Lessons from the first 20 years
When we started COOK 20 years ago, it’s fair to say we didn’t really know the first thing about business. Two decades on and we remain far from being a fount of wisdom. But, having made more than our fair share of mistakes over the years, we’ve learned a few lessons that may come in useful to others starting or running a business – or, at the very least, provide some amusement.
It’s going to be so much harder than you ever imagined
We’d borrowed the money. We’d found a kitchen and bought the kit. We had our first shop lined up. Time for Dale to start cooking. One of his first dishes was a lentil and fennel bake (odd choice, we grant you). It was so bad it was virtually inedible. The magnitude of the challenge of making frozen food at scale that tasted homemade finally dawned on Edward (and at that time “scale” was just 50 por tions at a time). He sat down on the stairs of his flat and cried. Building a business, any business, is going to be so much harder than you ever imagined. Not just in the early days but at pretty much every stage. Be prepared.
From the very beginning, COOK has been blessed by fortune. Dale found our very first kitchen while wandering past a derelict industrial site near to his sister’s house. There just happened to be an empty pizza delivery unit though there was a demolition notice on it. The landlord agreed we could rent it for £50 per week and it got us through those very precarious first couple of years. We had similar good fortune when it came to our first couple of shops. We’ve made plenty of mistakes when choosing shop sites over the years, but the first two – in Farnham and Tunbridge Wells – just happened to be perfect. Had those been wrong, COOK would never have got off the ground. There’s the cliché that you make your own luck (and also a great quote from legendary golfer, Arnold Palmer: the more I practice, the luckier I get). But luck also helps make you and your business. Be open to it.
It really is all about the people
What we do is not rocket science. Anyone could set up a frozen meals business. What makes COOK special is the people who work here. We always hire the person first and then worry about how to train them in the relevant skills later. Don’t get fooled by fancy CVs. Listen to what your heart and gut instinct tells you about a person, and make sure they’re absolutely aligned with your values. That’s much more important than experience.
Grow a thick skin
If you’re an entrepreneur, there will be lots more disappointments running a business than high points. In the early years, it may feel like there’s only disappointments. If you’re not ready to shrug off the criticisms and failures, you’re unlikely to get very far. Your skin needs to be as thick as an elephant’s hide.
If you need external investors, make sure they’re absolutely aligned
We’ve always wanted to do business our own way at COOK and so intentionally avoided taking outside investment. But as the recession started to bite in 2008, it looked like we’d have no choice but to give up a big stake to an outside investor and effectively lose our cherished independence. We had a deal lined up with a wealthy individual but his lawyer started quibbling over the terms. In the meantime, we had also been talking to a lovely man called Antony Howeson about investing. The single most generous thing anyone has done for COOK was when Anthony told Edward that we shouldn’t take his money as we could make it through the recession on our own and that would be better for COOK in the long run. We believed him and he proved to be right. We do have a small group of external, minority investors in COOK and they’re all completely aligned with what we’re trying to achieve (which is just as well, as some have had to be very patient to see any return on their investment).
The ability to keep going when swimming through what seems like a never-ending sea of disaster is possibly the most important entrepreneurial skill of all. You need utter conviction in what you’re trying to achieve and the will to persevere beyond the point at which all reasonable people would give up.
Ask for advice
Seek out business people you admire and ask for advice. Pitch your request right and you may be surprised at how generous successful people are with their time. Edward has been very fortunate to have had help from a succession of smart people over the years. Patrick Farmer (ex-Clarks shoes director), spent many years mentoring him and never asked for a penny in return. Anthony Howeson (founder of fine food company, Harvey & Brockless), was our unpaid chairman for some years during which he changed the way we ran the company. And our current chairman, Nick Candler, formerly chief operating officer of Pret, has been instrumental in our recent success. Edward’s relationship with Nick grew out of taking a guess at his email address in 2012 and asking if he’d have time for a meeting! In addition, Sir John and James Timpson, of the Timpsons high street chain, have been extraordinarily generous with their time and advice over the years.
