John Stapleton is the ‘Authentic Entrepreneur’ with 30 years’ experience in pioneering new FMCG categories and establishing and growing successful consumer-led businesses in both the UK and the USA. John now actively manages an investor/Non-Executive Director portfolio contributing value-added business growth advice, guidance and mentoring to business owners. John is a business thought leader and speaks on a wide range of entrepreneurial management & motivational leadership topics.
You can see John’s website here
John was born and raised in Co Roscommon, attended UCD; enjoyed a career as a Track & Field international athlete during the early eighties and moved to London in 1986. Following a 5 year spell in California around the turn of the Millennium, John relocated to Munich where he lives with his wife from where he manages his business interests in London, Dublin and Munich.
John has first-hand experience in start-up, early stage growth and scale-up stage businesses, having co-founded 3 FMCG businesses, building and growing two of them to exit. In 1987 John co-founded the New Covent Garden Soup Co (NCGSC)., which pioneered and grew the fresh soup category in the UK. In 1988, on reaching over £20m revenue, Daniels PLC bought NCGSC. In the same year, John co-founded Glencoe Foods Inc., designed to bring the fresh soup concept to the US. On returning to Europe, John established a consumer branded food consultancy and worked with a number of corporate and early-stage growth businesses across the FMCG sector in the UK, US and continental Europe.
In 2005, John co-founded Little Dish, which supplies healthy, natural and convenient meals and snacks to children over one year. Little Dish created the chilled toddler food category, developing full UK retailer distribution and became the go-to brand in fresh toddler food and snacks. Having grown to approaching £15m annual revenues, John sold Little Dish in 2017.
John now primarily helps small food and drink businesses grow – either as an investor or advisor/ mentor. Examples of UK brands that John is closely involved with are: Nix & Kix (adult soft drinks); Primal Pantry (healthy snack bars); Capsicana (Latin American savoury products); Spoon Cereals (granola and muesli); WheyHey (healthy ice-cream and snacks). John is also an investor director in Grocery Accelerator which invests in and provides structured value-added assistance to early stage businesses wishing to scale to be a national brand in UK Grocery and ultimately successfully exit. John is also business mentor to Bord Bia & Enterprise Ireland – funded programmes designed to identify and prepare Irish food and drink entrepreneurs to start and scale their businesses.
How did you get the idea/ concept for your business?
Generally, I always wanted to be involved in the food industry. The trouble was, I was never really sure doing exactly what. One thing was for sure, I didn’t want to “wear a white coat” and be a quality or technical guy. I wanted to definitely do something exciting and was fascinated about the relationship between food nutrition and elite athletes’ performance – long before it became fashionable. I was keen to find a way to combine my then passion (athletics) with a career in food.
More specifically, I sort of got into the food industry by accident. I certainly got into fresh soup by accident! Each time I’ve set up a business, I’ve done it in partnership with a co-founder. My business partner at Soup – Andrew – came up with the original idea of bringing fresh soup to the masses. We met when I was finishing University in Reading and we both thought the only way we were going to answer the millions of questions we both had about the concept was to get on and do it – so we did!
With Little Dish my business partner and I had the initial idea independently of each other before we met. We had figured out that there was almost definitely a market need that was not being served.
This was around the time when Jamie Oliver was launching his first crusade in the name of childrens’ diet and health. We felt if there was ever a good time to bring this concept to market, it would be now.
Give a brief account of your education background.
I studied Industrial Microbiology at UCD, graduating in 1986. I have to admit I didn’t put that much thought into what I was going to study. My main concern was simply attending UCD as that campus, at the time, had the best Track & Field facilities in the country! I followed this up with a Masters in Food Science at Reading University (once I figured out I was never going to be good enough to earn a living as an athlete!). In the eighties, food seemed like a good bet – it wasn’t going to go out of fashion – people were always going to have to eat!
When we founded NCGSC in 1987, I realised there was a huge amount about running a business I needed to figure out quickly, so I attend Business School for two years in the evening at University College London (UCL). This was immensely helpful as I could learn the theory about management principles and tools during the evening in class and then implement these same tools during the day in a real live environment.
Did you always know/ever think you would become an entrepreneur when you were younger?
Quite honestly, I’m sure I couldn’t even spell Entrepreneur! Business and prospects were limited in seventies and eighties Ireland and it certainly didn’t have the venture culture which has developed during and since the Celtic Tiger years. To that end, we didn’t have a great number of Entrepreneurial role models or examples to which we could aspire. It just wasn’t nearly as commonplace as it has become. I was preoccupied with other distractions like track and field. It was only when I was almost confronted by the opportunity that I began to understand the almost seductive appeal of the entrepreneurial way.
Is entrepreneurship a common trait in your family?
Not on the face of it. My dad was a farmer in Roscommon and my mum a teacher. That upbringing prepares you for a pseudo-entrepreneurial life anyway – although you probably don’t realise it at the time. You tend to grow up quickly, acquire a degree of independence and I was a reasonably down-to-earth kid as a result. I’m a great believer that your early life experiences (childhood & teenager) prepares you for your business life much more than what you actually learn in business. If you understand that setbacks and adversity happen in real life (and on a farm you see that all the time) you are in a good place to deal with it when it happens to you in your business. In a sense it’s a great training to go through to prepare you for setting up your own business and taking all the stuff that happens in your stride.
