I’m the archetypal accidental entrepreneur, having no research nor planning. It was really just meant to be a little coffee shop and that’s how it started. But, due to a whole variety of factors, not least of which was the fact that UK coffee shops, sandwich shops and organic markets were all suddenly growing, it grew. We wrote a business plan for a retail rollout of stores modelled on what we started and, now, ten years on, we are doing something quite different although the core is still the same: well made, best quality, healthy food on the go using organic ingredients with no preservatives. What’s changed is we don’t have our own retail outlets any more. We now supply other retailers.
The retail model never really worked for us. We could never get the scale. Our overhead structure didn’t cope with the small number of stores. We got up to four stores and we just weren’t making money. Then we were given opportunities to provide people, like Sainsbury’s and Boots and so on, with our branded products, so that’s the route we went down, and that’s worked with a lot of success. We had a really, really good run up. For four or five years we grew like crazy. But, we’re now revising the plan. That’s what recessions do, they make you rewrite your business plan!
I come from a corporate law background, but my dad had his own business for years. He was a successful businessman, despite having no education beyond high school. My brother also runs his own business. So clearly we are an entrepreneurial family, but I went down the academic and corporate route.
Sometimes if you think about things too carefully, you can over-analyse them and you end up with an analysis-paralysis scenario. In my case, there was not a lot of analysis to start off and, once we were in, it was a case of get on and do it and make it work.
I don’t for one second regret anything I’ve done in terms of what I studied and my previous career. I think everything is useful in helping you build a platform for what you go on and do. My commercial and corporate law background is immensely useful, just in terms of the way you approach problems, the way you analyse problems, from negotiating, strategy, obviously in terms of looking at documents quite carefully and figuring them out so you understand what you are signing up to.
I started the business at an interesting time. There was so much money splashing around from dot-com mania, and although it was tapering off, there was still a lot of money around and a lot of businesses were popping up. That’s quite a difficult environment in which to start an old economy business. What I’ve learned is that business is really about resilience. Not all businesses are the same. Businesses have got to be flexible and adaptable. Business is like a musical instrument, you’ve got to keep tuning it, and I think you don’t realise that.
I’m really, really good at getting things started, and I’m learning to be good at making sure that I keep myself inspired and my team motivated. You are very, very busy but does your team have the energy that you as a founder have? You have to keep your team, especially your core team, all engaged all of the time. You can’t do without them. I’ve got a lot of people in my business that joined me soon after starting and they are still with me today. We’ve all changed as we’ve gone along.
Probably my biggest learning is the importance of communicating with everybody all the time, not taking things for granted. You assume that because you understand where you are in the business, and where the business is, that everybody else does, that they’re with you all the time, but they don’t necessarily. We’re all on different pages of the same book.
It’s a very labour intensive process. We’ve got about 80 people. We’re all in one big kitchen in North West London. We’ve got sandwich makers and cooks, drivers and a team in the office. It’s a real mixed bag of skills, but it’s a basic production business.
We’re seeing more and more opportunities in food service, and by that I mean anything from feeding office workers to hospitals and schools, and leisure centres, museums and zoos. Tapping into that whole thing about health is a growth opportunity for us.
What other way is there to be? You can be optimistic, but you also need to be realistic and say, I can’t do this on my own, I need to bring some external help in to help me with something. That’s part of growing up really. Sometimes it’s good to get an external perspective. It’s about recognising that you don’t have all the answers.
I’m in the middle of doing something that I want to see through. I think we’ve got a good business. We’ve got a great brand. People love the brand, they love the products, and we need to build on that. We’ve got such a fantastic platform to do something much bigger and that’s a great challenge.
“What it takes” can be read in full in vol 22/issue 1 of Business Strategy Review.