'Have a weed-out of your staff and you won't feel guilty about it as jobs are plentiful'
A view from James Averdieck

'Have a weed-out of your staff and you won't feel guilty about it as jobs are plentiful'

James Averdieck is the founder of Gü Puds. He sold the business in 2010, having built it into a £50m pan-European brand. In 2013 he co-founded The Coconut Collaborative. And he has some controversial views...

It takes focus to win.

I live in Putney, known for the Boat Race. The other day, while walking my dog by the river, I got talking to this rowing coach. He wasn’t any ordinary coach – his remit was to transform an average UK team into a world-class one. He looked at also sorts of things: diet, training regime, the shape of the rudder – I could see he was as equally obsessed about performance as I am about my business. At the end of the day, he had a filter for everything he and the team did. He asked: "Will it make my boat go faster?" By focusing everything on this simple question, he achieved his objective and the team went on to win a medal at the London Olympics in 2012.

In business we have so many distractions, so many cogs in the wheel, that the way I see it, asking the coach’s simple question and applying it to business is the best way of achieving results. If I hire this person or do this marketing campaign, will it make my boat go faster? Business is every bit as much about winning as any boat race, and winning in business requires an equal obsession over what we can do to make our boat go faster (and not sink it).

It’s so easy to forget in business that we are in a competitive race. When we turn up to the office for work, we can’t see the teams we’re racing against (even though they are there) and it’s easy to forget about them. But successful companies have that razor-sharp focus about what it takes to win the race.

Run your company with fewer people

The majority of organisations have substantial amounts of slack in the system. For slack, read overmanning… and look on the bright side. Use the rising economic tide to have a really good weed-out of your company and you won’t feel guilty about it because jobs are plentiful.

Downsizing enables companies to focus on the superstars. I’m always gobsmacked by how overmanned organisations are. Small, privately owned businesses are known to run much tighter ships than most. It’s always interesting to see what happens when someone leaves a company and their role has to be shared out in the short term while someone new is being recruited. Nine times out of 10, overall performance improves. Think of it like a football team. If you say that 11 people is the optimum number on the pitch, most companies run with a team of 20… and a lot of them then get in the way of each other.

What a fantastic opportunity to improve the quality of your ‘gene pool’, reduce your overall overhead but reward your key people better. The reality of organisations is that we are all programmed to think that more people are the solution to a problem – and in big organisations (and some small ones), it’s human nature to build little empires.

In my experience the only real solution is to have an exceptional team of people in the key roles and reward them well. Support those people with good back-up (to make life easier for them) and involve them fully in the company’s destiny.

These days I spend a lot of time thinking about how to grow faster

I was hugely fortunate to have built Gü from nothing into a well-known brand. In the process I went from running a start-up through to running a big business. Wouldn’t it be great if you could combine the best of both worlds – the disciplines of corporate life with the nimble flexibility of an entrepreneur?

Good ideas rarely come in a flash. Very often there is the basis of something good, but it needs developing

In the last year before I sold Gü, we had one simple mantra: "squeezing the lemon". As an entrepreneur, I was overly occupied with coming up with the next big thing and not obsessed enough with getting the maximum out of the existing stuff – and we had a lot of good stuff.

This approach switched our focus from NPD to maximising the performance of the existing product – obvious, really, and, to be fair, it worked extremely well. It was about getting a core range into more stores, increasing brand-awareness through advertising, and promoting hard.

Sales increased, factory efficiencies improved and profits accelerated. "Squeezing the lemon" is a really good strategy for many young, innovative companies that are trying to do too much new stuff and aren’t focused enough on driving what they already have.

What young entrepreneurial companies are much better at, to continue the culinary metaphor, is "marinating the meat". Good ideas rarely come in a flash. Very often there is the basis of something good, but it needs developing. Entrepreneurs are much better at marinating ideas, adding more seasoning or spice to get exactly the right flavour and texture. There’s a lot of trial and error. Taking the sensible, predictable route is often exactly the wrong thing to do, and entrepreneurs are much better at dealing with the uncertainty of the creative process.

Creating a buzz

Getting a product into the market quickly and tweaking it on the basis of customer feedback is how many good ideas marinate. The Coconut Collaborative is a classic example. In any big company it would have been throttled at birth as the market started off as tiny. However, we created the brand on the back of two key health trends.

First, swathes of consumers want to reduce the amount of dairy in their diets. In the same way that many consumers of gluten-free products are not coeliacs, many of our consumers are not medically lactose-intolerant. Second, there has been an awakening in the national consciousness of the goodness of coconut. This started with the popularity of coconut water among a yoga-loving healthy elite and grew quickly as a movement, with coconut oil and coconut milk also becoming sought-after.

The Coconut Collaborative yoghurt was launched in a small number of Waitrose stores and quickly developed a following of very loyal customers. We are lucky in this country to have Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, two big retailers who are willing to back good, innovative entrepreneurial businesses – and, funnily enough, they are both doing rather well at the moment. The brand has grown quickly and we have also developed a range of frozen yogurts.

Go with what you know

As a brand, we try to be very natural and concerned about our supply chain and those involved. We have a quirky scheme where we donate coconut seedlings, which are then planted in the Philippines for our customers. They receive GPS coordinates so they can keep an eye on their own little bit of jungle as it grows.

We didn’t do a lot of research. Steve [Bessant], co-founder and nutritionist, had an instinctive feel for what healthy customers want. So we started tiny, and the margins weren’t great. However, customers aren’t bothered by the strength of your balance sheet – they just want a really good product. A year in, we’d worked out what customers wanted and how to make it a commercial business. The marination was complete.