Inspirational Woman Series: #12 Karen Robinson

We are absolutely delighted to introduce our latest inspirational woman, the absolutely fabulous Karen Robinson.
Tell me a bit more about yourself and your business and how it came about?
Yeah of course well thank you for inviting me it's lovely to have a chance to chat and tell people about our story.  
3 Robins was actually a big career change for me, before I was working on Women's Rights in International Development, specifically in countries emerging from civil conflict. I did a pHD in politics and then went on to work for a number of government organisations and the UN government to try and help countries that were rebuilding their economies or their governance structures. Especially after civil war - places like Sierra Leone and Nepal and so I did that for a while and loved it. It was an amazing career, very rewarding and very interesting but very challenging for me and my family, obviously travelling to these kinds of places became very difficult so I did a lot of desk-based work for a while and then felt that I wasn't really credible in that industry anymore and wanted to do something different.
Food and drink is now a totally different world for sure, as a family we were already drinking a lot of oat milk because of two of my kids are lactose intolerant. As they were drinking it, we all started having it and realised we actually loved the taste. Cutting out dairy is more sustainable, there are lots of reasons why we felt good at making that swap, but I couldn't really find a brand that was meeting the needs of us as a family. We liked are nice frothy coffees but barista oat milk for kids is not so great, they’re often thick and not fortified so we would have to buy something else for the kids. Then I thought well surely somebody can make a brand that speaking to families, providing the kind of products they need so that was how I got the idea.
Do you feel big health benefits and have you given up daily completely or is it just in your milk?
No, so we do try and make plant-based meals when we can, but we still eat meat and still eat cheese, which is my guilty pleasure. I do feel better for swapping to oat milk and now I just don’t enjoy drinking dairy.
How did you get here, I know you swapped career quite quite dramatically - what was your experience growing up and how did that shape your life today?
I think I was fortunate to grow up in a family where my parents very much believed that you should chase opportunities and work hard and just seize whatever door is open. I was never afraid of taking risks and going off and being quite independent, that was something that put me in good stead.
My previous job was probably one that people could always see me ending up in. It was something I had always been really interested in - with development and in women's rights and those kinds of things sort of felt natural, whereas right now my my family were confused that I ended up started a business as it's not something that I would say I was aware of being inside me.
You hear stories about start up founders who say you knew from when they were twelve that they wanted to be an entrepreneur, or they had a very entrepreneurial mindset. I wouldn't say that necessarily manifested in me, to have that a desire. I think it can be your traits that maybe make you a successful entrepreneur. I know particularly for me those traits are stubborn persistence – or tenacious is probably a nicer word. Ambition definitely plays a vital part; I've always had a tendency to not choose maybe the easiest path and certainly experiences like working full time while doing my phD - that was tough and definitely hard but you just sort of keep going.
Can you tell me where the name Three Robins came from?
My last name is Robinson and I've got say 3 little boys so they're the Three Robins - I think naming the business for me was almost as stressful as naming my children! Our last name, Robinson’s is obviously taken by a very famous brand, but it felt important to me as we were going to be a family focused brand, so I wanted the family incorporated into the name. I liked the idea of somehow bringing the boys into that, but it was actually my mum who came up with Three Robins and it’s a lovely way to be able to talk about the brand and make it relatable too.
How do your sons feel about being the 3 Robins?
I think they get a kick out of it when we're out and about and they see it on the shelf somewhere. They get dragged around doing deliveries and come to the warehouse when I'm packing boxes, particularly now that it’s summer holidays so they do start getting quite on board with it. They have come to few markets and helped out with taking money and I think they do sort of feel invested in in the brand which is nice.
So now you’re based in Edinburgh, but you moved from Canada?
I was born in Edinburgh but moved to Canada when I was 10 and then came back to Scotland for university. Between then and now moved around a lot, I’ve lived in London, New York, Paris and Switzerland most recently because of my husband's work. Two of the boys were born there and it was at a point where we realised that our future wasn't really in Switzerland. We were trying to decide where to move and as much as we liked London but didn't want to go back there with two young kids and so we were just throwing the names of cities around in the UK and then Edinburgh came up and I have the happiest memories there as a child. So, we literally just on the spur of the moment decided that’s where we would go, we were both self-employed at that point so we were lucky that we could move where we wanted to go. We moved to Edinburgh and rented a house for a year just to sort of see if we liked it and yea never went back and that that was 7 years ago now.
You’re a mother to three boys or should I say three robins and obviously a very busy entrepreneur - how on earth do you achieve work life balance and what does a typical day look like for you?
