“We knew that if we didn’t try, we’d always regret it.”
“I might be doing something I love but I’m also working longer hours than I’ve ever worked.”
Overview of earlier career:
“I undertook a 4-year apprenticeship in mechanical engineering with the MOD in the early 80’s and loved all the top secret, defence of the realm style projects and stayed for further year before deciding to study my first love at Manchester Polytechnic – Photographic Technology. Basically, everything else to do with the photographic process other than the arty side. It was all applied and forensic photography, Holography and the chemical interactions between film and developer chemicals – it was fascinating.
Following my graduation in 1989 I became a camera repair technician, combining my love of photography and high precision engineering and after a couple of years became UK service manager for a luxury Japanese camera importer based in Reading.
Two years of long distance commuting from Lancashire to Reading, 90+ hour weeks and a growing interest in starting my own company meant that in 1993, I started my own professional photographic equipment repairs company based in Manchester and did that until I sold it in 2000.
I then had three years working for the company that bought me out, doing similar work. That was an unmitigated disaster. My wife and I had made a little money on the house we bought years ago, sold it, paid off the mortgage and bought and renovated houses for a while.”
The trigger for change:
“Both my wife and I have always loved food. Real food. Home-cooked. I’d been on various courses over the years learning to cook but I was certainly not a chef. We often discussed the generation of children of the 80s and 90s who’d never been taught to cook and were now parents. Parents who used pre-prepared food that was often really high in fat, salt and preservatives because there were no healthy and affordable alternatives.
We talked about some of the prepared sauces we saw on the market and just knew we could do it better. We had an itch to try to prove that pre-prepared food could be made with real ingredients that tasted great but without all the rubbish, the minimum of ingredients but with the maximum taste.
We knew that if we didn’t try, we’d always regret it. So, we took the plunge.“
“After we’d decided on the brand name, we asked a corporate lawyer friend to have a look at it and she asked for opinions around her office. The resounding opinion was that Nowt Poncy was the freshest brand name that they’d seen in a decade and highly recommended we trademark it.
So we did.
We thought that we would trademark into two areas related to food but on the advice of our trademark attorney, ended up in eleven areas such as clothing, accommodation, insurance, telecommunications and a few more. Essentially, a high quality product without all the bull****.
We started small by creating just one product, our premium Tomato and Basil Sauce without all the nasties that other commercially-made sauces are made with, closely followed by our Curry Sauce that’s nothing like the curries you find in a UK curry house.
Then we took it back to our roots at Manchester Metropolitan University, to their food science department to check whether they thought we were crazy or not. They didn’t. They were fantastically supportive and helped us get started by recommending a lab to help with shelf-life testing and other necessary food industry tests like nutritionals and of course labelling that was suitable for trading standards approval.
That kicked off an intense learning journey over that first year that blew our minds. Packaging, hygiene standards, labelling, bottling, testing, brands, trademarks, marketing, legals, distribution, retailing ……. the list goes on.
We knew nothing at that point but had to know everything to even enter the market.
We’ve since branched out into our other sauces and been stocked in major retailers. Additionally, we have a growing e-commerce presence and our sugar claims have recently been validated by the internationally recognised Sugarwise.org.”
What Julian learned:
· “We can’t do everything well, but we had to do everything until we were big enough to get specialists to help us.
Everything is a steep learning curve but social media learning has been harder than other areas simply because is wasn’t something we grew up with. We are beginning to get some specialist help with that now which is a relief.
Having to be knowledgeable on operations, marketing, sales and distribution at the same time is a stretch which is why Karen now deals with Ops, finance and customer services.
· I might be doing something I love but I’m also working longer hours than I’ve ever worked.
We have a grand plan but at the moment we are in the depths of brand building.
We knew we had great products but we didn’t know anything else and the sheer size of the food business means we needed to learn so much. That takes time. You need plenty of energy, boundless enthusiasm and a thick skin to help keep negativity at bay.
You also need to be mentally fit. Our vision for the brand is much wider than just food but this is way beyond our skillsets at the moment and at some stage we will need someone to help us create the path forward.
· Finding the right business support is key
Some days we feel like we are swimming in a sea full of sharks and we’re so far from the shore that we need to paddle much faster than we feel capable of.
That’s when finding people who can nudge you along your business journey becomes so important. People who are helping for the sake of helping, not just to line their own pockets. We’ve come across both types but it soon becomes obvious which ones are ready to come on the long-haul journey with you.
· Changing careers in your 50s can be really exhausting.
No one told us about the financial black hole of the food industry. There was so much to learn and we needed to learn it all if we wanted to be successful.
We sometimes joke we wish we had done this twenty years ago because it really is exhausting.
I know mid 50’s is no age but the physical and mental demands of starting and running a food company with all the margins, deals, logistics and physical manufacturing of the products as well as deliveries is a huge challenge every day.
· You can’t do it half-heartedly
If you believe in the service or the product that you offer you have no other choice but to JUST DO IT!
· Small or large, being in business can be stressful. Sharing the downs as well as the ups is freeing and can give others reassurance.
I went to a business event recently with some really impressive CEOs in the food industry and was asked to speak for a few minutes about our brand and our journey.
I was so honest about some of my worries, my hopes and my fears that a few of these uber successes of the food world chatted to me privately at the end. They told me that they wake up worrying about exactly the same things as I do, just on a bigger scale. That was so reassuring as they seemed so confident and so successful.
The truth is, we’re all worried about where the next sales will come from.”
How it feels on the days when Julian knows he has made the right decision?
“We have definitely done the right thing!
Every day we are waking up to our new selves. We are loving creating and growing the Nowt Poncy brand one mouth at a time.
It’s fantastic when we watch people taste our products for the first time. Their eyes sort of pop open with the ‘My God, it tastes homemade - it’s real food’ feeling.
We’ve become brand freaks. Obsessed by what other brands do well or badly. I will hang around in supermarket isles watching which brands people go for and asking them why they chose it. Price? Branding? Offers? It’s a fascinating subject.
Karen is forever saying “will you come on” as I pick up products and pull their labelling apart.”
“None at all! We would have had many more regrets if we hadn’t done it. If we were sitting in our dotage, we would have been having one of those recurring if-only conversations. There are huge highs and equally huge lows but we are moving forward, albeit slowly and carefully.
We face daily challenges and have to find ways around them but giving up is just not an option. Challenges are what being self-employed is all about and if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”
Find out more about Julian, and his wife Karen’s, business The Nowt Poncy Food Company: