Rekha Mehr, founder of Pistachio Rose (and former Entrepreneur in Residence), explains how she started her business and managed to get her delicious products onto the shelves of one of the world's most famous shops
"I studied business finance with French at Brighton University. After graduating I became a buying assistant at Waitrose, stayed for 18 months, then joined Amazon, where I worked for four years and rose to become buying manager, leading a team of five.
"I wanted a better work-life balance and thought running my own business would eventually provide this. But first, I decided to leave Amazon and took a career break, travelling to India where I stayed for six months.
"Having that space and time enabled me to think about what I wanted to do. I've always had a passion for food and saw people make a very good living from it, so I thought 'why not me?'. I just needed to find the right idea.
"My father is Indian, but he's lived in the UK since he was 15. My mother is English, so I've been raised in both cultures. I decided to focus on the much-neglected niche of sweets and desserts.
"My business name comes from my signature cake - Pistachio Rose - which is inspired by the Indian sweet Gulab Jamun and dates back to the 16th century Mughal Empire. It's a soft cardamom-infused sponge, studded with pistachio and covered in a lightly whipped rose water frosting. Although obviously Indian in influence, there's also an element of 'English country garden tea party' about my products. Essentially, that's what my business is all about, fusing sweet Indian flavours with elegant cakes, delicate biscuits and crumbling pastries.
Recipe for success
"Setting up my own business has been difficult. Although I had much retail experience to draw on, there's so much more to it than that. And I didn't realise just how alone you can feel, because you don't have other people to bounce your ideas off. Going out there and creating a peer network of my own has certainly helped.
"While developing my business idea I tested my recipes on friends and family. Then I got them to test on people they knew. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, so I took my products to events and exhibitions, where people also loved the concept and my products. Before I started the business, I spent about six months on market research. I continued to work two or three days a week to support myself.
"A friend did my graphic design; another did my website. You have to minimise your start-up costs and many people are willing to exchange skills or help for free if you help them in return. If necessary, you can make improvements later when you have more money.
Getting on the shelves
"Getting Fortnum & Mason to stock my products wasn't as difficult as people imagine. As a former buyer, I wasn't afraid to approach them, so I got in touch to introduce myself and my products. They were interested in meeting because I had something that was genuinely unique to offer them.
"You need to be confident about your product, know what makes it special, and your knowledge of your market and pricing must be thorough. I had to make assumptions about what margins they'd expect to make, but I knew how low I was prepared to go.
"Their buyer was lovely and they really liked my brand and products. They didn't try to 'beat me up' over price; a friendly, professional and productive meeting took place. When negotiating, you both need to walk away happy about the deal. If your product is good, you shouldn't feel intimidated or willing to concede too much. If the deal really isn't right for you - politely refuse and explore other options."
Rekha's three key pieces of advice
- "You need to have a unique selling proposition. If you really want to succeed, there really is no room out there for another 'me-too' product. Make sure people with an independent opinion validate your USP"
- "You also need to have sound knowledge of your market and pricing. Try to find out how much margin the larger retailer will expect, otherwise you risk having your credibility undermined. If your expectations are unrealistic, you could be in for a shock, too"
- "Don't fool yourself into believing you have no competitors. My products are fairly unique, but they face competition from other biscuits, cakes and sweets"
It turned out that this small startup was just the first step of the journey for Rekha. In 2013, while still running Pistachio Rose, she was invited to become the government's Entrepreneur in Residence at what was then called the Department of Enterprise, Innovation and Skills. This turned into a full-time job. Rekha went on to receive an MBE, and has since been involved in advising a series of initiatives to support innovation and startups generally.