Shaper: John Stapleton

Show aired on 11th July 2015

Transcript

Elliot Moss
The light and lilting sound of Toda Menina Baiana from Gilberto Gil. Good morning this is me, Elliot Moss here on Jazz FM with Jazz Shapers. Jazz Shapers you will know I hope is the place where you can hear the very best of the people who are shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul alongside their equivalents in the world of business. You will be hearing from someone who is called a Business Shaper and I am very pleased to say my Business Shaper today is John Stapleton. He is the founder of at least three businesses and he is doing lots of other things as well in the food and beverage world; Little Dish is his latest iteration and before that many of you will know the New Covent Garden Soup business which kicked off in the late 80s. Lots coming up from John very shortly. In addition to hearing from John you will also be hearing from our programme partners at Mischon De Reya some words of advice for your business and on top of all of that some wonderful music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul including the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Nat King Cole, Esther Phillips and this from Billy Holiday.

One of the all-time greats and one of the great shapers of the world of jazz, that is Billy Holiday and I Get A Kick Out Of You. This is Jazz Shapers and as I said earlier I am Elliot Moss here on Jazz FM every Saturday morning from 9.00am. John Stapleton is my Business Shaper today and he is the co-founder of the New Covent Garden Soup business way back in the 80s which did exceptionally well. He is also the co-founder of Little Dish – they make food for children, little children and they are bloomin’ tasty too and he has also founded Glencoe which if you were in California fifteen years ago you would have heard of Glencoe because he basically – that man John who you are going to meet in a moment – he’s the one that launched really tasty wonderful fresh soup over there as well. John it’s a real pleasure to have you. Thank you very much for joining me.

John Stapleton
Good morning Elliot, it’s great to be here, thank you.

Elliott Moss
You are someone who has always been intrigued by nutrition and food and the science of food and I believe that you studied food science. Doesn’t always translate into someone who is going to create a business. If you go way back to that first feeling of ‘I’m going to do something’, do you know what precipitated that back in the 80s before New Covent Garden Soup kicked off?

John Stapleton
The whole thing with New Covent Garden was a mystery to me as well as a lot of other people, I had no idea I was going to do something like that. I grew up in the west of Ireland, I went to University, I studied food science, I did a whole bunch of things. One thing I was sure about was that I didn’t want to work in the food industry you know with a white coat. I didn’t want to be a scientist in the food industry, I wanted to do something exciting and different. I had no idea what that was going to be and until I met my future business partner Andrew Palmer in Reading back in ’87, I had no idea what form it was going to take and what was going to happen and how I was going to actually going to live out my dream. What I wanted to do was try to find a way if I could to combine my passion for food in a very natural context and my understanding of nutrition from my interest in athletics and track and field from when I was a student and in University and combine them together in a sort of… some sort of cool way where I could make a career out of it. That was my kind of ambition and if you go back to the mid-80s in Ireland there wasn’t really an awful lot of an opportunity career-wise to do any of that never mind you know, follow your vision. So it all just came together by serendipity probably; by meeting Andrew on that summer’s day in 1987.

Elliot Moss
Now just to fast forward to 1997 for a second, that business you set up and I want to talk a lot more about that in particular, that first move. That business sold for a significant amount ten years later, a fantastic first achievement. If you go then back to those first days with your business partner then – when you looked at it did you have any idea of the things you were going to come up against or were you beautifully and blissfully ignorant?

John Stapleton
Back then we were completely ignorant yeah absolutely and I think sometimes I think that’s an advantage. If you, if you realise how big the mountain is that you are going, you know you are going to attempt to climb you can be put off by it because it seems insurmountable. Ignorance can be bliss yeah and I think for me certainly and for Andrew too – Andrew was a little more experienced but he was a stock broker, he had a keen interest in cooking. I was interested in food but mostly from the technical side of things. Neither of us had any practical experience about how to start a business, how to develop a consumer facing brand in the food industry, how to make anything in particular in the food context. So it was all you know, pastures new for us and that was a great advantage. We weren’t you know, sort of tied down by expectation. In fact nobody expected us to do it at all.

