Every year, thousands of people start a home industry, hoping it will grow into a burgeoning business – and every year, thousands of them fail. Tracy Foulkes is not among these.
A former caterer and self-taught chef, she started NoMU with R25 000 in her Cape Town kitchen five years ago. Today, her products are listed in stores in 27 countries. They have been profiled in top magazines the world over, including Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. Harrods approached NoMU, wanting to stock the product line. Along with partner Paul Raphaely, who left a career in advertising and product management to help grow the company, Foulkes has been astonished by the phenomenal success of the brand. And yet, both she and Raphaely are quick to point out that their journey has been one of frustration, challenges, mistakes and a learning curve steep enough to give you vertigo. Not only does Foulkes have no food qualification, neither she nor Raphaely has any formal business training. “The challenges that we have overcome have been substantial,” Foulkes reflects. She had to learn all the technical food know-how required for commercial food production the hard way: as she went along. “We have a swear word around here – school fees,” says Raphaely. “We have paid a lot of them, either because we were too eager or too impatient or too naïve.”
Both of them list cash flow as the biggest challenge. The rapid growth of the business was very cash-heavy. “We had to learn to balance wanting to have fun with the business, to grow it and do exciting things versus the reality of needing to be flexible and put things on hold temporarily,” he explains. Cash flow lay at the heart of other challenges, like initially not being able to employ the technical team they required. This meant their team of three – Raphaely, Foulkes and long-time and first employee Tina van der Hoven – did everything from marketing and client liaison to production and dispatch logistics. “Some days, this included doing deliveries and picking up tins,” recalls Raphaely. Demands from suppliers also meant demands for more space, and Raphaely and Foulkes embarked on the costly venture of building their own factory. The pair faced these challenges with energy, enthusiasm and a fast-developing hard-nosed business sense. They did what was necessary to fund the business, taking loans and getting an overdraft facility. Fortunately, the NoMU products spoke for themselves. Part of the product’s success has been its ability to fill a niche in the market.
Foulkes explains: “We’ve tried to create packaging that is sexy, trendy and eye-catching. Then the taste of the food itself keeps people coming back for more. Finally, we’ve been fanatical about quality. Consumers are so much more knowledgeable about what they don’t want to put into their bodies and NoMU offers them something to fill this need. These three – packaging, taste and quality – mean consumers are happy to pay a bit extra for our products.” When asked what will set NoMU apart from other brands that have not managed to stand the test of time, Foulkes says: “Sticking to our key principle of quality and not prostituting the brand for higher volumes.” The eye for quality in everything, while exhausting and expensive, has paid off.Foulkes remembers getting her first export order after a British distributor noticed the brand at a local food expo in Cape Town. After the brand was spotted in Britain, orders from Norway and Holland quickly followed. “There are a couple of upmarket supermarket chains overseas that set the trends and watch each other, so if you are listed in one, then the others want you in their store as well. Before we knew it, we were in 27 countries,” explains Foulkes. While she comes up with product concepts based on what she’d like to use in her kitchen, Raphaely points out that product development is also driven by the desire to bring out products that are better and of a higher quality than those already available in stores. “There is a strong competitive edge to NoMU,” he says. With such success behind them, the future promises much. “There have been enquiries about whether we are interested in selling the business or selling a share in it,” says Foulkes. But, being true entrepreneurs, they are enjoying the success of their venture too much to bow out now. “We’re focusing on more growth and the next level,” says Foulkes.
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