At just 25, Bethan Vincent has already tackled an impressive number of challenges, including working on four businesses. Mike Hughes asked her to slow down for a morning’s catch-up... in front of a decommissioned Soviet rocket.
I had to ask Bethan Vincent for some help when I came to write the standfirst above. She is so many things and has such a quicksilver mind, that it can be tricky to pin down a description.
This blogger, vlogger, jazz singer and businesswoman may be as close to addicted to entrepreneurialism as I have seen so far. So many ideas and projects – all backed by a neverending passion – tumble from her very busy brain that I doubt she could stop even if she wanted to.
Her swift ascent seems echoed by the setting for our interview as a full size former Soviet rocket from the Cold war, now part of former chairman Robert Hiscox’s art collection, takes its place in the dramatic foyer of the new Hiscox building in York where Bethan has a space with the company’s Business Club. So how do you make a Bethan Vincent? Apparently you start with university uncertainty and go on from there....
“I got to my third year at University of York and thought to myself ‘I have no idea what I want to do’ although I had always knew at the back of my mind that I would like to run my own business,” she told me.
“The university has its own enterprise team and they had a few pitching competitions running so I did a couple and that got me thinking that there might be something in it. Coffee was always my go-to drink and when I worked in the Netherlands you always went to independent coffee shops - never the big chains - because the Netherlands is a very ethical country with a moral robustness that appealed to me.
“I had always worked during my time at university, so when I left I had a bit of seed capital to use and thought ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ and I set up Vincent’s Coffee. “It taught me the basics of running my own business, things like cash flow, marketing and how to brand and ship a product. It wasn’t very successful for a number of reasons – wrong time, wrong place and maybe that branding wasn’t right.
“The university had given me a lot of help and it was so crucial that they challenged my ideas, but I stopped doing it this year because margins are pretty tight on coffee and it just wasn’t worth the time I was putting into it.”
Those early decisions are important for Bethan because the disappointment comes with a heavy dose of reality that all new businesses need. It won’t always work, you will make mistakes. But there is no reason why that means it was never meant to be. You have to be as resilient on the first day the ‘Open’ sign goes up as you will be after 25 years and be brave enough to face it, deal with it and move on.
“Eight out of ten businesses fail – and this one did,” she tells me as she takes sips from (of course) her mug of coffee. “You mustn’t get down about that, but must treat it as an experiment. Validate all your ideas and do as much testing as you can instead of just running into it with headlights on like I did.
“Pause to think about the product and the USP it has and know how to articulate that to potential customers. Although I know I wouldn’t be where I am without it, I have moved on within myself, but it was sad at the time because that was like my first baby. I may revisit it because I have some ideas, but I have way too much on at the moment.”
One other reason why this textbook entrepreneur stopped one business was that she was ready for the next one, a big idea that she had been working on for two years and which – here comes that rocket again - has reached the 3-2-1 of its launch countdown.
Bright Ethics audits a company’s ethical approach to its work and certifies its authenticity after a full inspection, aiming to build a network of businesses ethically-minded customers can rely on, as well as making sure small businesses with proven commitments get the recognition they have worked hard for.
Bethan has partnered with the Manchester-based Centre For Assessment, which already works with the Cabinet Office and the Law Society, to carry out her inspections and give the project the Day One credibility it needs. “I used to be afraid to ask for help because I thought it was sign of weakness,” she says. “But now if I don’t know something I will go straight to someone who does. We have also done a lot of market research which has been a huge help as we start to sign up companies in York.
“There are a lot of other ethical movements in the area, but no one is really targeting this kind of market, where we look at the whole of the business and not just the end product. So you might get great ethically-sourced coffee from one company, but is the person who served you on a zero-hours contract? Is he or she getting the right breaks? And if not, is that really an ethical product?
“You have to go beyond the supply chain and look at the people and the place. More and more people are concerned about these standards, with the ethical economy growing by 8% in 2013. People are looking at their bank balances and saying ‘I have less money in there, so I’m at least going to make sure I buy products I believe in’.”
As many BQ entrepreneurs out there will know, money is tight in the first few years, and the £8,000 a year Bethan has often been living on is a testament to her commitment.
Earlier this year the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said you needed £17,100 to live to an acceptable standard, so the stark test facing business start-ups is that you have to be ready to be officially classed as ‘poor’ before you take that first step.
“Through all that, I have been determined not to buy crap coffee and to buy something where I know people have been treated right and have been paid for it. When you are poor, I think there is a bit of rebellion in there.
“It is very difficult to be absolutist about it because you can’t flick through a guide every time you want to buy something, but there are companies I know of through my research that I wouldn’t buy from. For instance, we buy organic local vegetables, and we have met the farmer whose meat we use. I drive a car, which I know is not a very ethical thing, but I walk or cycle when I am in the city.
“You can have 20% of people doing 100% reduction, but is that better than 80% of people doing 20% reduction? So when we do certification for Bright Ethics we are not being absolutist. We will be moving towards every company paying a living wage, but at first that is just not viable as new businesses try to make a profit but we would want that to be a ‘positive profit’.
“It is about inspiring people to make some changes and progress gradually. There may always be inequality, but we can all make thing less unequal.”