Elliot Moss
Find out exactly how they actually did do it in a few moments. Stay with me here for more from John Stapleton, my Business Shaper. Time for some music, this is Sugar Plumb from Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

That was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans I am reliably informed by Dom our wonderful producer, with Sugar Plumb. This is Jazz Shapers and my Business Shaper today is John Stapleton. If you weren’t listening earlier you wouldn’t have heard that he is the super successful entrepreneur behind Little Dish in shops right now; New Covent Garden Soup, actually probably in shops now as well. He was the man that set it up along with his business partner back then in 1987, Andrew Palmer and he sold out, his first business sold out in 1997. He set up another one in 1998 over on the west coast of America in California doing pretty much the same thing John, I mean, you know there’s a word that’s been used to describe what you’ve done which is essentially reinvention, a bit like Innocent Smoothies did to the drinks world, you did that before they did it. You were the precursor. As you look back now and think about the fact that people can get fresh, healthy food in a supermarket in that incredibly complicated supply chain. Would you have thought back then ‘I am going to reinvent’. Was that what it was about? Was that what was driving you or was it something much simpler?

John Stapleton
I am honestly not sure what was driving us at the time apart from doing something new that wasn’t done before and in fact it pretty quickly also for Andrew and myself it become trying to prove those people wrong that were telling us that it couldn’t be done.

Elliot Moss
Who was telling you that?

John Stapleton
Well everybody really you know, without thinking about it too much, people would say ‘that’s silly, that’s ridiculous, fresh soup – those two words just don’t go together’. You’ve got to cast your mind back to ’87 right – these days fresh soup it’s obvious, it’s everywhere, people enjoy it all the time but in those days it was if you talked about liquid soup at any rate, it was okay how big does the can need to be? It was always in a can yeah? There are lots of reasons for that you know, soup is usually the left-overs from yesterday and it needs to be put together and it is very dangerous if you don’t, you know, cook it properly and so all of that you know, lots of traditional reasons why it ended up being in a can. But we wanted to develop a soup which actually tasted funnily enough, of the ingredients you put into it. Not all the preservatives and not all the salt and not all the spices you put into it to cover up for the over processing you need to do to make it safe and secure and move it through a long shelf life. So all of those things were, we were trying to achieve those things and people said, especially the technical guys in University for example, said ‘you’ll kill somebody doing that, it has to be sterilised, it has to be put in a can’ or ‘people aren’t going to get this, they are not going to understand why soup should be in the chiller aisle’ or a typical non-entrepreneurial things like ‘if it’s such a great idea somebody would have done it by now’. So you know, all these things were thrown at us and we just kept thinking we’ve got to do this because you know, everybody says that it’s impossible and that was like a red rag to a bull to us.

Elliot Moss
And I imagine the first time you walked down the aisle in Waitrose which I believe was the first, the first shop that stocked it – you must have felt a million dollars. Did you? Or was it just like ‘oh finally I haven’t killed anybody, it looks good, it tastes good’ because the packaging was very distinctive as I recall, very homemade, very… it felt natural. All those things. Did you feel great or am I being a romantic capitalist over here?

John Stapleton
It is almost like you heard the story before but yeah, it was just that. It was exactly in Waitrose in West Ealing where I used to live. We went down, there was a friend of mine over for a weekend from Ireland and we went to get some food in and there was this gentleman reading every single side of every single panel, it seemed like four times over and put it back on the shelf and took it back again and put it back again. In the end we were hiding behind the aisle watching him. He made his way…

Elliot Moss
He made this… someone is going to reveal you ‘look there’s the man’.

