It was early 1987 and two momentous things happened; firstly, my new start business got underway making carrot cake and additive free frozen food. Secondly, the BBC showings of Australian tea-time soap-opera ‘Neighbours’ had just started to take off.
However, I need to explain the story right from the beginning. When I cashed in my teaching pension in 1986 to start my own business, nobody, but nobody, talked about entrepreneurs. Actually, they were just beginning to discuss the importance of new business start-ups; a rare and fanciful breed. When I started extolling the delights of carrot cake most listeners promptly pulled a face that clearly indicated they were about to throw up. So, why did I start a business selling a product which nobody, apparently, wanted? How could I have committed the cardinal sin of not following the market? Even worse; I had attended a high-growth-business start-up programme at Glasgow University and was taught by some of the finest business minds in the UK (so they claimed). Had I not learned anything?
Well, I will come back to my start-up learning experience later. But, from the outset, I never actually started a business primarily to make money. I started it because I was extremely passionate about natural additive-free food – and I also knew that this was a fast-growing market. Unfortunately, I was ahead of the curve by quite a bit. To add some context here; my products had no additives at a time when everyone else was cramming their cakes and meals with as many additives as they could line up on the ingredients label. There were very few delicatessens in Scotland at this time and it was the home of Milanda bread, heavy sugary cakes and pastries.
What hope did I have for my humble carrot cake? Well first of all it had a USP; it was delicious. Next, there was a growing number of specialist food shops opening who were looking for something completely different. Also, this fantastic product offered both me and the retailer a very good margin. Actually, an exceptionally good margin! All in all, there were enough folk around to make it a credible proposition. Moreover, it was not a totally new product. Some health food shops had been selling carrot cake for a while but it was pretty heavy and solid. There was also a version made by someone from the USA, but it was pretty hefty of the sugar and fat. So, my recipe was a really happy compromise, light healthy and tasty.
Unfortunately, whilst I had regular customers, there was not enough of them. I also had overheads to pay; things like rent, rates, heat and light, and of course money to keep me going. I had a good customer-base, but it was showing little sign of growing even though I worked like a dog, hawking my wares around more places and selling out in Glasgow. But, believe me, it was still a hard slog.
The problem was that carrot cake was simply not understood by the retailers and cafes. “It will never sell,” they pompously announced as I tried to convince them about the future. I persisted by enticing them.
“Why don’t you give it a try?” I asked.
“We know it won’t sell,” they replied, “there is no demand and so there is no point.” “Ahh – this is what innovation really means,” I realised. It is a product understood by a minority and shunned by the majority!
Then Kylie Minogue stepped in and saved my business – actually it was Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and the whole cast of ‘Neighbours’.
How did this happen? Well, carrot cake was loved in Australia. The delicacy featured in many episodes. Young people watched the soap, and those people bought my carrot cake. Suddenly, I was not ahead of the curve; I was on it and one of the few specialist makers.
Then BHS (God bless them) saw the potential to sell it with their sandwiches. I packaged my produce up in squares in a tuck box – and it went national. This is when sales took off; thanks Kylie and thanks Neighbours.
For more stories and helpful tips and advice, read my book The Accidental Entrepreneur’s Handbook.