For our latest Entrepreneur Interview, I had the pleasure of a Zoom chat with Wayne Starkey, co-founder of The Skinny Food Co.
With a phenomenal 195 products already - and 120 more planned for 2021 - find out what drives Wayne and his co-founder to continued growth.
Full of insight on everything from the challenges of growing so fast, to decision-making, and staying on top of the business.
This interview is a sugar-free treat.
Can you give me a potted history of Skinny Foods?
The only thing that really excited me at school was being creative - drawing and artwork. When I left school I went straight out to work, but I also decided to do a diploma. On the back of that national diploma, I did a degree – all at the same time as working in two jobs. After graduation, I reached out to one of the members of the gym at the time - and just by chance this guy had his own business. He did sports nutrition and vitamins and minerals, and I was very lucky to land myself a job designing vitamins and minerals – own-label products for supermarkets.
Sadly, that business had to fold - so I decided to set up my own agency doing designs and packaging. It got to about two to three years in, and I got a bit tired of designing other people's products - so I decided to set up my own brand. I bought in bulk, I set up my garage as a clean room, and I spent my days decanting everything in to my own branded products. In the evenings, I'd go off to all the rugby and MMA clubs and collect orders. I didn’t have the budget to match the big players at the time, so I set up my little social media account and started contacting as many ambassadors as I could. I did that for around two years. Turnover was good, but it was never going to be life-changing.
Then I reached out to a celebrity on social media. I mentioned I didn’t have the budget to pay, but I had a really good skill set. I said I can design your own products and we can then do a business venture together. We literally went from 10 orders a day to 2,000 - and it was on that journey that I met James.
After three years I wanted to go off and do my own thing. I reached out to James and asked him if he could do the social media campaigns for my brands I was working on. James had set up his own marketing agency and felt very much the same as I did in that he didn’t want to be doing other people’s social media accounts – he wanted his own brand. So, four years ago we put our heads together. We thought I can design and source it and James can market it, and we've never looked back since.
A year before we actually launched the Skinny Food Co. myself and James started to work on the product we wanted to bring to stores and customers. We got all the trademarks and the website and started working on all the product formulations behind closed doors. Then we launched in April 2018.
"I got a bit tired of designing other people's products - so I decided to set up my own brand."
"I set up my social media account and started contacting as many ambassadors as I could."
How did the Skinny Food idea come about?
The whole concept behind it was a combination of our children and our elderly relatives. We've both got young children, and they absolutely love things like tomato ketchup on chips, Nutella on pancakes, chocolate syrup on ice-cream. Every child that I’ve ever come across really like the high sugar products, but sadly that’s where all the nasties come from. They don't really see it as a high sugar product, they just see it as a chocolate sauce or ketchup.
We wanted to bring out a whole range of products that meant you could still enjoy your food – still have your chips or your pancakes - but just restrict the sugars and fats and calories in those final condiments that go on top. Both my children are autistic and love their sweets, but we wanted to try and restrict their intake of sugar through things like chocolate spreads and jams and so on.
"They don't really see it as a high sugar product, they just see it as a chocolate sauce or ketchup."
Are they your chief testers?
Yeah, since day one - everything goes through them. Literally everything that goes through new product development is tested both in my house and James's house - he's got a young girl as well. Some we hit it on the head first time round but a lot of them it’s more of a case of 3, 4, 5 rounds until we get the final product which goes to market.
On the flip side we’ve both got elderly relatives who live with diabetes. So many products now are full of sugar - even the ready meals that you pick up in the supermarkets are so high in sugar and fats and calories. The reason I wanted to bring these out is so that people living with diabetes can enjoy jam or chocolate spread or ketchup, without having to compromise on taste or flavour.
"Since day one, everything.......is tested both in my house and James's house ."
A lot of it is “hidden” isn’t it? It’s not just the chocolate bars.
