5 Mistakes to avoid in 2018

Last year I wrote a book called – Recipe for success – the ingredients of a profitable food business and whilst it is aimed at food producers, the principles are just as applicable to any consumer good whether that is a chocolate mousse or a mascara


And so are the mistake that companies make time and time again in selling and marketing their lovely products.  2018 is going to be a tough year – food inflation is still on the up, Brexit uncertainty is going to continue to bite and experts are predicting a share price crash.  So what mistakes should you avoid in 2018?


  1. Creating a product that is too expensive to sell – let’s be honest, we all pay a bit too much for somethings – the branded trainers, the luxury perfume. But in general, there is a ceiling price for a category whether it is food or toiletries. Make sure that before you design your product – you research what the market will bear in terms of retail price and design your packaging, recipe/formulation accordingly.
  2. Going mass market when niche is so much more productive

When I wrote my book, I aimed at a specific niche of food producers – I may have sold more copies if I had written a general business book but there are so many more people out there with that type of book and readers are harder to find.  With a niche positioning, you can target your marketing more effectively and identify a gap in the market that other people are not filling and therefore it makes it easier to sell to your retailers and distributors  Take the example of Pip n Nut – she started by offering nut butters in sachets – finding a niche of providing nut butters on the go – she established the brand, got some traction and then expanded into broader markets, couple of years later – creating a business that is now turns over £9m

  1. Running before you can walk – so many start ups that I meet, want to launch into the multiple retailers (my area of expertise) before they have established any sales on the ground. They also look for investor funding when they don’t have one sale under their belt other than a few market stalls. Build a solid strategy for your business with a route to market that covers at least the first two years and establish a track record and traction.  The exception to this is probably Brew Dog who went from selling a few high alcohol beers to suddenly being asked to supply 200 stores – a rare X factory moment but from that they flew to a business that has been valued at upto £1bn!!
  2. Not thinking beyond the first listing – when we first start a business, we become obsessed with getting that retail listing – but then when its in the store – what do you do to keep it selling? There are so many ways to sell product through – sampling, promotions and social media – focus in on your key retailers and boost their sales. You also need to consider pipe fill with new products. If you think about Cauli rice, they started with a one product (clue is in the title) and then expanded into a number of different flavoured rice.  They are now changing their name to Full green as they want to expand into other vegetables such as sweet potato rice etc.  Evolution not revolution (although total brand name change is revolution!!)
  3. Trying to do it all yourself – my resolution for 2018 is to outsource as much as I can in terms of accountancy and admin (my worst nightmares) and social media – which I have learnt to do reasonably well but am sure someone else could do a lot better. As an entrepreneur, we are all run ragged trying to do everything and we get exhausted and burnt out.


Work with a business mentor like myself (and there are plenty for free as well – try Princes Trust, if you are sub 30, Virgin startup and local authorities) to plan out your business priorities and what you can delegate.  I know it sounds expensive but think of the opportunity cost of your time – can you make more money focussing on selling more products and building a promotional programme vs sitting at a computer screen trying to do your receipts!!


Avoid these big 5 mistakes and you will have a very prosperous and happy 2018!

5 mistakes to avoid when selling into UK retailers

I started life in a department store and then moved to be a buyer first at Tesco and then Boots. I then turned gamekeeper and moved to food suppliers as a commercial director and have spent the last 10 years selling into retailers. So what are the 5 mistakes that companies make when trying to get a listing in a UK retailer?

