IN this week's SME Focus, we hear from an enterprising expert in sea life who is creating valuable jobs on one of Scotland's islands.
What is your business called?
Hebridean Sea Salt Ltd.
Where is it based?
Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides
What does it produce?
Natural sea salt from seawater taken from outside our small processing plant. We produce three varieties: Pure Original, Peat Smoked and Seaweed Infused. All are hand-produced on site using local seaweed and smoked locally.
Who does it sell to?
We sell in around 250 stockists all over the UK and we are used by most of Scotland's top chefs, including Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles.
What is its turnover?
This year, £120,000.
How many employees?
When was it formed?
Product launched in July 2012
Why did you take the plunge?
Due to the lack of employment opportunities where I was living, I wanted to start my own business. After reading about other sea salt companies, I tried to source a Scottish sea salt to use in my own cooking - there wasn't any on the market, so I set out to be the first.
What were you doing before you took the plunge?
I am originally from Edinburgh and left to study marine biology at Aberdeen University. As part of my degree, I was working on a research vessel in the Hebrides and at the end of my trip decided to stay on the Isle of Tiree for the summer. I returned six months later and stayed for eight years and set up home with my partner (a local lobster fisherman) and had a family of three children.
After a year of planning and fund-raising, I decided to move to the bigger island of Lewis to make the business a reality as finding a suitable location on Tiree was proving difficult.
It was a big upheaval and very scary/risky giving up your life as you know it but I believed that the business would be a success. My partner stayed behind to work in Tiree to support the family whilst I and the children started to make a new life and start the business.
Once we had built our small production plant and finalised packaging, we started to approach some independent shops and soon we had over 100 stockists in Scotland. The response was fantastic.
Right now, we are in advanced talks with three supermarkets and will be launching into 400 Co-op stores in spring and, fingers crossed, with more to follow at the end of the year.
We are also in the process of raising £900,000 to build a new state-of-the-art sea salt plant which will save us 50% on energy costs.
What highs and lows have you experienced in business?
The highs have included seeing the response of our customers and speaking to retailers and gaining listings. Lows have included keeping going whilst looking after a young family and making sure everyone gets paid.
Our worst moment was when all of our machinery broke down in the early days and I realised I couldn't afford to pay for specialist engineers to come out to the island to fix it. In the end, I had to find a spanner and do the work myself and managed to get it all back up and running in time for a big order.
How did you raise the start-up funding?
I spent a year researching the concept and market before compiling a business plan. My business plan helped me to raise £170,000 from various funders, including the Prince's Trust, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Business Gateway.
We also won a funding award at the (Scottish Government-funded) Scottish EDGE Awards in 2013. We were the only company to be awarded more than we had asked for.
What do you most enjoy about running the business?
I enjoy the freedom of having my own business and seeing our product mentioned and enjoyed by our customers. The response has been fantastic and it gives you a real feeling of pride that you did that.
What do you least enjoy?
Well, it has to be the dreaded paperwork. I have a fantastic admin manager, Fiona, who has transformed my paperwork piles to files. So no more rifling around to find something.
My biggest bugbear is the cost of shipping to the Highlands and Islands.
What are your ambitions for the firm?
We plan to build a new larger plant in 2015 to cope with increased demand. We want to see our product stocked in all the major supermarkets in Scotland and to have at least two UK-wide listings by end of 2017. We have seen great interest and are in the process of negotiating launches into various multiple stores this year. This would see us employing 14 people in a very remote area with no employment opportunities, which is of major importance to me personally.
What are your priorities?
Raise turnover significantly in 2014; raise awareness of our products; manage my time better; remember to do the kids' homework (with them); eat lunch.
What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?
Enterprise seems to have become a priority for the Scottish Government.
Funding is always an issue and I think that small companies with big ambitions should be better informed of how to realise these ambitions and how to raise the money.
What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?
Look after the pennies… and it doesn't matter if you don't know how to do something - you can learn!
How do you relax?
By spending time at home with my children and partner and walking in the local countryside.