Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Harvey Nicks

When we had a couple of manufacturing runs at the nut factory under our belt things were starting to look good. The porridge was selling well at our 2 stockists (Abi’s friend’s deli and the bakery where nana gets her sausage rolls) and we were feeling invincible. Abi suggested that we try and get it in a bigger store and we decided to start at the top and sent a box to Harvey Nichols food hall. It’s fair to say that at this stage we still had a bad case of impostor syndrome whenever we spoke to anyone so talking to the buyer at Harvey Nichols was pretty nerve-wracking.

Harvey Nichols: ‘We love your products and would like to stock them’

Fleur: ‘Really? WOW, that’s fantastic news, yes, gosh…GREAT!’

Harvey Nichols: ‘What is the name of your distributor?’

Fleur: ‘Our what?’

Harvey Nichols: ‘Your distributor’

[pause]

Fleur: ‘I’m not sure what that is but if you tell me I’ll get one.’


Friday, 25 July 2008

The sad story of Espiritu Silvestre Oceanico del Sur

Around this time the porridge orders started getting too big for the car. I made a business-like assessment of the value of various transportation options and put it on the agenda for the next meeting. Abi took a different approach and bought a 1973 VW van on Ebay without even seeing it.

AE: ‘YOU WILL LOVE IT’ [Translation: It’s a rust bucket but I have already bought it so please don’t be negative]

FE: ‘I will love it' [Translation: I will be nice about this as long as you never mention the pig abattoir machine or the Tardis fridge.]

That night Abi ate too much cheese before bedtime, dreamt that her home was being invaded by the undead, fell out of bed and broke her arm. I picked her up from A&E bright and early and we headed to Brighton to pick up the van. The man who was selling it was extremely pleased to see us and very friendly, especially considering that he was so ‘sad to be letting the van go’. He handed over the keys and went straight back in the house and shut the door. It was parked on a steep incline and as we pulled out into the road and I attempted to change gear we began to roll backwards down the hill. I managed to regain control and with my foot flat on the accelerator we trundled up the hill.

AE: ‘He said that it runs great once the engine opens up’
FE: ‘What does that mean?’
AE: ‘I’m not sure’

That journey was a mixture of excitement at having our own campervan and mortal fear that we wouldn’t make it back alive.

AE: ‘We should give the van a name’
FE: ‘What like?’
AE: ‘Jorge’
FE: ‘Jorge? Shouldn’t it be something more epic?’
AE: ‘Like what?’
FE: ‘Espiritu Silvestre Oceanico del Sur?’

Our summer as beach bums with a campervan full of boards (and porridge) was short-lived and bittersweet. How cool we felt as we arrived at the beach, how terrified when the breaks failed at the roundabout and we just kept going. In our heart of hearts we both knew that Espiritu was a death trap and had to go. We found a buyer and went to meet him at a Little Chef on the A3. How pleased we were to see him, how friendly we were considering it was ‘so sad to be letting the van go’. The man climbed in, released the handbrake and started to roll backwards towards a hedge. I waved a cheery goodbye and Abi waggled her cast. As we drove away Abi left behind her fantasty of re-living ‘The Endless Summer’ in her beloved van that she never even got to drive (6 weeks after breaking her arm she also broke her foot and spent a while on crutches). The last sound we heard was the distant clatter of the exhaust falling off into the gutter.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

How we make decisions and the carpeting-over-Madonna dream

When it comes to making decisions about Grasshopper we have found the following to be true:

1: Comparing the benefit of possible outcomes is useful.
2: Talking to someone more experienced is useful.
3: Leaving important emails overnight before sending is a good idea.

Our best decisions, however, have been taken in a moment and not as the result of a calculation. The book ‘Blink’ promotes the use of intuition in decision making by arguing that our shallow sub-conscious processes information about people and situations without telling us. I love this idea.

