It was back in 2009 that Crispin Busk came up with the idea of creating a posh pot noodle with all natural Asian flavours. Two years later and Crispin launched Kabuto and was ready to do battle with the instant noodle market that serves over 100 billion servings a year!
Crafted with the dedication of a Samurai, Kabuto Noodles have all the good bits of instant noodles but really improve on the bad. They’re still quick and easy to make by adding boiling water and there’s no need to keep them in the fridge, but Kabuto Noodles have no additives or preservatives, no sachets or plastic to throw into landfill; just great quality ingredients and tasty Asian-inspired recipes.
We met up with Crispin to find out how he managed to reinvent the pot noodle making them cool again.
TRS: You worked at Pieminster for 5 years before launching Kabuto Noodles, and prior to that you had a business selling vitamin supplements online, which didn’t work out; what did you learn from those experiences?
Working for pieminister was awesome, Tristan & John who run it are true entrepreneurs and there was a real attitude of making things happen, having a go at anything if it seemed like a good idea & getting stuck into all areas of the business. From them I learnt about the world of food, had a first run at getting products into retailers and how to drive a van (badly).
I set up a supplements business whilst at pieminister called GoHarder (still love the name!), it was done on a shoestring budget and with a minimum of work – the result was we didn’t sell a single thing! From this I learnt that you have to have a product that you believe in, and that you have to invest time & money to have a full package (ie website, brand etc…) that you feel proud of – it gives you the confidence to get out there and have a live business.
TRS: Did you secure funding to launch the business or did you fund the launch yourself?
I mainly funded the business myself, along with getting a loan from the bank – overall the total cost of living, setting up the business and having the first load of stock to sell was around £50k.
TRS: If you secured funding; where did you turn to? How much did you receive? What was the application process like?
We borrowed £24k from the bank – we found out that if you asked for less than £25k from 1 of the banks (beginning with R, ending with S and with a B in the middle) then the manager could make the decision themselves; if it went over £25k it went to a committee – we asked for £24k!
We did the rounds of the other banks but only 1 offered us the loan.
TRS: Is it true you only have three employees? How have you managed to grow the brand significantly with so few staff?
We do only have 3 employees – we’ve focussed on being scalable in terms of production by outsourcing to 3rd parties, and have carried this through to areas such as branding, PR, finance etc…The idea is that this allows us to work with really good people but without carrying the cost of them all yr round.
The food industry is also very concentrated in the UK – 4 retailers have around 70% of the market, so if you can get into the big multiples they can give you scale quite quickly.
TRS: Did you come up with the name and branding concept yourself?
No, we worked with an awesome agency to develop this. It is a collaborative process and for us was key to getting good initial take up – we didn’t have any marketing budget so our products had to look good on the shelf – I knew that it was something that you’d have to work
with really good people to develop.
TRS: How did you take your idea from your kitchen to being tested and manufactured commercially? What steps did you take? How did you find the right producers to help you manufacture and package Kabuto?
It was hard work & I don’t know what people did before the internet! – there’s a lot of talking to people & going down blind allies, but if you keep trying you’ll find the right suppliers. Most people are nice & if you ask them for help they’ll try and point you in the right direction.
TRS: How long did the whole process take from idea through to Kabuto hitting the shelves?
The idea came on August Bank Holiday 2009. I left my job at Pieminister in June 2010 and the first noodles hit the shelves in Jan 2011.
TRS: Do you have a business mentor or anyone that advises you?
Not really – have worked with a few people & it’s always good to talk, but most external advice has been from reading business books.
TRS: The pot noodle market is booming and there are many more ‘upmarket’ alternatives to pot noodle than there ever were before; why do you think the market has grown?
The instant noodle category has come of age during the recession – it’s quick, easy and relatively cheap. Asian food has also become much more mainstream in the last decade & eating on the go more common – instant noodles fit these wider trends.
TRS: You’re stocked in a number of well known retailers; how did you approach these stores? Was it easy to sell to them?
With some we phoned up head office and asked for the right person to talk to, others have got new supplier sections on their websites, and others you have to hunt the right person through LinkedIn – basically you have to have use your initiative and have a go!
When you do get to talk to them it’s important to remember they’re people too, be yourself and don’t try to act too businessy. You need to know your product really well and be realistic about whether you can sell to them – do you have barcodes, are your products safe, is your pricing realistic, can you promote – but as long as you’ve got these kinds of areas covered and as long as they like the product they might give it a go.
TRS: At the beginning, how were you able to compete for shelf space with bigger brands (such as Pot Noodle), who provide units by the millions, have giant ad campaigns and are able to discount considerably?
The retailers did give us space which was great, it was really important to be able to promote to get people to try them, but this is where the packaging & branding is really vital in getting the product off the shelf in the first place – after that the product has to be great to get people to come back again.
TRS: How did you raise the funds to meet the national distribution demands of these big retailers? Did you have working capital in place to bridge any gap between paying your manufacturer or suppliers and being paid by the supermarket?
In the early days it was really hard!!! – we were watching our cash almost daily and got really close to the bone. I think it’s really important not to bury your head in the sand on finance, it is one of the big reasons people go bust so you need to make friends with it and know what’s going on, if you can see you’re going to run out of cash you need to be realistic and work out how to deal with it.
TRS: Did you have your supply and distribution plan firmly in place before approaching these suppliers?
Yes, you need to have distribution and supply under control before approaching the retailers – you need to feel confident in your supply chain.
TRS: Did you do a lot of negotiating on the wholesale price?
Sort of – in the early days you don’t have much negotiating power, although it’ always worth asking for volumes at which discounts kick in. As you get bigger you can ask for discounts, but we try and work with our suppliers – they supported us in the early days, we don’t just want to jump around for the sake of a few pence.
TRS: Many suppliers require you to undertake advertising and marketing to promote the product to ensure it sells. Do you do a lot of advertising and marketing? What has been your strategy?
As a small business you can plead poverty (and it’s probably true!) – you can do your own sampling for example, and if they want you to take an ad or something you can either say you can’t afford it or work on a really reduced rate.
TRS: Do you plan all of your own marketing and PR in house or do you employ an agency?
Bit of both – but we do work with agencies when we think they can bring skill that we don’t have.
TRS: What has been your biggest challenge in launching and growing your brand, and how have you overcome it?
The biggest challenge is the first one of making a jump to setting up your own business – leaving the feeling of security of a salary. However once you jump there’s a kind of magic to it all, get stuck in and things happen for you!
TRS: What advice can you offer someone wanting to launch their own food product/brand?
Do lots of research, read books, go to trade shows, look round the supermarkets, take it as far as you can go before leaving your job, plan properly, but if it looks like it could be a goer, then go for it!
TRS: What do you think is the secret to your success?
Doing – it’s all very well to talk about stuff and have good ideas, but it’s all about making it happen!
TRS: What’s next for Kabuto?
Getting more people to try us!