Cecily Mills: on turning down the Dragons, her tips on crowdfunding, and building a high growth vegan brand

Food & Drink | Funding | Interview | Retail | South West | Start-up

Cecily Mills

Cecily Mills left a high-powered City job to found a vegan ice cream brand in Cornwall. After cracking Dragons’ Den, Cecily walked away from the investment to crowdfund a far larger sum – and to supply over 600 Tesco stores across the UK.

Here, Cecily speaks to BLM about making the leap to start a business, her tips for crowdfunding, and the hurdles still facing environmentally conscious brands.

What was your background prior to founding Coconuts Organic (previously Coconuts Naturally)?

My background is retail. After graduation, I got a place on the M&S graduate scheme and did five years with them in store management and commercial management.

After that, I moved to Oliver Bonas to head up their retail operations team. We headed up 42 stores while I was there and that was a great job and company.

Do you think your retail background has helped with your own company?

Oh gosh, so much. When I joined M&S it was April 2008, and that September, Lehman Brothers collapsed and we entered the global financial crisis. I feel so lucky to have been with M&S during this time, but it was really hard work.

The High Street was changing in front of our eyes. Shoppers didn’t have any money, and the recession gave me such a good grounding in how to look after your customer, how to drive every penny into the basket via a great customer experience. And it made me savvy to things like maximising profit margins and meeting and exceeding customer expectations.

Was it always in the back of your mind that you wanted to start a business?

For me, there were a lot of things bubbling under the surface – some consciously and some of them subconsciously. It’s always been a big thing for me to manage my own time. I was always willing to give 70+ hours a week to my work, but I knew that wouldn’t be that way forever. It was fine while I was learning a lot, but eventually I wanted to work those hours for my own business, my own thing.

It’s about freedom and autonomy, which I could never fully get from employment.

What was your vision for Coconuts Organic?

We want to be the biggest luxury non-dairy ice cream brand in the UK and in the world.

I always said back in 2015 when we launched – every place that sells ice cream in the UK should sell Coconuts. It’s not only competing but it’s a complementary option for everyone. The shift towards non-dairy foods is only going to grow, and I was clear back then how much mileage is in this business.

You made a real leap of faith by leaving your job in London and your home in Brighton and moving to Cornwall to start your business. Can you tell me about the build-up to that decision? How did you find the first few months in Cornwall?

It was a really exciting time and I think back on it now and wonder – was it just naivety? Because anyone who’s started a business will tell you, you cannot predict the highs and you won’t see the lows coming.

It’s a rollercoaster. The cliché is true. But my memory of that time is just excitement and optimism and opportunity. It was a wonderful, very creative time fuelled by total passion, and I look back on it fondly.

We left Brighton in 2014, and I had a year then in Cornwall to develop recipes. And it was wonderful – you’re in this bubble and all you can think about is how great your business is going to be and what a grand success you’ll make of it. And it has to be like that, because if you dwell on the stresses and difficulties, you’ll never start.

You received offers of investment on Dragons’ Den but later decided to crowdfund instead. Can you talk through that decision?

I was really excited to receive two offers on Dragons’ Den. And that was the main goal – we went on the show because we needed investment. However, at the same time, I had just gone for a meeting a couple of weeks before with Tesco. It was early days and nothing concrete had come of it, so we went ahead with Dragons’ Den.

Shortly after the show, however, I had a third meeting with Tesco and they said they loved the product, saw the gap for non-dairy ice cream, and wanted to list us in over 600 stores. O course I said yes, thank you.

It quickly became clear then that the investment we’d secured from Jenny Campbell wasn’t going to touch the sides of what it would take to supply 613 Tesco stores. The decision was made for me, really, in that it was the best thing for the business. That has to be my guiding principle.

Do you think crowdfunding has levelled the playing field for more niche products, like vegan foods? Has it democratised the process at all?

Yes and no. There’s a bit of a misconception that crowdfunding is an easy way to raise money. Crowdfunding is fantastic for specific products – you raise money, make the product, sell the product. That’s easy for investors to understand, as compared to, say, tech or something harder to monetise.

But the misconception is that because it’s simple to understand it’s therefore easy. In reality, the conversations in the background before a crowdfunding campaign goes live are just as intensive and comprehensive as before pitching to any angel investor. You still need to secure 50% of your target before going live.

That said, the power of crowdfunding is quite something. The feeling of getting the crowd behind you. And it does feel more accessible, in that you’re asking a lot of people for a little bit. It’s a wonderful way to get people with a vested interest in your brand.

On the other hand, you are accountable to hundreds of people rather than one or two, and those relationships take some management. So it does democratise the process somewhat, but it’s not an easy ride. You can’t just launch a product and expect to get 500 investors.

What are your top tips for similar brands looking to launch a crowdfunding campaign?

Treat going live on the platform like the closing of your round. The more money you can raise from your network before going live on the site, the better. Treat it as a top up.

And be authentic. Be realistic. The investors on these sites know what they’re talking about; they do their homework. So be you, and sell the business in all its glory, but also be honest about its shortcomings.

Coconuts Organic is now sold in Tesco. How did you change your operations after landing such a major supplier?

We had to find a new manufacturer, get new branding, create two new flavours, all in a year which sounds like a long time but really isn’t. It’s taken a lot of grit and determination and guts. There have been so many times when we really just had to hold our nerves.

It’s been an incredible lesson. It’s metamorphosized the company.

A vegan diet is popular with environmentally conscious consumers. Do you carry that ethos through to other areas of the business, for example with your packaging and sustainability policies?

The packaging has been a real source of anxiety for me. We get a lot of questions about our packaging. We’ve just transferred our 460ml tubs to paper, which is good, but all of these paper packages are still lined with a thin PLA coating which is non-recyclable. We’ve gone away from our plastic lids, which is great, but our pots are not sustainable – as is true of 99% of ice cream packaging.

We’ve started to look for compostable solutions, but as we need to use a third-party supplier, we haven’t found a compostable pot which is both organic and cost-effective. We’re working on it. We’ve commissioned a team with Plymouth University to investigate packaging solutions for us and that is looking promising.

It’s massively important for us to reach a solution. We’re vegan and organic because I believe that it’s better for consumers and better for the planet. So we are committed to following suit with the packaging, and it’s within our 5-year goal to become a B-Corp.

What are your other plans for Coconuts Organic over the next few years?

Growth is the main thing. We want to double our turnover – at least – every year, and we want to become a household name. We want to crack the other big supermarkets and expand internationally too. We’ve had great success already with Dubai so the Middle East is a big region for us and we’re also eyeing up Asia.

Finally, we want to move into food service – that’s another route to market for us, through restaurants and hotels and so on. And we’ve got a really exciting product pipeline coming up.

What advice do you wish you could give yourself back in 2015?

Hold your nerve. Believe in yourself and believe in your product.

I don’t know if it’s a female thing or an entrepreneurial thing, but you just have these moments of doubt. And in reality, everyone else is probably having those moments too. But you have to stop comparing and ignore any negative voices and just go for it.

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