As technology and the wider work environment continues to change, so too does the landscape of manufacturers across every industry. Manufacturing is no longer just the domain of large industrial factories, production lines and large mechanical output. Instead, it has become more flexible and fluid, as barriers to entry are pulled down by innovation. We have spoken with Totally Branded, Three Sisters Farm and Fridge of Plenty, all of which are recent start-ups or innovative businesses from different areas. The aim was to gain some insights into what it means to be a manufacturer today, what challenges they may be facing, and how prospective entrepreneurs can navigate the post-lockdown economy.
1. Tell us about your business
Three Sisters Farm: Three Sisters Farm is a small boutique selling sustainable dried flowers and country-inspired homewares (with a dash of Scandi minimalism). At Three Sisters Farm you can expect the finest quality of dried flowers, pampas grass and homewares.
Totally Branded: Totally Branded began in 2017 and was started out of a bedroom! Totally Branded manufacture and supply bespoke promotional merchandise, which can be anything from a mug, water bottle, a pen, or a t-shirt.
Fridge of Plenty: Fridge of Plenty is an urban farm shop and grocery delivery business based in Crouch End, North London. We sell organic produce, artisan foods, cheese, beer, and wine (all sourced as locally as possible and largely bought direct from producers)
2. How did you come up with the idea?
Three Sisters Farm: I discovered there was a gap in the market for a mainstream dried flower company in the UK. I was made redundant from a banking career during the pandemic and took a big risk in starting Three Sisters Farm as I was completely new to the industry.
Fridge of Plenty: My family and I spent a chunk of time in the countryside last summer and really enjoyed discovering fresh local produce from local farms. It seemed a shame that we didn’t have access to the same kind of local produce in London. Food production has a huge environmental impact, so if we are going to do better for the planet and our children, we need to take responsibility for what we eat (and how it’s produced). So Fridge of Plenty was born out of a need to source food locally and sustainably.
3. Do you consider yourself a manufacturer?
Three Sisters Farm: Yes, but not in the traditional sense.
Totally Branded: Yes, within the industry. That said, you could argue that the supplier of the stainless steel bottle or mug was the manufacturer, but I consider these to be our raw materials. Totally Branded takes the product, works with the customer on the decision, and applies the branding to bring their product to life. So I would consider us to be manufacturers.
Fridge of Plenty: We do create a few products in-house in order to combat food waste. We make soup from any sad vegetables, and we turn leftover bread into sourdough crackers.
4. What are some challenges you faced during (and coming out of) lockdown, and how did you overcome them?
Three Sisters Farm: Our sales plummeted when the lockdown lifted, which was a big shock! It was obvious really, less people indoors on social media / phones, and more people into shops. However, then there was an increase in demand for wholesale orders. So again, we just had to be adaptable to the situation.
The challenge of growing in lockdown was the need to be ahead of the game, getting a commercial unit quickly, and hiring staff fast. Everything was done on the back of demand, however, I realised that lockdown was full of opportunities.
Totally Branded: The cost of raw materials that are purchased overseas (i.e. water bottles, mugs, etc) have seen huge increases. As a business, even if you are willing to pay those prices, the delivery can be unreliable, and often there are huge delays which can impact customer orders.
Another challenge we’ve seen is finding scalable software that is good enough to cope with business growth. It seems like we’re missing software that has been built for the industry of manufacturing and recognises its nuances. Trying to find something that’s not going to break the bank and works for your niche is really tricky.
Fridge of Plenty: Now that people can eat out again we’re seeing different buying patterns, and more in-store shopping versus home delivery. We’ve had to stay agile and keep a close eye on stock levels. We’ve also changed some of our lines to suit customers who now want more food-to-go rather than things they can cook at home.
5. How do you think your business operates differently from ones which started before lockdown?
Three Sisters Farm: I have only ever known the economic climate to be unsteady through the pandemic. It has made it impossible to forecast, but I also think this has helped as we have no benchmark or projections as such. Every month is a wait and see, and each month something has happened that we didn’t expect. We have just signed a contract with a UK retailer to supply them for Christmas! Just yesterday we agreed a 300 bouquet order with a UK brand as part of a desk drop. This is exciting but also difficult to plan for. However, as we have been born into this environment, we are adaptable by nature. This will serve us well in the future.
6. Do you use any specialist software to help run your business, such as inventory management, cloud, or financial software?
