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022 - How we launched Vegan Business Tribe, and what you can learn from it!

We share what worked (and what didn’t) from our first year of building Vegan Business Tribe. Few people wake up with an idea for a business and then just go out and build their vision. It doesn’t work like that because you don’t start out with all the pieces.

Lisa and David never meant to launch Vegan Business Tribe, they actually set out with a completely different idea entirely. And to celebrate our first year anniversary, David tells the story of where Vegan Business Tribe came from, how it grew so quickly, and how testing the concept proved that all our assumptions about what we THOUGHT people wanted were utterly and completely wrong!

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Full episode transcript

Hello and welcome to episode twenty-two of The Vegan Business Tribe Podcast with myself David Pannell, co-founder of Vegan Business Tribe.  If you have a vegan business, or are thinking of starting one, then Vegan Business Tribe is here to support and inspire you not just to build a vegan business, but to build a SUCCESSFUL vegan business.
 
And if you want to go beyond the podcast and connect with our community of like-minded vegan entrepreneurs then head over to Vegan Business Tribe .com where you can attend our online networking events, get support, study our vegan marketing course and just be part of a wonderful community of vegan business people.  And we’re always really grateful to our members because they are the people who mean we can keep recording this podcast every week and putting out all our content and just generally doing everything we can to help vegan businesses – well, get better at business.
 
This is quite a special episode because we’re actually celebrating our first year anniversary of Vegan Business Tribe – and people who we’ve been mentioning this to have been surprised at how quickly we’ve built something and become established in such a short amount of time.  Most people assume that we’d already been going for years before they found us.  And I’ll admit, it has been a whirlwind of a twelve months but all we’ve been doing is… practising what we preach. And I thought it would be worth sharing what we’ve learned from this first year, because I know that some of our members like to learn from watching what we do at Vegan Business Tribe – how we test things, how we build an audience.  It’s one thing for me to TELL you what you should do to build a successful vegan business, but it’s another thing altogether to actually show you what we’ve done that has worked.
 
Now, this is a story of two halves.  First, every superhero has an origin story and I wanted to take some time to share ours and tell you where Vegan Business Tribe actually came from.  Because if you look at what path Lisa and I took to launch Vegan Business Tribe, you will realise that people don’t just wake up one morning with an idea fully formed then go out and make it into a successful business.  I wish we had, because now we’d be celebrating our three or five year birthday instead of our first. More often, you don’t start out with all the pieces.  It’s like solving a jigsaw puzzle without having the picture on the box to guide you.  You have to first find the corners and build the edges.  But it’s also important to realise when you are building a business, that you might not actually be starting out with all the pieces. Part of building that business is often FINDING those pieces.  And once you have them all then it might not make the picture you thought you were going to make – it might make something completely different, or it might make something a hundred times better.  Because Lisa and I didn’t set out to make Vegan Business Tribe.  We actually set out to build a completely different business in the vegan world, but the opportunities we encountered and the people we met once we got started actually led us to a completely different place than where we thought we were heading.
 
Now, we could have just not started until we thought we’d figured it all out, until we had all the pieces.  But I’ve built a number of businesses before and I know how important it is to have flexibility on where you are heading.  Many businesses will say their success was down to a chance encounter or being in the right place at the right time.  As you build a business, doors can open that you never even knew were there – especially in the vegan sector, and especially more so if you are mission-led.  Even if your business is 20 years old, you should be constantly adapting it as you learn new information, you should be looking out for those doors opening that you never knew were there.
 
Vegan Business Tribe’s story started, like many people’s journey into being a vegan businesses owner does, when Lisa and I first turned vegan in 2018.  At the time we were running a successful marketing and business growth agency.  And as excited new vegans we did what every excited new vegan does – we went to EVERY vegan fair and event we could find.  From PlantBased Live at the London ExCel, to VegFestUK, to Vegan Campout to every local vegan fair that was within a couple of hours drive from our house. And one of those was Scarborough Vegan Festival in 2019, which is in the beautiful North Yorkshire seaside town.  And it just so happened that one of the speakers at that event was a chap called John Awen.  I’d never met John before (now I consider him to be a good friend) but he’s over six foot tall, shaved head, covered in tattoos, I am sure he won’t mind me saying he’s the sort of guy you’d step out of the of the way of very quickly if you saw him coming down the street. To be honest, we didn’t actually intend to watch John speaking that weekend – Lisa and I just wanted somewhere to sit down to eat the amazing vegan cakes we’d just bought and there were a few chairs free at the back.
 
