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Harriet Hastings is the fearless founder of Biscuiteers, a successful luxury biscuit company that can create and pack up to 5,000 handmade biscuit orders every day.
With her husband as her co-founder, finding a work-life balance and defining clear roles within the business has been key to their success and sanity.
In this episode, we explore the logistics of how to efficiently run a food gifting company, the challenges of Royal Mail strikes for online businesses and how to stay positive during the cost of living crisis.
Here’s her unfiltered advice below:
- Creating a business with your partner
- Make sure you and your partner have clear and defined roles within your business
- A gifting business is essentially a manufacturing business
- Why outsourcing isn’t always an option and preparing for Christmas
- Trialling and condensing recipes
- Christmas turnover and demand as a gifting business
- How to run an effective and efficient warehouse
- Overcoming the Royal Mail strikes
- How to successfully run a business with your partner
- Optimising productivity to cut down on costs
- Coping with confrontation when you run multiple family businesses
- How to stay positive during the cost-of-living crisis
Creating a business with your partner
So I want to go back to the beginning, because before your husband joined the business, this was sort of your baby, your entity, he was doing something else.
So I want to know about that conversation around the kitchen table where you said, “Darling, I know I have a fantastic job, but I want to go into business, and how about we use some savings to do it.”
Tell me about that conversation and how that kind of began this journey towards this family company.
I suppose it was a bit more organic than it might seem, in the sense that I had left my full-time job. I just had my fourth baby and I think I had just kind of slightly ran out of steam.
It was a kind of big job with long hours, and so I was doing sort of consultancy, and I was also helping him in reverse with his business.
So Stevie has a catering and events business called Lettice, and so I was helping him with that, and I suppose in a way probably what happened is I got a bit sort of itchy feet and wanted to do something else.
And I also thought there was a real opportunity in food gifting. It was sort of slightly what I observed and what people were giving me. And I was very interested in e-commerce. I’d run the tech division of a consumer tech business through the .com boom.
And what was interesting about that was not only the opportunities that e-commerce was obviously bringing to start your own business or your own brands, but also it really exposed me to a sort of much more entrepreneurial way of looking at things because everyone was coming in with new business ideas, there was a lot of funding available at the time.
So I guess what I really wanted to do was to create an e-commerce brand, that was my ambition. And I was very lucky because Stevie obviously had commercial kitchens and understood about food production.
So in a sense it felt like we had good match skills. So he’s all about the production and the operations, and I’m much more about product and marketing and sales.
Did he join straight away, or did you sort of get Biscuiteers up and running, and then he joined a bit later? What was the timeline like?
Well, we incubated Biscuiteers for the first couple of months out of his kitchen. And we were borrowing resources actually from Lettice to get it going.
And I think that there was a sort of, the difference is really that Biscuiteers has caught a lot bigger in the last few years and then he came over very much to work in it, which also coincided with my eldest daughter taking over the running of Lettice.
And I suppose that was the sort of opportunity really for him to get completely out. Whereas before that, he was sort of one foot in both businesses effectively.
Okay. I understand.
It wasn’t a kind of moment when we all said, “We think you should come and work in the business.” He was always involved, it was always a shared endeavor.
It was just more a question of how much time we were putting into different things.
Make sure you and your partner have clear and defined roles within your business
And you mentioned that he’s very much got his sphere within the business, so he does production and operations.
Was that very important to have clearly defined roles where it became a natural kind of division of labor, and you weren’t going to step on each other’s toes?
Yeah, I think it is important actually, and we are very different people. We have very different skillset.
And so when we’re working in the business, I mean, obviously we’re both part of the kind of executive team, but we work quite separately, and I think that is one of the saving things really.
It’s an interesting dynamic because I’m very much leading the marketing and the sales and actually I also, to some extent, front the business, hence been doing interviews like this. He wouldn’t dream of doing that, but he has very much been the person who’s conceived and designed, for instance, the manufacturing processes.
Because that’s been one of the big challenges about Biscuiteers, how to design a manufacturing process that would enable us to hand-iced biscuits on the scale that we do.
A gifting business is essentially a manufacturing business
But tell me about that because you mentioned that you started this business because you were fascinated by e-commerce and tech, but then on the flip side, each biscuit is iced by hand, which seems like the absolute antithesis of having a high-tech business.