Yes, and that’s why we've launched the Fakeaway meals this month. There’s six of them, covering everything from chicken tikka to Mexican beef chilli to a Thai green chicken curry. They all kind of float around 180 to 300 calories per meal and they're all low sugar, low fat, but high in protein. The beauty of it is that you could literally keep it in your gym bag for 12 months and then just tear the top off and eat it cold if you wanted to. It’s a concept that was designed and developed for the military. We’ve taken it and had a master chef work on the recipes for us. So it's a chef meal prepared and designed for you to enjoy on the go, or as a much healthier ready meal.
"It's a chef meal prepared and designed for you to enjoy on the go, or as a much healthier ready meal."
Where do you get all of these ideas from?
We started with literally six products - three sauces and three syrups – and now we’re up to 195, and we’ve got another 120 planned in 2021. It’s been a natural progression really. From the sauces came the spreads, then from the spreads came the jams, and then the snacks, and it went from there. Ideally, we want to be able to replace everything in the pantry with a low sugar/low calorie version. One day we picture an entire Skinny Food shop on the high street.
When we started out, it was never a case that we wanted to be in the supermarkets straight away. We wanted to launch the brand online and then grow the following. Now we get around a million customers a month visit us, and our brand is growing very nicely across social media. So now a lot of our ideas for new product development are from our social media coming to us and saying “Can you bring out some noodles?” or “Can you bring out some ready meals?”. We’re really in tune with our social media followers, so when we put our posts out asking for what products people would like to see next, we just get inundated with suggestions.
"A lot of our ideas for new product development are from our social media coming to us....we just get inundated with suggestions."
What would you say are your main frustrations?
The main frustration is literally being not able to bring out even more products than we do because we are a small team. Myself and James work literally 24/7 - we live, eat, and sleep Skinny Food and the frustration is not being able to bring enough products to market as fast as we possibly can. We're doing a good job - we're still bringing approximately 10 to 20 new products to market every month – but we’re impatient.
Outgrowing warehouses has been a huge frustration for us as well. We're on our fifth warehouse now. It’s been a huge challenge for us being able to maintain the actual growth of the business. We’re on our fifth warehouse and that’s already at 95% capacity. It's good, but it's a struggle.
As of this year we now do a lot of our own supply chain too. So even if it’s an empty box sat in a warehouse, it still takes up storage space and we have to manage the logistics behind it.
"The main frustration is literally being not able to bring out even more products than we do because we are a small team."
Has such a high rate of growth been your main challenge?
Absolutely. When we first started, we had one warehouse - almost like a storage facility – up in Chorley. Very soon one went into two, two into three, and then literally within the first four months we had four units - and it just wasn't right for us. We couldn’t even get a forklift truck in there, so everything had to be done by hand.
When we decided to look for a bigger unit we couldn't find anything locally, so we decided to up sticks and move down to where James was based in Nottingham. We found a good unit and jumped from 3,000 square feet to more like 12,500 – with external space on top of that. Now the biggest challenge has become managing the stock, because it’s in three different locations now. We've got a really good system that helps us deal with it all.
My biggest personal challenge is that I am a little OCD. Whether it's because of my past, or just the way I’m built I don’t know. I like to be able to see a bit of everything. To be able to take the reins off is the biggest challenge for me because it used to be me and James working out of our garages and spare room – and suddenly we’ve got a bit of a beast on our hands. It helps that we've got a really good team around us. Everyone's really flexible and more than willing to help, so that's really good.
"To be able to take the reins off is the biggest challenge for me because....suddenly we’ve got a bit of a beast on our hands."
Does having such a range of products bring challenges of its own?
Oh yeah. When we spoke to Morrison’s, we said we are a buyer’s nightmare because we have so many products. We have products that sit in the coffee categories, products that sit in the ambient, products that sit in the Free From, products that sit in the ice cream toppings, products which sit in the condiments.
We are very disruptive brand, so we don't sit that well in supermarkets, but in the last two years they are sitting up and taking notice. They are starting to realise that they may need to shift to having more of a “sugar free” aisle.
We deliberately didn't launch with Skinny Syrups or Skinny Sauce.com - it was always The Skinny Food Co. because we always had the intention of being able to grow that food portfolio in to a whole aisle.
