The Evolution of a Healthy, No-added Sugar, Gluten Free Dessert Company
The sound of party poppers reminds you of the New Millennium Party. The smell of zesty lemon and rich chocolate fill the room. There are streamers everywhere. Congratulations!! You have survived your first year as an Entrepreneur in an Irish Food Business. If you are anything like us here at Life Kitchen, you will be proud to celebrate your 1st birthday. It more than likely has been a tough year and very few of us have got through the year unscathed or battered. With my many bruises after the first year of Life Kitchen No Added Sugar, Gluten Free Desserts being on the market here’s my countdown of my Top Ten Tips for Surviving your 1st Year in Business.
Utilise any grants you can get
There is a whole plethora of grants available from different agencies around Ireland. So, get to know the funding landscape. Here is a link to a site that gives you the supports available depending on the stage you are at.
Particular grants you should definitely look at is:
- Innovation Vouchers from Enterprise Ireland to help with product development
- Feasibility Study Grants from both the Local Enterprise Office Network and EI to help with looking at the feasibility of a new idea or direction, manufacturing process etc.
- Priming Grant from the LEO network to help with the business development such as recruitment of staff, purchasing equipment etc.
- Trading Online Grants from the LEO Network to pay for the development of an ecommerce website.
- Micro enterprise grants from LEOs allows you to take on a student for a placement of 6 months.
- Competitive Start Fund from EI give 50K for a 10% shareholding. It is hard to get and food companies have a low success rate. They need to have the potential to export and have 10+ staff in 3 years
There is no such thing as bad PR!
As a new food product on the market it is really important you get the word out about your product and service to get people to know about it. When a person walks into a shop there is approx. 200,000 products in front of them. How do you make sure people find out about your product? Try and get as much free PR as possible. Here is my list of definite things to do:
- Enter Business competitions and awards like the AIB Start Up Awards, IntertradeIreland’s Seedcorn, Bank of Ireland Startup Awards, IBYE from the LEOs. There are loads of them but if you get through to the finals they are heavily promoted.
- Go for Dragons Den! I was on it this year and even though I didn’t get an investment on the show it was like a 9 min ad on national TV. It has raised my exposure massively. It was probably my best bit of PR this year and it didn’t cost me a thing!
- Get a list of Journalists together and keep them updated of regular developments in the company.
- Contact bloggers and influencers that would be interested in your products. If they agree, send them some samples and hopefully they will do a post on them. I have to say that most bloggers and influencers are very supportive of small Irish companies and will help in any way they can.
Use the Startup Refund for Entrepreneurs (SURE) program
This program has been a Godsend for me! So, if you invest money in your business and if you are working full time in your business you can potentially claim tax back from previous PAYE tax years. As an example, I’ve invested 70,000 of my own money in the business. I have claimed 41% back which has allowed me to survive this year because I wasn’t claiming a salary. So, if you have invested and you meet the criteria, go for it. It goes against your de minimus funding level though so keep an eye on that.
Learn from your failures and celebrate them.
Look, everyone makes mistakes or things don’t work out the way you expect. Sometimes it feels like you take 1 step forward and 4 steps back. Don’t let it get you down. There is always a nugget of gold in your mistake that you can learn from or even give you a new direction. The way I look at it is that it is better for me to make these mistakes now rather than farther down my journey when it could be more critical. People keep saying to me “if it was easy everyone would do it” and it is sooo true.
Get some great advocates
I find, because I’m a “solopreneur” it is one of the loneliest places to be. You find yourself talking to yourself a lot and second-guessing every thought and decision. Sometimes it feels like you are the only person in the world. So, get yourself a virtual team of advocates that you can meet for a pint or coffee and bounce ideas off them! I have two accountants who are my voices of reason, two entrepreneurs who pick me up and motivate me when I am unsure and 2 successful business owners that I learn from some of their mistakes. I have a technical PhD background, so I started the company with very little business skills. The first thing I did was to educate myself. In the last 2 years I have completed 2 postgraduate Diplomas in the IMI and 1 in NUIG. Apart from what you learn, the people you meet are more important! I know I can phone most of my classmates and they will help me out. I would do the same for them too! In fact, I still meet some regularly and they are probably my biggest advocates.
Concentrate on Digital Marketing
I was fortunate enough earlier this year to win a scholarship from FORA.ie to do a MSc in Digital Marketing in the Michael Smurfit Business School in Dublin. Even though I have just finished my first 2 modules the future of marketing is clear in my head.
The average amount of times someone looks at their phone in a day is 230 times! People are researching products online before they go into a shop. 50% of people that look for something online will go into a shop to buy it within 24hrs! And you can target very specific groups of people too. If you want your products to be seen you need to have a good online presence. As I progress through my course I will update you all on this.
Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are a great way to get your name out there. They help you to interact with your customers so pay it forward by running competitions, offering free downloads etc like what we did here with our FREE recipe book and here with our FREE plans to help you manage your diet.
The future of marketing is digital be it through social media or google adwords. Get onboard now. There is one caveat though that is my No. 1 Tip and I’ll talk about that in a little while.
Distribution is the hardest thing to get right
My Life Kitchen healthy desserts are a chilled product with a short shelf-life so distribution is difficult. It is a real balancing act trying to get the product made, out to shops, managing returns and then making sure coldchain is kept throughout the cycle. My advice is to outsource it as soon as you can to a company that meets your needs. If you want to do it yourself you need to allocate at least 60K a year between the cost of a van, fuel and wages. It can work out a lot cheaper to get a company to do the distribution for you and you can then concentrate on scaling the business.
Network with like-minded people
It can be tough to get a Food company up and going and even tougher to survive the first few years. There are a load of other companies at the same stage out there. So, never think of yourself as an island but as an archipelago. Share experiences, distribution routes, pool ingredients. A good example is the Food Academy producer group where we all supply SuperValu with our products. We take pictures when we are in store and share on Whatsapp so everyone can see their stock levels in store. So try to work with the other small producers rather than against each other.
Talk about how your product addresses a customer need.
It is more important to talk about how your product addresses some issue in the consumers life rather than talking about the product itself. And if you can’t immediately say how your product is helping customers you are losing out big time. When I started out I used Design Thinking exercises to understand what the customer wanted. I watched them shop and saw how they interacted with products in store. I went to their homes to see how they interacted with the products they buy and I did extensive focus groups to understand the issues in their lives and how they felt I could address them. Where there was a particular pain point I tried to address it such as having my healthy desserts being no added sugar, gluten free. Diabetes is a major issue in Ireland and people want a range of healthy desserts suitable for diabetics that weren’t full of fat and preservatives.
When I launched I spent time in shops watching customers interact with my products and asked them what interested them or made them look! This is something I still do particularly in shops where it is selling well. This was a little tip I got from Tessa Stuart who wrote a book called Packed. It is full of useful information for new food products.
Taste, Taste and Finally Taste!
Finally down to the best tip for new food companies. Taste, Taste and Taste! I cannot overestimate the importance of getting people to taste your product. With food products, like my no added sugar, gluten free desserts,the only way to get people to buy them is to allow them to taste first. With any food product it is the only way to sell. So take every opportunity to do tastings in store, at meetings, gyms, basically wherever your potential customers meet!
So, that its. These 10 Top Tips have allowed me to survive on the market in Ireland and to start growing my business outside of Ireland. Hopefully some of the things I have learned or things that have worked for me will help other producers too to take their first few rungs on the ladder. Maybe I will see you beside my Life Kitchen no added sugar , gluten free healthy desserts on the shelves of SuperValu and other stores.