It’s beautifully done, but that must be a big strain on the business. So how do you do that?
Well, I mean, you’re obviously completely right. I think that I’d slightly, when we started the business, we had really tackled, let’s say, those problems and those challenges.
We were very excited by the idea and the product that we were creating, and it’s been the biggest learning curve, and also building a manufacturing business is a really hard thing to do.
So the bit that I do, which is building a brand, I consider it to be relatively easier than the challenges of building, manufacturing on this scale and also manufacturing in London, which also has its own challenges.
So I also feel, I sound ridiculously naive to say this, it was a while ago, but I honestly don’t think that I actually realised on sort of day one that I was actually launching a manufacturing business.
I mean, I knew I was launching a gifting business. I was kind of completely clear about that, but we didn’t worry about that in a way. And it is obviously just in a sense the problem grew as the business grew.
Why outsourcing isn’t always an option and preparing for Christmas
But could you have sort of outsourced that bit or did you perhaps try, and then they weren’t as tasty as you would’ve liked, or did you not go that route at all?
It’s not that we wouldn’t have been open to that route, but we’ve never found anybody who knows how to do what we do.
I mean, there are big problems of being the first people to ever attempt to hand-iced 3 million biscuits a year because there’s no one else who can do it.
So it isn’t like I can go to some factory, I could if I was doing something else and say, “Here’s the recipe.” It’s not just a recipe, it’s not the manufacturer of the biscuits themselves that’s challenging, it’s the actual decoration of the biscuits and how that you do that.
And a lot of the IP in our business is around that process that we’ve created.
I understand because you can’t just go to McVitty’s or say, “Hey Mr. Kipling, help me out.” Because it’s specifically made to order a lot of these biscuits, and they are personalised, and they’re also changing all the time.
I saw on your Instagram that you had, for example, during Wimbledon, loads of amazing Wimbledon biscuits, and you must have to be so fast to bring out these designs to tally with events that are going on in the year.
Well, I mean you’d be surprised actually, we have to work quite far in advance. I mean obviously we know what’s coming, so we will have started Christmas for instance in February.
We start Christmas on the 1st of February being the kind of biggest occasion, and we design collections seasonally in that sense, it’s a bit like a fashion business, and we present ourselves like that. I mean, that’s the sort of language that we use. So we’re always designing.
So at the moment, I think we’re doing Valentine’s Day at the moment. And it has to be, because of the media cycle, to some extent. We’re presenting both to retailers and to media our Christmas collection now.
So it has to be photographed, ready, cataloged, everything.
I see. Okay. And how far in advance can you actually start to make the biscuits? Because in terms of shelf life and everything, how far ahead can you prepare?
Especially for Christmas, which I know is massive for you guys.
We start what we call Christmas manufacturer from the beginning of August. We actually start with the all year round, funnily enough, and then we’re fully in Christmas production by the 1st of September.
And it is because that’s the only way that we can get the kind of volumes that we need without obviously employing a crazy number of people.
And they do have long shelf life. Yes. So six to nine months.
Trialling and condensing recipes
And in terms of the variety of biscuits available, do you have to keep that quite spare, quite limited in order to make life easier?
I know that you’ve got lots of designs, but the actual dough that you’re baking, does it kind of stick to one recipe or do you have a whole host of options in that way as well?
We have four or five. So the main recipes that we use are gingerbread, chocolate, lemon. Throughout the year, with gingerbread obviously a lot more popular at Christmas.
We also have vegan recipes. So kind of four or five different doughs that we’re using.
Oh, that’s interesting. And how did you come up with that kind of core variety then, core offering?
Was it basically people asking you for things or did you test things and then the sales went mad for them, and you thought we’ll keep that.
How did you kind of iron out which flavors people wanted?
I suppose there was a bit of just trialing it and we’re always optimising our recipes. We have quite a big technical team here, so we do work quite hard at constantly trying to get the right balance.
So the lemon recipe is actually quite a new one. So we were doing a lot more vanilla biscuits, but we felt that the vanilla wasn’t lasting as well, because it’s not as strong a flavor and it was quite sweet.
So we only brought the lemon in, I think about two years ago. So we are always thinking about it, but what we try to do is give people options.
