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  • Writer's pictureYellow Hare

For What It’s Worth: Running a Small Business on a Small Island - The Prizes and the Pitfalls.

I’m often asked why I chose Tiree to set up Yellow Hare. Even for me this is becoming more of a distant memory, which suggests that the original reasoning wasn’t the important bit.


I came to Tiree as a 17 year old to work in the local hotel over summer. Summer became eight years and the rest is history.  I was back and forth for more than thirty years when the opportunity to invest in the island came about in the shape of the Hydro Electric building, now Yellow Hare, in 2016.  Bit of trivia – it’s the same building from which I purchased my first ever television, a very small, remote, white portable (it had a sort of hand-grip on top for transportation). I used it for at least eight years. The original plan for development was sketchy with some certainty; I knew I wanted to open the island’s very first proper coffee-shop, with gifts, and a launderette.  The jury was out on how it would be managed – I wasn’t sure if it would be me or someone else. The latter was favourable initially but the pandemic helped me see how much I enjoyed running it and watching it grow and evolve, and so I stayed.

 

I often feel I must be an irritant to those who grace Yellow Hare’s threshold for a peaceful coffee and catch-up with friends only to be confronted by the irritational regularity of my abundant happiness.  I’m willing to bet many pause to question my sincerity on occasion, because no-one, surely, could be as happy to go to work as I am. Every. Single. Day. But zipidee-dooo-dah, slap my thigh, it’s true, and any implausibility on that score matters not one jot to cock-a-hoop Kate.  Having finally and contentedly reached the age of dissent, I no longer worry about the impression I give, how I’m perceived, or rocking the boat that carries a cacophony of bullies targeting the underdog. I have worked like a Trojan in pursuit of my perfect happiness and it would be fair and true to say that I’m finally cashing in.   

 



So. What it is about being a self-employed, small independent business on a beautiful and remote island that is so darned appealing to so many of us? It’s not like it’s a year-round winner or a place renowned for wall-to-wall sunshine - even if our particular isle does get the lion’s share; it's not known for its heatwaves. The beaches and roads are largely deserted and footfall is unlikely to exceed 2,000 on the busiest day of any season and plummets to less than 350 over winter – compare that with a footfall of 200,000 on any Saturday in The Gyle in Edinburgh or Buchannan Galleries in Glasgow.  These figures have been fact-checked.  I am nothing if not thorough in my research. Whilst having roads and beaches all to yourself is precisely why you, the coveted visitor, are so drawn to us here on Tiree, it doesn’t look great on a business plan.  Not if your business is a bona-fide business rather than a hobby (read on). So, not a recipe for success on paper, then.  And yet, here we are, and most of us truly loving it.  But what’s really going on behind the scenes…? Is it as much fun as we appear to make it out to be – or are skullduggery, cut-throat competition and underhand tactics just as prevalent in the isles as they are in the city? Well, yes and no…. 



As the consumer, buyer, customer or by passer-by, or whatever you may call yourself, you cannot fail to see things very differently from that of the business owner. You may think we are the same, with perhaps a few rudimentary differences, but that’s really not the case at all.  We are entirely different beasts.  In lots of ways, but mostly in the way we think.  For example...

 

Hunter and Gatherer

In the entire universe, there are only two types of business-owner, both of whom, not coincidentally, are frequently to be found nesting side-by-side in the Hebrides and other rural beauty spots.  For the purposes of this piece, we’ll call them Hunter and Gatherer.  

 

The Hunter has a business which sells necessary and functional things.  He/she may have borrowed money to start (or take over) the business and this is taken very seriously. They will have provided lenders with a business plan and they will have targets to reach and staff to pay. Everything they sell is needed rather than desired.  They are feeding pragmatic demand on some level. Hunter is profit-hungry, not for reasons of greed (although greedy ones are also in the mix) but because the business must work.  It must pay for itself, wash its own face, or fail, and therefore operates as many hours as staff and good management will allow. It also has a greater obligation to maintain consistent opening hours. It may sell food, building materials, fishing tackle, agricultural goods, clothing, furniture or any manner of things that we need and use on a day-to-day basis and some things that we don’t – alcohol, gifts, books, clothing and so forth. The net may often be cast further and wider, but you get the picture. It is important that the business is efficient and profitable.

