Founder & CEO
BeeBee & Leaf
Joining us today is Kath Austin, a sustainable entrepreneur and founder of BeeBee & Leaf, the producer of reusable beeswax food storage wraps, from Cambridge, UK.
Kath has developed a plastic-free, compostable alternative to clingfilm in her kitchen and more than three years ago launched her first food wrap. Today she runs a successful sustainable business and hires a team of ten. Read on below to find out more about Kath’s journey.
PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF AND THE BUSINESS YOU STARTED.
My name is Kath Austin and I am obsessed with the natural world and its protection. I am a mother to two wild and wonderful daughters, a partner to David and formerly a successful charity fundraiser with a lifelong passion for positive social and environmental impact.
My love of the outdoors stems from early years camping across the UK and being exposed to muddy paddles in rivers and early morning beach trips that finished late as we trudged back to the house windswept, salty and sandy toed. I found my inner ecowarrior early on with the plight of endangered whales being slaughtered in the ’90s, it’s never stopped and I still hold my eco-warrior responsibilities very seriously.
BeeBee & Leaf started as a sideline project looking at ways to address the horrifying amount of single-use plastics our family was getting through. After 18 months of development, the BeeBee beeswax food wrap went into production. We tested the wraps with everyone we knew and quickly realised it was a solution that resonated with anyone conscious of the plastic pollution crisis.
The business seemed to grow astonishingly quickly and we scaled to produce wraps for the likes of Lakeland, Booths and Abel & Cole as well as shipping them across Europe and beyond.
I never meant to start a business, I sometimes long for the quiet life. But sometimes life drops a job in your lap and that is how I see it. We all have a responsibility to take action and care for our world. This seems to be mine.
WHAT DOES YOUR TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE AND HOW DO YOU STAY PRODUCTIVE?
There is not enough time in a day to do everything so my days are very strictly timetabled on the whole. I am very lucky to have David who shares the raising of our kids, running of our household and growing of our business. We are absolutely equal, he is amazing.
Through running this business I’ve realised that self-care is number one. Put your own oxygen mask on first. So I actually start half my days at 6 am with a sweaty hour of Fitcamp. I know that just sounds so bloody perfect but as I’ve reached the age of 41 I’ve realised my body will fall apart if I don’t care for it. It took me 40 years to realise this.
After that I return home to joyful screams of “mummy!!”. With David, I get the kids fed, washed, brushed and dressed for school. Then cycle off to BBHQ. By now the amazing Team BeeBee has the wax melted and the cogs of our production line turning. They start around 8 am so I am the latecomer to this party.
I usually have a catch up with the workshop and then head to the office to see our Operations Manager and Business Development Manager. Since COVID I’ve spent more time working from home so these days are about meetings, talking about our next collaboration, our supply chain, or designing our product release.
Often I can be found recording videos for our website and social platforms. My face has become synonymous with BeeBee & Leaf. I think people relate to a person, in this case a stressed out mother who is trying to do better. So the message of our wraps always comes better from me.
I’ll finish the day with trying to conquer the mountain of emails and cycle home for some dinner with my family. I refuse to work in the evenings as often as I did, I can’t sleep so I spend time reading, cooking (I am obsessed!) or chatting to David about our day before an early night.
THE JOURNEY SO FAR
PLEASE DESCRIBE THE PROCESS OF LAUNCHING YOUR BUSINESS.
The project I started to reduce our household waste was in 2016, around a year before we launched BeeBee & Leaf. It coincided with my youngest daughter being born and I would say that it was the long milky moments being stuck under a feeding baby that gave me headspace to think. I spent a lot of time making a terrible mess of my kitchen, in particular the floor as beeswax drips everywhere. Now I have a folder of failed attempts at making wraps, some were too sticky, some too rigid, some didn’t stick at all but eventually I found the solution. And in fact we are always innovating and perfecting further so it didn’t stop there. At that moment I found my minimum viable product and decided to put it out on Etsy.
I decided on the name BeeBee because in all honesty, it sounded kind of cool, who doesn’t love a bit of BB King! The orders rolled in, orders from complete strangers and not my mum! I was kept very busy at home in the evenings. I managed to work my way through a number of artists’ back catalogue on Spotify!
By summer I was in a cottage industry, cash flow was good and I was wondering how I would keep up. A friend suggested I join an incubator for new businesses, I applied and got a place in the Cambridge Social Ventures (CSV) Incubator for Social Innovations. This was the turning point from side project to start-up. They helped to build my confidence, set objectives and plan for a business. By the end of the year-long mentorship I had premises, a team, our own cotton supply chain and a mechanisation project to automate production almost complete. All of this was made possible by the loan finance we received from the ethical funding body, Foundation East, who we met through CSV. At this stage networking was everything.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENT AND YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE SINCE YOU STARTED YOUR BUSINESS?