Now, that year I think John gave more than 50 presentations around the UK, mostly to local vegan fairs and events – he averaged more than one a weekend.  And I tell you, John is a very powerful speaker: He’s an ex-heroin addict. He’s an ex-prisoner. He’s also an ex smallholder, or a farmer – before he turned vegan he was raising his own animals to be slaughtered.  He’s also the most compassionate person I’ve ever met.  When John talks, people listen – and his presentation on that day was why just BEING vegan isn’t enough.  Just opting out of buying animal products is a bare minimum, you need to ask yourself: what are you actually doing to move the cause forward, how are you actually helping others turn vegan.  As John had written on the back of his jacket that day: compassion without action is just observation.
 
And by the end of that talk, Lisa and I had forgotten all about our vegan cake.  We both realised WE had to do something more.  John Awen was right – just BEING vegan was not enough, it was the bare minimum. And that day we reached the same point in our journey that I have talked about with LOTS of Vegan Business Tribe members.  We knew we had to do more.  Because when you first go vegan, you start with your food because that’s the obvious place to start.  Then you look at what you wear, your cosmetics, what you have in your house.  But at some point, you also look at how you are spending your time. Aligning your ethics with how you make a living is a real goal for many vegans, and it’s also the reason that many start a vegan business, or ‘veganise’ the one they already have.  And that was the same with Lisa and I – we realised just BEING vegan wasn’t enough, we had to do more.
 
And I would love to say that Lisa and I just drove home that weekend and decided to launch Vegan Business Tribe on the Monday – but as I said, we start out not having all the pieces.  Sometimes, you are not in the place you need to be yet, you haven’t met the people you need to meet yet, you don’t understand a marketplace – yet.  I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with a successful business yet who just woke up one morning with an idea, then went and did that idea.  Businesses are an evolution and it’s the reason why a lot of people with a successful business have had two, three, or even more, other businesses before that one – that in some way led into where they are today. 
 
And Lisa and I were no different.  We started with the skillset we already had – helping people grow businesses – and asked, how can we use those skills, that career capital we had built up, to move the vegan cause forwards. So obviously, we thought we would set up a new company helping vegan businesses grow. And that’s where we learned important lesson number one:  all these vegan businesses had no money! Now, imagine the scene, Lisa and I (who were used to working on consultancy rates) approaching all these amazing vegan companies saying we want to help them with their marketing, to help them to grow, and here’s how much we normally charge an hour… I won’t say we were laughed out of the room, but let’s just say not many people answered our follow-up emails.
 
However, we WERE making a lot of noise with the new agency we set up, ‘Promote Vegan’, and we were making a lot of new connections, and we found that the people who REALLY wanted to talk to us was not the vegan businesses we wanted to help, but the large food manufacturers and highstreet brands who were all trying to get their head around the rise in vegan consumers and needed help from people who understood.  More importantly, they were willing to pay our normal consultancy day rates!  So that’s what we ended up doing as our first vegan business: working with brand managers and boards of directors about how they could improve their vegan offerings, telling them what plant-based consumers want and how to connect with them better – and looking at some of the vegan and plant-based offerings on the high street now, Lisa and I can proudly say we played a little part in them being there.
 
Now, this wasn’t quite where we wanted to be.  We were working ‘in’ the vegan sector, and getting large companies to make their menus and products better for vegans is really important – and Lisa and I still do some of that consulting work – but one of the most important bits of business advice I ever received was to align your passion with how you make your living.  And yes, we’d jumped industry, we’d moved in a direction to start understanding how we could use our career’s worth of business skills to make a difference for a cause we cared passionately about – but we hadn’t yet worked out how to fully align our passion with how we were making a living.
 