  1. Failing to get the appointment — it is so hard to get an appointment or even a reaction from a retail buyer. On average they have over 200 emails a day and if you are someone like Selfridges most of these will be from companies wanting you to look at new product ideas. So what can you do — get the right buyer (use linked in), warm them up (find anyone you know, who knows them) and send an email. Then a letter and then call to follow up. Don’t stalk, never ring or contact on a Monday and don’t use their personal email if you find it on Linked in!!! And don’t be disheartened if they don’t respond, it may not be the time of year that they are looking at your category. Write again a month later!
  2. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail — if you get a meeting — prepare!!! Know your business, know your numbers and know the retailer you are going to meet. Make sure you have visited their stores before the meeting and if you have a linked in profile of the buyer, get to know them. And know what you want to achieve — what key selling points to you want to get across and what do you want — a listing, an increase in distribution, promotional ends?
  3. Be adaptable — I went to a presentation with Selfridges, a few weeks ago with a beautiful 12 page presentation on the market, company and products — he swept it aside (very politely) and said lets look at the products. I was delighted to do as he asked and of course having prepared the presentation, I had the key selling points in my head but could adapt them to the meeting.
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask and listen to the answers — sometimes it is impossible to have all the answers and knowledge about a potential customer. If you can demonstrate that you have researched them but for example in the case of Eurostar, it is impossible to have their range detail without a trip to Paris (ok not bad thing!) but if you ask the buyer what they are looking for, listen to the answer. Think how you can adapt your product or proposal to meet their needs
  5. Being afraid to say no — if your buyer, as one did the other day to a client of mine, says I don’t like your packaging and so please change your brand design and then we will list the product ….think about it. Does the buyer have a point or is this YOUR brand design — they wouldn’t suggest that coca cola changes from red to pink spots so why would then to you?! Also don’t be afraid to say no if the deal just isn’t right — again, a client of mine was asked to reduce her prices to so low that she didn’t make money just broke even — but this would mean that the rest of her business retail prices would be compromised and of course her bottom line would be severely impacted. Its hard to walk away but I have done it a couple of times and then they have come back with a better offer!

I specialize in helping businesses to get their products onto retailer shelves and help them stay there so get in touch if you would like a FREE half hour introductory chat about your business and how I might be able to help you


Innovation is this amazing intersection between someone’s imagination and the reality in which they live. The problem is, many companies don’t have great imagination, but their view of reality tells them that it’s impossible to do what they imagine.” Ron Johnson, CEO, JC Penney

Most food businesses are governed by the necessary structure and rules to ensure consistent quality and maximum health and safety. So how do you enable the culture that allows people to go beyond their view of reality and really live their imagination?

Here are a few ways to a creative and innovative culture:

  1. Take it from the top!!

Within the majority of innovative businesses, there are strong leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg, James Dyson and Richard Reed, who are obsessed with driving creativity and newness in their business. PA Consulting undertook a survey of 821 senior executives about innovation and found that 81% of successful businesses had leaders who offer their employees an inspirational sense of purpose when it comes to innovation.

  1. Building a creative culture

Giving people the time to be innovative is key. Often day-to-day pressures get in the way of the innovation projects so we need to ensure that we build innovation into everything we do rather than it being the project that gets looked at on a Friday afternoon.

It is important that everyone in the team is aligned and enabled for evolution and innovation. Taking risks and accepting that some will fail needs to part of the culture and encouraged not punished! Ways of encouraging the creative passion include:

  • Innovation incentive scheme –most clients have an incentive scheme whereby great innovative ideas are considered and the idea generator is rewarded with a percentage of the money saved.
  • Off-site creativity days — It’s good to go off site and focus on new ideas and innovation planning. Ensure part of that day involves going to inspirational sources such as Liberty and Paperchase for design and colour themes. Go to a gift show or art exhibition or just walk down the street and look in shop windows. Be a magpie and steal ideas from where ever you find them.
  • Creative play –some of my best ideas come to me in the shower, when I am out shopping or at three in the morning when I can’t sleep ie when I am not thinking about work! It is great to create a play area where you can take time out from the computer — read magazines, doodle, and generally let the creative mind run free.
  1. Use of fresh eyes— sometimes bringing fresh eyes to each job role can really help to give a fresh perspective. This can be:
  • Rotating people from their traditional roles in the business and getting them to challenge traditions in other areas.
  • Ask suppliers to present inspirational ideas for your business
  • Subscribe to newsletters such as www.thefoodpeople.co.ukwww.foodbev.com/newlettersetc
  • Use a consultant or interim on a short term basis who has a different set of experience and will be able to look at your business with a fresh and innovative perspective.

There is no doubt that innovation drives business value and profitable sales growth. And by following some of these ideas and creating an innovation culture to enable and motivate your team and by keeping a strong source of new ideas and viewpoints, you can drive food innovation that keeps your business ahead of the pack — and of course winning Quality food awards long into the future!

