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Oliver Bruce chats with Ann Perkins, co-founder and CEO of health snack brand Perkier about the truly independent British business she and co-founder Steve have built up.
Ann Perkins is in it for the long haul with Perkier; she’s in the name after all!
Perkier is a young independent British company on a mission to make the healthiest snacks on the planet!
Ann Perkins: We’re outperforming all our major competitors in retail. So we’re showing double digit growth when retail has been under some pressure and most of our competitors are in double digit decline. So we’ve got a five-year strategic plan and we’re really excited about it and what we’re going to do.
Oliver Bruce: Welcome to our award-winning podcast, yes, last week we picked up the award for Podcast of the Year at the Campaign Publishing Awards. The judges said we’ve “identified a clear gap in the market and this podcast has huge potential” so, early adopters, thank you for your continued support and welcome to Success Is In The Mind.
Oliver Bruce: Welcome to Success Is In the Mind with me Oliver Bruce, an award-winning podcast by PinPoint Media. This isn’t about the millions, the large houses and the fast cars associated with term ‘entrepreneur’ instead, we shine a light by speaking to leaders and entrepreneurs on the frontline by bringing to forefront the trials, tribulations, pains and the determination that it takes to start, run and scale a business. So, what does it take to turn your dream into a reality, well find out from those that are currently doing just that. On today’s show with Ann Perkins, co-founder and CEO of health snack brand Perkier. In a previous life, Ann worked for the global food brand Kraft Heinz before jumping ship to pursue her passion for tasty, nutritious and ethical food, and started by making Perkier bars in her kitchen, and now supplies the likes of Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons. With the global health food market on the rise, could you soon be reaching into your cupboard for a Perkier bar? Ann, welcome to the show.
Ann Perkins: Thank you very much, Oliver! Delighted to be here today.
Oliver Bruce: Thank you. Ann, you’ve worked for many businesses in the past that are in the food and beverages world, Mars, Unilever, Kraft Heinz, you worked there for over a decade. You have a lot of experience in that world. You then jumped ship to start Perkier. What was the reason for that?
Ann Perkins: Yeah, so I was diagnosed to need to eat gluten and dairy free and yeah, it probably took me quite a long time to be diagnosed with those food intolerances and yeah, over time when I had to take them out of my diet, I felt so much better, but I felt really frustrated by the choices available to me. So yeah, I just started thinking maybe I could do something myself in this space.
Oliver Bruce: It must’ve been quite difficult to have been diagnosed with celiac disease and then go, “okay, what I’m going to do is I’m going to try and start a business at the same time”. Do you think you would have ever started a business had that not happened and you’d have gone through the career ladder of climbing Kraft Heinz and, you know, moving on, would you have jumped ship had that not occurred?
Ann Perkins: I actually think in hindsight I probably would have, but I think it would have been for different reasons. As soon as I left and I started the business up, I realized that it is just something that I love. I actually really, really love building a business. I love every element of it apart from taking the bins out but I usually try and delegate that to Steve.
Oliver Bruce: Rightly so.
Ann Perkins: But no, I really absolutely love having my own business. So yeah, I think there would have been another calling. I think it would have always been about building a brand with purpose, but I think as we built Perkier and the industry’s moved on and consumers’ attitudes have moved on as we’ve been building the business, I think there’s so many different elements that we tap into now. So we’ve got a very strong sustainability ethic as well as making sure that our products are free from things like gluten, dairy, they’re vegan, you know, there’s lots of things that we’re really passionate about and we actually wrap it all up into Perkier. But I think if we didn’t have Perkier we’d be pursuing some of those areas with other product proposition.
Oliver Bruce: And Steve Turner. You alluded to him earlier regarding taking bins out. He did work his way up to the top of the Kraft Heinz ladder, so to speak, and I believe was MD between ’06 and ’07? He obviously is very much involved in Perkier now. Do you think that that background of having the experience in such a large business has really assisted you guys to grow as you have?