Did you have prior knowledge of the industry before setting up your company?
Not at all. I came straight out of Reading University and set up NCGSC. In fact, I was still at the university when Andrew and I had our first conversation about doing Soup. While I had studied food science (and all that gave me was a piece of technical knowledge from a very academic viewpoint), I really didn’t know anything about anything relevant to what became NCGSC. I had no experience of the food industry or business or of how to develop a fresh soup brand.
What was your previous work experience (if any)? Do you think this gave you an advantage when setting up your business?
Well, I didn’t have any previous work experience! Andrew had been a stockbroker, so he had work experience under his belt, but hardly an apprenticeship for what we were about to do next. But that didn’t seem to daunt us too much. We had lots of enthusiasm, energy and we were tenacious! In fact, to a certain extent, that naivety turned out to be an advantage.
Very often, if you are from a particular industry and you are aware of all the issues and challenges involved, you can all too easily conclude : “let’s leave this to someone who knows what they’re doing, someone possibly who have done it before”.
It can be like climbing a massive mountain. If you recognise how big the mountain is – how difficult the challenges are likely to be, you may be tempted to leave it to someone else better equipped. However, if you don’t know how steep the challenge really is, you can easily be half way up the slope before you realise this and that the climb keeps on getting steeper. Once half way up however, you don’t walk backdown, you keep on aiming for the top. This was us at Soup. We were a bunch of happy amateurs figuring it out as we went along. That, on many occasions was our strength. We didn’t really understand the nature of the challenges before we started out or even till we were well into the growth phase.
How did you initially fund your business? (self-funded, government funding, etc)
Weirdly enough, we funded all of the 3 businesses in quite similar ways – and this was despite the businesses spanning over a 30 year period. In each business, we embarked on 3-4 funding rounds. We started with friends and family (plus an element of “sweat equity”). The second round was typically made up of business angels. We didn’t call them angels in the eighties, but they amounted to the same thing. The final round/ rounds were mostly from private equity sources. At NCGSC, this was a bit different as we had a large VC investor on board from early days, but they behaved more like a PE house in the context of our business. We availed of some grant aid – mostly innovation vouchers or R&D tax credits, but the vast bulk of funds raised was in the form of equity.
Looking back, would you have changed the method of funding you chose?
Who knows to be honest, but I think we probably would not have. Looking back, the process we engaged with in each of the three businesses worked reasonably well for us. Some entrepreneurs don’t like getting PE involved but I believe it is often the most effective way to fund real growth in your business. But you need to make sure you have stakeholder alignment – on strategy obviously, but also on exit horizons, valuation and likely timing.
Even with Little Dish (2006 – 2017) we were really too early to avail of the crowdfunding wave when we were raising finance. But even if it had been available at the time, I don’t think we would have gone down this route. There are benefits to crowdfunding (for the entrepreneur) but I believe these come alongside some considerable disadvantages too. Consumer goods businesses lend themselves well to crowdfunding as we are all consumers and therefore, we can understand and relate to food and drink brands quite easily – hence the huge growth in this form of funding over the last 5 – 8 years. However, I’m convinced, through experience, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Did you encounter any financial difficulties in the first year of operation? If yes, what did you do to surpass them?
I honestly don’t know of any start up that doesn’t encounter difficulties in the first year of operation – and many of those difficulties are typically financial. The exceptions tend to be those who have loads of money available – e.g. they have raised more cash than they need. They have a different problem: not really knowing what to spend their cash on (if they’re a pure start-up). And that’s one sure-fire way to blow through a lot of cash without having much to show for it.
At Soup we made loads of mistakes in the early years. One particular problem was trying to get our factory working properly as quickly as possible and therefore control our margins. Because we had developed a novel process to make fresh soup (as we were the first to bring fresh soup to the market), the process was untested (in fact we patented the process – such was the novel nature of it). We haemorrhaged cash in the early stage – efficiencies, yields and consistency were very elusive! That put a lot of pressure on the business and we sailed quite close to the wind at times. Luckily, we managed to arrest the main drivers which were causing the problems – mostly by painstaking analysis of the process and by bringing in some experienced key personnel.
What characteristics do you feel benefited you most when starting your business?
Strangely perhaps, I believe it is probably a combination of two opposing characteristics. As I’ve mentioned, I was educated a scientist and then more or less became an entrepreneur – maybe even by accident! This transition wasn’t easy. A scientist is trained to approach issues from a logical, analytical viewpoint. Decisions in this environment are typically made based on evidence – and evidence alone. As an Entrepreneur you don’t have time to build a large dossier of evidence. You really need to approach problems from a more creative, judgement-driven viewpoint. Decisions in this case are based more on instinct.
It took me a while to figure this out, often struggling with influences of both trains of thought while trying to deal with a business scaling very quickly. But once I got it, life was a lot easier.
