Q&A: Charlie Bigham, Bigham's, on building a multimillion-pound food business

You founded Bigham's in 1996 after you went travelling, having previously been a management consultant. Lots of people want to start food brands, who, like you, don't necessarily have experience in that field. What training did you do to help you, and what training do you wish you'd done?

None, and none! The nice thing about setting up a business in food is that we're all in training every day we're eating food! I did go and get a job in a deli for a month though, to learn a bit and to get a bit of dirt under the fingernails. I learnt stuff there, but you don't need much training. I just love cooking and eating.

You started with around £25,000 of savings. And you've said before that you were rejected by 10 banks when you were starting up. How were you still convinced that the business was a good idea, in the face of all those no's?

Once you decide to do it, you just do it - I don't do too much navel-gazing and self doubt.

You pitched to the likes of Harvey Nichols, Harrods and Selfridges right from the start, and were successful. Why did you decide to start at such a high level, rather than testing your market on a smaller scale, say through a stall or local shops?

They're all nice shops, and part of the job of those shops is to be quite innovative and open to new ideas. It's their job to not be like a supermarket.

Also, because they're all quite small, it's quite a flat structure, so you're not dealing with junior buyers who can't make decisions, or rather aren't empowered to. It's relatively easy to see somebody more senior, who's prepared to take more of a risk. That's probably still the case now. It's relatively easy to do if you've got a decent product, which we had. You don't have to have endless meetings either - a few weeks [after pitching] we were delivering food, with no big hassle about it.

Once you're [stocked] there, it gives you good credibility, whether from a PR perspective or for talking to other stockists.

You then went on to be stocked by Waitrose. How did you master the notoriously difficult step of getting hold of - and convincing - a supermarket buyer?

You just pick up the phone - it is somebody's job!

And you have to realise that most people who start businesses don't know what they're talking about. You need to realise that you don't know what you're talking about. So it's usually a good idea to find people who do.

I found at the time that people are generally open to talking to you and sharing their experience, because everyone started once. I get a lot of people who talk to me now. People are free with their advice. I chatted to someone early on and said I wouldn't sell in a supermarket, and they said I was an idiot and should talk to Waitrose, because they aren't like other supermarkets and are nice people.

You scaled up incredibly quickly from there, didn't you? How did you manage that growth without overtrading?

The change was going from just 15 or 20 shops around London to 20 to 60 stockists virtually overnight. It just needs a bit of planning. Small businesses find the planning bit quite hard, as it's always rush rush rush - you're always busy doing stuff and it's very easy to not leave a bit of time to sit there and do a bit of thinking. I was lucky I'd done that in previous jobs, planning for other people.

But you need to just squeeze [planning and strategic thinking] in. Do forward projections on your profit and loss and cash, and for the numbers of staff and how much food you need to buy, and so on.

You're now stocked by Sainsbury's and Ocado too. What's your turnover?

We'll hopefully do about £30m this year.

How do you manage growth now?

For us, a nice level to be growing at is 15% to 50%. Growing at that level means you can keep very careful tabs on quality, and the culture of the business and people, and grow people with you. We've had years when we've done higher rates, and it's not impossible, but cracks can start to appear and it can get a bit difficult. And if growth is less than 15% a year, it gets a bit boring.

We've always had targets and a business plan for the beginning of every year. Each year you get better at that. Something we've very much concentrated on in the last 10 to 12 years is just making sure the team are getting better every year: more experienced, bringing in new people and promoting from within, building the sales base.

It gets easier. But you have to always be investing in your future, and nowhere less than with your people training. We've got a core team of about 200 now, and they're brilliant - a lovely team.

What's the split between different departments?

The majority of people work on production: they're in the kitchen making the food. Then we have a support team around them, because they are the business. Then there are various people enabling that: purchasing, finance, and so on. Probably 90% are involved in making the food.

How did you build the team in the very early days?

For me the starting point was that I love food, but I wasn't a chef. So early on the most important person was a chef, making fantastic food - that's what we're all about. I'd say over-invest in the food side above everything else.

What additional marketing do you do to support your supermarket shelf space, and what type of marketing have you found most effective?

The problem with marketing, wherever you are, is that it's expensive. It's not easy for any new business, and really the best thing you can do is make a fantastic product, whatever that might be, so your customers do marketing for you - that's most effective. Focusing on excellence and having really, really high standards.

PR is much more cost-effective [than other types of paid-for marketing], in the early days especially. Make sure your story is interesting and PR-friendly.  We used PR a lot in early days, and there are lots of PR agencies around. Entering and winning awards is a good thing to do, and links in to PR - it's just getting the story out.

And there's lots of stuff you could do now that wasn't around then, like social media, even though getting things to work on social is not easy. We have a bit more money to spend on marketing, and every bit of marketing we assess how effective it is. In truth, in terms of ROI social media actually delivers the least.

How do you stand out from rivals, through packaging and positioning?

You must never become complacent. Always treat [what you're doing] as if it's a new young business, and have high standards - and raise your standards every year.

What advice would you give to a small food company approaching the supermarkets now?

The world has changed a bit since I started - it's got a bit harder. There's more red tape and forms and stuff to fill in, and it's more expensive to get going. The rules are probably stricter, and they were strict enough when I started.

If you're going to [pitch to] someone, know about that customer - do your research.

And if you start a business, make sure you're lucky!

Thanks very much for your time Charlie - good luck with everything.

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