Subscribe to the Sound Advice podcast
Subscribe by email and get the Sound Advice podcast delivered to your inbox every month with a ton of related articles, templates and problem solving guides for small businesses so you can put our Sound Advice podcast into practice.SubscribeSubscribe
Hello and welcome to the show notes for episode four of Sound Advice, get year one in business right, brought to you by Sage.
We’re bringing you real stories from some brilliant entrepreneurs. Sound Advice is all about finding those practical tips that you can take away and use for setting up your small business.
This week, we talk to seasoned side hustler Mathew Porter, who juggles his fledgling glass straw company, VASO, alongside his day job for a digital marketing agency.
Google hacks, supply chain secrets, what makes manufacturers tick; read on to find out how VASO’s CEO launched his innovative product in an emerging market and kept his day job…
You can be a serial side hustler – and keep your day job
If you want to know how to create a super successful side hustle, I have just the man for you.
I am joined by the excellent Mathew Porter, co-founder of VASO. His company makes the nifty glass straws that are saving the turtles from plastic waste one sip at a time.
He’s built this fast-growth startup while holding down a full-time job.
Do you want to just tell me how you ended up starting a glass straw business? Because you’re not in glass straws in your day job, are you?
So it initially started from a chance encounter with a family friend a couple of Christmases ago who had been to see a business associate of theirs in Germany, and that company happened to start manufacturing glass straws, so the family friend had some with him.
So me being me and my background, I initially just had a look at what potential scope there was to set up a business related to bring the glass straws to market in the UK.
At that time, there was only one potential competitor, and their product was not a superior product as what we could potentially bring to market.
So, from that stage on, I secured things like the domain name. We managed to get glassstraw.co.uk, which is perfect.
I also looked at the search volumes and could see that there was some search intent within the UK, so all the early signs were there that there was a potential market.
Over the course of a year, we gradually got a hold of stock and product packaging and everything else that we needed, too, to bring the product to market.
You make it sound so easy, and I’m going to badger you with about 101 questions about all the various elements in that story.
But I wanted to start with you saying, “Me being me.” Does that mean this isn’t your first rodeo? Have you started lots of side hustles or full-time job businesses? What’s your background?
Yeah. Over the past five years, I’ve had a couple of small side hustles that I’ve started doing various bits and pieces.
One of those was buying and selling retro consoles, which just came about from a sort of pet passion of mine as a keen video gamer and I always seemed to acquire lots of extra games and consoles and always had a need to downsize the collection that I had.
So, because of my background in online marketing, it was a no-brainer and a simple task for myself to set up an online store and sell lots of the consoles and games that I didn’t require anymore over the internet.
Again, I’ve worked in many businesses prior to my online marketing business where they’ve been ecommerce retailers.
So having a knowledge of all the things that need to go into place in terms of supply chain and the marketing, the web experience, the customer services side, and the whole package have all lent themselves to various side hustles that I’ve had over the years.
That’s really interesting. So do you think that that e-commerce experience was really crucial to making VASO a success?
Could you have started with a blank sheet and learned it all as you went along?
I think there’s always scope. With our client base, there are lots of clients that initially started themselves with a really basic web presence and sort of built things up to a stage where they needed help and then looked for more professional solutions to the website and their online marketing.
But probably with VASO, the fact that I had that transferable skill set allowed us to come to market because with such a small budget that we had, the majority of that had to go on securing stock.
So having transferable skills I could, with the only factor of my own time, come to market and launch the website and do various bits and pieces of online marketing, brand exposure, and various other things related to the marketing.
We just wouldn’t have been able to do that without those skills because the budget wouldn’t have been there to deliver an experience that we have.
It would’ve been a much lessened one, and we wouldn’t have made shorter in-roads in the same amount of time, just because budget would’ve been such a big factor.
Bootstrap your business and lower the risk
So if you weren’t having to pay for the digital marketing and for the website build, because you knew all of that, how much would it…
Do you mind if I ask you this very personal question?
How much does it take to start up a business like VASO? How much did you have in the bank for that?
Yeah. To put it into perspective, maybe an e-commerce build from an agency of a decent reputation, you could be looking anywhere from £15k to £30k just for the web build.
