The end of the Italian adventure

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I was amazed at how quickly I felt at home in Italy, which made leaving quite a challenge.

After returning from Rome, we had time to go over the quantities sold and the net amount made from the event. This provided very good market research, and it was obvious which products people liked over the weekend, which served as a good indication of the types of beers to produce in the future.

It was then time to prepare for the biggest event in Arcidosso’s annual calendar, festival della castagna (the chestnut festival). Arcidosso is surrounded by mountains and nature. Walking through the woods upon leaving the village, as well as the vineyards and olive trees, it is hard to get away from chestnut trees. Mid-end October is the perfect time to enjoy them, so each village has a large chestnut festival, and Arcidosso’s is one of the biggest. Ordinarily the streets are filled with a handful of people scattered around; there are only around 2,000 inhabitants after all. But the chestnut festival attracts huge numbers of people, some of whom have travelled long distances to attend the event.

Several companies open up ‘cantinas’, small pop up shops which sell food and drink. As one of Birra Amiata’s main products is a chestnut beer, then this is obviously a key annual selling point which the company relies on in order to be sustainable through quieter months.  The event had been spoken about for some time, and production seemed to double in the lead up to the week as well as several hours spent organising and stocking the cantina.

The weekend didn’t disappoint; the streets full of tourists eager to eat chestnuts and enjoy the food, drink and music on offer. I personally had a fantastic time and it served as the perfect end to my Italian adventure. From a commercial point of view, I know that Birra Amiata did exceptionally well, which proved to be the icing on the cake for me.

It was with a heavy heart (and slightly sore head) that I embarked on my 11 hour journey back to the UK the following day. My trip involved buses, trains, lots of waiting around (making the most of the final sun I’d see in a few months) and a typically bumpy Ryanair flight.

Friends and family have since asked me what I learnt. They often phrase a question along the lines of ‘so you clearly enjoyed yourself, ate and drank a lot and met some great people, but did you actually learn anything which will be beneficial to your UK business’. I pause and reflect upon the question for a moment and realise how much I got out of it as a learning experience. I got to witness a full production operation in action, I saw the importance of a strong supply and distribution chain, I saw how they market their products and generate sales and I saw how they control cash flow and employ staff in a very difficult economic climate. When I then add the by-products of the trip: the fact that I sampled and now know what real spaghetti carbonara, pizza and coffee should taste like, that I learnt some incredible values which has changed my outlook on life and that I can now get by in Italian, then my answer is a resounding yes!

I genuinely believe that in my short time away in Italy, I learnt more about business than I ever did in education. That takes nothing away from some excellent lecturers, modules and content, but that proves a foundation, and in my opinion, the best way to experience business, life and to challenge yourself is to go to a country that you’ve never been to, with a language you don’t speak and work with a small business in the industry you want to work.

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When in Rome…


I’d been hugely enjoying my time in Arcidosso and had already learnt so much about the food and beverage industry, which I knew would put me in good stead for my return to the UK in terms of knowledge transfer.

But part of my decision to go to work in Italy was to travel and view other parts of the country. I’d already been fortunate enough to have that opportunity through work, visiting Pisa and Sienna among other places.

I very much wanted to visit Rome, and had started making plans to go for a weekend. However, my personal planning was cut short as I was asked if I wanted to attend an International beer festival called EurHop to promote Birra Amiata. We’d be going for 4 nights and I’d have the opportunity to sight-see and explore during the day, so this fell perfectly.

The premise for the festival is to have brewers from all over the world to meet and display their products in one large hall. People with an interest in beer then attend and sample the various types of beer on offer. I was very excited to be attending, but as had been the case for my stay thus far, I didn’t simply want to observe, but I wanted to get stuck in and immerse myself in the industry. I therefore asked what role I could play at the festival, and Gennaro, the owner, asked if I wanted to serve customers behind the bar. My bar tending experience is very limited; my part time job from the age of 16 had been a waiter at a Hilton Hotel, which very occasionally involved serving drinks to take to guests in the restaurant. Those who know me know that beer pouring is not a talent of mine, and that I tended to end up with a 50/50 split between beer and head. However, undeterred by these previous failings, and very keen to continue this adventure which meant getting out of my comfort zone as often as possible, I jumped at the chance. I was also heartened by the fact that in Europe, customers seem to expect a large amount of head on top of their beer.

The car journey from Arcidosso to Rome was breathtaking. The journey itself only took 2 hours and was very direct along a motorway. If you drive along a major motorway in Britain, you may get to see a few trees and service stations, but that’s about as exciting as it gets. However, on our journey south, we were surrounded by olive trees, vineyards, and then for around 50 kilometres, were adjacent to the ocean. I hadn’t realised how long it had been since I’d seen the sea, and in these surroundings, with the sun shining down on us, it looked majestic.

We arrived at the festival, and it suddenly dawned on me how large this festival was. There were around 70 international brewers who were setting up. The first night of the event kicked off at 5pm, but we didn’t see too many customers until gone 11pm. The event closed around 3am, by which time everyone was ready to collapse. But we weren’t going back to our hotel quite yet. Instead we went to a pub where all the brewers gathered and sat down to chat, drink beer and eat spaghetti carbonara. This was certainly a first; I’d never sat down for a (sober) meal at 3.30am before! The tradition continued for the subsequent 2 nights when the festival was on.

