their own businesses – it is a way of working. It's about being able to challenge thinking automatically and look for ways to extend things and being able to say ‘Let's do this, but in our way because it’s more interesting’ or ‘What could we do to make this work harder for us?’ Ultimately, I think flexible thinking is key. If something isn’t working, think round a problem until you find a solution. Focus and drive are critical too, alongside a clear idea of a business strategy and belief in its potential. It helps if you can take people with you – businesses are built by teams, not individuals and getting the right team is perhaps the single biggest contributor to success. If you understand your own strengths and weaknesses, you can build a high-performing team that complements itself.
How do you stay focused?
I think focus is easy and follows naturally when you believe in what you are doing, remain challenged and enjoy it. If you're lacking focus in any area of your life it could be a sign that your entrepreneurial spirit needs to be thinking of doing whatever you’re doing in a different way. The absolute starting point for me for any business idea is ‘Do you understand what the need for this is, and can you communicate it?’ It's crucial to be clear on this and have belief, because not only do you have to believe in your business, but you have to bring everybody else along too. All the people working with you are looking at you to give back leadership and confidence. If you're not focused, then no one else is.
What’s your tip for staying on top of finances, practically, emotionally or strategically?
Get some great financial advice, either from your FD or externally. At Boxcutters, we have weekly cash calls and constantly updated cash flow analysis. It's really important to get this right because worrying about your cash position uses up essential energy that you should be putting into your sales and marketing. With a growing business, you also have to think far enough ahead. the greatest danger is always cash flow and the faster you grow, the greater the demand. Growth also requires money and we have a problem in this country where a lot of small businesses don't grow as much as they should – and there are so many entrepreneurial organisations that exist to help people understand how to access or raise money and get investment in their business.
How have you pivoted in response to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic?
As a digital business we were already set up for taking orders and dispatching them and we actually experienced extraordinary levels of demand. Sending biscuits was a way of connecting through lockdown. This meant that we sold through our stock very quickly though, so we had to pivot fast as ultimately, we were selling a completely different range almost overnight. This included a new range of Letterbox Love biscuits, a rainbow biscuit for the emergency services and a lot of DIY gifts. We also ran an 'Ice-olation Challenge' – icing tutorials online where people could ice along with us. It's the generosity at heart of brands that creates engagement and teaching people to do what we do and being generous with our knowledge was a good thing in terms of building brand awareness. There are changes in our working practices that are permanent now - the letterbox thing is huge, for example, and I think we will rebrand to the Icing Club as we as we come out of this. When you're forced to change your working practices very fast there are always things that you learn.