From start up to ‘smoothie’ sailing: A small business adventure

Leena Van Raay worked as a medical scientist for 10 years before she founded Bike n’ Blend at the beginning of 2011. Until that point, she had dedicated her professional life to researching stroke and epilepsy treatment at the University of Melbourne’s medical research department. But she was looking for a lifestyle change, and an opportunity to focus on preventative health practices and ideas, rather than cures.

That change came in the form of a static bicycle, a blending container and some delicious, fresh smoothie ingredients.

It might sound a million miles away from the world of medical research, but Leena saw a connection, as well as an important distinction.

“I was working on the side of curing disease, but I really felt quite passionate to work on the preventative side. I just saw how many diseases you could have a bigger impact with by preventing them in the first place,” Leena explains.

Leena, who has been an avid cyclist for many years, came up with the idea of a pedal-powered smoothie. She began to trial the bike – and the drink – at farmers’ markets around Melbourne. Almost immediately, she and her partner Gil could see that they had a hit on their hands. The concept was unique, it was fun and there was a practical side to it; people flocked to her market stands.

Starting up the hill

After some time finessing her market stall strategies, the next stop for Bike n’ Blend was the Royal Melbourne Show. But a single bike wasn’t going to cut it. Leena bought an additional seven, as well as an old van. She also hired two casual staff to help her run the stall. Even with their assistance she found herself working 16 hours a day over the two weeks of the show.

By the end of that first year she knew she had an extraordinary idea with enormous promise, but while the feedback was positive and the potential was thrilling, Bike n’ Blend couldn’t yet be called “a success”. In fact, Leena wasn’t even covering the costs of the farmers’ markets.
It was time to turn the whole thing from a fun new project into a more serious business venture.

A change of gears

In 2012 Leena stopped attending markets, realising that she would run herself into the ground if she kept attending up to three events a day - especially with so little financial reward. She began to focus on packages for small community festivals and school fetes, corporate clients and major events (like business conferences and university open days). But she needed help, so she turned to the gig economy and the market full of temporary staffing solutions.

“Back when I started it was a lot harder to get ad hoc staff. The service wasn’t really available, and because of that I did everything myself and got burnt out. And as soon as that became available, I got addicted to getting help and delegating.”

She also hired more permanent team members; including someone to help with bookings and another person to help with events. That gave Leena more time to work on the business model and important marketing elements of the business such as the website.

“Our first customer was Port Phillip Council. They booked us for Ride to Work Day and I instantly saw that there were lots of cycling events or health and sustainability events that we could be involved in. And it really did snowball from there,” Leena says.

Riding interstate

Although Bike n’ Blend began and remains based in Melbourne, it now has staff that run Bike n’ Blend events in Sydney and Brisbane. Leena says that wouldn’t have been possible without the ability to hire and train good people.

“It really allowed me to grow into different cities and do to different parts of the business that I wanted to do because there are people that are available and trustworthy.”

“When we vet and train people at different locations around Australia we use a lot of online training programmes and resources that we’ve written ourselves. And then we give them an online quiz just to check that their knowledge is complete. And that just gives us the peace of mind.”

Reduce, reuse, re-cycle

For Leena, the benefits of expansion are as much about spreading her company’s messages about sustainability, health and fun, as they are about the commercial success of her company.

“In terms of sustainability we’ve built awareness around less plastic, not using straws and taking a stance on that. We’ve donated mainly to UNICEF recently. We want to grow that. We are reaching to help people overseas, something I’m quite passionate about myself.”

“I still pinch myself every day to realise this is what I do. It truly is a dream job.”

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