In the latest It’s My Business feature, we talk to Peter Snart who owns and runs Willowbog Bonsai in Hexham with his wife Jean.
The semi-retired couple’s business is a Bonsai nursery, which also offers workshops and events, and has recently relaunched its online presence.
Tell us about Willowbog Bonsai
Willowbog Bonsai started like many small businesses do – from a hobby. I had started growing and developing bonsai in 1980 and became increasingly frustrated by the very limited range of bonsai related items available in this region – containers, tools, training wire etc. From about 1987 we began to work towards opening our own nursery and Willowbog Bonsai was officially launched in 1997, although we had been trading in a small way for a couple of years prior to that.
What exactly are Bonsai trees?
The Japanese word Bonsai quite literally means “tree in a pot” however, to be more specific, they might be described as “artistically trained trees that represent tree images in the landscape but at a much reduced scale”. The container, be it ceramic pot or rock or slab, is critical to the definition. Trees growing in the ground cannot really be defined as bonsai. In the west it is mainly associated with Japan although the art form was actually developed in China centuries before it went to Japan. The biggest misconception amongst the non-bonsai public is that they are indoor plants, they are not. The bonsai that we sell require to be kept outdoors.
Your nursery is open to the public on weekends, tell us about your workshops and events
When we started back in 1997 we were open seven days a week, over the years we slowly reduced that to the present where we only open weekends and other times by arrangement. Almost since day one the teaching of bonsai has been a fundamental part of our ethos and to supplement what we do ourselves we have brought in more experienced practitioners to take enthusiasts that little bit further. We are currently working with a young British guy who completed a full six years apprenticeship in one of Japan’s top bonsai gardens under a leading Master. The four days, three times a year that Peter Warren spends here, give ourselves and our customers the opportunity to advance our knowledge and experience.
We also host a community day on the first Saturday of every month where enthusiasts from across the region and further afield are invited to use the facilities at the nursery to meet other folk interested in the art and exchange news and information, we call this Bonsai Chat.
You’ve also recently relaunched your website – are you looking to grow your ecommerce sales?
For some years we have had a website, an on-line store and a blog posting site. However, they were in effect separate entities and actually quite dated. We recently asked LEC Communications & Design to look at this and following their recommendations we had them unify the three elements into one and to completely revamp the site. We have a very rural location that requires some effort to get to. We need a website that gives viewers a real feel for the nursery and what we do, hopefully persuading folks that we are worth the visit. We need that location clearly indicated and any other relevant information such as opening times easily found. We need a straightforward and well functioning web shop and blog posts that keep interested partied informed of what we are doing. The site that LEC Communications & Design has created for us does all this and more. We are delighted with their contribution to Willowbog Bonsai.
What have been the highlights of running your own business?
Spending the majority of your working time doing something that you really enjoy is a real privilege that I suspect many folk do not have. The real highlight is being able to share our passion for bonsai and our love of Willowbog Farm with our customers. Recently one of our workshop regulars who lives in Newcastle said to us “when I wake up on a Saturday morning and it is a Willowbog day I feel so happy”.
And the challenges?
The money side of any business can be a challenge. My wife runs that side of things with the simple rule that we always operate within our means. Being able to keep overheads low takes an awful lot of pressure off when sales are poor. I love to buy nice [expensive] trees and pots and tools for the nursery to sell, often irrespective of whether or not we have a market for them! Fortunately my wife curtails this activity otherwise we’d have gone out of business years ago!
What advice would you have for anyone looking to launch their own business?
As our business barely even qualifies as ‘micro’ I am usually loathed to offer advice. However, the low overheads already mentioned are a key to being able to cope better with fluctuations in trade. We all have to borrow from time to time but our philosophy has always been to use loans only in exceptional circumstances, we have a fundamental aversion to being in debt, to anyone! And you have to be realistic, not always easy when you have a vision to pursue, or a passion to realise, but critical if you also want to remain sane.