John Stapleton
…well he made his way all the way to check out and bought it and we were getting high fives all the way home so it was great, it was a great feeling of yeah actually, you know, it’s a tangible product that we made here and all the theory and all the arguments we had over the last eighteen months about why and how and what it should look like, somebody bought it and somebody was going to take it home and actually eat it and the carton you mentioned, that was really important because we had very little money to actually carry out any sort of marketing of any appreciate in nature in those days. We spent all our money building a factory because we had to develop a new process, it didn’t exit, it was a revolutionary approach so we had no money left to market which was a bit of a problem if you are building a consumer facing brand so all we could do really was try to convey as much as possible about the product in the packaging. So carton, in those days any rate meant fresh because you could only get milk or juice in a carton and we put soup on the outside and there you had fresh soup. It took a while for people to figure it out but when they did and when they consumed the product, they were taken by it. We were convinced if they only tried it first they would come back because the flavours were great and the quality was really good and like I say, it tasted of the ingredients that we used to start with, which was novel.

Elliot Moss
Well and there’s the story, keep it simple and you can just about pull off a revolution. Lots more coming up from my Business Shaper today, that’s John Stapleton, the founder of at least three great businesses. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and some classic Nat King Cole but before that, some words of wisdom for your business, I hope you are thinking about it, from our programme partners at Mishcon De Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss every Saturday morning I have the privilege of meeting someone who is shaping the world of business, someone who has done something, someone who has thought about it and actually made it happen and has been super successful. If you have missed any of the earlier programmes, I believe there are over a hundred and seventy or so now – how did that happen? Then you can go in to iTunes, put in the words ‘jazz’ and ‘shapers’ and you will find us there. British Airways Highlife is another destination for you if you are travelling in the near future or if you are sitting at home right now, CityAM.com is another place where you can find some of my previous brilliant guests. My brilliant guest today, he’s not previous, he’s present, he’s right here, is John Stapleton. He is the co-founder of New Covent Garden Soup of Glencoe Inc. which was the soup company on the west coast of the States and of Little Dish. They are feeding children like mine right now with super healthy and tasty dishes. John, we were talking before about that moment where you saw your product on the aisle. It was west Ealing, it was Waitrose, if you close your eyes you can imagine the feeling, it must have been sensational. You talked about the other things that you did, the fact that you built stuff, the fact that you didn’t have any money left for marketing. How did you survive in those early days when the funding was tough? What did you do? Did you dig in your own pocket or were people coming up and investing small amounts of money?

John Stapleton
Actually we raised quite a bit of money through a number of different rounds to start with with the original concept, Andrew and myself with basic friends and family and then we got a few, what you would probably call these days ‘business angels’, we called them something else then, I can’t remember what it was but a little bit of money came in to keep us moving towards proving the concept and we managed to put together a kind of Heath Robinson I suppose, process which really just got off the ground to prove that the product could be made and did some market research and spoke to Waitrose which was key at the time because they were very very interested in the product and with that confidence we went then to a venture capital firm, borrowed a lot of money because you can’t half do this, you can’t build a brand or build a factory or design all this stuff, you can’t do it in piece meal, you’ve got to either do it or not yeah. So you have to kind of raise enough money ahead of the game which is a little bit scary when you haven’t really proved your concept yet. So we raised lots of money, well quite a lot of money from our point of view through a venture capital firm and built our first factory in London and then we had to go about marketing our product. Having really no resources left to do that. What we did really was focus very much on NPD which is basically New Product Development. Basically bringing new products out on to the market on a regular basis and then doing lots of PR to actually spread the word about what we were doing and we were the first to introduce for example, a concept which was called Soup of the Season and then we subsequently did Soup of the Month and the retailers were very hesitant about this to start with, they thought that was going to change every season or change every month but the point was it didn’t, it was just basically called Soup of the Season, so the carton was the same, we just had a different sticky label on the outside and a different product inside. So they were selling SOS at the till and the consumer was buying pea and mint if it was in the summer time and Tuscan bean if it was in the winter time and we got a lot of great way of doing market research. We found what sold well and we introduced those products into the main range next season around so the range grew on that basis. And PR just basically publicised all of the stories around the different types of products with seasonal ingredients. I remember once we launched a product called Borscht which people might recognise, it’s a beetroot…

Elliot Moss
I love Borscht.