That was, until another fateful day at another vegan event. But this time, I was the one doing the speaking!  In our vegan marketing course, we have a chapter on how to build up your credibility, and one of the best ways of doing it is by being a speaker – so again, I was doing exactly what we preach.  If you actually make a plan, you can very quickly go from speaking in front of small audiences to speaking in front of bigger ones. It’s not just a brilliant way to build credibility, but it’s a good way to extend your contacts, and one such event I’d targeted as wanting to speak at was the Plant-Powered Expo at the London Olympia. During a phone call with the organiser Tim Barford (who is an amazing vegan force of nature and also runs VegfestUK) he suggested that instead of talking about vegan consumer buying behaviour, which is what I usually talked about back then, instead he thought people might be interested in hearing about ‘how to run a successful vegan business’.  Now – this isn’t what I was pitching to talk about, and to be honest, I knew that topic wasn’t going to bring the people into the audience that I wanted to speak to – but Tim is very persuasive and enthusiastic, and he also organised a number of other events I wanted to get into, so I agreed to give it a go.
 
On the day of the event, I have to admit that Lisa and I turned up with VERY low expectations of what size of audience we were going to get.  We’d been given the lunch-time slot – the ‘dead zone’ when it comes to events.  But when we got to the auditorium before our talk – it was packed.  It was literally standing room only.  Some people had come to the event just for our talk on how to run a successful vegan business, and after we’d finished there was a long queue of people wanting to talk to us. So many in fact that we had to move out of the auditorium space and into the side area because we were holding up the next speaker.  That day, we knew we had found our audience. We had just proven that we could give really good advice to vegan businesses – not in a 1-2-1 way that we’d have to charge day rates for, but in a collective way.  And that was when the idea of Vegan Business Tribe was born.
 
And as a footnote, I’m also happy to say that a couple of people who were in the audience that day are still members of Vegan Business Tribe today!
 
Now, what was REALLY important in that story was that Lisa and I didn’t just come up with an idea one day and went out and did it. It was a snaking route. We had to head in a direction and see what happened.  And to be honest, Vegan Business Tribe didn’t start at that talk I gave at Plant-Powered Expo.  It didn’t start listening to John Awen talk at Scarborough Vegan Fair. It started long ago in the previous businesses Lisa and I have run: the skills we developed BEFORE Vegan Business Tribe, the mistakes and false steps we’ve made in previous companies and learnt from.  They were all getting us ready for THIS venture, and maybe THIS venture is getting us ready for something else in the future.  And wherever you are in YOUR business right now, the same will be true.  You are probably not at your final destination yet.
 
You do not find success in the place you think you’re going to find it. ‘Version one’ is not your final product, version one is what you get feedback from and learn from.  And I think some of the biggest frustrations we see with vegan business owners is people getting dishearted too easily, when they first launch their venture and it doesn’t become a fully-developed successful business in a few months.  They expect version one of their product or business to work like it’s version ten.  Your first years with a business is all about finding out what does and doesn’t work.  When you look at a successful business, you see the success but you don’t see the hard work that went into it.  Oatly was an overnight success, right?  Well, they launched in the 90s.  It took them 20 years to get to the point where they burst into everyone’s consciousness. 20 years of testing, learning, building an audience, false starts, dead-ends and evolution.  You might look at Vegan Business Tribe and say we’ve built so much in twelve months.  But what you are missing is that this is my sixth business in 21 years.  I’ve built up an audience for a business, with various degrees of success, five times before. The first time I was rubbish.  The second time, I was pretty much just as bad.  By the 6th, I know what I’m doing.
 
So, once we’d actually discovered the idea of Vegan Business Tribe, what did we actually do with that seed of an idea?  Because I would love to say that after delivering that talk to a standing-room-only auditorium, we got the first train home, quit the day job, built The Vegan Business Tribe website and launched it to the world – because we didn’t.  Why not?  Well, as I said: I’d had five previous businesses.
 
