BKSK Inspire on tour

Whilst I’ve been in Italy working with a small business owner in the food and beverage industry, for the benefit of Frumtious (for which the ‘lines’ are still open to vote in the Shell LiveWIRE Award), Karolina, BKSK Inspire’sother co-founder, has been in Naples on the same scheme working with a small consultancy firm; gaining experience which she can apply to BKSK Inspire.

There are around 400km between Naples and Arcidosso, but we were keen to have a face-to-face catch up, and Karolina also wanted to see rural Tuscany. So arrangements were made, and her relatively quick train journey (3 hours) to the nearest town, Grosseto, was followed by a coach trip which took approximately an hour and a half.

The difference was clearly astounding for Karolina. Although Naples is pretty in its own way, mainly given its proximity to the sea and beautiful weather, it is also a very dirty city. So to see a very clean and well-kept village in the middle of Tuscany with only c.4,000 inhabitants was like chalk and cheese.

Of course there was a lot of sampling the local cuisine and wine, but we also took the opportunity to make some key decisions with BKSK Inspire. Having been shortlisted for The Pitch 2013 was fantastic; it was great to know that our efforts and cause had been recognised. But it did also delay our trading start date. We were in the ‘Ones to Watch’ category, and as such, we needed to remain as a non-trading, non-registered company until after the competition. Not winning the competition was of course disappointing, but it gave us some terrific links and feedback, which allowed us to pivot. Originally named BKSK Consulting, we had already decided that the word ‘consulting’ didn’t reflect the message behind the company; it was too corporate. We settled on BKSK Inspire and have since been making changes to how we describe ourselves. It is all very well knowing what you want to achieve, but you need to articulate this to others, the easiest way to get this message across is through your branding.

We’d had some fantastic feedback on our website design, but we didn’t feel that the content really described what we do or how to best engage with us. So we spent a lot of time re-wording, and we should have the website and message re-brand live very soon.

This time also gave us the opportunity to think about our next set of workshops; namely, what we wanted to present, who to, and most importantly where these would be most accessible. One of our location priorities is community centres, and it goes without saying that if anyone is interested in hosting one of our enterprise workshops for young people, to please get in touch and help inspire others.

We’ve since developed our marketing material containing the specific workshop sessions and slowly started to fill our calendar with workshops. Of course the initial ‘business development’ process is a long, and at times demoralising period, but we can’t wait to get our first workshop of the new season underway next week.

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Hanging out in Tuscany

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It’s hard to believe that I have already lived in Italy for 2 weeks; the time really has flown by. I have thus far avoided death by: stomach explosion given all the incredible food I’ve been eating, alcohol poisoning from the ‘samples’ we regularly enjoy and Italian driving. I had heard much about the Italian driver in the past, but nothing is quite like seeing it first-hand. They tend to drive with a cigarette in one hand, mobile phone in the other, yet someone still manage to navigate the tight twisty roads at double the speed limit, whilst driving in the middle of the road, with no seat belt of course. The image pictured above gives a perfect example of Italian ‘parking’ at its finest.

At Birra Amiata, we have been busy preparing for the annual chestnut festival, which is the town’s major event. Birra Amiata produce a variety of flavoured ales, one being chestnut, so this is a big event for them. What has been made clear through conversations in broken Italian/English on our way to Siena for a meeting, has been that trade in Italy is very difficult. You only need to look at the terribly low house prices to see how much the economy has been affected by the Euro Zone crisis. According to the owner, running a business in Italy is nigh impossible now, given the high levels of Corporation Tax (from what I could gather, they are as high as 70%), Income Tax (around 50%) and issues within the government. For this reason a lot of their work is carried out abroad through exporting.

