Real Business chats with cheesegeek Founder and successful Dragons’ Den candidate, Edward Hancock, about making the leap from finance to food and his experience on the popular BBC show. Hancock launched cheesegeek in 2017, an online subscription service for the best cheese selection to suit any occasion or cheese lover’s tastes.
What was the inspiration for cheesegeek and what was the moment that led to you diving into the food industry?
I suppose the seed was sown when I was eleven. My family went to a fine dining restaurant in France, it was my first experience with fine dining and the cheese trolley was wheeled over and it just blew my mind. The different colours, shapes, sizes, and smells alongside the expertise of the man serving was an experience that stuck with me. Ever since then, I’ve become a cheese over desserts kind of guy.
I felt that there was no innovation in cheese. When you look at coffee, gin, flowers, or beer, all of these industries are exploding with innovation and new brands that are becoming iconic with consumers in a short time frame. Despite the fact cheese is bigger than a lot of those industries, there isn’t the same kind of marketing or consumer brand focus, so a lot of people are simply reaching for supermarket products.
Two moments inspired me to go for it with cheesegeek. I encountered a stressed man in the cheese section of a deli shop who was hosting a dinner party that weekend. One of the attendees was supposedly a big cheese expert, so he was panicking about the cheese selection and wine pairing. I couldn’t resist jumping in to help him. I ended up putting his whole cheeseboard together. He had asked if I was in the cheese industry and couldn’t believe it when I said I was just passionate about good cheeses. Then, I was at a wine tasting, with lovely wines but alongside the drinks, they were serving awful cheese and it turned out it was from the Co-Op next door, and I was aghast that no one was putting the thought into the cheese accompaniment. Over the following months, I got in touch with my best friend’s wife, a talented graphic designer, and asked if she could bring my idea and brand to life. And that was how we got started.
What were the initial challenges in establishing cheesegeek, with cheese being especially perishable?
I’ve always said if I ever start another business, I would choose something easier to handle than cheese, but you can’t help what you love. When we initially started the business, my idea was to deliver cheese through the letterbox, so we spent considerable time and invested money in developing letterbox-friendly boxes. We quickly realised that you couldn’t insulate the cheese properly, you have the get the product into very small pieces, so it wasn’t traveling well and as it turns out, letterboxes aren’t all the same size.
We could have been stubborn and tried to make it work but we knew we needed to adapt, give up the dream of sending people cheese through their letterbox, and just focus on sending people great cheese. The size of our subscription boxes became less of a problem due to the pandemic as now people tend to be hybrid and being at home to collect or recover the parcels is less of a problem. In the beginning, however, it was a huge challenge because no one insulated their boxes, very few couriers had temperature control and online cheese selections were a sideshow to physical stores. Just as our first Christmas rolled around, Royal Mail failed on a huge amount of our deliveries, and then in our second year, we had to change our courier a week before Christmas because they were letting us down. It can be frustrating, to put so much into a product but the one part of the chain we had no control over was causing us significant problems. Our customer service was critical at that point because the issues with customers were unavoidable.
We had a lot of teething problems because our business is inherently more intensive in terms of cutting, wrapping, and dispatching cheese. We can’t outsource to a warehouse, we can’t have the product sitting on a shelf waiting to be dispatched whenever an order comes in so by the nature of the business, we are more specialised and we’ve had to build the business up operationally alongside the marketing, branding, and financing.
So, how does the cheesegeek platform work to source the products from independent vendors and suppliers?
We source directly from our British artisan cheesemakers, and we have direct relationships with the majority of them, so they understand what we offer in terms of profiling them and their products and communicating their stories to our customers. We can’t chat with our customers as we would with a physical store, so we do our best to make our communications channels as rich with information as possible. It’s challenging to communicate the value of artisanal products and the personalities behind them online.
We’ve had to overcome this through our packaging and the information we can send inside our subscription boxes. When you receive your cheesy package, you also have an insert that tells you what order you should eat your cheese, tasting notes, and what to pair with the selection to help our customers have the full experience. We always want to talk about the story of the craftsmanship and the skill behind the cheeses and the way they vary from batch to batch, from season to season.
