How I Built a Successful
Business Selling Homemade Nut Butters
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Zoe Harrison and I founded Butterbelle in 2015. We manufacture all natural nut and seed butters and run ‘foodie’ workshops from our riverside premises in Shropshire, UK. We currently employ three people.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
Something I haven’t spoken about much is that my business was born during a really tough time in my life. I had lost my marriage and therefore, due to circumstances, my job, my home. Like a lot of women after divorce, I found myself having to build a life for myself and my daughters from the ground up. I had worked for my husband’s business (aerials, not food!) and dedicated my ‘career building’ years to looking after my children as I’d been a young mother.
Amongst the chaos of moving into a new home, finding new schools for my daughters and working several part time jobs, I decided the only way I could move forward was to go back into education. A couple of years beforehand I had applied for a Food Science degree. It was a subject I’d always been interested in and I’Id been offered a place. At the time however, I decided it wasn’t to be. My youngest was having some health problems and I was needed a lot at home.
One day, in a fit of determination, I called up the course leader on the phone, and they ended up offering me a place. It turned out to be the best professional decision I have ever made!
The course was four years in length and it covered all aspects of the food industry. From food safety systems to the advanced aspects of nutrition. When the third year rolled around we were expected to spend a year in industry but as I was limited geographically due to my daughters’ schooling, I carried mine out within my university’s catering department.
It was a great placement and again, it turned out to be a good decision. I had a strong desire to work in product development, so to enhance my CV, I started developing products at home and offering them to my friends.
At the time I was really into fitness – I was cross-fitting, weightlifting, doing a lot of yoga and running. On the healthy food side of this interest, I really loved nut butters since they are so nutrient rich and energy dense, but I struggled to find good products that were both free from palm oil and tasty. It was easy to get hold of single ingredient, plain butters, but to have anything nicely flavoured at that time, meant compromising on quality as the flavoured varieties tended to contain a lot of sugar and other unnecessary ingredients. My goal was to create amazing flavours with as few ingredients as possible.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
As I’ve already mentioned previously, I was at a pretty pivotal point in my life and had recently become a single parent and a full-time student so finance, in and amongst these challenges, was another major challenge.
This is one of the things I really want to make clear – everything that could have been against me at the time was against me, and yet I refused to let it stop me. I truly believe that the less you have to lose the less fear you have. Fear is the biggest enemy of entrepreneurs. Still to this day I don’t fear losing the business because I know I would find a way to move in another direction. I’ve done it before!
During this time, faced a lot of physical and mental exhaustion. I was struggling to juggle my academic studies with a part-time job and my new business. I was making nut butter every night and spending my weekends promoting the business at markets and events. Very soon, I realised that I was the most valuable asset that the business had, so I had to implement ways to look after myself.
I have ADHD tendencies, which can get out of hand when I’m not careful. Taking part in Yoga helped me to take time for myself and reset and I still do to this day. I notice a huge difference in my productivity if I don’t allow myself to ‘refill my cup’ regularly.
Who is your target market?
The target market for my butters was originally vegetarians and vegans due to the high protein content of the products. I started out by targeting independent farm shops and delicatessens, but with the gradual introduction of zero waste stores, I’ve realised my product appeals to those consumers a great deal and we now supply many of them all over the UK.
I actually used my business as the focus of my final year research project at university. It was the only way I could juggle my course and my fledgling business. I researched consumer attitudes to packaging because at the time, a lot of nut butter brands were moving into single serve sachet packs (single use due to the nature of the material). At Butterbelle, we were determined to offer a more sustainable alternative.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
Getting yourself out there in person to promote your product is absolutely vital in my opinion, I cannot stress this enough. Almost every weekend for four years I was attending events. From food festivals to vegan fairs to green festivals and markets. Testing the product with real people is crucial. You have to be humble and let go of your own ideas – listen to your customers. Placing yourself in front of your typical customer teaches you more than any book or training course can!
I learned so much from my customers and still do. Using their feedback allows my business to remain resilient because I can adapt to my customers needs as they change. That’s how my workshops began. We were constantly being asked about sourcing ingredients and what the proper machinery to work with was. I realised a couple of years ago that there was a growing desire in a number of people who wanted to step away from consumerism and people were looking for enriching experiences rather than ‘things’.
I love delivering my workshops and any worries about losing customers (after showing them how to make their own) were soon pushed from my mind! it has actually helped to build better relationships with my clients. They also spread the word about our business, which in turn brings new customers. Word of mouth is still one of the most powerful marketing tools a business can have.
With the current COVID-19 crisis, we’re currently facing the worst environment our business has ever endured. We are unable to trade at markets and events or through our shop for the foreseeable future, and I truly believe that the work and travel (to events) we put in over the years has saved us. Our online sales have increased fourfold. Customers have remembered us and are placing orders and it’s pulling us through this terrible time.
In terms of advertising, we use social media as our primary method. We’ve dabbled with print advertising but there was surprisingly little return on investment. The world is almost certainly moving online!
