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Entrepreneur Online this week is Carolyn Creswell, founder of Carmen’s Fine Foods, which she started at the tender age of 18 by buying the business she worked for at the time. Carolyn is happy to share her experiences and advice, so read her story and ema

Carolyn Creswell, 33, founder of muesli company Carmen’s Fine Foods is this week’s Entrepreneur Online. She is happy to share her knowledge and expertise, so if you have questions for her, email them through to us at [email protected] and we’ll post her responses on this page (below).

Carolyn bought herself a job when she was just 18. She was working part time making muesli, heard she was going to be laid off and bought the business herself for $1000.

Two years later she bought out her partner and began putting her muesli and muesli bars into supermarkets and delis. Now the company has revenue of more than $10 million and exports to 15 countries.

 

Amanda Gome: Entrepreneurs say the first year of business is the worst. Was that true for you?

Carolyn: The first few years were very hard but it seems there is this extraordinary light at the end of the tunnel when you hit five years and everything just seems to come together. I see this same timeline in other small businesses time and time again.

What were the worst and best moments of those early years?

The worst moments were being quite poor and having to work several jobs on top of the business to make ends meet. And the best were moving into our own little premises.

What was the inspiration for the innovations that helped you survive the first few years?

I think it was a gutsy determination not to fail and just thinking outside the square to do things differently to the way that the big players were doing them.

How are you more flexible than your competitors?

We are very quick to listen to what our customers are saying, and react. For example, we change our packaging several times a year, even if it is just in small ways, to reflect what our customer feedback is telling us.

I am sure you have heard of the saying, that there is only one thing worse than dealing with Coles and Woolworths and that is not dealing with Coles and Woolworths. Is this true?

Actually, the supermarkets are not that bad! They can be fantastic when you learn how they operate and what their expectations are of you. We have been so lucky that they gave us a chance and they have stuck by us.

Woolworths deleted your range several years ago. Were you furious and how did you get the relationship back on track?

I was very hurt, as the product had not been given very long to perform. However, we just started presenting again and within two years the same buyer listed it all in again and it is selling really well now.

House brands in supermarkets are growing very fast. Do you think the supermarket brand will dominate, eventually forcing brands like yours to be highly niche and find different outlets?

We are lucky that the supermarkets generally see house brands as one part of the overall strategy, which includes a premium offer. We have become that premium offer in our categories, so this strategy has actually helped our sales!

How else is your industry changing?

We have recently been listed in the UK and they are a bit ahead of Australian supermarkets with their demands ,so that has been a steep learning curve as one mistake can be terribly expensive, but we are learning quickly.

What are the new food trends emerging? Can you see opportunities for other entrepreneurs?

The main trend is low GI food as the onset of adult diabetes increases and generally people are getting more concerned about eating healthy food. Yes, there will be more opportunities for people in this area.

As you have grown, what was the most difficult point in your trajectory? What strategy did you employ?

I think realising that the business is only as good as the leadership that I can bring, so to make sure I am always learning and challenging myself.

What has been your stroke of brilliance?

To take a recipe from a kitchen and be able to produce it in a mass way without losing any of its integrity. This is actually a lot harder than you would imagine.

What are your core values/principles that you apply in your business?

I have the same values in my personal life as I do in my work life, which sometimes is a bit rare these days. Compassion, honesty and a sense of fun!

How do you get competitive intelligence so you know what is going on in your industry?

We buy all the industry data so we can compare how we are tracking over the last month, quarter and annually, and we compared this to how the category is performing. In the UK, their data actually comes through daily.

You have kept doubling revenue year after year and your revenue is now $10 million. What was your perfect business size (revenue or employee size) and why?

I love the size of our business now as we have enough people to be able to segregate the jobs rather than a need to job-share. However, we are actively pursuing more growth so I look forward to seeing how the next size “feels”.

How long have you witnessed the increasing consolidation of your industry and what is your best tip for dealing with it?

We have seen a lot of consolidation over the past five years as smaller companies have been bought out by bigger players. Sometimes this has worked and other times these brands have lost their “soul” and have been deleted with the recent reduction of brands due to private label.

I believe if the strategic fit is good this can be positive, but perhaps bringing more products under one brand works better than having a handful of smaller, less-known brands. We are not looking at any form of consolation, so it is not something we are having to deal with overselves at this stage.

What is your best marketing/PR tip?

To run a “thankyou” program, to thank all of the word-of-mouth people who are your PR army out in the real world. There is nothing like being appreciated, particularly if you are not expecting it.

What would staff say your worst flaw as a leader is? How do you manage it?

I asked this question in our latest round of reviews and it was that I am sometimes very busy and if people want to sit with me and go through their issues they need to keep trying to grab me. I now try and make sure I can schedule a proper time with them and not let this happen, but it is a challenge.

Cashflow in your industry must be complex. What figures can’t you live without and how often do you get them?

We are lucky that we are a cash-positive business and don’t have many problems with cash flow. I used to in the early days and have learned that it is terrible to have to lose sleep about money, so I generally try and make sure we live well within our means.

However, I look daily at the monthly sales figures and I like to watch the creditors and debtors amounts to keep a track of them. The more we are owed and the less we owe, all the better!

Time management! What is your best tip for saving time?

Focus on what you want to achieve today and write a list. Anyone who knows me, knows about my famous diary. If it goes in my diary, it gets done. I think there is some well known saying that is when you want to get something done, ask a busy person.

You have to be confident in business. But do you see times when confidence leans towards blind self-belief?

Absolutely. I have self-belief but I hope I know the boundaries and make sure the risks I take are calculated. I ask lots of people’s opinions of decisions I am going to make, and I always aim to have a healthy dose of realism, and being a mother to two young children gives you some perspective as well.

 

If you would like Carolyn’s help and advice, email your own questions for Entrepreneur Online to [email protected].

 

Luise asks: What made your company catapult from a tiny small business into where you were making $5 million and now $10 million. Was it key events or just steady growth? And if it was key events, do you feel it was luck, purpose or both that got you there?

 

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