By Catherine Duggan I met Queen Bean Sarah O’Connor, co-founder of The Cool Bean Company, last month at Enterprise Ireland’s International Businesswomen’s Conference. The idea for creating the company happened when both Sarah and her co-founder Isolde Johnson were working long hours and were not eating healthily. They were gaining weight and were feeling fed up. They wanted food that was healthy, quick, tasty and convenient. The humble bean ticked all of those boxes and The Cool Bean Company was born.
I asked her about who supported them along the way, the benefits of working with a co-founder, tips, reflections, future plans and what attending an event like this meant to her.
Since setting up The Cool Bean Company (which is now The Cool Food Company), you’ve become very successful in building your venture.
— Cool Bean Company (@CoolBeanCompany) September 11, 2016
What are the supports and who are the people who have helped you most along the way?
Eleanor McEvoy, CEO of Budget Energy Ltd, has been a major mentor to use from the very beginning. My previous role was working in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Programme (EOY). I got to know a lot of Irish entrepreneurs through that programme. That’s where I met Isolde. We were both working as interns. We were colleagues before we were friends. Then I was a bridesmaid at her wedding and the friendship grew from there.
Isolde left EOY and went back to college. Then she joined Michael Carey in Jacob Fruitfield which was bought over by Valeo. She also worked with him in his food investment company, The Company of Food. He is currently the chairman of Bord Bia. Isolde gained a lot of experience in the food business and made many contacts. While she was building up her network, I was working on business development for smaller and medium size food companies. Members of the EOY Alumni Advisory Board have given us advice, support and some business funding also.
You make your own luck. We were really lucky that we were in that environment where we had access to people, but we also did the hard work. That’s what people saw. It was about building relationships and working with them.
You and Isolde are co-founders, what different skills and strengths do you bring to the company?
While I was working in EOY the biggest challenge for entrepreneurs that I found was that it lonely at the top. Often they would get burnt out, disheartened and sometimes have personal issues. They didn’t have a support network and were burdening themselves with the problems of the business. It’s a really tough place to be. Myself and Isolde say it all the time:
Maybe I could do this without you, but I wouldn’t want to!
We can juggle and split up business commitments between us. This helps to keep the business running. If one of us is sick, or on holidays, we know that things are still being done and that someone is minding the shop. It all comes down to good communication skills. We probably communicate too much. We’re very open with each other about everything. We call each other out on issues, so nothing festers.
You can’t hold a grudge. We both make a mistake. You just have to get over it, say it, acknowledge it and then move on. I think this happens with all co-founders. You have to understand that you’re both going through a tough journey and it’s hard. You support each other. We both bring value to the table and that needs to be recognised.
— Cool Bean Company (@CoolBeanCompany) September 11, 2016
Have you some tips that you think would help other start-up companies?
Talk to customers and research your market. Myself and Isolde brought a food truck. We went to the festivals. We did the markets to see if people would actually buy our products before we quit our jobs, or we went for a big loan. After getting our customer feedback we changed our recipes, our flavour profiles and we developed our pot size. If no-one is going to buy your product, why would you waste all your time and money getting it launched?
Sarah Fail fast and as cheap as you can!
In hindsight would you have done anything differently and what would that be?
When you’re starting out it’s worth having a space to go to so that you can work together and communicate. Isolde was working from home a lot longer than I was. She found it tough towards the end. It’s hard being in your home rather than in your workplace.
I think we should have moved into premises earlier. It allows you to really focus your team. I think working freelance and working from home is a lot easier after you’ve established a base. It’s somewhere where people can come to, be inspired, set goals, and have a target. Then they can go and work from anywhere. We are quite flexible with our guys, they can work from home one day, or they can travel at the weekend and then work from home on Friday. You have to give that type of flexibility in a modern day business because that’s what people value. Having that physical space is really important to us because we have a physical product so we can bring people together and try out new things.
You are changing your name from The Cool Bean Company to The Cool Food Company, can you tell me a little more about that?
Yes, Cool Beans is our product range and we have three different products in that range. These are our little 300 gramme pots. We initially had called the company and the brand The Cool Bean Company. Now we are launching new products like baked potatoes. We are looking at supplying and developing into the food service area with companies like “StrongRooots”. They sell sweet potato fries, we supply them with big tubs of our product and they sell it as toppings on their food at festivals. It’s going really well.
We decided that as we are evolving we would move onto The Cool Food Company. Cool Beans is our signature brand and range. Underneath that we will be adding to the Cool Beans range with new products and extensions. Doing this allows us to launch other products. In the future, we will develop new products which are currently “Top Secret”. However, these new products will always be in health and convenience spaces. They are products that you can throw in your bag, and that help to make peoples’ lives easier and healthier.
What are your future plans?
We are currently in over 500 stores in Ireland, but that’s a drop n the ocean to where it could be. We’ve had queries from across Europe and the Middle East, so we need to look at the logistics of supplying these markets.
The food service business is massive because there aren’t that many companies who have the capacity to make healthy food offerings. We see a big growth area for us in supplying shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels, and also hospitals and schools. Feedback from our current customers says that not only do our products taste great they also happen to be gluten-free, sugar-free and dairy-free. Then it’s all about branding, marketing, distribution and getting that balance right.
How do events like this one help you to grow and develop?
It’s a huge honour to be asked. It’s just nice to be among such great speakers. There’s so much to learn. I was sitting next to Madi Sharma, who was the keynote speaker and she said, “Let’s have coffee.” She gave me advice on lots of different things. She got helped early on when she set up her business, so she wants to pay it forward and is happy to do so.
Being able to network is also important. We pitched at an event last January and a lady came up to us afterwards and said, ”Let’s connect.” She became a mentor and has supported us so much and brought us to many other events.
Queen Beans Sara O’Connor and Isolde Johnson have a bright future ahead of them with The Cool Food Company. They came from a place where they both recognised that they wanted to be more happy and healthy. Luckily for them and for us they created a magic formula of tasty, healthy and convenient beany food which is becoming more and more popular and is available throughout Ireland and in other markets.