The frustration with generic business advice

There was a continual struggle that Jo and I faced with Lashbrook Lassis in accessing specialist advice for our business. This included help in answering questions such as, how much of a margin should we give to retailers? What is the best way of making our yoghurt lassis? What equipment did we need for large scale manufacturing of our drinks?

We were constantly asking around for people who had an insight into the chilled drinks market, though anyone who may have been able to help us was normally a competitor and had little interest in offering us advice. As a result, we only found out the answers to the above questions by initially doing the wrong thing, that would invariably cost us a great deal of money and time, neither of which we could afford. For instance, the larger retailers were looking at taking up to 40-50% of the retail price – we found this out after pitching to Booths supermarket and who told us our drinks were too expensive. In addition, we spent almost 2 years working out the best way to manufacture our drinks, realising that we needed to be using purees and juices rather than fresh fruit – something we only found out after an embarrassingly long period of time.

The basic concept of business though is always the same and ultimately pretty simple: create a product or service, sell the product or service – however, the ability to execute this is far more specialist. Therefore, when listening to Mary Portas ‘Spotlight on Business’ podcast, I was overwhelmed with how utterly unhelpful the entire series was. The premise to each episode was interviewing those who have succeeded in their business and speaking with them about certain topics, such as cash flow, exporting and marketing. Yet, in an attempt to make the topic relevant to all businesses, interviewees would often speak in such general terms that it became relevant to nobody.

For example, Portas was speaking to Luke Johnson from Pack’d (a frozen smoothie company) and asked him how best to overcome cash flow issues. Johnson reminisced of their early days when they were a couple of months from running out of cash. So the solution they came up with was to meet with their ‘finance guy’ who told them, ‘look, these are the steps you need to take and never make this mistake again’. What more do you need to know about keeping on top of your cash flow? But surprisingly, Portas wasn’t completely satisfied with this advice and wanted to dig a bit deeper, ‘So what were the steps?’ she asked. To which Johnson replied, ‘so he [the ‘financial guy’] told us you need to cut costs here, you need to know your breakeven point, you need to know your burn rate every month, you need to know your cash flow model…’ and so the generic business advice went on (if you’re interested, you can listen to this exchange in the episode released on 24 July, 5:30 seconds in). Another example of this bland business advice is when Portas was interviewing Gurdeeo Singh Bath from Perfection Foods (a cake manufacturer). She asked him about the benefits of exporting, to which Singh Bath replied, ‘if you get exporting right, it’s big, it’s huge business, you can’t even put a number to it [heaven forbid]…certainly if you’re a small business, or even a medium business… and you haven’t done much exports, it’s very safe to dip your toe into exports markets’ (episode released on 24 July, 11:52 seconds in). So if one was interested in exporting their business abroad, this is sort of one-size-fits-all advice you’d be expected to rely on.

I don’t want to suggest that such individuals have nothing of value to offer other businesses. In fact, quite the opposite. Now more than ever, I appreciate how difficult it is to start a successful business, particularly one that goes onto to employ others. My problem though with the advice that is dished out by entrepreneurs is the idea that it can be applied to any situation and to any business. I’m sure someone who had started a frozen smoothie company would love to know the details of how Johnson managed his cashflow, or similarly, anyone who had set up a cake manufacturer and were looking to export would find Singh Bath’s advice invaluable.

Yet, the lack of specificity is incredibly frustrating to hear, especially from individuals who have a huge amount of specialist knowledge. It’s not their fault of course, they can only answer the questions they are asked – it’s the likes of Mary Portas who help create the premise that any advice from a successful entrepreneur is helpful to others. For me and Jo, nothing could have been further from the truth.

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