This month, I set off in search of a tasty breakfast and found Anna Mckenzie & Lucy Wright, co-founders of Cuckoo Bircher Muesli.
This is no ordinary muesli, this my friends is #modernmuesli.
A delicious blend of jumbo oats, linseed, creamy yogurt & juicy fruit. It packs an unexpected full fruit punch with delicious flavour combinations such Elderflower and Cranberry, and Apple and Cinnamon. These girls are putting a whole new spin on a rather traditional type of breakfast and bringing it to the masses.
Convenient and easy to eat on-the-go, the Cuckoo range is a welcome change to the tried and trusted breakfast options available in any supermarket chiller - banana or croissant anyone?
I set out to find out more and asked the girls to share their startup story to date….
The Cuckoo Story so far
The Cuckoo concept was created by childhood school friends Anna and Lucy back in 2012, both of who share a huge passion for good food. Fresh from university, they put their heads together and have managed to build a brand and business out of a childhood trip to Switzerland which was where they stumbled across their first Bircher Muesli experience. I was intrigued to find out more!
Anna was happy to share how Cuckoo came to be.
“We’re getting there, it’s a long journey - it definitely didn’t happen over night.”
“I’ve always just loved food in general, I grew up in quite a foodie family and I have always loved bircher muesli. I remember being little and going to Switzerland on holiday and they would have it in the hotel for breakfast, and I remember thinking even back then, “this is so good, why don’t we have it more at home”.
“I met Lucy, my business partner at school, and one year we went on a school trip to Switzerland. We were staying in a youth hostel and they had Bircher Muesli for breakfast and it was by far the best thing around to eat there! So we always remember that moment and how funny it is now. At the time however, we just went back to school, got on with our lives and forgot about it.”
“I went on to uni and while I was there I found it a nightmare trying to find a breakfast I could take with me to the library. You can get stuff in Pret, Eat or Starbucks, but it costs a fortune. But if you went to get something from the supermarket , it wasn’t easy. You could get a croissant - but that wasn’t healthy. You could get a banana - but that wasn’t filling. So it struck me at that point that there were so many on the go lunch options, but nothing really available for on the go breakfasts.”
“After graduating I went back home to Bermuda. My mum was at home making all these delicious Bircher Muesli recipes - not the traditional kind of bircher muesli recipes - she was making them all with a bit of an exciting twist. There were all these delicious combinations of ingredients and it made Bircher Muesli not only sound but taste so new and different that I suddenly thought that these would make a great on-the-go breakfast back in the UK, which was where I was planning on moving back to.”
“At the time I was applying for jobs in the city, not really knowing what I wanted to do as a career, but doing what everyone does and what I thought I should do. I’ve realised now that when you graduate, you only know a handful of jobs exist, and then you get into the working world and realise there are so many more jobs that you just didn’t even know about! Anyway, I wasn’t particularly excited about the things that I was applying for.”
“Then Lucy and I were just catching up one evening, as she was just finishing an internship in interior design. I had at this point written up a very vague business plan and so I started to talk to Lucy about the idea and explain what I was thinking to her, and Lucy got really excited about it and I gave her some of the samples that I’d made up to try and that was basically the beginning”
“It was summer, we had both just graduated and basically from that point we started working on it everyday from that conversation. Then after a few months working on it, we had spoken to enough people in the industry, had gotten feedback on the concept and product which had built our confidence and so we felt then we were far enough along to move forwards with it as a viable business plan.”
“That was back in summer 2012, and then by the time we launched it was December 2013, and I guess that is the beginnings of the brand.”
Learning on the job
Both fresh out of uni, both never having worked in business before, let alone build their own one, the girls have an inspiring mentality and attitude to putting their best foot forwards and just getting stuff done. I asked Anna who how they navigated this stage?
“The food and drinks industry is a really nice network of people, and everyone just wants to help everyone out. We would go into Wholefoods and look at the brands who were doing well, get their email off the back of packet and then contact the founder. They would always give us 5 minutes of their time or allow us to take them out for a coffee or something. We always went in with very specific questions based on where we were at the time and almost used that as free consulting, and one person would lead us to the next. We did a lot of that, it was one of the main ways we got off the ground and we got a lot of direction from that. We just took it step by step and really thought about what we needed to know next.”
“As we’d both never worked in a food business before, there was a lot of trial and error in both the business side and the product development side!”
“We had 30 different recipes initially and we had to narrow it down. We got it down to 10 between ourselves by working out that some of them were hard to scale up or commercialise. But then we also wanted to do some consumer testing. So we emailed friends and family who worked in relatively large offices to see if we could come in at breakfast time and do tastings. We gave them little feedback pots and had a feedback survey and narrowed it down further by doing that.”
