Tara Mei’s first venture was a pop-up café. Now she runs an incubator that has helped more than 500 food and drink start-ups. The IoD 99 member wants a mentor to help her take it to the next level, but where to find one?
For two days in October the IoD’s headquarters in London will be taken over by entrepreneurs in the food and drink industry. They will showcase their wares to some of the nation’s biggest retailers at the inaugural Bread & Jam festival in the hope of becoming the next Heck or BrewDog.
The event was co-founded by Tara Mei, an entrepreneur who supports start-ups seeking a foothold in this increasingly crowded market, many of which have been inspired by the successes of independent firms over the past decade. Food and drink businesses clearly appeal to investors – such firms are most likely to be successful on Dragons’ Den, according to research by Company Check – but Mei believes that they can still find it “very intimidating” to seek help.
“Bread & Jam will enable them to do just that and say: ‘I don’t know how to run an online marketing campaign or attract more funding, so I’m going to speak to someone who does.’ We are bringing in people who’ve been there to tell them how they did it when they started,” she says. “It’s also an opportunity to meet retailers when it could otherwise take you two years to get in front of them. That’s the key, as this industry used to be all about whom you knew and the long list of contacts you had.”
Mei’s own bread and butter is Kitchen Table Projects, which she founded in June 2015. This is “London’s first retail incubator for emerging food producers. We have delivered support to over 500 food and drink start-ups.”
Mei had started out in the business after graduating from Bath in 2009, selling cupcakes at markets and later opening a pop-up café in Birmingham. She admits that it was “confusing to start a venture and not really know how to do it or where to find assistance. I encountered a lot of start-ups on the same journey, so I wanted to do something to help fellow entrepreneurs improve their networks and meet industry experts.”
Mei then spent time working with tech accelerators and start-up communities, including Enterprise Nation. It soon dawned on her that the food sector lacked the IT industry’s well-developed infrastructure
for nurturing young businesses.
“I took inspiration from the way tech start-ups can grow very quickly because they have access to the right people,” she says.
Kitchen Table Projects opened a pop-up shop in the heart of London’s Tech City. “This enabled food entrepreneurs to put their goods on the shelves and to see what happened when consumers engaged with these,” Mei says. “I also had a team of industry experts guiding them.”
The next pivotal moment arose from an awkward situation that’s likely to strike a chord with any entrepreneur who isn’t a natural networker.
“I was invited to a dinner and I didn’t know anybody there. It was awful – I felt very uncool and was so ready to leave,” she recalls. “But then I thought: ‘I’ve come a long way to get here, so I need to make this work.’ So I went up to this lady and said: ‘Hello, I’m Tara. I don’t know anyone here. Can we talk?’ She loved what I was doing and told me: ‘I have a friend who works at Marks & Spencer. I think you should
meet, because you could do great things together.’ And that is literally what happened.”
In the spring of 2016 Kitchen Table Projects duly joined forces with M&S to organise a series of events that have so far enabled 100 entrepreneurs to meet the retailer’s buyers and obtain advice from industry experts.
When it came to seeking support for her own venture, Mei turned to IoD 99. “I was slightly beyond the start-up stage but hadn’t worked out how to scale things up properly, so I was looking for people in a similar situation. IoD 99 is a network of ambitious and knowledgeable individuals. I feel privileged to be a part of that,” she says. “I’ve also been able to develop partnerships through it: Bread & Jam needed help with sales, so I made a request on the Facebook group and hooked us up with someone who was starting an agency. He now works with us.”
Mei now wants a mentor who can challenge her and broaden her horizons. But finding the right person is no easy task.
“Being an entrepreneur can be quite lonely at times, so you tend to be drawn to people who’ll tell you nice things, yet a good mentor won’t always tell you what you want to hear. That forces you to address some of the most painful aspects of being an entrepreneur,” Mei says. “I would like to work with people with more expertise, particularly from the corporate world. I’d like to widen my network and learn how people go about things differently from me. I’m looking for someone who can see the possibilities for my business and inspire me to look at issues from other angles. But it will be hard to find a mentor who’ll be aligned with me, because I’m not sure what questions to ask.”