Some people call it a voice in their head, a religious person might call it God but I call it Tony (‘why doesn’t Tony want to go and live in The Overlook Hotel?’ ‘HE JUST DOESN’T’). If Tony doesn’t like someone he doesn’t have to give a reason because he is always right. The best thing about working with my sister is that the transmitter in her head is on the same channel as mine and she trusts Tony as much as I do.

When Grasshopper was starting to grow we needed money to buy things and it added up to a lot. I applied for grants, funds, loans and bursaries. No one wanted to give us free money so we went to the bank for a loan. In a book I read that a limited company exists as a separate entity and that the directors are not liable for the company’s debts if the business fails. I put this to the bank manager and he said that that was often true but that in our case a loan of this size would need the following security:

1: Abi’s house
2: All future earnings of any blood relatives
3: My first born son

The small print also explained that the bank could call in the loan/firstborn/house/kidneys of either or both of us at any time. We were, however, desperate to keep going, so desperate in fact that I just pushed forward until we were in the bank with the pen hovering over the agreement. In hindsight Tony had been warning me for some time not to take the loan (he communicated this message by making the skin on my legs rashy, keeping me up all night arranging my books in alphabetical order and giving me a re-occurring dream about carpeting over Madonna) but I had refused to listen. When he had become more insistent I covered his mouth with gaffer tape and hummed to drown him out. Luckily Abi heard him, put her pen down and refused to sign the loan. When I panicked and asked her what we would do instead, she suggested a light lunch. To summarise: yes do your homework, yes ask a grown-up but always listen to the little boy that lives in your mouth and do what he says.


Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The Nut Factory

The euphoric high of becoming accredited by The Soil Association was followed by a period of slight to moderate anxiety, as I still hadn’t solved the problem of how to scale up the business. Making porridge at home was fun but we had to grow to become profitable. The following thoughts kept me awake at night:

1: I have no idea what machine/factory/fire extinguisher/safety wellies/hazard signs/pens to get in order to manufacture porridge.

2: We have no money to buy anything other than the dented cans of beans from Tesco that we are living on.

At our next meeting I admitted to Abi that we had no money and knew nothing about manufacturing. She thought for a moment and after flinging a couple of affectionate insults my way made an excellent suggestion.

AE: ‘Why don’t we just get someone else to make it?’

I think that she then said ‘Like…DUH?’ but I can’t remember for sure.

Apparently this is called sub-contracting and is common practice in the food industry. Marvellous.

I looked up ‘Factories’ in yellow pages and started ringing around. Each factory I spoke to either couldn’t or wouldn’t make our product. I, ever the optimist, had assumed that everyone we spoke to would be competing to turn their entire workforce over to porridge production so the sense of rejection was acute. The main factors that seemed to be off-putting to the factory managers were:

1: They had never heard of our product.

2: We had no experience of manufacturing anything.

3: We had no stockists except for Abi’s friend’s deli.

4: We didn’t have any orders (except from nana who wanted some to give to her ladies at the cancer shop)

I had nearly reached the bottom of our list of 10 000 factories when I got through to a man called Jack at a nut factory. He sounded busy and slightly grumpy so when he said that they might be able to mix for us I nearly dropped the phone. If he had been right there I would have kissed him on the forehead and said ‘YOU LOVELY MAN’ but luckily he wasn’t.

In the car on the way to the factory Abi and I discussed our strategy.

AE: ‘Act like you have been to other factories and know what they are talking about. Don’t look desperate.’

FE: ‘Ok. Do you think we will get free nuts?’

It was exciting being inside a real factory although in my imagination it had been staffed entirely by squirrels so part of me was disappointed. Before you go in you have to put a lab-coat and shower-cap on and sign a form to say that you don’t have any diseases that mean your skin might flake off into the nuts. At that stage we really didn’t know what were looking at and we just smiled a lot and nodded vigorously. There were nuts everywhere: rivers of nuts flowing along conveyer belts and falling down miniature trap doors. It was everything I had hoped for and more. Abi’s words chimed in my ears as I tried to appear business-like and not at all desperate.

