When she left her asset management job for a start-up Vicky Henley was driven by a need for a more flexible job that would allow her to see her family more and by a love of food.
Two years down the line she has learnt a huge amount about all aspects of the food and import/export business, has won awards for her healthy eating products and is looking forward to the future.
Vicky is very open about the kind of issues she has faced over the last few years and the mistakes she has learnt from, but says she feels it has definitely been worth it. She feels it is important to hear real stories about going into business as this will be of more use to others who choose a similar route.
“I was naive at the beginning. I loved food and thought it would be an easier route to flexibility, but I didn’t see the all-consuming nature of it or the monetary stresses. Down the road, though, I know it will be worth it and now I am in a position to focus more on the fun aspects,” she says.
Vicky lived in Asia for 10 years before she had children, which is where she met her business partner Mike Pilgrim who is based in Hong Kong. He had founded a business venture trading in coconut husks (used to extract coconut fibre from for use in mattresses, car seats, door mats and for anti-soil erosion and horticultural applications) from the Philippines, but felt there was a market opportunity in the UK.
After taking six months out to sail around the world, Vicky returned to the UK. She returned to asset management in the UK after her first child was born five years ago, but found it a struggle managing work and family life. “I realised it was not working,” she says. “My job was not flexible. There was a lot of commuting.”
She started doing some research, at first looking at the textile industry, but it seemed clear that a business selling coconuts products would make more financial sense. She found that, while the UK has seen an explosion in interest in coconut oil, other coconut-based products, such as coconut vinegars, sauces, flour and nectar, which are used in Asia, had not made it over to the British market. “It didn’t make sense why some bits of the coconut had made it over here and others hadn’t. It seemed like a bit of an opportunity,” she says.
Vicky used the end of her maternity leave with her second child to do more in-depth research, taking her daughter to organic shows with her. The research convinced her to hand in her notice and to invest her savings into The CoConut Company. That was in 2015.
What followed was a steep learning curve. Neither she nor Mike had experience in the organic food market. “We were complete newcomers,” she says. She also had no experience of importing goods. She admits that she made a few mistakes, although many entrepreneurs say mistakes are an important part of learning. Organic regulations are very strict and her first import was classed as non-organic so she could only sell the products as non-organic. She got stung by agents over freight movement and now has an appointed agent to deal with red tape over imports. There were nights spent sticking on labels at midnight and peeling them off if the labels weren’t right.
Finding a factory was another learning curve. Vicky had to do a lot of research to find one that would handle the kind of products she was looking to manufacture and the kind of packaging she wanted. “It’s really important that they believe in the product,” she says. “They don’t tend to want to do small runs and have to believe it will grow.” She says she was very lucky with the Welsh factory she found after a six-month mini trial trying to process the products in what was essentially a large shed. “We realised a mini processing plant was not cost effective, “ she says. Staff needed to be trained and work regularly.
The business has had a lot of support from UK Trade & Investment, especially on the export side. Vicky, who originally worked on her own from home and now has an office with two other staff, exports across Europe and the Middle East. She says UKTI helped with finding bona fide people to export to and with overseas distributors as well as providing mentoring. In the past, she had a lot of people asking for free samples who turned out not to be genuinely interested in distributing the products. “We have learnt the hard way,” she says. “You have to find people with a valid customer base and UKTI helped with this. You can waste so much time and money otherwise.”
Vicky now feels she has come through this first phase and is ready for the future. The company’s office is close to her home in London’s East Dulwich and to school and having an operations and sales director, who can cover travel abroad, and someone to manage online sales means she can focus on marketing and getting the bills paid. She hopes to bring someone else on board later in the year so she can step back a bit and concentrate on strategic thinking.
Funding, particularly cash flow, is one of her ongoing issues as is keeping ahead of the game. She is looking to get funding from the bank or through crowdsourcing and wants to link up with a mentor with a background in food manufacturing so she can take the vegan-certified business to the next level. Vicky, who hopes to break even this year, says there is a lot of competition in the food industry and no patents on food. That means that if your product works, the market becomes flooded with similar products at a cheaper price. “You have to build your brand and you have to be very fast moving and constantly innovating,” she says. To that end she has hired a food technologist for two days a month to help with brainstorming.
Although still fairly young, the brand is already becoming established and has become known for its high quality and tasty products – picking up awards along the way, including a Great Taste award and winner in The Healthy Food Guide’s Food & Drink awards.
Vicky is also keen to develop the company’s community links with its suppliers in the Philippines. The woman who the company gets its coconut sap from is starting a kindergarten and medical centre in her area, a poor rural farming community which was badly hit by a recent typhoon. Vicky has been collecting toys from family and friends to send for the kindergarten and says that, as the business grows, she wants to do more, for instance, pledging a part of the company’s sales to a trust for the kindergarten and medical centre.
Another important aspect for Vicky is ensuring she has the right work life balance since that was the main reason she started the business. “It can be all-consuming,” she says. “I’m trying to ensure I’m there for school pick-ups and turn off my phone until after the children go to bed. I’m learning to switch off and I’m also at the point where the business is becoming more fun.”
She is keen for her story to inspire others to pursue their business dreams and not be afraid to take their career paths on a new route. She says: “People fall into the trap of thinking that because they’ve worked so hard to get where they are in one career the safe option is to stay where they are. The skill set you’ve built up and hard work you’ve put in in one career doesn’t suddenly disappear when you change jobs though. You’re rarely starting from scratch and everything I learnt in my previous career has meant that I’ve been able to move The Coconut Company along much faster than I otherwise would.”