 

The Gatherer, on the other hand, has a very different time of it.  Gatherer has harboured a dream for many years and one day moved everything lock, stock and barrel to make it a reality.  Their dream was to do something they’d always thought they’d enjoy in a place they adored, and felt sure others would welcome, and now they can make it happen. Or perhaps they just had time on their hands. Examples might be a gallery, a gift shop, a café, an organic farm, a restaurant, and so forth. Profit is less important. The business plan is sketchy but that’s okay, they know what they want and how to go about setting it up.  They have time and money; bank loans don’t form part of the plan but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a gamble.  They’ve given up everything to do it – sold the house, moved heaven and earth.  There’s no going back now.  They may or may not have pots of cash, but there’s enough to lend the business more if it needs it. The Gatherer is doing precisely what he or she wants at their own pace, and this includes fewer opening hours, mid-season holiday closures and closing all winter. Gatherer is living the dream. 

 

Some elements of Hunter and Gatherer cross over. Hunter may close over winter; Gatherer may have a very serious business plan and open all year. Hunter may be established enough to do less, and Gatherer eager to do more, and so forth – but they are fundamentally different. It’s not at all immediately apparent which is which, even to those of us in business, and in any case it doesn’t matter.  Both Hunter and Gatherer has earned their pitch and is providing you, the visitor, with what you want. Now and then Hunter will be dismissive of Gatherer and Gatherer disparaging of Hunter, but what Hunter has to bear in mind is that Gatherer is providing something novel and exciting, perhaps fresh and new, which attracts visitors and tourists like bees to honey, but which Hunter wouldn’t dare risk for fear of failing; and what Gatherer must bear in mind is that Hunter cannot afford to ‘chillax’ and do less hours or close twice a week, even if they wanted to because they have no other way of topping up shortfalls; it has to come from the business or fail.

 

The moral of the story? Live and let live, there’s room for all of us.  Which brings us neatly to the next topic.

 

The Competition

There’s Plenty For Everyone.  It’s a stock phrase you hear quite often here on Tiree and doubtless all over the islands.  Used at times as a form of encouragement and at others, a slap on the wrist.  Examples in context would be, say, when a new business appears with unmistakable similarities to another on the island; or someone overhears someone else complain about a new business which has similarities to another on the island; or a new business has opened in close proximity to another business. ‘There’s plenty for everyone,’ someone will say. In fairness, it’s most often said by those not in business, although not always. And they’ll be missing the point entirely, but we’ll all agree and businesses will give a cheerie wee nod to other businesses, 'Och, yes,' we'll say.  


What we businesses really ought to be doing is openly acknowledging that what there may or may not be plenty of is neither here nor there.  We ought to be acknowledging that we are all in competition in some small way, as is the completely natural modus operandi of all things mercantile, and instead of joining in feigned denial of the fact, we really should be owning it and supporting each other regardless.  Even if you are the smallest business that cares not a jot for profit or return; even if you are running your business to pass the time; even if you think some of us take it all too seriously or not seriously enough.  We are all competing on some level and for the most part, very contentedly and healthily. No-one is stepping on anyone's toes. But this is not the Tiree of a bygone age that harboured half a dozen businesses of differing types, each several miles apart, with the closest in similarity of any two being the hotels (and boy, were they competitive back then).   This year there are twenty-eight walk-in businesses in the A-Z of Places to Shop and Eat on Tiree which is twice as many as there were less than three years ago.   And guess what?  It’s all good news.  Particularly for you, the consumer. 


As already mentioned, those of us in business see things a little differently. But, as the saying goes, business promotes business. A solitary business requires an urge to visit, whilst curiosity alone works for two or more in close proximity. Tiree is now a healthy mix of businesses together and businesses miles apart.

 

Despite what some may think, there’s no fun in having a monopoly.  There is no better feeling than knowing that the person coming through your door is there because they came looking for you and not because there was no-where else to go. Equally, there’s no greater affirmation than those same customers coming back for more when they had umpteen other places to choose from.  But that doesn’t mean hogging it all for oneself is the way forward. We – Yellow Hare – frequently send customers to other places to seek out things we don’t have, or because we know some places have had a quieter week than us.  We’re not busy all the time and neither are others. We all have lulls and peaks.  But none of us – I don’t think, anyway – are so busy every week from March to October that we consistently turn people away.   Many of us have had quieter days than we would like whilst knowing others were super busy.  The only time Yellow Hare can pretty much guarantee to be busy on a regular basis is during July and August.  Outside of that is a lottery. That’s how business works, particularly in the retail world, and its unpredictability is in part what draws most of us to it. Some days good, some days rubbish, some days crazy busy.  