Core values matter
It took us 15 years before we finally wrote down our core values at COOK, what we call our Essential Ingredients. Up to then, it had seemed a bit too corporate and grandiose to think we needed to tell everyone at COOK explicitly what our values were. But if you’re driven by doing things differently and are committed to creating a unique company culture, articulating and living by a clear set of values is essential as you grow. In the early days we got by because everyone knew each other, and we generally only hired people we got along with. Shared values happened naturally. But then one day we realised we’d grown to have hundreds of employees spread around the country. Everyone needed to know exactly what was expected. We discovered that articulating values isn’t about hiring a fancy agency or doing lots of funky creative brainstorms. It’s about unlocking what’s in your heart anyway. We started out with a long list of 15, each with their own paragraph. Over a period of months we whittled it down to five, each with an explanatory sentence. We launched them with real commitment in 2012 and knew we’d nailed it because they were immediately embraced by everyone. Once you have your values, live them daily. Recruit through then, reward through them, use them to recognise achievement – everything. You’ll know if your values are alive in your company if you hear them referred to in everyday conversation.
Know what you won’t compromise on (and be prepared to compromise on everything else)
In 2008 and 2009 we got as close to going bust as it’s possible to get without calling in the administrators (we even had a meeting about doing a ‘pre-pack administration’ – which we discounted on ethical grounds). It meant we had to cut every cost that wasn’t absolutely essential. We had no choice but to make some roles redundant. We closed our HQ office inTonbridge and moved everyone across Kent to the COOK Kitchen in Sittingbourne. We froze pay and we even had to persuade all of our landlords to halve our rent for two years. But the one area where we all agreed there could be no compromise was on the quality of the ingredients we were buying. If we had ever done that then we would have forfeited our right to survive.
Get People Together
You don’t build a great company culture without getting people together regularly. This is easy when you’re small and everyone can adjourn to the local pub on a Friday night. But as you grow it requires much more time, effort and money. In 2015, we decided to shut all our shops for a day so that we could get together all our shop teams from across the country. For the same reason, we close our kitchens for at least one day a year, too. Yes, it’s costly and inconvenient but in terms of creating energy, buzz and big relationships between people, it’s worth its weight in gold.
Find your tribe
Business can be lonely. Seek out like-minded people and companies with whom you can share experiences and ideas. For COOK, being part of the global community of B Corporations has added an enormous amount of value over the past five years.
Find your purpose
“Purpose” has become a bit of a buzz word in business. But if it’s sincere, and not just a bit of marketing spin, then doing business with purpose is so much more powerful that doing it without. Which isn’t to say that articulating your purpose as a company is straightforward. It has taken us the best part of five years to arrive at a statement of our purpose that we genuinely feel makes sense: nourishing relationships. Of course, if you’re planning a start-up, far better to articulate your purpose up front so you can build it into everything you do and use it to galvanise employees and customers. Retro-fitting purpose is a challenge, but one we’re committed to meeting.
Don’t plan for perfection
Never assume that big projects will go according to plan. When budgeting, in particular, take pains to make your forecasts as conservative as possible. We have spent many anguished hours beating ourselves up for missing budget targets simply because we were too aggressive in the first place. Of course, the trick is to marry conservative budgeting with awesome execution, so you’re in a permanent state of over-achieving bliss. We’re still working on that one.
Test and learn
For a long time we were an all-or-nothing business. When we had a new idea, we jumped in with both feet. We’ve now learned that there’s nothing wrong with being a bit more cautious and trying something out in a small way, before committing. A couple of years ago, Edward was convinced that soup was going to be massive but he was persuaded to try it out in a few shops, first. It turned out frozen soup wasn’t the next big thing but we were able to reverse ferret, without it costing a fortune which it might have done had we just done a full launch. Now, disciplined trials are gradually becoming part of our DNA.
Upsides v downsides
A simple technique borrowed from Sir Richard Branson: when weighing up new ideas always think through the upsides and the downsides. What’s the best that could happen if everything goes according to plan? What’s the worst that could happen if it fails? It’s amazing how often seemingly good ideas will have only a marginal upside and a bottomless potential downside.
Focus on the focus
This was our theme for our 2016-7 financial year. Entrepreneurs have a fatal weakness for bright, shiny new things. Wear sunglasses, they are dangerous. Innovation is impor tant but carefully sift through all your shiny new ideas to work out which one might be a diamond. Identify a small number of initiatives you need to focus on to really move the business forward and execute them brilliantly.
Be healthily paranoid
Never assume you’ve got quality licked. Constantly test your own product or service and don’t be satisfied with anything other than perfection. Edward continues to be the most annoying person in the business when it comes to being opinionated about our food, offering a steady stream of unsolicited feedback to our food team.
Kindness and generosity trump all other management attributes
Given the opportunity, people will amaze you
Whether it’s down to educational opportunities or family issues, we find many people come to work for us lacking in confidence. As they feel more secure and grow in confidence, it is extraordinary what they discover they can achieve.
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