How I Started a Successful
Business Selling Healthy Snack Bars
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! I’m Sophie Lipthorpe and in 2018, I founded a company called The Unrefined Bakery, selling healthy snack bars. We have reinvented some of the UK’s most loved sweet treats to provide far more nutritional value, with absolutely no loss of their delicious taste.
Our snack bars are perfect for people with allergies and intolerances because they are vegan, gluten free and low fodmap.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
Before starting my healthy snack bars business, I worked in finance for seven years. I had been interested in nutrition and healthy eating for a few years at this point. I was amazed by how changing my eating habits influenced how I felt physically and mentally. Cutting out refined sugar was the most important change I made.
Unlike many entrepreneurs who move away from the corporate sphere, I liked my job! However, I was starting to feel like something was missing. Looking back, it was a ‘quarter-life’ crisis. I decided to leave my job for a career break and went to try lots of different roles. Things that were completely out of my comfort zone.
I freelanced for a sports events company, worked in a festival pop-up and I even did a bit of waitressing! At 28, I felt it was embarrassing that I’d never waitressed. It was something that I thought I should do at some point in my life! After that, I started selling healthier sweet treats at numerous markets in London. This was when The Unrefined Bakery was born.
The idea had come from the workplace cake culture. Every day in my office there was a fresh onslaught of unhealthy treats to celebrate someone’s birthday or engagement. I would often go out and buy an energy ball or similar healthy snack bars to eat instead, just to keep the ‘FOMO’ at bay.
I was grateful that there had been a boom in healthy snacks. However, I felt they were all new and innovative and/or made with dates and coconut oil. All I wanted, was to have a healthier, more nutritious version of what my colleagues were eating. The M&S sharing tubs were their favourites. I began to come up with recipes for traditional treats that were vegan, oat-based (instead of flour), lower in saturated fat and of course without refined sugar.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
So many! Firstly, everything took so much longer than I had expected it to. I set up my business in May 2018 and genuinely thought I would have a product by September and be stocked in WholeFoods by Christmas!
In reality, it took until October 2019 to launch our first snack bar. This was due to a combination of finalising the recipes, finding a manufacturer and designing and producing appropriate packaging.
The recipe was a particular challenge. I soon discovered that taste and structure rarely went hand in hand. It took just a few months to get my recipes perfect for my London market stalls and they tasted delicious. But transporting homemade flapjacks and ‘rocky roads’ five miles down the road was very different to distributing pre-packaged snack bars nationwide.
It took a further 10 months from the first trial with our manufacturer to get the recipe good enough to the point that it tasted just as delicious, but would also travel well and withstand everything that came with scaling up production.
Who is your target market?
Our target market is anyone desiring a more nutritious version of the staple treats they’ve enjoyed for years. Our customers span all ages, locations and lifestyles but we appeal predominantly to health-conscious millennials. The majority of our recent customers however are people who don’t fit into any of these categories. They simply buy our snack bars as a result of their delicious taste!
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
We use a combination of paid Instagram promotions and Google/Facebook adverts. We haven’t found Facebook adverts particularly fruitful, but do understand that our target market has moved away from Facebook to Instagram in recent years.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
We have a mailing list which we have found our most loyal customers will always sign up to. In our frequent and regular emails, we offer generous and exclusive discounts. This is to give something back to our customers who have repeatedly supported us. We also provide discount codes with long redemption periods, so if a customer doesn’t want to buy in a flash sale they can wait until a more convenient time.
I’ve always made the effort to reply as quickly as possible to anyone who e-mails or messages me with questions, even if this means interrupting my Sunday morning coffee! Responding promptly has helped us to maintain strong relationships with our customers.
I have found that advertising all of the nutritional and health benefits of our bars at markets/pop-ups can go one of two ways. If people are particularly interested in eating and living better then they flock over. If they are not interested then these benefits can put them off (often assuming the product won’t taste as nice). So when I attend show events, I always make sure to offer several plates of free samples. I have found that once people try, they often buy and even those who initially had low expectations don’t often say no to a freebie!
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
It’s just me currently so there is no particular culture, but for myself, I just like to put my heart and soul into my snack bars and work non-stop to ensure the best outcome for the customer!
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
For our bookkeeping, we use QuickBooks. I use Google Analytics to track conversion rates and bounce rates for our online store. I’ve found this to be a really valuable tool to track how effective various marketing methods are – for example, Instagram influencers posting about gifted products etc.
It’s also great to see where our potential customer base is located so that we can more accurately target our advertising. I would strongly recommend this for any company selling products online.
We’ve just started using JournoLink for our PR, which gives you access to lots of opportunities for brand exposure at a fraction of the cost some PR agencies will charge (which is often completely unaffordable for small start-ups).
We use IG to hedge against our exchange rate risk as lots of our raw costs are heavily dependent on currency movements.
For our website platform, we use Wix, which has lots of great template options to get you started. Whilst you can run into problems if you want your website to have specific functionality, in general, everything you could want to set up an e-commerce shop is right there already set up for you! Wix also has a very prompt and efficient customer service team.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
That you can learn to do yourself a lot of the things that people will contact you asking you to pay them to do. I spent a small fortune on graphic designers, in the beginning, only to be consistently uninspired by the results. So I downloaded Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop (for ~£20 a month), taught myself how to use them via YouTube videos and designed my packaging myself. There are lots of resources available online to teach yourself about Digital Marketing, Google Analytics, Micro Entity Accounts etc.
I saw a quotation recently that said “If you aren’t embarrassed by your product when you first launch it, you waited too long”, and I couldn’t disagree more! One thing I wouldn’t change is waiting until I felt everything was perfect before launching – the product, the packaging, the overall ‘vibe’ of the brand. Maybe you lose some time you could have been in the market waiting a bit longer, but so many ‘household name’ brands were not the first to make their type of product, they just did it better.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Interacting with customers who love your product as much as you do. I also love the freedom of being more in control of your working hours and the flexibility of moving my life in a direction that suits me.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
It can be very lonely, especially in the beginning. And there is always something else that needs to be done. I think about the business constantly – and it is an all-consuming endeavour. This is the same for all entrepreneurs, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Part of me does miss coming home on a Friday evening and not thinking about work for a solid two days!
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
I read What it Takes by Reagan Moya-Jones recently which I took a lot away from. It was a great insight into the importance of drawing up appropriate contracts early on to protect yourself and your business. I also loved the emphasis on always following your ‘gut’ instinct. This is something a lot of successful entrepreneurs say, and I believe there’s a lot of truth in it!
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
In 2-3 years, I would love for The Unrefined Bakery to be a well-known brand in the health food space and for us to have a broader product range! It would also be great to have some employees helping me to achieve my vision.