Today’s ‘Your Story’ takes a slightly different format with Julie Waddell sharing her journey from – BBC Journalist to Artisan Food Entrepreneur.
Julie Waddell launched The Little Smoked Food Company Ltd in 2012 and won a listing for her products in Waitrose in November of the same year. Here’s her story…
I’ve been privileged to work as a BBC Broadcast Journalist for almost ten years, most recently working on my favourite show – Radio 4’s “The Food Programme”. I love this show because it’s interesting, entertaining, and intelligently informative and of course, most importantly, it’s about food!
For the programme, I’d been carrying out some research, into how humous has become a fridge staple in the UK; almost an adopted ‘British’ food; like curry. So much so that supermarkets now stock up to 30 varieties, and it flies off the shelves.
I knew this was true in my household: the only healthy food my fussy 4 year old chooses to eat is humous. But bored of offering him the same thing all the time; I dug out my wok, some tea leaves, rice and brown sugar and tracked down the James Martin home-smoked trout recipe online.
Instead of trout, though, I was smoking chickpeas as my culinary nosiness had brought this to mind as something that sounded like it would taste amazing. It did. I had my son desperately trying to open the fridge day and night to get some for himself.
Guests, too, were raving about the deep, smoky taste which was completely addictive. So that was my lightbulb moment – could my family’s new special treat appeal to other people too? As part of my work for the beeb, I’d also investigated the newly fired passion in the UK for smoked food. Further research told me that no one else is making smoked chickpea humous; so this was going to be completely new.
I had to try it. I explained my quirky invention to my local and they offered to let me do some taste testing. Suddenly it all seemed very real – the start of something big?
Having never done anything like this before, I looked up “taste-testing” online, worked out how best to conduct the research (luckily I have a little experience in that area) and bought a load of bowls and spoons. So far, so good; but a lot was riding on this trial and I was nervous.
I placed some supermarket humous in a plain white bowl, with some of my smoked humous in an identical bowl. I was relieved to find the deli customers very friendly and happy to try the two products. The session seemed to go well; with lots of positive comments; but I couldn’t be certain of success until the end of the session. But as I totted up the results, it became plain – my smoked “Moorish” humous was as a clear 4:1 winner!
This was when I knew I was on to something. Next I did the same taste-test at our local primary school, believe me you don’t get fussier customers than this, especially when it comes to new flavours. I was very pleased to see it go down well there too, as getting kids to eat healthy food was how this all started and it seemed to be working. We came out as preferred 2:1 by 4-7 years, result!
The business grew from selling our products in to the delis of Birmingham to listings in Planet Organic and Wholefoods.
But we really took off in November 2012 when we were lucky enough to start stocking our products in Waitrose.
That’s the personal side of the story, so how does the business side stack up?…
Success has been driven by a careful choice of product; researching to find a commodity that’s in demand, with high margins where innovation is actively sought and consumer price sensitivity is minimal.
Once a unique product fitting these criteria was found and the market tested, the business was created using very careful bootstrapping, utilising services offered by larger organisations (eg. consultation with a solicitor through the business bank account) and working with people on a ‘need to hire’ basis.
Further success came from hiring a consultant (paid for as and when needed) to bring specific knowledge of the sector to the business. Contact was made between the Consultant and a manufacturer and an agreeable contract drawn up to allow the product to be manufactured under licence.
This enabled fixed pricing and profit margins to be established, bringing clear and measurable financial benefits with low risk as the business operates under licence on a royalty basis.
Cash flow is managed by the manufacturer, along with material and labour costs, allowing The Little Smoked Food Company Ltd to focus on driving sales and marketing activity. A marketing consultant was then brought in with a view to a small equity share in return for helping establish initial success.
Growth was achieved by arranging targeted meetings with key buyers. A great product, low financial risk and good margins for all allowed product sales to grow quickly without over-extending any one party.
What have I learned through all of this? Here are the top 10 lessons:
1. Drive a hard bargain by all means, but be fair or people won’t want to deal with you.
2. Don’t forget that you are the figurehead of your company and everything you do and say is a reflection of your business.
3. Be friendly but be aware that business is business and it’s more about being professional than being liked.
4. You can do business with people you don’t like, it’s not nice but it’s grown up and sometimes it’s necessary for your business if they are the right person for the job.
5. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to ask friends for advice or even help. You’ll be amazed at how willing some people are to support you.
6. Having the right contacts can be everything, so don’t be afraid to network and make the most of your existing connections. It’s not about being pushy, just ask yourself, ‘would I mind being contacted under the same circumstances?’.
7. Don’t pester people, but also don’t take no for an answer (leave it a few months and try again). Equally, know when to walk away.
8. Don’t take anything people say as gospel, check it out yourself and always be on top of the details.
9. Remember you are the world expert on your product or service, when you’re selling it you know more about it than the person you’re selling to so relax and don’t worry that they’ll trip you up.
10. Keep going, even if other people try and put you off. There are days when you’ll want to give up but when you’ve worked this hard that’s just not an option. Tomorrow will be better.