John Stapleton
…yeah it’s actually Ukrainian, originally Ukrainian beetroot soup. We launched that. We were a little bit apprehensive as to whether it was going to sell or not. Of course it didn’t but what the hell, we got lots of mileage out of it and lots of PR coverage and there was great stories about buying beetroot at the local market and bringing it to our factory and making a product out of it. So that’s what we did. We extended the range, we introduced new flavours constantly and we talked about it as much as we possibly could, that’s all we could afford in the early few years.

Elliot Moss
Well there you go, needs must and that’s actually how you then led to almost seventeen million pounds of revenue I believe and then the eventual sale which we are going to come on to very shortly. Time for some music, I love this, it’s another shaper from the world of jazz, blues and soul, it’s Nat King Cole and Let’s Face The Music And Dance.

That was Nat King Cole and Let’s Face The Music And Dance. John Stapleton is my Business Shaper and we have been talking about all sorts of stuff. You kept it simple in the early years John you said there. I want to just ask you about how it felt when you sold that first baby which is that first soup business. Was it exciting and a little sad? Or was it just exciting because you were ready to go?

John Stapleton
You know what it was more the latter. It was ten years in I think, I certainly was and most of the team were ready to move on. We had done a lot and it’s really difficult to replicate the exciting thrusting years of the first two, three, four years with lots of you know, white knuckle rides and lots of problems and challenges but inevitably the momentum for business begins to taper back slightly.

Elliot Moss
Does that mean, just thinking about that, I often here this – entrepreneurs are brilliant at setting things up and then actually the day-to-day grind is like actually that’s for someone else. Had you brought in a big management team underneath you or were you still the operations director as well as the inspiration?

John Stapleton
No I was still the operations director because that’s where I came from, I came from the whole technical side because of my academic qualification and then the challenge of building and designing the process which was patented and building the factories and developing all that side of things was key so I was still doing all of that but very much with a much more of a brand hat on as well because I learnt about branding during the New Covent Garden days. But we had brought in a lot more people as well. You know, I think one of the key things that an entrepreneur needs to do is recognise when the time is right to not so much pull back but to bring in people in different disciplines who are better at what they do then he is or she is. So bring in experts in different areas otherwise you are limiting the growth and the potential of your own business to your own ability which is a bit ridiculous in my view. So it is inevitable you have got to bring in people who know an awful lot more about different disciplines who can run, finance the problem properly and can you know, can do marketing better although we were branding. So it is really important to do all of that and we had recognised that and had a pretty good team in place and you know, we were all were kind of think… kind of looking at each other going ‘what’s next?’ and I think we all wanted to kind of move on. At that point it was the right time to sell.

Elliot Moss
And so you jumped on a plane once you had sold, set up another business. Similar idea, fresh soup but delivered on the west coast of America in California. I imagine you went in much wiser. You said when we first started talking, you know the ignorance was fantastic in a way. When you know stuff are the problems bigger because you really know what they look like from above it, below it, to the left and to the right or is it a sense of I’ve been here before but it’s a slight iteration?

John Stapleton
Interesting question that. Just to clarify I jumped on a plane about a year before we sold…

Elliot Moss
Right.

John Stapleton
…New Covent Garden. I spent that year, ’97, spending half my time in California setting up a business and the other half of the time…

Elliot Moss
Someone’s got to that John. Tough.

John Stapleton
…yeah it was a crazy way to do it. It was…

Elliot Moss
I am joking of course it was.

John Stapleton
…the point I am making was, it was in a very schizophrenic existence. I was doing some, you know, stuff in the States which was very relevant to that project and some completely different stuff back here and getting the business ready to be sold with the team so it was… the year went by so quickly I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. But in terms of going out there, I would say, looking back on it, we did a lot right with Glencoe. Glencoe didn’t work, it wasn’t a success. It certainly if you say New Covent Garden Soup Company was a success, Glencoe by comparison was not. We had to pull out of the market but I think I went over there slightly thinking I probably know it now and a little bit arrogant with that and I think that’s probably a natural feeling to have because we had done all this you know, I had done all this. Everyone said we couldn’t do it, we did it despite everybody and we made a success out of it and we sold the business and we moved on. So okay, what’s different about going to California and doing it? I think one of the quote is and I can’t quite remember how it goes but I think you know, the US and the UK are two countries divided by a common language and it is so true. I think it is very very easy to make the assumption and I think Tesco actually made it a few years ago too. That because it’s English and people think the same way then you know, it is just basically just doing the same thing in a slightly different context. It’s not. There are a lot of differences between the UK and the US. So yes we knew a lot about it, yes it was a start up with ten years very relevant experience which is unusual but it doesn’t guarantee anything.

