The Bushcraft Company’s Alex McBarnet: How I learned to Survive in the Wild and Thrive in Business
Clarendon has over 445 clients across 35 business centres; we are home to many buzzing start-ups, as well as small and medium-sized businesses. Many of our clients move in and set up ‘home’ renting office space with us year in, year out. Others make the transition from their home work space to a serviced office, expand and then relocate or sell their business on.&
We catch up with Alex McBarnet who used to run his business, The Bushcraft Company from Clarendon’s Prama House in Oxford.& Over nine years, Alex built a team of over 400 employees and the company is growing from strength to strength. The Bushcraft Company offers residential school trips with a difference, they take students into the wild and give them real back-to-nature experiences with activities ranging from bushcraft, shelter-building to wilderness cookery, archery and orienteering.
Where did you get the idea to set up a company like The Bushcraft Company?
Since childhood I was always fascinated with how one may be able to survive in the wild. I would read stories of plane crash survivors and I particularly remember a series of children’s books called ‘Hatchet’ by American novelist Gary Paulsen; this was about a young boy stranded in the forest of North America. My thirst for survival skills intensified and soon I spent all of my time in the forest teaching myself essential skills and I buried myself in books on the subject. As soon as I was old enough, I went on my first bushcraft course with a company in the south of England. I really enjoyed it and I soon realised that I had a talent for it which meant, at a very young age, I grabbed an opportunity to work for this company. I went on to learn a huge amount from the mentors there.
Can you talk us through how you went about setting up The Bushcraft Company and getting it to where it is today?
To begin with, I decided that I would set up on my own and run day long camps for up to twelve children at a time or that I would offer small groups of adults corporate away days. My first courses were quite basic – I would turn up in my old, very battered VW Polo with a few tarpaulins and I would teach people simple survival skills such as how to rubs sticks together to make fires. Soon after this, I started approaching schools, who at the time had never heard of bushcraft and on the whole, they were intrigued. I quickly became obsessive about the quality of the experience and the schools respected that and were hugely supportive. I focused on quality so I could ensure that all of my customers would want to come back and repeat their experience and I also invested great effort in strong marketing. &We were a ‘challenger’ brand and we were taking on some of the big boy incumbents but we soon built up a team of very persuasive ambassadors. Although I led the team, I spent the vast majority of my time selling our product. Personally, I think too many founders see themselves as too important to do sales and rely on others within their team to sell their ideas; in my experience that rarely pays off. The job of a sales person is sometimes looked down upon, when in reality it is the engine that drives either success or failure; it is a hugely important role in any business. In addition to sales, the biggest reason for our success was my ability to work well with my business partners. Without them there would have been no business.
What were the biggest initial hurdles in building your business and how did you overcome them?
Innovation and finance were our biggest challenges. &Nobody had ever built and scaled a bushcraft company like we did. Nobody had focused it purely on the schools’ market either. This meant there was absolutely zero operating system to copy and improve. Everything we did was innovation. Things that work with a group of twelve don’t always work when you have tens of thousands of guests coming through your activity programmes. We had to make lots and lots of mistakes while we invented and improved our operational procedures. Secondly challenging for me, was the financial side of things. Understanding finance doesn’t come naturally to me but I quickly realised it is key to success and that having an exceptional finance director for me was essential. Fortunately, one of my business partners was a chartered accountant who had experience in corporate turnarounds, so we were covered on that front.& Finance is critical, so having a financial partner that is on his game as opposed to an advisor or employee with zero skin in the deal is invaluable.
You started your business with an office at Clarendon, how did they help you and what advice can you give to anyone looking at taking a serviced office?
Clarendon helped me enormously; I had no idea how to install internet, I didn’t know about phone lines and franking letters and quite simply wasn’t interested in doing any of that. Although it was all essential in running my business, I wanted someone to do it all for me.& Moving into Prama House meant I could purely focus on what was really important to me, my customers. The same day that I moved in, I was able to plug in my computer and get to work without having to mess around with a broadband deal. I started with a two-person office for myself and my co-founder, Alice Hicks and over the course of 18 months, I ended up with twenty full-time members of staff. As the team expanded Prama House were able to offer us larger office space without having to move to another site. The whole process was effortless. Personally, I can’t see a reason why anyone would want to start up a business and not take on a serviced office. It just doesn’t seem sensible to waste your time on all the noise around setting up an office and dealing with phone lines etc when you can just walk in, sit down and start work.
How did you facilitate a positive work environment that attracted and retained the right talent for The Bushcraft Company? &
Culture for us was critical from day one. The team that worked for us which currently sits at around 1,000 people are working long days with groups of excited children in good and bad weather. It’s a demanding job. We have built a substantial recruitment system and hold assessment days across the UK. We put delegates through a series of challenges and what we are looking for are people that can be role models and leaders. The team that we look to employ don’t have to be bushcraft experts as we will train them on that but they do need to be able to fit into our culture and over the years we have become really good at spotting who these people are.
What is the biggest business mistake you’ve made and what advice can you give to anyone who is looking to take the first steps into the world of running their own business?
I have made lots of mistakes over the years and it would be hard to focus on any one in particular. When I set up The Bushcraft Company, it wasn’t the ‘done thing’ to be a founder and publicly raise money. However, despite this, I did take some time to raise (and then paid back) finance and these days, I see so many founders that spend almost all of their time focusing on ‘raising money’ and not enough time on just building the product and selling it. A really good fundraising deck is just a nice PDF. I would say that today, what’s far more valuable is customers enjoying your product and coming back again and again. My advice would be to focus on that.
My second piece of advice is perhaps a medicine to my biggest mistake which was not focusing. After building my first product of just woodland based activity camps I wanted to do a second and a third category and go overseas. My business partner Nigel coached me to focus on exactly what we do best and become world class at it and that is what we did. Many new entrepreneurs get excited at initial success and then try and do too many variations on a theme when they should often just double down on the initial idea.
It is often said that you don’t switch off properly when you run your own business, you frequently check emails, your thoughts turn to what needs to be done. That over whelming feeling often causes up to four in ten small businesses to fail; how do you recharge when you’re feeling drained? Or how do you keep going when times are tough and you just want to give up?
Good question! The truth is I never really mastered this and I am still working on achieving the right balance. Like so many entrepreneurs I had total tunnel vision and I would be dishonest but there was no point pretending I was good at it. There were many extremely tough times when we were facing total failure. None of us ever contemplated giving up. We would usually put the kettle on, drink loads of tea from an old teapot we had and eat custard creams until we figured it out. You won’t believe what a good old English cup of tea and biscuit can do for your mindset. &We always managed to find some humour even in the darkest hours, that’s what business partners are for.
What has been your greatest moment of success where you have sat back and said to yourself “Wow… this is awesome!”
Every time I walk into one of our woodland camps on a summer’s day and hear laughter, smell campfires and see our smartly-presented team engaging with the children in the beauty of a huge tented village I always feel happy and proud of what we have created.
What top three business books have you read that have changed the way you think / work?
I read a lot. I am not into all of the cringe worthy ‘ten step plan’ type books but I do like to read a good business book now and again.& For me, my top three business books would have to be:
- ‘The Second Bounce of the Ball; Turning Risk into Opportunity’, by Ronald Cohen.
- ‘Zero to One’ by Blake Masters and Peter Thiel
And for a business biog read ‘When I Stop Talking You’ll know I’m Dead (useful stories from a persuasive man)’ by Jerry Weintraub and Richard Cohen. A New York Times Best Seller.
If you haven’t read them – do.