She puts the genesis of all this passion down to ’working in crappy jobs’ but there is more to it than that. Her family has always voted Labour, so there has been a thread of doctrine running through her life, even though her background was quite comfortable, with good schools and supportive parents. Bethan has already submitted an application to stand as a Green MP in York, so the battle to explain and convert has only just started.
“I feel quite guilty about my background because when I walk out of these offices I see ten homeless people before I have made it across the other side of the city, which shows there is something fundamentally wrong with the system in this country. I think I am really frustrated by the world but I know you are never going to get 100,000 people interested by preaching at them. You have to show actions and offer a way forward that they can appreciate.”
The new business is now in a pilot phase and Bethan’s work is trying to get as many businesses as possible supporting the idea of York as an ethical city. Businesses like Hiscox will be on board because they are confidently-ethical already and will be able to use the Bright Ethics ‘heart’ badge as an outward sign of that.
There is no percentage score for companies taking part – just a pass or fail based on four sections, each of which carries a number of points. So the CFA assessors will look at submitted documents from the company on its environmental sustainability, community Involvement, sourcing with integrity and how it creates a positive and supportive workplace.
“Then there will be an on-site assessment where they will go to look for evidence of that, which rates much higher than the documents,” Bethan explained. “No piece of paper can tell you these things. We need to interview people at random about their environment.”
So why would a company subject itself to such scrutiny? Perhaps because when I do my online shopping for goods and services, I will almost always add a phrase such as ‘eco’ in the search window. That then brings up a stadium-full of local firms saying they offer a particularly ethical service - some don’t even go that far but just add ‘green’ or ‘eco’ to their names in the hope that that will be enough. But it isn’t. So I want someone to turn to and ask ‘are they ethical or not’ which is where Bethan’s team will aim to do the legwork which might persuade me to add ‘Bright Ethics’ into the search window instead.
“The council has done some work on One Planet York, which is about 20 areas of the city that they want to look at from a sustainability angle. That shows there is a demand for this kind of thing and that people care about it – we just want to make sure people are doing it.
“I have two business partners in it with me who provided the original capital and we all realise this is not going to make us rich, but I guess the way I see Bright Ethics for me is that I can drive forward the idea behind it which means so much to me. While I like having multiple projects – which can be a good and a bad thing – I want to whittle them down into a manageable amount.”
The whittling has got Bethan to four ventures so far, the former Vincent’s Coffee, Bright Ethics, PR and marketing agency Coffee Yard Media and York’s Guild of Entrepreneurs, which she helped set up and where she is now Master. Just to fill in the gaps between that lot and the blogging, she also sings in a jazz band set up by her partner Des and his brother.
There is a common thread of her love for the city and what it could do for itself, but this is a young woman who is only just starting to power up the spotlight she wants to turn on York to illuminate the potential of its businesses and people. Take Coffee Yard Media for instance - that grew out of her work with the York on a Fork team, which promotes the city as a foodie heaven. “We then started getting people coming to us asking how we had gone about setting up our businesses because they wanted some tips, perhaps about a new website,” she explained.
“I started giving advice for free and then looked at some of the charges for this sort of work in the city and knew there was a business model there because we had proof of concept: we could write, we can build a website and hold events and had already worked on some projects.
“So a couple of months ago I set it up and we’ll see how it goes. As well as the food, we like to do heritage work, which goes back to the time I have spent working for the National Trust and English Heritage (she got a first class honours degree in History at University of York).
“As far as the guild is concerned, there was probably a bit of frustration with York and its support for small businesses, which is no one’s fault but just the result of so many cuts in different places. It seemed important to have that community where at least people could moan to each other and then cheer each other on and make it more than just a networking group.” Bethan puts up a convincing case for all of her business interests, with a level of commitment to each that proves this no ‘dip in and dip out’ operation. She is still a bundle of energy, exploring and discovering new possibilities. Which is what makes her next words so emotionally charged.
“One of the reasons Vincent’s didn’t work is that part of my story is about severe depression, to the point where I was pretty much going to kill myself until someone stopped me.”
If I had taken a mouthful of ethical coffee I would have sprayed it across the table at this point. What? This fascinating young lady with so much passion got to the point where she thought it was just better to die? She talks about it calmly, as a part of her life that she has faced and tackled like so many other projects.
“At university I had read a lot of Nietzsche and it just made me think ‘what is the point to anything’ which can be a really liberating thing, which is what I find it is now, or really depressing.
“All my university friends had left and I felt really lonely and it is hard to run a business when you are severely depressed about the meaninglessness of life and can’t leave the house. It broke down my confidence. But now I know that the worst thing that could happen is that – boo-hoo – I have to go and get a real job.
This 360 degree turnaround of a young life is remarkable. Just a few years between despair and success, yet a hair’s breadth sometimes separates the two. Self belief and self doubt probably still fight it out in Bethan’s mind, but she is the victor now, not the victim, and so the work goes on.
“I have no long-term plan for what I am doing, but I trust that something will happen, which is what has happened all along in my life and it has worked out so far. And I am 25, so I have time to make mistakes, so I might as well try everything I can.
“After watching my dad go to the same business for 20 years and then get made redundant twice, I don’t want to distil myself down into one thing. I have had so many people, from school onwards, telling me I can’t do things that I don’t listen anymore. If I can’t do something let me find out myself.”
Bethan Vincent’s full-time job will always be running Bethan Vincent. She is her own start-up and her own USP, destined to be an influential force for good in the city she cares so much about.
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