James Brueton, Envirobuild
Keep it lean, manage your cash, and make sure you invest in IT systems early, advises James Brueton, the co-founder of EnviroBuild, an online builders merchant selling sustainable building materials which has a turnover of £13 million.
- What was the inspiration for your business?
Aidan and I had both had taken a bit of a career break and while we were doing a bit of property development we came up with the idea of creating a green builders merchants business. We are both care about the environment and we decided that as we had another 40 years of working life we wanted to do something good for the world. We hope to have an impact through our products and we also donate 10% of our profits to the Rainforest Trust charity, which goes to help protect rainforests around the world. We have helped protect 250,000 acres of rainforest so far.
- How did you find your first customer?
Our first customer was a guy called Neil, who bought some decking. He found us through digital marketing. Initially we thought that we would be a purely ecommerce transactional business but because the materials we sell are fairly complex, most customers generally want to speak to us on the phone at some point. So it has turned into more of a tele-support business.
- How did you finance the growth of your business?
It has been purely bootstrapped, with funding of £150,000 from myself and Aidan which we paid back within a year. We were fortunate enough not to have to use a bank loan to start and we have never had investment.
- How did you grow the business?
We initially sold to retail customers online through digital marketing and then we noticed that we were increasingly selling to larger commercial customers. We realised this was a massive part of the market and was not something we could serve very well in our current form, so we decided to have a go at setting up a commercial sales team to sell to large commercial customers. From that we understood what sort of technical expertise and support they needed and that part of the business has been our fastest growing area.
- What has been the most difficult or challenging part of growing your business?
Cash management is always the most difficult part. A lot of our products are quite seasonal, so we need to pile up lots of stock in advance and pay for it upfront. As a growing business that was difficult, especially as we have no external investment.
- What has been the impact of the pandemic on your business and how have you dealt with this?
On the plus side we have grown by 30% because we are online and a lot of our competitors have closed. It was also a beautiful summer and so everyone was looking at outdoor building projects which was great. There was a spike in DIY projects in general. We have also been able to work from home very easily because all our systems are cloud based.
The negative has been making sure that everyone is able to cope with working from home, because it is not always easy – for a lot of our employees it was a big shift from seeing their colleagues everyday to working from home, we have had to work a lot to encourage communication between teams and making sure there is support for mental health.
- What do you wish you had known from the start about setting up and growing a business?
I had never really managed anyone before so I have had to learn how try and be a good manager, set expectations and manage performance. As with the growth of the company it’s been a fast learning curve and I’m sure there’s still plenty to improve.
- What mistakes did you make?
Not getting IT systems early enough. When you are small it is not always easy to make that initial investment because it seems quite big but as you grow it is incredibly helpful to be able to make informed decisions. The later you do it, the more complex your business is and the more difficult it is to implement.
- What has been the secret of your success so far?
We have always invested in growing the business, whether it be through product development, people training, or hiring better people than we needed for the size of company we were. We are very focused – we’ve had a strong mission based on the core principle of sustainability and our strategy hasn’t changed from the beginning – and we had always planned to grow significantly, so we have always put in place people and systems to help us grow.
- What advice would you give an entrepreneur just starting out about how to grow their business?
Keep it lean and manage your cash.
- What personal quality or characteristic has been most useful to you as an entrepreneur as you grow your business?