READ ME: What I learnt from starting a food business
This was originally published in Feb 2018
Today is a bit of a different post but something I felt would be interesting to share with you all. Its all about my experience of starting a food business, what I learnt from it and what the future looks like for me.
I think starting a food business can sound very romantic and everyone has visions of swimming in the sea like the Happy Pear at dawn and hanging around with hipster types photographing Instagram worthy acai bowls.
The below isn’t meant to be overly negative, positive or in between..its literally my experience and is something I would have been very interested in reading prior to starting out in a food business.
Myself and my husband started Meal Genie after we had been on holidays at Christmas time. For those who don’t know, Meal Genie was a recipe box delivery business. It would provide you with all the ingredients in the right quantities and a recipe card for you to prepare dinners. It was for me all about education as I do firmly believe cooking and knowing how to cook for yourself is one of the most important lessons we can learn in terms of being able to remain healthy.
Every afternoon on holidays we’d make coffee and watch the numerous ads that are on American tv and we saw an ad for Blue Apron….Blue Apron is pretty much the market leader in terms of recipe delivery boxes and we were literally bowled over by the idea.
If there was ever a sentence that was more spoken between us as a couple it was always “what’s for dinner” and this was the ultimate game changer in being able to solve this issue. We thought surely if this is a problem for us it must be for other people.
At the time I was working as an accountant and I had been for about a decade. I liked working as an accountant but I always had a bit of a want in me to possibly do something else and to test my boundaries. The thought of having one career for the whole of my life quite frankly terrified me.
I found myself looking around in workplaces I had worked over the years and looking to people I could imagine being like in 10 years times and I never really saw it.
I especially used to hate seeing professional women who were torn between being at home and seeing their children every day but also trying to fit into the confines of a 9-5. To me it felt like they were trying to achieve everything and really weren’t achieving anything at all to their best ability due to the demands of it all.
Jamie had always worked for himself and I also thought it wasn’t really possible for us to live life to our true potential if we both didn’t have the freedom of working for ourselves.
I think sometimes in life we can be looking for that one finite moment where we are like…right its now…and in truth that never came…it was more how lacklustre I felt about my current career and trajectory in life that spurred me into doing something else.
And here came lesson number one: Meal Genie wasn’t either myself or Jamies true passion. I had started studying Nutritional Therapy and would have always considered myself a real lover of food and nutrition however Meal Genie wasn’t mine or Jamie’s true passion if i’m being really honest with myself. It was more of a “lets try this” between myself and Jamie and our first foray into business as a married couple as well (which had a different set of issues!).
Jamie is an entrepreneur and had a couple of businesses of his own and saw Meal Genie as a great potential way of making money however wasn’t really passionate about food (apart from eating it) or the idea of owning a food business.
People will tell you that in order to have a food business you need to be super passionate about it and that is the truth… It is without doubt one of the most difficult industries to be in for a number of different reasons which I will go into a bit more. I have literally nothing but the utmost respect for people who own food businesses.
So off we started on our journey to start a food business which brings me to lesson number two. I did commerce in UCD… but having your own business is literally nothing like anything you learn in college.
You sort of kid yourself that you should have a clue how to run a business but the theory and practicality of these two things could not be any more different.
Which brings me to the most basic fundamental mistake we made….market research. Does the market actually want what you are selling? I’m ashamed to say we did really little in terms of market research. Sometimes it can be so easy to say..oh this doesn’t exist…I think its an amazing idea…lets do this…but this is to be frank… really fucking stupid.
Market research is annoying because it can seem like it is really non value add. Once you want to start your own business you want to get stuck into actually starting it…you don’t want to do the boring stuff…you’ve already decided its an amazing idea! But literally you are one opinion…and don’t bother asking friends or family either…they won’t tell you the truth. They will either be super positive about it or super negative which will give you a skewed opinion.
Lesson number 3 : Pick who you go into business with very carefully. Myself and Jamie could not be anymore different (which business wise) in theory should work. I am super analytical and like to plan everything to the very nth degree. Jamie is more…fuck it..lets do it.
This didn’t work primarily because neither myself or Jamie were in charge but that was mostly to do with mistake number one.
Make sure whoever you go into business with there is one lead or shared leads that have a shared vision and/or at the very least there are separate areas that parties are responsible for. Know your strengths and lead in that area. Respect and acknowledge other peoples abilities and talents.
Lesson nunber 4: Whatever money you think you are going to need….multiply it by 4. Obviously this isn’t a formula…but genuinely you will need a lot more money that you think you will for a couple of different reasons. Yes I did do financial forecasts that I would have considered conservative but not conservative enough. Also financial forecasts mean absolutely nothing at the start before you’ve traded…you might as well stick a finger in the air to see what way the wind is blowing. You will not make money from a food business for a very long time unless you are possibly Fulfill or Strong Roots which are the exception to the rule especially if you are going into something which is an unproven completely new concept in the market which Meal Genie was.
