'Hunting for premises was the hardest. Agents weren't keen to lease to a small business'

This juice business owner discovered that setting up shop is tough when no one returns your call.

By Kevin Johnstone Co-founder, Green Beards

I STUDIED FINANCE in college and was very focused on going down that road, so when I realised it wasn’t for me I was left a bit frustrated.

I only realised I wanted to do something different after I worked in the sector for a while. I had emigrated straight after college to go to Toronto, and I lived over there for the bulk of three years, working in an investment bank in currency trading – but I was looking for a bit of a career change.

I ended up at a media firm over in London and worked in advertising for a year or two but was still thinking if it was exactly what I was looking for. It became increasingly clear that I wanted to set up my own thing.

Myself and Ray, my fellow co-founder who I went to college with, always had similar startup ideas, so whenever we would meet up we usually ended up bouncing ideas off each other, talking about what might work and what we were interested in.

Near the end of my time in London, Ray had come over to visit me and he mentioned that he got into juicing to try out the health benefits of it. On the back off that, I got a juicer and started looking into different juice places in London and did a bit of research into what’s going on in the area in the US and Australia.

We kept coming back to it as an idea for a business and having follow-on conversations, and it became clear that it was a good time to take the plunge and launch our own company selling juices in Dublin. That was about three years ago.

Green Beards
Source: Green Beards

Setting up

At the time, Ray and myself were lucky that we were in a position that we didn’t have any real responsibilities and could take the risk. We hadn’t bought houses yet, we didn’t have families, we weren’t in long-term relationships, and we kind of said to ourselves at the time, ‘we really have nothing to lose’.

We could have kicked the can down the road a little bit and probably would have always had reasons not to do it.

Maybe being a bit blind when you’re setting up your business isn’t the worst thing in the world. You can have projections, ideas of how much things will cost and how much work will need to go in, but inevitably it will be a lot more work and cost a lot more. But if you tackle it as it comes, you tend to be ‘happy busy’.

We were essentially juicing out of Ray’s kitchen for family and friends at the beginning. So we would go over to Newmarket Square, pick up our vegetables and juice through the weekend.

It was a good thing to have done because the thing about the juice we make is that it is quite labour intensive. The way we do it is called ‘cold-press juicing’ and you essentially make up the product in big batches – it takes hours to produce, but the juice is of much higher quality.

Looking back now, I can say if we hadn’t done the weeks and months of juicing in Ray’s place, we would have totally underestimated what we were getting into.

Green Beards 1 Green Beards' Ranelagh store
Source: Aisling McCoy

Learning curve

The process meant there was a great learning curve, and it helped knock a lot of the kinks out by the time we had got around to securing a premises. It also gave us an idea of what we were looking for in a shopfront and what we would need to properly set up.

We were so busy at the start that there wasn’t any time to get bogged down in little hurdles that cropped up. We were literally juicing through the night, making batches until 2am and back in at 6am.

It was truly non-stop for the first three or four months. We only had two small juicers at the beginning and we realised we needed to get the big industrial machinery straight away. It took two months to arrive from the US and we were literally flat out to keep up with orders.

I guess we were lucky in that everything hit the ground running. We thought there might be a bit of a learning curve and an educational gap in the market since it was quite a new product at the time, but we got regular customers from the start.

It turned out summer was a great time to start the business and I suppose that timing was a bit of luck.

We had been hunting for premises for about three to four months, which was probably the hardest thing. Getting someone to take a chance on us as a new company with not a huge amount of backing and no prior experience was tough.

Even just getting meetings to see units was quite an ordeal. I remember at the very beginning, myself and Ray were walking around town and down on the quays looking for open units, but when we would call the estate agents and they wouldn’t get back to us. Then we would email, and they still wouldn’t get back to us.

So eventually we doorstepped them and we got the feeling that they weren’t that keen to lease to a small business. In the end, it was through an online ad that we found our unit in Ranelagh.

The landlord that took a chance on us; his wife had a business in the area and they were looking to rent to another business that brought something to the area, and we were able to convince them that Green Beards was a good fit.

Green Beards3 Green Beards' Ranelagh store
Source: Green Beards

Off the ground

It took us 12 months to properly get off the ground. That was when we started to get more than one day off at a time.

We were still working every weekend, but after that first year we started to get a little bit of time away from it all. I think that’s when you can say we were settled in, had good staff trained up and were able to let them take a bit more of the reins.

We’ve picked up small learnings along the way and opening the pop-up shop in Baggot Street taught us a lot. It was one of those serendipitous moments where a friend of my sister’s had a unit free and we decided on a whim to get in there and put in a pop-up shop within a few weeks.

From there we figured out we could definitely manage more and saw the benefits of having a second shop. It showed us that having a second premises isn’t quite twice the amount of work – it might be 50% more – and because we have built a little factory up in Ranelagh, we would be able to cope.

We were in that lot for five months and once it finished up, we started looking straight away for a second permanent premises.

It took about nine months to get the second shop, which is in Donnybrook, up and running. We had been looking at different units in other places and some looked on track until they fell through at the last second. It teaches you that until it’s across the line, you shouldn’t count your chickens.

Our future is in Dublin for now and we’re constantly keeping our eyes open for the right unit. If you rush into these things, however, and say you need to have it open by a certain date, you could fall into a trap of taking any location.

So if the right spot becomes available in the next six months, a third shop could be on the cards.

Kevin Johnstone is the ‎co-founder of Green Beards. This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on unlikely entrepreneurs.

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