but the majority of entrepreneurs base their plans on specialist knowledge and experience built up over many years. John Burfield, from Axbridge in Somerset, is one such example; an engineer that cut his teeth in the Royal Artillery, straight from school, followed by a second enlistment in the Royal Navy, and subsequently 19 years accruing a broad spectrum of skills in buildings and estate management.
It was a redundancy that sparked John’s move into business; he’d built a name for himself in energy and compliance, with strong relationships with suppliers and customers, and realised he could continue to do his work alone. John started Sand Lizard Technical Solutions in June 2019, with his initial proposition being an energy efficiency additive that saves money on heating and cooling bills.
“I felt I was at a stage in my career where I had the necessary skills and experience to become self-employed. I had always wanted to own my own business and I felt the time was right. Things started off well, but it wasn’t easy making introductions on your own. My supplier told me about a new disinfectant that was getting great results and I broadened my reach to include cleaning services and began working with children’s attractions. Less than 12 months later, Covid-19 hit and, overnight, hygiene was on every building owner’s agenda.”
While the pandemic decimated several industries in the UK, the potential market for John’s hygiene services swelled as organisations sought to offer a safe environment for their staff and customers.
”Providing a disinfection service that combats Covid-19 meant that the pandemic effect on our business was the opposite of most. Our customers found their buildings and surfaces were cleaner than with other products, so they trusted me during a challenging time. The competition became more intense, however, with new companies entering the market, some of whom unscrupulous, offering low quality and dangerous disinfection.”
After just two years of trading, John’s innovative business was recognised with their first award: ‘Best in Sustainable Hygiene Solutions in Europe’ at The Corporate LiveWire Innovation & Excellence Awards 2021, which celebrate the success and achievements of firms and individuals that have taken an innovative approach to demonstrate exceptional business performance.
“It’s fantastic to be named the best in Europe and have the quality of our treatments recognised. Being up against some tough competition, it was such a thrill to scoop the top spot, and we’ve just heard that we have won the 2022 title too; so that’s two years running!”
Sand Lizard serves a wide range of customers, from agriculture to healthcare. One of their longest-standing relationships is with one of the UK’s largest children’s soft play attractions, ‘Ocean Adventurers’; John has been helping them to keep their customers safe since before the pandemic and, in November 2021, they became the first indoor attraction in the UK to install automatic fogging machines into their premises.
“We are continuously looking for improved solutions. Fogging had previously been done manually, which works for many customers, but the automatic system means that the centre can be treated overnight without any human intervention. The chemicals we use are eco-friendly yet highly effective at killing bugs, bacteria, and viruses. The fine mist gets literally everywhere, even to the bottom of the ball pits! It leaves behind a silver barrier meaning nothing can grow on the surface, which is extremely important to high traffic venues.”
Continuing to evolve and grow, John’s recent focus for Sand Lizard is water treatment and applying his engineering background to innovative processes. His product will prevent legionella in building’s water systems and, together with an installation partner, they are developing the first computer-controlled dosing pump.
“There’s nothing else like the new system we’re installing at a Ministry of Defence estate. The additive is non-corrosive and eco-friendly, and it will look after itself, which is win-win for the building manager. We are working with other military bases, as well as hospitals, schools and office blocks to keep their users safe.”
It is undeniable that John’s focus and acute specialist knowledge has been fundamental to the business’s early success, not to mention his military work ethic, yet John was quick to recognise that he needed support for the operational side of things. John embraced the full scope of guidance and events available from XFE. He completed XFE’s Start-Up Skills training, supported by ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, participated in the first Big Business Supporting Small Business ‘Meet The Buyer’ event, supported by Balfour Beatty, and regularly joins with Military In Business® networking, which is supported by the Royal British Legion.
“Dax, my XFE business mentor, has provided invaluable help and support from day one. Having an independent expert around to offer advice has helped me move the business forward. XFE’s events have also proved to be valuable to enhance skills, connect with other entrepreneurs and get impartial feedback. When getting started, there was a lot to learn quickly in areas I wasn’t familiar with, for example accounting and marketing. XFE’s initial workshop gave me a solid overview about all the aspects I needed to consider and, although I now outsource these functions, it’s important that I have a broad understanding. Through the XFE HUB, I have been introduced to fellow members who can help me with my business and now use some of them to help me with the day-to-day running of Sand Lizard.”
John is a proud Armed Forces veteran and keeps regular contact with people he’s served with. He credits his drive and discipline to his service career but admits it wasn’t easy for him when he became a civilian:
“It was a I struggle when I first came out, and my qualifications were not recognised. I had to start at the bottom again, but it was ingrained in me to work hard and get on, and that meant I climbed the ladder faster. There is a can-do attitude among veterans that you can spot a mile away and I’ll always advocate employing from the military community if you want a job done well. I’d love to help others to carve a successful career for themselves.”
When asked about the challenges he’s faced in running his own business, and his advice for others embarking on this journey, John reflected on the importance of having a clear strategy:
“We’re operating in a crowded marketplace with established national competitors who have large sales and marketing budgets. It’s important for us to focus on the quality of our service and product as this really sets us apart from others. I would say my key recommendation to those thinking of starting a business is to have a well thought out business plan, be prepared for a rollercoaster journey and make sure you have the right people around you.”