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One sunny day in his beekeeper Dad’s garden, Joe Harper and his best friend Andy Sugden had a eureka moment, spotting a gap in the market to use honey as a natural, healthier sweetener in soft drinks. Since then they’ve been on an incredible journey, and within two years have secured contracts with some of the country’s biggest retailers. Not bad for two guys with no prior food and drinks experience, eh? We chatted to Joe about their story and that infamous Dragon’s Den debut…
A Studio of Our Own: Could you please give us a brief bit of background on how you started Just Bee and where the business is now?
Joe Harper: We started Just Bee about three years ago when my friend Andy and I decided to think about how great a natural sweetener honey was — both my Dad and Grandfather were beekeepers. After about a year of experimenting with honey and different flavour combinations in our spare time, we finally teamed up with a manufacturer and quit our jobs in April 2015 to start selling it. The last two years have been spent building the business up very slowly from coffee shops and delis, building up to bigger stores and we’ve just signed a deal with Sainsbury’s. We’re very excited about that, it’s our latest development.
ASOOO: We love how the Just Bee message is articulated in a very natural, authentic, friendly way – how easy for you was it to plan and build that message?
JH: In the early days we quickly realised that it was going to be very important to have more than ‘just a product.’ You need something to make you stand you apart and for people to remember you by. We knew that having the family heritage story from my dad and Grandad was quite a useful thing to use so we built a brand story around it. We’re especially aware of the issues bees have been facing in recent years and felt it was important to start a honey brand that did something to help the bees too. We realised we could do something ethical as well as create a product and get people actually engaged and involved.
ASOOO: And that friendly tone and message is beautifully complemented a very strong graphic identity — did you have a clear vision for your branding from the start? And how important do you think it is to have a strong graphic element to the brand?
JH: In the first year of trading we had a very different design and the packaging is pretty unrecognisable from what we have today. We realised how important it was to have a strong visual identity and our original branding wasn’t strong enough. Your packaging is the first thing consumers see, it’s what stands out on the shelves and makes people buy your product. So we worked with a creative agency who designed a new brand identity with our ethos and then we saw huge change in sales and awareness.
ASOOO: When thinking back to the early days of the business, did there come a point when you knew you were onto something?
JH: No, I don’t think so – it’s incredibly difficult even to this day. We have some great listings but it hasn’t come a point where it feels any easier yet. I think it’s incredibly difficult and hard work to gain traction as a food and drink brand given the fierce competition there is.
ASOOO: Well I guess that keeps you hungry anyway…
JH: Yes, your expectations shift continually – if we could have seen the position we’re in now two years ago when we started out, then we’d look at what we’ve achieved and be extremely happy!
ASOOO: With a list of high-profile retail partnerships under your belt, how much of your success do you think is down to getting the product out there and letting it speak for itself?
JH: We ran our first production in March 2015 – the very next day we left our jobs and had a warehouse in Manchester full of more drinks than we could imagine… but no customers. There wasn’t really much choice but to get in the car and start knocking on coffee shop and deli shop doors in and around Manchester, asking if they’d stock and sell the product. Lucky for us 22 out of the first 25 stores we asked said “Yes” and many of them are still stocking Just Bee today!
ASOOO: What have you found to be the most effective form of marketing for your brand? And has this evolved since you first started?
JH: It may not sound ground breaking, but we use a bit of everything including social, PR, events, sampling and influencer outreach. There doesn’t appear to be one form of marketing we’ve thought stands out because every platform is extremely noisy. Whether you’re at an event or on social media, it can be difficult to stand out. It’s just about creating a bit of your own noise – and being memorable (and potentially getting lucky too!).
ASOOO: How much hard selling have you had to do and how have you dealt with that? Was it something you were immediately comfortable with?
JH: No, neither Andy or I had prior experience in direct selling, but it is fundamental to any business so we learned! I actually hate it!
ASOOO: We love your wildflowers seed initiative, how important do you think it is for companies to act responsibly and give back?
