Interviews

Made in Chelsea star Jamie Laing – a mixture of Steve Jobs, Willy Wonka and Peter Pan

19 min read

22 December 2015

Former deputy editor

Jamie Laing is best known as a Made in Chelsea star or the McVitie's heir, but he wants to be an entrepreneurial success in his own right. That's why he's looking to Steve Jobs as an inspiration for his sweet enterprise Candy Kittens, which has so far raised £100,000 from an ongoing crowdfunding campaign.

If you haven’t heard of Candy Kittens, you’re exactly the reason founder Laing and business partner Ed Williams – MD of the confectionery company – have turned to Seedrs to raise money from the crowd.

With a target of £300,000, they’re now over a third of the way towards their goal having crossed the £100,000 mark on 21 December.

The capital will be used to drive brand awareness and increase marketing to complement a solid distribution channel that includes sales in Selfridges, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Topshop and Tesco – the latter of which came on board in mid-November.

So why is Candy Kittens different to the next purveyor of sweets? The business prides itself on creating “gourmet” gluten-free products that are made from natural ingredients and real fruit juices.

The gourmet tag relates to the price, with bags priced at between £1.80 and £3, while flavours include Eton Mess, Sour Watermelon, Lemon Sherbet, Wild Strawberry and more.

Laing and Williams met at Loughborough University four years ago, at which time the reality TV star was buzzing with ideas to create a sweet venture – perhaps unsurprising given his family’s business background – while Williams specialised in design and helped refine his soon-to-be partner’s aspirations.

Interestingly, although the pair had a brand and concept in the beginning, they had no products to sell. That didn’t stop them from generating thousands of Twitter followers on the back of Laing’s status and a name-drop on an episode of Made in Chelsea.

“We had 30,000 followers on Twitter before we had anything. We then launched a website and started selling branded goods and that revenue supported development of our sweet product,” Williams recalled.

“It’s a funny way to launch a business because we launched without the product we wanted to sell. We knew we wanted to sell sweets and we had a brand that had a following, and we knew we had to develop products.”

This quirky reverse approach to launching was useful though and although the website was launched without any money, £25,000 worth of T-shirts were sold in one night. The high demand caught them off-guard, thus a mass manufacturing job was arranged to ensure the items were delivered in the week.

“That generated a little bit of startup capital and it went on from there. Okay we made £25,000 on those T-shirts, what can we do next,” Williams said.

Laing added: “We’ve had an investor come in. But in the beginning it was very much Ed and I putting together what money we had. I was fortunate enough to have some inheritance, which we’ve loaned some of, and my step-father has put money in too.

“I was obviously in a hugely fortunate position to do that, but at the same time you can’t always throw money at a situation and make it succeed. It’s all very much within the family and the one investor.”

Referring to the early days, Laing described it as “Tetris” as he and Williams adjusted to sales to achieve their grand vision.

“It was Tetris in a sense, until we got to a point where we could decide we’d start making sweets. That’s why we’ve gone to crowdfunding now, to source a big sum of money to do a big marketing campaign and get more sweets into people’s mouths.”

Sales started in Selfridges and Williams admitted they couldn’t have hoped for a better launch partner, given that it has been named the Best Department Store in the World multiple times.

With such a diverse range of distribution outlets on-board, from supermarkets to high street retailers, Williams explained the audience. “We’re trying to sell our sweets as a premium product to style-conscious consumers – something that hasn’t been done before, a premium gummy sweet,” he said.

“Generally gummy sweets start at the low end of the confectionery market, the cheap bags of Haribo and things like that and we’re providing a premium in that sector.” He added that Topshop has the “perfect audience fit”, but sampling has resulted in OAPs enjoying the products, while parents appreciate them for children because they’re free of “nasty additives”.

Laing referenced the recent Steve Jobs movie starring Michael Fassbender and compared the Apple founder’s journey to their own. “He was trying to make people understand this could work and be done. I think this is what we were trying to do, we were trying to say sweets can be fashionable and cool, they don’t have to aimed at a certain age group of young kids, they can be premium,” he explained.

“When we finally got into Waitrose, that’s when all the other retailers were like ‘okay, these guys do know what they’re doing and have something interesting to give and people are enjoying them’.”

Williams said building up the footprint was “a mixture of luck and judgement” and called supermarket distribution “cutthroat” because every company wants to be stocked on shelves, while Laing added: “We’re trying to get people to buy into a lifestyle brand and the experience rather than just sweets.”

Of course, you only have to look at reality TV stars like Joey Essex to know that some people aren’t taken seriously, which Williams described as a “double-edged sword” when it comes to winning over buyers in the boardroom.

“Having a profile I suppose gets a foot in the door in a sense where people are interested in you,” said Laing. “I think, of course, having done reality, people have a certain idea of what you’re going to be like or what you are and that’s your chance and choice to change people’s opinions.

“I think that’s what I’ve done with Ed, having started the brand. I’ve not been one of those people that have sat back and just been a reality star, I’ve been conscious about doing other things. I think when we meet retail heads, people engage with us and they see the energy and passion behind the brand and I think that’s what changes their opinions. There are so many people that just go start a clothing line or something.”

Williams added: “They probably have a preconception that he’s [Laing] just another reality TV star. Then they meet us, see the product and the team, and it almost emphasises how good the product is because they weren’t expecting it.”

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With six people now in the company, including a chairman in Laing’s step-father and a financial director, Williams noted that the operation is a mixed bag – not entirely unlike the selection of sweets on offer – with one side of the business complete with a startup feel and the other possessing corporate knowledge of 50 years.

