Karen Walker - Head Teacher to Food Entrepreneur

“We just had the feeling that it was a now or never moment. That we’d regret in our old age if we didn’t do it. So, we did it.”

Karen Walker and Julian Abel

Overview of earlier career.

“I graduated from teacher training in 1988 and taught in mainstream schools for 10 years.   After that I joined the special educational needs sector and worked with children with learning difficulties and additional needs and felt like I was doing joyful work. 

I moved up through the ranks to Deputy Head Teacher and absolutely loved that job.  I enjoyed supporting the goals of the Headteacher.  It was a joy.

But all that changed.”   

The trigger for change?

“I was encouraged to apply for a Headteacher role in a special school.  I had no intention of going for it because I didn’t really want to be a Headteacher but I buckled under the pressure of other people’s faith in my abilities and agreed I’d go to the interview. 

Even preparing for the interview, which was a 2 day assessment process, was painful.  I did well and was offered the job.  That’s when the trouble started.

There were so many problems.  I couldn’t make the changes I wanted to and didn’t have the support I needed.  I tried in every way possible to make it work, to the extent that it made me ill.  I was working every waking moment.  With no down time.  Feeling very, very stressed.  In the end, I left the position, but it had taken a great toll on my health.

One of the saddest things is that I knew deep down that the role was not for me but having accepted it, I worked unbelievably hard to do my best to improve the school.

After I left, I went straight home and got into my bed and pretty much stayed there for 6 weeks.  Julian cared for me every minute.  I emerged slowly and continued to rebuild myself slowly. The recovery process was a long and hard one and took well over 18 months.” 

First steps?

“Christmas was approaching and since our household was living on one salary, we were economising.  We decided to spend some time making a really simple tomato and basil sauce, bottling it, wrapping a couple up in pretty gift wrap and hand-crafting little labels to give to friends and neighbours instead of presents.  

We gave one of these little packages to our local butcher. He tasted it and said if we could make more, he could sell them.   We did and then began to think more seriously about the idea of setting up a food company, selling similar simple, tasty, healthy natural sauces for people who are time poor but don’t want to eat pre-packed sauces with lots of nasties.

After long discussions, we just had the feeling that it was a now or never moment.  That we’d regret in our old age if we didn’t do it.  So, we did it.   We created our Now’t Poncy brand and began to figure out how to create a food company from scratch.”

What Karen has learned? 

·         “It’s a marathon not a sprint.  Julian said that to me recently and it’s true.  We’re trying to pace ourselves and our expectations.

·         You need to be prepared to live on a shoe-string given the investment required to start a food business.    Even though we had savings and I had a lump sum from my pension we still needed more money.  The company is a bit of a money pit.  It swallows up money like you have no idea!  2 years in we’ve stopped needing to put in lumps of cash from savings and using sales to purchase ingredients, but we are still experiencing the lean years where every penny was going towards our dream.

·         If you can get a part-time job while you are building the business up, do.  In the beginning Julian encouraged me to help out a friend in his business a couple of days a week, just to help me get back some of my old confidence.  I’m still working there which has been great for lots of reasons, not least to have a little regular cash coming in.

·         You need a huge amount of energy and drive to launch a food business.  We only recently reached the turning point, 2 years from starting.   Rather than going out there every day pushing the business, people are now starting to come to us.  We now feel really connected within the food industry but that has taken time and a great deal of effort – primarily from Julian – to put us on the map.

·         It takes time to build a business.   At the minute we are probably working 6 days and week and on day 7 we don’t work but we think, talk and plan for a few hours of that day.   It is definitely not a 9-5 job, but we love it.   We were brought up by strong parents who taught us to do what it takes and to work hard to achieve your goals.   We know that if we put in the time and effort, we will reap the rewards.

·         You need to know yourself.  I love supporting Julian.  He works so hard and it’s good to be able to take some of the responsibility from him. I love splitting the responsibility with someone rather than holding it all in my hands.   I am more comfortable in this situation.

·         You need to be willing to learn and ask for advice.  We’ve learned so much about everything from manufacturing, labelling, jarring, sales, marketing, accounts, etc., but social media has been one of the trickiest to learn.  We’re at a stage now where we need extra help.  We’ve begun to utilise the skills of younger associates, people who can help us market to the younger generation and who understand the way in which they interact with social media.

·         Having a fantastic partner beside me to work on this business and go on this life journey with has made it all so much more enjoyable.   We used to be ships that passed in the night – I’d either be working or sleeping.  Now, not only do we spend our free time together, we spend a great deal of our work time together too.  We never ever thought we’d be working together but we work incredibly well together.  We don’t have children so our focus is each other and the business.

·         Knowing what I’ve been through, I have to prioritise down time.   If not, my brain goes into shock and then I can’t work smartly and nothing gets done.   As long as I get some down-time regularly, I feel re-generated and raring to go.

How it feels on the days when Karen knows she has made the right decision?

“It feels incredible to be working on our business with Julian all day.  We have such a great partnership.  I couldn’t do this without him – I have so much appreciation for his talents, his driving force.  

We’ve just taken on a little office space which was offered to us by a friend a few weeks ago.   We have a marvellous start to the morning where we get up, have breakfast, do about an hour of work from home and then go to the office to kick start the rest of the day. Working outside the house, but still being together is fantastic.”

Regrets?

I shouldn’t have taken the Headteacher’s job.  I knew before I went to the interview that it wasn’t for me.  But everyone else had such faith in me.  I should have listened to my instincts.

My only regret about setting up Nowt Poncy is that we didn’t do it in our 30s.  Some days I really feel every one of my 56 years!  But I suppose if we had done it in our 30s we’d have more energy but we also wouldn’t have all the life experience of dealing with lots of different people and different situations.  That has helped us considerably.  

If you think about it like that it’s a positive.  We’ve got experience instead of energy – it probably all balances out!