Claire Reed: You will fail, so fail fast and cheap so you can learn

Claire Reed is the Chief Impact Officer and founder of Reel Gardening, a biodegradable seed tape which takes the hassle out of growing domestic vegetable and herb gardens. It takes five minutes to plant and uses 80% less water. Claire started Reel Gardening at the age of 16 as a school science project in 2002. Claire was encouraged by her teachers to enter her invention into the Eskom Expo for young scientists where she won a gold medal. Today her company offers a variety of vegetable and herb garden growing kits, especially for the urban communities. The brand is stocked by Food Lover’s Market, e-commerce sites such as Takealot and Yuppiechef.  The company has won numerous awards such as SAB Foundation Social Innovation Awards, UN Environmental SEED Award and Woman in Water for Scientific Research below the age of 35. In this interview, she talks about the lessons she's learned in business.

Tell us a bit about your company, Reel Gardening, and why should anyone use your services?

Reel Gardening is a South African social enterprise that is passionate about making vegetable gardening accessible to anyone, regardless of their level of gardening experience or the space they have available. We do this primarily through our patented biodegradable seed tape which makes planting incredibly easy, quick and fun. We offer many different growing solutions to suit your needs and budget, ranging from our Gardens In a Box, our Grow Pods and large school or community gardens.

What was your career path to this role?

I am an architect by profession, I obtained my Masters in Architecture from the University of Pretoria. Whilst completing my internship at an architecture firm I had the opportunity to work on the redevelopment of mine housing with Anglo American and Lonmin and discovered the importance people placed on having their own gardens. Through this experience, I was introduced to Anglo Zimele.

How did you raise your startup money?

Anglo Zimele gave me the start-up loan at 5% interest which I needed to get Reel Gardening off the ground.

Did you write a business plan? Was it an effective tool for you?

Yes, but I didn’t find it an effective tool. I felt that it was too static. I was focused on getting my minimum viable product off the ground and into the market as fast as I could. When I needed to iterate and pivot as needed, I didn't feel that a business plan helped with this process.

Who did you hire to help you with your business - bookkeeper, an accountant, lawyer …? Would you suggest others do the same?

We do outsource our accountant and lawyer, and I suggest that others do too. As your business expands, the reality is that you can’t do everything on your own. It’s better to hire people who are qualified and whose job it is to do these things so that you can focus on parts of the business where your strengths are and where you are needed the most.

Have you outsourced any portion of your business? And has that worked for your business?

Operations wise, we had to. As mentioned above, we can’t do everything on our own, which has worked perfectly fine for our small business. For example, we had to outsource the manufacturing and printing of our boxes and get a reliable courier company on board to courier our orders around and outside the country.

What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?

Networking and getting the right people on board, be it staff or potential partners who share my vision. Social entrepreneurship is new, so it’s been very important to connect with the right people.

How do you effectively manage the finances of your company?

I work with my husband, Sean Blanckenberg-who has an extensive and impressive background in finance. He has been excellent in helping me with the finances of Reel Gardening. He is great at spotting opportunities where the business can benefit financially/make a loss.

Do you have rainy-day savings for your business?

We definitely do! It’s very important for us to be able to keep the business and our staff afloat because many of them are previously unemployed moms, who are also breadwinners in their families.

What's a financial mistake you made as a business owner in the beginning? And how did you bounce from it?

Like any other business, there have been a lot and the most important thing is to not dwell on them but to see them as a lesson on how you can do better. Always ask yourself “What have I learnt from this and what am I doing to make this situation better?”

With the current economic slump, what cost-saving tips would you share with new entrepreneurs?

Focus on what is your minimum viable product to test the market. Go to the market as fast as you can and as cheap as you can. You will fail, so fail fast and cheap so you can learn, adapt and then attempt it again. Don’t wait for everything to be perfect before going to market. Do as much as you can yourself and ask friends and family to help. Wait to hire staff or consultants or rent premise for as long as you possibly can. Make sure you test the market and you understand your customer and are filling a need at a price they can afford before you decide to scale.

What advice can you offer female business owners on making sure they're being compensated fairly for their work?

Speak up! I know its incredibly hard, but I’ve always benefitted from speaking up and making a well-thought-out a case for what I think I deserve.

Do you have business mentors, and if so, how have they helped you develop as an entrepreneur?

Yes, I have many mentors for many different aspects of both my business and my life. I learn and grow through interactions with these mentors. The more I give in, the more I get out.

We all know service is key to business. How do you motivate your staff to keep a constant service ethic?

The first step is to find people that are already passionate about what they’re doing. Also, being a good employer goes a long way in making sure that your staff is happy enough to be consistent in giving excellent service to all of our customers.

How do you strike your own work/life balance?

I try as much as possible to leave my work at work so that I can focus on my family and my 2-year-old son (who is a ball of energy now) when I get home. If there are pressing or urgent things that have to be dealt with, I have a cut off time for when I should stop dealing with them when I get home. It hasn’t been easy at all, but I am a work in progress.

What’s next for Reel Gardening? 

We have been working with Unilever, the Pick n Pay foundation and HDI Youth Marketeers on a pilot project that has empowered 2315 schools around South Africa, to grow their own food and learn from their gardens by including vegetable gardening in the schools’ study material. We look forward to expanding this to more schools around the country. We are soon going to be selling in select Builders Express Stores, which we are very excited about. And we are expanding our business in the United States by partnering with the Girls Scouts of the US. This is an incredible opportunity!

What have you learned from starting your company that might be useful to would-be entrepreneurs?

It is the hardest but the most fulfilling thing I have ever done in my life. Don’t start a company to become rich quick. If that’s your motivating factor, you will not succeed. Start a company because it serves a purpose that you are passionate about and that you enjoy.

You can follow Reel Gardening on Twitter and Facebook.

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