The common insomniac may spend the early hours channel hopping between the 24-hour news networks but Priya Lakhani found a better use for her sleepless nights – coming up with business ideas. Several concepts were fleshed out with market research and product planning between 1-3am but it wasn’t until the idea for Masala Masala took hold that she mustered enough courage to give up her career as a barrister. Just over a year later, Priya’s range of chilled Indian cooking sauces is sold by Waitrose, Ocado, Harvey Nichols and a range of other independent outlets.
“Being a barrister was risk free,” says Priya. “I had a very secure income and compared to a lot of my peers, a very comfortable life for a 27-year-old. But after I came up with the idea for Masala Masala I just couldn’t stop it. It was like an infection.” Having often used the fresh pasta sauces found in the supermarket chillers, Priya just couldn’t understand why an Indian equivalent didn’t yet exist. Keen to be the first mover in the market she started working on the idea straight away, spending weekends researching the industry, developing a brand and forming her business plan.
Priya and her husband worked out they needed £25,000 to take the product through development and secure a supermarket deal. The plan was they’d either sign up a big customer within the first few months or shelve the project until the industry was ready for it. “I was laughed out of the door by manufacturers, suppliers and people who’d been in the industry for 20 years but I just knew we’d be in the supermarket within a few months. My product was basically designed – how it looked and tasted – with my suppliers in mind.”
The first deal, Harvey Nichols, was done six weeks after Masala Masala launched and just as Priya had predicted, Waitrose were on board within three months. Once they’d secured the supermarket deal some further savings and a bank overdraft were used to keep cashflow healthy. “The thing about running a start-up business is that nobody will give you credit,” says Priya. “I was paying invoices for goods that hadn’t even been delivered yet.” Lukily, the way Priya had structured the business meant that the bank overdraft was enough to keep balance sheets in good shape, meaning loans or outside investment weren’t necessary.
Despite launching just before the recession was declared official, Priya says most suppliers were still driving a hard bargain back in late 2008. “Suppliers knew the recession was coming when we launched, but I still had people tell me it was going to cost me double what they charge others because we were new. You can ask yourself if you’re at an advantage or a disadvantage trading in this climate but what you do need to do is spend more time looking at risk within your business – making sure your supply chain in concrete.”
While Priya accepts that launching a premium product in the middle of one of the biggest economic crises in modern history doesn’t fit in with everyone’s plan, she’s adamant there’s still a market for quality food. “A lot of supermarkets are focussing on economy and value lines right now and that’s fine with us because we don’t want to push it by launching at the wrong time. You only have a few weeks to see if your product sells and then you’re out. But you also have to remember there are a lot of homeowners out there that haven’t lost their jobs, and as a result of lower mortgage payments now have more disposable income than ever before.”
It’s the typical Waitrose shopper – the well-travelled British foodie, who craves authenticity from their global cuisine – that enjoys Masala Masala, and they won’t be cutting back on grocery spend just yet. “This year is going to be tough for a lot of people and some things will have to be pushed back till next year but that’s ok. We’re small and resilient and we’re going to stick around.”
The plan for the immediate future is to increase sales through existing clients rather than a focused push to sign up the other supermarkets. Priya also has her mother, part owner and creative director of the company, working on further product lines which she hopes to introduce later in the year. “We’ve got to do things when it’s right for us. Being with Ocado and Waitrose has been great. Our current clients are what’s most important to us so we need to keep them happy before we think about going elsewhere.”