Many prominent entrepreneurs have suffered setbacks on the path to success. Some have had to overcome a severe lack of funds, others have had to battle against negative attitudes. But few business owners have had to deal with as much adversity as Sally Preston, founder of Babylicious - www.babylicious.co.uk
Having endured an acrimonious divorce, Sally was diagnosed with skin cancer. She chose this turbulent period in her life to launch Babylicious, a frozen baby food business. But the knocks kept coming for Sally – someone deliberately tried to steal her business’ name and a hoax caller untruthfully told her retailer customers that the company was under investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority.
Sally remains tight-lipped about the identity of the malicious character who plagued her business, but admits it was a dispiriting time.
“It was the ongoing knock-backs – you can take one and you can take two, but they keep coming at you and it’s very wearing after a while and it begins to wear you down,” she says.
“I think you have to be like one of those wheeble things, you get pushed over and you constantly keep picking yourself back up again.”
To her credit, Sally has made a stunning success of Babylicious since the launch of the company in September 2001. The business picked up a host of awards last year and has expanded overseas. The various setbacks have certainly not defeated the ambitious and refreshingly honest Sally, who is planning further expansion over the coming year.
Sally realised there was a gap in the market for quality, frozen baby food when bringing up her two young children. Using her experience as a food scientist for Marks and Spencer, she developed the idea into a viable business.
“I just thought, this is crazy, why doesn’t anyone do this product that I want to buy, so it was out of a consumer need. And then I realised I was not alone, and there were many other people saying exactly the same thing.
“I also think that you have to be in a position in your life where you are prepared to take a phenomenal risk. My particular situation at that time was that I’d just gone through a very acrimonious divorce and had skin cancer and felt ‘Hey, why not?’
“I think that’s important because if I was still working for Marks and Spencer, happily married with 2.4 children, I don’t think I would have ever done this.”
Sally went about developing her idea, convinced that Babylicious would successfully fill a gap in the baby food market.
“I never wanted it to be a small cottage industry. I’ve always had big national and international plans, I could see the global attraction of it. I always thought it would be a money-spinner,” she explains.
But when she came to register her company’s name as a trademark, she fell victim to an act of sabotage. In the three week gap between incorporating the company and registering the trademark, someone took the Babylicious name.
“It was quite deliberate and malicious,” Sally says.
This setback forced Sally to scrap all of her original branding and marketing and re-launch the company as Tastylicious.
“I actually launched the product in May 2002 as Tastylicious, which was never the best name and it was done in a hurry, a knee-jerk reaction which I regret badly,” Sally explains.
After a lengthy legal battle, Sally won back the Babylicious name on Christmas Eve 2002. Although the enforced re-branding cost her £34,000, she was awarded just £500 in damages.
Sally has also had to battle against the bureaucracy of supermarkets in her quest to see her products readily-available to mothers across the UK.
“I first spoke to Waitrose, they were very responsive to the concept, they just had no-one that satisfied their technical requirements,” she explains. “So the concept was ready to be executed, but had I grossly underestimated, until very recently, the amount of money you have to spend on marketing a brand new category.
“That was very salutary really – here I was taking on the big boys and I had about 25 pence to spend, that’s tough.”
To raise her profile, Sally entered, and won, a series of awards. The media, intrigued by her story and her product, provided plenty of coverage, prompting customers to pressure the supermarkets to stock Babylicious.
Having overcome her knock-backs and experienced an amazing period of growth for her company in a short period of time, you could forgive Sally for easing off slightly. But the Babylicious founder still feels there are several obstacles for her to overcome, not least the slow decision-making of supermarkets. She also admits there have been times when she questioned whether her struggles were worth it.
“There were about four serious times when I just really didn’t believe I could do this any longer and it was very hard work,” she admits. “It still is, to be honest; my absolute frustration is the retailers’ inability to do things quickly, they are so tied up with bureaucracy and quangos and committees.
“That’s why I left corporate land, it reminds you why I left. I’m reminded why I didn’t stay, because I can’t bear the slow speed of decision-making.”
Sally’s perseverance has seen the company expand abroad, with an extension of the Babylicious range and a re-branding process in the pipeline. But she admits that, typical with many entrepreneurs, she often does not think strategically.
“I’m trying to be more strategic because I’ve now got more people to take away the day-to-day running of it away from me,” she says. “But it isn’t easy, because an entrepreneur isn’t a naturally strategic person, they do flip from thing to thing and they don’t tend to finish things.”
Unsurprisingly, Sally doesn’t hide the harsh realities of starting up when asked for her advice to budding entrepreneurs.
“It will take over your life, your weekends and evenings,” she warns. “It’s 101 per cent commitment. It will take up more money than you imagine and will take longer than you think.
“It’s very, very hard work, it’s very frustrating, you want to scream at times. But if you’ve got a good idea and you’ve genuinely got the stamina to keep going and going, then why not?”