Q&A: The First Year of Pollen + Grace
With our crowdfunding campaign going live next week (!), we’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on how far Pollen + Grace has come over the past 4 years; from two lunch boxes a day to 1,000 and from friends down the street to Ocado nationwide. But it's been far from an easy journey, quite the opposite in fact and we wanted to share with you a little more about how we got started; particularly all the finer details of the early days. Starting a business is so often glamourised (desk flatlays and swanky co-working spaces) but the reality can often be quite different - we hope this allows a look into the hard work and hurdles away from the polished Instagram photos...
Q. The obvious place to start, how did you start?
S: For about 6 months I knew that I wanted to start something, and eventually the concept started to build around healthy food. Then there was 9 months of building that from an idea to delivering the first lunch. I quit my job on the Friday and delivered for the lunch box on the Monday. I wrote the business plan whilst in my previous job and got everything ready - the logo, the website, the concept. And then I took the plunge. In the early days I also worked at TPYC, mainly for my sanity, and to have some stable income.
Q. You wrote a business plan before starting. What was the original business model?
S: I started Pollen + Grace as a lunch delivery service. I had a website where I could input a daily changing menu, consisting of two different lunch options each day (meat or vegan) and two weekly changing juice and snack options. The cut off point was 11am the same day, so people could order until 11am then I would prep, cook and deliver the lunch boxes. We started with a small delivery area (W6) and then expanded with demand to Central London. By the time we stopped delivering lunches, we were available in nearly all of zone 1 and 2.
Q. Was it busy from the get-go?
It was busy as it was just me and my mum doing everything, but the orders were quite small. Small but consistent. I would hand flyers out outside Hammersmith station each morning, then go home and wait for orders to come through. I would then cook everything and get on my bike, or Hazie would jump in the car, and we’d deliver the lunches. I’d come home and work on marketing (instagram, blog posts, newsletters etc), finance etc etc. On a really bad day we’d get one or two orders, the average was about 5-6 and 30 lunch boxes was our busiest day, about 2 months in.
Q. How much did you save to start Pollen + Grace?
S: I had £16,000 in my savings and that was to setup everything - website, packaging etc etc. and to live off for the first year. I basically didn’t go out for two years, I couldn’t even afford a glass of wine.
Q. How were the hours when you first started?
S: Truthfully, it was all consuming from the minute I quit my job. I would start around 7 or 8am and finish at 7pm. I was the kitchen and the office so I would cook from 8am-3pm then start what most people would be doing from 9am at 3pm. I’d quite often flyer outside Hammersmith station in the morning too. It didn’t get better for about 2.5 years, and even then it was because we made the purposeful decision to work acceptable hours. For sanity.
Q. What you be your no.1 piece of advice for someone starting out?
S: I have two (sorry). No.1: Just do it. Don’t wait until it’s perfect, it never will be. Just launch and allow the brand to grow with you. And the second is to look after your finances from the start. I hired a finance adviser as soon as I started and he’s been with us ever since. It means we’ve never had problems later down the line.
The Next Step
Q. You started from your home kitchen, when did you decide to move to a commercial kitchen?
S: We probably moved earlier than most would, but we found a great deal renting a kitchen within an Army reserve centre and knew it was the right choice in order to grow. We moved in July, when we were producing between 5-40 lunches a day, it was still really unstable but we knew we needed to move forward.
Q. And when did you expand the team?
S: It was me and my mum, Hazie, for the first 5 months. Then we hired our first head chef, Virginia and a marketing intern (who’s still with us as Marketing Manager) in August.
“COOKING TWO LUNCHES A DAY MAY SEEM SILLY BUT YOU HAVE TO START SOMEWHERE”
Q. and Kris, you joined a few months later. How did that go?
K: Steph called and said “Can we talk?”, and I thought, “She’s pregnant”… But when she started talking about Pollen, I didn’t think about it twice.
S: Everything was getting busier and busier and the idea of running it alone was overwhelming. I loved working with Kris before and I knew she’d see things differently to me. I focus on the creative and visuals whereas Kris is amazing with logistics and finance.