That word “Skinny” was a big challenge for us initially, though. The whole concept is not about making you skinny, it's about still enjoying your food but having a skinnier option. It’s a bit like having a skinny latte – it’s still a latte but it has lighter milk.
That was a big challenge, but we've managed to get around it through constant education. That's why we love doing trade shows. They are brilliant for being able to speak to people. People will say “I see it everywhere. I see it on the shelves. What is it?” And then you break it down. Once you kind of get that education across to them and then they try it, then the penny drops.
"We are very disruptive brand, so we don't sit that well in supermarkets."
"We love doing trade shows.
They are brilliant for being able to speak to people."
What tips would you share with people who are setting up a business?
Know your products, and believe in the products you are bringing to market. Whatever it may be, really get to know your products, and then get to know your audience. Just do lots and lots of research behind that product.
Don’t be afraid to test your market. We tested on a Shopify website. Me and James put this website together literally in four hours, while we were walking around a trade show in Geneva back in April 2018. By the time we got out the door we had 50 orders.
My biggest philosophy is if I can design something that looks great on the shelf and contains a product that tastes great, then it comes down to marketing. If you can market a product that people enjoy and has a benefit then you're on to a winner.
All you've got to do is find that niche – there are still plenty of niches out there, and there will be plenty more.
You'll know when the time is right - it’s just a case of believing in the product and getting it right.
Look after your customers, because as long as you do that then your repeat rates will be fantastic.
The biggest thing, though, is to enjoy what you do. I've worked for myself now for the past 20 years. I've done many jobs from a young age but only had one full time employer, after graduating from my degree, and since then I’ve had my own businesses. The moment it becomes a job, it becomes work. For me and James it's never become work because we are just so passionate about what we do.
"Really get to know your products....and your audience. Just do lots and lots of research."
"The biggest thing is to enjoy what you do. The moment it becomes a job, it becomes work."
What do you see as the emerging trends in your sector?
There’s a huge, huge call now for healthy foods. Unfortunately, there's still lots of education to be done because lots of prepared meals are high in sugar and high in fat. This is all starting to change now with lots of meal prep companies – like HelloFresh – helping you get back to being able to enjoy cooking again. There’s definitely going to be a lot more getting involved, cooking with the family, and being able to actually know what's going into your food. We’re aiming to have a Skinny Food Co meal box in a couple of years, where you can literally purchase all of your ingredients together with your Skinny Food product. We have some big advantages there because we’ve got the sauces and condiments that bring flavour to the meal but without the sugars and calories.
"We’ve got the sauces and condiments that bring flavour to the meal but without the sugars and calories.”
Do you see any big players starting to respond to what you are doing?
I don’t think they’ll be able to. They do bring out no-added-sugar versions, but ultimately they don't compare to ours. Their forte is in their brand, whereas we have been here from the beginning, right at the forefront. It’s only a very small portion of their business, but it’s everything we do. We're a good staple brand now where people know what they’re getting and believe in us.
How do you deal with uncertainty?
We make mistakes all the time, but I think we're so resilient because of the amount of time that we’ve put into it. I mean, if you don't make a mistake then you’re never going to achieve. You learn on a daily basis, and I think that's the beauty of it. If you're willing to put in blood, sweat and tears then those mistakes will soon become achievements. You just have to face them head-on.
Use the team around you, and if you haven't got a team then use your family and friends. You can always trust your friends, so just rely on the people that you've got around in your circle. If you haven’t got those then create a great social media account. Ask people, because there's plenty of folk out there willing to give their advice.
If we have any uncertainty about a new product, we’ll test it. In the past, we’ve launched a new chocolate spread and we’ve sent it out to customers and they became our taste testers. There’s nothing better than a potential customer, because staff can all say it’s brilliant but they’re all employed by us. Being honest is vital. If we all said we liked everything we would probably have over 400 products in our catalogue rather than 195. We’d need an even bigger warehouse!
"If you don't make a mistake then you’re never going to achieve. You just have to face them head-on."
Do you have a process for making decisions?
We can concept, R&D, trial, test, and it can be on our website ready for sale in as little as 3-4 weeks. So we make decisions super, super quick and it’s more of an instinct. That’s very much the way I’ve always been.
