I believe that SMEs are the backbone of the UK. I also believe that behind every smile is pain, suffering and sheer determination. Running a small business is tough, it’s not for the faint-hearted and it’s not something we’re all cut out for.
So I’m digging deeper and I’m looking into these businesses and asking them why. Why do they do it? First up it’s the amazing Square Wine in Warwick.
What Were You Doing Before You Started Square Wine?
“I was selling houses as an estate agent but also dipped in and out of the wine trade. After having my son Archie I worked for a local independent wholesaler doing their purchasing which is how I met Tom, who was managing the retail shop in Leamington. Tom’s been in the wine trade for the last 20 odd years since he was at Warwick University, working mostly in retail and also a bit of wholesaling. He’s always wanted to open a wine shop.
So Why Start Your Own Business?
Tom loves talking about wine and drinking wine and he wanted his own business because over the years he’s found that wines that he’s interested in and he’s got to know the producers and suppliers. He’s built up supplier relationships and got to know their story, and he wanted to stock their wine.
We have a wine on our shelves from South Island, New Zealand, which no one else in the UK has. We’ve met him and sold his wine because it’s a fantastic wine and we’ve been to his vineyard. We’re just one shop so we can pick and choose whoever we want to buy from. That’s why we use smaller suppliers who only deal with independents. We don’t get excited about mass produced, supermarket wines as they’re made in bulk. We love small batch boutique wines.
As soon as I met Tom I knew he wanted to work for himself. It was having our daughter that encouraged us to grow something for ourselves and our family. It wasn’t about making money but doing something that excited us. We love our little shop and unlocking it every morning makes us happy. We didn’t get the excitement or passion when we were working for other people. You’re always answering to someone else – now if we make mistake we learn from them and we only have ourselves to blame if it goes wrong!
Is It Harder To Run Your Own Business Than Have A Real Job?
It’s easier to work for a large chain than to work for yourself because someone else is paying the bills and managing the cashflow. It’s certainly scarier working for yourself – managing the staff, doing the admin, paying the bills. It’s going home and dealing with paperwork and planning for what’s happening next and how we’re going to grow. It’s 24/7.
I don’t think you fully understand how hard it’s going to be until you’re actually in it. You know it’s going to be a lot of graft but you don’t realise what you’ve taken on. But we still sit back even after a bad day and we wouldn’t change it for the world.
Our biggest learning curve is working together as a couple and business partners. People warned us! When it’s your own business it can be a strain. We have less quality time together than when we had a ‘real job’. Because of child care there are very few days in the week when we actually work together in the same room. During the week, one of us is in the shop and one of us is at home with our kids. We mainly work together during the evenings when we have wine tasting events.
When Things Go Wrong… What Keeps You Going?
The thing that keeps us going is our customer feedback. They’re always telling us how much they enjoy coming to our shop, and they like the atmosphere we’ve created. When people are telling you that and you know they’re serious, you sit back and think ‘Oh yes we have created something really good. Let’s keep going!’
What’s The Best And Worst Things You’ve Implemented At Square Wine?
The best thing we’ve implemented into Square Wine would be the food and wine collaborations we do. It’s made us feel very much part of the community, having hooked up with other local businesses and local restaurants to put on the events. No one else was doing it. What we’ve created is a social evening and a night out that’s also fun and informative and completely different from what anyone else is doing.
Also we have a Gin Club which has evolved. It started 14 months ago as a lot of our customers like drinking gin. When we employed Alistair who’s from a bar background, we started this club where we sample different gins and make gin and tonics for three hours on a Friday evening. We’re averaging 40-45 people and it’s packed. Customers aren’t tiring of it so we’re going to carry on doing it!
What didn’t work out so well? When we first opened we had a selection at the front of the shop of ‘everyday drinkers’ which were under £7 wines. Our market research told us that customers didn’t want to spend more than that during the week. But people walked straight past it and went to look at other things.
We still sell wines at that price point but under their respective countries instead. I don’t think that’s peoples’ focus when they come in here. They want advice about what wine to buy with what they’re cooking that evening, or they’re looking for a special bottle as a gift. The price point we thought of isn’t as relevant to us.
Do Your Customers Buy On Price?
They don’t come to us to buy on price. They come here for the service and the advice. Everyone has their budget and we’ll always try and find something perfect for their budget, but that’s not our USP. Our thing is the service and that’s why people come back to us. When we’ve recommend a wine and they’ve enjoyed it, they’ll come back. They trust us then. They know we’ve not flogged something rubbish we wanted to get rid of. We don’t stock any wines we wouldn’t drink at home, and we’re quite fussy!
Do People Buy From You? Or Do They Buy From Tom and Hannah?
Our regular customers certainly support us as Tom and Hannah, but when someone else is working in the shop they’ll still get the friendly service and relaxed and informal environment that’s not stuffy at all. Some people think of wine merchants as being a bit stuffy and old fashioned, like a museum where kids aren’t allowed to touch anything. But I don’t think our shop’s anything like that. If you come in here on a Saturday afternoon it’s like a crèche in here! A lot of our customers have got young kids and they’ll come in, sit down and have a glass of wine and feel quite happy about taking a few bottles home.
What Would You Say To Someone Thinking About Starting Their Own Business?
Starting our own business is the hardest thing we’ve done (apart from having kids!). I’d advise anyone to get as much experience as they can from whatever source they can. You can’t go into your own business with your eyes closed. For us, the experience of working in the wine trade was invaluable. If we hadn’t done that we’ve had made more mistakes. Somebody asked us once about advice and I think for us it’s about having a balance. We sell wines that we’re passionate about and enthusiastic about but also we have wines that people want to buy. It’s no good having a shop full of things that we love and not being business-savvy and not caring about what the market wants, so it’s having the balance right.
How Important Are Small Businesses?
Small businesses like ours are really important to our country. It’s about a sense of community. We very much feel like we’re part of Warwick and we’ve got to know so many people and become involved in so many things. We support events and charities in the town and it’s all reciprocal.
So many of us buy online because we’re busy and I understand that, but without a high street you lose that sense of community and that town centre feeling where people meet and chat. We have regulars that will pop in to have a chat, say hi, and find out what’s going on. We’re not always trying to flog them something – we’re just happy to see them. Our customers become friends which is lovely. We work so many hours we don’t see our other friends!
What’s Next For Square Wine?
In terms of what’s next for Square Wine, we’ve had the second shop on the business plan but we don’t know when that will be. Next for summer is a larger outside wine bar space so people can drink outside in the square to maximise the sunshine. We’re doing more tastings and we’re going to be doing monthly case deliveries too. Free local delivery is something we want to do to make it easier for our customers.”