Ann Perkins: Yeah, definitely. We were a great compliment to each other. I think, you know we met at Heinz so we know how to work together. You know, our initial relationship was very much like working together on different projects and we’ve got very complimentary skills and experiences. So whereas my experience is really in the consumer insight and marketing world, Steve, as you say, he had some very senior roles, so he did lead, you know, whole categories, whole areas of the business and was P&L responsible for large chunks of business, including like the European sources business, which was huge. But he also started his career in R and D and manufacturing. So the product development side of things from a technical standpoint sits with Steve and also in terms of us being able to go and source robust suppliers to make our products to our specifications and has been really, really good. So whilst I’ve learned how to audit factories and audit suppliers through the journey with Perkier, Steve could go in and do it right off the cuff. And I think naturally sort of different activities sort of fall into place to either of us. We work together on a lot of things, but we’re clear on who owns what.
Oliver Bruce: Right? Because it’s not cheap to start a business in your world in terms of actually buying product, buying manufacturing space, distributing it, storing it, that kind of thing. You know, how did you fund the initial startup phase? Did you go from investment or did you sweat equity in your own cash?
Ann Perkins: Yeah we did it ourselves. So we did save a bit of money just to make sure that we had enough money to be able to explore the opportunities without having to, you know, take another job straight away. But yeah, we just basically bootstrapped the business and we’re really proud of what we managed to achieve with very, very little money.
Oliver Bruce: How much money did you put in initially then?
Ann Perkins: I think about £50,000?
Oliver Bruce: £50,000. And when was the first time you guys started to turn a profit, then?
Ann Perkins: We turned a profit quite early on, so probably in about a year or so. I think since then, we actually haven’t turned a profit as we’ve increased our investment, but yeah, to start with, we basically managed our cash really, really carefully. And, like you say, it’s expensive to start up a business in some ways, but actually there were lots of ways that you can do things on a bit of a shoestring, you know, you just need to be creative about it.
Oliver Bruce: And when you say talk about investment, you guys putting the £50,000 in, and then not turning a profit over recently because you’ve got more investment. What does that additional capital investment look like?
Ann Perkins: Yeah. So we’ve got a great investment group called Nexus on board and some angel investments on board in the company as well. So they’ve really supported us, but it’s still relatively low level. I mean, a lot of people in our space have raised millions, we’re nowhere near that.
Oliver Bruce: Well, I was going to say, because you guys have got a hell of a competition out there, but I mean the brand and the product looks excellent. It looks visually incredible. And I can see it on the shelves because you’re in Sainsbury’s, you’re in Asda, you’re so many high street supermarkets, but the competition is massive; Grenade have just sold for 200 million quid. I mean, how do you guys cut through the noise?
Ann Perkins: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think practically all our competitors are now owned by big multinationals. I think we’re one of the only truly independent British businesses out there in the snacking world, which we’re really proud of. And I think it’s just a matter of in some ways, you know, money can give you some clout, but it doesn’t necessarily give you creativity, you know? So I think it’s really a matter of just working creatively to make sure that, you know, things like you say, our packaging design is on point and it communicates our key messages.
Oliver Bruce: Who did that?
Ann Perkins: So yes, we’ve worked with an independent freelancer. And we’ve also worked with Honey design.
Oliver Bruce: Okay. Because I mean, it is brilliant. I looked at it and I thought it was exactly what I’m assuming you guys are wanting it to say, and it looks friendly and inviting. But you’ve got such a diverse range of products as well, so you’ve obviously got, you know, the porridges, you’ve got the bars, you have the little snack bites. I mean, why diversify your portfolio if one product’s working well? What was the strategic decision behind that?
Ann Perkins: So we looked at the consumer needs around sort of health and sustainability and sort of eating free from, and the two sort of category areas that came out of some of the bigger challenges were breakfast and snacking, but particularly snacking. And that’s where the main stay of our focus goes: into snacking. Because it’s when you’re out on the go, you know, traveling to work, snacking at work or going to the gym or, you know, in these different occasions that it can often be more difficult to get a really healthy snack that has also got good ethical stance and is free from certain foods that you might need to avoid.
