An interview to understand the mindset of an entrepreneur

I conducted my interview with Helen Mackellar, owner and founder of Orchard View Farm. Orchard View Farm is a butchers, café and farm shop run by Helen and her husband Jim and based in Little Meadle, Buckinghamshire.

1. THEIR IDEA — Where they got it from, how they tested it and how they moved from idea to working version 0.1.

Helen and Jim’s business grew out of a personal interest which was in learning more about where the food they ate came from and the trace-ability of the food they were eating (e.g. where the food they were eating had commenced its journey to their plate). This interest rapidly evolved into a passion as they became widely dissatisfied with the information available to consumers and with the realisation that the chain of movement from origin to consumer’s plate was murky at best. There were other influential factors such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who was also making a name for himself with River Cottage around the same time.

Helen and Jim decided to move house in 2009 to somewhere that enabled them to purchase land and with that land they also bought two pigs. The very early roots of what Orchard View’s business is today grew from the Mackellars seeing if anyone in the local area would be interested in buying ½ a pig in a box. They established a simple sales model which they hoped would allow them in time to become “food cost neutral” — i.e. they could afford to buy anything which they could not grow/produce themselves through profit made on selling any excess of what they could grow/produce themselves. In time they hoped this would allow them to both cut down their day jobs to 4-day working weeks.

Through the sales model Helen and Jim identified their audience and what people liked and did not like. However, they quickly ended up moving away from the half pig box on the grounds that: 1) it attracted a fairly niche audience given the requirement for large freezer space and quite significant capital outlay; and, 2) they wanted more frequent contact with their customers which would enable them to reinforce their product quality and attract repeat orders without the risk of losing customers by too little contact.

As a result they started taking their pork to Farmers Markets to be able to sell in smaller quantities but to greater numbers of people. This also served as a good advertising tool and was a less costly approach versus standard advertising methods. Their other great success came from entering some of the Awards events that take place for locally produced foods, meats, pies, sausages etc. As word spread, both from physical presence at local markets and also through increasing brand recognition from various successes at awards events, so it enabled them to evolve their product range. From having originally only done hog roasts at the markets, they are now in a position where they cater entire weddings.

And as the product range grew, Helen and Jim’s dreams also started to grow until what had once seemed a pipe dream began to look like a real viability: namely, opening a farm shop. The building of the barn to house the farm shop commenced in late 2012 and was eventually opened to the public in November 2013. In January 2014 the café business was started and the on-site butchery was added in September 2014. Today the farm shop sells a vast range of meats, cheeses, vegetables, ice-creams as well as other fresh and dried foods. Although the Mackellars provide much of the produce from their own land (e.g. pork, lamb, venison, turkey), they also stock many other local producers specialities. Shoppers at the farm shop are able to get a clear answer on where anything they buy has travelled from. The passage of the food chain is transparent as it never can be with a supermarket. Visitors to Orchard View Farm not only enjoy eating the local produce on site and purchasing to take home for their family meals, but they also enjoy walking around the farm and seeing the livestock enjoying healthy and humane living conditions. Many parents enjoy sharing with their children what is an educational experience in a day and age where we so often take the food on our plates for granted.

2. CAREER RISK — How they managed the risk of starting a business (the financial risk and the career risk).

In the early days the business was very much an evening and weekend activity for both Helen and Jim. Their day-jobs funded their lives and the business was self-funding but certainly did not turn a profit. As already mentioned there was a pipe-dream that one day both the Mackellars could reduce their jobs down to four days apiece and ultimately achieve a better work-life balance.

However, Helen was offered the chance of redundancy from her job as a management consultant when she was due to return to work after having taken maternity leave with her second child towards the end of 2012. This coincided with the time when it looked like there was going to be enough demand for Orchard View to set-up business on its own land and so Helen accepted the redundancy package and threw all her time into managing the growth of the product range and leading on the creation of the farm shop and café.

Redundancy, coupled with some family investment, covered the initial capital outlay required to build the infrastructure for the farm shop. In addition, for a further 18 months Jim was also working full time in his career as an environmental consultant and so there was the support of some earnings for the costs of raising a young family, although there was certainly some belt-tightening. Jim left full-time employment in mid-2014 to also help grow the business with human capital one of the key limitations. Clearly this meant greater financial risk for the family and further belt-tightening.

From a career-risk perspective, Helen notes that this has been a big deal. She recognises that as a consultant she had anyway taken a career risk in having children but the fact that she has now been out of the market for over 4 years (since she had been on maternity leave prior to being made redundant) means that the dent to her knowledge base would likely make a return to her role of before very difficult. In addition, she feels that she is starting to become “unemployable” by dint of working for herself for the last few years! Although being self-employed adds great pressures to her working life (the fact that “the buck stops with her” in every decision that gets made) this becomes a highly rewarding way of working which would be nigh on impossible to replicate if she were employed by another business. So although the stakes are higher and the financial pressures are far greater, Helen has never regretted that they made the decision to follow their own path with the family start-up. She still feels that they have a far greater potential for quality of life (even if it’s not quite there yet!). The holidays are few and far between but the job satisfaction more than compensates for that. Helen and Jim also see what they are building as investment for their future and a pension plan of sorts.

Overall, Helen’s view is that if you believe strongly and passionately enough in a business idea then it will be a risk worth taking.

3. STAYING STRONG — Advice they would give to early-stage entrepreneurs about how to look after themselves on this path (mentally, emotionally, physically, etc).

Helen acknowledges that this is not an area she scores herself highly on but she is focused on trying to improve that.

For her the temptation to do everything and all the time has been very challenging. She advises that it is important to step-away at times, not only for the mental and physical benefits, but also for the fresher perspective it can give you on what you are building.

A big hurdle which Helen had to get over was accepting that she will never get everything done ever. This is something she found frustrating for her personality type. But once she is able to accept these moments occur, it makes it easier for her to step back, take some “me time” and relax. Her view is that this is again key for maintaining perspective and also for avoiding becoming too one-dimensional as an individual.

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