I think that’s the million-dollar question, how to achieve work life balance. You know I sometimes think it's a bit crazy that I wanted a career change so that I could somehow have a better work life balance, but starting your business is yeah not probably the best way to get that.
On a typical day, my husband travels a lot with work so he's often away during the week, so I’ll get out get the kids to school, by the time you drop them off you feel like you lived a whole day already. But you know it's a nice routine and it's a good chance to spend time with them. After that, well we don't have our own offices, but we are on the RBS accelerator programme for startups so there's an office space in town which we use. I’ve got an employee so it's nice to have somewhere we can go and work together. Our days are super varied, sometimes we’re at the warehouse packing orders, we could be going out on sales visits around different areas of Edinburgh - we go out with samples and knock on doors, cafes and shops and engage with people about our brand. Or it can be a marketing and social media day. We try to frequently do trade shows and markets which take up quite a lot of time and planning. It's super super varied, always very busy. I usually get a bit of help with the boys after school and then I’ll get home later, have dinner, get their homework done, get them to bed which, as they are getting older is getting later. Sometimes I will work in the evening although that's getting harder. I think that I am the kind of person though that, to a certain extent, thrives on chaos and pressure and deadlines. It’s the way I've always always been and so for me busy is is good, it keeps things moving.
What have been some unforeseen difficulties that you've encoded in your life or your business - a speed bump that you didn't expect and how did you navigate through that?
I mean I think with a business there's quite a lot of speed bumps, it can be very bumpy! Probably my biggest one though is the manufacturing. Maybe partly due to my inexperience in the food and drink industry I hadn’t appreciated that manufacturing capacity is actually quite limited in a lot of respects here in Scotland and in the UK, I thought you could shop around, choose who you wanted to make it and then realised that I was very naïve in thinking that. It's a lot more complicated than that and actually finding the manufacturing partner was without question and continues to be a massive challenge in the business. I was ready to launch a year before we actually did because it took that long. Then when I had found a partner it was getting time on their production line - they work with a lot of big businesses, I'm a tiny business why should they get a punt on me because maybe I'll do one production batch and then just fade away. Then even when you have that partnership in place it’s about nurturing it, so yea it is challenging for sure. That process has been really difficult and takes an awful lot of time but that said I’m grateful to be outsourcing my manufacturing.
We can relate we can’t find anyone in Scotland with capacity to make knitwear.  I can imagine for knitwear, it’s similar to oats in that there’s lots of beautiful Scottish knitwear so people assume that there are options and I know for oat milk I'm constantly having to explain to people that with the best will in the world there isn't any way to make this product in Scotland. I would love to but I just can't. It’s UK made at least - it’s made down south as there’s really only one place that can make it. We’ve got another range of kid's fruit smoothies that are oat based and that's going to be made in Scotland so we’re super excited that at least part of our range can be made up here.
Obviously, a big part of what you’re doing is focusing on sustainability, how would you say that you are becoming more sustainable in life and in work?
Sustainability is vital for any business. Working in plant-based space it's hugely important, when I first started the business, I was making oat milk at home, putting it into glass bottles and had the idea of very circular approach where we could deliver to people. But it quickly became clear that commercially scaling a business like that is challenging but also glass is not always the best material and so with a view to actually want to grow a successful business we went with a cartoon. They don’t have to be refrigerated and are recyclable. Innovation in the packaging space is really exciting, it’s something we’re keeping a close eye on and hopefully in the future there will be an opportunity to move towards a cartoon that doesn't have any of the aluminium layer in it. As that’s what makes the recycling so challenging because there are different materials that have to get separated and recycled separately. Moving forwards we'll look to where we can invest in packaging that is even better than what's available now.
On a personal level I think is about making choices, for example we’re going down to Dorset to visit my in-laws next week and we’ll take the train rather than flying or driving. Eating plant based, not all the time but sometimes – in my life it’s about making these little choices that can have an impact.
No inspirational woman is an island – tell us about your team and who supports you, in life and work?
At work for a long while it was just myself which has its challenges and then I was lucky enough to take on an intern through the GCAS scheme which is the government support for recently graduated students. Jess started with me back at Christmas time and is a textile graduate, so quite a different background but she came on for six months and was just fantastic and having a teammate, someone that can share the burden and can chat to and not irritate everyone around you when all I would do is talk about oat milk. With the Scottish EDGE funding that I won in May I was able to offer her full-time position so she's now part of the team and we’re now a team of two which I can’t quite believe but here we are, and it feels good.
