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073 - The 5 top things we've learnt from 2 years of Vegan Business Tribe

The five main lessons that we’ve learnt from running Vegan Business Tribe.  As Vegan Business Tribe celebrates its second birthday, David shares the top five things we’ve learnt about running a vegan business over that time – from why you need to remain flexible about what business you are building through to why the biggest thing holding your business back might just be yourself.

And just a warning that someone has given David a bell in this episode – and it doesn’t get annoying at all…

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Episode transcript:

Hello and welcome to episode seventy-three of The Vegan Business Tribe Podcast with myself David Pannell, co-founder of Vegan Business Tribe. And 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 we’re having a bit of a special celebration because Vegan Business Tribe is – can you believe it – two years old this week. And when I tell people we’ve been going for two years, I’m met with one of two responses: either ‘I can’t believe you guys have only been going for two years’ or ‘how has it been two years, I joined you when you first started and that was like yesterday!’ Now, this is our actual official birthday of when we first put the Vegan Business Tribe website online, not when we launched the paid membership which came about 8 months later – but if you want to know the FULL story of how we launched Vegan Business Tribe then you can go right back to episode 22 of the podcast where I go into all the details of how we launched VBT, how we first built up our audience and how all our assumptions about what we were building were completely and utterly wrong! It makes for quite an interesting tale so make sure you go back and take a listen if you haven’t already.

But I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of the lessons that we’ve learned from the last two years – not specifically how to build a podcast and membership website, but just about running a business in general. Because if you’re part of our community hub you’ll know that we share a lot of behinds the scenes information about what we’re testing out and I share things like the listening stats from this podcast because I know a lot of our members like to learn from following what we’re trying out and what works and what doesn’t. So I’ve picked out the five things that have been the real lessons Lisa and I have learned from Vegan Business Tribe – and I have to say that some are things we already knew, I mean we’ve been running our own businesses for a while, but Vegan Business Tribe has really hammered a lot of those lessons home.

So, just before we jump into them a quick reminder that Vegan Business Tribe is so much more than just this podcast, we have a very vibrant community of vegan business owners over on the VBT website, we have regular networking events and workshops and a whole academy of member’s only content to help you grow your vegan business – and I would LOVE you to come and get involved if you’re not already a member, just head over to veganbusinesstribe.com, click on the join button on the homepage and you’ll find out how we can support your vegan business journey.

OK, so kind of looking over the five points I don’t think they are probably going to be what you expect – they are not things like ‘do more social media’ or ‘make sure you’ve got a good website’, they’re a bit less generic than that – you know I like to go a bit deeper – so let’s jump straight in with the five things Lisa and I have learned from two years of running Vegan Business Tribe:

1. Be flexible in what business you’re building

Now – you may have heard me say before that I’ve never known anyone who came up with a business plan, went out and built that business and found success exactly where they thought they were going to. No business works right out of the box, it just doesn’t work like that. Most companies I know that have been successful have zig-zagged, they have pivoted, they have been flexible and followed opportunities when they found them – and it’s been one of those right-angle turns or one of those unexpected opportunities that have led to them eventually finding success. And it’s been exactly the same with our journey at Vegan Business Tribe. The Vegan Business Tribe we have now two years in is not what we planned when we first started out. And I suspect that what we have now is not what Vegan Business Tribe will be in another two years. Vegan Business Tribe as you see it now was not the idea that we first started out with. Lisa and I spent our first two years in the vegan marketplace working as consultants to some of the largest companies in the world, helping them understand the vegan marketplace. It wasn’t until our (now) friend Tim Barford of VegfestUK suggested that we did a speaking slot about how to run a successful vegan business that the idea of Vegan Business Tribe was born. And we nearly turned down the opportunity to speak at Tim’s event – because at the time, that wasn’t who we thought we were. We were looking to get into these high-street brands to help them understand plant-based consumers, so it was going to be of very little benefit to us to do a talk on how to have a vegan business because it just wasn’t going to attract the audience we were looking for.

But Lisa and I giving that presentation attracted a whole new audience we didn’t even know existed, and on that day in London we found our tribe. And I’ve seen so many businesses struggle to move forward because they put themselves in a shoebox of what they are and what they are not. They miss exploring new markets and opportunities because they just say ‘That’s not who we are’. But the thing will make your business wildly successful may be sat on a parallel to where you are now – but what’s holding you back is the picture in your mind of what business you are building.

