A WOMAN has revealed how she created her own snack business with her sister using just £200 – and she’s now turned over a staggering £2million and is on the shelves in Whole Foods.
Gracie Tyrrell, 34, from London, realised there was a gap in the market for sugar-free treats in 2015 after sister Sophie, 36, developed a heart condition called Wolfe-Parkinson-Whyte and wasn’t able to eat sugary snacks.
When she couldn’t find many comforting snacks that fit the bill, food lover Gracie decided to whip out her blender at home and make her own brownies – using fruit instead of refined sugar.
They went down a storm at home, and the sisters wondered if there could be a niche in the market for a healthier snack option – and so Squirrel Sisters was born.
Sophie’s husband Ian, who works as a graphics designer, helped to create their logo and their initial branding for free and they initially came up with four bars at home.
Gracie and Sophie then invested £200 of savings to use a factory kitchen to trial recreating their brownies outside the home.
From these humble beginnings, the sisters have now turned over £2million since their launch.
Speaking exclusively to Fabulous for our #BOSSINGIT series, Gracie said: “It was never initially a business idea, but after my sister struggled with reacting to various foods, gluten being one and sugary foods being another, we decided to give it a try.
“If she ate anything with really high sugar or gluten, she would just get really bad reactions, be exhausted and have stomach problems.
“So I just decided to start kind of experimenting at home and creating my own treats for her.”
After trailing their product in the kitchen and mocking up potential packaging online, they then needed customers.
Gracie said they wanted to initially aim to sell to chains instead of focusing on individual buyers – although they do have a website now where anyone can buy single bars from £1.50 and snack bags from £2.60.
Their strategy was to pitch to all the main players on LinkedIn and through email to see if any stores would stock them, but it was hard going.
Gracie said they had to get creative when contacting a Whole Foods buyer, and added: “We’d sent I think a good 10 emails and heard nothing so found the buyer on their personal Twitter account and got his attention by sending funny pictures of squirrels.
“He agreed to meet the next day at an exhibition and gave him some samples.
“We printed off visuals of packing because at this point it was just the concept.
“We met him outside and had five minutes to pitch.
“We followed up on email and a month later we got a response and he said Whole Foods did want to list the brand.”
Gracie said they were ecstatic at making their first sale, and particularly it being such a big name.
She said: “I think once you’ve got your foot in the door with a retailer like Whole Foods, a lot of big retailers go to Whole Foods to get ideas for new products and new brands.
“It’s the place to be seen really as a small business.”
Their first order, which was worth around £2,000, included their cacao brownies, which is still their best selling product to date.
The two sisters had to put in £2,000 each from their savings to start creating the product, the packaging and delivery, before they were paid for their first order.
The women were still working full time in their jobs – and did so for the first year without taking a salary from Squirrel Sisters – and invested everything back into the business.
She said: “It was always a risk, but we did keep our jobs so we were getting an income, I don’t think it would have been possible without that.”
We’d sent I think a good 10 emails and heard nothing so found the buyer on their personal Twitter account and got his attention by sending funny pictures of squirrels.
After their deal with Whole Foods proved to be a success, other well-known clients followed.
Gracie said: “Whole Foods was our first, and then we got Holland and Barrett, we are in Waitrose and Morrisons and we recently did a trial with Sainsburys and are still in touch with them.”
Gracie also stocked with wholesalers who supply other companies such as Google, zoos and cafes.
She said: “We got big listings in our first year which was pretty crazy since it was just the two of us and we’d had no business experience.
“In 2015 we sold over 100,000 units (this is across four flavour variants).
“In total we’ve well over one million bars.”
Of course, with big orders come big costs, and Gracie explained how they used invoice financing to help create their product.
She said: “This is where the bank pay and you show you are going to be paid by a retailer and you pay them back when you get paid.
“You are paying for production and packaging upfront and often you’ll get paid 60 days later by a brand.
“With invoice financing you do obviously have more interest but it is a good way for small businesses to get on the ladder without giving anything away through investment.”
To scale up brand awareness, Gracie worked with influencers on Instagram through events and doing gifting.
Once people with big followings started tagging her, their social media pages gained more fans and they now have 24,000 followers on Instagram.
After gaining more clients and selling more bars, they have been able to bring the price of the bars down from £2.50 to between £1.50 and £1.79.
She explained: “It’s scaled up and that has meant that we’ve been able to get better prices on packaging and obviously their cost of goods.”
While things were going from strength to strength – in year one they turned over nearly £200,000 and doubled this year on year – lockdown hit the company hard.
Gracie explained: “When Covid hit sales dropped by half due to our product being an impulse snack and offices closing.
“However, we have turned over nearly £2million to date and are on track this year to hit what we were hitting pre-Covid thanks to an export launch at Spinney’s (Waitrose) UAE and a launch in Boots this September.”
I think once you’ve got your foot in the door with a retailer like Whole Foods, a lot of big retailers go to Whole Foods to get ideas for new products and new brands.
The women applied for a government loan for £50,000 to survive lockdown and some of the money went into recreating their website so people could buy directly from them.
And although they work with some big names, there is always the worry of a brand deciding to no longer stock them.
Gracie explained: “You are always at risk getting d-listed from these retailer.
“I remember a friend saying when we got Whole Foods, ‘oh you are done now, what will you do next?’
“Once you are in, that’s when the hard work really starts, it’s relentless and you are risk at “losing your place on shelves.
You need to think of new marketing strategies and creating new products.
GRACIE’S TOP BUSINESS TIPS
- Attend female founder events
I’ve met some incredible female founders by attending events for women in business. Listening to their stories is not only inspiring but it’s a great way to gain perspective. It’s also incredibly reassuring because it will remind you that everyone is going through the same challenges and emotions that you are.
- Passion, Persistence and Patience
Always have the 3 p’s in mind… passion, persistence and patience. Running a business is not easy! You need passion to keep going, persistence to make it happen and patience because it doesn’t happen overnight… it takes time so stick with it!
- Network on LinkedIn
If you want to get into stores, find buyers on LinkedIn and get creative when trying to contact people so you stand out from the crowd.
- Take as little risk as possible
Be savvy with how you spend and take as little risk with initial investments as possible. We both freelanced whilst we established our brand, production and routes to market, then once we were confident that we would be generating turnover we both went full-time.
“We have struggled with this as we haven’t had much investment, it is important as you need “to start fresh, relevant and exciting.
“They want new exciting products, and that’s been a challenge for us because of the trial runs, creating the packaging, it is an expensive thing to do.”
Although the sisters started their company together, this year Sophie stepped back in January due to having another baby and working on a new venture.
Gracie said she is running the company completely by herself now and doesn’t have any other employees yet, but hopes to expand in coming years.
They are also being stocked in Boots in September, and also have brought out their own cookbook, Naturally Delicious Snacks & Treats.
Gracie added: “We’ve got an amazing female buyer at Boots who is so supportive.
“We also have a female buyer at Holland and Barrett and she is amazing and really supports our brand and mission. The buyer you have makes such a difference.”
She advised people who have a desire and means to start their own business to do so, even if they don’t have business experience.
Gracie said: “We were obviously quite young and naïve to business.
“So just really went for it, we didn’t have the fear which was really nice.”