Tuesday 20 February 2018

Full of beans and brimming with vitality

Two energetic businesswomen tell Sean Gallagher how their positive approach to healthy food led them to set up The Cool Bean Company

Sean Gallagher with Isolde Johnson and Sarah O’Connor from The Cool Bean Company. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Isolde Johnson and Sarah O’Connor from The Cool Bean Company. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Working for yourself has many attractions. You get to be your own boss; you decide how hard you work, what risks you are willing to take and how you want to spend your time.

However, most people soon come to realise that starting and growing a business from scratch is challenging. From coming up with an initial idea, to winning your first customers, to building a brand and the right team and generating enough profit to sustain the business, it can all seem terribly daunting.

So why then, do so many people want to start their own businesses? This week's entrepreneurs give us a real insight into their reasons - it's because they love what they do, believe in what they do and are passionate about making a difference in the world.

Sarah O'Connor and Isolde Johnson first met while working with global accounting firm Ernst and Young. Both shared a love of healthy food. However, the pressure of their busy careers often left them struggling to find food that was both nutritious and convenient. To address this gap in the market, both left their jobs to launch their own range of healthy convenient foods - Cool Beans. Their company, The Cool Bean Company, set up in 2014, now employs four staff and this year will see its turnover exceed the €1.1m mark.

"We both worked really long hours and at the end of a hard day we yearned for something that was both healthy and tasty but often couldn't find much that hit the spot," explains Isolde. "More often than not, we reached for cereals or takeaways, which gave us very little useful fuel for our bodies for the next day in work," she adds.

Both women are dynamic and chatty. As they share their story, they become increasingly excited and animated.

Their energy becomes contagious and their enthusiasm infectious. I quickly learn too, that behind these bubbly personalities are two very experienced and savvy businesswomen.

"Research shows that bad diets are linked to rising cancer and obesity levels. We also discovered an emerging trend towards healthier eating which led us to believe that there had to be a gap in the market to provide products that were both healthy and convenient," explains Sarah.

"We LOVE beans," interjects Isolde enthusiastically. "We noticed that more and more brunch places were offering gourmet beans on toast type dishes so we began experimenting with different recipes and flavours - which ultimately led to us creating Cool Beans," she adds.

So far the pair have developed three different flavours; tomato, smoky flavour and chilli, all of which are currently available in over 150 Supervalu stores across Ireland.

"Our beans are found in the chilled food section next to the soups and ready meals. Because they can be heated in the microwave and eaten straight out of the pot, they are ideal as a quick snack by themselves. Others love to add them to things like meat dishes, over pasta, or as a base for spaghetti bolognaise or chilli con carne," explains Sarah, in full marketing flow. "We can't give away too much… but we are about to expand into the food service sector and will also be listed shortly in a number of other large retail chains and convenience stores across Ireland," she adds.

Recently launched in the UK, they are now also listed in more than 130 Waitrose outlets.

"Many are in the greater London area," explains Isolde. "But we are also in stores in north Scotland, southern England, even Wales. It's all very exciting," she chuckles.

The pair's target market includes young professionals looking for convenient and tasty meals in a hurry, families and busy parents looking for quick after-school snacks and healthy meal solutions for their children, health-conscious consumers and those with specific dietary requirements, such as vegetarians and coeliacs.

"We use high quality cannellini beans and our sauces are all homemade," insists Sarah. "There are no additives or preservatives and everything is gluten free, dairy free and has no refined sugar. We use chopped whole tomatoes, chopped garlic and chopped onions -and where a touch of sweetness is required, we use a small amount of honey which makes our products suitable for diabetics."

"They're also full of protein and fibre," says Isolde, jumping in. "They help keep you fuller for longer, are good for your digestive system and great for people trying to lose weight," she adds enthusiastically.

Isolde Johnson grew up in Tipperary. Her parents were both self-employed and as a teenager she and her siblings used to take it in turns to cook for the whole family. She credits the experience with giving her a love of cooking and a taste for wholesome food.

