Updated: 21 December 2020
2020 has been a difficult year for businesses. As the UK veers between national lockdowns and tiered restrictions, small business owners have had to adapt at lightning speeds to changing guidance to ensure they can continue to trade.
Bird & Blend, an independent award-winning tea company, is one such business that has had to adapt their operations to suit the new social distancing rules in place. With 10 stores open across the UK, and more on the way, we caught up with one of the founders, Mike Turner, to find out how they’ve adapted to the changing rules and restrictions and how they’re using their Funding Circle CBILS loan to support them while they grow the business.
Watch their story and read the full interview below.
Bird & Blend creates an extensive range of unique, blended teas, which we sell those directly to our customers through our own stores and our website.
At the start of this year, we had 8 shops dotted around the UK, as well as our fulfillment and operations in Hove. Our approach has always been about providing experiences to customers, so in our stores it’s always been about talking to our customers, allowing them to touch the product and smell the aromas, which involved a lot of sampling and tasters. We also used to do private workshops, music nights and cocktail nights, so even past closing hours, the store would be alive with people drinking tea cocktails and fully immersing themselves in the experience we provide.
Because of the way we handle customers in store, it was quite a challenge to work within social distancing guidance, while still maintaining the same level of customer experience that our brand had become known for.
Back in March, our first focus when the pandemic hit was how to keep our staff safe, and we made a point to keep them in the loop with everything we knew and everything we were doing. Eventually, because our team didn’t feel safe, we made the hard decision to close the stores, just shortly before the first lockdown was announced.
Once the first lockdown was announced, we briefly had to close our warehouse and back of house operations to try and get things secure for the team working there. Following that, our online orders increased massively, so there was quite a challenge trying to source new stock for the unexpected spike.
To help accommodate for the social distancing regulations, we had to conduct some structural changes to our workspaces — we took out some of our walls and had our office transformed into a production facility while our office team were working remotely. We also invested in machinery to help with packaging, which used to be done by hand, to help with social distancing in our production line.
We then started re-opening our stores in June or July, making sure they were Covid-secure and that all our staff and customers felt comfortable to come back. We’ve also started to resume our growth plans, thanks to our CBILS loan, and have opened two new stores, with plans to open another one soon.
Being a small business means that we have the agility to make decisions very quickly, and having a team that’s engaged with both our brand and our product allows us to start putting these plans into motion swiftly. We’re lucky that we’re small enough to be dynamic, but big enough that our senior managers can take a back seat to make sure they’re on top of the latest guidance and managing our finances appropriately.
We took out a CBILS loan primarily to give ourselves some headspace, so we had a cash flow buffer, but could also continue to act on our growth plans. We employed 80 members of staff when the pandemic hit — we’ve now been able to grow that number to 100. A few of those are in the new stores, and the rest are part of our back of house and warehouse operations. Our management at store level is a lot stronger now than it was a year ago, because we’ve been able to attract highly skilled individuals to jump on board.
We spoke to our bank and got quotes from Funding Circle and another lender. The other lender had a worse rate than Funding Circle, and our bank was very slow to respond. We’ve had a couple of loans from Funding Circle in the past, and we knew it was quick and easy, which given the current climate is exactly what we needed.
It was quick, easy and fast. The initial decision was super quick — within about 24 hours. After the loan had been signed off, I received the funds within 3 days.
The 12 months repayment holiday has been hugely beneficial for us. Not having the commitments of repayments within those 12 months means that we can keep it in the bank as a buffer, in case we need it. But also, knowing that if we get to the end of year and haven’t had to use it, we can pay it back without incurring any additional costs, it becomes a no-brainer really.
I would absolutely recommend taking a CBILS loan if you’re able to. Having access to your own resource if something unexpected comes along, has got to be a useful thing. Take it, have it sitting there and you can always pay it back if you need to. Even if you’re coping financially, using that money to help create and support more jobs, is just as important as preventing small businesses from going bust.
As a business, we try and get really involved in our local communities, in terms of both charitable initiatives and allowing them to use our spaces. So, for example, some of our stores asked to stay open for counter service only in student towns because some of our student customers had told them that it was the only real human contact they were getting on a regular basis. And while we know it’s not necessarily commercially viable, we want to be able to give back to those communities and maybe give them that one bit of social contact a day that puts a smile on their face.
I have a few small business owner friends I’m in regular contact with, and we’re always giving each other advice, helping each other navigate the guidance and pointing each other to the most important bits of incoming information.
Some of my friends are predominantly online businesses with maybe one store, so I’ve advised them on expectations on rent with landlords for stores and that sort of thing. I did recommend the CBILS loan to a couple of people, because it worked for us. I think having those strong bonds with other SMEs in your community is really important at times like these.