Oliver Bruce: Do you think, I mean, with regards to the ethical and the free from stance, you were pretty early adopters of that six years ago and it’s becoming more and more mainstream. And in the introduction, we alluded to the fact that, you know, maybe one day we’ll open up our cupboards and Perkier will be there. Do you think it’s going to become more and more normal for people to want specifically to have these ethical free from products? Or do you think it will be capped in the next couple of years?
Ann Perkins: Yeah, so I think that the demand from consumers for ethical and free from and sort of healthy products is definitely on the rise. In a way, the impact of COVID I think has brought home what we can do ourselves, what difference we can make ourselves, particularly from a sustainability platform. I think some of the work that David Attenborough does when he talks about, you know, humans being intruders and really animals and the natural world existed way before we arrived. And even those of us that are most environmentally conscious about what we do, we still have an impact on the world. So I think that’s really sort of cutting through with so many consumers now and they’re really willing to make a different choice. And I think the younger generations are really trailblazing the way as well. And they will be, you know, the families of the future and the mainstay of the population in the future. So I think a lot of these attitudes and behaviors that younger generations have, will definitely sort of be carried through.
Oliver Bruce: And in terms of your scale, your team size, it seems as there’s four of you, Matt, Holly, Steve, and yourself, and that’s quite a lean team. What does the future hold and why is it such a small team? When you could probably quite easily just gear up from an economy of scale point of view.
Ann Perkins: We’ll be expanding the team later this year, which is really exciting. Yeah. We’ve got some really exciting plans to double the team within the next 12 months. So that’s really exciting, but yeah, it’s partly about keeping our costs down as well, in sensible time. So, you know, snacking has been hit quite hard by the COVID period. So food service, food on the go, was a big part of our business. It’s great news, it’s opening up again now, and then lockdown’s easing. And lots of people are commuting into the office, going to the gym, and going back to university and schools, but during the last sort of 12 months, you know, that side of the business has been quite slow. So that’s really why we’ve kept the team lean and just willing to sort of all sort of pitch in and get involved. But yeah, we’re very excited to be bringing in some exciting talent in the next 12 months.
Oliver Bruce: And with regards to when you first started, if we scale it back a little bit, when you were making these bars on your kitchen table, essentially you then every other day, or every other week, sorry, I should say, went to the Whole Foods Market in London to try and sell this product. Now that seems to be a fairly, I suppose, normal narrative for people that are starting a business within the food market, they go to these wholesale markets and they sell them, you know, Alan Sugar for one, did it with his product. Now, looking at that was that a brilliant lesson is that you would advise people to do, or would you have gone and tried to get it into Sainsbury’s from day one?
Ann Perkins: I think it was a really, really good idea. I think we started off at food shows and then getting into Whole Foods and Planet Organic in London was fantastic. I think what that showed us was real grassroots feedback from consumers because you’re doing product testing, you know, in store on a regular basis. We were, you know, going up into London with our stand, setting it up in the front of Whole Foods and meeting, you know, hundreds of consumers telling us exactly what they thought of our foods and same with the food shows that we went to. And also pitching to buyers, that probably had at that time a bit more time to talk to a startup and would give really valuable feedback and would really try the products and engage.
Oliver Bruce: So what was the process? Did you give them taste bites and you gave them little bits to go, “okay, so just taste this, give me feedback”. Or did you sell them the product and then say, give me feedback down the line.
Ann Perkins: Yeah, we went in and pitched the products with the sort of brand presentations. They would try the products whilst we were there. And then with Whole Foods, we actually then had signed off on the buyer, but then because each of the stores has the opportunity to choose what they want to buy as well, we then pitched it to all the store managers, and again had sort of a round table tasting with them, presented the brand to get their feedback. And they were all on board too. So that process was actually really good for us. And although I’ve got, you know, a lot of food industry experience, I’ve never worked in sales. So again, it was a really, really good sort of learning curve for me to understand and talk to people, and sell the product to the people that were really engaged with food and really engaged with what they were going to be selling in their stores. And really sort of thinking through for themselves, “is this product gonna work in my store? You know, is this what my customers are going to need?” So, yeah, I think it was really good, from that point of view. And then I think as the business sort of grew traction, it was like a shop window, really for the retailers, the major retailers to see us. So actually, Asda’s buyers came down to London to do what they call a ‘safari’ where they go around all the sort of premium health food shops and they spotted Perkier and they invited us in to pitch the business.
