'We both put the houses up as collateral' – Duo took risk to kick off nutrition bar firm
“We both put the houses up as collateral, that’s how committed we were to this from the off."
This was the level of risk that Niall McGrath and Tom Gannon took to ensure that their dream for the massively popular nutrition bar company Fulfil became a reality.
The two initially stayed in their jobs for the first six months of their venture and this income, along with using their houses as collateral, got Fulfil to first production run, after which they got an investor in.
Since then, the business has been completely self-funded and grown faster than they could ever have imagined.
But just where did the idea come from and how did they bring their idea to reality?
Before establishing Fulfil the duo were working together at a food and drink company. Niall was involved in marketing, while Tom worked in sales, and with their jobs they were travelling to the US and looking at trends around healthy eating and fitness.
"We had seen how the trend was going and thought we could do better than this," Niall says.
In addition, Tom had changed his diet and was eating protein bars to snack on, but he admits that they never tasted that great.
Curiosity got the better of Niall, who one day tried one of the protein bars that Tom was eating. Such was his dislike of the way the bar tasted that he felt he could do better himself.
And then Nickelodeon intervened
Watching cartoons on Nickelodeon one day with his children, Niall saw an advertisement for a chocolate bar making kit, bought it, and using it added protein powder to the bar he was making, and that is where their first bar came about.
Easy right? Wrong.
Niall says efforts did not taste particularly good, and himself and Tom then brought in experts including retired athletic David Gillick to work on the bars.
In total they spent about 18 months working on them before they felt the product was right.
That was then, and today the duo have what they describe as an 'open source' brand where consumers influence the flavours that they bring to the market on social media.
The last seven bars have all come from flavour labs and social media.
As a market research tool social media is just incredible they say.
"We have 50,000 likes on Facebook, 34,000 on Instagram, all with really high engagement. Every single market that we go into we are investing in social media," they say.
Fulfil now operates in 16 core markets including Ireland and the UK, and has gone from being just the two of them to now employing 14 across areas such as finance, logistics, and supply chain.
"Our view is why can’t a snack be good for you and taste better, in addition we are trying to give insights into stores – our biggest consumer good is abstainers, we are not stealing from confectionery... we are giving them something that is better for them. We are not saying have the bar instead of a meal, we are saying food first but if you want to snack have the bar," Tom says.
Niall describes their rapid success – last year they sold just under 13 million bars in Ireland - as "amazing" while Tom is quick to acknowledge the support that they received from their local Chamber of Commerce.
"A lot of guys in the Chamber of Commerce have been very good to us, but we have not put ourselves out there, we are happy to let the brand do the talking," Tom says.
The two also talk about scaling the business and making sure that this was done correctly, for Fulfil it meant not cutting corners.
"The bigger the business gets, you can see your see how far your skill set can get you, you want to put your energies into what you are really good at and that is why we are good at hiring top quality people…we are not cutting any corners in hiring the best people," Tom says.
While Niall adds that they have gone out of their way to try and get the right people and the right culture in the business.
In terms of expansion plans, the company is trying now to push into the Australia market through key retailers there including Woolworths and Coles, and they are also moving into the Middle East.
While a number of new bar flavours have come onto the market, the duo are keen to emphasise that the message – 20g of protein, a full multivitamin and low in sugar – has remained the same.
When asked what their advice to businesses starting out would be, the duo have four key pieces of advice;
1. Do the research and spend the money making sure that your product or service meets regulations in the various markets that you are going into, has every approval to be sold in the country, in Norway for example you have dairy and nut taxes – things that affect the local economy.
2. Brand positioning – be super clear on where your brand is, what it stands for, where it is going, by having that clarity it is one of the best things to do.
3. Within five to six months have a clear and detailed plan of where you are going over the next three years and make sure that you employ the right resources to get you where you want to go.
By having the infrastructure and the plan in place you could be 12 months ahead of where you are.
4. Go to the exhibitions and trade shows.
In this respect the two say that they received no help from the Irish semi-State Bord Bia as Bord Bia want to help Irish manufacturers only.
Niall says that he finds it disappointing that the company employs all these people and pay all these taxes and they don’t get anything back, "but we are just ploughing on, it's not a big deal."
On the issue of where they locate their manufacturing, Niall says that they would love to do their manufacturing in Ireland but there is no one here that has the machines and capabilities at the moment to do it.
On Thursday Fulfil opened their first café on Westmoreland street in Dublin.
The Fulfil café serves ice-cream, crepes, and smoothies along with the fulfil nutrition bars. The aim is that there will be a Fulfil café in every country that the product is being sold in and that they will eventually operate as a franchise…watch this space!