I know, from experience, it usually takes two years to get a business to the point where it can pay you a wage.  And if you are listening to this now because you have a great idea for a new business, and you are thinking of quitting your job to set it up from scratch because you’ve got six months worth of money saved up in the bank, then you’re either a braver soul than I am or you’ve never set up a business before.  There is no reason to give yourself that kind of stress, and if you do have some savings – don’t you think that would be better used to fund an idea that you had, as far as possible, already proven first? Trust me, I have been on too many wild gooseberry chases in the past to think that just because we had found a good idea, we could turn that idea into a business.  And it HAD to be a business.  Vegan Business Tribe is a community platform, but it is also a business. The vegan world is full of amazing people doing wonderful things as volunteers, but to make a big difference you have to be able to give your full attention to something. If you still need a wage you have to create a financially sustainable, profitable business that can pay you a wage or you can’t keep doing what you do. Your business can’t keep helping us move towards a vegan world if it goes OUT of business.  Mortgages need paying, kids need feeding, we all have bills to pay. And it’s very unlikely you will have the luxury of setting up a business using someone else’s money. It’s hugely unlikely that you will find a mythical vegan angel investor who just likes your idea so much that they throw money at it and gave you a wage for the first couple of years.  Investors are looking for a return on their money, even the vegan ones, and most will only put money into something that you have already proven is working so that you can scale it up to work even better.
 
So, we knew we had a good idea and we knew we had income from our consulting ‘day jobs’ to give us time to build it.  Lisa called it our ‘Robin Hood exercise’ and it was quite satisfying taking money from huge non-vegan food companies and high-street brands and putting that back into building a platform and a community that helps vegan businesses grow. 
 
From experience though, I have learned that the first thing you should do with ANY business idea before you get too excited about it, is to test it.
 
And that’s not just ‘do my friends and family like it?’.  It’s ‘can I sell this idea to complete strangers?’.  So instead of quitting our current business, I built a very simple website (myself using WordPress and the Elementor Page Builder), we recorded a quick series of short videos about vegan buying behaviour (and these were based on the talks I was already giving, so we already had the content) and then made the site so people had to create a free account to access the information. We didn’t spend weeks on creating content, we spent a weekend and a couple of evening. We didn’t spend thousands on branding or building a new website, we just did it ourselves. Because as you will have heard me say in previous podcasts: you only want to spend real money on something you have proven is already working.  And that very simple website, with just a handful of videos and articles on it, was our MVP.  Our ‘Minimal Viable Product’.  It was the quickest and simplest way to get something out into the world to see what people did with it.  And to see what people did with it, we needed to get people to see it.  And because we had put a bit of a budget aside to test it, we put that budget into social media advertising, aimed at vegans who had shown an interest in business.
 
In that first month, 180 people signed up for a free account on the website. By the end of the second month we had over 500.  To get that we spent just under £700 over the two months on social media advertising to get that – which worked out at £12 a day.  I want to be honest about how much we spent because I don’t want you thinking those 500 sign-ups came magically from us just spending a couple of quid.  Now, if I am going to spend £700 on advertising something I’m testing, I don’t just want clicks, I want to learn as much as I can from that £700.  So instead of just running an advert and seeing what we got, we made that part of the testing: we ran multiple adverts with different images, different messages and different targeting to learn what worked the best. I made sure we had all the tracking pixels set up so that we could see which adverts were resulting in the most sign-ups, not just the most traffic, and then reallocating more budget to those adverts until we found the one that performed the best.  We started running adverts at a £3 a day to see what results they got before increasing the budgets.  We stopped the adverts that were underperforming.  We paid A LOT of attention to how we spent that money.
 
Now, in essence, we were paying to build that initial audience and we were fortunate that we had a budget to do that (and thank you large non-vegan brands for funding that – as Lisa says, it was our Robin Hood exercise). But as I always say when you’re a small business: time and money are interchangeable. If we DIDN’T have a budget to test all this, and you might be in that position, then we could have still done it, but we’d have just had to do it the slow way. We’d have hit the Facebook Groups, we’d have tried to piggyback on the back of other people’s audiences, and we’d have been happier with a far lower number of initial sign-ups if we’d got them that way – I would have probably aimed to get 50 or 100. Maybe we’d have run adverts at £3 a day just over a few weeks. You can ALWAYS hustle to get what you need as a small business with a little tenacity.
 
