Small business chat update – Simon Middleton

13 Dec

mugs Welcome to another Small Business Update. First of all, as I know many subscribers look forward to these posts on Saturdays, I just want to check that everybody saw my special mid-week edition with Andy Smith from Char Wallah. Right, that done, let’s say a warm hello to Simon Middleton from The Great British Banjo Company. We first met Simon back in September 2013, when I was helping to fund a KickStarter campaign he was running to produce a new British banjo (I ended up with a Tshirt, not a banjo!). When I asked him where he wanted to be by now, he replied “Business bigger, stronger, more profitable. Me better supported, more relaxed, exploring new ideas”. Well, the Kickstarter got funded and the banjo went into production, so how’s he doing now?

Hello again, Simon! So, are you where you thought you’d be when you looked forward a year (and a bit) ago?

A year ago I said that around now my business would be “bigger, stronger, more profitable” and that I would be “better supported, more relaxed, exploring new ideas”.

Well, we are bigger and stronger, that’s for sure. We’ve built, sold and shipped around 200 of our Shackleton banjos. We’ve moved into a wonderful medieval barn and converted it into Britain’s only banjo factory. We’ve launched Shackleton beers, which are doing really well, and Shackleton knitwear, which is also taking off. We have plans for a complete clothing range. Next year we’ll make electric guitars too!

We are seeking about £500,000 in new investment and we have people queuing up to support us.

I still work too hard, but I have brought my weekly hours down to sensible levels.

What has changed and what has stayed the same?

I have two full time instrument makers now, and we’ve opened our own shop at our factory. We’ve started to sell through the trade. We now have a total of eight shareholders, which gave us a big capital boost in April 2014.

We are closing down Banjos Direct to concentrate on the things we make here in Britain, rather than just being a retailer of imported goods.

What have you learned? What do you wish you’d known a year ago?

I’ve learned that a big vision is vital and that it needs to be driven forward by one person uncompromisingly. And I’ve also learned that a big vision alone isn’t enough: you also need the power to execute it. I’ve learned that it’s better to give up some of the company than to be chronically underfunded.

Any more hints and tips for people?

Focus 80% of your time on the big stuff. And get the little stuff done in the remaining 20% (but make sure it gets done).

And … where do you see yourself and your business in a(nother) year’s time?

A year from now we will be a fully fledged men’s leisure brand, exporting to several countries. We will have electric guitars as well as banjos being made here. We’ll have added food products and outdoor gear to our Shackleton range.

I’ll be (I promise) better supported, more relaxed, exploring new ideas.

And I will be close to finishing my book about the journey! And hopefully will have published my long-standing children’s novel.

Well, not so much a change in direction as a concentration of attention on a new direction which has then yielded lots of exciting offshoots! I think it’s marvellous that Simon’s managed to create a new British workshop and to produce his banjos in the UK, and the lifestyle items he’s moving into sound exciting, too (just for men, though? I’m sure they’ve done their market research, but I imagine some women surely like banjos, too?*) Anyway, I can’t wait to see how things go – the banjos are so beautiful and look incredibly well-made and satisfying to own and hopefully the banjos and the brand will continue to go from strength to strength.

*Yes, I was correct – they have indeed done their market research and the market is mainly a male one – see Simon’s interesting comment below!

You can find Simon and his Shackleton Banjos online at and of course they have a contact page so you can get in touch by email, phone or chat.

If you’ve enjoyed this interview, please see more small business chat, the index to all the interviewees, and information on how you can have your business featured (I have a full roster of interviewees now so am only taking on a very few new ones). If you’re considering setting up a new business or have recently done so, why not take a look at my books, all available now, in print and e-book formats, from a variety of sources. 


Posted by on December 13, 2014 in Business, Small Business Chat


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4 responses to “Small business chat update – Simon Middleton

  1. Simon Middleton

    December 13, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    It was great fun to talk to you for the blog. Just to clarify a couple of points. Yes, of course women play banjo, and wear sweaters, and drink beer! But the fact is that the majority of banjo players are men, and the majority of ale drinkers are men. We can’t aim our brand at ‘everybody, everywhere’ because that would dilute our whole brand. The Shackleton brand, which has become our core brand story (covering the instruments as well as everything else we make) is of course open to women too. But we know that our core audience, at lest at the moment is largely made up of men aged over 45.


    • Liz Dexter

      December 13, 2014 at 12:40 pm

      That’s really interesting, thank you. I said that I expected you’d done your market research and of course you have!



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