How I Started a
Vegan Meals Business
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Shane and I’m the founder of plant-based and vegan food business, fiid. We bring together nature’s best vegetables, legumes and spices, craft them into crave-worthy plant-based meals and serve them in the most convenient way possible.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
I started my career in luxury hospitality. Through my Bachelors in Commerce and Hotel Management I had already worked in seven different countries with some of the world’s leading hotel companies before I turned 23. It was an amazing time and an incredible opportunity to learn about myself, food, culture and different ways of working in countries as diverse as China, the UAE and Germany.
As much as I loved the fast pace and frequent change of scenery I quickly realised that a traditional hospitality career wasn’t the route I wanted to take. I love the industry, the experience it gave me and the people I met but I lacked the sense of control and flexibility that I wanted which ultimately led to me exploring the idea of entrepreneurship.
Fiid was born out of a very personal need. I lived a very busy life, often not having time to sit down and enjoy full meals and I definitely wasn’t preparing my own food. I’d often find myself in the danger zone of tired and hungry where all I wanted was to feel un-hungry.
I like to live a relatively healthy life – I love spending time outdoors, out on the water as much as possible and no day is complete without some sort of physical exercise so I was frustrated by the fact that in these increasingly frequent moments I was turning to whatever was quick, easy and filling as opposed to healthy and god for me. More often than not this turned out to be a box of biscuits.
This was the light bulb moment: what if I could create a product that was as healthy and delicious as the food that I want to eat but as convenient and easy as the box of biscuits? It didn’t make sense to me that we still had to make sacrifices on the quality of our food because we are busy and I knew there had to be a solution. And thus fiid was born!
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
It’s been a long journey and I feel like I faced every setback and challenge in the book to get to where we are today but it’s definitely worth it. What food is today is very different to how it began and the business has gone through three different incarnations before arriving at where we are now.
I don’t come from the food industry so as far as I was concerned the only way to deliver on quality, taste and convenience was by creating a fresh product. I started delivering fresh boxes of food to offices before moving my offering into retail. This actually ended up being a massive barrier to us scaling as the chilled supply chain is hugely complex and lead to uncomfortable amounts of waste so it was back to the drawing board.
The eureka moment for me came when walking through the baby food aisle in the supermarket. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that there was this whole range of brands and products offering natural, organic food for babies in an ambient format and wondered whether the same method could be applicable to what I wanted to do.
This is how I discovered sous vide, the process we use today which effectively preserves the food naturally for up to 12 months without the use of any additives or preservatives and also allows for our meals to be stored ambient (in the cupboard) rather than in the fridge which was a significant win for convenience and the biggest contributor to our success as a business.
Who is your target market?
When we started out we had a very focused target customer in mind and even gave her a name. What we found after launching was that actually fiid appealed to a much broader market who all had one thing in common – they are all interested in their health and are looking for solutions that fit with their personal values and lifestyle.
Additionally, most of our customers aren’t vegan but often have what we call a plant-slant. If there are plant-based alternatives available that don’t require a compromise, they will choose them.
Interestingly, the recent pandemic has opened up our consumer base even more. Initially, there was obvious concern that, as people were working from home and had infinite time, that there was less of a need for convenience products. We saw people rediscovering their inner Jamie Oliver and experimenting more with cooking at home now that they had the time.
Being stuck at home had another byproduct though – meal fatigue – particularly if you’re cooking 3-4 times a day for a family of 5! We found that fiid represented a convenient, delicious and nourishing option for those nights when parents just had enough but still wanted to feed their families well. This was a new consumer for us – further cementing the idea that it’s important not to make your target market too narrow.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
In the beginning, I managed everything myself, PR, advertising, social media. A lot of press opportunities came my way that really helped spread the word. Irish media are pretty supportive of small businesses such as mine, and the business journalists really got behind us. As the business grew, and the demands on my time became greater, we invested in PR support.
Initially, this was intended to focus on our Sainsbury’s launch, but has become all-encompassing covering both Irish and UK media. We have had some good coverage, with presence in the likes of Forbes and BBC. But I believe that our successes to date have been on account of a rounded approach to marketing, and social media has been massive for us.
Like most entrepreneurs, I eat, sleep and breathe the business. It’s my baby and all I want is to see it reach its full potential. It’s so important to put yourself out there and I’m willing to do (pretty much) anything to get the fiid brand in front of people to share what we are doing.
Tastings have been important to us so whatever chance we get we pitch up our stand and get our meals into the hands of as many people as possible. We know once you’ve tried it once you’ll be hooked.
We invest a small amount in paid social, particularly around different retail launches or new products and are starting to slowly increase our spend. The main focus for us has been on organic social though.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
The best ‘hack’ for acquisition and retention, hands down, is a quality product. Start with a great product that solves a real problem for people and it’s half the battle. If people aren’t buying your product a second time then there should be alarm bells.