Setting and getting the right price for your product

As part of my profile raising strategy to publicise my book — “Recipe for success — the ingredients of a profitable food business”, I was asked to deliver a masterclass how to make a profit.

And it got me thinking — how few people in the food industry actually talk about making money — so is it a dirty word (or indeed phrase?) . There is much written on creating your brand, designing great packaging and generating great innovative ideas (see my last blog!) but what about simple focus on making money!

I have read Simon Sinek’s book “Start with why?” He says it is not about making money or selling the widget for a profit, It is about “why”. People are looking for a story — the reason that you get up in the morning. The purpose, cause or belief that inspires you to do what you do. And that is great foundation for why you are making the nut butter, gluten free bread or vegan sausages. BUT, you cannot achieve your why without making money and you may want to save the world from a shortage of nut butter but to do this you need to make a profit so you pay the mortgage, rent or buy your own food!

So how do you make it happen? To make money you need to focus on very simple economics:

  1. Set the right retail price

What price will your product sell for?

  • Know your USP — if you have a unique product that you cannot get anywhere else then you can set a high price. I have just paid £78 for a replacement Apple charger for my macbook air — other brands are available but I love my mac! Would I pay more? Probably!!
  • What’s the competition pricing — there is always a competitive alternative even if your product is the most unique on the planet. Especially if it is a food because at the end of the day you are competing for share of stomach — and theres lots of alternatives out there for that. So be careful in defining your market
  • Market strategy — where does your product sits in the hierarchy — premium, midmarket or economy?
  1. Negotiate the optimum selling price to retailers and wholesalers (or online)

My clients often ask what margin should they allow for when selling to retailers — it really does depend on the market category, retailer and strength of the brand. But you can ensure you are at the top end of the margin spectrum by simple negotiation techniques:

  • Avoid sending a price list — share the price verbally. It makes it easier to justify.
  • Be 100% committed. Know that your selling price is the one you need to sell at and ditto with your retail price (and have the evidence to prove it).
  • Be firm and direct — no soft signals such as “I think the price is around £x”
  • Offer other negotiation chips than than price eg free sampling, social media support

Be prepared to negotiate but also to walk away — you won’t sell to everyone so don’t compromise on price and undermine the profitability of your business

  1. Design your cost base to deliver profit from 1 and 2

Here are 7 key killers of profit before you even think about marketing and selling costs!!

  • Bespoke ingredients and packaging — a unique ingredient maybe the backbone of your USP and in which case it’s a great idea but for most of us, the simpler the better — don’t overcomplicate with bespoke recipes or packaging. Innocent didn’t use a specially tooled bottle — why should you?
  • Labour intensive production — try and simplify the number of stages in manufacture so that you keep the labour costs down as much as possible — do you really need that extra garnish?
  • Low volumes — time and time again, clients of mine come up against MOQs from suppliers — it is the killer so when designing your business model — try and think of how to maximize volumes or use standard off the shelf components
  • Shelf life and waste — waste is such a buzz topic at the moment and deserves a blog of its own. But minimizing how much you put in the bin, whether that is made stock due to over enthusiastic forecasts or waste during production will have a massive impact on profit. Work on creating a product with maximum shelf life — invest in good shelf life testing — retailers love it and so will you!!
  • Raw materials inflation — if you are dependent on a specific raw material — eg nuts if you are making a nut butter think about how you will hedge against inflation — in these days of Brexit, it is not going to go away as a challenge to the bottom line
  • Distribution — small businesses struggle with finding ways of getting product to customers.
  • Retailer requirements — ensure that when you are negotiating you are not building in agreements that add cost eg asking for small uneconomic deliveries, shelf ready packaging they don’t use (that cost one client of mine £250k per annum) etcetc

Did you notice the order in which I had written those three economic factors? I started with the end in mind at the beginning. How many people actually deliver the process in that order?? Set the retail price, calculate selling price and THEN design the product. In own label situations, I have done this a lot — create a ready meal for £3, retailers needs x% margin, we need y% and therefore this is the target cost. It is a great way to change the perspective that you work from.