Over to our expert panel…
Tara Mei is a member of IoD 99
Caroline Arnold Founder, Caroline Arnold Coaching
Caroline Arnold is a member of IoD South West
Take some time to consider all your reasons for wanting a mentor before you start seeking one. This way you’ll have a better chance of finding the best match for you and your business. Ask yourself the following questions:
What do I need from the relationship – do I have a specific problem to solve or target to hit?
Why would someone agree to become my mentor – what could I do for them in return?
How frequent should our meetings be?
Where and when could we convene – should we always meet face to face, or would phone calls do?
How would my mentor challenge and inspire me?
How do I tell that the relationship is working well?
How long should the relationship last – would we review it after a year or wait until a goal is achieved?
It’s also helpful to be clear about the difference between a mentor and a business coach. Mentoring is more about building a relationship, developing and inspiring you. Coaching tends to focus more on performance – eg, solving an immediate problem that may be stopping you from achieving certain objectives.
Once you are clear about what you want from a mentor, there are two types of people to consider who might fit the bill: first, an inspirational individual you haven’t yet met; and, second, a known member of your network who already understands how you operate.
Simon Fordham Chair and board director, Association of Business Mentors
Simon Fordham is a member of IoD Central London
When I started my ventures in the food and hospitality industries, I soon realised that in business we don’t know what we don’t know. Being mentored by someone unconnected to my firms’ daily operations was fundamental to my success. But, like you, I initially struggled to find the right person. I suggest that you meet a number of candidates through a reputable membership body. The Association of Business Mentors welcomes contact from entrepreneurs seeking a suitable confidant.
While a mentor doesn’t need a deep knowledge of your industry, they should understand your plans and share your enthusiasm. Their ability to listen, empathise and advise on topics such as marketing, sales, HR and finance is crucial. I’d ask any prospective mentor about their experiences in solving difficult problems – their qualities will soon become clear. They should be willing to challenge you, albeit in a supportive way. They should have an extensive network of contacts and be happy to introduce you to appropriate people. Crucially, you need to feel that you can confide in your mentor – after all, they could help to make your business great.
Stephen Robertson Director, Metis Partners
Stephen Robertson is a member of IoD Scotland
There’s no shortage of people ready to offer free advice to entrepreneurs, but whether they are sufficiently qualified to do so is another matter.
Start by telling a handful of people in your network that you are seeking an “experienced external adviser”. Say that you need someone who ideally knows your sector and has advised and/or funded ventures at a similar growth stage to that of your business. If they come up with some names, ask them why they think these people could be right for you. Then check out each potential mentor using LinkedIn and do a web search for more background information on them. Narrow the candidate list down to a handful and see if you have any more “shared connections”, whose opinions about these potential mentors you could also seek. Ask each person on the shortlist for a meeting, telling them they were recommended to you and that you were seeking half an hour of their time to discuss a few ideas. If they agree and offer their thoughts in a way that matches your values, then perhaps they could be your mentor.
The ideal person is someone you immediately click with and can chat to easily about any problem you’re facing. The best mentors often tell stories that have relevance to your situation. They will also help you to put yourself into other people’s shoes and appreciate an issue from a range of perspectives
Tara Mei’s response
Thank you for these perspectives. It was really enlightening to read them. I hadn’t considered “trying people out” over a coffee or two, for instance. It’s important to remember that mentors aren’t for life, so that is a great strategy. I also agree that enthusiasm and openness are key elements of an effective relationship. I’m really excited about my next steps as an entrepreneur and I’m planning to be a little more proactive with my networking, so I hope you’ll say hello if you happen to see me at an IoD event.
What would you suggest to Mei?
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@breadandjamfest (Bread & Jam 2017 takes place at 116 Pall Mall, London, on 6-7 October)
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