Entering an unknown market as a start-up

Food & Drink | Reports | Retail | Start-up

Written by Damien Lee, CEO of Mr Lee’s Noodles

“Why create a product and enter a sector you know nothing about?” is a question that I regularly get asked. But when people ask me what the secret to my success is, it’s just that – it’s creating a product and entering a sector that I know nothing about.

Entering the instant noodle market wasn’t a dream that I’d had since I was a child, nor something that I had aspired to as a young entrepreneur. It was a market that I stumbled across during my experience with cancer.

The idea came unexpectedly when I was suddenly diagnosed with an aggressive, terminal form of cancer. I went raw in my diet and removed all the nasties, and after 18 rounds of chemo, I was free of the disease. But the one thing I really missed when doing my new, raw diet? Instant pot noodles – my ultimate guilty pleasure! I realised that I could no longer eat them due to their unhealthy contents and then I thought, let’s make a healthy cup noodle, but let’s do it in a way that nobody has ever done before.

Other than eating instant noodles, when I entered the market I had absolutely no experience of the industry. As a serial entrepreneur, I’d previously set up businesses in security, satellite communications, bars, restaurants, recruitment companies, you name it I’d done it, but I didn’t have any experience in the grab and go food industry. The thrill of pushing myself out of my comfort zone is what gives me my passion and drive and makes me get out of bed in the morning – I attribute all my success to that fact. Approaching new sectors with little to no prior knowledge of the industry means that I’m not held back by the industry ‘dos and don’ts’ and the ‘done’ way of doing things, which is what allows me to get creative.

My lack of experience meant that I wasn’t held back by pre-conceived notions that instant noodle products must be cheap and nasty. Our closest rival retails at £2 but people are willing to pay more for things that are better for you – attitudes are changing.

With the market being saturated with instant noodle brands, competing for shelf space seemed an impossible and extremely time-consuming task, so instead of taking this well-trodden path that had been followed by many other entrepreneurs before me, we took a different tack.

We started out by approaching trainlines, airlines and hotels, tapping into a distribution market that no one else was approaching. We got our products on Amazon and available to purchase online via our website. Sure, we wanted a supermarket shelf, but instead we made our own in the form of the Mr Lee’s Noodle Kiosks. Taking our own route has led us to great success, with our expansion into the Australian market beginning with our first listing in Woolworths last year. Focusing on other avenues has meant that the supermarket deals are still set to arrive, but it’s on our terms rather than theirs.

The advice I would give to budding entrepreneurs or start-up owners is not to be held back by the norms of your industry, and certainly don’t be deterred by not having experience. Everything can be learnt on the job and being new to the industry isn’t necessarily at your detriment. Use your creativity to innovate the market and don’t follow the same path that other entrepreneurs have taken. The giants of the market that are stuck following the same old strategies and creating the same old products can’t keep up with the ever-changing demands of the consumer at the moment, so this is a great time for start-ups to get ahead of the game. Get in there, take your own path and get the job done.

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