- It’s all about trusting yourself, says Cecily Mills, founder of organic, dairy-free ice cream brand, Coconuts Naturally. As an entrepreneur, you need big reserves of self-belief if you’re going to ask others to believe in you
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My previous career was in retail management, with Marks and Spencer and Oliver Bonas, but I always knew I wanted my own business. Retail was great training, but as an entrepreneur you have to wear so many different hats. Overcoming daily challenges to get the business going can be tough and lonely. I landed my first big order in April 2015 – with no premises, a need to develop a fourth ice cream flavour and a four-month-old baby. Then the recipes all went wrong when I put them through the new pasteurising machine. Somehow I managed to fulfil the order - and it was a huge learning curve.
It’s crucial to seek out support and guidance and I’ve been very lucky with that. I received invaluable business coaching from Oxford Innovation and had support from an experienced mentor from within the food sector who was introduced to me through the Seed Fund. While good mentors are essential, it’s also important to have confidence in your own expertise. Everyone tends to have an opinion on how you should be running your business, so you also have to learn what to filter out. I keep in mind that it’s very easy to dish out advice when you’re not the one loading pallets in a cold store at 6am with a baby strapped to your back!
I got the idea for Coconuts Naturally in 2013. My retail job was demanding - and I moved to a plant-based diet to increase my energy levels. Ice-cream was the one thing I missed and the dairy-free versions available just weren’t that good. So I made my own. One with all the health credentials I wanted, including organic and all-natural ingredients, but with no compromise on taste and texture.
With the investment backing of family and friends, the business grew quickly and I secured great local and national contracts. I needed more investment to take the business to the next level and that’s when I applied for Dragons’ Den. I’ve always been a huge fan of the programme, but I had no idea what to expect – it was a bit of a shot in the dark. I got through the selection rounds and before I knew it, I was in the studio standing before the Dragons.
The whole process was an invaluable learning experience. It reinforced the importance of trusting in my own capabilities. It also taught me that you can never prepare too much. I went over and over my pitch until I was boring myself, let alone everyone around me who was forced to listen! I remained absolutely focused on what I wanted to achieve. It was a major boost to get such great feedback from the Dragons – it validated my goals and my business. Most importantly for me, they all loved the ice cream. When Peter Jones said it was “exceptional” - and the best free-from ice cream he’d ever tried, it was fantastic to get that recognition.
I received two offers in the Den, from Tej Lalvani and Jenny Campbell – and I accepted Jenny’s offer on the show. However, shortly after filming, some key developments meant that Jenny’s offer no longer made business sense - and I had to decline it in the end. It was a very difficult decision, not least turning down the chance to work with a phenomenal business woman like Jenny. Again, I followed my instinct and it was the right thing to do for the company.
We’re now expanding our domestic and export business. We’re about to ship our first order to Hong Kong - and we’ve also struck an exciting new deal in the UK. Two new flavours are in development, and we’re also focusing on improving our branding.
Of course I’m constantly facing new challenges, but I love being kept on my toes. It’s what drives the business forward and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
Cecily’s Tips for Start Ups Seeking Investment
Be flexible, things change all the time
Preparation and rehearsal are key - to the point of boredom
Keep your accounts in order from day one. Invest in a good accountant
Be authentic, be you. Investors will see straight through you if you are not
Sales are king. Don’t lose sight of this
Ask, ask, ask and ask again. If you don’t ask you don’t get
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