Life on civvy street can be daunting for many ex-forces personnel. With years of service to their country under their belt, taking a step into the less regimented world of civilian life is a step change.
Yet drawing on years of military experience – from planning and logistics to self-discipline and determination – many former forces personnel are finding starting a business the perfect fit, with support from Start Up Loans and X-Forces.
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The Cheese Collective
“I don’t have a background in cheese myself,” admits The Cheese Collective’s founder Sam Elsdon. “I’m a cheese fan more than anything. We used to go around local markets and visit small, independent cheesemakers and try their different cheeses. They’re lovely and much better than supermarket cheeses.
“Then obviously lockdown came in, and we couldn’t do that, but we still wanted to have nice cheese in,” he reveals. “I had a look, and there really weren’t many options out there, and no-one focusing specifically on British cheesemakers.
“I found out how much Covid-19 had impacted the industry. It was crazy. These are predominately artisan cheesemakers crafting small-batch cheeses that you won’t find in supermarkets, and they are mainly sold through food markets and to hospitality. And that disappeared overnight. On average, 70% of their business just stopped.
“During that time, I worked in a corporate social responsibility role, and we volunteered to help at the food bank, which saw far more people using them.
“So I thought, I’ll create a business that would merge the two. We wanted to focus on working specifically with award-winning British cheese makers – the people that were struggling and the best in class – because it’s a craft that we didn’t want to lose. You can’t replace that expertise. And for every cheese box purchased, we donate a meal to a local food bank on your behalf.”
The business has bloomed, with 40% sales from subscription boxes that deliver monthly cheeses direct to your door, and the remaining 60% of customers purchasing individual cheeses.
Starting up was a baptism of fire, according to Sam: “The biggest issue we’ve had was with the paper that we use because we want it to be sustainable. We were initially using a sort of recycled greaseproof paper, which should have had lasted about a week or longer. But depending on certain conditions, certain cheeses didn’t react well to it. That was a learning process.
“I enjoyed putting the business together and thinking about how we would work. We used the loan to get the website up and running and buy the first round of inventory. We also had to buy many materials, such as sustainable boxes, liners and ice packs. You have to buy them in huge quantities to be able to get any economies of scale.”
TLP Drone Security
Chris Flannagan, the founder of TLP Drone Security, has overcome significant odds to start a successful business that aims to tap into a £2.5bn market.
“My background was with British Army,” says Chris. “I got medically discharged after my first year after fracturing my spine in a training exercise and spent several years in rehabilitation, as well as handling secondary complications – from my nervous system to cardiac arrests.”
Left paralysed from the waist down, Chris worked in the police service, where he discovered the potential for drones to revolutionise security monitoring. Having left the force, he founded TLP Drone Security – a specialist service using drones to provide security support, threat assessment and deterrence.
“We work with security companies, enforcement agencies and local authorities, using drones to provide security and public safety. We’re able to give companies and local authorities intelligence that they wouldn’t have had access to,” Chris says.
“We did an intelligence job for an organisation a couple of months ago that wanted specific intelligence on a location but could not be in that area as it was densely residential. They couldn’t put ground resources in to monitor that location. And that’s fine. That’s exactly what drones are for. We can step back from that environment; we can hover around 400 feet and gather intelligence.
“We’ve done a lot of that with rural protection, farm protection, providing overwatch services to ground teams,” he says. “We devise traffic management plans, we establish patrol corridors and we do perimeter protection. You don’t need hundreds of guards; drones allow you to have two or three quick reaction teams instead.”
Chris’s military background stood him in good stead, especially the need for determination and self-discipline.
“When you launch a business, you become everything. You become a master of social media, you become a master of HR and you become a master of policy and procurement. You wear so many different hats you can have some identity crisis. But because you have that self-discipline, it just makes it that little bit easier. It gives you that little bit of an edge that, you know, you can have 60 plates spinning in one day and go, alright, I roughly know where they’re all going.
“We had our Start Up Loan, and our delivery partner was brilliant,” he says. “We used the money to add thermal imaging and public illumination to our drones, and it was an absolute lifesaver for surviving lockdown. We were able to maximise the funds and gave ourselves that competitive edge.”
Peregrine and Cheshire Quality
With a background in the Navy, Sam Jeffs – along with partner John-Paul “JP” Jeffs – launched two businesses in rapid succession – and both have soared in lockdown, despite being very different ventures.
JP and Sam met 11 years ago when Sam was in the Navy, and after several globe-trotting jobs, JP opened a crafting shop in Knutsford. Starting wasn’t without its challenges.
“We opened the shop – Cheshire Quality – four weeks before Boris Johnson saying everybody should stay at home,” says JP. Armed with a loan from X-Forces, the shop opened in the market town of Knutsford. “That’s where X-Forces came in to help us with the initial loan because leasing a store in a market town is not cheap.”
The store stocks craft products from over 60 local businesses and started a local delivery service with Sam driving a van in a bid to operate during lockdown. From creating and delivering Father’s Day hampers to birthday craft gifts, soon other businesses were asking to hitch a ride on Cheshire Quality’s van.
“So we had some money left over from X-Forces, which we used to buy the van. And we started doing the Cheshire Quality deliveries and picking up a little bit with our suppliers. So our suppliers were keen on us delivering for them as well. And I realised there’s a market here for local, same-day deliveries at a reasonable cost. So we set up Peregrine.”
The breakthrough moment for the second business was down to Amazon and the huge surge in online shopping, with Peregrine winning a contract to deliver for Amazon from its Chester logistics centre. It has allowed the business to scale rapidly, growing from five vans and ten drivers to 25 vehicles and over 50 drivers in a single month. The business has since invested in its first HGV and expanding its operations nationally and overseas.
“Don’t procrastinate and take calculated risks,” says Sam. “A lot of people focus on business plans, and they put so much detail in their business plan, not realising that the business plan is a fluid document and can change from day to day.
“The biggest challenge was getting other people to understand my transferable skills,” he adds. “I could talk to someone about how a nuclear propulsion system works, which wouldn’t make any sense to most people. But actually, it’s useful even now for something that we’re doing. Because we’re trying to become the first zero-emission transport company, and I’m looking down the hydrogen route.
“Hydrogen supply isn’t very good up in the North West, but you can generate hydrogen easily from water and electrolysis. And I understand that because on the submarine, we have an electrolyser, which splits seawater up to give us oxygen to breathe, and we ditch the hydrogen, except this time, I want to reverse it. So we get the oxygen and use the hydrogen.”
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