Elliot Moss
Mmm indeed. Final chat will be coming up with my guest, John Stapleton today plus we are going to play a track from Esther Phillips, that’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

And I Love Him from Esther Phillips. If you didn’t know, that’s a Beatles cover but you probably did didn’t you. John Stapleton is my Business Shaper here just for a few more precious minutes. If you weren’t listening earlier he is the founder of New Covent Garden Soup along of course with his business partner then, Andrew Palmer. He is also the co-founder of Little Dish which we haven’t had much time to talk about at all really. He has also founded a business which didn’t do quite as well in the States in the middle called Glencoe. Basically he knows how to make great food come to market and do pretty damn well. John, over the years obviously you’ve seen it now, you’ve done the science side, you’ve done the brand side, you’ve done the operations side and all that. Can you recall the people that have meant the most to you that have really given you sage advice that has stuck despite the changing environment, despite the competition and all those other things. Are there people that really stick out for you?

John Stapleton
That’s a great question and I had to really think about it but my answer I think would have to be my track and field coach from way way back when I was gosh eighteen, nineteen, something like that and I think a lot of people sometimes I made the mistake of when you go into business you know, you have to have all the answers to all your business challenges and that nothing that you’ve learnt before is any way relevant to what you are going to do next because you have never been in business before but I think actually a lot of what you learn when you are a kid and at home and your own environment and at school is of great relevance as to how you are going to tackle problems and deal with things like adversity which is something that happens in an entrepreneurial world all the time is very very relevant and I did a lot of track and field when I was younger. I did quite it to quite a senior standard, I represented Ireland at very levels and senior level as well and in 1984 I was on course, at least I thought I was on course to qualify for the Olympics in LA and long story short, I injured my ankle. I had a fantastic season the previous season.

Elliot Moss
What was the event? What were the events?

John Stapleton
Triple jump. I used to triple jump and a long jump but mostly…

Elliot Moss
He’s very tall I should. I am not but he is, John is tall.

John Stapleton
Six foot four.

Elliot Moss
There you go, taller than me.

John Stapleton
Which is apparently ideal for triple jump. I didn’t know but basically you know, it’s great when you get that opportunity to excel at something and put the effort in. Of course you learn a lot in terms of discipline and role model etc., but I got injured and I thought this is so unfair, it’s not my fault, I’ve done everything right, I’ve applied myself the best I can and my coach took me to one side and said, ‘look you know, this will happen to you over and over again. It’s not about the problem, it’s about how you react to the problem. It’s not about the fact that it’s unfair because it is unfair, life is unfair. Everybody is going to get their fair share of adversity and they are going to have to deal with it. What differentiates you from everyone else is or the next person is how you deal with it, how you pick yourself up and how you move on. You can sit there and feel sorry for yourself and mope about it and spend the whole summer or the next rest of your life wondering about what could have been and you know, nobody is going to know. So forget about it, move on and show what you can do the next time around’.

Elliot Moss
Well look…

John Stapleton
That was great advice.

Elliot Moss
Great advice and three decades later, three businesses later, super successful entrepreneur. What are you doing right now in a nutshell? What’s life looking like for John Stapleton?