So the next time you get an opportunity to explore something, follow that opportunity and see where it leads. If your customers keep making the same suggestion, don’t just reply with ‘we don’t do that’, think about what’s stopping you.

So keep that flexibility in what you think the company is that you are building. If you are too inflexible in what you think your company is, then you might walk right straight past what might be a really important turn in your business’ journey. This is why we spend so much time talking to our audience, why we’ve spent so much time over the last couple of years asking what our Vegan Business Tribe members want from us. And of course, not everything is practical to deliver, but let me tell you – it only takes a handful of our members all mentioning the same thing to get Lisa and I to start thinking about if it’s something we should look at testing out – it’s where many of our sessions like the Make It Happen goal-setting group came from, and our Community Hub on Slack. So maybe take that opportunity to speak about a topic which is parallel to your main business. Or think about testing out that thing that your customers have been asking you for for the last twelve months but you don’t offer yet.

2. Network, network, network because you never know where it will lead.

Building our network has played a huge part in us growing Vegan Business Tribe, especially over this last year. And I purposely focussed on this because whenever I’ve interviewed someone who has built a successful vegan business, they’ve told me about how they had hundreds of meetings with people when they were growing the business and at the time they seemed like a complete waste of time, but they weren’t. When I interviewed Zoe at Fungtn Beer, who have just raised a hundred and fifty thousand in their latest Seedr’s raise, she told me how she would have Zoom and Teams meetings stacked back to back with people who might have been able to help her business in some way – be that a buyer, or a customer or a potential investor – and she would be completely dejected at the end of the day because she didn’t get any immediate results from those conversations. But a few months later, one of those conversations would result in something. A new opportunity would arise and one of those people she’s spoken with thought of her. Or a couple of months later, she would get an invite to a pitch event that wasn’t publically advertised. And this is what we’ve found with Vegan Business Tribe also.

Every week we reach out to people on LinkedIn that we think we’ve got some synergy with, and you will be amazed, as a vegan business, who you will be able to reach out to. You can use your vegan connection to get into conversations with people who, in any other industry, you would never get a response from. Even if you never get as far as a call, if you are on the same vegan mission as that dream contact then you at least have a good chance of getting into a LinkedIn conversation with them. Vegan Business Tribe member Callum Weir launched his Plant-Powered Podcast and reached out to vegan bodybuilder and New York Times Bestselling Author Robert Cheeke – and was amazed that Robert immediately accepted his invitation to come onto his new, mostly unknown podcast. And you can only imagine what a boost that gave to his listener figures.

So dedicate some of your time to building your network, to reaching out and having conversations with people on the same mission. And don’t be afraid to ask your contacts for introductions. We’ve got to know some of the people at the highest level of the vegan scene these last two years, the people who are really shaping the vegan sector, and a lot of those conversations have come about by systematically spending time and energy on developing connections. It might look to you like you’re a long way from talking to some people you would really like to get to know, but start by just coming to our Vegan Business Tribe networking meet-ups on Zoom. You will be amazed who people in that room know and can introduce you to. You’ll only be a step or two away from pretty much anyone in the vegan scene, from activists to celebrities to investors and founders.

3. Your time and energy are your most important resources

Now, I know what you are thinking – I’m here telling you that you need to say yes to every opportunity and spend all day on calls finding new contacts, but the truth is your time and your energy really are your most important resources.

We’ve found that one of our biggest products at Vegan Business Tribe is the positivity that Lisa and I give out. And we are genuinely positive people, we really believe in our members, but we know we can’t give that positive energy out if we’re not feeling positive ourselves. So we don’t want to waste our energy on tasks that bring us down or are not actually helping our members or moving us forwards.

So Lisa regularly audits how we spend our time, from answering emails to our monthly admin, and she asks herself a single question: how can I either automate this or get rid of it entirely. And it has made a massive difference to our productivity. For example, we don’t have an email inbox at Vegan Business Tribe, we have a ticketing system. Now, externally, it looks like we’ve got an inbox, you can send us an email and you’ll get a reply, but all those messages are handled by a ticketing system that has automatic replies set up, timed follow-on messages and templates which deal with 80% of the common every-day emails we get. And Lisa regularly looks at anything we’re doing with our time and if it’s not moving us forwards she either looks to automate it or get rid of it all together.

