Paul Strachan, co-founder of Love Logs tells us about the wood fuel market.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Paul Strachan: We’re doing good! The last year has been divided into three for us, I think. During the first few months of the lockdown, we were living in our new house and both employed in remote, well-paid jobs. With the weather, we felt like we were on holiday when the weekend came around, not in lockdown! Then we rescued a puppy, and puppies make everything better, right?
In the second part of 2020, Heather and I were both working all hours, planning the business in the evenings around our normal jobs: right up until Heather quit her job and had more time to focus on the business. The next and most recent phase has been the reality of launching and running Love Logs: both quitting our full-time jobs, taking on a warehouse, packaging, stock, and a range of other expenses, and trying to figure out how to generate revenue from the site as quickly as possible!
All in all, we feel that we’ve been very lucky throughout the pandemic to have been so busy and able to focus on a much-needed distraction from the trauma of what’s happening in the world around us.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Love Logs.
Paul Strachan: Neither of us has an obvious career background in comparison to what Love Logs offers! Heather has almost 10 years of experience working for companies such as DPD and WN Direct, and a wealth of knowledge when it comes to customer experience and logistics; but in hindsight, that only makes up a fraction of what we do! On the other hand, I’ve spent 15 years working in the recruitment industry; so professionally speaking, I technically don’t have any relevant experience!
After moving to a new house in January 2020, we inherited a log burner from the previous owners, which led to our first experience of buying firewood as consumers. During the first lockdown, we bought a pizza oven and I became addicted to cooking using ‘real’ fire; however, as a passionate environmentalist, it was my initial frustrations with the firewood industry and its excessive use of plastic and other resources that led us to the idea for the business.
Once we had that idea, we spent a month or two figuring out whether we could make it happen, and eventually decided it was worth the risk of Heather resigning from her job to invest the time needed to get it up and running. Initially, I was still working elsewhere during this period, but we could soon feel Love Logs turning into a bit of a shared obsession and quickly realized that we’d be better off with both of us in the business!
How does Love Logs innovate?
Paul Strachan: Of course, plastic-free firewood was available before Love Logs, but this was only within the bulk delivery market. If you look at small-quantity firewood, there just hasn’t previously been anyone willing to adopt the use of plastic-free packaging despite there being many viable options. So, we brought firewood to the market in 100% plastic-free packaging and decided we’d deliver it directly to our customers’ door via courier service; meaning there would be no more trips to DIY stores or petrol station for cheap, low-quality firewood in wasteful, plastic bags that will sit in a landfill forever.
We also realized that a huge amount of firewood is imported into the UK from Eastern Europe, despite the fact we have a thriving sustainable timber industry. Effectively, firewood has been commoditized into a race to the bottom on price: we think this is awful and make a conscious effort to work with both British and local manufacturers where possible to be more sustainable across all areas of the business.
As well as this, our other innovations include setting up a subscription service for firewood, so our customers don’t have to worry about running out of fuel. We also have a fuel product available for every single pizza oven on the market in the UK; as total pizza addicts, we think that’s pretty cool! Looking ahead, we’re pivoting the business and gearing up to launch a range of barbecue products ahead of the summer. We’re also collaborating with several UK manufacturers to try to launch a range of accessories and homeware pieces, with a focus on the outdoor cookery market.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business and how are you coping?
Paul Strachan: With people staying at home more than ever, this has been very good timing for the firewood industry in general: log burners have been used more widely in the past 12 months than ever before and as a result, there’s a shortage of firewood because the industry has reached capacity. With that in mind, we perhaps couldn’t have launched during a better year: however, that’s come with its own set of challenges concerning our supply chain. Our suppliers have struggled to maintain or increase stock availability as they had promised us and in complete contrast to the boom in demand for home delivery, the lead times of cardboard boxes have become increasingly extended.
This combination of factors meant that during our busiest phase of the winter, we actually had to slow down our marketing activity because we couldn’t keep up; whilst it’s great to be so in demand, this, unfortunately, caused a sustained dip in sales even after we ramped back up. Thankfully, we’ve made it through that period now and learned several important lessons as a result: however, it was so frustrating to limit our sales channels during our first year!
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Paul Strachan: One difficult choice sticks with us: our commitment is to be a plastic-free business in all areas, which means zero plastic to landfill. Sometimes suppliers feel like there is no way to avoid plastic – pallet strapping on pallets of boxes, for example – so we adopt a couple of approaches with any plastic that does show up. If there’s a commercial recycling option available, we’ll pay for any plastic waste to be recycled. If there isn’t, we simply pop the plastic in a cardboard box and send it back to the relevant supplier. The truth is, there are plastic-free options out there now for most transit packaging, so we feel it’s up to each business to take an individual responsibility to change their methods.
The most difficult choice was during the worst phase of our supply issues. Our firewood has always been plastic-free and is shipped to us in metal cages. However, our supplier let us down with a delivery last year, and to recover from its capacity issues and to help us avoid turning customers away, they offered us a way out by temporarily shipping us excess product from another facility. However, this stock had been processed in single-use plastic nets. At the time, we felt desperate, so we took the difficult decision to accept the firewood despite the plastic. We shared this decision on social media for complete transparency with our customers, but it really pained us to have to break the plastic-free pledge (even just for two weeks).
The experience highlighted for us how important our fight is to help change the industry as the use of this netting is widely commonplace: even for logs that are delivered in bulk or plastic-free, such netting might be used further up the supply chain and simply removed and discarded before reaching us. So, we moved on and refocused on the larger goal of what we’re trying to achieve within our industry.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Paul Strachan: We think customer service has been our differentiator compared to other competitors on the market: suppliers and couriers have struggled during the pandemic, but we’ve turned potentially bad customer experiences into good ones by being proactive in addressing problems and providing innovative solutions that prioritize the customer and their individual needs.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Paul Strachan: Our direct competitor is a business called Kingwood, which also delivers sustainably sourced firewood in manageable quantities and sustainable packaging. Regardless of the similarities, we think there’s enough room for us both to succeed: it’s our hope that we’ll both continue to take market share away from less sustainable businesses, rather than each other because that would mean demand for sustainable products is increasing.
On the other end of the spectrum, we also compete with several traders on Amazon. Increasingly, the larger players in the firewood industry also seem to be trying to move into offering home delivery via courier service and adding more sustainable product variants to their ranges. However, we’re confident we’ll stay ahead because we care passionately about sustainability: whilst other businesses think that reducing their use of plastic is enough to improve their environmental impact, we will never use plastic packaging. We’re proud to be a growing business providing a genuinely class-leading service level: we genuinely care what our customers think of our products and the overall experience they have when they buy from us. We also have tonnes of ideas about our next phase of the business and can’t wait to explore our options further!
Your final thoughts?
Paul Strachan: There have been so many small businesses that have appeared during the last year: some of them forced by Covid, others a reaction to it, and others like ours – just a matter of timing and 2020 being the year we had a great idea.
Lockdown has been good for our business, but we know there’s a market for our products out there irrespective of the pandemic; we’ll keep doing our bit to drive change in the firewood & timber industries as long as that’s the case.
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