Let’s talk about Dragons’ Den. Congratulations on your success with Steven Bartlett! How was that experience, being on the show and pitching your business to such industry heavyweights?
It was intense. It takes a lot of preparation, a lot of due diligence, and time. When you’re in the early stages of a business, you need to weigh up the pros and cons because of the level of commitment. The show is as true as it’s presented. They do have to cut a lot down because we were in the meeting with the Dragons for nearly two hours so viewers don’t get to see the extent of the conversations, questions, and negotiations so naturally, quite a lot is lost in translation but it is transparent about the process; there is no briefing, you do not meet the Dragons beforehand, securing their support is genuinely down to you and your business. I think people are most surprised to find out that there are no retakes and that viewers are true ‘flies on the wall’ to the experience.
We had a great outcome. I think we were very close to securing all five Dragons but going into the process, we knew as a business that Steven Bartlett was the best fit for us, so we are pleased to have him on board. It was a fantastic experience and ultimately, we came away with a great investor and advisor.
Do you think it has changed the trajectory or nature of your business goals?
It certainly hasn’t changed our goals. I think any other business that has been on the show would agree with me when I say that the business leader and their team remain the driving force behind the company. We weren’t necessarily looking to completely transform our business; we were looking for advice and the connections that open doors for greater opportunities. With that in mind, I think the effect of having Steven on board will be more gradual and more long-term rather than a huge overnight change. In terms of his ability to link our marketing team with his facilities and methods will be a huge benefit to our personnel and will lead to more effective marketing, how we communicate on social media, and building a culture around our brand.
I was interested in how you built your sales platform and your data strategy around customer feedback and reviews. How important do you think this has been in terms of developing technology that allows a more personalised experience for your customers?
It has been critical for facilitating our growth and standing out in the market. We put the work in from the beginning to build our tech out in a way that would suit us far into the future. It was more challenging to build a technology company alongside building a cheesemonger, but we wanted to ensure we would be able to provide the ultimate customer experience and subscription system for our customers without needing to completely overhaul and rebuild after a few years of trading. We were determined to get it right from the beginning. One of the genuinely transferrable skills from my life in finance was developing algorithms. The only difference was building ‘algos’ to allocate cheese, rather than looking for patterns and trends in market data. I used this knowledge to create what we call Cassie, which stands for ‘Cheese Allocation System’, as it picks the right cheese for each customer. It’s a genuinely unique piece of tech that has been integral for allowing our consumers to tailor and manage their subscriptions, so they can rate the cheese on our app, and we can use that feedback to improve their selections, helping us to send out hundreds of thousands of subscriptions that are all unique to every single subscriber.
Would you say that all entrepreneurs should be thinking about the future of their business while in the start-up phase?
It is hard to look past the initial stages of your business and set goals that you are years away from reaching but if you don’t have a vision of where you want to get to and pay attention to how your daily micro-decisions contribute towards that, then so much of the work you’re putting in now is going to have to be undone and systems will need to be re-built, costing time and money. We’ve never made decisions without thinking about the context of where we need to be as a business, and what the bigger picture is, and I think it is a worthwhile extra layer of time, effort, and energy, in the beginning, to make your job easier down the line.
What surprised you the most when you moved from finance to the food industry?
I spent a career getting into the mindset of people who work in finance, and I found many individuals were incredibly like-minded so there’s a narrow range of personalities to work with whether you are talking to an investor or a broker. Then I moved into food and off the bat, I was talking to such a vast collection of personalities and industries, from farmers to SEO agencies. The biggest adjustment for me was moving from dealing with a very narrow profile of people that were predictable to working with the widest spectrum of personality types I’ve ever come across.
One big part of the cheese industry that surprises me to this day, and surprises everyone I tell, is that you can order cheese for Christmas in August and the cheesemaker will create that product for you, then come the second week of December, if you realise you haven’t taken as many orders as you thought, you can just cancel that order. You paid no deposit, and you might have damaged that supply relationship, there is nothing to ensure that you will fulfill that purchase agreement. There is so much diligence, so many contractual agreements involved with almost every other industry, especially finance, that it was shocking to me that so much of the food industry, especially cheese, was based on good faith. I’m looking forward to seeing more contemporary practices entering the industry to safeguard small businesses and suppliers.