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Sally Preston built her children’s food business from scratch, driven by gut instinct and a can do attitude. One of her products is bought every second around the world.
She is the first to admit that it has not all been plain sailing, but she has exceeded her expectations. In the early days she remembers meeting a female drinks manufacturer who had a £3m turnover and thinking ‘I would like that’. She now has a £7.5 million turnover and was recently named a 2015 Specsavers everywoman in Retail Ambassador.
Sally was a food scientist for M & S until 1999, working on their ready meals. She had two small children at the time and left to work as a consultant which she found empowering because it allowed her more control over her life and hours. She spotted a missed opportunity in the ready meals market for quality food for babies. “I couldn’t understand why we were feeding our kids sterilised orange gloop and why it was always the same,” she says.
She decided to address that gap in the market in 2002. At the time her children were five and seven. Sally says raising the money to launch her Babylicious business was the main initial challenge she faced. “I wrote business plans and gave them to high street banks, but they thought the idea was so obvious that it was a high risk,” she says. In the end she had to re-mortgage her house for £50k and she borrowed £20k from her parents.
Armed with this funding, she found a manufacturer for her frozen food recipes. She knew she didn’t want to start the business from her own kitchen. She was ambitious from the beginning to have her brand stocked by all major retailers. She describes the process of getting her recipes made as “the easy part” since it was what she knew. She didn’t do much market research on the recipes, preferring to follow her gut instinct. “I am a firm believer in following your instinct and that if you need to do market research to validate your product you are in trouble,” she says.
What was more of a challenge was building the brand, deciding what the identity should be and what the packaging should be like. A lot of costs went into setting up a website and the brand. It didn’t leave much money for marketing so she had to do that herself.
It took six to eight months from her initial idea to being ready to market it. She struck gold. Within two months,she had spoken to the main buyer at Waitrose who had agreed to stock it in around 25 stores. It was also available through Ocado.
Originally the business was just Sally. Then she advertised a job in her local post office, saying she needed help, but wasn’t sure what the job description was. “I said it was quite interesting and would suit a mum with children at school, but was not much money,” she says. She received a lot of response and hired a mum who helped with administration.
Soon after she won an HSBC competition for start-ups. That was a step change. She got a mentor and looked around for investment so she could build a team. She raised money from individual investors, hired specialists in areas such as marketing, sales and finance and moved into an office.
She says her strategy has always been to seize opportunities and not to get bogged down in processes and procedures. “Being quick is important. I look at large corporates and they have to get sign-offs for everything. It’s like running in treacle, but we can be nimble,” says Sally.
By 2005 she was branching out into frozen toddlers’ meals, the first on the market. Babylicious was for babies under one and Kiddylicious for children aged one and over.
By 2009 she decided to diversify from frozen food as it was “too much hard work”. She launched snack products such as fruit crisps. “It was the beginning of where we are now,” she says.
She launched several other snack products the following years and in 2012 stopped all frozen products, switching the business’ focus 100% to snacking products for babies and children. In 2014 Sally decided to significantly increase her team to 18 and move to bigger offices to begin an international expansion. “We are always looking for new markets,” says Sally. She sells 11 products in Austria, seven in Norway and Sweden, sells products in the US and is launching in China next month. “We sell a Kiddylicious product every second,” she says.
Sally is also keen to ensure that her team stay motivated and happy. When we spoke there was a colouring competition going on in the office. The team do kettlebells on Wednesdays. “If it doesn’t remain fun, we will have lost something,” says Sally. “The culture of the business is a big family. People say they love coming to work. It’s an exciting environment. That is important to me.”
A lot of the employees are parents and Sally says she is keen to be as flexible as possible to ensure they don’t miss important school events and the like. “We operate a task not time culture,” she says.
Her children are now 20 and 18 and at university and have always known her running a business. They’ve seen the trials and tribulations and she says this has given them a strong work ethic.
Sally says she has had to work hard – and she travels a lot internationally for business now, but she has been able to control her diary. Her advice to other mums starting a business is to invest in time for friends and family, find time for fun and try to keep work in balance. In the early days she would work long hours, but had the flexibility to be able to pick up her children from school, break for two hours and then work when they were in bed. “I remember my son saying he would go to sleep to the sound of me tapping away on the computer,” she says.
She is keen to inspire other women in business and feels it is important to have role models. But she says it is important that the role models are realistic. “You have to feel the journey and that they are telling you the truth. There will be trips and slips. Things will go wrong,” she says. “You have to be honest about that. Whatever you plan will not happen. You have to be flexible and roll with it. It’s not all a bed of roses. You need friends and family and a good team.”