Lesson number 5: Consider your values…This is something which is really difficult in the food industry especially. Health products are incredibly popular now… raw, organic, prebiotics, probiotics, vegan. As well as that, often people who start food businesses are very passionate about their product and it being a certain way and are not willing to compromise on these values. Chances are in order to actually earn money you are going to have to compromise somewhere along the way. Consider your values with regards to your product…the ones that are literally at the very core of your brand and the ones that are “good to have”. Personally I think you will need to have a little bit of give if you want to have a profitable food business.
Lesson number 6: Consider how you want to live your life. Sounds really obvious doesn’t it?? Starting a food business will involve working a huge amount of hours possibly earning no money at all for a number of years. This is why I said you will need a huge amount of passion to see you through. It will probably involve doing mostly everything yourself for a number of years from the production, distribution, marketing, tasting, delivery, negotiations and everything in between. It will involve doing the parts of the job you love along with a lot you don’t enjoy. It will probably involve not being able to take a holiday for a very long time. I’m not ashamed to say that this isn’t something I wanted to do. Life is short…you have to live it the way you want to.
Lesson number 7: If you are lucky enough to get investment don’t spend it until you get it. This one was a real eye opener. About this time last year we realised Meal Genie was going to require a huge amount of money primarily for marketing purposes. We had already invested a great deal of money into it ourselves and decided to look for investment.
We were actually pretty lucky in that we got introduced to someone who decided they were going to invest. Hands were shook and the deal was done. We went about putting the marketing plan into place, spending money on what needed to be done and all of a sudden everything went quiet. The investment fell through and we were left with the bills. Don’t count your chickens until the money hits the bank account.
Lesson nunber 8: Retail sucks….if you can at all sell your product online…. its the easiest way to get your product to your customer. But you will need to make sure you have a base to be able to sell it to which means you’ll need to spend more money on marketing. Marketing isn’t as expensive as it used to be though with social media at play.
Retail is really difficult. A product that starts off at a €5 can end up costing €20 by the time it reaches the shelf. The real winners in the retail game are the distributors and the retailers as they are getting plus 25% just for getting your product to a shelf or putting it there.
Lesson number 9: Consider your product…the less shelf life your product has the more difficult it is going to be for a number of different reasons. As I said above you will be doing everything yourself. Consider the product…if your product has a really short shelf life you will need to get it to a supermarket on time and be constantly producing in order to keep it there..you will also have to manage waste etc.
If you are considering launching a food product maybe consider an ambient or frozen product instead. Brands like Strong Roots have really revolutionised the way people perceive frozen goods in particular and the less you have to worry about something like shelf life the more time you will have to spend on other aspects of your business like marketing and sales. On a similar note consider your brand range from the start.
What products can you add to the range at some stage down the road that are going to increase your revenue? A really good example of that at the moment is Nobo. I think a lot of us are familiar with their ice-cream but in reality how often do people buy ice-cream (especially when its snowing outside)…their new chocolate is a great complementary product which is ambient, is aligned with their values and can be much more easily distributed.
Lesson number 10: Don’t start if you are looking to be bought out…..if the end goal is to be bought out don’t start. The journey will be too long and honestly I think the only businesses that manage to stay passionate about what they are doing and love the journey are actually the businesses that get bought out as larger companies will sense your love and respect for your product and your business. Don’t go into a food business to make money..as it will probably disappoint you and I really do think there are easier ways to do this.
So I am sorry this has probably sounded very negative but I literally would not change it for the world. I have genuinely learnt more about myself, my husband, my relationship and what I want and need from the world in the last 2 years that I had in the last 10.
I’ve grown more confident and learnt a lot about my skills and my shortcomings. I’ve really struggled with the idea of failure and failing at my first business but I also see that it just wasnt meant to be. I’m proud of myself for starting and stopping and i’m proud that I’ve been brave enough to admit it just wasn’t what I wanted. Failure is something we should celebrate.
This to me is just a part of the journey now. I’m literally just about to qualify as a Nutritional Therapist AND I feel like the timing of the universe has been perfect. I’m about to embark on a whole new part of my career and my vision is very clear (something I never had with Meal Genie). I also don’t feel afraid to try out other things because I’ve learnt so much from this experience.
These are just my thoughts on starting a food business and there are lots of people who have had really positive experiences with their food businesses. I would have loved to have heard from someone prior to starting off on the journey but in truth I probably would have done whatever I was doing anyway!
I do believe everything happens for a reason. I am also really grateful to have met some really amazing people who have unbelievable businesses along the way also.
I hope this was of some help to you and I’d love to hear from you if you have any thoughts on the above or if you’d like to ask me anything.
Thanks for reading!
(aka The Nutritionist Foodie)