Conventional wisdom designs the product, does a cost plus calculation and then goes into the market place to sell it. And then we cost engineer to try and claw back enough money to make a profit. This doesn’t really work! It is better to start with proft and work backwards.

There is a great book called Profit first by Mike Michalowicz who says from DAY 1, you start by banking profit in a separate account and this is a great way to focus the mind — maybe it does stifle investment and growth but it does enable you as the entrepreneur and business leader to ensure you are making money from the start. He says if you aren’t making money then don’t do it — simple!

In summary then, I don’t think making money is such a bad focus and we do need to have it as an underlying theme throughout our product and business design. We need to talk about it more to ensure that food businesses thrive and flourish. Then we can achieve our why in the least stressful way (and make a profit!).

5 Top tips to design your food business that has success running through it like Brighton rock

In the past couple of weeks, several food SMEs decided its just not worth it in terms of effort or cannot move forward without significant investment.

Did they not work hard enough?

Did they have a bad product?

Did they have poor brand design

Absolutely not!!! But what they all have in common is they started their business with love and enthusiasm but ran out of energy, money or both.

When I begin working with the client, the first thing we think about is what is the end goal — what do you want to achieve from this business? A legacy for your children, a decent level of income or creating brand equity that will be sufficient for a buyout in 5–10 years’ time

Once you have that clarity, you can begin to design the business that has success through it like Brighton rock!! So what are the top 5 things, we focus on?

  1. Who is your customer?

Many start-ups make the mistake that their product is for everyone — it may well be but even Coca cola which is a mass brand has a number of target markets that they subsegment through products and marketing — Diet coke man anyone?!!

It is much cheaper to find a narrow customer niche and target them than try and market to everyone.

Create your customer avatar and stick to it!!

  1. What are your product, company and brand values?

The one thing we know about entrepreneurs is that they have great ideas — lots and lots of them!! We all do! The skill is honing down into one product range (park the others, you can launch them in phase 2 or 3!!) and focusing on that — focus works!!

I have a very simple but effective model that takes each of the three elements and picks 4 values — that’s it — your brand in 12 words — simple!!. These then underpin product design, marketing, social media targeting and distribution strategy

  1. What’s at the core?

How do you sum up your brand in two or three words — I am a massive fan of Marmite as a brand, a marketing powerhouse and I do LOVE it! And their core proposition is “Love it or hate it”. This underpins everything they do from social media to TV ads etc

It is important to have that clarity so again you can focus on what is important.

  1. Make a PROFIT!

If you don’t design your business to make money from day 1, then it won’t on day 365. I have had several clients who have said — I will put the prices up once I am established — no, you won’t actually. As your business grows from kitchen table to small unit to factory, your customer base will change and they will want more margin — so you will make less money per unit. So, start as you mean to go on — making money!! So keep your fancy ingredients, bespoke packaging and complex product recipes to a minimum!

  1. Who’s gonna pay?

The costs of setting up a business are considerable. Especially if you are looking to create that £5m brand. Scaling up can put massive pressures on cash flow — eg you want a £1m turnover sales business. With 30 days settlement terms from main retailers, you need at least two months cashflow — so £167k before you even think about investing in CAPEX, forward buying to ensure best prices etc etc. There are very few contracts in the food industry with food retailers so you will have difficulty convincing a bank to lend!

So where the money will come from? Crowd funding, accelerators or angel investors are all great options but you need have the first four firmly in place before considering reaching out for money.

4 Steps to great category inspiration

When I begin a category review process, there are four stages I go through to get to the stable of future product launches and refreshes.   I am going to detail each of these and then bring it together to see how this can create the product differentiation which gives you the product power that we all seek to achieve profitable sales with less stress.

  1. Food trends– the beginning of every year heralds a plethora of food trend information as various magazines, bloggers and other organisations herald the new up and coming foods stuffs we are going to eat.  The more quirky get coverage in the Daily Mail and we in the food industry work out which ones might just be relevant and which will come and go with no impact.  The key subjects of the day at the moment are free from, reducing sugar, nutrient value of vegetables.