If I could give one piece of advice about competition it’s this; don’t spend your time looking over your shoulder - or someone else’s, for that matter.  If you are pre-occupied by how someone else is running their business, you are taking your eye off your own and that’s never a good thing.  Concentrate on what you do and how you can make it better, or sell it better, or show it better. If you have created something that others want, no-one can take that from you. But with careless inattention, it’s possible to lose it. What anyone else is doing really shouldn’t matter to you if you are passionate about your own product, especially if your own product is your brainchild.  Be bold and fresh and don’t try to copy what’s already out there.  Leave that tediously boring and uninspiring tactic to the cold, soulless and impersonal multi-Nationals and chains. As a small-independent designer, creator or shop, you are unique by definition. You are your best USP.   No one will ever be able to do what you do in the way that you do it because you are where the magic is.  You are the secret ingredient that cannot be replicated.  Exploit that to its fullest. Spend time showcasing what you do by whatever means available - but please don’t expect to be an overnight success.  Just because you are uncontrollably excited to be launching a new product doesn’t mean others will be – expect it to take time and be realistic about how much time that may be.  It could be months, years, a lifetime.  You seldom get to decide.  Crucially, don’t forget that your business needs your voice until it finds its own, so don’t be shy about shouting it from the rooftops.  It really does need you to.  No matter how incredible you believe your product or service to be, people often can’t see what’s right in front of them. Be their eyes and ears until they see and hear it loud and clear.  Finally, and probably most importantly, any success or failure really and truly is down to you and not those around you (doing their own thing), not those who aren’t promoting you (no-one owes you), not those walking on by (they don’t see you), not those who glance but don’t stop (their mind is on other things), or those who don’t buy (they don’t want what you have). Your business is your business, and it’s up to you to make it work. Don’t blame other people if things don’t go to plan. Blame the plan. Not surprisingly, most people really do want you to succeed, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.

 

When it comes to business fails, I know what it feels like to have insecurities – I had my fair share of them during the pandemic. There were a couple of occasions when I fell on my own sword.  Three new business start-ups were much too close to mine for comfort and for a while I took it all personally, which was entirely unfamiliar territory for me.  I’d never felt threatened before and haven’t since.  In hindsight, it demonstrated perfectly how vastly differently people were affected by the pandemic.  To many new businesses, Lockdown offered time and space to prepare to open afresh.  To Yellow Hare and similar outlets, it was our worst nightmare, mentally and physically.  Looking back, I now struggle to recognise the person I became for that short period.  


Your pricing

Something I hear on occasion, particularly at craft fayres, is ‘the Tiree price’.  It always confounds me. I don’t understand what it means or why it’s necessary. The price should always be determined by a combination of three very strict and straightforward elements: labour, materials and mark-up.  Labour is priced on how long it took you; materials are priced on what it cost you to make; mark-up is priced according to how much you need to add in order to make it cost-effective to produce.  The mark-up will include the cut trade must make  (the shops you sell to that need some profit, and the people in-between; buyers, sellers, agents, etc.). No-where in any of this should there be a made-up figure plucked from the air.  And especially not one that allows for a ‘locals’ vs ‘others’ pricing structure.   Who are these locals?  Do they have a special card that identifies them as local? Why do this? Loyalty is something you reward your customers with wherever they may come from.  When you sell something for less than its true value, you are undermining your product and your skills.  If you can afford to fluctuate the price you charge for something you have made, you are either over-charging in the first place or losing money on it. Bulk discount, sale-price, limited-time reduction, loyalty cards and BOGOF are all forms of accepted price-reduction which are justifiable and easily monitored and with a limited lifespan, and should be available to all your customers, whether on Tiree or off it.  They do not single anyone out – or, more importantly, exclude anyone from participation.