And then off the back of that, you need budget for the actual online marketing, so if you were looking at PPC (Pay-Per-Click) as a sales channel, spend could be anywhere, depending on a variety factors…
But for the glass straws, it could quite easily have been a spend of £1,000 a month budget, and then, obviously, the management costs on top of that, that could be anywhere from £500 to thousands of pounds, obviously, depending on the scale of the actual paid marketing.
Then in terms of the organic side, so the SEO, again, you’re looking at a budget of thousands to a reputable agency to actually gain enough traction where you get some return from it.
So let’s say a budget of £50k for your initial build and for the first 12 months is something that is a realistic figure.
That is so much money for a startup, but does that mean that… So how much money did you need to start?
Because you needed to buy stock, but you saved on all the other stuff. But how much did you have in the pot?
So, initially, we had £4,000, and all of that went on product manufacture, so the product itself, and then product packaging, and then no other funds were spent elsewhere.
It was all, like I say, transferable skills that myself and other partners within VASO had that we could utilise.
One of the things that all of the partners within the business see is that their free time is a free commodity, and I think that’s a great way to look at things when starting a business or a side hustle.
You’re always going to lose some of your own free time, so knowing that you may sacrifice a little bit of your time spent with family or on downtime, but that investment, you can’t put a price on that.
Whereas at lots of bigger companies that may already be in a certain sector that you’re launching a business in, obviously, time is a paid commodity for them.
They’re paying staff members, et cetera, or agencies for various bits and pieces. So that’s one thing that a small business can harness over what established businesses have to pay for.
I mean, everyone’s end game is to make money at the end of the day.
But that’s the beauty of the side hustle or whether it’s trying to establish a startup while still working full time, is there’s not that risk in terms of you have to make it work to put food on the table.
So with that, sometimes, you may get a little bit complacent, but I think, at the end of the day, if you’ve got enough of a drive and passion behind something and the signs are there that it’s got legs, then you’ll always take those sacrifices and put the time in to try and make it a success.
Persevere if distributors ‘stonewall’ you
And, Mat, can you talk me through how you went from the ideation stage through to actually creating the products and finding the packaging?
Because, presumably, you were doing all those things from scratch, especially with the packaging because I’m sure not that many companies are trying to box up glass straws, so there’s not something off the shelf that you could use.
The manufacturers that one of our partners had a relationship with were not keen to bring us to the consumer market.
Obviously, we could see that there was already consumer search and that in the UK, there weren’t many others that were serving that consumer market.
That phase of things was more down to negotiating costs and making sure that we can work to a pricing to the consumer that would work and that offers the consumer value for money while we can still make margins.
But as you mentioned, the product packaging, that had its challenges.
All of us involved in the business had never really had much experience with that, so approaching companies, we really had not a stonewall but we had difficulties even getting packaging manufacturers to actually speak to us and take us seriously.
A lot of the time, lots of the packaging manufacturers had questions related to volumes that we also had counter-questions that would answer those questions.
So to every question of, “What volume do you need,” our counter question was, “Well, what are the costs going to be?”
Because we obviously had a budget that wanted to get as much packaging for that budget to maximise our margins because, with anything, the higher volume you can purchase, the pricing always reflects that.
So the higher the volume, the lower the costs generally are per unit.
So, eventually, we found a great partner to work with that were fully understanding as to the product and how we wanted the packaging. Then together we managed to design a product packaging that worked for us.
The other side to that is, again, going back to transferable skills, the actual design of the packaging itself in terms of the artwork for the packaging, and my background also is in graphic design.
So, again, I had that skill set and I could do that, which reduced costs that allowed us to buy more of the actual carton units themselves and dilute that cost further, again bringing savings to the consumer and helping us retain further margins as well.
How to conduct detailed market and product research to find your USP
Can you tell us a little bit about why now is the best time to be launching a glass straw? Because there’s a lot of pressures out there right now and a big change in how consumers are looking at things like plastic straws.
Do you want to just sum up what the perfect storm was behind you launching this product?
Yeah. The initial factors were the fact that there was very little competition within the UK, so there were one or two other brands that were producing glass straws at the time.
The biggest factor that I could see over that was I believe we could bring a better product in terms of the actual glass and the structure of the actual straws than what they were offering.
So there was a gap in the market, first of all.
Second of all, I could see the data that was available in various tool sets for the online search, that there was an emergence of potential market there that was showing some growth of 100% month on month.