So say you’re buying our butterfly designs, you’ll only be able to buy them in the dough that we make them in. But if you don’t like lemon dough saying that’s what they’re in, there will be other designs, but that’s the only way we can really run the business, otherwise we’d have just mad number of skews.
Because it struck me that you have quite a lot of corporate customers who perhaps would come back every year, and then they would want something slightly different every year.
They’d want to feel like they were bringing something fresh to their teams or to their clients, and that would be something that you would need, that would be a need you’d need to meet.
Around the Christmas season. I think that’s right and that’s why we have diversified.
So you will find at Christmas that we sell, well we already sell a lot of macaron, that’s a quite big area for us, but we also sell shortbread, hand-iced chocolates, mince pies, Christmas cakes.
So if you can ice it, basically we’ve probably tried it, is the general principle.
You are making me hungry.
Christmas turnover and demand as a gifting business
So how much of your turnover comes in over broadly the Christmas period then because it sounds like that must be about more than half maybe?
No, it’s not that much, and we work quite hard to make sure that it isn’t that much. So I suppose it’s heavily weighted 25%, 30%, but we’ve very much, for the shape of the business, need it to be an all-year round gifting business.
So obviously Christmas is the biggest occasion for the year, but there are many other occasions throughout. I mean, where we’re sitting right now, we are doing loads of “Thank you teacher.”
I mean that for us is quite a big occasion at this time of the year, but we also have corporate customers who buy from us throughout the year for different reasons.
So product launches, employee engagement, loyalty gifting, quite a big one as well, and wholesalers. So wholesalers buy from us throughout the year as well.
That’s really interesting advice for anyone who’s thinking or has a seasonal business in ways that you kind of think creatively to find those spikes in sales throughout the year, because otherwise it would be too risky.
You’d be overloading yourself too far.
It’s not just a risk. I mean, it is a problem.
I think anybody who runs a seasonal business and anyone who’s running a retail business, is to some extent going to be running a seasonal business and is going to be facing the problems that we all face.
You have to build your store fast in early September, and then you get a real dip in your cash at that time of the year. So it is very tough to work through that.
So that’s why the more work that we can pilot or find different channels, different ways of building business in the first six months of the year is what we aim to do.
And did you and your husband have to muck in? I’m imagining when the business was young, and you had these huge orders coming in, suddenly you’d be both grabbing icing bags and like, “We’re ready.”
Or was it always more calm and collected than that?
No, definitely not. But it was more at the end of Christmas dispatch, actually, is the more memorable thing, because on our website you can choose your dispatch day, you’ll just get these huge days where you’ll suddenly have 5,000 parcels going out on one day.
And because everybody for some reason has decided they want them all to go out on the 16th of December. And that is a really challenging thing to work out because obviously we’re managing stock all the time and stock is selling through.
So you have to have really robust systems. If you’ve sold that stock to somebody in the beginning of November, they have to be top of the queue or the 16th of December, actually that’s really quite a complicated thing to organise.
How to run an effective and efficient warehouse
So does your warehouse have really high-tech sort of ways of labeling which biscuits need to go? Because you must also be selling the biscuits in order so that you have the kind of freshest ones come at the back like in a supermarket, you hunt at the back and the later sell by dates at the back and then the ones are pushed to the front.
Is that how it works in biscuits?
Sort of, yeah, they slide down effectively, yes.
So you put your new stock in the back is exactly like that, like most warehouse systems. I mean the way we work on a barcode system, like most people, we work on dispatch days, actually.
So basically all the orders that are due to be dispatched today, not ordered today, will come up for them on their screens. The challenge of it is to make sure that, so if you’ve got your 5,000 orders, you want that to happen, but what you also want to happen is to make sure that the people who ordered it first, get it first, because you do get the inevitable, occasional oversells and things.
And we also forward allocate stock, which is really complicated. So we sell stock which hasn’t been made yet because of the nature of our process.
So if I’m selling stock, let’s say in the middle of November that I know is going to be made the week after next, but they don’t want it dispatched until December, that’s okay.
Well it’s okay provided the whole system works properly. Forward allocation is a also very complicated thing to do.
It sounds like a lot of smart number crunching has to go into making sure the right number of biscuits.