The Stock

We can’t speak for others but our food menu, as is likely to be the case with other eateries on the island, is dictated by availability and availability is dictated largely by the ferry.   There are some things we would like to sell but can’t, either because they are unobtainable or don’t keep.  For example; salad – lettuce, tomato, cucumber, fruit - is only obtainable from our local Co-op, which means we pay the same price that you would to buy it (ergo no profit), plus it has a poor shelf-life.  Next to fish supplies, the Coop provides the freshest produce on the island, but even Coop provisions will take a tad longer to reach us than they would you on the mainland.  And then there’s the wholesaler. Wholesale suppliers deliver once a week.  Our cut-off time for ordering is 4pm on Mondays for Wednesday delivery from our main supplier.  If we miss that deadline, it’s another week before we may re-order. There’s no scooting off to Costco to stock up. Likewise, if items are missing for whatever reason, there is no way of replacing them until the following week.  So when we ‘run out’ of something, that’s often why.

Going off-piste slightly here, but.... We LOVE our Bross Bagels back story… introduced in June 2021 as a way of bridging a lunchtime gap in our day (because we only sold coffee and cake then and not everyone wants cake for lunch), they took off almost immediately.   Those amazing Montreal Bagels are mailed by Special Delivery from Portobello, Edinburgh, to Yellow Hare each week.  Twenty-four hours after they are made, we receive our box of bagels.  We freeze them immediately so that your toasted versions are the freshest they can be, and you frequently tell us they are fabulous.   This is a big deal for us - Yellow Hare is extremely proud to be the Bross Bagel Capital of The Hebrides.


Gift stock is from a variety of small independents dotted mostly around Scotland and we're proud of that too. I spend a lot of time and effort seeking them out and enjoy nothing more than chancing upon gold in the form of a little known gem tucked away in some far off isle. It's great to provide a platform, too, on our website and through social media.

 

Staff

This is a tricky one for all small islands.  Accommodation is the biggest hurdle for anyone wanting to work a season on Tiree and so Yellow Hare tends to seek out individuals who would be coming on holiday anyway – usually those whose family have holiday homes here. We’d love to employ seasonal staff but there simply aren’t enough hours on offer; our busiest time is July and August but outside of that, available staff hours drop significantly to around 10-15 per week, which understandably isn’t enough for lots of people. We also have regular island staff who have been working for us for some time now and they get priority for hours. There are lots of individuals who turn up on a whim, or start their seasonal life in one business on the island and move to another. There’s no shortage of offers. In short, if you’re coming to Tiree for work, find accommodation first, work second – there’s always work but seldom accommodation.

Customer service is hugely important at Yellow Hare and finding the right people to join us is something we take very seriously.  We would rather struggle with a staff shortage than employ the wrong staff .  Getting it right is a balancing act and we have been very, very lucky to have had some terrific staff over the years, lots of them returners.

 

Feedback – when and why to ignore it

Feedback, sensibly, is something any good businesses will encourage.  This means both good and bad.  `There’s no such thing as bad feedback,’ we all say.  And I still believe this to be true.  We used to call it constructive criticism - because that’s what it was 90% of the time, back before ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ became terminology we now take for granted. Over time, though, as critics we’ve become more harsh, more unforgiving and more ruthless. Forums like Tripadvisor, Facebook and Google have provided a platform for the small player to vent their wrath on Businesses that fail to live up to expectations, regardless of whether those expectations are fair or reasonable.

 

For our own part, Yellow Hare stopped looking at or responding to feedback during the pandemic and since then, with the rare exception, we’ve never looked back. Feedback, we decided, was something written for you, the reader, the reviewer, the potential visitor, the traveller.  It’s not for us – it’s not directed at us (surely?); it’s advice for the consumer – something for you to read and judge if you choose to. And so, after 2020, we decided to leave you to it.

