Jennifer discusses with Coutts Bank how it all began…

She started from her kitchen sink – now Jennifer Irvine has a successful business with thousands of clients, a turnover of nearly £2m and no outside investment. Here, she and Coutts private banker Julie Mikhaeil explain how, rather than taking a risk, it’s easier to grow in a steady, sensible and sustainable growth.

How to…grow a kitchen sink enterprise

For Jennifer Irvine it happened almost immediately. Within months of launching her gourmet diet delivery service, The Pure Package, it had grown out of her kitchen and into a premises in London’s New Covent Garden Market.

Eight years on, the business is still growing. Today, Irvine has a staff of 29 chefs, dieticians and nutritional experts, delivers over a thousand fresh meals daily to her clients (who include celebrity fans Erin O’Connor and Lisa Snowdon), and is set to turn over almost £2m this year. She also has no outside investors or bank loans.

But there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Having launched her business in 2003 at the age of 26, it came after two years of intense research and vigorous business planning.

Hailing from the west of Ireland, Irvine grew up on a farm. “I’ve been into food my whole life, but as I started getting older, I realised I also cared about how I looked. So the idea of The Pure Package is my idea of Heaven.”

Having completed a Food Economics degree at Reading University, after which she worked in the food industry, it wasn’t until her mid-20s that the opportunity arose for her to strike out on her own. Following her husband to New York for his work, her visa meant she couldn’t work while there. So she used the time – just under two years – to research and plan The Pure Package, launching immediately after returning to London.

So, what’s been the secret of growing it successfully?

Here, we combine Jennifer Irvine’s insights with advice from Coutts private banker Julie Mikhaeil (neé McCarthy), who has been looking after female entrepreneurs for the past six years.

Follow Your Passion

Many female entrepreneurs begin their businesses either out of frustration or out of passion. “Rather than being a rocket scientist, they tend to start with very simple idea because they’re either fed up with something or see how something could make their lives easier,” says Mikhaeil. Irvine agrees that passion plays a big part in growing and sticking with your business in the long term. “Launch a product you would want yourself because then you already understand your market and you know your product quite well.”

Research, research, research.

What’s already out there in the market? Who is your competition? How will your chosen industry react to your chosen product? Go beyond family and friends to find out. “My friends were all polite, saying “Yes, it’s a great idea”,” says Irvine. “So, I decided to approach journalists for their feedback instead. They are some of the most opinionated people in the world, so by asking them, I got nine-page questionnaires filled in with good honest feedback.”

Prioritise finance

“Funding is often one of the biggest challenges my entrepreneur clients recall about starting out,” acknowledges Mikhaeil. People either use savings or take small loans from family and friends before approaching a bank or angel investor for a loan further down the road. Irvine thought about this from the very beginning. At launch, clients paid for her meal deliveries 10 days in advance. But she soon tempted clients to pay for three-month deliveries with discounts. “Instead of £300, I was getting £3000. With ten clients like that, it’s £30 000 to pay for the premises, equipment and to grow. Most people fail in business because they haven’t worked out their cash flow. But positive cash flow was one of the reasons I went into this business in the first place.”

Take that free advice

It’s easy to believe that you need a lot of money to start up business. But there’s more free advice on people’s doorsteps than they think. Consider all of the public services at your disposal – your bank, local authority, etc. Irvine called her council’s environmental health inspector for advice when she was first starting her business. “Because I had a double sink and the right surfaces in my kitchen, he said “Go for it. Start your business from here.” Even today when there’s a new health and safety regulation,” she says: “My local fire fighters come around and give us advice for free. There’s tons of help out there that you can use without a penny.”

Engage the press

Shows like Dragons’ Den may be entertaining and even cut-throat at times, but they’ve also highlighted just how many women are launching their own businesses, and are an opportunity to advertise them to the entire UK market for free. “That, and the information on the Internet, gives people the confidence to think “My idea is as good as that” and pursue it,” says Mikhaeil. Having approached journalists for feedback on her product initially, Irvine says they subsequently wrote about The Pure Package when it launched. A full-page feature in the Evening Standard led to her phone ringing off the hook. “I even had Patsy Kensit on the phone going “Please, I’ll pay extra for your service if you let me on your list!”

Stick to your beliefs

Once the press had caught onto Irvine’s business, demand for her service went far beyond what she had originally anticipated. Yet her kitchen fridge could only hold meals for the nine clients she had estimated. “I had to say “no” to a lot of people at first because I couldn’t meet the demand. If saying “yes” means that you have to compromise on quality, then don’t,” she says simply. Ethics are still at the heart of her business today. All her ingredients are ethically sourced, their client deliveries are carbon neutralised and staff get free health insurance and free lunches. “It means that when the tough times come, and they do come, you have a really good team and loyal clients who believe in your product and service.”

Risky business?

There’s a perception that entrepreneurs are risk-takers. In fact, when it comes to women, all evidence points to the contrary. Steady, sensible and sustainable growth is what has worked time and again. “The women I come across don’t view themselves as risk-takers. They’re informed, focused, determined and have a strong sense of perseverance,” says Mikhaeil. Irvine identifies with that. “I’m not a risk taker in the slightest. I’ve done some experimental marketing,” she laughs, “but all my decisions are calculated. I’m responsible not only for my family but all my employees’ families, and suppliers. I wouldn’t take a chance on that.”

Network with other entrepreneurs

Many of Julie Mikhaeil’s clients say networking was crucial to both maintaining their drive and growing their business. “It can be a lonely experience starting out as a one-woman business from home,” Mikhaeil says. There are a variety of local business groups available across the UK to help – including Ladies At 11 and The Athena Network. Networking continues to be important long throughout the business journey, however, Coutts & Co holds networking events for clients and Mikhaeil is regularly linking them up. “As long as both parties are happy, we like introducing clients to each other and helping them make connections which can boost their business both in the short, medium and long term.”