“I think it’s a clichéd thing when people say you have to have a business partner that’s completely opposite to you, but weirdly that cliché does actually work,” revealed Laing.

“When you have completely different characters, opinions and minds, it comes together as a bag of good things. We’ve had a lot of luck along the way, but you turn your luck to what you want it to be.”

Continue reading on the next page to find out why the pair turned to Seedrs ahead of offers from private investors and how Steve Jobs, Willy Wonka and Peter Pan fit into Laing’s idols as he lets go of a dream to be like Huge Hefner.

The Only Way Is Essex (TOWIE): A startup hub for young entrepreneurs

Discussing the decision for choosing Seedrs, Williams said it was favoured over offers that were on the table from private investors, which weren’t right for the company.

“We’ve gone with the crowd because it’s a good way of gaining more than investors but brand advocates, you’re appealing to all these different people. You could probably get one person to put in £300,000 easier than you can from the crowd, but for us it’s about engaging that mass,” he detailed.

“If there’s a young guy who’s left university like we did, who doesn’t know what to do, they can invest £100 and own a part of a real life business they can see in a shop. They can watch it, track it, get in touch and give us their ideas and be part of a team in one sense.

“Whether you invest £50, £5,000 or £50,000, I challenge them to walk past a shelf in Tesco and not tidy our bags up. Once you’ve invested, you’re a real ambassador at that point. Any time you see someone eating sweets, you’ll mention Candy Kittens and tell them about it.”

Laing added: “Crowdfunding for us, because of social awareness and my profile, gets the message out to these young entrepreneurs who feel like they don’t know where to get money from. It promotes that if you have an idea, you can go out there and get an investment from people that think your idea is great.

“You create an army of people, who are looking out for your brand which is such an awesome idea. You have people all over the country supporting.”

Williams contrasted it against their time at university when they would pay people to be ambassadors and speak about the products, while it’s now the other way around as people pay them to be ambassadors.

With the company mission firmly in place, we drew upon leadership aspirations, as Laing famously said he wanted to be known as cross between Willy Wonka and Hugh Hefner. He conceded that Williams, in keeping with his ability to draw back Laing’s ideas, diverted him from that train of thought.

“I just love sweets and it’s been my passion – not just going on a TV show and deciding to sell sun cream. My dream as a kid was to have a world made of sweets. Growing up I loved Abercrombie, Jack Wills and so what I wanted was a sweet shop with these girls or guys, ambassadors of the sweet shop, as good looking, fun and cool.

“When Ed came on board, I realised that probably wasn’t the best idea. It was hugely expensive to open any shop in London. I though why not change it to packets of sweets you can sell across the UK rather than just one shop. That’s why we do pop-up shops, you can experience the brand and we can go everywhere.

We want everyone to see the brand and like it, it’s far more exciting than setting up just one shop in London and selling pick and mix in there. That’s where the idea came from.”

Referencing his heroes, he named a trio of people. “My heroes are Willy Wonka and Peter Pan. It’s that boyhood dream that’s driven me towards this. Everyone wants to own their own sweet shop.”

He added that while he’d had stints in jobs, he disliked working for someone else and said that’s an attitude that went back to his school days when he would rather create new moves in a game of rugby instead of completing a maths test.

“It’s a riddle in a sense, everyone has money in their pockets, it’s about finding a way to get their money into your pocket. Making money is a byproduct of what you do, but for us it was the love and passion of creating something that we got excited about,” he said.

“Going back to Steve Jobs, he always said that he doesn’t care how much people make, he cares what they make and that’s so important to us. We’re far more proud of the product, what it is and what the brand represents rather than what money we’re making.

“Jobs is awesome. He revolutionised everything, he’s like Einstein. He created Pixar and Apple, who does that? He was so beyond our time. That’s what Ed and I were trying to do – create something completely different that hadn’t been created. It’s completely different to technology, but still we’re doing something nobody else had done.”

It was reported at the end of last year that the business made a loss, which Williams said was always planned. “I’d have been more surprised at that stage if we made a profit. We invested a huge amount in starting a brand – developing a product from scratch, our own packaging, all the systems needed to run the business, which includes a robust supply chain, accounting, ordering and invoicing,” he said.

“Someone dug deep to find that and it was quite flattering in a way. I guess that’s one of the elements of being a business in the spotlight, every move is scrutinised. We’re on a very narrow path. That’s part of the double-edged sword of Jamie’s profile.”

Real Business previously spoke to the stars of TOWIE, many of whom have started their own businesses – with products often shown on the show. Laing revealed that showing branding on Made in Chelsea is more complicated, however.

“On Made in Chelsea, in the beginning I had the idea of a sweet company and that was exciting, but it was smoke and mirrors, there wasn’t really anything there. Yes they portray your life but you can’t hold up packets of sweets and say ‘come and buy them’. Has MIC helped? It gave it a platform, but it’s what you do with it that counts,” he said.

“I’m not sure how many reality characters or brands have gone on for four to five years, but it has helped and you can promote it on the TV a little bit, but not really. If you have branding, it’s very technical now because of product placement.”

Williams concluded: “Our decision from the beginning has been to make Candy Kittens a standalone brand – supported by Jamie’s public profile, but people are buying because they like the sweets or, maybe, because they like Jamie.

“It’s not a Joey Essex hair gel or something, we could have put Jamie’s face on the bag and called them something else, but we’re here for the long-term and we were quite aware there’s no telling how long Made In Chelsea will go on for.”