Birra Amiata are not helped by their location. You can’t pass more than 5km without seeing a vineyard, and locals would much rather enjoy a glass of red than an ale. As well as the chestnut festival, this week we’ve been preparing beer for various beer festivals; major events in Belgium and Rome are a week away. Birra Amiata do all production in house, including bottling, labelling and distribution. This obviously involves extra resources in the shape of labour hours, warehouse space and travel costs. In order to offset this risk, they also produce other company’s beer in their brewery, thus spreading the risk.

Despite Frumtious not being in beer, the similarities in production, branding and logistics across the industries have given me a huge insight into the challenges and how to overcome them. This was also a good news week for Frumtious in another sense; I found out midweek that we had been shortlisted for a Shell LiveWIRE Grand Ideas Award. Only 10 applicants are shortlisted from the national competition, and four then win a £1,000 award. For Frumtious this means having the funds available to produce packaging, which would ensure that the product is on shelves even quicker. The Award is given based on judges’ votes and an online public vote. So I implore you to visit this link and spend 30 seconds voting for Frumtious please: www.shell-livewire.org/awards/grand-ideas-awards

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Benvenuti in Italia

Arcidosso, Tuscany, Italy

In May I was approached to get involved in the Erasmus for Entrepreneurs scheme following a pitch I made at a competition. The scheme essentially pairs young entrepreneurs with experienced people who set up their own company several years ago within the same industry. In order to ensure that this doesn’t lead to enhanced competition in your area, you go to another EU country.

I thought about this long and hard, and after speaking with a friend, decided this would be a good thing to do. Although in the short term it would set back my progress with my start-ups, I was assured in the long term that it would give a great insight. One entrepreneur who took part in a similar scheme but in the UK, called the New Entrepreneurs Foundation, told me that he valued it as essential, adding that he wouldn’t go into business with anyone who hadn’t had such an experience.

I looked through the various companies and eventually decided that Birra Amiatta in Tuscany, Italy was the best place to go. I run 2 companies, BKSK Inspire I mentioned in my last post, and Frumtious, a healthy food company, is the other. Birra Amiatta is a microbrewery based in the heart of Tuscany: big wine territory so immediately this presents a challenge. They brew an array of ales and then bottle them themselves. Given that manufacturing, branding and logistics are a huge part of Frumtious’ future, this was a logical pairing. Before going, I had tried to learn Italian, but hearing it being spoken between Italians is completely different. So to clarify, before going, I had never been to Italy and spoke no Italian; some would say that’s mad, I saw it as a great adventure! I’m half French and thus fluent in the language, which is a benefit given that both languages are Latin based and contain some similarities.

I arrived in Pisa on Saturday 28th September. Pisa itself is very small, and quite a dirty city. But the Leaning Tower is obviously a highlight and the food is spectacular. The following day I travelled to Grosseto in Tuscany before being picked up and driven an hour to Arcidosso, where I’d be staying. Arcidosso is a very small place, built around an old castle on top of a steep hill. There are only about 4,000 inhabitants and it is quite inaccessible by public transport.

I was immediately greeted by a home cooked meal and made to feel very welcome. The food and coffee I was given was nothing like I had ever had in my life, the English attempts at Italian food and coffee pale vastly in comparison.

I started working on Monday. I was given the company history and then shown around the brewery. The nice part was that rather than simply explaining the manufacturing process, they are letting me get involved with the physical production; so I’ve been mixing ingredients, grinding malt and producing beer.

I think that there is a common misconception about start-ups and entrepreneurs. Some people, very wrongly in my opinion, start a company for the kudos of being able to say that they are a Company Director. Starting a company isn’t glamorous at all; it involves a lot of long days and a lot of hard work. People see role models like Richard Branson and Alan Sugar and think that it’s all private jets and expensive hotels…it isn’t. Obviously one day, if you manage to build an empire then you can enjoy those luxuries, but many don’t. So being shown how the company started and being able to get my hands dirty and be involved in every step of the process has been fantastic and I feel very privileged to have been given this first hand experience.

This blog is also available on the Kindle Store and you can follow me on Twitter (@benpfsmith) to find out more or get in touch