Harriot's story has led from a simple dare to make some marshmallows in her kitchen to the shelves in Sainsbury's via the Dragon's Den. Since starting, Harriot has created a great brand around her product and has some great stories and lessons to share, from along the way.
Tell me a bit about your journey up to Mallow and Marsh.
My journey to this point was, like most people, a bit of a windy road. After university I started working in the city, I’m not entirely sure how I ended up there to be honest after Art college but it gave me some great office experience. Eventually after a few years, I left my job to set up a small jewellery business - De Bouverie. It was an online business aimed at making independent designers more accessible. I call it my “MBA for Entrepreneurs” in the sense that I did everything wrong that you could do wrong. I made all sorts of mistakes and I bumbled along – it was a very crazy time. Whilst I was away on a weekend trying to improve that company, I went out for drinks on a Saturday night with a couple of other entrepreneurs and we got discussing marshmallows. I was challenged then and there to make some that night, so I went home, whipped up some weird and wonderful creations and brought them back the next day to give to everyone. Within 5 minutes, with a product I had made in my kitchen, I got more interest and created more of a buzz than I was able to in a company that I had spent a year and a half trying to build. It was all a complete joke, at no point was it taken seriously that I was actually going to start a marshmallow company, but I just couldn’t drop it afterwards.
What was the next big step you made?
I have always been one to just get involved with things that I love. So I just kept making them. The romantic idea that I could turn this into a business never left me, and so I started immersing myself in the food world. The big step came when I applied for a competition to win a contract with Sainsbury’s. It was the moment I committed to the business, and thought that it could really be something.
The competition was a fantastic opportunity because as I went through the stages, it forced me to build a company. They were asking “What is your packaging?” then I had to think about what my packaging would be. I almost built the business backwards because by the time it was trading, I was being forced to think what the business was going to look like. I hadn’t at that point really realized that I was going to launch it as a company.
Was it all hands on deck after the Sainsburys pitch? What were the next steps?
Yes. Winning the Sainsbury’s contract was a pivotal moment for me. Suddenly it wasn’t just a small marshmallow business. I needed to start acting like a real business, and focus.
Just before I won, I was a given a two week notice that I was in the last ten and the final stage was a huge presentation to the buyers at Sainsbury’s. You had to go in with a complete understanding of the food world. I did what could be described as a two-week fast track course; I sat down and built the whole brand.
I had a moment after I won where I was like, ‘Oh my god! Now I have got to actually do this!’ And there was me still making marshmallows in my kitchen. I was very lucky, because it was a competition, Sainsbury’s literally held my hand. They were asking, ‘have you go this?’, ‘have you got that?’ Every time I was like ‘no, no, no.’ Over time I got through all the things that I needed to do. It took me 6 months, to go from winning that competition to actually getting on to the shelf at Sainsbury’s.
What did that process look like Day 1 to the six months later when you were on the shelves, how did you go about that?
I didn’t sleep. I won in September 2013 and Christmas was approaching. I did customer trade shows, Christmas fairs, a pop up shop, all whilst trying to do the set up for Sainsburys.
There was a lot of legal work, a lot of logistical set up in terms of getting the company ready to be able to make enough for Sainsbury’s, and get it to them on time. We had to think about lead times and how long it would take me to make the product and what the shelf life was. There was a lot that needed to be formalised.
By the time you were in Sainsburys had you built up your team?
No, it was just me. I had launched as a result of, and with the money from the bet, which was £50. I put £200 of my own money in but only because I needed to buy a whisk; the first marshmallows I had ever made were hand-whisked, so it was very much a case of ‘sell some, make some, sell some, and make some’ to keep the cashflow going, so there wasn’t much spare to build the team. I still keep the company very streamlined and there are only 3 of us full time today.
How do you manage with only three of you?
Focus I think is probably the right word. Focus and running around like a crazy person. A lot of it is down to systems in the food world. An order comes in and product goes out, if you are organised you can make it work.
You went on Dragon’s Den, how was that experience and how did that come about?
After winning the Sainsbury’s contract I knew that I needed to raise some real capital so that I could have the budget to market and promote the product as well as get the systems set up to really grow.
The process was a little bit like the Sainsbury’s competition. They take you through every step so you don’t realize what you’re learning. I got through to the filming the same week I launched in Sainsburys, so it was a pretty mad time.
