This is the question posed by Nimisha Raja, the 54 year old who decided that age shouldn’t be a barrier to taking risks and this year realised her dream of owning a successful healthy food business – with the launch of her fruit and vegetable crisps in Coop, Ocado and 1400 Tesco stores.
Until relatively recently Nimisha ran a coffee shop in Battersea, South London, which was ideal for allowing her, as a single mum, to look after her daughter after school. Deep down Nimisha had always harboured other business ambitions however, so when her daughter finished school, and with a business seed planted from her time in the café, Nimisha set to work.
“My core customers at the café were parents and children from the school. There was a constant battle between parents trying to persuade the children to have fruit as a snack whilst the children bartered to have crisps. There really was a problem in finding honest and genuinely healthy snacks that both parents and children wanted to eat. This was at a time where flapjacks were considered to be the healthiest snacks around!
I’ve always felt it was important to introduce children from the outset to become accustomed to the authentic taste of foods in its natural state. By chance, I came across some freeze dried apple pieces in the bakery aisle of a supermarket. I didn’t like the artificial taste but loved the idea of it being crunchy. An image of a parent and child in my coffee shop having a tug of war type battle between fruit and crisps came to mind and I thought what if we could marry what children want to eat with what parents want them to eat – fruit and crisps.
Vegetable crisps have always been fried and consumers would buy them thinking they were healthier than potato crisps but actually they usually contained more fat than potato crisps. All our crisps are air dried and contain just 1 ingredient – the fruit or veg they are made from.”
Working initially from her garden shed, Nimisha started to produce air dried fruit and vegetable crisps. Air drying means there’s no fat needed and a much healthier and super tasty crisp can be produced.
After trialling the crisps on her friends, and getting great feedback, Nimisha decided to test the market properly and approached 16 local shops with her handmade, hand packed bags of Nim’s crisps – Nimisha decided that giving her name to the crisps would mean she’d always have to be 100% satisfied with their quality, after all they had her name on them.
She asked the shops to put the crisps on the counter on a sale or return basis and decided that if she was still topping up the stores’ supplies 6 weeks later then there was repeat business and the products had a real chance of being a success.
Because everything was handmade and packed, this meant Nimisha spending very long hours, sometimes overnight, making and packing the crisps for the shops and events. It also meant she had to go to New Covent Garden Market or Spitalfields at 2 or 3 in the morning to buy fruit. It was worth it though, as the crisps flew off the shelves and Nimisha realised it was time to take the plunge and invest in a factory to make the crisps on a commercial scale.
That’s when things got ‘really interesting’, recalls Nimisha.
She struggled to get finance from the banks and so made the huge decision to sell her house.
“People seem to think that this sort of decision is harder the older you get, but for me it was easier. My daughter had left home and so I didn’t have the ties I did earlier in my life. The bigger risk for me was not taking the jump at all and wondering for the rest of my life, what if?”
I think ultimately it has to be belief in the products and consumer’s appetite for a healthy alternative to mainstream snacking options. This was reinforced when I trialled the products in shops and at consumer shows, with feedback being overwhelmingly positive.
The first challenge I faced was trying to find someone who could make the innovative product well and, at first, I sub-contracted manufacturing to a company in Eastern Europe. This didn’t really provide the quality and consistency that I wanted and it was starting to damage the brand. Ultimately I had to decide whether to give up the business despite now having invested over £30,000 and a hell of a lot more unpaid time in the business or go the whole hog and set up my own factory right here in the UK.
I had always known deep down that the best way of making this work was to make the crisps myself and have complete control over the entire process from buying to making to packing to selling …so that’s what I finally decided to do but it meant me having to stop trading for about a year and a half and selling my home to invest in the business.”
Whilst a few friends raised an eyebrow or two, all were supportive and most people who knew Nimisha realised that she would not make such a huge decision if she wasn’t confident of the business working and that she never did things by halves.
“Banks were not ready to invest in what was effectively a start up business and the amount of money needed to set up the factory was huge. I did find an investor, a partner in a law firm who had done some work for me over the years. He had come to know me quite well and although he knew nothing about the FMCG business or manufacturing, he told me his reason for wanting to invest was ‘If anyone can do it, it’s you’. That was a double edged sword. I don’t think I have ever noticeably encountered any issues setting up and running businesses because I’m a woman. That’s not to say it has never happened, it’s just that I haven’t noticed. There have been times, especially when it came building works and machinery and equipment that I was given advice or basic instructions because the contractors thought I wouldn’t know but I’ve never minded that as if it is something I knew then they reinforced it and if I didn’t know then I’ve learned something.
We did eventually get a bank loan and asset finance as well, albeit heavily secured against my investor’s assets and personal guarantees from us both.”
Her calculated gamble paid off and shortly after setting up the factory Nimisha was approached by a number of big retailers, who wanted to sell Nim’s Fruit Crisps, including Coop, Ocado and Tesco, with the latter listing in approximately 1400 stores from February this year.
“About a year after I opened the factory we introduced the first ever range of air dried vegetable crisps too which includes, beetroot, parsnip, peppers, courgette, tomato and even cucumber!”
Since then it’s been a whirlwind of activity for Nimisha and her team and they’ve received awards and accolades, been interviewed by the New York Times and even had their crisps selling at Wimbledon.
Nimisha, at 54, now finds herself busier than at any other time of her life, but says she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think being in your fifties only means things slow down and get boring if you let them. Running a business at full pace means I feel as energised and focussed now as I did in my twenties.
For the first year or so after opening the factory I had a ‘team’ of two, one helping me in processing and the other helping me in the office! There was a huge amount of learning to do – machinery, building works, contractors, food manufacturing rules etc whilst setting up the factory and then once we were up and running – NPD, trials, maintenance of equipment, marketing, sales, presentations, power points, excel spreadsheets…none of which I or my ‘team’ had any experience in. I was putting in anything up to 24 hours at a time. My loyal team of two are still with me and they too have put in many long days in the past.
Once we had mastered making the crisps in the new factory with the new machinery I concentrated on sales. As sales increased, I slowly added to my team. The thing I found difficult (and still do at times) is learning to and trusting people enough to delegate. It’s still far too early to step back totally but I am slowly getting there by only having people working for me that are, in the first instance, nice people! They then need to truly understand what we are trying to achieve.
Our company motto is “Improvise but never Compromise”. As a start up business, there are so many curve balls thrown at you that you have to learn to improvise in order to meet deadlines and get orders out on time. But no matter how pushed we are, how stressful the situation, we do not compromise on the quality of the products or service we provide because each and every product has my name on it! That’s not to say we haven’t made mistakes and things haven’t gone wrong, we just make sure we learn from these mistakes and improve. So the people who work at Nim’s must excel in their role and not fall apart when things go wrong. I am not the easiest person to work for but I like to think I’m fair and I reward people for their hard work and belief in the product and in me. I still spend a lot of time on the factory floor – processing, packing, cleaning, driving the forklift (!) with our production team because I think it’s important for them to know that I wouldn’t ask them to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself and that in turn engenders respect as well as a feeling of we are all in this together. It’s not been easy and as any entrepreneur trying to scale up will tell you, you need to be able to wear several hats and take control of every part of the operation at any time. The more successes we have, the more passionate I become about creating new products. I love this business and I’m very lucky to have found some great people to work with me in growing the business.”
And Nimisha’s advice to others – “Midlife means you might have another 50 years of living left….how exciting! Time to crack on and follow your dreams.”