In the office after our tour we discussed every aspect of exactly how the product was made. Jack opened his mouth as if he was about to say something, then closed it again and sighed. After a long considered pause he finally looked up at Abi and I and said ‘Ok’. We tried our best to act natural but we were amazed and delighted that this was going to finally happen. As we left, just when I thought that life couldn’t get any better Victoria called after us ‘Help yourself to some nuts.’


Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The Soilies

After a bit of Googling I found out that even if we were making porridge from 100% organic ingredients we weren’t allowed to write ‘organic’ on the label unless we had official ‘organic certification’. We were sure that we only wanted to make organic products so we decided to get Grassy certified, after all, how hard could it be?

After contacting The Soil Association, filling in 5 kilos of forms and receiving a set of guidelines the size of a telephone directory in the post we were given an official factory inspection date. It turns out that every single raisin that goes into our porridge needs about 5 forms proving where it was grown, who it was sold to, everything that has ever happened to it and which EXACT pot of porridge it goes in. Luckily I love filing systems and my inner minimalist saw this not as a chore but as a legitimate reason to buy a special trolley with ring-binders built in from Muji.

The fee to register our products was £700 and even if we sold all the porridge that we had made already we had no-where near that in the bank. When I phoned the Soil Association and explained that we had £100 and that we could borrow another £100 from mum they made a special arrangement with us so that we could pay the fee in instalments.

I was feeling the pressure to pass the inspection first time because failure would incur a second fee. Every clause and sub-clause in the organic telephone directory had to be strictly adhered to, cleaning rosters had to be signed every five minutes, every raisin had be accounted for. The preparation threw me into a frenzy of checking and re-checking and when the day came I knew I was ready.

Our inspector arrived expecting a factory or at least a trading estate. I welcomed him into the 6’ x 12’ kitchen of my bijoux [AE: titchy] apartment [AE: rabbit hutch] and prepared to show him my systems. His name was Mr Wells and his previous job had been as wine-gum tester in a sweet factory. This fact and his decision to carry out his inspection duties dressed in tweed knickerbockers and matching waistcoat made me instantly recognise him as a kindred spirit. When he explained how he frequently made trips to Austria to check that Tyrolean dairy herds weren’t eating contraband non-organic grass I knew that it was love. He inspected me for hours, quizzing me on origination and transportation legislation and concluded his questioning with the enigmatic statement, ‘everything appears to be in order’.

I wanted to say ‘DID WE PASS? HUH? DID WE DID WE DID WE DID WE DID WE?’ but restrained myself.

Two weeks later the man from Del Monte he say yes and I were over the moon. We were so proud to put the Soil Association logo on our products that Abi put a giant one on our website and made it spin round.




Monday, 21 July 2008

Other things we nearly bought

Other things that we [AE: Fleur] nearly bought and two that we actually did.

1: Various large attachments that turn bicycles into a giant contraption for transporting large objects.

2: Various Uniforms for wearing while producing porridge at home (in the end I didn’t get the white wellies, sanitizing foot bath or face masks and just went for a simple lab coat and hair net)

3: A factory (phew)

Things I did buy which we didn’t need

1: 12 000 little sleeve things to join 2 pots together (we found out afterwards that these are useless unless you have an industrial sized hair-dryer style flame-thrower that shrinks them, similar to the one used by Sigourney Weaver in Alien 2)

2: A 2 metre high fridge that was too big for the kitchen and stood like a neon tardis in my bedroom for 3 weeks until I sold it on Ebay and an Indian man with a fluorescent turban came and took it away.

Friday, 18 July 2008

The Machine

After making porridge at home for a while it became clear that we would need to start thinking about the future. As this was a business type thing it fell to me and was added to my task sheet. For some weeks it appeared at the bottom of my ‘to do’ list in capitals.