“Then we found a factory which is out in Wales and where Cuckoo is still made now. They helped us with the scaling up process and sowe took the kitchen recipes to them. Now if we were to do new recipes we would probably do it in a lab and get it right first rather than as trial and error with the factory, but these are the things you don’t know until you discover them. We did trials with the factory, they would be a bit runny or a bit sweet, so we would go back and adjust the recipes, and then go back a couple of weeks later to make them up again. I think it took maybe 3-4 trials to do it and sometimes it was a bit of a disaster. I remember once we got to Wales and the yoghurt hadn’t arrived - because we were also learning about how to do ingredient ordering and stuff - and so we just turned round and headed back. There were definitely a lot of things like that, but we got there eventually.
“I think though that in some ways being naive is a huge benefit because you just do things the way you think they should be done rather than how everyone does them, and this can make you stand out from the crowd.”
“We always tried to break stuff down into steps rather than looking at the whole picture, and just stay focused on what the next steps were and do it that way.”
Putting the package together
With packaging so bright, vibrant and pretty, and a name that harks back to the Swiss mountains, I was intrigued to understand how the girls had approached the task of building their brand identity.
“We brainstormed for days trying to come up with a name, and we found that so many names were trademarked and it was really difficult to find a name that wasn’t. This was when we decided to work with a branding agency to help us with the process. We work with B&B Studio - they are great and we love the team there. We worked with them to come up with the name Cuckoo Muesli. The name stems from the fact that bircher muesli is from Switzerland, we discovered it in Switzerland, we met in Switzerland, and it also relates to the cuckoo clock, the morning occasion and also our slightly more quirky flavours and branding.”
“B&B Studio designed the packaging as well. It was a great process to go through, and it was fun - although like with lots of aspects of starting up - it took time.”
“It was at that point for us that things really started coming together - once you have the name, the branding and story behind it you start to bring you business idea to life and see what you are creating. It was quite difficult in that sense as we knew what we wanted, but at the same time you don’t really know what you want because you can’t picture this brand that you are trying to design. B&B Studio helped us get there.”
What’s next for Cuckoo?
“We both come from a foodie background and we are doing this to give people something convenient, for breakfast on-the-go whilst being a bit different. We have lots of ideas for product development and we would love to walk into a supermarket one day and not just see our bircher muesli but see other Cuckoo ranges on the shelves as well. Most of our innovation ideas focus around the on the go breakfast or snack occasions and using grains or fruits - but that’s all I’ll say for now!”
"When we first had the vision for the business we had an idea for a shop, a cafe where we would have a bircher bar - similar to frozen yoghurt - but with bircher muesli where you would come in and choose your own toppings. Then we realised that we wouldn’t be busy all day if we were going to be focused on the breakfast occasion. So then the idea turned to retail and we pictured it in coffee shops, chains etc. But the thing with coffee shop chains and independent coffee shops is that although it is the perfect place for us to be, they all make their own bircher muesli!”
“We are now stocked in a lot of office cafes, and alongside this our focus is on building our distribution and presence in retail and supermarkets, focusing on the convenience aspect of our range and celebrating the breakfast occasion.”
The reality of retail
A brave move for a startup brand, moving straight to playing with the big boys in retail and negotiating tougher commercial terms. But the girls have mastered it, with Cuckoo now stocked in Tesco, Waitrose and Ocado. How have they found the buyer experience to date?
“Once you meet the buyers you can build really good relationships with them, its actually just getting to meet the buyer that is the difficult thing. Lucy, is just naturally the sales person in our team because she is so persistent and doesn’t mind picking up the phone to call, and chase them down day after day after day.”
“It’s all about being persistent and giving them samples. As a food product if you can get them a sample then it’s half the battle, because having a meeting to talk about a product makes much more sense if they’ve they’ve tried it and tasted it.”
“Tesco is a good example, we were trying to contact the buyer over email and on the phone and getting no response. So Lucy hand delivered parcel of samples that was really nicely wrapped to their head office and when she tried to call him to follow up a few days later, he actually picked up the phone and asked us in to have a meeting. Once you get a meeting then you’re kind of good because you are going in to present and can actually build a relationship face to face. They can see who you are, feel your passion and hear about your story first hand which is something they don’t get from a lot of the big manufacturers and their sales teams.”
“Our first listing was with Selfridges. They have become a foodie destination and love to launch the latest innovative food products. Often retailers want to see a success story before they will take a product, but Selfridges are ideal in that they want to try all things new, and their customer base tends to be all the early adopters who are wondering round looking for new things to try, so it’s a great place to attract these new people.”
So from an idea sparked in childhood, to listings in some of the biggest supermarkets nationwide. How are the girls building their brand and getting the Cuckoo message out to the masses?
