Graduating into the grip of recession


Like many instances in which we deploy a French word to describe something, being an ‘entrepreneur’ can often sound a lot more glamorous than it is.

It doesn’t feel quite as dynamic when you’re hitting the motorway at 6 am again for a long drive to another sales opportunity. But I wouldn’t swap the path I’ve chosen. Seeing your own business develop and securing those opportunities drives you to work harder. It’s so far removed from the ‘just a wage’ approach of people who feel little passion for what they do.

I have no regrets about setting up my own business, even though it wasn’t what I originally planned to do at university. My degree was in accounting and finance. I saw myself as a commodities trader in the City. But when I graduated in 2009, the investment banks were being ravaged by recession. No one was hiring and people with way more experience than me were out of work. I had to rethink my entire future.

Do we sideline self-employment as a career choice?

It was preparing for the interviews that I hoped to secure which opened my eyes to a business opportunity.

I was looking at the supply chain – from growers in the Far East to the major brands - when I realised there was a real gap in the market. Coffee drinkers were being bombarded with a range of speciality brands in the supermarket aisles and on the high street, but there wasn’t the same choice in the tea category.

For a supposed tea-loving nation, this struck me as a clear opportunity – to create a range of premium quality, fruit and traditional caffeine-free teas using the finest quality ingredients.

My appetite for this venture surprised me. Setting up and running my own business had never really been on my radar. Entrepreneurship is something you hear politicians talk about a lot, it is widely seen as crucial to the recovery and long-term health of the UK economy, yet in the education system, it is barely touched upon.

I think it’s because being an entrepreneur is associated with risk and the system is far more conditioned to pointing young people in the direction of a ‘safe’ career path.

The state of the economy has made that ideal less relevant. Can anyone truly search for a job for life anymore? There is a risk that you could end up unemployed whatever route you take: safety isn’t really an option.

Focus on the positives of being an entrepreneur

I firmly believe that the choice of enterprise and entrepreneurship should have more focus throughout school and university. The notion that education guarantees you a job has to be challenged.

The number of young people unemployed in the UK is now over one million, while the number of young people not in training or education has also reached one in four in some towns and cities. A lot has been said about this being a lost generation, but the opportunities to build and grow a business are there if the right support and encouragement are given at the right time.

Despite the learning curve, the need to put up your own money, and the hard work, setting up a business is immensely rewarding. I can’t envisage that the feeling I got when I first saw Charbrew products on the shelf in Sainsbury’s could be matched by anything I’d achieve if I was working for someone else.

Securing investment is a challenging but very rewarding endeavour. Having to lay your business bare to people with a lot of experience really makes you think about costs and how you made mistakes in the early days. It makes you a better businessperson, though there are certain things I would definitely tackle differently.

The pressures change. In the early days I was doing everything myself – packing the tea bags by hand into brown paper bags, loading them into the boot of my bright orange Fiat Diablo, and driving to farmers markets on a weekly basis. It was a far cry from the trading floor but it meant I was gaining experience at every level of running a small business. Plus it was a better alternative to working in bars or signing-on like most of my friends were doing at the time.

There are always new challenges. While the set-up phase is all about adrenaline, picking yourself up, celebrating the small steps forward – growth has meant that I’m now trying to find the right people to support me.

Recruitment isn’t easy. You want someone who shares your passion, who solves problems for you and saves your time. They do exist, but in the current job market you have to look hard.

Learning to ‘promote’ yourself to scale up

I also realised that the only way to grow the business was to free myself to sell the brand and the concept to more retailers. I sourced a contract packer in Manchester and began targeting the major multiple retailers.

I didn’t want this to be a kitchen-table business. I wanted to build a dominant brand with real presence so I knew I had to market the product more effectively.

This strategic shift led to orders with Booths – and then TJX Group (which operates TJ Maxx and TK Maxx) placed a $17,000 order for their stores in North America, marking Charbrew’s first deal outside of the UK.

In May 2011 it paid off further - Sainsbury’s placed an order for 400 stores and now the business is on target to generate £500,000 of sales in a market now worth an estimated £100m in the UK.

Adam Soliman, 23, is the founder of Charbrew.