I thought long and hard about whether to publish this review, and not necessarily for reasons you might assume.  It was first published on TripAdvisor last July.  The week it was taken down, three months later, one local person mentioned it completely out of the blue and it was clear from their narrative that it had been a talking point. TripAdvisor removed it on grounds of it violating their code of conduct – mainly because it was aimed at an individual rather than the business. I have to assume the individual was me because it mentions ‘the owner’ but that’s as close as it gets to accuracy. I don’t want to put this reviewer on the spot but know that by publishing it I’m doing exactly that.  I don’t want to provide this reviewer with a platform but know that by publishing it I’m doing exactly that. This - clearly - is not a happy person living a happy life. This is not a review, it's someone venting their anger.  I almost wanted to frame it and pop it on the shop toilet wall. Nothing in this review tells you anything about the business and yet TripAdvisor – as I suspect would all the others – accepted it initially as a legitimate review, because artificial intelligence said so.  In short; at the end of the day, reviews often do little to demonstrate a businesses’ worth. At best they provide one person’s opinion which is often as much dependent on that person’s mood as the service they received. If you have something to say, say it to the person serving you, or to the manager, or to the owner, or to your waiter or waitress – or even to a third party who may discreetly pass it on, but please don’t hide behind a screen and tap it into a machine. Have the courage to own your opinion. We are all human and are capable of human responses. Talk.  Good businesses want to provide good service. We do listen, we do understand and we will respond – and not attack. A face to face approach can and will invite kindness.  You just have to allow us to let it in.


You're Open, You're Closed, You're Open, You're....

Businesses that close without notice or warning is one of our personal bugbears and something customers feedback on relatively often. If you have business hours and you publish those hours - please.... stick to them regardless. Don't advertise one thing and do another. Don't do that thing where you look at the clock and decide it's been so quiet that you really can't be bothered staying open a moment longer and so you close early. I've lost count of the days when we have had no-one for two clear hours and then suddenly find ourselves run off our feet fifteen minutes before we were due to close. If you are going to close early, advertise this in advance, even if it's at the start of day. Customers are understanding if they have been given notice and unforgiving if they haven't.


Believe in your brand

This belongs a little beneath the ‘Competition’ banner but less so for the simple reason that it hinges entirely on owning your brand rather than how your brand compares with others.

Don’t compromise on this. Make something that separates you from the others and stick with it. Trust me. It’ll stick eventually.


With or Without Seasoning

Having spent six years working through winters with the help of Ann Hayes and Doreen MacDonald who held fort for the first two years whilst I to-ed and fro-ed between Edinburgh and Tiree each November until March, it’s taken until now to appreciate the joy of leaving Tiree. I want to feel that feeling you all feel when you return.  That excitement to be touching soil again.  I rediscovered it this year, after three months away, and I realised how much I had missed it. So I’m taking it back. We’ll be closing for winter as from this October, for the first time ever, and forever more.  Apologies to those for whom this may prove a disappointment but needs must.


Staying open all year round, especially out of season, is a challenge for any business in rural areas. It's a quiet time and not at all uncommon to end a day with no sales. Food is frequently wasted. You are paying electricity for things that need to be on; fridges, freezers, cookers, coffee machine, heating, and so on. Not having anywhere to go in winter is a common complaint on the island; I've heard umpteen people mention it. With the exception of a month or two here or there, Yellow Hare has stayed open all-year round for four out of its six years. I've come to accept that whilst many people bemoan the lack of places to visit, not enough people use them when they are available. And I know that I'm not the only business that's tried. Between November and February there were frequently days when we might have one or two customers, and on other days none at all. Occasionally we would have a 'busy' day with takings of £200, which translates into around £40 profit. It is not uncommon to have a negative till because you've bought milk or fruit but had no customers, so the cash to pay for the milk and fruit has had to be taken from the float. Perhaps smaller businesses or more appealing businesses will succeed where we've failed, but Yellow Hare is accepting defeat with this one. For selfish reasons, if I'm brutally honest.

 

As a final note… for anyone contemplating a small business in the Western Isles, north or south – go for it.  It has singularly been THE best accidental decision I have ever made, bar none. It’s difficult explain the feeling of being where you truly feel most comfortable, greeting people daily that you don’t know and may never see again, in a place you thoroughly and unexpectedly enjoy.  The moral of the story is… if you feel it – like, truly feel it in your gut - go for it. Your only regret will be not having given it a shot sooner.

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Guest
Apr 22
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Basque Cheesecake and a flat white please, Kate. QED


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Guest
Apr 22
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

❤️

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Guest
Apr 22

As ever you shed a knowledgable light on Island business life. May 2024 be good to you Kate.

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Guest
Apr 22
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Very enjoyable read thank you.

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Guest
Apr 21
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

What a wonderful article. We visited when staying a few years ago. Such a lovely place. And I bought a base for my husband which is a reminder of our stay.

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