My biggest achievement to date is hard to pin down. I am extremely proud of our cobrand with Lakeland, they were on my wishlist from day one. Surviving Dragons’ Den with my head held high was amazing. I am very proud of my composure and how I represented the brand. I still think it’s just amazing to hear from people all round the world who have been able to stop using plastic because of our wraps.
The biggest challenge sits with me every day and is one I am yet to fully conquer. My head is always full of work thoughts, I lie awake at night thinking about the business. Plus the call on my time takes me away from my family more often than I would like however lockdown gave me months of amazingly long (sometimes very long) days with them for which I am eternally grateful.
My personal challenge is to compartmentalise my headspace more and set boundaries for when I work and when I’m present in other parts of my life. No one can really convey the all-consuming power of a business on your energy. I’ve had two kids and I would say that there are some parallels, although BeeBee & Leaf doesn’t scream quite as loud during a midnight nappy change.
WHAT STRATEGY DID YOU USE TO GROW YOUR BUSINESS? AND HOW?
Growing BeeBee & Leaf has been as much about growing me and my team’s abilities. I would probably do it very differently if I was mad enough to do it again. Learning is key, our motto which was realised over and over is to “fail fast”. Try it, fail and move on fast. Learning all the way. Sometimes I haven’t done that and it really comes back to bite me.
Getting the right team takes time and holding on to the right team members is crucial. Without the team I have there would be no business. They bring so much to the table as individuals. I am amazed at how differently our brains work and how skillful they are in areas where I am a flop.
Innovation and listening to the customers has meant we have stayed fresh and interesting for four years now. We released our vegan wrap in lockdown which is flying out. We are also the only maker to produce a wrap refresher product in droplets, it’s all about making it easier for the customers.
WHAT IS YOUR VISION FOR THE FUTURE OF BUSINESS?
Covid has halted our growth a little, but we’re definitely not alone and by all accounts we’re lucky to still be here. Our expansion plans have changed however it isn’t a bad thing. Lockdown gave me a chance to reevaluate.
We know that the future of our business and indeed our market is about collaboration and working together towards the values to which we aspire – leaving a lighter footprint on the earth. We plan to release further plastic replacement products and work with established brands to raise the profile of our alternatives.
RECOMMENDATIONS & FINAL THOUGHTS
ARE THERE ANY RESOURCES OR TOOLS YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE WITH OTHERS THAT HAVE HELPED YOU RUN YOUR BUSINESS?
I would definitely join a mentorship programme to guide you in the early days. I was so well supported and challenged just enough to reach for more.
Four years in and I value knowing and keeping close to other founders or entrepreneurs particularly other women and mothers. It’s common to feel lonely.
WHAT OR WHO HAS BEEN YOUR GREATEST INFLUENCE IN BUSINESS AND WHY?
I loved reading “Let my people surf” by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. His approach to business is so utterly refreshing, for instance they give their IP to competitors to share the knowledge which is unheard of. Now he wields the size and power of Patagonia to lobby governments and disrupt their market for the good of the earth. He is passionate about the outdoors, something he has not lost throughout his life and it’s clear he leads a simple life despite his riches. Really, who needs more money than that which they actually need? I think he’s been the biggest influence and remains a hero in my eyes.
On a more local level, Dr Lynn Morgan MBE, who led the Arthur Rank Hospice Charity for 10 years where I was a fundraiser before all of this. Lynn showed me how to be a woman in business. She retains all the feminine qualities disassociated with business leadership whilst being an incredible CEO. We need role models who look like us and she came to work every day caring about the same things I cared about, from not spending enough time with my kids to hitting the gargantuan fundraising target. I didn’t just see the incredible women either, I saw her worries and weaknesses yet they didn’t hold her back. I am very grateful to her for being there at the right time.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO OTHER WOMEN WHO WANT TO START THEIR OWN BUSINESS?
Know you can do it. Know it will be hard, so hard. Know your children/nieces/nephews will look up to you. Know that you are allowed to fail.
Get some brilliant people around you. Be confident and cautious. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel unworthy of being wherever you are.
And above all breathe. Learn to breathe into your belly when it all gets on top of you.
WHAT BUSINESS IDEA DO YOU HAVE THAT YOU ARE WILLING TO SHARE WITH OTHERS?
I originally started off thinking about growing Forest Schools and making them more accessible however BeeBee then dropped into my lap and that took over.
I would love to see more childcare settings in natural spaces. My kids are happiest caked in mud and building campfires for toasting bread and marshmallows. I love technology for bringing people together but I am terrified of the addictive quality of screens, they have become the modern day campfire and we need to remember to go back to the elements, to root ourselves in the ground and feel the real stuff.
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE WITH OUR READERS?
Stepping outside of your comfort zone is utterly terrifying but truly exhilarating too. There are very few people doing it and we need more. Boredom is not safety.
Welcome to the Biz Ladies interview series!
If you’re new to these series, I interview women entrepreneurs on how they started their business, what was the idea behind it, how they got where they are, the struggles, the reality and more.
By sharing their stories, we want to inspire other women to get started.
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