‘INVESTIGATE MANUFACTURING’

What Abigail and I knew about manufacturing at that time added up to not much. We had done ‘Charlie & the chocolate factory’ as a set reader in Lower two and knew the Gene Wilder version off by heart but beyond that our knowledge was patchy. I wracked my memory to try and think if I had ever met anyone who had ever manufactured anything. The best I could come up with was a girl called Louise in Gosport & Fareham youth orchestra. We shared a music stand in the second violins and her dad worked at a factory that made plastic.

At our next meeting I fed back to Abigail my progress in this area and asked for her help.

AE: ‘So we need to work out how we can make larger quantities of porridge in less time. At the moment how do you make it?

FE: ‘In the Magimix’

AE: ‘So basically what we need is a giant Magimix’,

FE: ‘I don’t think that such a thing exists’

AE: ‘Hmmmmm, this is more complicated than I thought. You need to get on the internet and find companies that sell machines and buy a machine.’

FE: ‘OK’

This is everything I knew about machines at that time:

1: If you dip your hands in the ultrasonic machine at dad’s surgery it cleans your fingernails.

2: If you rock the two-pee waterfall in Haying arcade backwards and forwards an alarm goes off and you get chucked out.

At a push I could outline the role of the Spinning Jenny in the industrial revolution and discuss the effectiveness of The Wrack as a medieval instrument of interrogation but after that I drew a blank.

Luckily Google was at hand to give us immediate access to the exact type of giant Magimix that Grasshopper needed to scale up the business and move towards profitability.

After entering various combinations of search terms, with or without brackets, I came up with the contact details of a firm in Belgium that supplies machines for industry. I dialled the number and spoke to several different Belgians and attempted to make them understand that we were looking to invest in a giant Magimix. Communication was hampered by the language barrier and the fact that I lacked even a rudimentary understanding of food-preparation machinery. Representing the future of British industry I persevered and ended the call with the name of a machine that could, it seemed, be right for us. I gave Abi my report and the name of the machine.

FE: ‘ The name is: MYCOM HAMDAS. I’m not sure if it’s exactly what we are looking for but it’s in the right ball park’

AE: ‘Are you sure that it is suitable for fruit and cereal mixing?’

FE: ‘Well not exactly, but I’ve tried my best and we’ll just have to find out’

AE: ‘Hold on, I’m Googling it…Ok I’ve found it’

FE: ‘Is there a picture? Does it look like the right thing?’

AE: ‘There is a picture….Well, it just looks like a giant machine’

FE: ‘What does it say? Is the website in English?’

‘AE: It says ‘removes skin, kneecaps and bones, speed: 700 legs per hour. Oh no. Fleur…tell me you haven’t placed an order’

FE: ‘No! Of course I haven’t….I have just ‘registered our interest’’

AE: ‘Well, you have registered our interest in a giant Belgian pig abattoir machine. Well done.’




Thursday, 17 July 2008

Let’s start a porridge company

The next part is a bit of a blur. I think that our total lack of experience in the area of business actually helped us at this point. It’s a cliché to say ‘if we’d known how hard it was going to be we might never have started’ but it may also be true. There are so many things to consider before you set up a company but we didn’t know that so embarked on our radical career change after a conversation that went like this:

FE: ‘I love making billions of identical pots of porridge, let’s start a company and work for ourselves and do what we like and sell it to Waitrose and buy a beach house’

AE: ‘Alrighty’

I then went to Denny’s chef outfitters in Soho and spent some time and some considerable money putting together an outfit that made me look and feel like a porridge manufacturer so that I could really start ‘inhabiting the role’. Abi went to Cowes week.

By the time Abi was back I had registered Grasshopper with Companies House and we were off. At first it was difficult to work out how to split the work. This conflict arose primarily because as an obsessive I prefer to be in control of everything and have everyone do exactly as I say, as if they were a puppet. Unfortunately as Abi shares my DNA she is able to anticipate most of the rudimentary control mechanisms I employ. In fact try as I might to make her yield to my will even my most advanced mind control techniques were powerless.

