Jeremy Jaffé, co-founder and director of What on Earth, talks to inspiresme.co.uk about how he set up the company, which produces, supplies and distributes a wide range of organic food to businesses.
Q: You both owned businesses before What on Earth. Did you want to be entrepreneurs from an early age?
A: I don’t think people necessarily decide to be entrepreneurs – it’s more a case of either you are one or you aren’t one. But I did always want to own my own business. My dad was a university lecturer so I knew the importance of getting a decent job. Originally I wanted to be an architect but then I realised how much time it took to become one. I wanted to get into business quicker which is why I did my own thing.
Q: What personal qualities are most commonly found in successful entrepreneurs?
A: Determination is definitely a key quality that all entrepreneurs have. If you don’t have determination then there is no drive behind what you do. Entrepreneurs need to be able to see beyond the obvious. They need to have a different outlook on what is successful and what isn’t. I don’t think it’s a case of inventing new things all the time. Entrepreneurs have the ability to see what is out there and then do it better. They can take an original idea, identify problems, improve upon them and then create a more successful business.
Q: How do you ensure you strike a satisfactory work/life balance?
A: My work has also become my hobby. I am constantly looking at new ideas and trying new foods; I enjoy what I do. When you create something your hobbies become your work and you have to make yourself not do work. For example if I have any time off I try to make sure that I don’t read my emails otherwise my day doesn’t become my own, though it is quite difficult to switch off completely. A key to this is to employ good people so they can take the stresses and strains whenever I’m out of the office. This allows me to have a pretty good balance, especially now the business is larger and more established.
Q: What challenges did you face when starting the company and how did you overcome them?
A: Both myself and my business partner Rolf faced a myriad of challenges – the main ones being that we had a lack of knowledge and experience within the food industry. We’d originally been working in the classic car industry so we really were working in new circles.
We also had a lack of direction. We knew we wanted a business in the food industry and why we wanted it but to be successful you also need to identify what it is you want from the experience. You have to train yourselves. People think this is easy but it isn’t. You need time – you have to give up your life to focus on the new project. We were working every hour for at least the first few years without any reward. It was a struggle.
Q: What advice would you give to a company about to hire their first staff member?
A: First and foremost they need to put a proper interview template together. This will help the interview flow and will let employers know what to ask of the prospective employees. When offering somebody a job always employ them on a three month trial and make sure all employment contracts are written up.
Q: Why did you not give up when your initial idea, of selling fresh sandwiches directly to businesses in London, did not work?
A: The simple answer is that we didn’t want to give up. We knew there was definitely something out there for us but obviously sandwiches wasn’t it. Selling sandwiches was effectively our market research and when we found out organic pizzas sold better and would work we focused on that idea instead. We built a kitchen, made a batch of pizzas and then sold them. Giving up is not an option. You just have to find the right course.
Q: You’ve retained a very hands-on role with the business. Is this for personal reasons, or do you think it helps the company succeed – if so, how?
A: When small companies are entrepreneur-driven you have to have a certain style. The work behind it is a function but it’s important that the owners add the necessary style. You start hands-on and you stay that way. My business partner and I see the opportunities and directions that our company could and should be going in and we feed that down through our employees. We don’t run the full business because we have members of staff who do that for us but we are still very hands on. We are both in the office every day and we answer the phones like everybody else. Rolf even gets his hands dirty by doing DIY.
When the owners are hands-on it helps both prospective and established customers believe in the company more. It makes their experience more personal and helps all parties understand each other’s needs.
Q: You launched your company in 1998. The market has obviously evolved considerably since then – how do you make sure your brand remains fresh?
A: We keep reinventing what we’re doing. We don’t copy the market; we experiment and we go for what we think will work. We just make it our mission to find good quality products that our customers will want. We are a very customer driven business and we always endeavour to find anything they request.
Q: How do you ensure you comply with relevant legislation e.g. food preparation and health and safety?
A: Both Rolf and I keep abreast of everything that’s going on but we also have technical people in the business who look after that side of things. It is their job to make sure we are up to spec with all relevant legislation so we sit down with them regularly to discuss it all.
Q: Your product range has grown enormously. Was it hard to grow the range while remaining true to your original vision?
A: I’d say it was the absolute opposite actually. When you have so many great products the fine art is keeping it in proportion. Our original vision was to supply great food – primarily organic. We started with organic pizzas and expanding from this was just a controlled move forward. It would be extremely easy to create a lot more products but we’d lose the integrity, which is something that is core to our business.
Q: What levels of success have you seen in encouraging employees to be green and ethical? Any opposition?
A: As a company we are very environmentally friendly and we ensure ethical working practices are implemented in every department of the business. Our employees are eager to keep this up as we all seem to share similar values. Admittedly not everyone agrees with our way of working all the time but generally they do like our ethos.
We encourage all staff members to walk, cycle or use public transport to get to work and this has seen high success rates. We recycle heavily across the whole business – from scrap paper in the office to food packaging in the kitchen. We also re-use envelopes and wooden pallets, switch off all lights, computers and other electrical items when not in use and ensure all kitchen equipment is energy efficient. Our employees have it instilled in them to follow the ways we work.
Q: What are the unique challenges of running a company where ethical/green credentials are part of the brand?
A: Staying true to the ethos can be difficult at times because there are plenty of pressures to stray from our environmental stance. Money can be a big pressure as is the fact that there is no automatic recycling for businesses. We create a lot of recyclable waste but we have to pay for it to get collected. As a company that believes in lowering our carbon footprint wherever possible we just accept this overhead but it’s not something we think is fair in the slightest. Another challenge is the way we deliver our products. We always endeavour to create delivery schedules that keep diesel miles low but we are constantly coming up against challenges when roads are closed or when road works are taking place. Parking restrictions, fines and road taxes are other challenges we come up against regularly.
Q: What advice would you give to a company starting up in your sector?
A: I would advise people to really research the market and check out the competition. They need to talk to people in the industry and find out what consumers want. They also need to make sure they can make money with their business idea and, ultimately, make the actual product they want to produce.
Q: What’s next for What on Earth?
A: We will just continue doing what we always do, i.e. research and develop new products. We love what we do after all. We make products on both a retail and food service basis so we will keep producing new items for both these markets. We will continue to keep our customers happy, ensure organic food is high on the agenda and endeavour to build our customer base where possible. If we can diversify into other markets and countries then that’s a bonus.