Well it’s smart systems, you get very dependent or very smart systems. We did a massive tech upgrade two years ago, which we really needed because if we hadn’t done it, I think the wheels would’ve completely flown off.
We’re selling through so many different channels. We’re selling through our own icing cafés, we’re selling direct to corporates, we’re selling to retailers, wholesale, and we are selling direct as well, and we’re sort of moving stock around between these areas.
It gets complicated when you’re incredibly busy as you are at Christmas.
Overcoming the Royal Mail strikes
And it must be a nightmare if anything goes wrong. So does it ever happen that say the Royal Mail strikes for example, did that throw you off or did you have a replacement delivery partner lined up? How did you manage that?
We do have replacement delivery partners, but in a way that wasn’t really the point. The point was that the media said, “You’re not going to get your parcels.”
So everybody ran back to the high street.
We would expect the two weeks before Christmas to be our busiest time of the entire year. I mean, those Royal Mail strikes cost us a fortune. Because people just lost faith, and we were obviously providing very competitive courier deliveries.
There wasn’t actually a problem with us sending out the biscuits, but there was a problem in the confidence of people shopping online.
So literally online retail in those two weeks before Christmas just fell off a cliff last year, and that was probably one of the most challenging things that we’ve had to deal with.
Does that mean if there are future Royal Mail strikes, have you got a marketing strategy where it’s like, “Never mind Royal Mail, we’ll still get you your biscuits.”
What can you do to instill confidence?
Well somebody said to me, and it didn’t make me feel much better at the time, but it’s just the cost of doing business and I kind of understand what they mean. There are bumps in the road.
I’d like to believe that the Royal Mail strikes are totally resolved. I just couldn’t even contemplate that happening again. I mean, I did quite a lot of interviews at the time going and talk about it and saying it felt a bit like it was punishing businesses.
You know what I mean? It’s their right to go to strike. But it was just the timing of it.
I mean, it really did feel like we’d spent all year preparing for Christmas and somebody had just gone, “Okay, I’ll take it away.”
Yeah, that must have been an absolute kick in the teeth. I totally hear you on that.
How to successfully run a business with your partner
So at the beginning of the show we talked a bit about how you run a business with a husband-and-wife team at the top. I’d like to get a little bit of your insight on how that works from a personal perspective.
So, do you and your husband talk about work all the time? Do you have rules in place like after 8:00 PM, we don’t talk about work? Is that even possible? Can you share your approach to making it work?
I mean I do think it is quite challenging and I have heard other couples say things like, “We don’t talk about it at home.”
We’ve always talked about business at home, and I think it stems from the fact that even before we had Biscuiteers, we had Lettice. So we had a kind of business in the family always.
And then obviously we had Biscuiteers as well. And now with my daughter running Lettice, that’s also still within the family.
So as a family, we’re very used to running businesses, it’s being a big part of our lives. I think we don’t have rules in place because we’re not those kinds of people. If we did, we just break them.
I think you do sometimes have to learn when to just stop, because I think the worst thing is actually if you are having an anxious time at business, it’s that anxiety slipping into your personal life in a way because you are both oversharing those problems.
And I think those are actually the most difficult times.
Because then it’s hard to get on with each other as people, because you’re so associated with the problem, and it’s hard to see where one thing ends and the problem begins.
And I think also, obviously we don’t always take the same approach to things, and I mentioned we are very different. I mean, I am quite a bullish entrepreneur. I think I rely on my optimism to drive the business, and I feel that as the leader of the business, I have to lead other people.
And he approaches things much more cautiously. I think that also comes out from the fact that he has run businesses for, well, all his life, essentially. So he quite rightly believes that unlike the way businesses are run now, that businesses should be run for profit, and they should be run well.
So in other words, if I said, “This has got to be a growing business”, that would be an obvious area of tension for us, or it’s very product dependent.
And so it’s about me wanting to keep product very, very high end all the time. And obviously from his point of view he’s like, “Well it’s also got to be produced productively. We have to make some money out of it.”
So we’re both on different sides of it. And I suppose what you hope is that that becomes a good creative tension, and some kind of middle ground is found.
Optimising productivity to cut down on costs
I was going to say, can you give me an example of a particular point that you were opposed over?
