The ups and downs of small business ownership

This week I have had to cancel my fourth scythe course of the summer because I don’t have enough students on it.  I have been thinking long and hard about why this is and have come up with a number of reasons why this might be.  Consider this an observation stage…

(a)  Because prospective students think I’m crap.

(b)  Because prospective students think that scything is crap.

(c)  Because prospective students don’t have enough money.

(d)  Because prospective students don’t understand how and why scything would benefit them.

(e)  Because my marketing strategy is rubbish.

Ideas (a) and (b) I am abandoning as completely preposterous (that’s analysis, baby!) so that leaves (c), (d) and (e) as possible issues.  Let’s take these ideas in turn and break them down.

Prospective students don’t have enough money

Well, this could indeed be an issue.  I have been doing a little bit of market research (surveying) and I think that bookings are generally down this year due to rising living costs (analysis).  I know myself that I haven’t been on any paid-for courses because I am currently struggling to keep body and soul together.  However my research shows that some bookings haven’t taken a hit.  In places where lots of different courses are run (i.e. education centres), bookings still seem to be fairly robust.  Also ‘Dad’ courses like hedgelaying (courses that Dad’s get for their birthday) are apparently overflowing.

I reject the idea that the majority of people are too poor to afford a scythe and a scythe course.  In times of recession people tend to buy less but invest in well made things that will last them for years and years.  If someone perceives something to be of true benefit to the then they will do their best to afford it.  I am sure there are people who are genuinely too poor to afford a scythe course, but then I wouldn’t imaging that keeping their grass short is a major priority for these people…  So the answer is about communicating the value of scything.  Which leads to…

Prospective students don’t understand how and why scything would benefit them.

It’s becoming obvious from talking to people, that many people do not know what scything is.  I think it would be too challenging for me to try to educate these people.  There is also another, smaller group of people such as permaculturists and people who manage wildflower meadows who do know what scything is but haven’t fully appreciated how it can help them.  These are the people that I need to engage.

Currently I engage people with scything by sending out an email about a course to groups that I think would be interested which means that anyone who is vaguely interested has to get up to speed with what scything is about, plus decide whether they want to spend money on a course in a very short space of time.  This doesn’t work all that well with individuals (though it did work reasonably well with groups last year).  I need a way of telling people about scything in an engaging way, getting them involved without asking them to buy anything.  I’ve decided to redesign this process by doing three things.

(1)  Go to shows and do demonstrations so that people can see what a scythe can do (hard work, but hopefully worth it in the long run.  Would make more sense if I was also selling scythes).

(2)  Make a video which gives people hints and tips on using a scythe so that people can see ‘remotely’ what a scythe can do (all the work goes into making the video which people can then watch at their leisure)

(3)  Set up a mailing list so that I have a group of ‘warm’ people to advertise to (a way of catching and storing the energy of the first two projects)

The other issue is raising the profile of scything in general.  I’m also working hard at doing that.  Helpfully, one of my other designs is about doing green journalism, so I have already published a few articles about scything in various places.  This is a fabulous example of obtaining multiple yields from one thing.  When I write an article about scything, I generate a clip to add to my portfolio, I publicise my business and I (generally) get paid for it.  Fabulous.

I’m also the secretary of the Scythe Association of Britain and Ireland and we are currently talking to various more or less famous people who want to help support scything.  I know that one prime-time mention of scything is worth 100 visits to agricultural shows to do a demonstration, so I am kind of hoping that this happens quite soon.  I’m lazy like that.  But actually, laziness is actually just deciding where the best place to put your energy is 😉

So, all of this leads me to believe that yes, my marketing strategy was rubbish.  One major problem that I designed for myself is related to the kind of courses I run.  Last year I approached groups – National Trust properties, transition groups etc – and asked them whether they would be interested in learning to scythe.  A reasonable amount said yes.  This was easy-peasy.  I had to communicate with one person to sort it out.  I knew that the group either would be there or wouldn’t be there, there was no worrying about how I was going to fill a course.  I changed my strategy this year because I wanted to establish places that I would return to year after year to run courses.  I didn’t appreciate that this was 6 times the marketing (there are generally six people on a course) and 6 times the generally administration.  And I really didn’t appreciate that this would mean disappointing people if there weren’t enough people on the course.

Last time, I made a decision for good reasons which turned out to be wrong.  This time I hope that I have learnt a few more business skills.  One thing I have learnt is that these things take time…  With this design it’s really the skills that I need to work on, and I took a course on marketing earlier in the year – and am working through the workbook with some people from my guild.  What I really think I need now is a mentor.  Someone who knows about small businesses and can give me an hour a month to help me make good decisions.  This is what I really feel is missing from government small business provision.  You can go to seminars until you’re blue in the face.  It’s also relatively easy to get funding, but someone to help you along the way is almost impossible…   And ain’t small businesses going to save the world?

So, I have a mentor vacancy.  Any takers?


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6 thoughts on “The ups and downs of small business ownership

  1. Deano says:

    Hi Beth
    I stopped running courses as there were so few people wanting to take them, and i wasn’t prepared to spend a lot of effort to promote myself. I now offer ‘one to one’ courses, so that if somebody wants to learn, and is free on a particular day, I am flexible enough to be able to do that. it helps that i have my own grass, and am not reliant on somebody else. Good Luck.

  2. betheatslocal says:

    I think I am prepared to put quite a bit of effort in – if only to teach myself how to run a small business. It’s not an easy thing to choose though! It would be better to try to sell something that everyone understands! Sadly that’s not what I am interested in, so I press on…

  3. Hi Beth, don’t lose heart, it takes most small businesses 3 years to get really established. Have you thought about a facebook page to spread news about your courses? I am one of Jan’s apprentices as well and run a small cat sitting business in Portsmouth, its taken me 10 years to have the business where I want it, but the market is so up and down at the moment and its a hard time to start a business. Please email if you want to chat? 🙂

    • betheatslocal says:

      No, I haven’t lost heart. I know that teaching scything is never going to be a huge part of my income, so if anything, I am treating this as an opportunity to practice my business skills. What has frustrated me this year is that I feel like I have hobbled myself by changing tack (i.e. trying to recruit individuals rather than groups), which has compounded the issues caused by the recession. I’ve been working on my marketing strategy and I’ll need to put some things into practice over the winter, so let’s see what happens next year.

  4. […] time last year (or just slightly later), you’ll remember I was angsting about my pitiful failure to sell scythe courses.  You’ll be pleased to know that after spending the winter learning about marketing, I have […]

  5. […] was last year’s angst-ridden project.  This year, thanks to observing the fact that I was crap at marketing, getting some training and […]

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