How this business owner is supporting small, local businesses

Now more than ever it is crucial that we support our local small businesses, today we meet one business owner who is helping us do just that.

Meet Liza Johnson, Project Director at Discovering Durham CIC and Managing Director at The Tea Enthusiasts

Liza Johnson, Project Director at Discovering Durham CIC and Managing Director at The Tea Enthusiasts

This interview was filmed in early April 2021, when the UK was in it’s third lockdown under Covid-19 restrictions. Please be aware that while we talk about lockdowns, both businesses are now open again and there is an update at the end of the article.

Liza, tell us about your businesses.

The Tea Enthusiasts has been in business for around seventeen years now, whereas Discovering Durham CIC is very much still in the start up phase. We officially formed the CIC on the 6th March 2020, which as you know became a month to remember!

To give you a bit more context, The Tea Enthusiasts is very much about my personal love of tea and my exploration of taste and flavours. It’s an ecommerce business and works well in supporting my team and myself. I’ve learnt so much with this business.

Discovering Durham CIC by contrast is almost the polar opposite. It’s a not for profit organisation and our local community of suppliers are also the producers of the products. We have a shop in Prince Bishops Shopping Centre, where our aim is to source exclusively from our community in a twenty mile radius of County Durham, providing convenience to our retail customer and allowing the producers to make a maximum in wholesale margin. We choose to work with small local, quality producers to showcase the amazing talent we have right here in our county. For example our cheesemaker supplies us with wonderful cheese that he has produced himself, from cows he knows by name, in a location that is steeped in rich local history. That story you just don’t get by buying cheese in a big supermarket.

The profits from the shop go back into supporting our network of small business suppliers, in the form of training programmes, bespoke mentoring, support and our ‘meet the buyer’ events, where they get to share their passion. So the cheesemaker we spoke about gets to share his story, directly with his customers, who will then share that story and the product with their family.

Recently, I was asked if I was worried about Jeff Bezos opening Amazon shops on the high street and I said ‘no’! His job is to eliminate people from the buying process, which has arguably worked for him online, but I do not think that that same mentality has a place on the high street. On the high street I think it is about that human connection. If as a buyer, you came away from our shop without a meaningful conversation, then I feel like we have failed. Those conversations, direct with customers are so important and it isn’t just about marketing your story to sell something, it is about becoming embedded in their day, their routines and their community.

What is your biggest frustration in your industry? And how do you solve that?

There are two very separate industries here, but if we take a focus on Discovering Durham for a moment, then of course at the moment (April 2021) we are closed due to Covid (the business has since reopened). Strangely we could technically be open at this point, because we supply food, however for a number of reasons; risk assessments being one, we decided to close during this third lockdown.

The biggest frustration for us, is that due to our unique set of circumstances, because we are a not for profit organisation and because of when we set up we haven’t been eligible for any funding, support or grants. There’s often a misconception that because a company is marked as a non-profit, that you are getting lots of funding support and it’s not always true. We do however, appreciate and thank the Prince Bishops shopping centre who have been great about discounting our rent.

We have applied for a few very small grants, but because there was such a scramble for those offers, we weren’t successful, which is frustrating. We do continue to try though. We open again in a month, but how do you restock a shop after being closed for so long, without extra funding support? In our case we will reopen and we will have stock, but that comes at the cost of Director’s Loans. So my message to customers at this time for how we help solve this and in the month’s to come; is that before you press that ‘add to cart’ button or buy something from brand giants online, please consider checking out your local high street and small businesses first. This is the time when they need our support most, because reopening is a dangerous phase for these business owners, who are already on their last pennies.

If you could go back to the beginning of your business, what would be the one piece of advice you would tell yourself?

For Discover Durham CIC, I probably wouldn't do anything differently. If I could have started in February 2020, that would have been a help for loan qualification!

If I cast my mind back to the start of The Tea Enthusiasts in 2004, I’m not so sure I’d have nothing to change, my answer would probably be e-commerce based though. For example, looking back at my first website and thinking about the evolution in ecommerce, I shudder at the thought. Back then you needed to employ someone with coding experience to get anything to work, or look vaguely professional and it is still miles away from where we are today. Being in that position was overwhelming and scary. Now, it’s never been easier to start an ecommerce business and get a reasonable looking website together quickly. I have used EKM and recommend them for their easy to use software and UK support. Another thing I would say is that your website is never finished. It is a constantly evolving presence, so do not be afraid to start one and to work in time for developing it.

I would say to start-ups that it is crucial that you build a website today, especially if you sell products, because the way consumers are shopping has changed dramatically since the Pandemic hit. That won’t change when Covid becomes less of an issue.

Tell us about your proudest moment as a business owner

We (Discovering Durham CIC) were approached by the Fuse Project at Durham University to research the data on a business like this, which is unique to our area. They put out a survey for us and it was to benchmark where we are now as a business, what is working and what needs improvement. This would go out to customers and suppliers to gain an insight to both sides of the business. It ran alongside a survey I had set up myself.

We knew there would be things to change, as a new business, especially running during Covid. As such we were expecting more of those types of comments, but actually we were pleasantly surprised to receive many lovely sentiments about the shop and the way it made people feel. The impact it had made on them. The suppliers were also letting us know that they really valued our support and training, both formal and informal through our networking. It was wonderful to receive those messages.

To be able to step back and see that what you are working towards is already out there and helping people is an amazing feeling of accomplishment. There is always work to do, but that is my proudest moment.

What would your advice be to someone starting out as a new business owner?

There are a couple of key things, in my opinion. Firstly, speak to someone who has ‘done it’. Not just a start up, but a viable, sustaining business that has been around for some time. Offer to take the business owner out for some lunch in exchange for an hour of their time, where you will get to ask them as many questions as you can about starting out the right way.

The second thing I would do is join a team, or group that makes sense to you. Something that works for the type of business you are in (product or service) and something that ignites your passion and desire to succeed. Surrounding yourself with the right people with the right mindset, makes a world of difference to your own leadership of a business. It is also easier to rebound from the mistakes you will naturally make as a new business owner, when you have the support of a solid network behind you.

If I could add a third thing, it would be to get someone to check your numbers. Someone like an accountant. You need to write a business plan and set up a profit and loss forecast. It’s not sexy advice, but it will give you an honest reality check before you start.

A final word and an update

Liza Johnson is the Managing Director of The Tea Enthusiasts and project Director at Discovering Durham CIC , a not for profit business supporting local suppliers.

Discovering Durham is going from strength to strength since the recording of this original interview back in April. Liza has since included a trade fair for her producers, so that other small businesses in the area can find and stock more amazing products from County Durham.