John Stapleton
I help businesses grow these days. Basically leveraging the experience that I have used over the last twenty five years growing my own businesses and I really like the variety of being able to speak to and advise different entrepreneurs typically and inspire people to, you know, follow their dreams and do what they, do more than they think they can do with their businesses. So I help them grow from let’s say start up sometimes but typically from a two or three million revenue stage to ten, fifteen, twenty million revenue over a three or four year period and that can cover any area of the business because that’s what you do when you are an entrepreneur, you pretty much do everything yourself. But it’s great to be able to advise others and they can learn from your lessons and be inspired by what you have done and hopefully not make the same mistakes at least that you have.

Elliot Moss
And you get your fix of something new regularly which by the looks of things John, you probably quite like. Listen just before I let you go, what’s your song choice? You’ve been a fantastic guest I should say. What’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

John Stapleton
My song choices is from Al Jarreau and its Roof Garden and this reminds me, brings me right basically back to a time mid-90s it was when I was in this long distance relationship with my then girlfriend and now wife, she’s German, she lived in Frankfurt and I lived in London during the soup days and I was there for a weekend and it was a lovely summer weekend and were basically in this… at a wine festival in a fantastic castle which was sitting basically in a vineyard overlooking the Rhine and Al Jarreau was playing, was headlining in the courtyard and we were sitting in the roof garden. So it was very very appropriate when it came on and it brings back, flows back such wonderful memories of that time which are with me today.

Elliot Moss
Fantastic. Well here it is for you, this is Al Jarreau and Roof Garden.

That was Roof Garden from Al Jarreau, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, John Stapleton. Super determined, someone who said give it to me, give me adversity I will overcome it. I love that. A real inventor. Someone who said this category can be changed and I am the man who can do it. Talk about a great attitude and someone excited by the new and the fresh, someone embracing all sorts of change all the time and all three things are really critical if you want to be a successful entrepreneur. Brilliant stuff. Join me again, same time, same place, that’s next Saturday, 9.00am here on Jazz FM for another edition of Jazz Shapers. Stay with us now though because coming up next, it’s Nigel Williams.

John Stapleton is an entrepreneur, business leader, CEO & Non-Executive Director with over 25 years’ experience in creating and building consumer brands in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector in both the UK and the United States. A founder of three successful start-ups, he co-founded the New Covent Garden Soup Co Ltd in 1989, which pioneered and established the fresh soup category in the UK. In 1998 he moved to San Francisco, where he co-founded Glencoe Inc., bringing the fresh soup concept to the United States. On returning to live in Europe in 2003, John established a consumer food consultancy and has worked with a number of clients across the FMCG sector in the UK, US, Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic. He has worked with a wide range of companies including large corporations (e.g. Unilever-Bestfoods North America) as well as numerous start-up and growth-phase businesses.

In 2005, John co-founded Little Dish which supplies fresh, natural foods for children over one year. Little Dish can be found in all national UK high street retailers and is the dominant brand in chilled toddler food, with a 69% market share.

John is a graduate of UCD (Industrial Microbiology); Reading University (Food Science); The University of Westminster (Business Administration and Finance) and holds a marketing qualification from the Chartered Institute of Marketing (UK). He lives with his wife in Munich, Germany and speaks fluent German.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

One thing I was sure about was that I didn’t want to be a scientist in the food industry, you know, with a white coat. I wanted to do something exciting and different.

Back in ’87 we were ignorant, and I think sometimes that’s a big advantage. Ignorance is bliss.

We wanted to create a soup that tasted, funnily enough, of the ingredients you put into it.

We launched a product called Borscht, it didn’t sell, but what the hell, we got lots of mileage and PR coverage out of it.

It’s difficult to replicate the exciting white knuckle rides and challenges of the first years and inevitably the business momentum tapers back slightly.

Bring in experts in different areas otherwise you are limiting the growth and potential of your business.

It’s great when you get the opportunity to excel at something and you put the effort in.

A lot of what you learn as a kid in your home environment and at school is of great relevance to how you’re going to tackle problems and deal with adversity, which is something that happens in the entrepreneurial world all the time.

It’s not about the problem, it’s about how you react to the problem. It’s not about the fact that it’s unfair, because life is unfair.

I really like being able to speak to different entrepreneurs and inspire people to follow their dreams and do more than they think they can do with their businesses.