How We Built A
Successful Healthy Tortilla Chips Brand
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! We are Tomas Mesa and David Ventura, co-founders of the free-from snack brand Mister Free’d. We run our business producing gluten-free, vegan tortilla chips for the UK and international markets from our co-working office in a converted railway arch in Shoreditch, London.
Currently, there are four of us in our core team, which includes ourselves, a brand manager and a sales executive. We hope to welcome more snack enthusiasts to the team in the coming months as we continue to grow both nationally as well as beyond the English Channel.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
David: We are both originally from Switzerland and grew up as childhood friends. We both attended university here in the UK and each moved into the finance sector working in investment banking. We had similar career goals and interests although Tomas would more likely be seen running around a football field than I would. I’m a coeliac and have been lactose intolerant for 20 years now.
Tomas is more of a foodie and is always searching for a new lunch spot or street food pop-up. We’ve always been entrepreneurs at heart and we knew that we wanted to try our hand at running a business. I know how difficult it is to find free-from alternatives. We both thought we could offer people like us snacks that tasted great and made you feel great too.
It was clear that the healthy lifestyle trend would be hitting the EU and UK in a big way. We saw a gap we wanted to fill with delicious savoury snacks and free-from foods is something we felt a personal connection to. Our business is very much built around our personal stories.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
Tomas: At first, we ventured into gluten-free crackers. While those were a hit, we weren’t seeing the results fast enough. We thought we could offer a product that would move a lot faster than the crackers were. We scratched the crackers and moved to tortilla chips. In hindsight, we wasted a lot of our own resources pursuing a product in an over-saturated market. We then put a lot of time into researching what was on the shelves already and trying to anticipate which direction snack trends would swing.
Since we were new to the food and beverage industry, growing a network was challenging. We relied on word of mouth and drew from our experiences working in banking to build a professional network. There weren’t many big players in the tortilla chip category other than Walkers (Doritos) and we knew we could stamp our mark. We turned to the humble tortilla chip to challenge the perception that tortilla chips are only nachos-worthy.
Tortilla chips have been underrated and we are proud to have created such a moreish snack. To allow us the chance to have an impact on the market, we raised some money with friends and family. Then, in 2017, we secured funding from an angel investment round. Funding is never easy, especially when in the early stages and we faced many challenges initially. We used those funds to push the product rather than our brand because we had little time to market it ourselves and didn’t have the budget to hire marketing and PR agencies. Of course, when we had extra money we would work with agencies, but this wasn’t a sustainable model and we knew we needed an injection of funds to push the brand further.
Who is your target market?
David: We think our tortilla chips have the potential to have mass appeal and we are proud to be in mainstream retailers such as WHSmith. We like to target the mainstream consumer but, because our product is gluten-free and plant-based, we tend to target a more niche audience of health-conscious consumers with food sensitivities or those who follow need-based diets; are typically active and short on time; and strive to lead a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
Our typical customer is UK-based, lives in a city and is aged between 25 and 40 years. These healthy snack lovers believe in brands that can provide them with the support they need in their busy lives.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
Tomas: Last year we achieved Series A funding which we are using to increase brand awareness. We have recently hired a brand manager to take on all marketing and branding in-house. As a generalist creative, our brand manager takes on anything brand and marketing related – from running our social media accounts to website design to content creation. This was a strategic approach to elevate our marketing efforts and we have already seen the benefits of having a member of our team who can wear many creative hats.
Our current approach to digital marketing is focused on organic methods rather than paid advertising campaigns. We champion authentic, branded content and are working to build a strong brand image to influence future marketing touchpoints such as experiential and events. For the moment being, we are concentrating on building an organic following of engaged customers who are genuinely interested in our product and story.
We have also recently hired a sales executive to focus on in-store samplings and trade exhibitions. We believe that product tastings have been one of the most effective methods to market our product. This – coupled with sending our products out for review purposes – has been very successful in getting our name out there.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
David: In a world where there is so much noise and so many brands are competing for customers’ attention, I think it boils down to trust and relationship management. Our energy this year has been focused primarily on social media and redesigning our website to show our customers we are a professional brand who actively and meaningfully contribute to conversations online.
Our tortilla chips are unique in the way that they tick so many dietary-requirement boxes. They are gluten-free, vegan, non-GMO, and use only natural ingredients. We don’t have a long ingredients list of exotic foods or additives that no one knows the meaning of and many of our flavours are low-FODMAP-diet friendly. Our tortilla chips are a very relatable product. They are also delicious so I think once people try them, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
Tomas: We’re still a small team and we like it that way – at least for now. We’re a hard-working bunch of snack loving foodies working from a converted railway arch in the heart of Shoreditch.
The Arch is a co-working office which means we have conversations with more people than just each other when waiting for the kettle to boil. Each day, we start with a team catch up over a cup of tea and then wrap up the week with a Friday evening pool tournament in our meeting room. We offer our team flexible hours and remote working because to us it doesn’t matter if some of our team members are night owls or early birds, so long as the work is getting done. We also make sure to schedule in regular catch-ups over a cuppa with each of our team members. We’re becoming quite the café hoppers!
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
Our brand manager makes use of online content management and social media management tools such as Planoly and Hootsuite. She uses Adobe Creative Suites to work on design projects, as well as Canva for digital content.
Until recently it was just the two of us co-founders in the office so we would just swivel our chair around if we needed a second opinion. We have started using Slack. With a growing team, we see the benefit of exploring other productivity tools, especially in the current climate where most businesses around the world are working remotely.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
Tomas: I think we are all continuously learning. As business owners, some lessons are expected. These are the lessons passed on to you from other entrepreneurs or mentors. Other lessons are learned on the job – those that are unique to your business which no-one else can prepare you for.
Coming from a corporate background, we found there was a big disparity between what works on a spreadsheet and what happens in the real world. We learned quickly that there is more friction on the day to day – products can get lost in transit, launches are delayed and trade shows are cancelled. We learnt from this the importance of being flexible, nimble and pragmatic.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons we learned came with growing our team. Hiring the right people is key to nurturing a well-tuned team which, in turn, is key to growing a successful business. We probably underestimated how difficult it would be to find people who can be as motivated and passionate about a business and its mission as the founders.
We learned early in the game to be open and communicate freely. This lesson has taught us to never be afraid to ask when you don’t know something. It has taught us to talk to everyone and accept any coffee or meeting invitation because you never know where the next idea or useful tip might come from. There is an opportunity in every conversation. There is wisdom in the saying ‘don’t burn bridges’, especially in the corporate world.
Our stance here is simple: be friendly with all other brands, even if they might be competitors, and be generous with sharing information. Karma is real and you never know when you might need a hand getting across a bridge.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
David: My favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur is that you are the only one responsible for your actions and you have real agency. Every day you can wake up and think about how you can drive the business forward and make a real difference in your life. The highs when things go well are unmatched.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
David: My least favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur is missing out on the social aspect and collegiality of working in a big team. There is always something to do so there is rarely time for a playful scrum session or kettle-talk in the staff kitchen. Even with two co-founders, it can get a bit lonely when things go wrong. The lows are lower as an entrepreneur.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
Tomas: Our business consumes our entire working life and we both have young families, so once we leave the office we try to concentrate on our home life. Because we like to practice being open and asking questions when we don’t know something, instead of turning to a book or podcast for guidance, we seek advice from people in our lives who we trust and respect.
If we read a book it’s to disconnect from our work life, so we usually have fiction novels lying around rather than those focused on personal development or business.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
We would like our business to be a leader in the healthy snacking sector in the UK and Europe, with over £25m in retail sales.