Smart Living | Features

Features | 20 Dec 2021

Billy Keast: Rugby pro tackles coffee and clothing

A winner of this year’s Gain Line Award, sponsored by Vodafone, Billy has been brewing up a successful Cornish business while continuing to play professional rugby.

Some professional rugby players only look towards a new career once their time on the field has drawn to a close. But Billy Keast – the winner of this year’s Gain Line Award – is already charging ahead on a new path, while still playing for the Exeter Chiefs.

No.1 Cubs, his fledgling coffee and clothing business, employs 20 people – up from just six a year ago – with a fifth location due to open in 2022. And he’s achieved all this having only just reached his 25th birthday.

Billy was motivated to set up No.1 Cubs by more than just wanting to have a subsequent career for his eventual post-rugby life. He told Vodafone UK News: “I wanted something outside rugby to put my mind to. I always enjoyed coffee and I wanted my own space that I could put my stamp on.”

Billy initially established No.1 Cubs as a takeaway-only coffee business operating out of trailers. This proved to be an unexpected lifeline as, once the pandemic hit and restrictions were gradually eased so that hospitality businesses were initially only allowed to offer takeaway, they were well-placed to serve thirsty customers.

Even so, Billy admits that the pandemic has presented as many difficulties as opportunities.

“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” he said. “It’s been very challenging with staff, but they’ve been brilliant with self-isolation – working day-to-day, sometimes not knowing if they’d even be coming in or not.”

There’s more crossover than one might think between the world of rugby and running a business.

“I’ve learnt a hell of a lot from my rugby career so far. It’s taught me a lot about myself. There’s a lot of discipline that goes into the sport and I try to implement that in my business.”

LEICESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 21: Billy Keast of Exeter Chiefs is tackled by Jordan Taufua during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Leicester Tigers and Exeter Chiefs at on December 21, 2019 in Leicester, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

From maintaining positive energy and staff morale in the face of adversity to public speaking, which he used to dread before his professional rugby career, Billy has drawn upon his well of sporting experience.

Cortados and clobber

The clothing side of No.1 Cubs grew unexpectedly after customers wanted the staff’s company-branded casualwear to go along with their cortados. Billy and his team have also parlayed this into providing casualwear for 30 university sporting teams across the UK, from Plymouth to Dundee.

While currently smaller than the coffee side of the business, Billy is biding his time for the right opportunities to build the clothing side’s customer base and brand. He’s also not ruling out an expansion beyond casualwear. “We don’t want to stretch ourselves too thin. Down the line, it could change – we’ll see.”

If that expansion occurs, technology will almost certainly play a part.

“Technology is huge for us. We do a lot of our advertising on Instagram and other social media platforms. We then try to push our customer base to our website,” said Billy.

OXFORD, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 27: Billy Keast passes the ball during the England training session held at St Edward’s School on February 27, 2020 in Oxford, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Despite the crucial importance of being online, Billy hasn’t lost sight of the human touch: “We take a lot of pride in having that personal touch and going the extra mile for our customers. We hope our customer service is as good as it can be.”

Billy’s final thoughts in our conversation turned to advice for other small business owners just getting started on their own journey: “Don’t leave any stone unturned – especially when starting out, you’ve got to say yes to every opportunity.

“It’s also easy to be indecisive, but you have to learn to trust your own opinion, your own gut”.

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