Three Sisters: Not inventory currently. That’s something that will be looked at soon. But at the moment I use a mixture of Excel and other e-commerce platforms.
Totally Branded: Our finance team uses cloud-based accounting software, and we also have an ERP system that's used for production. The ERP also offers quoting and orders, which the sales and customer service team use.
In terms of looking for one solution that manages stock, scheduling, finance, etc, we've struggled to find something that isn’t a bespoke system (and also isn’t a huge investment).
Fridge of Plenty: We use a range of solutions including software and e-commerce platforms, and everything is cloud-based.
7. How do you manage your stock levels? Do you use any software for this?
Totally Branded: There is a stock capability within the ERP we use. I.e., production can load in a container of raw materials, and the system will deduct accordingly as an order is raised. However, the system doesn’t have a ‘waste’ capability, which is a pretty common occurrence in manufacturing. Therefore the stock functionality doesn’t really give us a reliable picture. This is what I mean about software not recognising the specific manufacturing needs.
To get around this, we use manual solutions such as spreadsheets and stock taking. But as the business continues to grow, this is becoming less feasible. For example, you go to the spreadsheet and think, “Can I reply on this, when did they last do a stock take?”.
8. Where would you like to see your business in 2/3/5 years time?
Three Sisters Farm: I am very clear on the objective of Three Sisters Farm, which is wanting to be the largest UK Dried flower Supplier in the UK. This will take us to year 2. Year 3-5 I am looking to go global and secure capital investment. The dried flower market will continue to grow, and I am excited to develop our ranges to include commercial packages, events, weddings and large installations (in offices, etc).
Totally Branded: I’d like to grow our international exports. This is something we have started to do, but I’d really like to increase this offering. The wider European market has huge potential! And of course, with that, we’ll need to grow our already strong and flourishing team. I’d also like to expand our internal capabilities and grow the product range to offer our customers more.
Fridge of Plenty: We’d like to keep growing and perhaps open another shop, as well as continuing to build the online side of the business. We’re going to launch a range of hampers for Christmas which we will ship using a sustainable delivery service. So our customers within the UK can discover sustainable, artisan, British-made produce. We’re also starting to run events, such as cheese and wine tasting nights in the shop. This is all part of our mission to celebrate local food producers and to help people learn about how their food is made.
The answers show the need for manufacturers to be agile and able to respond quickly in a fast-changing environment. It accelerated the demand for digital solutions that provide accurate, real-time data for efficient supply chain management (SCM), materials requirement planning (MRP), and inventory control. These enable manufacturers to pivot quickly in line with customer demand.
Manufacturers are adopting flexible software solutions
One way manufacturers can ensure they are agile is by keeping a tight rein on inventory control and operating strict supply chain management (SCM) practices (to deal with the challenges of unreliable import/export timeframes). Inventory control is essential in food production, as there has to be a strict rotation of raw materials, to ensure nothing is wasted, and that items are used in the order they arrive on site. Non-food manufacturers must also be careful not to get left with old stock or obsolete versions of component parts.
Manufacturers who have stuck with on-premise legacy systems, and are perhaps trying to integrate spreadsheets with other applications, are struggling to keep a competitive edge with those that have implemented fully digital/Cloud-based solutions. They are spending too much time generating and interpreting reports that have been created with manual data input. And departments are often unable to work together in an optimal way because they’re not seeing the same information at the same time.
Improving business responsiveness using BCE
Modern supply chains are a complex ecosystem of goods and suppliers, sometimes based all over the world. Managing the supply chain can be one of the most time-consuming challenges for production managers, so being able to see data in real-time is essential. Automated processes that reduce the possibility of human error can transform the time taken on repetitive tasks. Business Cloud Essentials (BCE) enables on-demand visibility, allowing businesses to meet customer expectations for more environmentally sustainable sourcing, whilst also optimising all resources in the end-to-end production process. This is essential for niche businesses and those who are building a reputation for sustainable and community-focused products.
Small and medium-sized businesses can arguably benefit the most from powerful manufacturing solutions like BCE, as they are often more exposed to the cash flow issues these systems are designed to minimise. And as the business grows, this software integrates seamlessly with other Cloud-based business management solutions, to support continued efficiency and profitability. BCE is fully scalable, so businesses only need to invest in the solutions necessary for optimised production of niche goods (confident that others can be added as demand and the overall business continues to grow.