I obviously managed to explore Rome, and stumbled across an incredible park at Flaminio metro station. The weather was beautiful, the city was picturesque – the perfect combination of new and old buildings and as always, the food was incredible.

I left Rome with a heavy heart, but had felt how much my Italian had improved, given that I was constantly serving Italian customers behind the bar…a real sink or swim moment. Learning about the industry had also taken a leap forward, but I was ready to get back to Arcidosso, where life seems so laid back it’s horizontal.

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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:

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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.

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What defines you?

There is a common misconception among the general public that people that start their own company are doing so for money. I’ve often encountered people who ask what I do. Upon my reply, they tend to respond in a way suggesting that the reason I do this is to become a millionaire. If I happen to become rich through my enterprising exploits, I’d be delighted, but that isn’t the reason that I decided to follow this career path.

I had an insightful conversation with a fellow ‘entrepreneur’ this week, during which the subject of reasons behind start-ups was discussed. His answer was ‘freedom’. If he could earn enough to live whilst enjoying the freedom of working for himself, he would be delighted.

I remember in my very early days along this path attending a presentation in which a friend presented his business journey and asked the question ‘what defines you?’. He had started a number of profitable companies before realising that he didn’t want to simply work for money, but for social good. This may sound like a response to a question posed to a participant at a Miss World competition, but it’s a widely given reason.

I myself started with Access Regional, intent on making money, but as time went on, I realised that that wasn’t my main goal. I then came up with BKSK Consulting, a social enterprise which offers management consultancy in the form of support, mentoring and investment to inspire NEET (young people no longer in education, employment or training) individuals, particularly those from young offender and low attainment backgrounds with enterprise. My business partner and I decided that this was the ideal vessel to distribute this social good after having encountered people in our past: friends and family, who fell into this category and would have massively benefited from this option of support. By ensuring that the majority of our business support is offered by current students or recent graduates, we added another twist to the service; enhancing the employability of these students and creating a service which is easy to relate to for the young people in need. We’ve been working hard to prepare ourselves and are now on the cusp of a full scale launch.

We were delighted to have been recently recognised for this venture by being shortlisted for The Pitch, a national pitching competition…time for a quick plug…please do take 20 seconds to click on the following link and vote for us for the Social Media Award (

As with most things in start-ups, there is no right or wrong reason to start a company; be that financial, social or freedom. But an important question to ask yourself is what defines you?

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

Lean start-up

As a start-up, money is tight, so the name of the game is being lean. Eric Ries wrote a very good book, ‘The Lean Start-up’ on how to ensure that you don’t waste money.

There are several examples of companies who have invested thousands of pounds in a start-up without first proving the concept. There are a few key principals which can be followed in order to ensure that you start your company in the leanest, most cost effective way:

  1. Eliminate uncertainty. Business is based on your assumptions; you have created a product or service, and you’re assuming that there is a demand. Maybe customers don’t believe that there is a problem which needs solving, meaning that there is no demand in the market. The first step in doing this is defining what your assumptions are in your business model. Quantify these and then prove them. For example, if you believe that there is a need for a car which floats on water, before creating this product, undertake market research and prove that there is a demand and that you can make money from this. If you can’t prove your assumption, don’t waste your time on it.
  2. Work smarter, not harder. It may sound like common sense, but focus on the important aspects of your company which add value. These are the parts of your enterprise which will generate demand and create money. Don’t waste your money investing in items which boost your ego: a fancy office, company car, personalised stationary, etc.
  3. Validated learning. This is a process by which you learn by testing your idea and measuring to validate the effect. Each test is one piece of the larger puzzle, so each piece of your business can be tested to prove the concept as a whole will work. The basic premise behind validated learning is to specify a goal, act to achieve this, analyse the response and then improve it and try again. A good example of effective validated learning is when building a website. The goal is building a site with content generating x number of hits. You act by building a website and you can easily analyse the response using web analytics and statistics. You can then take this data output information, learn from it and improve your product.
  4. Develop a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). This is essentially the most slimmed down version of your final product that you can create. You then produce this is small quantities to test the response of the market. If you don’t receive sufficient demand, you can alter your product or move to a different idea. If your MVP proves a success, you know that you have more chance of generating revenue, and therefore can go through the expense of developing your product further.

The above are 4 very simple steps in ensuring that there is a market and demand before spending a lot of money on a product or service which may not take. A further development on the MVP is to create a ‘pre-totype’. This is measuring demand before even embarking on a prototype. For example, you could test the validity of demand by setting up a website selling a product without actually selling it. If you receive a great deal of interest: go ahead, if you don’t you can drop the idea. Crowd funding websites such as Kickstarter are another great way of doing this by gaining investment and measuring demand.

Whichever path you choose to follow, ensure that you test your assumptions and your product on the potential market before investing huge sums of money in your start-up.

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