Posted: Fri 28th Jan 2022
At Enterprise Nation, our ongoing research has shown that businesses that seek advice as soon as they need it do better than those that don’t.
We’ve partnered with Dell Technologies on the Help to Grow: Digital series, which showcases expert advisers and inspiring entrepreneurs.
Here, we speak to Steven Bradley, owner of Nights Under Canvas, about his relationship with technology and how he’s used it to his business’s benefit.
Can you take us through your background and the events that led to you starting the business?
I’m a farmer’s son, born and raised in Pembrokeshire, and married to a farmer’s daughter. Up until July 2020, I’d been in full-time work as a sustainable agriculture adviser for over 20 years, which involved advising farmers on things like conservation and diversification.
Anyway, in that summer of 2020, which was obviously during COVID, I’d been helping my friend, who had a small business hiring out a small number of Bell tents for small private functions. One day, he said he was thinking about selling up. He offered me the opportunity to buy the business from him.
It came at just the right time in my life. I’d been wanting to get out of the rat race, so to speak. We live in rural Pembrokeshire and my wife and I wanted a better work-life balance. And I’d always wanted to run my own business.
As with a lot of things in life, there’s a right time and a wrong time. I’d lost an uncle to COVID in the first few months of lockdown, so there was an element of “it’s now or never”. I bought the business in late summer and then over the autumn and winter, we rebranded it to Nights Under Canvas.
And what does Nights Under Canvas do?
In the beginning, we had 10 Bell tents, and our business model is hiring them out for weddings, staycations, birthday parties, movie nights, sleepovers, whatever the events entail really. We offer fully furnished, part-furnished or empty tents. For weddings, we can provide a honeymoon suite with a real bed and boho luxury furniture.
We started off promoting into west Wales, but by this point we’ve moved into mid- and south-east Wales, as far up as Cardiff. When we were doing our market research, we saw that there was a gap in the market for providing tents for hire. Effectively, we’ll put a tent up where anyone wants us to, whether it’s a back garden, a field or a campsite.
You’ve started a business during a pandemic. Given the nature of the service you offer, has this actually been a good time for you?
Obviously, it was a risk. But like any risk, it was planned. I invested my own money – I haven’t had any grants or anything.
But that first year, we were busy. And your first year is important for setting up good levels of service and reputation. Living in Wales, we know the market. A lot of our friends and family work in farming and tourism.
And as a farmer’s son and many years of working with farmers, I’ve picked up a lot of that business acumen and knowledge that farmers tend to have. They’re very adaptable and innovative, and compared with the financial risks that they take, I had a lot of confidence in what we were doing.
When my friend had the business, he only ran it as a part-time, summer thing. We’re running it full time, albeit April to October. We’re pitching tents during that period. And the other quieter months is for the back office stuff. Catching up with admin, updating the website, social media marketing, networking and taking bookings.
Your business is outdoor-based so I’d assume there doesn’t seem to be a great need for technology. What kind of tech do you use?
Well, I’m speaking to you from my Dell Inspiron laptop! I bought it because I wanted a laptop that had all the bells and whistles but worked for me budget-wise. Using it day to day, usually the routine – in the winter at least – is logging on to emails, updating the calendar. Responding to booking and phone calls, updating the website.
All our bookings are in Google Calendar, which is linked to my phone. So when I’m out in the field, so to speak, I can log in and keep in touch with bookings and potential bookings. For running the business accounts and doing some analysis, I use Excel – I haven’t migrated to accounting software just yet.
It’s Google Analytics for marketing – it’s all about driving the message and the brand, getting people to the website and urging them to book early doors. For social media, we have accounts on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter and I divide my time between the four of those.
A good 60% of our bookings come through web-based digital, with the other 40% from friends, family, recommendations and referrals. We’ve been writing blogs over the winter to try and drive traffic to the website. I learned fairly early on that social media is all about the social element rather than the sales, so I’m trying to grow a community of like-minded people.
You seem to have had a good business grounding thanks to your work within agriculture. It sounds as though the move into business ownership was quite easy! What aspects of it were challenging?
Looking back, I suppose it was simpler than it might be for some people. But it’s like any job – if you’ve done the research and the training, the transition is easier. I’ve never done anything half-hearted. Throughout my working career, whatever I’ve done, I do the research until I feel confident enough to do something.
But also, you get to a stage in life where you’re less bothered about what other people will think of you. If I was starting this business at age 20, I probably wouldn’t be mature enough or have the skillset. Later in life, though, you have more financial stability, plus I’d reached the point where I’d rather be putting effort into my own business than working for someone else.
In terms of challenges, the digital technology probably worried me most. If we were setting up the business 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have free marketing like social media and email newsletters. So I’ve had to learn that, along with content marketing for websites, knowing how websites work, web security, digital marketing and so on.
The other aspects of business – networking, customer relations, communications – that’s all second nature now, having done exhibition shows, agricultural shows, farmers' shows, so many times. The getting leads, getting bookings, managing expectations – that’s so important, more important than a lot of other elements.
Finally, how are things looking for the future?
Our season is April to September or October, depending on the weather. Last year was our first full year, and early on in the season we had the COVID restrictions to deal with. But we saw the potential in the staycation market and tried to get ahead of the curve.
Over the winter, we’ve invested in more tents because we have a lot more bookings. Going forward, we’re working with quite a few wedding venues that have booked us for this year and next year, which gives you confidence to invest in more stock.
We support local businesses and work closely with wedding venues, caterers mobile bars, florists. We also work with over 20 campsites, where we promote them and they promote us. Essentially, it’s all about promoting Pembrokeshire and Wales, as well as our own business.
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