The word entrepreneur often conjures up an image of a young, enthusiastic, adventurous person brimming with boundless energy. The founder of The Vegery, a gourmet food business on Auckland’s Hibiscus Coast, is many of those things; but Kathryn Jansen also brings a certain maturity to her start-up.
Kathryn Jansen’s business, The Vegery, is just on a year old but her carrot and turmeric Vitality Wraps have already been shortlisted in the NZ Food Awards.
While they didn’t win the novel ingredients category, Kathryn was more than delighted to make the shortlist, saying at the time that being acknowledged “by such respected industry professionals gives me validation that my crazy product has genuine market potential.
“It’s this kind of kudos that makes all the effort worthwhile,” she says.
And it is an unusual product. Vitality Wraps are dairy-free, paleo, suitable for vegetarians and vegans. The carrot and turmeric Vitality Wraps are made from carrots, linseed, avocado oil, turmeric and Himalayan rock salt and sell alongside a carrot and cumin wrap and a coffee with apple wrap.
The products are prepared using a dehydrator rather than being baked, which means that they retain the nutrition and benefits of raw food.
Kathryn’s energy and enthusiasm for her company are readily evident, as it is with many start-up entrepreneurs, but Kathryn also brings to her new business 30 years in IT project management in the banking sector and has set up her business at the age of 56.
Until four years ago Kathryn had been living in London. But after her father died, she, her husband and son decided to return home to be near her mother. Kathryn found the type of work she had been doing in London was relatively rare in New Zealand.
She didn’t initially develop her healthy products with the idea of selling them. Instead she was, she says, “very, very overweight and having health challenges”. A rather brutal visit to her GP saw her warned to change her diet or she would very quickly develop diabetes.
Kathryn had studied nutrition many years earlier and knew she needed to find food that was gluten-free, dairy free, with no sugar and low carbohydrates.
She initially went on a crash diet and lost 10 kilograms in two months. Within a year she had lost 23 kilograms, but “really missed bread” and began looking up raw recipes.
Kathryn borrowed a dehydrator from a friend and began making her raw, dehydrated flexible tortilla-style wraps which she also gave away to friends.
Someone suggested she should sell them.
“And I thought, why not? How hard can it be? But you don’t know what you don’t know,” she says.
Initially Kathryn tested the water at last year’s Food Show, on a stall a friend had taken, asking attendees to try her wraps and whether they would buy them.
From that show she got her first customer, Farro Fresh.
From small beginnings…
Kathryn started very small but over the first half of 2016 demand increased. She moved from using a friend’s commercial kitchen to taking a three-year lease on her
own commercial kitchen in Whangaparaoa and leasing a custom-made dehydrator 20 times the size of the one she had been using.
She also rebranded and repackaged the product and in July relaunched at the 2016 Food Show where she took her own stand. In October she doubled her production and says that it’s now five times more than what she had been doing prior to July.
The weekly production is still reasonably small but she now has four part-time employees all of whom help with developing the production processes as the demand increases.
Clients now include Farro Fresh, IE Produce and a number of other organic retailers around the North Island.
She has also had interest from Australia and would like to be exporting there by early next year.
This is Kathryn’s first business in the food industry and she says someone told her recently that it took courage to do what she had done.
“I think, though, if you think about it too much [you won’t do something]. It’s about believing I can make this work.”
And, she says, once she took the plunge with the business, she has been very lucky. Kathryn cites Dr Abby Thompson at Massey University and senior lecturer Allan Hardacre who have been extraordinarily generous with their time helping with technical issues.
…to big decisions
So, what has been the biggest challenge to date for Kathryn and The Vegery?
She says it was deciding to go bigger; to stop using domestic tools and move into more of a manufacturing mode.
“That decision took me three weeks to make.” And she did lots of testing.
Kathryn says she has ploughed so much money into the business “I just had to keep going and brazen it out.” She wondered if she had done the right thing but the orders kept coming in.
“It’s about believing it can work and the Food Show [in 2016] validated what I was doing.”
She has self-funded the business from savings and says she is lucky to have a husband who hasn’t objected to their retirement savings being used.
Her idea is, over time, to build the business up so it has sufficient value to either sell or bring in a manager.
Her project management skills have helped her work through the steps she needed to take to establish the business and the order in which things needed to be done.
And her advice to others looking to start a business?
“I would say do enough market research and not just family and friends. Before you take the plunge get a good sense of whether or not people will want your product.”
Kathryn also suggests getting some good financial advice. A Spanish friend, who is an economist, has helped her understand what she needs to do to be forecasting her cashflow.
“What he has done is made me understand where I am making money, when to put money in, and when I will break even,”