With their soft drinks startup Sipp’d, friends and business partners Oli Sinclair and Ash Patel have swapped audit season for apple season.
After meeting at school in 2002, Oli Sinclair and Ash Patel’s early careers took remarkably similar turns: both studied geography at university, then joined accountancy training schemes. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but my girlfriend was studying for the ACA at the time,” says Oli. “Finance underpins everything in business, so it’s a great foundation; that’s what drew me to accountancy.”
Ash agrees: “To be at the forefront of finance, understanding the numbers, is one of the core things, and accountancy hits that nail on the head,” he says. “It gives you really good exposure to so many different companies, especially in the external audit side of things, and there are lots of opportunities to be had.”
Oli went straight from university into Deloitte’s graduate scheme, while Ash spent a year as a ski instructor in Canada before joining Blick Rothenberg in London. Embarking on their ACA training, both found that the combination of learning and hands-on work experience suited them. “Taking what you learned in the classroom and putting it into practice was one of the things I really liked about the qualification,” says Oli. Having the support of a peer group was also invaluable. “You’re going through it together, so you make a lot of good friendships and support each other all the way through,” says Ash.
“I went into my training expecting everyone to have done an accountancy degree or something directly related, but it was a breath of fresh air to have such a range of people going in,” he adds. “Not all of them had gone to university – some were on apprenticeship schemes while others had taken several years out before starting work. It’s nice to build your network like that and have that conversation with people in different situations.”
It was during a particularly busy period at work three years ago that the friends met up one evening for a drink, and the idea for their business was born. “We were chatting over an alcoholic ginger beer and saying that we could make a better one at home,” remembers Ash. “We started experimenting on the weekends, making all sorts of different drinks and really having fun with it. And before you knew it, we were straight onto a business plan!
“There was a lot of industry naivety as to what we had on our pieces of paper back then, but with the training we had we were building prudence into everything. We thought that if we could turn it into something that was more than just a hobby at the weekends, that would be amazing.”
The sense of fun they were getting, coupled with their belief in their products, was the incentive they needed to try and turn their hobby into a full-time business. “We’d both got to the point where we really liked the drinks we were making, and we had that belief and passion behind it. We didn’t want to look back in 30 years’ time and say what if…?” says Oli.
“It just sparked a whole new interest, and we hadn’t had the opportunity in life before to try and run with that excitement,” explains Ash. “I also had experience on the smaller firm side of things – I wasn’t always working with the largest of clients, some were small owner-managed businesses where someone had followed their ambition, and I always had a lot of appreciation for that. So just seeing the opportunity arise in front of us, I thought ‘I definitely want to give this a good go.’”
There was a confidence that came with having the ACA qualification behind them, says Oli – if they ever wanted to go back to accountancy, they could. They also found that the skills they had gained during their ACA training and their careers so far had set them in good stead, particularly when it came to time management, networking and communication. “And prioritising a million and one things!” says Ash. “I think our to-do list is a whole whiteboard full, so juggling everything at once is definitely something we’ve applied here. We’ve also taken on a lot of responsibility quickly – there’s no one above and below us anymore; it’s just us two next to each other, making sure we get the job done.”
When it comes to taking on employees – something they hope to do in the coming months – the experience of managing and mentoring others in their previous roles will also no doubt prove useful. “That’s definitely a good skill that accountancy gives you, that sense of structure and gradual progression,” says Oli.
Once they had taken the plunge and resigned from their jobs in 2019, things moved quickly. In December of that year, they committed to a small production unit in Essex, and were on the verge of getting started when the pandemic hit. “The last bit of equipment turned up the day before the first lockdown,” remembers Oli. “It was a nightmare. Before we’ve even started we’ve got rent going out the door, expecting to have revenue around the corner. We had to put all of the production side of things on hold for three-and-a-half months.”
They made the most of that time, though, formulating drinks, completing the training needed to run a food and drink business, and all the associated admin. There were other advantages, too: being a small startup meant they could tap into a growing ‘support local’ trend. “Our first product was apple juice, which was initially meant to be an ingredient for a soda,” explains Ash. “But we found that we were on the doorstep of some of the best apple growers in the UK, so we went straight to them and had conversations with them, and now we’re buying local ingredients, making our products locally and then selling them locally as well. So it gave us a lot of opportunities to diversify pretty quickly.”
With bars and restaurants closed during lockdowns, Oli and Ash built up a network of independent coffee shops and delis to stock their small-batch apple juice. Now, with things opening up again, they will be branching out into a new area of hospitality. “We’ve got a lot in the pipeline – the ideas board is even bigger than our to-do list!” says Ash. “We’re absolute dreamers when it comes to it, so it’s about grounding ourselves and grabbing just a couple of bits that we need to move the whole business forward. We’re in a position now where we’ve got our apple juice launched and we’ve got two sodas, and we want to try and get another soda out very soon. And meanwhile apple season is almost upon us again!”
As the business grows, the friends are determined to keep that sense of experimentation and fun that first inspired them to set up Sipp’d. “We decided early on that we wanted to keep all our production in house, which gives us a lot of flexibility, so we want to make the most of that and experiment with small batches of different types and styles of products,” says Ash. “Creative wasn’t a word we could use very much in accounting, but when it comes to drinks, we can be as creative as we want. We’re always on the hunt for new flavours, new ingredients and new companies to have conversations with.”
Are the people they encounter now surprised that they’re chartered accountants by trade? “People are always shocked when we tell them we were accountants before,” says Oli. “And they usually have a few financial questions they want to run past us! I think everyone has a perception of chartered accountants – I used to go out with my mates and it would be, ‘Oh, boring Oli always turns up in a suit after work.’ But we are still accountants – we’re accountants who own a soda business. And that’s pretty cool.”