It helps that James is very in tune with the way I think too. We’re just on the same page. I can email him about something if I’m not in the office and he’ll be emailing me the exact same question. It’s bizarre. We get on really well and it doesn’t become work because we both enjoy what we do. The decisions we make have always been unanimous and we’ve always gone ahead together.
"It helps that James is very in tune with the way I think."
Do you ever go back and review the decisions afterwards?
We do, and the only one that we are now having to struggle with was the warehouse. But when you’ve gone from 500 to 3,000 to 12,500 square feet it’s hard. We knew that we had backup storage facilities nearby, so we had that in our foresight, and the supermarkets order direct from our manufacturing plant so that’s not too bad. Orders now, though, are 400% up on last year. We couldn’t have foreseen this, so it’s been a good thing that we’ve been able to cope with it - but a bad thing that we have to have external storage because it’s just an extra strain. But you live with it, you move on, and we’ve got plans in place.
It wasn’t the wrong decision at the time as we couldn’t have foreseen this, and if we had gone 5 times bigger then we were looking at 5 times the overheads. It’s never a bad decision, it’s just was it the right decision at the time – and it was.
"It’s never a bad decision, it’s just was it the right decision at the time."
How do you and James stay on top of everything day-to-day?
We have contact through Google Hangouts and Whatsapp, so even if I’m not at the facility we’ll talk for 8-10 hours a day. It's constant contact, even at the weekends – and we know everything that’s going on. We'll have a morning meeting where we’ll go through the warehouse figures, then we’ll go through social, then we’ll go through what’s on NPD for the day, then we’ll go through what’s on our promotions.
We’re not a website where it’s 50% off just because the sun is shining. I think the fact that we're not driven by discounts is how we’ve managed to obtain a good level of sales both online and in retail. We’re not cannibalising our supermarket sales for the sake of a quick pound in the bank today. I’ve made the mistake of too many promotions in the past with a previous brand. I made a lot of sales but only around the promotion because everyone was expecting it and just waited. For us, though, it’s more constant. A popular promotion for us is free delivery or a free trial of a new product – because that way we get to advertise that new product at the same time and test the market/get feedback. It’s daily giveaways rather than promotions, so we keep on top of that every day.
It’s always busy, though – there’s a lot to keep track of.
This week we’ve got our Skinny Bar landing which is a mixture of a protein bar and a candy bar - but with low sugar. We’ve managed to achieve a duo bar that is 99 calories per piece and is fully vegan and packed with protein. We have also launched the Skinny Peanut Butter Cups which are palm oil free and low in sugar.
I still do all the branding and packaging for these new launches because I love to do it. It's not so much that I’m a control freak, I think it’s more that I’m passionate about the brand. I like to have the best product in the best packaging out there, because you only get out what you put in.
"We are in contact all the time, even at the weekends – and we know everything that’s going on."
"I like to have the best product in the best packaging out there, because you only get out what you put in."
What makes a good plan?
Plans do change through things that happen in the environment or people’s lives, but having a plan to go to is really important. We’ve got a timeline of new products to bring to market over the years, and I still have a daily plan. It’s a To Do list every day that I have to work to - I like to be able to see what I’ve done in that day and what I’ve got going in to tomorrow. I will always map it out because there is so much going on that you can very easily lose sight of what’s to be done right now.
A long-term plan is great but the daily plan is even more important to me. The big plan is broken down in to smaller parts. It’s got to have the ingredients in order to be able to make the final sugar-free cake.
"A long-term plan is great but the daily plan is even more important to me."
Where do you do your best thinking?
I do a lot of thinking when I am swimming or running – any kind of physical activity brings some really good thinking. There are a lot of distractions when I’m running, but when I swim there is literally no one else and I can put my headphones on and I’m away.
Driving to the office is productive too. It’s probably a 3.5 hour drive, so I leave at 5am when the roads are very quiet. I don’t even get a radio station for some of it as it’s quite remote, so I do a lot of thinking in the car.
"Any kind of physical activity brings some really good thinking."
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