Oliver Bruce: So is that how you get into these high street brands? Elements of luck, I suppose, rather than aggression.
Ann Perkins: I think there’s various ways you can get in. I think sometimes, you know, you do pitch, you know, through an email or a phone call or they might spot you in the press and they might pick you up that way. A lot of it has been through seeing us in other stores, or seeing us at food shows has really helped. I think it’s about catching their eye. And I think there is an element of luck, but I think there’s also an element of, “are these guys doing something different to the others? Is this something that I think is going to be differentiated on the shelves?” And I think with the retailers, they were all really excited about what we were doing. You know, we launched our healthy snacks in major retailers about four or five years ago now. What we were offering was, you know, genuinely whole food bar, with ingredients like different superfoods, like cacao and goji berries and puffed quinoa and, you know, binding the products together with chicory fibre, which is a prebiotic; it’s good for gut health. You know, there was all sorts of things that we were doing that our competition weren’t, they were still using rice puffs. They were still gluing it together with like glucose syrups and smothering it in palm oil. And that wasn’t really what we were about. So I think they loved the fact that we were doing something different and that there’s a backstory, and the founders are very present in our communication.
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Ann Perkins: We’re not looking for a Coca Cola exit, but we are definitely looking for huge growth and we’re seeing really, really good growth. We’re outperforming all our major competitors in retail. So we’re showing double digit growth when retail has been under some pressure, and most of our competitors are in double digit decline. So we’ve got a five-year strategic plan and we’re really excited about it and what we’re going to do.
Oliver Bruce: Because you’re outselling, it says, or at least you guys say, you’re out selling Nestle and Mars. Now that’s huge, right? That’s not in terms of quantity though. That’s surely in terms of just growth based on what you were selling last year versus this year, right?
Ann Perkins: Yeah. It’s growth rates. And in some cases actually sales rates. So we won’t necessarily have as many products on the shelf and in as many stores, but if you strip that out and you actually look at the rate of sale of our products or the number of units of our products being sold against say Kind bars, we do actually outsell them in some of the supermarkets that we’re stocked in. Relatively speaking, our distribution footprint is a lot smaller than those guys currently. And our brand awareness is a lot lower. But those people that do know about us and do buy us really love what we offer.
Oliver Bruce: You’ve got a good brand awareness. Once you kind of know you know, sort of thing, and you guys have been popping up left, right and centre, since I’ve started looking at you guys, and you’ve got nearly 50,000 followers, I suppose, on social or cumulatively; that’s a huge amount of people that are looking at you guys. You’ve also got a PR agency that work very closely with you guys. How do you go about doing your marketing, your flag-waving and your brand awareness because with four people that must be quite a lot of work.
Ann Perkins: Yes, yes. It is quite a lot of work, but we really love what we do. So it doesn’t really feel like work, in a way. So social media as you’ve tapped into there, is really key for us. We’ve just launched our first brand ambassador community as well called the Perky Fam who are really active on Instagram and TikTok. And they’re an absolutely awesome team. We’ve got nearly 100 in the team so far and yeah, they really help promote and and talk about our products as well because they genuinely really love what we do. Palm PR are doing a great job for us, getting us great interviews like this, which is really good. And we’ve got some good features in consumer press as well, but raising our profile as a brand and a company is a really key priority for us.
Oliver Bruce: Because it’s a bold move when you’re starting a business to go, “Right. We’re going to outsource the PR. We’re going to outsource the marketing”, because a lot of the time it’s emperor’s new clothing, to a certain extent. You don’t really know where the spend is going versus what you’re actually getting because it’s such a long process. And for a lot of founders, a lot of startups, they do struggle with that. They try and in-house it, but actually is their time better spent growing the business rather than doing the marketing? At what point did you guys kind of go now is the time to pump this out to a PR company?