Despite it only being small numbers, you can see that big growth and the potential that there was.
Where did you go looking for that data? Was it just in Google, looking at searches?
Where should a startup owner go and look for that kind of data to see what the demand is likely to be? Where do they go and look for that?
Yeah, so there’s quite a few free tools offered by Google.
Within the Google Ads platform, there’s the Google Keyword Planner, so you essentially just place in some keywords, whatever your products or services might be, and then it can give you historical metrics for up to two or three years data, and you can see the growth on a monthly basis for that search.
There’s also the Google Trend tool, which, again, works in a similar fashion.
But, again, that doesn’t give you search volumes, that gives you interest on a score rating of 100, so you can see the actual interest volumes rated out of 100 that there have been over, again, a time period of, I believe, up to five years on that, maybe even longer.
Like I say, they’re free tools that are there, and Google has got so much data, it’s the best place to look for that information.
And your point about your straws being better than the other ones on the market, what does better mean? Are they stronger, easier to clean? Because you need to have that differentiator, don’t you?
You can’t just bring out the same old, same old. It has to be just a little improvement or a big improvement on what people can get already.
Yes. The products that were out there were either using a hand-blown glass so weren’t as strong as the glass that we were proposing to use.
There was another competitor that was using borosilicates, which is used in Pyrex products.
So the only downside to that glass is that it generally can’t be recycled because of the borosilicate in the glass.
The product that we were going to bring to market was manufactured from a soda-lime glass, which has all the heat benefits that Pyrex and borosilicate glass has. The whole idea behind the glass straws is that from product to packaging, everything is fully recyclable, so it’s a closed-loop ecosystem.
Put profits back into the business – and put off paying yourself a salary
Are you still working for free, and if not, when did you decide to start paying yourself, and what different things had to be in place in order for that to happen?
So, at the moment, we technically are because we’re just reinvesting all of the funds, all of the profits that we are making because we can really see this potential for huge growth.
At the moment, we’re leaving money in the bank, which is a great thing to be doing, and then reinvesting the majority of it when and where we can.
One thing that we’ve found, when we initially launched, we managed to time it right to attend a few food festivals and big shows at Birmingham NEC, and what they aided us to do was to kickstart sales but also allowed us to get a lot of feedback on the products.
We quickly saw that those shows were really profitable for us, so a lot of the money, the profits that we have been making, we’ve been reinvesting to book those shows for when and where we can.
So, we can really see that they’re getting in front of consumers that aren’t aware of the products, really just helps in a variety of ways.
That’s fascinating. So how do you find these shows, and how do you pinpoint which ones are likely to have the biggest impact, are going to be best for the business?
Our initial thought process was to attend food and drink festivals because the product lends itself so much to that sector.
But what we tended to find was that the scale of a lot of those that were available to us just when we launched, they were smaller-scale shows, but they were still great in terms of being profitable.
We just obviously didn’t do huge volume, but the actual feedback, getting in front of consumers, again, like I say, awareness but getting the feedback from a consumer, whereas, online, someone’s probably found your site from the most part with the intent of purchasing your product.
So they’ve done a search for glass straws because their intent is to purchase it, whereas at the shows you’ve got lots of people that aren’t there with any intent. They’re there to enjoy the festival.
So getting to speak to those people who may not have been aware of the product, talking through the products, and converting and then also getting feedback as to people’s thoughts on the product, how they feel things could’ve been done in a better way, or even the uses or reasons why they would want a reusable straw over a disposable straw.
That was one of the biggest things that always comes up, is that people have got a real disdain for the paper straws.
In October 2020, there was actual legislation passed within the UK to ban the use of single-use plastic straws, so, again, the perfect storm of time and of coming to market at the end of 2019, again, has lent itself to that coming into place.
Cultivate meaningful online relationships to give your brand exposure
I love the insights about how you get consumers excited about the product, but when I had a little noodle around on your website, I also saw that you have some kind of big names, amazing testimonials from some quite big brands.
How did they come about? Did you just have to send out a bunch of freebies, or is it just luck? Are you friends with top food bloggers? How did it happen?
I wish it was because that would’ve made my life easier in the digital marketing sector. Lots of the various techniques that we employ for our client base for digital PR, again, I sort of put those into practice to gain those relationships and build those and then craft the opportunities from there. It’s also a little bit of luck at the time that certain things came about.
