Feeling drained by her long commute and the demands of a full-on job in London, Cecily Mills was looking for ways to improve her energy levels. She decided to change her diet and go vegan but little did she know that her decision would not only change her energy levels but would also transform her life. Additionally it will have many of us rushing to the freezer aisle in their nearest Tesco to get their hands on the most delicious alternative to dairy ice-cream that you will have ever experienced.
Launching in Tesco stores across the country today, Monday 17 June, Coconuts Organic ice-cream will now no longer be Cornwall’s best kept secret so I was delighted to have an opportunity to catch up with Cecily to find out more about her love of coconuts, her experience in The Dragons’ Den and to offer my services as chief ice-cream flavour taster!
As a twin and one of four children, Cecily was born in Hong Kong as her father, a civil servant, was posted there. After returning to the UK aged around 3, her formative years were spent in Wimbledon and in her early teens, she was horrified to learn that her father’s next posting would mean they would leave the hustle and excitement of London to move to Cornwall. As a thirteen year old just starting to experience the London social scene with her friends, it no doubt seemed like the end of world rather than the haven it is when you become older. Ironically, the work done by her father as Head of Cornwall County Council during his tenure in securing and developing funding links via Europe would prove vital in later years to Cecily, providing her with access to both funding and business support for her fledgling business:
“The business support through European funding that we get down here is just phenomenal. I’m so grateful for it all. It really is exceptional. I’ve said it before but I couldn’t imagine starting a business anywhere else”.
Following a gap year travelling and after a brief spell reading Japanese at SOAS University (about half a term), Cecily returned to travelling in Australia and working in London before deciding that she did indeed want to study at university. Cecily’s mother is from Guyana, in South America; from the many visits to this country, Cecily had always been fascinated by different cultures. Being considered a ‘mature student’, Cecily chose a subject that she was interested in studying rather than choosing a subject with one eye on a potential career path and so she found herself at Brighton studying anthropology:
“I was reading around the subjects and anthropology just seemed something that fitted with me. It was such a great subject and quenched my curiosity for the world and different cultures. I studied at Uni for the enjoyment of studying which was a lovely thing to be able to do.”
Cecily was not naive enough not to recognise that there would come a point when she would need to earn a living. She determined that a graduate training programme in retail would give her stability and a recognised career path at a time when she was looking for structure in her life. She secured a place on the competitive Marks and Spencer graduate scheme. This would prove to be the starting point of her career not only in retail but also what would lead her to set up in business for herself.
Cecily changed her diet to vegan as her research suggested her health would benefit from the change. It did but Cecily really missed the taste of luxurious dairy-ice cream and hadn’t found a suitable alternative. Undeterred, she decided that if she couldn’t find one, then she would just have to make one herself. So… she did. Unbelievably Cecily’s decision to try coconut as the base ingredient first proved the right one and Coconuts Naturally (now relaunched as Coconuts Organic) was born:
“My whole journey has been characterised somewhat by making it up as I go along, which is probably a good thing because I’ve just done things in my own way. I just knew that coconuts would be perfect for it. It never occurred to me to try anything else and I just wanted to make coconut ice-cream.”
Having discovered the perfect product and knowing that it made sense to work long, hard hours for something you believe in, Cecily and her husband moved back to Cornwall where her family still had a property so that she could concentrate on building the business.
Cecily’s ‘doing it her way’ rather than overthinking is evidenced by her first sales being in the local Morrisons, followed by exporting to Dubai(!) and then the Asda local supermarkets before getting a listing with Ocado. The approach was simply focused on a need to sell as much ice-cream as possible given. I wondered if this had posed any difficulties in respect of brand positioning:
“I’m not sure that I would do it again if I could do it again. I think there is definitely a lot of merit being more strategic about where you go and what you target but, that said, at the time, it was that we needed to sell as much ice-cream as we possibly could as we needed to keep sales coming in.”