In the end the matter was resolved like this:

AE: ‘I’ll do the PR and events and marketing and you can do the business stuff’

FE: ‘OK’

What this actually means is that Abi gets to go to Antigua week to ‘promote’ Grassy while I do an evening class on Corporation tax.

The best bit of Grassy back then was turning my kitchen into a porridge laboratory and making billions of identical pots; the secure feeling I got when they were stacked up to the ceiling in my room, towering over me. Sleepless nights from ‘new business jitters’ were easily soothed by putting on my health and safety approved food preparation outfit and chopping oats in the Magimix. Even now the sound of industrial strength food processors helps me to feel calm and centred.


Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Starting from nothing

In August 2006 my sister Abigail and I started the porridge company Grasshopper. When I say that we started from nothing it is true.

To clarify: WE KNEW NOTHING.
To further clarify: We had no experience or knowledge of any of the following areas:

1. Business (in any form)
2. Selling anything (other than stick insects at The Tremlett’s garage sale in 1979)
3. Manufacturing anything (apart from what we knew about how to make chocolate when the kid goes to the Cadburys factory on Jim’ll Fix It)
4. The food industry

If ‘starting from nothing’ sounds like the beginning of a self-help book or a seminar by Tom Cruise in Magnolia please know that I write it not to be boastful or indeed motivational but to tell you that we had NOTHING.

In the summer of 2006 I got sacked and in a ‘I am never going to work for anyone ever again’ huff I threw my CV and all my references off London Bridge into The Thames. Soon I was paying the rent by playing poker and living off instant noodles from the newsagent and free samples from Borough market. Abi was working in a marketing department, marketing stuff. I’m not sure exactly what she was marketing but I know that she was [AE: it was marine stuff Fleur]. Although I was living in London I was spending more and more time on the South coast with my family swimming and sailing and sometimes surfing at the Witterings beach with Abi.

The Witterings is to Abi what Mecca is to The Nation of Islam. To other people it is just a big old pebbly windy British beach but to her it is much more. Water-sports in the UK have their downsides of course. The main one being the climate: If you are over 30 you will know that in the 1970s it was summer for the entire decade and that we only now get 2 weeks of warm weather each year to make up for it.

Undeterred by this climactic detail Abi goes to the beach in all conditions from sun to sleet and snow. As a committed porridge-head I experimented with ways of making a portable porridge mix that we could take to the beach and eat straight away to warm up [AE: Up until this point I had relied on the humble Snicker bar which will always hold a fond place in my heart]. The recipe came to us quite early on and seemed to work every time. She poured the water in straight away and by the time she had got dry it was ready to eat. I loved our invention and thought about it a lot. As an OCD sufferer I then sought to deal with my sense of dissolution at having no career prospects or income by obsessively producing hundreds of identical portions of our instant porridge and storing them on shelving systems that I bought in flat packs from Ikea and spent hours constructing. We started giving it to Abi’s friends at the beach [AE: I took a rucksack down there when I was on crutches with a broken foot that had been pinned back together and dished it out] and to my friends in London. We noticed the first of many surprising things almost simultaneously: Everyone we gave a pot to, EVERY SINGLE ONE, loved it and asked for more.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Start

This blog is the story of how my sister and I started a porridge company by accident even though she is addicted to extreme sports and spent nearly the entire first year in traction [AE: it was only a broken arm and a broken foot] and I have OCD and prefer not to leave the house.

The following entries provide a poorly structured, grammatically weak account of our life setting up a Grasshopper from nothing. It offers very little practical
information and is fanciful and facetious. It is, however, full of advice that we have been given from other people with more experience than us. We have tried to include the information we wished that we had known all in one go before we started. We hope that it inspires you and if it doesn’t you can always print it out, shred it and use it as hamster bedding.

This blog is dedicated to fellow under-achievers of the World. [AE: speak for yourself, I have a Master of Science]