During Transition Year, she was involved in running mini-companies where she and her friends would buy sandwiches from their local deli and resell them - at a profit - to classmates.

She did a degree in business at Trinity and then interned with Ernst and Young on the firm's Entrepreneur of the Year awards programme before joining Jacob Fruitfield. When that company was later sold to Valeo Foods, she joined The Company of Food - an investment and food business accelerator fund set up by Jacob Fruitfield's previous owner, Michael Carey.

There she assessed business plans and researched potential food-based start-ups - an experience that would later benefit her when she left in 2014 to set up The Cool Bean Company.

Sarah O'Connor grew up in Cork. After a degree in commerce in UCC, she too joined Ernst & Young - and it was there that the pair first met. Sarah stayed with the firm and became responsible for running their Entrepreneur of the Year awards programme. There, she got the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the country's most successful business founders. In 2015 she left to join The Cool Bean Company.

"We wanted to do with beans what Cully and Scully had done in soup," explains Sarah. "Just as they had created a healthier alternative to traditional tinned and packet soups, we wanted to do something similar - only for beans," she adds. "Because we were offering something new to the market, we decided that we needed to test the product with consumers first," explains Isolde. "So we invested in a mobile catering unit and went to farmers' markets and festivals all over the country. The response was phenomenal," she adds.

The pair decided to outsource manufacturing which allowed them focus their energies on product development and marketing. At the same time, they got accepted onto the Food Academy Start programme - a joint initiative between Supervalu, the Local Enterprise Office and Bord Bia. This provided them with the opportunity to get their products onto the shelves of a small number of stores and led to them to getting listed, nationally, the following year.

"We also appeared on the Late Late Show Enterprise slot and the Supervalu Food Academy national TV ad campaign, all of which really helped get our products known," explains Isolde.

Like most start-ups, raising seed funding proved challenging. They pooled whatever savings they had and secured a small bank loan and some grant support from their local enterprise office. Isolde was the first to quit her job to work full-time in the company while Sarah worked on for another year to help fund the business.

"I was on a lesser salary then Sarah at the time so it made sense," explains Isolde. "We were like a couple having a baby - someone was going to have to look after it full-time," she laughs.

I ask what the best have been bits so far?

Isolde still remembers the very first delivery she made to a store in Killester. She had just packed her products on the shelves when a woman came up. Standing back observing, she watched as the woman picked up the container of beans, studied it for a moment and then dropped in neatly into her shopping basket.

"I got so excited that I ran straight out the door and rang Sarah to tell her the news and the two of us started to cry with joy," admits Isolde.

Looking to the future, the pair want to continue to grow the business in Ireland and the UK, as well as breaking into other European markets. They are also creating additional product ranges other than beans, which will be sold under the Cool Food brand.

The pair are also planning a social enterprise arm, which will see them visit schools to educate young people about the importance of exercise and a healthy diet. As I wish them well for the future and leave, I find myself a fan of Cool Beans. If anyone ever wanted to see what passion for your work looks like, or wanted to see the joy that comes from starting your own company, all they need to do is look up these two young women.

I would be confident in predicting that these two entrepreneurs will, one day, get to be finalists or even winners, in the same Ernst and Young entrepreneur programme they both once worked in.

For further information: www.coolbeans.ie

Sarah & Isolde's advice for businesses

1 Positivity works

"The only thing in life which we can control is our attitude. So choose to be positive. You get back what you put into life and your work. You also get back what you send out. And sending out positive vibes to the world usually results in getting more positive outcomes."

2 Stay calm

"When faced with a problem, take a breath and remain calm. If you approach a problem in a stressed state, you're less likely to find a positive solution. Instead, step back. Look at the situation from another angle and seek to find a more positive solution."

3 Share the journey if you can

"If you can find the right co-founder to set up with, then do that. Starting a business is challenging and having someone you can trust to bounce ideas off and who has your back is so important. Just make sure to have a shareholders' agreement in place from day one!"

Sunday Indo Business

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