My story: Juiced up – Karen Knowles of Bon Accord

If you want something done, ask a working mum.

We might moan a lot, but we’re darn efficient. I interviewed one such superwoman this week as one of her girls slept and the other watched a Christmas movie, while my poorly three year old lay on the couch with his iPad. By a miracle we weren’t interrupted and had a great chat about business – see how quickly we can change gears?

Karen Knowles is the founder of Bon Accord soft drinks, a range of sparkling drinks containing no refined sugar or artificial sweeteners. 18 months in, the company has sold a quarter million bottles – and is already planning to export.

“I think I probably did always want to start my own business, it was just the right idea at the right time,” she mused. “I’ve always had a good work ethic and when I had the idea for the brand I just thought, if I don’t do it now, I’ll probably be 60 and wondering what if…”

She was pregnant and frustrated with always drinking sparkling water when the seed for the Bon Accord range was planted. There seemed to Karen to be a gap in the market for soft drinks that weren’t full of sugar, but were still full of flavour.

She approached Business Gateway and attended some seminars on business planning and marketing and was connected to Interface, which matches up business people with universities. Karen began working with Abertay University to develop recipes for four products; cloudy lemonade, tonic water, ginger beer and rhubarb.

“I briefed them that I wanted grown-up flavours with natural ingredients,” she explained. “I had done a lot of market research, especially into the American market which is a lot more sophisticated in terms of soft drinks, and knew I wanted to appeal to both men and women.”

After over 100 trials, they found that fruit juices, honey and coconut nectar were the best ingredients, providing sweetness with added health benefits, as well as being sustainable and fair trade.

After tastings and consumer panels they were confident they had the product right, and it was time to think about branding.

“We made the decision to own the recipes and brand, but outsource the manufacturing,” she explained. “Even now, had we invested in that side of the business, we would have outgrown it. It was difficult to find someone because, although 25,000 bottles seemed massive to us, it was basically a complete hassle for a bottling line!”

Now, with a new manufacturing partner and 250,000 bottles down, Karen and her business partner Nathan Burrough are very happy.

They’re part of the Business Gateway High Growth Pipeline and have a Scottish Enterprise export advisor. This is the goal for 2018.

“I’d say we’re growing organically and doing what seems right,” she said. “We will be looking to take on more staff and our turnover is £160,000 after 18 months. Now we’re focusing on unlocking routes to market. We have three, maybe four new distributors coming on board soon – our focus is wholesalers and independents and food service.”

If you’re reading this thinking ‘Bon Accord sounds familiar’ you’d be right. The original company was in fact started by Karen’s great grandfather in Arbroath in 1909. The company was closed in 2000 – but 16 years later, Karen revived it with an all-new approach.

“I do have early memories of going into the factory with my granddad and getting to choose the big bottles,” she said. She went on to work in food service, most recently as an account manager at Young’s Seafood.

“I think that experience of running a big sales team was really important, I was managing Waitrose’s own-label products and working at that high level site. We would look at multiples down the line, but it’s not our focus for right now,” she added.

For now she works three days a week and weekends at trade shows and food markets – “and evenings and whenever things need done!” she joked.

“I can work flexibly,” she said, simply. “I never wanted my children to go into childcare five days a week – and you know school isn’t 9-5, it’s really hard for working parents. Bon Accord has allowed me to keep working and work on something I love, so I don’t mind putting in the hours.”

It sounds like a pretty good balance to me.

Kim McAllister is a Journalist & Communications Consultant and director of Impact Online

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