JH: Only if it’s authentic. I think consumers are probably getting quite tired with every company trying to do something and I think it’s lost its power slightly. It’s not about crowbarring an ethical side to the business just because you have to. I don’t think consumers would connect with that. If it’s something authentic, that you really care about and that fits with the product for synergy then I think it’s really useful but if it’s not – I wouldn’t force it. There’s other ways to stand out and connect to consumers.
ASOOO: You’re famous for turning down the investment offer from Peter Jones on Dragons Den; how difficult was that decision? What would be your advice to new businesses and entrepreneurs about investment?
JH: One of the hardest parts of running a business – other than growing the top-line revenue and sales, is working out where and how to fund the business. Typically most businesses can go for up to three years before you even make a profit and most people fund it from their own pockets to start off and my personal opinion is this is the right way to do it if you can. Otherwise it could prove pretty tough to convince an outside investor that you’re committed.
Finding outside investment is tough, our last round took about four-five months and it took me out of the business throughout that time until we had cash in the bank. At every point, they could have changed their minds which made it unpredictable. I think crowd funding platforms are really good, because you can turn it around in 1-2 months if you market it right. The key thing to look for in an outside investor is something other than the money that they can bring to the table, make sure you’re getting as much back from it as possible. Some of the guys who invested in us have worked in food and drink for 30+ years which has been really helpful to us.
ASOOO: What have you most enjoyed about the experience of running your own business?
JH: The best thing is being able to work in my pyjamas and not get out of bed to work some days – I’m not exaggerating! Having the autonomy and being in control to run things exactly how we like and not having to report to anyone but ourselves is great.
ASOOO: If you could give the entrepreneur you were when you started out some advice, what would it be?
JH: Don’t go into food and drink [laughs]… It’s becoming an incredibly more challenging place to make money – there’s a number of factors such as the obvious competition from the very big brands who have a lot of power in the market. But there’s a massive avalanche of new brands all coming through to the market at the same time — it’s all very noisy. On top of that, the retailers are extremely powerful too — I had no food and drink industry knowledge before but if I’d known before what I do now, I might have chosen another sector to go into!
ASOOO: Oh no, really? Even if you still have an incredible brand proposition?
JH: Don’t get me wrong, it’s gone really well – we’re very happy with how we’ve done. But if we’d put the same energy into something else, it might have been a bit easier…
ASOOO: As an agency, we’re constantly talking about the need for bravery in business. Do you have any tips for start-ups who have a great idea, but no experience of selling?
JH: I guess everyone’s situation is different and there’s a distinct difference between a leap of faith and leap into the dark. If you’ve done all the research, you know your finances, and you’re not re-mortgaging your house for something that may or may not work — then I’d say yes — go for it. Even when I meet people where I don’t necessarily understand their new idea, I’d never try to talk them out of it because I know what it’s like to be in that position. It’s all about being prepared before you take your leap!
ASOOO: What was your support network like when you started out? Where did you go when you needed advice?
JH: I tried to speak to as many other brands as possible when we started out, mainly starts-ups and entrepreneurs in the industry who were one to two years ahead of us. We’d meet them and get chatting at trade shows and built relationships from there.
ASOOO: What has running your own business taught you about yourself? Are there new skills you had to learn and what would you say has been the most valuable?
JH: I think you need to be a ‘jack of all trades’…i.e. be able to do everything (or most things) to a decent standard. Whether that’s managing people, doing your books, creating marketing ideas, building a website, etc etc. If you don’t know how to do it, then teach yourself! There will be instances when you’ve tried your best and you still can’t do something, so accept this and ask someone who has the right skills to do it for you (either as a favour or as low a cost as possible). Building relationships and being able to persuade someone to help you out when you need it is really important.
ASOOO: And on a final note…When we work with our clients, our big three aims are always to get them to communicate in a way that’s nice, brave and honest. How do you think being nice, honest and brave has helped you get to where you are?
JH: I guess it all comes down to the old cliché that ‘people buy off people’ – if you’re brave, nice and honest then people are going to recognise this and they’re going to want to help you build your business. This goes for employees, suppliers and customers – anyone you deal with.
It is a very cut-throat world out there, but if you can maintain integrity then it definitely gets you further because people are then willing to go that extra mile and help you.