And so many people asked us about Lisa’s systemising of our business that I actually recorded a whole podcast about it – so if it sounds like you need a bit of this in your business then go listen to episode 53: How to make more time.

But it’s not just emails that take up your time and energy, you might want to start asking yourself about some of the bigger things in your business. Does it need to be YOU still making your product, or can you sub it out to someone else to give you more time to actually SELL your product? Is YOU doing your social media actually the best use of your time, or can you get someone else to do it in a more efficient way? Again, some of the most successful businesses you will see is where the founder does none of the day to day operations themselves, they use freelancers and subcontractors and the first full-time member of staff they hire is someone to replace them as General Manager or CEO so that they can spend even more of their time on growing the business. Zoey from Fungtn Beer who I mentioned earlier has never brewed the company’s beer herself or spent late nights putting it into bottles and sticking on labels – she’s always subcontracted the manufacturing and focussed all her energy on growing the business. That’s because she knew where her skills lay. She knows the beverage industry and saw the opportunity for a vegan, alcohol-free craft beer. And she knew that if she was spending all her time making and bottling a product that she couldn’t be out in that industry making the connections and opening the doors that she needed to.

So match your skills and your energies to the tasks in your business. And if something isn’t moving you forward or playing to your skills then automate it, give it to someone else or just get rid of it all together.

4. Measure and track – because you’re probably doing better than you think

When we talk with new members at Vegan Business Tribe, they often say that they don’t feel they are doing very well as a business. We’ll get someone who has just launched an e-commerce shop and they are worried that they only got ten orders in their first month. When I tell them that I know lots of people who launch e-commerce and it’s taken them SIX MONTHS to get their first ten orders they all of a sudden brighten-up and their whole view of how well they are doing completely changes.

And the problem they have is that they have had nothing to compare to. Tracking metrics is something I’ve always done in business because I’ve always been a bit of a stats nerd, but being on top of our figures has been really valuable for Vegan Business Tribe. Knowing which months we see the most sign-ups, knowing that the month when Vegan Business Tribe will have enough income to mean that Lisa and I can give it 100% of our time and energy, they have all been so important in keeping pulling us forward. But keeping a close eye on our metrics has also let us appreciate our longer trends. Getting to 100 members at Vegan Business Tribe took a lot of time and effort. It took half that time to get to two-hundred members, but we didn’t realise that until we laid our membership trends out in a spreadsheet. Do the same in your business, compare your sales today with your sales twelve months ago because there’s a good chance that you are doing far better than you think even though day to day it might not that way.

But doing this also means that you can plan forward too. I am still miffed that what I think is one of our most important podcast episodes is still one of our least listened to, and that’s episode 67 where I explained how to do a cash flow for your business. And if you skipped it because you don’t really do figures and get turned off by accountancy stuff, then just go back and listen to it! It’s my mission to get that episode into our top ten downloads because it’s so important!! Knowing ahead of time what money will be going in and out of your business is not just important to make sure that you don’t run out of money, but it’s also important to know what funds you have to invest back INTO the business. You might be worrying about your cash position but it might be that you could actually be using the money you have sat in the bank to hire someone to do your social media properly, or to invest in that new software, or to get that new website with all its automated time-saving systems built. Or, even, to pay someone else to do the day to day running of your business so that you can focus on creating new opportunities.

5. Give yourself permission

And this is a big one. Maybe the biggest. And it might take you a long time to realise that the biggest thing holding your business back right now, is you.

So many people build a job for themselves instead of building a business. They still work like they have a boss looking over their shoulder, telling them they have to clear their inbox every day and be at their desk from 8.30 in the morning until 5.30 at night. But when you have your own business, you can literally do ANYTHING you want. Not enjoying doing a service for your customers? Just stop offering it. Something in your business not working? Change it. Your hours not suiting you? Work different ones. Are you at your least productive on Friday afternoons? Then go do something more productive with your time, make it your gym day or go play a round of golf. There is literally no one judging you. There is no one but yourself that needs to give you permission.