How did you find the whole experience? Laying your business bare on television.
I have to say, they were very kind in the edit. I have no idea how I handled the pressure; the stress is insane. It’s exciting though and what is the worst that can happen? At that point there wasn’t anyone else in this business, so they can’t ask something that I wouldn’t know. I felt confident that I knew everything that I needed to know because it was all me. I think sometimes if you’ve got bigger teams or if you’ve got business partners, you don’t always necessarily know everything. I really was on my own, so I had no choice but to know it all. I knew I needed the money and it seemed like a really sensible route to go down. I can’t really remember being in there at all. I think my body just blocked it out but it was great and I would do it again.
Did you get good press and feedback after Dragons Den?
Yeah, but it’s one of these things I have learnt; it never quite goes to plan, and it never happens quite as you expect it to. I thought to myself that I need to get a lot of press but I was very late on in the series, and there had been a lot of press around other companies. I was thinking that they’re not going to want another story about Dragon’s Den again. The leads I thought would be exciting and generate press and sales fell through and some very unexpected leads worked brilliantly. The recognition was enormous after the show, and the feedback and positivity has been huge. People still comment and recognise the brand and packaging today.
From that point onwards, what has changed within Mallow & Marsh?
Everything; in August I wasn’t truly functioning as a business, I was still very much a startup. The stockists we had were quite high risk, Sainsbury’s still had a long way to go; it takes time to get your footing. People need to get that awareness out there and that’s very, very difficult to do. Dragon’s Den changed my life because suddenly we had brand that was recognised and our kitchen went from small batch runs to max capacity for Christmas.
Every single hole that you have in a company suddenly becomes a gaping cliff face when you grow that quickly. We needed to get our systems in place and to raise some money very urgently to do some clear marketing and growth planning. If I had won a very big contract at the end of last year, I don’t think I would’ve been able to fulfill it. You can definitely grow too quickly and I definitely got very close to doing that.
Challenges & Achievements
What do you think is the biggest challenge that you have faced? How have you managed to overcome that?
There are 2. One of the challenges is quite a comical story; I call it Mushy Mallows. If you get a very hot summer with heat waves the product melts. I had literally no idea that marshmallows even melted until the heatwave of 2013. There was a very, very steep learning curve in terms of product, food technology, shelf life and understanding about storage and distribution. One of my big tips is always to take little steps. It wasn’t a catastrophe but if I had been in retail stores it probably would have been.
The other challenge is probably this growth. Everyone always laughs and says ‘well, you can never grow too quickly’. You really can if you are not ready for it. And, if you’re not ready for it, and you grow, all hell can break loose. I spent most of the end of last year being quite close to that point and it is quite nice to have got it to a really stable point right now. I deal with it in little steps and I have a wonderful set of friends and contacts that I have made over the course of the last 18 months who I keep calling up saying, ‘Oh my god my marshmallows have melted’ or something similar. They’re helping me make sure I have all these structures in place, and I have thought about everything. I always talk as much as I can about it because if you don’t talk about it, people can’t correct you for doing something wrong.
What do you feel has been your biggest achievement to date? What are you most proud of?
It used to be the Sainsbury’s contract but I’m just not sure now. I think the fact that the company exists and that people like you want to do these interviews is probably the most exciting part for me. That recognition and knowing that I have built that brand and I really can’t credit it to anyone else is probably where I feel the achievement really lies now.
Advice & Final Thoughts
What advice would you give to people who are interested in setting up a food business?
I think people can plan too much. I think the best thing to do is make your product in the kitchen and get it out there, see what people think of it and change it as you go; little steps. Make some, sell some, tweak it, make some, sell some, tweak it, etc… At least at the very beginning because if you overthink on food, you think your customer wants something and then you finally get to the point where you sell some and they go ‘oh I wish it was like this’. And all you’ve done is think about it rather than actually test it. I say never spend any money at the beginning and always test things out.
What is the best piece of advice you received when setting up your business?
Listen, talk and listen. You need to talk about your business, you need to go and ask people questions. A lot of people starting up businesses ask questions but never really listen to what the answer is; they will hear what they want to hear. The person might completely disagree with it which is totally fine but you have got to understand why the person has said it. At least see their point of view on it because it’s an opinion. If you just listen to what you want to hear, you are never going to improve and develop. You can get it wrong if you don’t speak to people.