And then tell me how you resolved it, and whether it was then resolved so that you were both happy, or do you feel like that’s quite tricky, that compromise?
I think one of the areas that we often disagree about, is weirdly, it sounds very detailed, but it’s a number of skews that we carry in the business.
So from my point of view, from a marketing side, I think what keeps Biscuiteers in the conversation, which is really important if you’re a consumer brand, is our ability to be responsive to events and seasons.
And I think the newness of the product and the new product development that we put in, and the seasonal launches also keep the marketing really fresh all the time.
He would take the view that we just have too many skews, and it would obviously be far more efficient if we were making less of a range of biscuits.
And I would say that we still are in debate about this.
But I’m not sure we will ever quite resolve it. But I mean I know that he’s not wrong, so we do try very hard.
For example, we’re always putting new things on the website. So the discipline should be, if you put new things on, you have to take something off.
Because you can get very carried away with all the lovely things you can make. I certainly can, and I think that is quite an important discipline.
So we have a sort of planning department, so when it goes down to the ices or goes down into production, we know how many, if you like tins of biscuits, we’re expecting to get back, and if for whatever reason we’re not producing them efficiently or fast enough, and this is very much sort of his approach, they come back into new product development to be optimised.
Because we can possibly do quite small things that hopefully the consumer won’t even see, that just make them much easier and faster for the icers to ice.
Oh, okay. Well if there’s a little crack or something?
No, a change of design technique, there might be something in the design technique that they’re finding hard.
So it’s basically designing iced biscuits. So these are the ones that are going on the big production products that we sell on the website that we can make small changes to.
So we are constantly optimising our productivity. I mean this is really tough times now we’re all struggling with the cost. Our costs are all getting up. Costs of employing people obviously, costs of machines, costs of everything. And we don’t want to have to, as far as possible, pass that cost onto our customers.
What we’re trying to do is to lean into our productivity. And I think last year we did get about a 10%, 12% increase in productivity, which did offset those costs. Though this year it’s going to be tougher again because we’ve probably got another 10% of cost increases that we have to absorb.
So that is the beating heart of the business. I mean all businesses are about this, it’s about gross profit, but in our case, our gross profit is absolutely linked to how productively we can produce biscuits.
That’s really interesting though, the idea that you try and find cost savings not through the obvious channels where it’s sort of slimming down the workforce or cutting your marketing, but looking for just how you can be more productive, more efficient.
It just seems like a much better way to view this sort of savings, that you just get much better at doing what you’re already good at.
Well, I think you probably have to do everything. There is an argument that people say, I mean, we’re not in a recession yet, but in a recession you run a leaner business.
So our marketing, all of our channels have to pay back, it’s run in a very tight way. Obviously, you don’t stop marketing because marketing is critical to the business.
And we can’t really cut people, we are an artisanal business, so we need people to make the biscuits, so that’s not where the cuts are going to come in. So really our main option is to make them better.
Coping with confrontation when you run multiple family businesses
And you mentioned that Lettice Events, which was your husband’s previous company, is now being run by your daughter. So there’s these two business is being run side by side, all the family is involved.
So are there ever clashes, are there ever huge rows with shouting up or down the stairs? Or have you managed to figure out a way to avoid that part of family confrontation?
I think we’re quite a noisy family, anyway, so we’re not afraid of confrontation. I think that’s the best way to put it. And not bothered by it enormously, because it’s quite short-lived.
And Holly, I mean she’s done an absolutely amazing job at Lettice. It’s grown so quickly over the last couple of years, but that’s quite a stressful business, you’re putting on corporate and private events. And Stevie is still a little bit involved, and he goes in half a day a week to help her.
But I imagine by growing up in the sort of hustle of running her own businesses, it comes more naturally to her.
Yeah, it must have rubbed off. I mean they always say when we interview entrepreneurs on this show, and they’re like, “Oh my dad or my mum ran a business, and it was kind of second nature, it was in my blood.”
And they never thought of doing anything different really because what they saw. So it must be the same with your kids.
I think so. She’s at the moment the only one, but we’ll see where the others go. It’s interesting because I don’t think being an entrepreneur is for everybody.
But I think the people who do enjoy it, what they enjoy most is having their own agency. It’s definitely the reason I started a business, I had four kids and I wanted control over my own time.
