Cally Affleck’s mail order coffee business Boaters: What I wish I’d known

Former air hostess Cally Affleck and her husband Richard set up mail order coffee business Boaters in 1989 with £1,000.

The business now has a turnover of £3 million, its own production facility and worldwide distribution channels.

Start your business on a shoestring

Launching a business on a low budget is probably the most difficult thing to do, but in hindsight, starting with £1,000 and during a recession did us a favour. It helped us to account for all our costs, encouraged us to be innovative and made us conscious about wasting money. We were strapped for cash in the early days and when you are a young business, no one will give you money. In year two we applied for a £3,000 loan from the then Midland Bank, and got turned down, even though our family had been doing business with them for years. In the end, our parents helped us out. Fourteen years down the line we are still a lean company without massive overheads.

Be innovative

When we entered the coffee market, we challenged it. Essentially, it’s a grocery line, but we packaged it in bright colours and that is what we became known for. But make sure you protect your ideas – trademark them. A lesson we’ve learnt is that there is no point in having a trademark if you can’t defend it. Never underestimate the value of registering it with a specialist trademark lawyer and then getting insurance against having to defend your trademark in court. You can take people to court, but it’s an expensive route for a small business. It has happened to us and initially we had to walk away, which was hard after all the work we had put in.

Involve your customers from the start

People think that focus groups and tasting panels are for big companies, but you can do all this on a shoestring. Talk to as many people as you can – we used to use people in our office when we started out. We now have a roadshow unit that goes out to areas like major sporting events. When we developed instant coffee, we placed it in a 100g jar, but it was too big for the product and it didn’t sell. We asked people’s opinions and realised they wanted it in smaller amounts. We reduced it to a 50g jar and sales took off.

If you export, research your market thoroughly

You really have to know the market you are going to. We’ve gone down the exporting route in the last three years, and we now trade with over 20 countries. You have to market your products differently. Hong Kong and China don’t buy in bulk, they tend to do shopping every two days in small amounts. We export our instant coffee to Greece by the container-load, and we wondered why they wanted the coffee as it’s so hot there, but it’s used for ice coffee! Go round and look at stores abroad and see what’s working and go to trade shows. But do it on a budget – so that if at first it doesn’t succeed, it doesn’t matter.

Don’t neglect other parts of your life

When you start a business it is your life – and you can think nothing of working an 18-hour day. It can be all-consuming, but this is what a lot of people do. You have to be so careful that you don’t end up neglecting parts of your life and then regretting it later. The hardest part has been not stepping back a bit and enjoying some leisure time.

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