The benefit therefore is about being able to see both sides of an argument (e.g. when forming strategy or figuring out how to implement a particular initiative). Often it comes from understanding the needs of different types of people – whether they are in your team or are a supplier or a customer. As an entrepreneur we are always in sales mode – whether we are trying to convince retailers to stock your product or consumers to buy your product, or staff to come and join you in your journey (when maybe you don’t have much to pay them) or shareholders to invest in your business. Understanding how people tick – especially those who are very different to you, is a significant benefit.
To what do you attribute your company’s success/growth to?
There are always numerous success factors, never just one. But if I take NCGSC, I would have to say it was the carton! We chose the carton because it screamed “freshness” and ultimately, the carton became our biggest asset. We wanted our soup to taste of the fresh ingredients we used and not taste of the process employed to give it an 18 month shelf life (which is what canning does). Therefore, we wanted everyone to know that our soup was fresh – that it hadn’t ben cooked to within an inch of its life and all the taste and nutritional quality destroyed. So, we put it in a carton and placed it in the chiller – both of which screamed to the consumer that it was fresh.
Consumers loved the carton. So much so that, in the early nineties, consumers believed that fresh soup only came in a carton. And when the big retailers launched their own version of fresh soup a few years later, the last thing they wanted to put it in was a carton – cos that was recognised as being owned by us!
What is your opinion on the importance of a professional network for an entrepreneur?
In hindsight, I think it’s hugely important! I say in hindsight cos I only figured this out later in professional life. A good network can be a fantastic source of advice, information and, when you need it, encouragement. Your peers tend to be good at challenging you and being honest with you. Often times, being an entrepreneur can be a lonely experience. It’s better if you have a co-founder, like I did, but even then, it can be a lonely place and you tend to internalise a lot. Sharing stuff with a group you can trust, who have or are experiencing the same stresses and strains that you are (even if in different industries) can be a great extra asset on which to rely.
Also, I never got around to finding a mentor in the (early) Soup days. That was a mistake. I could have learned a hell of a lot from someone who had previously been in the firing line like I was. Whether that is dealing with retailers, consumers, suppliers, shareholders, staff, or frankly, yourself in some of the more introspective moments. I realise now the benefits of having someone you can rely on, bounce ideas off and role play with. It’s often better if you can do this with someone who is outside your organisation.
Do you think entrepreneurship has changed in recent years?
I’m certainly bemused at times with the emergence of the “cult of the entrepreneur” – a concept that seems to have grown over the last 10 years. Terms like “bootstrap” and “accelerator” are all the rage today whereas we simply took this stuff for granted when we were building our own brands and businesses.
We certainly had a feeling of “making it up as we went along” at NCGSC and even at Little Dish too. We were frankly too busy to think too much about being “disruptive” or becoming a “challenger brand”. These days, you can apparently take University courses in how to perfect these sorts of things! I think there is a fine line between being passionate about your brand and becoming emotional about it. For me, passion can build value and if you’re not careful, misplaced emotion can destroy it in a second.
Treating entrepreneurs like celebrities is a mistake. The most outrageous “messiah complex” example of 2019 (Adam Neumann) doesn’t seem to have dulled the appetite for investors to shower potential unicorns with ridiculous amounts of cash at equally ridiculous valuations. This doesn’t do Entrepreneurship any favours. It simply places entrepreneurs in the same category as so-called corporate “fat cats”, at least in the eyes of the general population. In my view, Entrepreneurs often generate immediate value for employees, suppliers, customers and shareholders alike. This value generation can more easily cascade through society and the benefit if often more widely felt than with a corporate. That’s one of the reasons I like it. We should find a way to protect it from excesses which damage its reputation. Unfortunately, in the words of Gordon Gecko, greed is still good.
Would you ever consider starting another company or involving yourself in new start-ups again?
I’m not about to set up anything new from scratch again any time soon. Having done it three times, I don’t intend to be a masochist for a fourth time! However, these days I’m still heavily involved with start-ups. I help many start-ups grow and scale. I might do this either as an investor or as a more arms-length advisor or I guess, as both. Start-ups in the food and drink space in the UK and Ireland have enjoyed explosive growth over the last 5 years and this trend is much more developed in these regions than anywhere else in Europe.
I like being involved with start-ups and early-stage businesses. Firstly, I hardly know anything else – having done it myself for 30. I also keep on learning from all of these new ideas, businesses and alternative ways of doing things. This keeps me current and frankly, relevant and means I’m in a good position to evaluate new trends, ideas and business models. It’s a very exciting space, full of innovation, creativity and opportunity!
If you had one piece of advice for a new entrepreneur, what would it be?
I would boil it down to one thing – having the courage of your convictions.
When you have a new idea, something that hasn’t been done before and you’re trying to be a disruptor. You will have a queue of people trying to tell you why it won’t work. Even so-called experts will give you lots of reasons why you will fail. They represent the conventional wisdom and in my experience they are more about convention and less about wisdom. There comes a time when you simply have to have the courage of your convictions. Your conviction is about NOT about listening to the Conventional Wisdom and doing it a different way. Your courage is to trust yourself to get on with doing the difficult stuff yourself. (Cos there is likely no-one better to do the stuff that hasn’t been done before.)