Robert from Safe Soil UK shares lessons he has learned to help make a successful business.
As a society we have come to generally accept that water and air pollution are damaging to our health, but we have been much slower in coming to understand – and accept – that soil contamination can have a similarly damaging impact. This is changing.
What is Safe Soil UK?🌱
Safe Soil UK is a business that aims to make the testing and analysis of soil easier. Whether it’s to check fertility and improve gardeners’ results for growing fruit and veg or flowers or to investigate for potential contamination, we offer a straightforward approach to soil testing.
A European Commission report into the impacts on human health of soil contamination sums up some of the common risks:
“Health problems from cancers (arsenic, asbestos, dioxins), to neurological damage and lower IQ (lead, arsenic), kidney disease (lead, mercury, cadmium), and skeletal and bone diseases (lead, fluoride, cadmium) are serious issues, that in many cases we have yet to address. Heavy metals and persistent organic chemicals are of particular concern. Human activity introduces heavy metals (such as cadmium, arsenic and mercury) to our soils through mining, smelting, industry, agriculture and burning fossil fuels. Our disposal of materials containing heavy metals – a long list which includes paint, electronic waste, and sewage – also contributes to the burden of heavy metal contamination. Organic chemicals are also part of our industrial legacy, and many are still widely used today.”
How did your business come about?
The idea was born out of our frustration when setting out to make sure our urban garden was safe for growing vegetables (turned out that not so much…) and we struggled to find someone to test the soil and interpret the results. So, we set out to create an easy-to-use, reliable service to test soil for contamination and/or fertility. And with that Safe Soil UK was born.
Without (too much, I hope) scaremongering, it seemed to us that it makes sense to be aware of the potential presence of harmful elements in our soils that can be doing harm to our health. Heavy metals like lead, chromium, mercury and cadmium as well as various hydrocarbons, dioxins and even asbestos are prevalent in some urban areas – either as a result of poor industrial practices in the past or via aerial deposit due to proximity to high traffic areas.
How have you made your business stand out from your competition?
We wanted to address two issues. First, convenience. No courier appointments, complicated testing schedules listing incomprehensible chemical names and testing suites.
Secondly, we wanted to be able to interpret the results and provide a guideline on whether safe limits for various chemicals were exceeded or whether a soil’s fertility was wanting due to too little or potentially too much of various nutrients needed for a successful growing space. We also look at other soil properties like texture and organic matter content to provide a picture of its health and, of course, areas for improvement.
So we set out to make the testing of urban soils easy, affordable (the science involved in the testing is never going to be cheap but we’re doing our best) and also help interpret the results using UK government standards where they’re available and relying on international guidelines to fill in any blanks and attempt to provide peace of mind that a growing space is safe.
What lessons can you share with others to help their business venture?
With the above established, it was time to try to prove viability of the concept. It seemed clear that there was a gap in the market. But there was still much work to be done. First, we needed a thorough understanding of the science underpinning the safety standards for these chemicals and indeed the safe-for-use thresholds. We then identified certified laboratories around the UK and met with them to get a sense of how to make the testing process easier. In addition to convenience, we wanted to make our testing kits as affordable as possible. All of this is easier said than done but it was also necessary to figure out the logistics of sample sizes for each test, transportation/shipping, sample integrity – all while maintaining a rigorous focus on keeping it as simple as possible.
The excitement of bringing the project to market was tinged with some trepidation. Although I have long possessed what one may loosely call an entrepreneurial spirit having been involved in several enterprises over the years, this was the first one I took on full time. Consequently, the stakes were higher. And so, it was that I was determined to cover all the bases and have everything tested and in place before going live. I also wanted to learn as much as possible about the basics of running a small business. Again, I think I had a head start here but sometimes it’s hard to tell how much of something one doesn’t know.
Market research was one area of focus. And then there was the administration. Company registration, VAT, banking, accounts – it’s easy to imagine that all of this is straightforward but the sheer volume of the paperwork can be overwhelming. Record-keeping is absolutely key – but that lesson was learned later. Basic accounting is not terribly complicated but does require specialist knowledge 📊💻
These were the types of issues and subjects that prompted me to look around for resources to help find a way through what was starting to look like a rather complex maze. And that is where the Small Business Research and Enterprise Centre (along with the Business and IP Centre at the British Library) proved immensely helpful. The resources on offer are staggering – much more that I’d ever need. But crucially, there are also specific and very focused workshops on offer that can address areas of particular need. In my case, it was a £10 accounting best practice class that shed light on a number of subjects that would have taken me much longer to figure out on my own – from record keeping to VAT regulations. Have I mentioned the importance of record keeping?
Although we were slowed by Covid-19 in that some labs were working with reduced staff and demand has fluctuated, we have been heartened by the progress to date. The work put in during the planning stages paid off with things running smoothly from the beginning. Indeed, it is thanks to much of that work that we have managed to grow relatively quickly without the growing pains one occasionally reads about.
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