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Food StartUp School at WeWork: Raising the bar!

foodsus1It’s not that often that you can take somebody at their word in business but when Victoria Albrecht arrived in London from St Andrews University a year ago on a mission to shake up the food and drink start-up scene and we had all known then what we know now, people would have been queuing around the corner for a slice of the action, maybe even a piece of the equity “pie”?

Already the first Food StartUp School London held in Hoxton Square was a success, largely due to the excellent speakers, her non-stop networking, the sponsorship deals she arranged and a unique presentation style that won plenty of admirers, oh and of course the masses of free food and drink on offer at the stalls prepared and presented by London’s founders, from brownies to cayenne drinks and delicate canapes. Life is never dull around Tech City!

foodsus8 Victoria ran foodie events in St Andrews for 3 years and knows how they work, what the ticket buyers want to know and duly delivers, but last night raised the bar a little further. This was a genuinely inspiring event; any founder who is not operating at the top of their game may have felt a little sheepish as they drank fine wine, and ate canapés, coconut flakes, dates and delicacies accompanied by palette cleansing iced lollies and Nix and Kix cayenne infused fruit juice slammers. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen! Could have been the underlying theme of the evening.

WeWork’s event space certainly added to the crunch – the co-working space on the South Bank tends to attract entrepreneurs that build for success. The community is about being inspiring and original and challenging others to be the same. Conveniently, it also has amazing views and makes it a great event space. It was truly a fantastic location.

So the evening kicked off after a bit of networking, which actually began in the lobby as many folks arrived early, happy enough to shoot the breeze around the sun drenched bucket seats. Everyone seemed to know everyone, or at least that’s what the friendly atmosphere suggested. There was a demob happy feel in the air before it was time to take seats and get down to business.

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The Holy Grail for any foodie start-up is to see your product on the supermarket shelf. Many try, few succeed, but it’s where the big money is and it’s extremely difficult to gain a serious foothold in the food industry otherwise. Melissa Addey was a buyer and product innovation manager at Sainsbury’s for 10 years, and has also advised 100’s of small food entrepreneurs on packaging and persuading other buyers to take their calls. A gatekeeper turned poacher, if you will.

It’s a hard life being a buyer, Melissa told us, not necessarily what a crowd of founders desperate to get their produce approved wanted to hear, but true nonetheless. It’s high pressure, there are sales targets and you are moved from department to department. How do you make an impression at your new destination? Simple: drop one product, bring another in. Ruthless, but effective.

There are a lot of crazy people out there who believe they have an amazing product that will fly off the shelves, when what they really have is their grandmother’s Christmas pudding recipe, and unshakable confidence that “no-one has done this before!”. So how can you make sure you can stand out from the crowd and grab a buyer’s attention?

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Melissa gave us 10 top tips in her 40 minute presentation, which was made available to every attendee as part of a comprehensive dossier. Here’s one I made earlier, as it were. First piece of advice: make a good product! “Nothing is ever taken off the shelves because it is selling too much”, says Melissa. But you have to get it on the shelf to give yourself a chance. Here are some of Melissa’s pointers.

    • Stop thinking you are unique; it’s highly unlikely you are, so insisting your product is revolutionary is likely to infuriate buyers!
    • Win some awards; start at your local farmer’s market, no show is too small; get yourself some ribands and let buyers know you are serious. They are looking for products of proven quality, they won’t take a punt on an untested product for fun. Their jobs are on the line if they do;
    • Come up with a stage-gate process; a storyboard showing all the stages you must go through before you launch; be prepared to go back to the drawing board if you have to!
    • Build relationships; keep track of buyers movements, they shift around a lot, be friendly (really friendly), always answer emails in full and point by point, and ask for feedback.

Melissa was an entertaining speaker, fiery and conspirational (something she puts down to her Italian blood), and a very, very useful contact. Another great Food StartUp School find!