“With marketing, the most important thing has always been for us to get people trying the product, so from the get go we’ve always done lots of in-store sampling. We also do a lot of office sampling and office drops - we do almost one every day, and this works from a sampling perspective but also gets people sharing on social media too. “
“We also have done a lot of partnerships and collaborations - teaming up with studios and gyms, getting in goodie bags for launches and things like that as well. With social media it’s a really easy and clear way to see which partnerships would be useful - you can see who is talking to the same people you are trying to attract, and they are a captive audience to tap into. Doing a competition together where you give away your products and someone else’s products is an easy way to hijack an audience and grab their attention.”
“Our view is that if people see a new product and it’s £1.50 and they’ve never tried it before then they can be too nervous to waste their money on it. So we find sampling helps to take the risk away as people know that it tastes good, and they are then happy to spend their money.”
How Anna and Lucy have embraced the challenges, the highs and lows and the determination needed to create your own business is testament to who they are and how hard they have worked to create the Cuckoo brand. I wanted to know if they now see how far they have come and whether they consider themselves to be entrepreneurs?
“It’s such a funny word isn’t it! Entrepreneur!”
“My dad always ran his own business, and I often think that when you see your parents doing something they make it seem easy, and it seems really natural to you and so you grow up thinking that’s just what people do. Growing up in that environment has definitely had an impact on me and my thinking, and as a result I’ve always been more inclined to work for smaller businesses or startups - always in the summer holidays I was always drawn to the smaller businesses. I always thought that one day I would like to do my own thing, but I definitely didn’t think it would be straight away.”
“The reality was that it was more that because of timing, everything came together - I had this idea in the back of my mind, my mum was making these recipes, Lucy was up for it, it just all clicked into place.”
“When you graduate you don’t yet have a job - so you don’t have the pressure of making the decision to quit it to run your own business - so in that sense, whilst you know absolutely nothing about running a business, it’s somehow an easier decision to make, because it’s not an either/or choice. It’s just about trying to make something work because you don't have anything to loose. The experience is invaluable.”
So who or what has inspired them and who do they look to as success stories in their world?
“My dad is a huge inspiration as he was always entrepreneurial and has had huge faith in our idea from the very beginning. He is just really supportive. And whilst he doesn’t have any experience of the food industry, he’s been a great support in terms of the wider business challenges.”
I tell her that he must be really proud of her, and she nods modestly and beams.
“The other people who inspire us are all the small and independent food and drink brands out there, especially the ones who helped us along the way. Being able to see where they were and where they are now, as they were always a few years ahead of us - companies like Jimmy’s Iced Coffee, or Joe & Seth’s Gourmet Popcorn. It’s just so inspiring when you see that they, like us started from nothing but an idea, it makes you see that it is possible. But also I guess because you don’t see all the issues and challenges that they are going through behind the scenes” she giggles.
“And there are always challenges!”
Passing things on
I was keen to understand what Anna thought their biggest learnings have been in this journey which is all a learning curve for the pair?
“We are always learning about the food industry in general, and I think we have learnt that through this process you have to listen to people and take advice. We would never be complacent and think that we didn’t need to have advisors who have more experience than us in the industry, especially as we went straight into this after graduating with no experience of running a food business.”
“However, we have learnt to go with your gut a lot of the time, because that is really important to listen to what you feel is right, and quite often it is right. We combine that with taking feedback on board and listening. Also getting people involved in your team that believe in you and have come from more experienced backgrounds so they can add to the business in a different way to yourselves.”
“We’ve learnt you need a lot of persistence, because things go wrong that you can never have imagined in your wildest dreams. But there is always a way, where there is a will there is definitely a way!”
“Whenever a problem arises now, I know there will be a solution, so it does teach you a huge amount of resilience and resourcefulness. You have to believe there will be a solution otherwise you can get stuck at every obstacle.”
"I would advise other people who want to start their own business, or who are just starting out to reach out to other people in the industry you are going into as you will be surprised as to how many people will be willing to help you, and you will be given feedback and advice that you won’t have thought about, and won’t be able to get elsewhere.”
“I’d also recommend having a business partner. Because then there someone to celebrate the good times with but also someone who understands exactly what is going wrong and someone to solve those issues with as well.”
“Be prepared to have a lot of confidence in your idea and work really hard. We are pretty good though, and try to switch off on evenings and weekends to retain some kind of work/life balance. You need that energy and to be thinking straight, so if you are working yourself into the ground its just counter productive. There is always that when it is your business where you are thinking “oh should I be working until midnight” but the work is always there, and if you’re not working on it you are often thinking about it anyway because its so much part of who you are.”
And finally, if you were to meet your ten year old selves back on the slopes in Switzerland, what advice would you give them for the future?
“We never would have dreamed we’d be doing a business together, that’s for sure.” She smiles.
“Everything is going to be good. You will find your way and you’ll surprise yourself along the way!”
A huge thank you to Anna and Lucy for the interview and being part of this month’s Entrepreneur-spiration series. We wish the girls the best of luck as they continue on this journey and look forwards to seeing more of the Cuckoo Foods range hitting shelves soon.