Success can sometimes be hit and miss
John Stapleton was a founder-member of the New Covent Garden Soup Company in 1987, pioneering the fresh soup category in the UK. He also co-founded specialist toddler foods Little Dish in 2005. He tells Smith & Williamson’s Hall of Fame about his journey.
Fresh soup is now ubiquitous on supermarket shelves, but in the 1980s, it was a radical idea. For John Stapleton, co-founder of the New Covent Garden Soup Company, people were ‘queuing round the block’ to tell him it couldn’t be done, or if he did, he’d leave his customers with food poisoning! But he thought tomato soup should taste of tomatoes.
With hindsight, he had the perfect training ground for building a fresh soup company, though at the time it felt like accident rather than design. He was born in Ireland on a farm, surrounded by food from an early age. “It meant that I was conscious of where food comes from.” At university he studied industrial microbiology, but was also interested in track and field, (representing Ireland at one point). It meant he cared about – and understood - food and nutrition, long before it because fashionable.
He did a postgraduate degree in food science at Reading but grew tired of white coats and knew he didn’t want to be a quality control inspector. He wanted a more creative way to blend his hobby and his career.
The answer came when he met Andrew Palmer through mutual friends, who told him about his idea for fresh soup: “I met him in a pub and we were kicked out at closing time having talked and talked. That was how New Covent Garden Soup Company started. We spent a lot of time building the technology and fending off those people who would say that no-one needs fresh soup. We raised money and we did it ourselves.”
"We wanted a soup that tasted of fresh ingredients. A can has an 18-month shelf life. To make that happen, someone needs to cook the living daylights out of it. It damages the nutritional content and flavour profile. Tomato soup needs lots of sugar to make it taste the way it does. It may taste great, but it doesn’t taste of tomatoes. We figured there would be enough people who wanted a tomato soup that tasted of fresh tomatoes.”
It was ambitious. Neither of them had a lot of experience and John admits that he wasn’t altogether prepared for the onslaught that followed. In the early days, the problem was too much success rather than too little: they got an early lucky break when Waitrose said it would support the idea, but then scrambled to meet demand: “87-89 is still a bit of a blur,” he admits.
Initially, they had no competition. They had created a whole new concept and had the market to themselves. Rivals appeared but couldn’t replicate their methods. Today, fresh soup has become the norm, but it was New Covent Garden Soup Company that blazed the trail.
John says he made ‘so many’ mistakes along the way. They tried to set up in the States, initially making the soup in Harlesden and flying it over on Virgin Atlantic to New York and San Francisco to test it on local consumers. “Success is a lousy teacher. It was a useful way to understand the market. It didn’t work, but it took us four to five years to prove it didn’t work.”
Success can sometimes be hit and miss. “There were lots of decisions we made at New Covent Garden Soup Company which, with hindsight, might either have been a stroke of genius or just a bit of luck. With the failed business in California, it was more obvious what went wrong. We were on a very steep learning curve.” His top skill, he says, may have been having the persistence to bounce back.
Following the set-back in the States, John was keen to prove he could do it again. He set up Little Dish in 2005, finally selling successfully in 2017. More recently, he co-founded Mission Ventures, an accelerator for early-stage businesses. The idea, he says, is to help fledging businesses avoid some of the mistakes he made along the way and also to benefit from the successes.
One of his tips? Knowing when to get out of the way: "When entrepreneurs set up a business, it is usually because they have come across something that is missing in their own lives and are saying ‘I’m fed up that this doesn’t exist. Let’s make it myself.’ The chances are there are loads of people who are just as frustrated that their product doesn’t exist.
“There are lots of lonely early days on your own but then you’ve got to a stage where you have got a product, brand, customers and are thinking ‘this might go somewhere’. You’ve raised money. You think you know all you need to know. What I’ve realised is that often, at a very deliberate point, you have to get out of the way. You can’t continue to always do everything well enough. After this point you become the limiting link for your business. You have to recruit a team of people who are better than you at the various disciplines and you need to start doing less. You need to become more of a delegator, director and motivator. If you’ve employed self-starters, they will self-start – but not necessarily in the direction the business needs them to. You need to provide that direction. Move your job, move your role, bring in different skillsets. Get out of the way of your company’s growth.”
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