Nicola Lando, 36, quit her job to ‘do something in food’ back in 2010.
She was prepping vegetables in a Michelin-starred French restaurant kitchen in London, Gauthier, when she had the idea for a website specialising in hard-to-find ingredients and kitchen kit. Lando then launched online food and cooking retailer Sous Chef in August 2012, and revenues are now £2 million a year. Here, the entrepreneur explains how she’s cooked up her business.
How did you turn your foodie passion into a start-up?
“I’ve always loved cooking from other cuisines but struggled to find the ingredients for the more unusual recipes. Working in the French kitchen also opened my eyes to the amazing range of ingredients and techniques the professionals use. I thought there might be a gap in the market for a business which made such things available to a wider audience.”
How did the launch go?
“Well, we switched on the website, and had three customers on the first day and two on the second so it was definitely gradual!
Some of the first items to ship were Italian beechwood pasta-making tools, Mexican sauces, squid ink, a paella pan, and Belgian cooking chocolate. We then did some early PR work, sending out packs of ingredients and a one-page description of Sous Chef to food journalists, which was a success.
They loved the idea of so many authentic ingredients from different countries under one roof. We only had around 400 products on the site initially – today we have over 3000.
You sell liquid smoke and canape cone trays – did you ever wonder if it was a bit too niche?
“Yes, we hired a tiny storage unit to keep our initial stock ahead of opening, and the day before we opened, after about six months of getting the website ready, my husband and business partner Nick walked into the room and said ‘What have we done! Who is going to want all these weird things?’ But fortunately lots of people did!”
How is the business funded?
“Initially from our own savings, now supplemented by profits reinvested in the business.”
How did you deal with worries about competitors?
“I’d say don’t be afraid of competition – if other people are starting businesses in your space, that can be a good thing. They’re educating the market about why your products are needed… So now you only have to spend money advertising why they should buy it from you, instead of others.”
What were the key moments for your business?
“The first Christmas was very exciting – though rather a panic as we hadn’t realised how seasonal the business would be. The whole of December is crazy – 6am starts and very late finishes.
However, most people finish their Christmas shopping a week before Christmas. That gives us chance to speak to anyone who needs help, and make sure any errors or breakages are fixed well before the big day.
Beyond that, around eight months in, we reached a point where we were consistently generating a reasonable level of sales. From there it felt as though the business was working – and would work again the next day. We now employ eight staff, and take on a few more at Christmas time.”
What are your top tips for others thinking of starting a business?
“Do something you enjoy and don’t be afraid to copy or adapt something that already works. Most successful businesses are not revolutionary – simply well-executed.
Find a mentor or co-founder: running a business can be very lonely, and it’s good to have someone with you to help you keep perspective, both when thinking through plans for growth, as well as lifting you up after a bad day. My husband Nick came on board at Sous Chef very early on, when I realised I couldn’t do everything myself.”
How do you cope with working with your husband?
“Initially it was tough! With a business partner who’s a husband, of course I always take my work home with me.
We manage it in two ways – clearly defining separate roles, so we only come together to discuss big opportunities or issues for the business. And, outside the office, we always ask first before launching into a conversation about work, and respecting it if the other person says they don’t want to think about work then.
We’ve also had to learn to not agonise about business performance day-to-day – instead look at it by month or by quarter. When we started the business, a bad day would put us in a black mood, and good day would be thrilling! That becomes exhausting very quickly.
Instead put reminders in your diary on a monthly and quarterly basis to assess business progress, and whether you are achieving your goals. Only then can you think clearly about whether you are heading in the right direction.”
Lucy Tobin is a senior writer at the Evening Standard, author and blogger.