Although today’s launch in Tesco is the culmination of years of work to get to this point, and is still no guarantee of long term success given that failure rates in the food industry are very high (according to Inez Blackburn, University of Toronto 2017, 70-80% of new products launched in the grocery sector fail in the first year), Cecily’s belief in her product has driven her on. It would not, however, have been possible had it not been for the support she has had from family and friends in the form of capital investment, made a little easier by the SCIS and EIS schemes that were in place at the time. Under the SCIS scheme rules, Coconuts Organic benefitted from a 50% uplift in on the amount invested, so a total of a £40k investment via family and friends resulted in a £80k cash injection for Cecily. Not only did it make selling the idea of investing easier, the money raised was significantly increased. The EIS scheme, although not eliminating all risk, also provided some security for investors knowing they could get at least some money back:
“Thinking back, it was just me and a four-month old baby in the depths of Cornwall saying I’m going to make this coconut ice-cream and sell it in supermarkets all over the UK – will you give me some money for that? So the SCIS was really important for us.”
As anyone who’s started up a business will testify, and particularly those in manufacturing and food, it is cash hungry. As orders start to come in, the need to be able to fulfil the orders means more funding is required. It was this transition from ‘kitchen start up’ to a ‘commercial supplier’ that led Cecily to apply to appear on BBC’s Dragons’ Den – an experience that was both equally terrifying and exciting.
Cecily can also claim to be one of a very few people, if not the only person, that has entered the Den and not only had offers from two Dragons (Tej Lalvani and Jenny Campbell) but also managed to distract Peter Jones so much that he didn’t listen as he was too busy eating ice-cream! Going into the Den was a big risk, Cecily concedes, but she was in desperate need of funding. Luckily the gamble paid off and the halo effect from having been on the show has been great for business but it was more important for Cecily to secure an investment offer.
According to Cecily, the show is pretty much as you see it on the TV, although rather than the 5-10 minutes that is aired, Cecily actually spent around three hours with the Dragons making her pitch and discussing the figures (all without notes). There is, of course, some editing in that the final cut is not chronological in respect of timings as to which Dragon makes an offer or withdraws – that is for dramatic effect but otherwise it happens as you see it.
Filmed in April 2018, the episode aired in September that year. In the show, Cecily accepted Jenny Campbell’s offer of £75,000 for 30% of the business, but post-recording and prior to airing, the negotiations with Tesco were completed and they had agreed to stock Coconuts Organic. The deal changed the landscape completely; Cecily and Jenny agreed that it would not be possible for either of them to continue with the deal as originally presented.
Two months of work setting up crowdfunding via Seedrs followed for Cecily which she admits was one of the most stressful times in her journey thus far. Having a great idea and a great product is probably the easy part by comparison, especially if the product is truly scrumptious. Moving into learning about fundraising and the associated minefield that is involved with setting it up is not to be underestimated, especially when you are simultaneously trying to build the business and make the product to sell:
“It’s extremely stressful. In terms of my attention, it was 95% Seedrs and 5% everything else. It was emotionally and mentally very draining.”
One of things that Cecily values is having the opportunity to discuss the business with her brother whom she feels she has more in common with entrepreneurially than perhaps her father who she describes as “a typical civil servant – very much a thinker”. Her brother has his own business and acts more as a sounding board. His experience in banking and mergers and acquisitions means that he’s had a lot of exposure to businesses and business set ups which makes him Cecily’s obvious port of call when needed: “It’s a fantastic and invaluable thing to have a mentor that you can call up”.
She is also not afraid to take the direct approach herself if needed and admitted to calling up the founder of one of her main competitors to talk over issues. It was refreshing to learn that everyone in the food industry has been surprisingly open to helping a new business entrant in a very competitive market. Being a woman hasn’t to the best of Cecily’s knowledge been an impediment to getting in to the large supermarkets where it is notoriously difficult to make it on to the supplier list; being seen to have sufficient funding and the capacity to fulfil orders are more obvious barriers.
As the business starts to take off, there is no less stress for Cecily which is why having a supportive husband who is there to listen to the worries, talk through the bad days and celebrate the good days is what gets you through. Being able to step outside the office and be on the beach in a few minutes makes Cornwall the perfect base even if it doesn’t make attending networking events easy. Of course, there is the added bonus that as Chief Flavour Creator, there is always a reason to sample the products…. All for the good of the business of course!