27 Nov 2015 | 10.08 am
Doing The Day Job And a Startup Too
Cool Bean founders planned their launch carefully
27 Nov 2015 | 10.08 am
Isolde Johnson sped down the motorway at 3am, returning from a music festival. She had her windows down, music blaring, doing everything she could to stay awake. In five hours, she was expected to arrive at work and make a presentation to the company board – and so far, she had nothing prepared.
“At that stage, I was thinking, this is amazing,” says Johnson (pictured: right). “I was so high on life – and beans, probably – but it was that moment when I knew, okay. Something has to give.”
It was December 2013. For six months, Johnson and her business partner Sarah O’Connor (pictured: left) had been laying the groundwork for their own business, The Cool Bean Company, while also holding down full-time jobs. They spent overflowing workdays at The Company of Food and EY (Ernst & Young). During their mornings, evenings and weekends, the duo lived and breathed beans.
They had a dream to make the superfood a tasty and accessible meal option for the masses, but they chose not to dive right in. First, they tested the product.
“We didn’t just quit our jobs,” says O’Connor. “Everyone who we spoke to said to test the idea and see if it was going to work. So we invested all the money we had and we bought a mobile catering unit, and we brought the product to festivals and events.”
The testing did the trick, providing them with the feedback they needed to know their project had legs.
But that late night half-conscious rush down the motorway made Johnson realize the double-jobbing was no longer sustainable. The Cool Bean Company was ready for take-off and it needed a new arrangement. “So we sat down, like a marriage,” recalls O’Connor. “Okay, baby’s on the way, what are we going to do?”
They decided Johnson would leave her day job and go into the venture full-time. O’Connor stayed on with EY, where she still works part-time. Despite the “madness” of starting a business amidst demanding full-time jobs, the duo concur that it was the right thing to do.
“We really pushed ourselves to the limit,” says O’Connor. “We pushed ourselves to almost breaking point, and I think you need to do that. You can’t afford just to quit your job and not have income for rent or the mortgage. If you’re committed to it, you have to push yourself to the extreme. If you can’t get it to a certain stage part-time, then full-time is not going to make a difference. And then it’s about picking the right time and learning when to jump.”
Cool Beans are, according to the brand’s website, “a super healthy beany meal in a pot.” The hob-ready baked beans are available in tomato, smoky paprika and hot chilli flavours. Cool Beans are aimed at people who lack the time to cook but still want a healthy meal billed as high-protein, high-fibre and low-calorie.
Most of the ingredients are sourced locally, with the exception of the cannellini beans, which are Italian, and some of their spices. The entrepreneurs turned to Fresh Food Kitchen to create the product itself; design company Neworld Associates for branding, voice and vision; and Complas Packaging for their pots. “We decided early on that the outsource model would be the best approach so we could focus on what we were good at — marketing and driving sales,” says Johnson.
Following a successful test run and education from the DCU Ryan Academy Female Propeller programme, as well as the Musgrave Food Academy programme, The Cool Bean Company officially launched in September 2014. O’Connor, dubbed the Bean Queen by her colleague, assumed responsibilities for finance, while Johnson took over operations in the position of Professor of Beaneology. The two share sales and marketing duties.
They agree their biggest obstacle so far has been funding. The business has been funded with savings and small bank loans, and they’ve kept it going thanks to revenue, grants and awards. “Everything costs money, and any money you have you’re going to spend,” says Johnson. “If we had 500 grand in the morning we’d have it spent.”
Still, Cool Beans has made it to shelves in SuperValu in Ireland and Waitrose in the UK. Johnson recently won the Dublin heat the Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur competition, and the company hired its first full-time employee in March. But despite the year-old company’s progress, its founders have higher aspirations.
“We’re so focused on growing the business, at times we forget how well we’re doing,” says O’Connor. “We tell people we’re going to the UK, and they say, ‘Wow, you just launched last year’. And we say, ‘Nope, not soon enough. If we’d been there a few months ago, we would have been much happier’.”
WHY IT WORKS
When the women step back and consider their accomplishments, they credit three main factors: perseverance, a willingness to ask for help, and each other.
O’Connor says she finds time and task management to be the job’s most difficult aspects. “You have to be so strict with yourself on what you’re prioritising and what you’re getting done, because you can be a busy fool and not getting anything done. You really have to be cutthroat about what you’re giving your time to.”
The partners have also solicited help from their business connections. According to Johnson: “People are willing to help out and mentor you because they want to see young entrepreneurs succeed. If we come up with a challenge, it’s, ‘OK, who can we ring about this?’ Anyone in the food industry has gone through the same problems that we’re going through.”
Johnson and O’Connor first met in EY, where Johnson was an intern, and reconnected down the road while volunteering at a work-related event. “That’s when we started talking about setting up our own business,” says Johnson. “We were working really hard for other people, and we were like, ‘Imagine if we worked this hard for ourselves’.”
After getting to know each other’s ambitions, goals and work styles, the two became friends. O’Connor, who was one of Johnson’s bridesmaids, said this helped them stay open about what they wanted from and valued in their business venture, and it has prevented unpleasant surprises in their partnership.
“I think that’s been really vital, because you hear about childhood friends who have gone into business together and it doesn’t work out. The partners may be close but they’ve never worked together,” says Johnson.
O’Connor says she and Johnson fuel each other’s energy and focus, and one regret is that they didn’t invest in an office space earlier on in their business. “I love the days where we’re working together, but there are so many times when we’re not,” she says.
“I was going from an environment where I had a team of people and all the corporate luxuries, and then the next day I’d be alone in my kitchen with dodgy WiFi. On the broader, more important business development things, it’s harder to move forward when you’re not together in one space.”
But the duo maintain that their challenges – the double-jobbing, lack of office space and impossible workload – has stoked their progress. “They say if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it,” says Johnson. “We were under pressure to get things done with Cool Beans in the short amount of time that we had. So we worked really hard at it. If you have a lot of time, maybe you drag things out more. It’s keeping that motivation when it’s just you and your kitchen.”