I suppose the model that many startups use, and I sort of use is having this great network of external advisers and people that I call on and that are invested in the business as well who are able to help. I've got a food and drink marketing, branding and communications agency who have helped me develop packaging and advise me about other things as well. I also worked with some food scientists on the recipes. Through the RBS scheme and also a couple of other incubators I've been on I’ve managed to get some really great mentors that helped guide me along the way. Although we're a team of two it does feel like there’s a lot of people rooting for us.
I suppose personally, my husband is working hard at his full-time job which allows me to build the business which is fantastic, and he's always been very supportive of me doing this so it's great. Both of our families get roped into doing deliveries when I'm out of town and helping out in whatever way they can. I feel like I've got a good big network of people and friends who are rooting for me as well. They’ll always talk about the product if they go into cafe and are like “Oh have you heard of this oat milk brand?” And it does help, and I’ve have managed to get new customers because of that as well!
What is your favourite part of your job?
Oh 100% seeing people use my product and love it. If we're doing an event and people are sampling our product and they’ve never tried oat milk or say they’re a diary drinker and you convince them to try it then they’re response is “Oh actually this is better than I thought, this is quite nice.” That's really exciting because you feel like you're opening somebody up to a new way of eating or maybe just occasionally choosing something that’s a bit different. Seeing kids especially enjoying the product is really amazing.
You talk a lot about the mentors that you have, do you have a specific female mentor/ inspirational woman that you looked up or that helped you throughout your life, again personally or professionally?
Yea one of the first sort of jobs I had when I finished my master's degree was a scheme through the Canadian government where they placed you in different organisations around the world if you were interested in a career in International Development. I got placed with the UN High Commissioner for refugees in Geneva, working specifically on the women gender inequality unit. The woman Joyce who ran that with this incredible woman who was so inspirational and had had a very interesting life and was such a champion of young people coming into the industry. She created this lovely sort of family environment and to this day we still have a WhatsApp groupchat. There were a lot of people in it who had been in that placement before me and after me, including other people who had been working there and certainly in my international development career that was very useful. Joyce was very established, had lots of contacts and was always very supportive which was great.
The best sort of mentor I had I guess was actually a man in the NGO that I worked for in London when I was doing my pHD. The role was a permanent position and as my first real job the amount of responsibility, opportunity and confidence that he had in me and the other people working in the team was incredible. It really taught me so much about communication and how to work with people. I think he instilled a lot of really good practises and approaches to work. I was managing the gender programme there and he was always super super supportive of that and didn’t even question whether those issues mattered in the organisation because normally you would come up against a lot of resistance, but he would just 100% have my back.
What advice would you give to someone following in your footsteps?
That’s always a hard question, I mean I think it just it has to be that tenacity - you know just don't give up! I think if you know where you want to get to, remember that the path that takes you there might not be what you think. So, if the first way you think you're going to get there doesn't happen, then try a different way. I think it's that ability to hold on to that core passion and drive or whatever gets you up in the morning and keeps you going because you get knocked down so so much in life and in work. And when things aren't going well your personal life or work life, how do you keep going. There's always going be another way to get to where you want so being open to the possibilities that are in front of you and don’t turn down opportunities.
Do you find it hard to say ‘no’ while still being option to opportunities?
I think it’s hard to say no, setting boundaries and prioritising and it’s something I’m still learning and figuring out. Especially in a start-up environment, everything is urgent and important and in a small team you just have to figure it out. I’ll probably try to do it all and get really stressed and struggle through it. I think particularly women, I don't know, I still sometimes feel like if a customer takes on my product, they are doing me a favour and so I will do whatever I can to make it attractive or possible for them. I think women maybe are guilty of that.
What's next for you and what's next for Three Robins?
I hope they will be aligned to to certain extent. Growing the business and scaling it is a huge priority right now. We've been going for just over a year and are available in more than 60 shops and cafes across Scotland and we sell online UK wide. But we need to make this sort of the big step in terms of volume and distribution. The Scottish EDGE funding and support has just been incredible – it wasn’t our first time applying, (there’s the tenacity again) and I just love being part of the network of businesses like yours. Hiring Jess was the first thing that we were able to do with that money and we're going to be using it to scale up on our marketing and really try to build up that brand awareness because that's what we need to compete with the kind of dominant players in the industry. We also won the STV award so we’ve got some airtime which I’m really excited for - that will be a national television campaign. Two of the boys are very excited about that and are wanting a starring role, my other boy, he’s not so sure about that so we'll see if they feature in it or not. So that's going to be a huge priority going forward but I hope that in growing the business for our own family life that will also potentially offer us the opportunity to change things up a bit. My husband travels a lot, and he's got a great job, but it would be nice if there was a bit more flexibility as the business grows and he could take up a position that’s just based in Edinburgh. The dream is to get the business to a point where we can both be around a bit more for our boys growing up.