For instance, the Daily Mail featured us and that was just chance. We just got an email from someone who happened to be producing an article on reusable straws at the time.
Again, we quite happily obliged and sent out some free samples for that testing feature in that article.
At the end of the day, that’s key takeaway for any startup, is if you can put your time to approaching various, whether it’s bloggers, websites, newspapers, whatever it may be, putting the legwork in to find out who key people within those sites or business or newspapers are and approaching them.
Even if it falls on deaf ears, it may be the case that that email, when they’re producing an article, pops into their mind and then they approach you 12 months down the line.
If it leads to something that can give your brand exposure when you’ve got zero, then it’s a great thing.
I love that you’ve said you have to do the legwork, though, because you do see a lot of brands who do approaches to completely random people, whether it’s on social media or journalists like myself.
I saw, actually, only a couple of weeks ago, that something went viral where a leggings company was trying to get a so-called influencer on Instagram to wear their leggings.
And it turned out that that was an author who died 50 years ago, and it was just a page that was there in tribute to her amazing work.
So that’s interesting that you do have to take your time and you have to do your research.
Yeah, yeah, that, and, again, just putting the time into developing a relationship.
Lots of people tend to think that it’s a numbers game. They can just send out generic emails to hundreds of thousands of newspapers, bloggers, whatever it may be, and that they’re going to get some level of reception back.
It’s not about that.
It’s about developing that relationship to get something out of it because you’ve got, see, on the flip side, if someone approached you and said, “I’d like some free product,” it’s out of the blue and there’s maybe nothing in it for you, then it would fall on deaf ears. It goes both ways, you know?
Make an action plan for your post-Brexit supply chain
Mat, I want to go back a bit because I’ve just thought of another question I’d love to ask you about your supply chain stuff.
You mentioned that your manufacturer’s in Germany. We’re obviously on the verge of Brexit right now when we’re recording this interview. How have you made sure your supply chain can withstand that?
Have you been bulk buying in advance? I’d love to know how a small business prepares.
At the time that we were actually bringing product into the country, we secured a large number. So as it stands with how the market is, we can probably see through maybe two years of current level of sales with the stockpile that we have.
But, again, like I say, I don’t know if there was much forethought in that. It was more of we maximised the actual funds that we had available and secured as much stock at the time.
Where are all these straws? Are you sitting on them? Are they all over your house, or do you have special warehousing, or how are you storing all these things?
Fortunately, because I’ve got the relationship through my other business of our business premises, we were able to secure a small premises for all of our products.
So don’t get me wrong, there are straws stacked up in various members of the business’s garages and things.
But, yeah, we do have a premises that we’re able to store all the straws. The beauty of it is they’re a relatively small product, so we don’t need much space to keep the stockpile safe.
Prepare to pack and distribute under pressure to consumer demand
And who does the packaging and sending them off? Is that all you guys, kind of orders come in and jump in the car and put the straws in the boxes?
Are you still doing all of that, or is that nicely outsourced now?
No, at the moment, we are.
Like I say, all of the four founding members have got various skill sets that lend themselves to running this type of business. So one of the members is fulfilling orders.
This is the difference between us your powerhouse distributors out there. They’ve got this behemoth of a business and supply chain and delivery network and everything else.
As a small business, consumers expect the same level of service that these big businesses deliver. So if it’s the case of using your time to try and deliver that service, you’ve got to because consumers expect that same level of service.
The benefit to a small business is that you can tend to be a bit more flexible and because you’ve not got thousands of staff that you’re paying that are under various pressures to fulfil orders and various other bits.
You can just, at the drop of a hat, run to the post office and get orders out the same day, whereas if a large business is under quite a lot of demand, it might be the next day.
So that’s where the benefits in the small business and the flexibility that you may have can give you an edge over bigger businesses.
But you said you’ve got enough stock to keep selling if levels remain the same for the next two years. But what if this becomes an international bestselling product?
How big could VASO get, and can you ever imagine it taking over or being your primary role as opposed to the side hustle?
Maybe it will. As it stands, we’ve seen huge growth. All the data sets that I keep an eye on, again, are still growing at exponential levels, 50%, 100% growth per month throughout this year.
So there’s potential there, and like I say, the sustainable product market, it seems to really be in its infancy.