What building up that initial audience of 500 gave us, was a group of people who had been interested enough in learning to grow a vegan business that they created a free account to see information that might help them. We didn’t NEED to go as far as asking someone to set up an account, we could have also just collected their email address.  BUT, you can’t just measure traffic as intent.  You can’t assume that just because you can drive people to a website that you can get those people to take action – to buy or make an enquiry. You need to make sure that you can at least prove a minimum interaction from a visitor.
 
Now, we set up the test this way because it was an example of what we were looking to deliver.  It was the quickest way for us to get that MVP (or that minimum viable product) of what Vegan Business Tribe was going to be in front of people to see how they reacted to it. If you are setting up something like a vegan drink business though, you can still do something very similar.  Instead of spending lots of money on a bottling machine and paying for a website and a brand before you even have a single customer, hire a stall at a local market, fair or shopping centre and give out free samples.  Stop people, ask them to try your drink and have a conversation with them about what they think to it. Talk to them about your ideas for branding and pricing and ask them what they think – then more importantly, ask if you could take their email address so you can let them know when it is available and send them a first free order or a discount code. Because, if after trying your product no-one will even give you just their email address, then noone is ever going to buy it.  And maybe you should go back to the kitchen and start again.
 
And that’s what we would have done with Vegan Business Tribe – if we’d have got no sign-ups during that beta test, we’d have stopped, taken a good look at what we’d learned, and then tried something else.  We wouldn’t have said, or at least I hope not, this isn’t working so let’s spend more.  And the only reason we did spend nearly £700 on testing was that we could see it was working.
 
Once we had these 500 people though, what that gave us was a group of people who we knew were interested in growing their vegan business that we could TALK to. Because, and I want you to answer honestly here, how many times have you just guessed what a customer might want?  Perhaps you started your entire business on a guess of what people wanted?  How many times has a great idea hit you, so you’ve gone off and spent ages making it and then no one buys it. Me, I’ve done that LOADS!  In fact, I had a whole business that seemed to be just years of me and a business partner thinking we knew what customers wanted, and building a series of products and services that no one ever bought, or not enough to ever make up for the time and money we put into creating them.  That’s why now every time I have a bright idea, we test it first before putting any real time, money or energy into building it.  And that’s what having this initial group gave us, it gave us a group of interested people – of potential future customers – to find out exactly what they wanted.
 
Remember earlier that I said you need to build a financially sustainable business.  So far, we’d not asked people to pay a penny, and by this point we were adding new content each week and putting out a weekly email, and that was all taking time to create meaning that it NEEDED to, at some point, start paying for itself. So that’s the question we asked this core 500 people.  We asked: what WOULD you pay for?  How much would you pay?  How often would you pay? What would you expect to be able to get for free, and what would you pay extra to get access to? What are you looking for that you can’t find elsewhere?  What are your problems?  What would you pay for that would likely make your business more successful?  Most of the people, we sent an online survey out to – others who had already started interacting with us, we set up Zoom chats.  And that surveying exercise told us that EVERYTHING we were planning to do with Vegan Business Tribe was completely and utterly WRONG.  Our original plan was to create a Netflix model: e.g. we put out new amazing content every week, we would share our golden nuggets of wisdom which would help people build more successful vegan businesses and people would pay for the pleasure. Well, our survey said: only 3% of the people who had signed up would pay for the content.  Now, that’s quite a blow to take to the professional ego, but fortunately, we’d also asked them what they thought of the content and they all said it was great, but the content is what got them there, not what they were looking to buy.
 
Now – imagine that we’d just gone with what we THOUGHT people had wanted.  If we’d had spent months building a website, created months worth of content, put it behind a paywall then launched it to the world without testing it first and found no one signed up.  Not only would we have lost time and money, but we wouldn’t have known WHY people were not signing up.  We’d have been feeling round in the dark, and nothing is more demoralising. Was it too expensive?  Was the content no good?  Was the marketing wrong?  Did it need a new brand?  Or was there just no interest?  Maybe if we just did THIS then it would work?  Maybe if we spent time re-building THAT it might get some sign-ups. Maybe if we just spent MORE on social media advertising we might get more results.  When the reality was, there would have been nothing wrong with all of those things – we would have just built what we wanted to sell instead of something that people actually wanted to buy.  And that is a classic mistake that many would-be entrepreneurs make.  And as I said, no judgement here.  I will hold my hands up: it’s something I’ve done myself far too many times.  And if I hadn’t, then I wouldn’t have been in a position to do it better THIS time around.
 