Most people have spent most of their working life as employees, so we get indoctrinated into the 9-5 culture. We do tasks because they are put in front of us, not because they are to our benefit. When most people become their own boss, they become the worst most tyrannical boss they have ever had! Is something hanging over you every week, a task that you hate doing? Well – you’re the boss, so change it, sub it out, automate it or just stop doing it. Once you realise that you are in control of how you spend your time it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for your business. Is the CRM system you use giving you a lot of manual tasks? Then go find a better one and swap over to it – you don’t have to keep using it just because it’s what the company has always used. It’s £50 a month more expensive? Well, how much time a month is it going to save you and what do you value your time at? And why are you trying to make a case to me, you’re your own boss! You need to get permission from absolutely no one but yourself.

And it’s not just a liberating experience, but it’s a necessary one too. As business owners, it’s often the case that the biggest obstacle in your business is you. You will create this imagery boss that you are answerable to that is going to question every extra penny you spend, that is going to tell you off if you’re not at your desk at 9.00am, that is going to give you a verbal warning if you haven’t cleared your inbox that day. So give yourself permission – to take time out, to change what you do with your time or even change your whole business if that’s what’s needed.

OK, so that was a real mix of lessons that we’ve learned over the last two years of building Vegan Business Tribe, and like I said they are not lessons that are just applicable to what we’re building, they are things that we’ve seen echoed in a lot of our member’s businesses too. So let’s just go back over them with a quick bullet-point recap:

  1. Be flexible in what company you’re building. We can let so many opportunities go by because we’re too inflexible in the view of what business we’re growing. Be open to those opportunities, accept those invitations that might run parallel to what you are doing at the moment to see where they go – that service that your customers keep asking for but you keep saying you don’t do might actually be the future of your business.
  2. Network, network, network… Make time each week to purposely increase your network and connect with people who might be able to move your business forwards. If you build your network of other vegan business professionals then you will only be a step or two away from pretty much anyone in the vegan scene, from activists to celebrities to investors and founders.
  3. Your time and energy are your most important resources. Ask yourself: is what you are doing the best use of your time and energy? Could this task be done quicker, cheaper and probably even better by someone else? Some of the best founders have no plans to ever get involved in the day to day operations of that business, instead knowing that their time and energy will make a bigger impact elsewhere.
  4. Measure and track – because you’re probably doing better than you think. But also use the metrics in your business so that you can plan forward – maybe you’re making more money than you realise and can invest some of that back into the business to move you forward quicker.
  5. Give yourself permission. When most people become their own boss, they become the worst most tyrannical boss they have ever had! So give yourself permission to be completely in control. There is literally no one judging you or watching over your shoulder to make sure you’ve cleared your inbox or you stay at your desk until 5.00pm. if something doesn’t work for you in your business, then you have the agency to change it. You are not a potted plant.

And that is it – now I nearly added a sixth point in there about what we’ve learned from the last two years of Vegan Business Tribe, which is that the vegan sector is also the nicest, most supportive industry that Lisa and I have ever worked in. Lisa and I have worked across a number of industries throughout our careers but I have never seen such camaraderie as we see amongst vegan businesses. Even if we could be considered in direct competition with someone else, those people have become our best friends. And the reason is that we’re all on the same mission. We are all working towards building a vegan world and moving the vegan cause forwards – and those of us who choose to do that in the business sector can have a really big impact.

So I’ll leave you as I always do with mine and Lisa’s heartfelt thanks for joining us on this journey over the last two years, it actually coincides with Lisa’s birthday so we’ll be spending the next week at Fox Hall Vegan B&B in the Lake District for the next week. And if you are not yet a Vegan Busines Tribe member then come and join us, not in the Lakes, but over on the website, because I would absolutely love to introduce you to the other members and I can tell you that you are far more likely to succeed as a vegan business if you surround yourself with other people who are on the same journey and mission that you are.

If you want to find out more about becoming a member of Vegan Business Tribe, do go take a look at veganbusinesstribe.com and know that as well as us giving you support, your membership also means that we can keep putting out this podcast every week and doing everything we can to move the vegan business scene forwards. So thank you for listening, Lisa and I really approaching you giving up your time every week to join us, and I’ll see you on the next one!

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