Little Dish, a children's fresh food company, is building a network of mum ambassadors to help build its brand. Workingmums.co.uk spoke to founder Hillary Graves.
Hillary Graves has spent five years building up her children's food company to its projected £13m turnover for 2012 and is now looking to move onto the next step by setting up a network of mum brand ambassadors.
Graves is founder of Little Dish which specialises in fresh and naturally healthy children's meals for toddlers.
She set it up with her business partner five years ago. Graves, who has two children aged nearly three and five, decided to start the business when she was pregnant with her first child.
“We thought there was nothing out there for the nights when you don't want to cook. There was nothing you could buy at the time where you did not have to compromise on health and freshness. We wanted to create home-cooked solutions like fish pie and chicken risotto which was wholesome so there was no guilt involved in not cooking,” she says.
She is passionate about food and about starting children on “proper” food from day one to get them used to healthy eating.
Graves, who is American, moved to the UK in 2000 from New York. Her background is in marketing and business development and she was asked to set up the UK office of the ivillage website. She was meant to return to the US after two years, but she met her British husband while she was here.
After the two years were up, she took on some consultancy work and met her business partner who is a food scientist and technologist who has worked for New Covent Garden Soup.
While Graves was pregnant the two partners worked on the Little Dish project. Waitrose was the first major supermarket to stock Little Dish in 20 stores. Now it is sold in Waitrose stores around the country, plus 800 Tesco stores and 200 Sainsbury's branches. It is also sold online through Sainsbury, Ocado and Tesco.
The major challenge has been to raise awareness that it is found in the chilled food aisle rather than in the baby area. Now Hillary wants to work on new products. To do this, she is setting up teams of mums to act as paid brand ambassadors or "Wonderfully Outstanding Mothers". “You often get the best information from other mums on the ground. We want them to help us deliver a range of new recipes across the country,” she says.
She says the most important thing for her mum ambassadors is that they are connected to their community, have lots of energy and are passionate about children and food. They will host tasting sessions and give feedback as well as handing out publicity at toddler groups and nurseries.
The ambassadors will work around 10 hours a week and will be employed on a rolling contract basis, but the hours are totally flexible and they don't have to work in the school holidays.
Hillary says she loves being an entrepreneur and running her own company. “I had worked in a few start-up businesses before and I really liked that. I don't think I would do as well in a corporate structure,” she says. “I've had to work long hours, but I am able to organise these flexibly around the children so I can go to activities with them or attend their Nativity play.”
Her children have got involved in the business too. “They were my chief tasters in the early days,” she says. “Their favourite dish was chicken butternut squash pie and it has been one of our most popular dishes.” Now the process of tasting recipes has become more structured, she adds, with feedback forms and proper tasting sessions.
Little Dish employs 11 people. Hillary says this has taken some of the load off her. “I was working seven days a week and evenings,” she says. Now she works three full days spread over four. Her youngest child goes to nursery five mornings a week and her oldest has just started school. She also has help with childcare at home.
Her advice to other mums considering setting up a business is to seek a business partner who has complementary skills. “It's really good to have two people working together to deal with all the ups and downs,” she says. “If you can find a partner you communicate well with it is really helpful. It means you don't have to take it all on your own shoulders.”
For more information on becoming a mum ambassador, visit the Little Dish website.