After that, I like to approach social media quite personally and give an insight into what is really going on in the business so people can follow the journey rather. We have an incredible group of customers who support us and champion us because they know we are a small team working hard to make things happen. Being open, honest and transparent (about the good and bad times) has helped us foster a great relationship with our customers and gives an additional reason for them to keep coming back.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
We’ve been a tiny team of two for so long so we’ve always had a very casual and open culture between us but at the same time very focused and goal oriented. With so much going on it can lead to chaos a lot of the time but that’s par for the course in a fast growth business where both members of the team are spread so thin.
A huge focus for me now is building the team. We have built a solid foundation and now is the time to bring some specialist superstars on board to make things skyrocket. We recently took on our third hire and currently have 6 open positions so we are at this amazing stage of the business where we have an opportunity to define what the culture is. How do we want to work? How do we want our people to feel?
This is something we’re actively exploring with people through the recruitment process to help get an understanding of what people want. For example at the moment we’re exploring remote working / flexible working hours and what impact that will have on culture building and team dynamics.
We’ve set extremely ambitious goals for ourselves over the next 3 years which will put a demand on people to perform. What I’m trying to create is a team of high achievers who are excited to exceed expectations and come together and push hard for one common over-arching goal. For me, it’s not about time in the office or at your computer. I’m only concerned about whether you achieve your targets. What you do with your time is of very little interest to me outside of that. The last thing I want is for people working with me at the expense of their personal lives.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
As a small lean team we definitely use a number of software tools to help us run the business and automate as much as possible. The business is basically run on G-Suite – Google docs, Drive and Sheets are where I live and Google Meet is how we conduct meetings.
Xero is an amazing piece of accounting software. After I implemented it, saved me 4-5 hours per week in book keeping.
For communicating we use WhatsApp a lot but are currently migrating our internal comms over to Slack. I’d like the team to have a clear division for where work starts and ends as it can easily creep over so having a dedicated place for our work chat to live is important to make the distinction.
At the moment I’m looking for a really good project management software. With so many projects running concurrently it’s getting confusing to keep track and on top of everything.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
It sounds like a massive cliche, but failure has been the most beneficial lesson for me . Having my business fail twice was something I could never have anticipated and picking myself back up on both occasions really took everything I had.
As a young, first-time founder there was so much of myself (including ego) wrapped up in my business. As my first two attempts failed I really felt like it was me that was the failure and I took a huge blow to my confidence. Looking back now I feel it’s really important to know that as a founder you are so much more than your business and not to take things not working out personally. It’s definitely easier said than done.
In the same vein, I think it’s absolutely essential to realise that you don’t know it all. I definitely had a degree of confidence that discounted some advice that, in hindsight, could have saved me so much heartache and disappointment over my entrepreneurial career. Recognise that people have done it before and have made mistakes and that every single person you speak to can teach you something. As soon as I started valuing feedback and advice more, not only did my business transform but I felt that I did also as a person.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Being the master of my own destiny is extremely empowering and motivating. I love knowing that often the biggest thing standing in the way of me achieving my dreams is myself and seeing that my results are a direct result of the effort that I put in.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
I struggle a lot with the ‘always on’ aspect of entrepreneurship. I’ve always rebelled against the ‘no sleep’ start-up bro culture but I’m working hard to give myself some space and time away from the day-to-day operations because this is where I’m at my most creative and come up with my best ideas…
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
I’m a huge consumer of podcasts and listen to really wide selection of genres from true crime to mindset to fitness to business. I’d actually say I potentially listen to too many podcasts and need a bit more silence in my day. At the moment I’m listening to a lot of COG focused interview-style podcasts featuring really inspiring founder stories. The Modern Retail Podcast, Unstoppable with Kara Goldin, Brand Growth Heroes, Brand Builder are some of my favourites.
I find reading a great escapism for me so tend to read great fiction to take me out of my world and bring me somewhere else for 45 minutes but I always have a business book on rotation. At the moment I’m reading Ramping Your Brand by Dr. James Richardson and wish I had it 4 years ago when I was starting out. It’s all about the importance of strategy in food brands.
The last incredible book I read was Atomic Habits by James Clear. So much of running a business is about mastering ourselves and being disciplined and this book was a real eye-opener for me.
I subscribe to a lot of newsletters too to keep me up to date with what’s going on in the wider DTC / consumer goods space around the world. I’m a firm believer in keeping an eye on competition and trends but very much staying focused on our own game. I find reading industry articles really insightful and often gleam great inspiration from their commentary. My current favourites are 2pm, Lean Luxe, Retail Brew, The Sociology of Business and Chips + Dips.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
We’ve only just scratched the surface in terms of where we can go and what we can do with fiid and looking at the white space opportunities is something that I get really excited about to the point that I need to be reigned in once and a while.
Looking at the impact we’ve had in such a short time is really humbling and I’m looking forward to where we take this in the years to come. We’ll continue to innovate and launch new products, hopefully moving into different meal occasions further cementing ourselves at the heart of the convenience meal space in the eyes of the healthy better-for-you consumer.
This is a big year for us around team building and I hope that into the future we will continue to attract amazing superstar talents to disrupt and change the game for the better. As a founder its equal parts terrifying and exciting if I’m honest!