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High growth focus: how Shandy Shack is bringing low-alcohol beer to a new generation

As part of our series celebrating innovative UK businesses that are scaling up, we meet Ed Stapleton, co-founder of Shandy Shack, which is shaking up the craft beer market.

Chris Kettle, our Proposition and Engagement Manager, says: “High-growth businesses come in different shapes and sizes, but they do have some defining characteristics. On our Accelerator programme, for example, we see entrepreneurs managing consecutive years of turnover growth, attracting increasing numbers of employees, and successful rounds of funding or grants.

“For these businesses to scale to the next level, it’s important they get the right support as early as possible. Supporting them as their needs become more complex allows them to focus on the key drivers of growth. And known barriers such as access to funding/finance, markets, and talent can be overcome easier and quicker.”

Here, Ed Stapleton, co-founder Shandy Shack, discusses the drinks brand’s business journey so far – and what he and his partners have learned in the process.

Why did you want to start your own business?

“There are four main reasons Tom Stevens, Freddie Gleadowe and I started Shandy Shack. Number one was falling in love with the taste of a well-made shandy. We were mixing craft beers with different kinds of sodas and discovered it can taste so much better than the typical shandy you might have in the pub, which people secretly love anyway.

“The second factor was alcohol moderation. We had personally and professionally experienced alcohol misuse. We were interested in creating an accessible and delicious new way to help people moderate their alcohol intake.

“Number three was having an entrepreneurial itch. Having worked in start-ups prior to moving into management consulting, I was interested in trying to run my own business one day. It felt like the right time and the right opportunity.

“Finally, my family has history in the beer industry, with my grandad and uncle having worked in the business in Africa and the Caribbean. Their lives and careers had an exotic allure that I was keen to replicate.”

What strategy is helping you scale the business?

“When we started the business, we were quite conscious about remaining asset light by not owning a brewery. That means we’re not tied down by the scale of our current operation. We can more easily go through the gears on production up to higher levels. That strategic foundation has made us a more scalable business as demand has grown.

“The second part is channel strategy. We’ve started to become really focused on which channels we think we can scale business revenue through. We’ve seen some positive signals in Sainsbury’s in terms of our rate of sale at an early stage. And we’ve now picked up another large grocery contract off the back of that. This proves to us that the canned shandy format is best suited to the off-trade [retail for at-home consumption], particularly the grocery channel, rather than the on-trade [bars, pubs, restaurants].”

What have been your barriers to growth and how have you overcome them?

“The first is inexperience. None of us had never worked in the drinks industry before. We’ve sometimes had to learn from mistakes, rather than following established wisdom and process to grow the business. But we’re quick learners.

“The second is access to capital. For the first two and a half years, the business was bootstrapped out of our own pockets. It’s notoriously hard to build a profitable business in the FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] space until you have some scale. So, you can accelerate quickly from initial foundations if you raise some funding. We’ve managed to close two rounds of equity investments since 2021. Even as we scale, it’s difficult – our inexperience means we can only rely on larger investors to judge us from the proof and results we’re developing.

“Because we’re NatWest Business Banking customers, we were able to secure working capital to fulfil our grocery contracts. Not many banks would have done that based on our trading history. That’s where we are now as a high-growth business with banking and debt at NatWest.”

You have to be able to take punches left, right and centre and keep getting back up

Ed Stapleton
Co-founder, Shandy Shack

What have you learned about accessing finance?

“Think about equity investment from the investor’s perspective. Through each stage of investment, it’s natural to come as a business with your pitch deck, your problem and your solution. But you also need to ensure your investment proposition makes commercial sense for an investor: can they feasibly achieve the return they are looking for in the target time frame? You also need to ensure you have a proposition that large-scale funds can make money out of, fundamentally. Hobby investors, or friends and family, may not expect that level of crude financial detail, but it's good practice even for them.

“Another observation is that the investment landscape is not diverse enough and things need to change moving forward. As three male co-founders, we don’t necessarily suffer because of the lack of diversity in angel investment but it’s nonetheless something we feel passionate about and want to help to change the future.”

As a successful entrepreneur, how would you describe your mindset?

“Complete conviction in the potential of what you’re doing. Having 100% belief that you could build something of value: you’re the reason why, you’re the variable. We’ve always felt that way. We felt there’s a big cultural opportunity around shandy, particularly in the UK, as well as a broader global market for the product in Europe.

“The second point is resilience, which is probably a popular answer to this question. You have to be able to take punches left, right and centre and keep getting back up. You have to take the ‘no’ or ‘the product isn't very nice’. It’s horrible – you just have to learn not to take it personally, to take it in the most constructive way you can.”

What lessons have you learned about how to grow a business?

“Focus. You’re inclined to do everything that comes your way. A big opportunity in a channel you weren’t expecting or prioritising, say, you take because you see the dollar signs. But it might not necessarily be the best thing for your business to take that opportunity. Try your best to say no to the wrong things and to stay strategically focused.

“The second thing is a piece of advice our coach at NatWest Accelerator [the free programme to help entrepreneurs scale up] gave us: make sure you spend as much time as you can working on the business rather than in the business. What he means by that is growth/strategic activities rather than operational activities.”

What’s your proudest achievement so far?

“It’s probably the wave of interest we received during the summer of 2021 when we were still a small business. We’d just raised the first round of funding. We had this conviction there was a cultural opportunity around shandy, but from a marketing and brand perspective, we hadn’t really proven that was true. Then we got this unbelievable wave of PR, from the Guardian to This Morning and Sunday Brunch. It was a complete vindication of this thing we’d always believed and gave us more confidence that we were genuinely on to something.”

James Constable, NatWest Relationship manager, says:

“I first became aware of Shandy Shack in April 2022 when I was brought in to support the previous Direct Relationship Manager with a request for an overdraft facility. The overdraft was required urgently to support cash flow to pay suppliers, canning contractors and brewers. The business had taken off quickly – from three friends experimenting to a serious business, with significant PR during the summer of 2021 taking it to another level. The directors had also secured significant investment.

“These three good friends came together and left secure jobs because they are so passionate about the business. They’ve been on a personal journey of learning and built a strong brand. The product is so relevant right now.”

 

For specialist insights and solutions that could help you achieve your growth ambitions, visit our High Growth Hub.

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