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
We maintain strong relationships with our customers by sharing lots of recipes on our social media platforms and our website. One of the most common questions we are asked at events is “What else can I do with your butters?” Quite rightly, people don’t want to invest money into a product that just ends up sitting in the cupboard! We constantly share serving suggestions and recipes with our followers.
Post-sale, we contact customers to ask how they got on with the products. This works brilliantly to ‘nudge’ people into giving us reviews, which are also invaluable for any business.
Since we have a broad and diverse range of unique nut butters, I do believe that people gravitate back to us once they have tried our products. A business can have the best marketing campaign that money can buy, but if the quality of the product isn’t up to scratch, people won’t buy again, and customer retention is everything for a business. It’s far more expensive to attract new customers than to retain existing ones and once your customers have built trust in your brand, more often than not, they will stay loyal.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
Our company culture is naturally very nurturing, partly because two members of my team are close relatives! There’s a real family atmosphere at work. My mother, who is 73, works in production for one day a week and that of course is my favourite day! I actually manage to spend more time with her now than have in years, and she always keeps me grounded. We have a weekly counselling session over lunch!
Belle (who runs my social media output and also does our sampling) approached us at an event, introduced herself and told me that she would love to work for us. As most entrepreneurs will understand, sometimes having your ‘nose to the grindstone’ 24/7 means that it’s difficult to take a step back and think about strategy. You just keep on going and it’s really easy to get stuck in a rut. Having a fresh pair of eyes has been wonderful for us, and I would never have found her had she not sought us out.
Crucially, she had already embraced our brand values prior to working for us, so there was no difficulty integrating her into the team. The same goes for Bryony, who works in production and new product development.
Both Belle and Bryony have their own passion projects or business interests too, and just as I received support from my employers when I started out, I try to support them as best I can whether that’s loaning machinery or sharing knowledge. We happen to be an all-female team though not intentionally. Sadly, not enough men look for jobs in the food industry, that really needs to change!
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
Xero and Receipt Bank accounting software has been a game changer for us. They’ve really simplified the way we manage our accounting and invoicing. Anything that saves time is saving you money as a business, so they’re well worth looking into.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
One of the most important lessons I have learned is to have more belief in myself. I know that might sound like a cliché, but looking back, I have, at times, been a lot more timid than I should have, almost apologetic at times. I have found that standing firm on things like credit terms or minimum order quantities is vital for both you and your customers.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of people pleasing when you start out, and of course there is a place for that as a new entrant, since you do have to prove yourself, but if you’re not careful, you can end up being a busy fool. Especially if you don’t stick to your terms.
If I were starting out today, the only thing I would do differently is spend more time and money on my branding. This point relates to my first. I didn’t have the confidence in the beginning that my business would go anywhere at all, so I just knocked up a simple logo myself. This was refined and eventually completely revamped throughout the journey!
I will always stand firm on one aspect of my butters business. Namely, that we manufacture the product ourselves and we always will. I have grown the business at a pace that I’m comfortable with. Not to mention that I have always been happier in a kitchen than an office! I have no desire to supply the multiples and my business model is direct to consumer. I believe that a short supply chain is a resilient supply chain.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
My favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur is having flexibility. I do work a lot of hours – more hours than some would even consider. However, I work on my own terms and I’m able to prioritise my family when I need to. My youngest daughter has a long term health condition so I have a lot of hospital appointments.
There’s no way I wouldn’t be there with her so I’ve built a life that allows me to. We call them our “dates.” I also love the feeling of being self-sufficient. I think that’s a throwback to the fear I felt after my divorce. I felt utterly hopeless but I now know how resourceful I can be and it’s a good feeling.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
My least favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur is finding it difficult to switch off. My partner is very patient but there have been times when our (rare) holidays have been interrupted by my work. Sometimes I’ll be tapping away on my phone at night, responding to messages to ease my workload in the morning, and that can be testing for us. Having a home/work balance is really tough when you’re on a mission.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
In terms of inspiration I haven’t really followed any particular brand or individual. I’ve always been a bit of a rule breaker when it comes to the business blueprint and like I mentioned previously, Butterbelle sort of came about by accident. I admire brands like Green & Blacks, Innocent and Ben & Jerry’s, all of whom have sound founder-led brand stories and values that they are unwilling to compromise on.
There are however certain authors I came across during my academic career who I learnt a great deal from. Marion Nestle is one of my heroines. She is an expert in all things related to nutritional science.
Elsie Widdowson was another iconic figure in the field of nutrition and dietetics. Her life’s work, (alongside Robert McCance) formed the basis of everything we know about the composition of foods today. I would recommend her story to everyone. It really puts everything we read in the media about health and nutrition into perspective.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
In 2-3 years we’ll have rolled out our kilner (jar) re-fill delivery service for B2B and B2C customers. This will offer our existing ‘zero waste’ approach to a wider audience. We’ve also just dipped our toes into corporate workshops, which is something we’d really like to expand.