Providing you can last out the early stages and really stamp your authority and grow your brand exposure during those early years, then you’ve almost got a leg up over the competition that may come to market at a later stage.
Hopefully, one day, it will become a primary business and a primary focus.
But at the minute, like I say, it’s seeing growth, and that’s good enough for me at the moment.
Be realistic about the hours you will devote to a side hustle
You said at the beginning of this chat that you have to put in a lot of time and effort. And I just want to know how many hours a week you spend on VASO and whether there is a specific number of hours that you actually need to plumb into a new business to make it a success?
At the moment, I’d say between five to 10 hours a week of my own time, whether that’s evenings or weekends I’ll personally put into the business.
Again, other partners within the business who are all very hands-on, they probably put five hours each into the business as well at the moment.
During the initial conception and the early days of coming to market, I’d probably say that there was more like 10 to 20, maybe even 30 hours a week of my own time going into things like the website build and starting outreach and approaching people to try and get some brand exposure and various PR activities.
So it can vary, but, yeah, like I say, the early days, there was quite a substantial amount of time that, alongside my primary business, I was putting into VASO to get things done that needed to be done.
That’s really interesting, though, because there’s four of you in total, is that right, or five?
Yes, four. Four, yeah.
Does that mean that you get to split the work so you’re all working a little less because you have each other?
Does that mean that that would be vital, to have co-founders if you want to have a successful side hustle because you can’t put in 50 hours a week, not over and over and over and over again, without burning out?
Yeah, I mean, there’s always the chance that you are able to start something in your own time.
Going back to one of my early ones with the retro consoles, that was all my own time. But it has helped me and probably helped the business quite a lot having co-founders that are all able to put their own time into developing various bits and pieces that needed to be done, and it does.
So one of the co-founders will primarily manage the account, so if I had to do that on top of the five to 10 hours a week that I’ve put in myself, you could be looking at an additional three to five hours there.
Yes, it does help alleviate some of the strains for a business, having co-founders that are able to take off some of that workload that, again, might not be within my primary arsenal of skill set.
So something that may take me four hours may take another member of the team two hours to do, so it lends itself that they do that task.
Having that helps, but I won’t say that it’s a necessity at the end of the day.
It may just be the initial phases of a startup or a side hustle where you’re putting in a substantial amount of time, and then after that it may quickly establish itself to a level that’s manageable.
Then, at that stage, it might be at a level where you can then leave your primary work or business to pursue the side hustle as a full time.
Automation is the route to taking a product-based side hustle full time
Because it’s important to remember that you’ve only actually been doing this for under a year.
This is still a baby, baby, baby startup. It’s not reached a point where it can stand on its own two feet and you can start automating processes.
That’s all down the line, right? What are the next steps you’d love to take with VASO as it becomes a bigger, more established business?
Yeah. I mean, the fulfillment side of things is something that we really would like to have some level of automation.
At the moment, we don’t want to do that because of the additional amount that’s going to eat into the profit margins that we’ve built into the price and the ability to soak up that cost.
But at the minute, it’s manageable for us to use our own time at these early stages. We’re doing it ourselves.
But hopefully, within the next 12 months, that’s definitely something that we want to outsource and alleviate from what we have to do.
In terms of automation, too, a lot of the web side of things, I sort of built that in from the outset, just because it’s kind of in my nature just to do things in that way.
What kind of automation? If someone places an order, they get an immediate email back saying thank you. What kind of automation did you build in from the outset?
Yes, so that’s a great example. Lots of email marketing side of things. I’ve got automated processes that are firing off related products.
So if a consumer purchases a pack of glass straws that hasn’t purchased before, I’ve got an automation that will then email that customer an email relating to the travel cases.
Setting up that automation early on saves me the time of doing a manual email marketing blast that would potentially fall to customers where they may have already purchased a particular product.
So setting up that automation, again, from the outset has saved me time in the long run and is something that will just continue to work and grow the profit per customer for the lifetime of us running this business.
Audio transcript may have been edited for legibility and coherence.
Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to Sound Advice!
You can listen to more startup stars in conversation with Bex by subscribing to Sound Advice on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen to our podcast.
We would love for you to join our community and share your insights and stories. Perhaps you would make a great future guest on Sound Advice, let us know on Twitter @SageIreland using the hashtag #SoundAdvicePodcast or in the comments below, and we will get back to you.