Interviews

Oppo: The overfunded ice cream startup with world record-breaking founders

11 min read

06 February 2015

Former deputy editor

Adventurous siblings Harry and Charlie Thuillier set out to complete a world record which took them to Brazil on a kite buggying expedition over a stretch of 1,000km. Somehow the journey transformed into a nutritional discovery that developed into a nationwide ice cream business with Waitrose and Ocado as partners.

The duo’s trip to Brazil took place back in 2011, with Harry on a sabbatical from an automotive firm and Charlie having just graduated from York University.

Both accomplished windsurfers, they fancied doing something different on their journey to the remote northeastern part of the country, which is well known for intense winds. They came to adopt kite buggies and realised nobody had ever completed the 1,000km distance between airports that way before, usually opting for more conventional methods of transport, like cycling or driving.

Perhaps the first demonstration of entrepreneurship from the pair came as the trip was sponsored by manufacturers, with the brothers deciding they would raise money for Centrepoint in the process.

The trip wasn’t seamless though, as Harry explained to Real Business: “We could be doing a marathon each day but the route wasn’t always straightforward – some days we couldn’t go along the beach and we came across swamps.

“We ran out of energy bars and Charlie lost a stone in two weeks. We saw the way locals prepared coconuts, which are really nutritious super-foods, so we started eating those. We’ve always been into health, nutrition and fitness, and they allowed us to eat really healthily and not compromise. We completed the expedition, setting an unofficial record for wind power.”

Once they got back into the UK, Charlie’s mind started wandering and he considered making an ice cream business out of their newfound super-food discovery, replacing the cream and sugar with naturally sweet stevia leaves and virgin coconut oil among other natural ingredients for different flavours.

Harry said: “It took Charlie around two and a half years to perfect and he was living on my sofa at the time. He’d been on a graduate scheme for ten months then realised he wanted to work for himself and with me, even though he was the top sales guy there.”

Seemingly his sales expertise paid off and a partnership was struck with a factory in the Cotswolds, which agreed healthy ice cream would be an interesting and disruptive category, effectively enabling access to the facilities there. Meanwhile, a London Bridge branding agency offered a discounted design rate for for the opportunity to shape the Clapham-based Oppo brand.

Harry noted that the benefits of combining the coconut oil and stevia means they don’t ever convert to fat, unlike cane sugar and dairy cream.Stevia has also been given firm approval and praise by Coca-Cola which is using the sweetener in its health-centric Life brand.

Clearly satisfied with the salted caramel with lucuma flavour, Harry described it as an “innovation” with a “proper caramel flavour” despite its healthy core, which is how it went on to smash its crowdfunding target and attract the partnership of Waitrose.

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A mutual contact originally connected them to Waitrose around two years ago, but the supermarket initially said the product wasn’t “quite right” before going on to describe it as “remarkable”.

“We launched at the Lunch trade show [September 2014] and that’s when I joined full-time. We won the most innovative product of 2014 and then launched in Waitrose after banging on their door for so long,” Harry explained. “Usually, products are trialled in five to 15 stores, but we’re in 117 out of 350. They’ve been very supportive, and they’re very good with startups and businesses.”

“They felt nothing else was demonstrating our level of innovation with a healthy indulgence, and that there was a big market for it. With a healthy ice cream, people don’t believe you or they’re amazed by it, and Waitrose could see a market need,” he continued.

The process involved requires the product to be made in large quantities, and that’s why Oppo sought our a partnership with Waitrose. “We really needed a big customer. Most small businesses would start an ice cream stall on a farmers’ market somewhere, but we thought Waitrose was a really good fit – from a customer perspective, they’re slightly happier to spend more on quality products and are more health-aware, while Waitrose is good with SMEs,” Harry said.

The company was initially funded with around £60,000 from friends and family, as well as two government grants, and funds from Santander and York University of around £2,000, which was put into R&D at the start and end of 2012, and in 2013. The latter round came after Charlie visited his former university to enter a competition after the company ran out of its final pool of money during a production issue. Harry recalled the moment and said: “There was a stage where we had £1.05p in the bank account. We considered it may not be feasible, but luckily the small grants came into play and got us out of the hole.”

Oppo’s largest round of funding was yet to come at that point, and it happened through crowdfunding on Seedrs in January 2015 at a much higher value than the two brothers could have ever anticipated.

Again, it was chance that led to the Oppo’s major investment when a delivery of ice cream that arrived was too large, so the brothers went into the local cafe to hand it out for free to customers, one of whom was the wife of Seedrs’ CEO, Jeff Lynn. Subsequently he paid the siblings a visit as they were debating their next move.

Harry revealed: “We had one solid offer with funding at the time and two discussions with venture capitalists. We decided to avoid VCs and keep more control with equity – partly because it allows you do do more marketing, but also because you can get consumers to think you’re the next big thing.

“With Seedrs the target was £100,000 for 9.8 per cent. A valuation was done through comparable businesses and where they’re at, and also recommendation from Jeff – it was hard to do it on sales with just two months of data from Waitrose.

“We created a video and started the campaign on 5 January with a close network of investors and raised £45,000 by the following evening. On 7 January we made the link public with a full 60-day expectation, and reached £100,000 in an hour. We decided to overfund and in three days we’d reached £345,000 – it was unprecedented and became the most oversubscribed campaign Seedrs has ever had and the fastest food startup in equity crowdfunding. We decided we’d be giving away a lot of equity, so accepted £308,000. It was great that people were buying into what we were doing as an innovation and had passion in the project.”

The money will allow Oppo to scale a lot quicker with additional hires, and the team has already moved into a new office, while some people have begun to apply speculatively as the startup’s brand secures more exposure.

“We don’t have money for recruitment fees and want to try to avoid it for now. We’re looking for an operations and office manager, so I’ll probably be standing with an A Frame outside Clapham North Station to attract disillusioned with going for city jobs and appetite to move into startups,” Harry said.

The capital will also be used to expand the reach of the product across Waitrose to 180 stores, but also premium London retailers online and in-store, with Harry mentioning the likes of Selfridges and Harvey Nicholls, with a potential view to exporting following interest from the Middle East and Australia.

As for the prospect of introducing a bricks and mortar venue, Harry said: “There’s a lot of potential to get into the retail space, but in many ways we would like to support customers we have at the moment, and with a small team we need to keep our eye on the ball.

He continued, likening the brand to have aspirations akin to Innocent: “The mission is to make the indulgent healthy, so we want to create healthy versions of products that people really like. Ice cream is one of the best loved treats, but we’re certainly interested in other categories.”