What the surveys DID come back with though is a list of things that people actually wanted. They loved the site, they loved the content, they loved our mission but content alone didn’t solve their problems.  And instead, they came back with a list of what they WOULD pay for.  And guess what, THAT became our blueprint for the paid tier of Vegan Business Tribe.  One thing our fledgeling Tribe said they wanted was a course; they wanted to know how to market a vegan business, how to find more customers.  And that course took us three months to create, but we created it knowing we had a waiting audience of people who had already said they would be willing to pay for it.  We kept the weekly content free for everyone.  Because everyone loved it, they just didn’t want to pay for it.  And that’s fine.  I’m just glad we learned that before we tried to build a business on it.
 
So, I will be honest that this episode has partly been so when someone asks me ‘Where did Vegan Business Tribe come from?’ I can just tell them: go listen to episode 22 of the podcast!  But we genuinely do get people asking how we came up with the idea for Vegan Business Tribe and how we got from an idea to a fully-fledged business community.  And there is a lot to learn from how we did it, and we forget that ourselves because a lot of what we’ve done with Vegan Business Tribe was the result of the lessons that Lisa and I learnt from everything we’ve done before. Now, at some point, I might do a second episode where I look at how we went from that first 500 people to where we are now, because I don’t want just myself and Lisa to be the only people who are learning from what we’re building, but I will say that the vegan marketing course on the website will actually give you a lot of the tools and frameworks that we use ourselves.
 
And what are we going to do next?  Well, if you are part of the tribe you can tell us that on the next survey.
 
So, this has been a little bit of a different episode but I still want to wrap up with some bullet points that you can take away from our first year:
 
  1. You don’t start out with all the pieces. As you build a business, doors can open that you never even knew were there – especially in the vegan sector, and especially more so if you are mission-led – that might lead your business to a different, better place, than you thought you were heading to.
  2. As John Awen said, just ‘being vegan’ isn’t enough. You need to do something to move the cause forwards.  I don’t care if you are vegan for the animals or vegan for the environment, if you believe in the course ask yourself what is your business doing to move the cause forwards?  And if you want to read John’s full story, you can pick up his book ‘Living Hell to Living Well’ from johnawen.com
  3. When you have an idea – and that might be for a new business, or to launch a new product, or to change direction in your current business, you need to TEST it first.  Create a Minimum Viable Product, or an MVP, and get it out and into the hands of people to see how they react before spending any real time and money on it. Can you prove that complete strangers will buy?
  4. You usually don’t find success in the place you think you’re going to find it. ‘Version one’ is not your final product, the early years of business is all about finding out what works and what doesn’t – so be open and flexible to that.  It took Oatly 20 years – hopefully it will take you far less.
  5. Once you have attracted an initial test audience through your minimum viable product, let them tell you what they actually want.  Or if your business already has an audience and customer base, are you letting them guide you? Or are they just a list of email addresses in your order history?  Are you trying to sell what you WANT to sell, or are you selling what you know people want to buy?
 
And that’s it – and as I said I suspect I’ll do more on our own journey and what’s worked and not worked for us, because we want to be something of a living experiment for our tribe to learn from. And if you want to specifically know more about how we went about building something then you can get in touch with Lisa and I direct through our mentorship forums on the website, or pick up a lot of the tips and techniques by going through the marketing course on the website.  Remember, we first built that on the back of people telling us what they wanted – so you know it’s going to have some amazing stuff in there.
 
Just before you go, if you find the information in these podcasts useful, can I ask you to help us spread the word so that we can help even more vegan businesses disrupt the business scene. You can do that by simply subscribing, or if your platform lets you by leaving us a 5-star review, or even better by sharing this podcast on your own social media or with other vegan businesses you know.
 
Because the more vegan businesses we can help push animal-based products and services off the shelves the quicker we can all move towards this vegan world.  As always, thank you for listening, I really appreciate you giving me your time, and I will see you on the next one.

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