Ann Perkins: Yeah, it was about last September that we actually thought that that would be a really good move for us just to get some extra support. I always think about our marketing services area as we’re all in one team, you know, we’ve all got one set of goals. We always set our objectives for the quarter, for the year. We know what we want to achieve and we all sort of muck in and help where we can. So, yeah, I think you do have to be really careful about how you go about marketing your business and how much spend you put behind it as well, and make sure that, you know, you test, learn and really evaluate what impact it’s having.
Oliver Bruce: So what’s test and learn then?
Ann Perkins: Yeah. So for example, I mean a good example would be like digital marketing, you know, putting a relatively low budget behind a particular piece of creative with a particular audience, making sure that you’re getting, you know, good results. And then if it’s working really well, you know, increase the budget and increase the audience and test it further. Same thing with, you know, something like press advertising, for example, which we’ve tried various different things, actually also with some of the newspapers online, and that just really didn’t work for us. So now it’s very much a tactical approach.
Oliver Bruce: If there’s one thing you would suggest that most startups do in your world, what would that be?
Ann Perkins: Get really active on social media and digital marketing through the social media side of things to grow awareness because it’s so measurable. So for example, we’re on Amazon. We launched on Amazon last year, it’s growing like Topsy, we’re growing at least 20% month on month. It’s absolutely brilliant. Amazon is the marketplace where everybody already is. And I know myself, I mean, as soon as we started up Perkier, I was on Amazon all the time because all the things that I wanted to get, like when we were doing shows and events, it was like, “Oh my God, where am I going to get this from? And I haven’t got time to go to like a local town and like search around different shops!” And suddenly you realise that there’s this online marketplace, you know, that you can get almost everything. And I know it’s got a huge reach in the UK now. So I think being where people are already shopping is definitely the way to go. Whereas with your own web shop there can be some barriers because some people don’t necessarily want to buy from a shop that they haven’t had an experience with before.
Oliver Bruce: Variety’s the spice of life and I’m assuming, and this might be rightly or wrongly, but I’m assuming you and Steve are partners, not just business partners? Right?
Ann Perkins: Yes, that’s right, yes.
Oliver Bruce: How is it working with your husband?
Ann Perkins: [laughing] Oh it’s brilliant.
Oliver Bruce: Oh, is it? [both laughing] How much did he have to pay you to say that?
Ann Perkins: I think he’s going to pay me quite a lot of money later. No, actually we work really well together. I know it might sound a bit cheesy and stuff, but I think because we knew each other first in a working environment. And then the relationship came after that. But actually I think in a way, you know, fundamentally we know we work well, we’re good friends, and then we were in a relationship together. But I do think it would be very difficult to run a company with somebody in a way that you weren’t in a partnership with, if you were going to work really closely and it was going to be really full on, because I think with us, we were together and we know the level of commitment. And I think because we know each other so well, I think it actually aids us in a lot of ways because we can be flexible on what we want to do when we want to do it. And just say, actually, yeah, we were thinking about taking some time off on that Saturday afternoon, but actually this opportunity has come up and we’re going to go off and, you know, work on this instead.
Oliver Bruce: Very exciting. And any hindsight when you obviously started the business to what you know now then, and you’ve obviously had a huge amount of experience in sort of this world before anyway, but what would you do differently running your own startup, running your own business, that you kind of go, yeah, that could have been better?
Ann Perkins: Yeah. I think bringing investment in earlier is the one thing that I would have done quicker. I think boost up in the companies, you know, did work in a lot of ways for us, but I think we could have grown faster, quicker had we brought investment along, but I think-
Oliver Bruce: Would you have known how to do that? How to bring in investment at that stage?
Ann Perkins: No and when we started that journey, we had to learn completely from scratch. So yeah, it was a very steep learning curve. It’s very, time-intensive, it’s been a really, really great experience. And our investors are fantastic because they’re so engaged in what we do, so supportive.
Oliver Bruce: Oh so they’re hands-on investors?
