From the top · 23 July 2015

Metcalfe’s Food Company’s Robert Jakobi on business building: “You either have what it takes or you don’t”

L-R: Robert Jakobi with Julian Metcalfe

Having pestered Pret a Manger founder Julian Metcalfe for months trying to get him to buy his product, Robert Jakobi is well-placed to share advice on getting to the top and disrupting to stay there. He shared his tips with Business Advice.

Jacobi had no experience in the food sector when he approached Metcalfe, but had a feeling that the serial entrepreneur would like the look of the chocolate-covered edamame beans he’d discovered in the US.

Metcalfe had set up his eponymous food venture in 2008 to sell snacks to Pret a Manger and sushi venture Itsu. Seeing Jackobi’s enthusiasm for the space, and eye for a good product, Metcalfe gave him the reigns in 2010.

The business now produces a range of snacks, from flavoured popcorn to crispy seaweed thins. Innovation has been key to Metcalfe’s staying ahead of the market and beating off competition, a theme Jakobi was keen to touch on during our discussion.

“If there is a product that we like, something we want to launch, we follow a strict process – idea though to launch. We follow that with all products,” he explained.

“We look at market data to make sure the product is warranted, ensure there is demand. However, in a lot of cases we’re launching new products that don’t exist – so there’s no current market. In those cases we take risk, so you have to be confident with what you have. Packaging must be good, taste good, marketed well – and then pushed by sales team.”

Key to survival in the early day’s of a company’s lifetime is the “dynamic team” built around you, he added. The challenge, however, is finding those great people who share your ethos and approach to business, Jakobi said.

Next up as an issue was cash flow management, for which he recommended building up a good relationship with your bank – so it is acutely aware of what your are doing. “One of the challenges in our industry is getting money on time, particularly from big supermarkets. We deal with suppliers who expect payment on 30 days terms, and then suppliers with 45-60 day terms,” he explained.

“I now have a very good internal credit controller, making sure invoices are paid on time. This makes sure we aren’t waiting for payment.”

Filling these kind of positions with skilled personnel seems to be an important factor for Jakobi. He was firm in his assertion that “you either have what it takes or you don’t” when it comes to creating and growing a business. “A lot of people will want to have mentors, so people start and try networking. But I’m not sure I believe in that,” he said.

“Having training or mentoring is good for a particular skill – if you’re not strong in finance or supply chain. But you need to be driven and be a leader, very ambitious and driven. You’re not going to be able to teach that.”

He went on to say that you can surround yourself with people who can teach skill, but you can’t change character – and a successful entrepreneur will be defined by character.

This “character” is tested on a daily basis by the fragile nature of Metcalfe’s products. Having been copied by a number of people, the problem with the food industry comes from the fact that there are few barriers to entry and businesses like his can’t trademark a product.

“The danger is that big food companies will see what you’re doing and out do you – pushing you out of the market. It is key to be first to market and then push from day one,” he said.

“We reckon that we have a year or year and a half before someone bigger could come in and launch a similar product. So in that period we have to push hard, establishing a presence to make yourself heard.”

Pushing hard and being persistent seems to be a distinct trait of Jakobi. He admitted that operating in the space he does often means he isn’t always in control of the entire period between coming up with an idea for a product and getting it into the hands of a customer. “You could have a great product and sales team, but no space on shelves as retailers have other products they want to sell,” he added.

However, early-stage business builders can take a leaf out of his book by not being afraid to create something that consumers don’t even know they want yet. Innovative companies are ones which shape popular culture and trends, rather than allowing others to do that and then simply replicating. And, while Jakobi has a seriously good sounding board in Metcalfe to bounce ideas off, his suggestion of hiring the right people to plug the right skill gaps rings true in a world when entrepreneurs often try and do too much themselves.

Focus on directing from the front, he urged, using those natural-born leadership skills that separates those that have what it takes from those that simply do not.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Hunter Ruthven was previously editor of Business Advice. He was also the editor of Real Business, the UK's most-read website for entrepreneurs and business leaders at the helm of growing SMEs.

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