Behind the scenes at the Asda Development Academy 2017

Earlier this month I had the incredible opportunity, along with 14 other social businesses from across the UK, of attending Asda's Social Supplier Development Academy.

Asda Development Academy. Itty Bitty Book Co. Social Enterprise. UK

Lots of people have asked me 'how do you get invited to something like that?!' so I'll start with that then explain what the Academy is designed for and then my personal experience and take aways.

How do you get invited to stuff like this?

We've found that there is a lot of support for small businesses in Northern Ireland, and the clearer you are on your companies mission the more others will know how to help you. I only found out about Social Enterprise NI through volunteering with Young Enterprise, I was talking to another volunteer about our mission of improving mental health outcomes in NI and our future plans for having more impact... She said 'why aren't you a member of social Enterprise NI?!' 

Since contacting them 3 months ago we have had an incredible amount of opportunities and doors opened for us - free training on how to better measure your social impact, networking events, fully funded exhibition stand, accommodation & travel to the Social Enterprise Exchange in Edinburgh, and this month the Asda Academy!

So I would say to any one who wants to get their business out there more and is ready to make the most of similar opportunities, go to your councils networking events, women in business groups (if you're a woman!), join Social Enterprise NI (if you have a social mission) anything where you can meet people and find out what's available! There is a huge amount of support - it's just not easy to find.

What is the Asda Academy?

Asda wants to work with more social businesses, they understand that not only is it a responsibility of huge corporations to try and be more ethical & sustainable but that it also is good business sense! Customers are more loyal to ethical businesses and more people every year are taking sustainability or ethics into account when shopping. 

Fun fact - Asda (Walmart) is the biggest employer in the world after the Chinese army! So the fact that they are doing this small change can really make a big impact.

The Asda Academy was a 4 day, event held at Asda's headquarters in Leeds. 14, product based social enterprises were invited to come and see what it would be like to supply a major retailer. We had insights from the Asda team that are not shared with the public, customer behaviour, trends (most interestingly ethical buying trends), branding and packaging info, social media masterclass, and so much more!

We were taken to an Asda distribution centre where we learned how the logistics of farm to local store happens. I asked what Asda was doing to reduce environmental impact of so many lorries on the road, they have a pretty good low waste system. They use empty vans returning for different jobs and recycling collections so empty vans aren't on the road, also keeping their vans new and fuel efficient. Obviously it's still better environmentally to buy from your local farm shop (if you can) but I felt encouraged that the big supermarkets do have plans in place to keep improving and that they are taking their responsibility seriously.
At the distribution centre we walked through the largest cold store in Europe! And got to briefly go into the big freezer! Very eye opening experience, I could never have imagined the scale if I hadn't seen it myself.

During one of the days we had the opportunity to practice our pitches to the actual buyers of Asda! There are so many buyers, each with a very specific product focus. Each pitch was 5 minutes and we had questions after - it was very nerve wracking (check out the stage!). I really appreciated the chance to develop my public speaking ability and do something that actually scared me! Once I got up on stage and started talking thankfully I stopped shaking lol and my pitch went smoothly. I was happy with how I answered the buyers questions and I'm looking forward to receiving the written feedback soon. As always with these things the second I stepped off the stage I knew 5+ things I should have said but such is life and I know if I ever pitch to a large retailer for real I'll be much more prepared and aware of exactly what they want to know (and don't need to know!). 

Another big part of the Academy was the networking opportunities and hearing from other social enterprises who have succeeded in growing their businesses to a national level and are stocked in our supermarkets. For me this was just incredibly inspiring, hearing first hand how someone has gone from an idea, to a business, to the size where they are actually positively impacting thousands of people with the profit they are generating... Just amazing! And a reminder to keep thinking big, people are changing the world all the time, why not us too?

Astra McNicholl, Asda Academy, Social Enterprise NI, Itty Bitty Book Co

What now?

So what now for Itty Bitty? I guess the main things I've taken away from the experience is the scale of what's possible. If I'm honest I maybe thought that big retail was a pipe dream and couldn't really see what I'd need to do to prepare the business to be ready for that type of scale should the opportunity arise. Now I know EXACTLY what I need to work on and more importantly I know I can do it without jeopardising our ethics.

The main thing I realised is that we need to simplify our message, you guys all know we're about promoting positivity, but did you all know that we're a social enterprise? Did you know that at least 50% of our profits are donated to charities or reinvested to impact more people? At the moment our donations and reinvestment is spread over a lot of areas that we are passionate about but for our business branding that can come across as confusing. So we're currently working on that in a big way.

Some people have asked us 'but do you really want to supply Asda and other big supermarkets?' well, the answer is yes, we do. We would love our designs and products to reach millions of people, we would love our social enterprise to be so successful that we can positively impact thousands of people with the profits we make. We're on a mission to make a real difference to mental health outcomes in this country! 

What I do want to make clear though is that we would never expand in an unethical way. For us this means, never buying lower quality or less eco-friendly materials, never outsourcing outside of our economy to reduce cost & always treating our employees fairly and paying a decent wage. We would also never give larger retailers a better deal than what we can offer our small independent retailers. In the past us securing bigger orders has meant we can lower or production costs and we passed that on, not just to our retailers but to our direct customers too, lowering the cost of a book from £8 to £7. We'd also work closely with our gift shops during any big changes to ensure they are happy. Since a lot of our smaller retailers value the uniqueness of our products this may mean creating bespoke 'one of a kind' designs or ranges for them to keep stocking and ensure that 'something different' style.

We don't know what the future holds but we are very exited to put into place all the fantastic information that I learned at the Academy and, wether or not we do progress to big retail stores, I know what I learned is going to have a massively positive impact on Itty Bitty and I can't thank Social Enterprise NI, Social Investment Scotland & Asda enough.

Astra McNicholl
Astra McNicholl


Co-Founder of Itty Bitty Book Co, positivity ambassador, wife, mother and all round happy person!