We heard briefly from Robin and Martin from the Business Growth Service. The guys have a hugely detailed understanding of the infrastructure surrounding the food industry, and can help start-ups meet all of the relevant requirements, as well as providing leadership and management training, helping you discover and overcome your businesses pain points and assigning you a dedicated account manager. Could be a wise move to contact them.

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Another big name to speak was Jonny Shimmin of Spoon Cereals, a start-up offering a “more adventurous type of breakfast cereal”.  Fresh from an appearance on Dragons Den which netted them investment from two dragons, Deborah Meaden and Peter Jones, Jonny, who claims to be the less glamorous half of Spoon Cereals (the other founder is his wife’s sister, natch), surprisingly had a lot to say about failure. “We were totally unprofessional to begin with”, he assured the crowd, “but we put ourselves out there and we wanted to learn”.

These are Food StartUp School’s kind of people. They succeed because they are adventurous and don’t fear failure. In a nutshell that’s why last night’s event was so good. I’m not one to bash London but the scene needs to admit that it can learn an awful lot by listening to the people who want to help it grow. Victoria speaks what sounds like American, but actually is German, and has just returned from fact finding trips to San Francisco and Milan, Jonny lived in Amsterdam, Nix and Kix are from Munich; there was a lot of life in the room, confident, intelligent people making things happen, and taking care of business. Pay attention, London!

There is a section for “network pitches”, new start-ups are given 90 seconds to get their message across and promote their product, and the winner gets a prize. These were; ………..

Dicky @ Morse Toad; Julia & Kerstin @ NIX & KIX; Priya @ Ambu Tree; Stephanie @ Mindful Bites; Pauline @ Natural Origin; Jerome  @ y1; Tara @ Kitchen Table Projects; Khadija @ Milk & Date; Zack @ Apesnacks; Alistair @ Thordrinks

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That was followed by the food, which was awesome. Special mention must go to the canapes, which it turns out, you can order to be made in your kitchen at dinner parties and served by the chefs of La Belle Assiette.

This event was longer than usual, however, nobody seemed bothered, and on we went. A hilariously feisty and brilliant speech from Melanie Goldsmith, Co-Founder at Smith & Sinclair, the alcoholic confectioner. Another charisma infused incitement to “fail your way to the top”, with tales of derring do and hilarious misadventures involving broken dehumidifiers, drying out a ruined batch of sweets by chucking pasta on it (it worked!), buying 100’s of kilos of sugar from the local Costco, and…getting picked up by Selfridges and Harrods. She also mentioned the best words ever to hear from a buyer: “I owe you”. Somebody should make a film.

Cesar Roden’s speech about Ice Kitchen, the Ice lollies / popsicles depending on which side of the Atlantic you are from was different, but awesome in its own way. Again, at the start everything Cesar tried went wrong, but the business is thriving now he has found a mentor through the Manufacturing Advisory Service, and taken a step back. “You can’t tell everyone what to do”, Cesar says, “but being the producer makes you want to”.

And there was time for James Shillcock, founder of Vivid Drinks, to talk about tea, specifically Match green tea, derived from naturally treated plants that are grown in the shade, meaning more chlorophyll is produced because the plant must work harder, meaning the flavour is stronger and makes you feel more alive! James spoke about his strategic approach, getting big and small favours, how good good branding matters, and how he’s creating an entirely new drinks category.

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And that, ladies and gentlemen, kind of sums it up. Must work harder, come prepared, be tenacious, stay classy, give more, network more, bring more flavour and enjoy the experience! This is what Food StartUp School teaches us, thanks to Victoria and her team – which has been growing – as well as the entourage of camera people, helpers and friendly faces she seems to have produced in a short space of time from anywhere and everywhere, full of insider knowledge that you will struggle to find elsewhere.

Honourable mention to the Lebanese founder of the date milk Milk & Date; Food StartUp School is very cool. If you have a startup in the food space, you should go. As Victoria may have signed off, “Stay hungry, London!”

 
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