Ann Perkins: Some of them get quite hands-on. Some of them are very quiet. It’s a real mish-mash. Yeah. Some of them are quite happy to have like a quarterly update and you know, in that set up, and others will be throwing ideas and thoughts and giving me a call if they think of an opportunity, which we really love too, and they’re all from different backgrounds as well. So they do see things through different eyes as it were. And yeah, that’s been really helpful, really useful. So, I think, you know, we’ve loved that sort of journey from, I think from a personal understanding of how you do it and what you do, and then meeting some fantastic people and then onboarding them into our business, into our team, has been great. But yeah, I think that’s the one thing, but I think what was quite a tricky thing was that we landed a lot of retail business very, very quickly, and we were a small team and it just got quite tricky to think, actually, you know, if we take as a key priority for the next X number of months to bring investment on board, you know, what’s going to slip. So that was the challenge.
Oliver Bruce: But it’s a bit of a chicken and the egg, right. Because you need the cash to manufacture it, to get it into the supermarkets, but you need the supermarkets to buy it so that you can get your cash back. So it must be quite a difficult one to manage?
Ann Perkins: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a judgment call and, you know, I don’t think we necessarily got that absolutely spot on. I think that’s what I would say. I think if I had my time again, I’d definitely have a crack at doing it, bringing investment on faster.
Oliver Bruce: So what does the next six years look like then in that case, if you’ve kind of learned from those mistakes or indeed lessons, are you going to bring on more investment moving forward?
Ann Perkins: Yes, we will. Yes. We’ll be bringing more investment on board later. The plan is for later this year, which we’re really excited about. We’ve got some fantastic, new products that we’ll be launching. Products that we’ve got already tap into some really exciting health trends. So we’ve got bars that have extra vitamins, which are really good for immune support. We’ve got snacks as well, that offer probiotics, which are really good for gut health. So we’re really at the emerging sort of trend area of like nutritional health, but making sure that, you know, our products are really, really tasty. So lots of areas around new product development, but then but then expansion, you know, into new places where people can buy us. So new retailers in the UK and abroad.
Oliver Bruce: Is it not quite a good American centric and American focused product though, because there they are very, very in certain States, focused on health and wellbeing, and this sounds like it could work really well out there?
Ann Perkins: Yeah. Yeah. I think it could. It’s definitely on our radar. We’ve had some good leads over there and in other countries in Europe and beyond as well, so expanding our footprint in the UK is a key priority and also are looking at opportunities outside the UK, got some exciting things in the pipeline that we should be launching. And Amazon actually is a good opportunity as well for us to launch into other countries.
Oliver Bruce: So you’re going to be in the business for the foreseeable, or are you expecting an exit at some point, Ann?
Ann Perkins: I’ll be in the business for the foreseeable. I mean, my name’s in the name, so. [laughs] I have to stay.
Oliver Bruce: The name is in the name and you’re in lots of people’s cupboards, but Ann, thank you ever so much. I’ve really enjoyed it. And, if people want to find out more, where can they go to a) buy from you guys and b) sort of, you know, experience a bit more about you?
Ann Perkins: Yeah, brilliant. So our website is www.perkier.co.uk. We’re on Amazon. If you search for Perkier, then you can see our shop there. And we have a really good variety box where you can buy eight different flavours of our bars for £8 on Amazon. So really, really good opportunity to taste the range and have it delivered to your sofa. Well, almost to your sofa, for free, especially if you’re on prime. So yeah, that’d be good. And then we’re on social media Perkier Foods.
Oliver Bruce: Thank you so much, Ann. Really appreciate it.
Ann Perkins: Brilliant, thank you so much! Lovely to talk to you.
Oliver Bruce: If you’re looking for more stories from inspirational entrepreneurs, then check out the Cereal Entrepreneur from Startups Magazine, a digital and print publication that champions tech startups. You can find them by searching the Cereal entrepreneur, as in your breakfast, into any streaming service or by going to startupsmagazine.co.uk. Thanks so much for listening and don’t forget to subscribe on all major podcast streaming platforms. Without you, this podcast is literally pointless. Rate and review on Apple podcasts so that we can continue to climb the rankings. And if you want to join me on the show or know somebody else who will fit the bill, please contact me via LinkedIn at Oliver Bruce online. Thanks again for listening. Take care.
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