10 things I learned from surviving my first year in the food business

One entrepreneur gives his tips on how to launch a startup in the competitive industry.

By John Collier Founder, Life Kitchen

IF YOU ARE anything like me, you will be proud to celebrate your first birthday. It more than likely has been a tough year, and very few of us have got through unscathed or battered.

With my many bruises after the first year of Life Kitchen being on the market, here’s my countdown of my top 10 tips for surviving the initial 12 months of being in the food business:

1. Use any grants you can get

There is a plethora of grants available from different agencies around Ireland, so get to know the funding landscape.

Grants you should definitely look at include:

  • Innovation vouchers from Enterprise Ireland (EI) to help with product development;
  • Feasibility study grants from both the Local Enterprise Office (LEO) network and EI to help with looking at a new idea, direction or manufacturing process;
  • Priming grant from the LEO network to help with the business development such as recruitment of staff or purchasing equipment;
  • Trading online grants from the LEO network to pay for the development of an e-commerce site;
  • Micro-enterprise grants from LEOs allow you to take on a student for a placement of six months;
  • Competitive start fund from EI gives €50,000 for a 10% shareholding – although it’s hard to get, and food companies have a low success rate.

2. There is no such thing as bad PR

As a new food product on the market, it is really important to get the word out. When a person walks into a shop, there are about 200,000 products in front of them.

How do you make sure people find out about your product? Here’s my list of things to try:

  • Enter business competitions and awards like the AIB Start-up Academy, IntertradeIreland’s Seedcorn, Bank of Ireland Startup Awards and 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 nine-minute ad on national TV. It has raised my exposure massively, 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. I have to say that most bloggers and influencers are very supportive of small Irish companies and will help in any way they can.

3. Use the Startup Refund for Entrepreneurs (SURE) programme

This has been a godsend for me. If you invest money in your business and are working full-time on it, 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 earning a salary.

4. Learn from your failures and celebrate them

Everyone makes mistakes and things don’t work out the way you expect. Sometimes it feels like you take one step forward and four steps back. Don’t let it get you down.

There is always a nugget in your mistake that you can learn from or even use to give you a new direction. It is far better to make these mistakes now rather than further down the journey when it could be more critical.

5. Get some great advocates

Being a ‘solopreneur’ 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.

Get yourself a team of advocates that you can meet for a pint or coffee and bounce ideas off.

I have two accountants who are my voices of reason, two entrepreneurs who pick me up and motivate me when I am unsure and two successful business owners whose mistakes I learn from.

I have a technical PhD background, so I started the company with very few business skills. The first thing I did was to educate myself.

In the last two years, I have completed three postgraduate diplomas. As well as what you learn, the people you meet are vital. Some of my classmates and I still meet regularly, and they are probably my biggest advocates.

6. Focus on digital marketing

I was fortunate enough earlier this year to win a scholarship from Fora to do a MSc in digital marketing at the UCD Smurfit School in Dublin. Even though I have just finished my first two modules, the future of marketing is clear in my head.

People look at their phones an average of 230 times in a day. They are researching products online before they go into a shop. If you want your products to be seen, you need to have a good online presence.

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 and offering free downloads – like we did with our recipe book and diet plans.

7. Distribution is the hardest thing to get right

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 and manage returns while making sure the cold-chain 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 €60,000 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.

8. 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. But there are a load of other companies at the same stage out there.

Share experiences, distribution routes and pool ingredients. A good example is the Food Academy producer group – we all supply SuperValu with our products.

We take pictures when we are in store and share them on Whatsapp so everyone can see their stock levels. Try to work with the other small producers rather than against each other.

9. Talk about how your product addresses a customer need

It is more important to talk about how your product addresses some issue in the consumer’s life, rather than talking about the product itself.

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 and 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.

10. Taste, taste and finally taste

I cannot overestimate the importance of getting people to taste your product. With food products, the only way to get people to buy them is to allow them to taste first – 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.

John Collier is the founder of Life Kitchen. This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on the Life Kitchen blog.

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