And starting my business seemed like a good way to achieve that.
But don’t you feel like there’s a bit of an irony there because you had a very busy, powerful job, and you wanted to be more flexible and control your own hours, but now you’re running a really, really successful company, and I’m sure you’ve worked weekends and evenings, potentially even more so than you did in your old job.
I don’t know, I hear this a lot where it’s like, “I wanted to have more control, but then I got control, and I’m the hardest task master I’ve ever had.”
I think that’s true because obviously it’s partly the way things develop.
We could all be working all the time. I’ve worked in some really weird places, and it has come quite naturally to me, sitting at a paid club camp or something and working. I’ll work anywhere. I work in cars a lot because I do quite a lot of travelling.
But I think it’s different though because I think again, it’s your gig, and it’s your choice, that is ultimately a very different thing. And creating businesses, I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot, it is a sort of form of active creation for a lot of people it becomes another member of their family and all the people that you work with.
So I think it’s that sort of sense of responsibility as well, and the commitment to it is just slightly different.
The one thing I would say, though, is looking back, I do think the early years of running a business are the most fun. I think that it does get a lot bigger, and it does get a lot scarier and responsible, whereas when you’re starting, and you’re trying lots of things and things are working, and I enjoy that bit a great deal.
It’s less to lose as well because kind of thinking, “Well I hope this works, and I’m going to do it, give my all.” But it’s not like you’re saying, “I’ve got 300 people’s livelihoods.”
How to stay positive during the cost-of-living crisis
And on that note, you mentioned earlier how your role is to bring the positivity and to make sure that you are the one that has the encouragement and motivating people.
I mean, how do you do that? Because you, like everyone, you are reading the headlines and as you say, there are lots of pressures on the business.
So how do you keep finding this positivity? How do you keep digging down and finding this well of motivation and determination that you can make everyone around you also feel that way?
Yeah, I think those people who work with you have to believe in your certainty. I would go as far as to say, “This is going to happen, this is going to work.”
Well, one of the ways I do it is that at some point I just block out the wider conversation around macroeconomics, and I go, “Look, we’ve got in Biscuiteers, an incredibly differentiated product, differentiated in every market, not just in the UK.”
And we have had to pivot the business actually in the last couple of years.
So the balance between consumer and B2B has changed quite a lot, and we’ve gone far more into wholesale and corporate markets, so that we’re less overall reliant on the consumer market.
And then what we’ve also done is we’ve looked at channels overseas, and that is now our real focus. And I think that that’s what you do.
So if you think that you’ve got a great product, you find new channels to sell that product. So you don’t get sucked down into, “Okay, the consumer market in the UK is really quite poor at the moment.”
You have to think bigger and longer-term.
So it’s constructive positivity. You’re not just saying, “Oh, everything’s going to be fine.”
Oh, no, no. You have a plan.
You’re literally doing the things that mean you can be confident, and you can say hands on heart, “We are going to be okay.” So it’s not sort of a veneer, it is genuinely how you feel.
Yeah. And I think the more strings you have to your bow, enables you to give that flexibility, because what you tend to find is that different bits of the business at different times are performing better for different reasons.
And is that especially important to have that diversified sort of income stream when you’re heading perhaps for a recession when there are cost of living, cost of business, price rises, you need more, because a lot of companies tend to slim back down to a sole focus when there’s economic strife.
I believe essentially that good products, we’re in the gifting business, it might be the luxury end, but we’re affordable gifting. I believe that there’s always a place for that.
So as it happens with Biscuiteers, we over index as it happens in the Southeast of England, which perhaps is to be expected.
So one of our great challenges this year is to go, “Well, why are we doing more business in the North of England?”
There’s no reason. It’s just that we haven’t given that the focus in marketing.
So I suppose what I’m trying to say is there are always opportunities. You just have to find the opportunities.
And I think one of the difficulties actually is, particularly at the moment, the sort of relentlessness of bad news around business. It does make that a great deal harder.
So you just have to tune it out, sometimes just turn it off.
You do have to tune out.
And just focus on what you’re doing.
Assuming that you do, as I do, believe in what you’re doing. We have an incredibly loyal customer base who love what we do. So we have the benefit of having that kind of feedback, and we see a lot of opportunities.
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