Entrepreneur James Hutchins is no stranger to food industry success. He has been at the helm of James Chocolates, a business which manufactures award-winning chocolates for retailers including Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason and Waitrose for over two decades, and last year he launched Chocolate Treat Club, a tailored and personalised chocolate subscription service. His latest venture, Cocoa Republic, puts consumers at the creative heart of operations.
Here, Hutchins shares his advice for start-up food businesses.
Love what you do
For me, this is always first and foremost. If you aren’t passionate about what you are doing, you won’t have the drive to get through the inevitable pitfalls and obstacles on the journey. I’ve always loved chocolate, but I’m also passionate about the creative and technical aspects of making it. I think my science background may be to blame for this.
Have the courage of your convictions
I started James Chocolates with a love not just of chocolate, but also a desire to surprise and delight and ultimately bring pleasure. This has shaped all aspects of the business and has always meant we have led, not followed. To do this requires belief in what you do. Without belief you won’t succeed; if you believe you can do it, you can and you’ll find a way.
Be prepared to rise to a challenge
Being a business owner requires you to overcome all manner of obstacles that bear no resemblance to the thing you love doing. You’ll quickly need to become an expert at sales, marketing, production, quality, PR and finances to name a few.
Draw inspiration from those around you
I can’t stress enough how important it is to surround yourself with the right people, who are experts in their field and who you can draw inspiration from. In the early days of James Chocolates, I quickly had to find people to help me sell and distribute my chocolates. Talking to contacts led me to the right people. These days, having the right team of people around me means I can learn, be inspired by them and move the business forward quickly.
Be proactive and persistent
You’ll need to go out with your ideas and make them a reality. Customers rarely come to you, and even if they do you’ll need to persist. People often enthuse when you show them the product, but turning that into an order then repeat orders can take a lot of legwork. If you give up after you called once and left a message then you won’t get far. With one of our product launches I had to contact a buyer over 30 times to secure the order. And that was after a meeting where they loved the product and wanted to list it!
Once you’ve got a listing (and sometimes whilst you’re going through the process) be aware that buyers do change. You may need to start again, and this is where having contact with others in the business will benefit you. So get to other people and they can help champion your products.
Be open to new ideas and be prepared to change
The market is constantly evolving, and as a business it is vital that you are prepared to change too. Being able to reinvent is part of what will make you successful. In the world of chocolate I’ve seen many ideas come and go. A few persist but even they will change. Salted caramel, for example, is still immensely popular after many years, but now people want to taste more salt than they did a few years ago.
Remember that ultimately what works is what people want to buy, not what you want to make. And this can change over time so watch for trends and changing patterns of buying. What sold well in the past won’t necessarily in the future. It can be hard to recognise that something that sold well is slowing, but you must.
Being prepared to change can also involve recognising what’s working well and adjusting to do more of this. It sounds really simple but it’s not always obvious. We had a part of the business that was growing by 50 per cent year-on-year without any effort on our part. But it took a few years to spot as we were looking at the wrong things. So take time to step back and regularly review the big picture.
Keep on top of KPI’s
Having a robust monitoring system will help you understand how the business is doing. It’s really important you have these and know them. The latest payment systems, supply chain management software and other food-focused technology can really help here.
Know your market
Knowing who is buying your product is critical. To start with you may not know this! Often the first routes to market for new food businesses are farmers markets. These are great for getting to know your customers and what they like. Once you know who is buying your product, you can then develop new lines and improve the way you reach them. We launched Chocolate Treat Club (Britain’s first tailored and personalised chocolate subscription service) as we found people saying they loved what we did but couldn’t buy it, as retailers often take only a limited range of what you produce. So we found an alternative way to reach them.
Keep your finger on the pulse of trends and innovations
Understand what’s out there, but also be prepared to look to other markets too. Some of our best ideas have come from outside the world of chocolate. Seeing innovation in other sectors can help inspire new ideas in terms of product, packaging, marketing, sales, you name it.
While keeping tabs on trends is important, don’t just copy what others have done. There are so many food businesses out there these days that you need to stand out – being a “me too” won’t help you do that. Go your own way.
Listen to customers and keep them engaged
Social media is great for keeping in touch with customers, learning about what they like, and making them loyal fans. With Cocoa Republic, we took this idea and launched a whole brand around it – our customers literally shape what we make. It’s a brand new business, so watch this space.
Always stay true to your goals
But recognise that they can change over time – it’s worth reassessing these as you develop the business.