We use the food people (www.thefoodpeople.co.uk) for our key source of trends as they provide a great service both generically and also bespoke for specific market challenges.  We then look at their data and review what is going on in our market and related markets – when working on sushi new concepts, we often go and look at what the high end chocolate retailers are doing as their packaging and merchandising are very akin to our own.

The biggest challenge in mature food markets is to find the next big thing – coleslaw is the biggest selling pot salad, salmon nigiri the most popular sushi piece, cottage pie best selling ready meal – how do you get the inspiration to find other products that the customer will embrace.  Food safaris are a great source of knowledge but its important to take advice on where to go – companies like www.npddirect.com can be really helpful.  Going to Japan does not find the most innovative sushi nor does Italy generate the best ideas for pizzas.

  1. Customer research

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning” – Bill Gates

Understanding why your customers don’t buy is a great source of new concepts.  At Ichiban our research showed that customers didn’t like the nori (black seaweed) that is found in a lot of our products.  We came across a company in the US who make wraps for sushi from vegetables and fruit and after a lot of hard work making them work in the factory we launched them two years ago.  The innovation won us Food manufacture SME innovation of the year 2014.

I always think the washing power guys understand their customers- whiter whites were key 30 years ago and now we all want our colours to be maintained especially black.  There is a massive push on fragrance with Febreze and Lenorunstoppables that give 9x more fragrance that fabric conditioner alone!  A scary concept but I am sure it is not too over powering.

So how do you find out what the customer wants?  Ask them! There are several approaches that we use to get to the heart of the customer.

  1. Surveys – we wanted to know if customers use the chopsticks that we put in the packs – so we ran an omnibus study (www.tnsglobal.co.uk/tns-direct/omnibus) which gave us some great feedback on when people eat sushi, whether they use the ginger and yes only 25% use the chopsticks.
  2. Published data – in the food industry we have always been a bit wary of published data such as Mintel as it is more generic but it can be useful for getting an overview of a new category that you may feel the brand will extend into.  It is also possible to buy Kantar, Nielsen and other data but can be a challenge if you are in a very small category or in one like food to go which is difficult to read.  My frustration also is that once you have bought the data you are not allowed to share it with the customer which kind of reduces its usefulness as an influencing tool.
  3. Ad hoc research – for understanding what the customer thinks they want, this is invaluable.  This can be either group work, at fixture in depth interviews or accompanied shops.  It enables you to pick the target audience very specifically and tailor feedback to your needs.  It can be expensive and also people often don’t really do what they say they are going to do. The most illuminating work I have done recently has been with non purchasers who either reject the product or the retailer that I have been working with.  This gives massive insights into their perceptions of product, category and retailer offer although the latter is difficult to influence as it is the overall retailer brand they have issue with.
  4. Sales data – I know that sales data represents what has gone before and therefore not a predictor of the future but never underestimate what you already know from your sales figures especially if you have access to the powerful retailers databases.  Plus of course there is loyalty card data such as Dunn Humby and Nectar data which can provide a lot of in depth information but at a price!
  5. Social media – this is a great source of immediate feedback to your products and particularly useful for brands – It is important to respond to criticism as well as positive feedback quickly. Your loyal followers will feedback on new concepts and marketing – either publically or part of an offline ad hoc review.
  1. Old fashioned idea generation

I have always worked with my teams using brainstorming or other such techniques to randomly come up with new product concepts.  If it is well chaired and the “no idea is a bad idea!” mantra is adhered to then it can provide a great list of ideas and concepts for working on – have a look at www.mindtools.com/brainstm.html

  1. Chefs and others – new recipes, packaging etc

Once the research has been done, macro concepts identified, then there is a great opportunity to work with your in house chef or bring in someone to inspire and provide new ideas – we use www.binghamandjones.co.uk who have a great background in added value convenience foods and really come up with some great concepts and tasty food to boot!

Also work with your packaging suppliers to find new ways to package products – the use of straight on trays for improving the visuals of pizzas, cooked meats and yes sushi delivered massive uplift in sales and brought new customers to the categories as they could see the products stimulating purchase.

So that’s a little overview of how to get to the customer needs and drivers and find out what will convince them to buy more – clearly the product needs to be viable and cost effective and in the third article of this series, we will look at how to assess feasibility and to get a product that the customer and consumer will pay for.