Q. Did things change once you were running it as a team?
S: For starters, we stopped writing orders in a notebook and Kris set up proper systems. There wasn’t time to do that side before, so Kris really helped to organise everything.
K: We planned properly, were able to make a strategic business plan and had a clear focus to move forward. That was when things really took off.
Changing the Business Model
Q. Up until this point (Oct. 2015) you were operating as a lunch delivery service. When, and why, did you start to change this?
S: The change started out of demand towards the end of 2015. Transition Zone and Retreat Cafe were our first customers. They contacted us because they wanted to offer food in their studios and liked what we were doing. I guess this was before the ‘everything’ studio. No post-workout shakes, cafes or fridges full of snacks so stocking our food was quite innovative, and it worked.
K: The why was easy. Delivery is an expensive business model, especially with fresh food. Being able to deliver to one place rather than 10 saved so much money and allowed us to bring our prices down. It also meant we had more control over orders as we could put cut off times in earlier than 11am the same day, reducing food waste.
Q. How did you go about changing to a retail range?
K: In January 2016, we scrapped the daily changing menu and created 5 set options that you would order any day. We started with Planet Organic the same month and had a 2 week pop up, so trying to maintain a daily changing menu was too much. We definitely noticed a drop off when we made this change, but it was the direction we needed to go in. In May we stopped delivering lunches completely, but by this point we’d secured a few stable clients (Planet Organic, Daylesford, Selfridges) so we were able to direct our customers to these stores instead.
In January 2016 you secured Planet Organic. How was that?
S: Amazing and scary all at once. We needed to hire another chef, figure out logistics, navigate order systems and create labels/packaging, but it was an amazing opportunity. Planet Organic are a great for showcasing tiny startups. It wasn’t until 2 years later when we started working with Whole Foods that we realised how crazy it was that those original boxes had made it onto retail shelves, without any proper labelling or being at all complaint with trading standards (another of the things nobody tells you about when you start a business).
It wasn’t until 2 years lateR that we realised how crazy it was that those original boxes had made it onto retail shelves, without any proper labelling or being at all complaint with trading standards (another of the things nobody tells you about when you start a business).
The Details They Don’t Tell You
It seems like it was a great run so far. So lets ask all the questions people don’t usually ask...
Q. How long was it until you could give yourself a salary?
S: It was about 10 months, and then all I paid myself was enough to cover my mortgage as I’d spent all of my savings. It was 2 years until I paid myself more than just enough to cover my mortgage.
K: Yeah, I covered my rent and that was it for 2 years.
Q. Were there any moments when you thought it was over?
S: There’s probably been a hundred moments when it could’ve been over but we refused to accept it. There’s always a way, you just have to fight really hard for it. I can’t even begin to relay the amount of times we nearly ran out of money…
Q. Did if effect any other parts of your life?
S: I found socialising difficult. All my friends from before didn’t understand when I tried to explain the difficulties and problems I was experiencing. They got mad when I couldn’t meet them for dinner as I was exhausted and broke. You’re not part of the society that you were part of before. It was hard at the beginning but it all worked out for the best.
Q. Is it competitive?
A. This is actually one of the nice parts - it’s been supportive much more than competitive. Anyone we asked for advice always responded, even someone who could be considered a competitor. We saw the production facilities of many companies established in our industry and made friendships with other founders. Sure, we’ve had a few wobbles (like when someone tried to sue us for using the name ‘Balance Box)’ but for the most part, people have been lovely and that’s why we’re always open to others who want to learn from us now - we know how valuable it is.
TIPS + TRICKS FOR
- Creative agencies are expensive. Use 99 designs for logo design
- Just wing it; half the time we didn’t know what we were doing, just fake it till’ you make it!
- Look to students for internships when you want to expand the team, that’s how a lot of our team joined us and they always bring a new, fresh perspective.
- Preferably, have everything ready to go before you quit your job. It gives you a little more time and stability whilst you plan properly.
- If you can, get a part time job for stable income and (most importantly) human interaction. Starting out alone can be lonely.
- Do not worry what people think. People will judge you, your business idea and your products but as long as you believe in what you’re doing, it really doesn’t matter.