Stephen Hall - International Teaching Career to Food Entrepreneur

“When someone I don’t know sees me at a trade fair and shouts over to me ‘I’ve tried your balls and I like them!’ It’s funny and satisfying!

“There is a smile in my belly! It feels right. It feels positive.”

Overview of earlier career.

Stephen has always been motivated by making a difference. After graduating, he volunteered on a teaching project in Lesotho, Southern Africa for two years not really intending to teach for a career; but discovered he loved it. After a short spell teaching English in Poland, he returned to England to do his post-graduate teaching qualification at Cambridge. Afterwards, he taught at Kings’ School in Grantham, where he met his wife.

Stephen and his wife both then spent two years teaching in Malawi which inspired him to complete a Masters in Development Economics but subsequently found that he was either over-qualified or under-qualified for his desired career change. So, he decided to continue his teaching career.

After various experiences, he ended up as the Head of English at a boarding school and absolutely loved the mix of pastoral work and teaching. It was the pastoral focus that led him to becoming a House Master, responsible for 50 plus teenage boys.

A clash in philosophies between himself and a new Head Master over a number of years, combined with working longer hours than was sensible took a toll on Stephen’s physical and mental health.  He tried returning to the classroom, but this led to further panic attacks. So, at the end of a very long road, Stephen walked away from his teaching career and decided to set up his own business.

Utilising his knowledge of the Education and Teaching sectors he worked on setting up an online tutoring system for International Students. After 6 months working on integrating two systems, the technology didn’t work as well as he had hoped and he was forced to walk away; having suffered a second breakdown.

First steps?

“That failure hit me hard and after a few months I got a job working for somebody else. Ultimately though, I realised that I needed freedom and autonomy to thrive.

Whilst I was thinking about next steps, I was in the kitchen cooking and making healthy snacks for my children.  People were always saying that I should sell them so I decided I would give it a go.  

I went into create mode and set up lots of snack tasting sessions in my kitchen.

I started to research the market for healthy snacks and sought advice from the local Chamber of Commerce who were excellent and I set up conversations with friends of friends who had built their own food businesses.

What Stephen learned?  

  • Simplify your ideas

You can get caught up in new ideas, new recipes, new markets to attack.  For instance, I ended up being interviewed for Countryfile after trialling some high protein brownies made from crushed up crickets!  It was such an interesting experiment but most ideas need to start simple.

  • Seek advice from others in the industry.

For example, a mother of an ex-pupil had built up a successful “bottom-bursting puddings” business, selling into all the major supermarkets and gave me some great advice that saved me time and energy.

  • Joining on-line food forums would have saved me time and energy if I’d found them sooner.

These have been invaluable to me. Forums like The Food Hub, Lifestyle Kitchen and The Foodpreneur Coach Generally speaking the food start-up community is a really supportive one and people are willing to give support and advice.

  • Be honest and get help quickly with the things you struggle with

Trying to do every single thing yourself is tough.  For instance I really struggle with accounting and decided to get help. I chose a Virtual PA who can not only help with accounting details but will be able to help with research and other projects in the future.  

  • Grow your network

Over time I have developed an incredible network of food business people locally from large company owners to small artisan producers. I found, with only a few exceptions, that everyone has opened their arms to me and is more than happy to offer advice and help.  

I’ve had conversations with people I respect who’ve challenged my thinking which I have found invaluable. They’ve helped me consolidate my thoughts and make better decisions.

On occasions, I need to find someone with a special skill and I’ll end up getting introduced to the perfect person at a trade fair or networking event..

  • Go with your gut instincts!

I’ve made mistakes that have cost me a great deal of time and energy by not trusting my instincts.

If it feels wrong, it’s probably worth listening to those instincts and probing more deeply. One of the best things about being your own boss is that you make the decisions - so you can say no and walk away!

  • Protect your IP

I’ve almost had my recipes stolen on a collaboration that didn’t work out.  I’d have been stuffed if I hadn’t set up ip protection and non-disclosure agreements from the early days.

  • Branding and marketing are important but make sure you believe that your product can justify itself financially.

I’ve made some difficult decisions on products that I’ve invested a great deal of time and resources in but they just didn’t stand up financially.

So, I’ve designed and researched new products on the back of both flavour, gut instinct AND financial insights.

  • Good is good enough

Start selling your product as soon as it is good - not perfect.  That way you can be nimble and make changes as you go along, based on customer feedback.

How it feels on the days when Stephen knows he has made the right decision?

There is a smile in my belly!

It feels right.

It feels positive.

I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD so there are days when my brain and my body conspire and tell me to stop but I don’t want to; because Bakes and Balls is important to me.  It’s mine and it’s a part of me.

When someone I don’t know sees me at a trade fair and shouts over to me ‘I’ve tried your balls and I like them!’ It’s funny and satisfying!

I love the feeling that my healthy snacks are solving a problem in a family and giving them viable alternatives to what’s on the market (in the free from ranges) that actually taste great.”

I’m excited about the new Frocolate truffle and spread ranges which we’re launching.

Regrets?

Occasionally I meet up with an ex-pupil who might be in their 20s or 30s and they tell me what they enjoyed and liked about my teaching; which texts they still remember (it is often the more risque sections of Chaucer’s ‘The Miller’s Tale’ where Nicholas’ bottom is branded; or the more gruesome parts of Webster’s ‘Duchess of Malfi’.

But it is also really touching when ex-pupils tell me why I was an important influence on them. I do miss my teaching time, but I couldn’t go back to it.”


If you’d like to find out more about Stephen and his business, contact him here:

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