What I Wish I Knew – Aksana Fitzpatrick, founder of PiQi
Aksana Fitzpatrick launched PiQi, a vegan functional drinks company that produces fermented water kefir in 2021 during lockdown. With the help of a Start Up Loan from Virgin StartUp she set up a brewery in Somerset, inside a local food and drink innovation centre. We caught up with her to find out more about her journey…
“Our PiQis contain naturally occurring probiotic cultures to help support gut-health and were initially sold at festivals and farmers markets,” Aksana explained. “Today they are available for purchase at independent eco-grocers throughout the UK, as well as online shops. We launched last August, and it’s been non-stop since.
“The loan from Virgin StartUp has helped us get the right equipment, but with the Virgin Startup community we received so much more than funding. I’m still working closely with my mentor Vhari on propelling the business forward, so the support has been incredible.”
But what are the three things Aksana wishes she’d known from day one?
Create a detailed marketing plan and set a budget
How will customers find out about your product or service? Recently we’ve had some great PR from Stylist Magazine, Speciality Food Magazine and theGrocer, however, when I launched PiQi last year, I was so focused on production, that I let marketing and promotion take a back seat.
Every start-up will face this discovery problem, and I think it’s something that is extremely important to build out early and know exactly what resources are at your disposal so you can raise awareness about your company and grow sales from day one.
You could build the best product in the world, however, if no one knows about it, it won’t succeed. So have a solid marketing plan and an allocated budget for your product before you launch. Don’t leave it to the last minute like we did!
Tap into your early customers to improve your offering
Your early customers are the best source for feedback when you’re starting out. When PiQi was first launched we primarily sold them via outdoor festivals before going into retail. Doing events allowed me to meet my customers face-to-face, have a conversation with them about kefir and gain an understanding of how they interact with the product and our packaging. As a result, we ended up changing our labels and some of the language around kefir water to highlight points that resonated most with our customers.
These same customers have become our repeat buyers, and I know that they are always open to having a chat about our products and their online shopping experience with PiQi. They are also very active on social media and we appreciate their support, so I think building authentic relationships and being close to your customers is important.
Build a good network within your industry
When first starting a business, you’re going to have some knowledge gaps and that might lead to frustration and the feeling of being stuck. Having people with experience around you will make the world of a difference in helping you get going and problem solve quickly, making the overall journey less stressful.
When PiQi was just an idea, I initially wanted to outsource production and focus solely on sales and marketing. However, due to the complicated process of fermentation and manual inputs involved the only way to get my kefir water to market was to set up manufacturing myself. I had zero experience in food production when I started, but through my network I completed training in commercial fermented beverage production and linked up with an innovation centre for the food and beverage industry which helped me set up the production properly and close a knowledge gap in manufacturing.
Programmes like Virgin StartUp and community groups like Bread&Jam for food companies are a great way to start. I think I’ve cold called so many producers and even competitors when I was looking for my first production space. And usually there is someone willing to help – for me it was Russ from Two Drifters Distillery who helped me navigate the landscape early on.
Inspired to start your own business? Visit Virgin StartUp for advice, guidance and Start Up Loans.