- Start-up success, founder of Seedlip and drinks industry pioneer – this entrepreneur knows how to stand out
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Seedlip didn’t start out as a business idea; it was more of an organic accident. I love growing herbs and vegetables at home, inspired by my family’s farming roots, and while searching online for forgotten, hard-to- find herbs I stumbled across old cookbooks and learned about botany. I had my own design business at the time and wasn’t looking for another business, so spent my evenings and weekends delving into botanical history as a hobby. I found myself reading a book called The Art of Distillation, which contained recipes for alcoholic and non-alcoholic medicines created through distillation.
I’m a fan of arts and crafts at home, so bought a still and found the alchemy fascinating. Three months later I was in a very nice restaurant having dinner – it was a Monday night so I wasn’t drinking – and was disappointed that having asked for a good non-alcoholic drink, I had been given a bright pink, overly-sweet fruity mocktail. In such a high class place serving such incredible food, how was there not a non-alcoholic drink of equal standing? In a world where we have cars which drive themselves, how is this too much to ask? This made me consider my hobby, and how I could connect it to my design and farming experience. It took two years to create the final product, and in November 2015 Seedlip launched in Selfridges.
Having experience running my own design business helped in the sense of having the confidence to make the jump, understanding a little about finance and being able to work for myself. It was a small-scale operation and we were selling a service rather than a product which makes a big difference, plus I had two business partners so the risk was shared, but with Seedlip I decided to go it alone as I wasn’t sure how it would all turn out – even now I’m perfecting the ‘swan look’: appearing serene on the surface and madly scrabbling around under the water.
I was voracious when it came to asking around for advice and picking the brains of people who had been in my position. I found that people in the food industry were very generous with their time and happy to ‘pay it forward’, but I was aware that their time was precious so made sure that I was very clear on what information I wanted to glean from them. I read Starting a Business For Dummies, I learned how to use spreadsheets, and I scoured the internet to find out what I needed to know. I wasn’t afraid to ask stupid questions; unless you’ve been there before, you won’t know the price of a glass bottle, which is the best type and how to fill it – they don’t teach you that kind of thing at school, so you rely on people who have gone before you. There are lots of principles that apply to various business categories, so I went beyond the food industry to ask questions about things like setting up a business legally and banking. The chances are that everyone knows at least one person who can help in some way.
One of the greyest areas for me was trying to get some detail on what it takes to start a business – I didn’t want insider information on other peoples’ business models, just some guidance on what to do and expect. Equally on how to actually get a product made and packaged. There are so many things you need to consider in all sorts of areas, so if a list could be produced of the 1,000 things to know it would prove invaluable. Everyone can make a product in their kitchen, put it in a bag, slap a sticker on it and sell it at a market, but how do you move a business on from that? That’s the kind of thing the wider industry needs to be supporting startups with – making passion projects into viable businesses.
I don’t believe in the mantras that have come from the tech world, like that you should spend a minimal amount of time on product development then put it forward to customers to decide whether it’s right or not. A website can be altered every day but a recipe can’t; you can’t poison someone with an outdated website but you certainly can with bad food. With Seedlip I didn’t do lots of consumer research because it was a totally new product – they wouldn’t have known what they were tasting. They could tell me whether it’s nice or not but they had no frame of reference to gauge whether or not it would be a success, so I had to make sure that it was as perfect as it could be before launch.
There are ways of testing and learning as you go – invite friends of friends round for dinner to try your product, or give it to someone you know to share with a friend for some independent feedback. When you start talking to retailers and distributors, you’ll burn bridges by changing the price, or look, or taste of your product. The same theory applies to branding – you could get someone you know to knock up a logo for you so you can get the product out there quickly, but you’ll probably find yourself redoing the design in due course. If you spend time and energy doing something properly the first time round, that should tide you over. You need to have confidence in your work and fully believe in what you’re doing; if you don’t, how can other people have faith in your business and product?
It couldn’t be a more exciting time for the food and drink industry. We have consumers who are excited about quality food and want to know more about where it’s from and who made it, and a load of producers who are taking the same curiosity and doing something about it. There are so many people changing the standards of the food and drink that’s available to us, and it’s great that people are willing to pay for that – a market has been created. Both the supply and demand are there.
I met a lot of people who I wish had been more honest with me. I’d ask a simple question and they would mislead me; there are a lot of grey areas in this industry and a lot of time and money can be wasted by people not giving straight answers.
It’s not going to take six months, and it’ll cost more than £10,000. Don’t rush processes or be unrealistic about how long things will take – every step is important.
The big picture
The reason I’m doing this is not because I want to get rich – there are a lot of faster routes to money than creating a new category and launching a weird new product nobody has heard of. It’s borne out of everything I love and am passionate about first. Start-ups need to be clear on what they’re doing and why – you can have a plan to make lots of money, but you have to be aware that this is no get-rich-quick option – you’ve got to love what you do.
Genuine innovation is always well-considered. Does your product meet a need in peoples’ lives? Is there a demand for it? Don’t expect everyone to love what you do. There is a place for fads and short-term solutions – they offer business opportunities and fulfill needs – but creating unique products involves building something with longevity, and this is important as it’s going to take time both for you to create the product and then for the industry and public to come around to it. Remember that people don’t like change: it takes time for peoples’ habits to evolve and for them to welcome new things into their lives. Niche isn’t a bad thing by any means - carving your own can prove invaluable.
It’s important that people go into this business with open eyes and that the myths of ‘overnight success’ are allayed. Friends and family will tell you that your product is amazing because they believe in you and want you to go far, but you need someone to temper that positivity with reality – it takes time and money to run a food business. It’s not always an easy ride. You’ll have to ask questions or be in situations you won’t want to, but if you have someone who can make you aware that tough times will happen and mentor you through them you’ll survive.
Do you run a start-up food and drink company that’s under three years old? Why not enter the New Producer Awards? It’s free!