Serial entrepreneur, Bobby Patel, dropped out of university in his first year and first term of Business and Architecture studies in London. The reason? He wanted to pursue his passion for branding, fashion and food. Patel went on to work for the likes of Selfridges and Burberry, but had self-employment in the back of his mind as the dream. Eight years on, Patel is now the Founder of five companies including four creative companies and most recently a health company, Appy Food and Drinks . He has been a mentor for Virgin Start-up specialising in Food and Drinks and has been awarded as the winner of the FSB Business Awards for cutting sugars in families diets and the World Juice Awards for the being the first kids juice brand to use stevia to lower and prevent high sugars in kids diets.
Getting to Know Bobby
No regrets leaving University then?
I have dreams of it every now and again! Maybe that’s what’s missing, but I wasn’t psychologically ready at the time. It may have made the journey to where I am now slightly easier, obviously starting a business without the educational background makes it a bit more difficult. You make mistakes you probably wouldn’t have made had you had the education. I am looking into going back and doing an MBA in entrepreneurship.
“You’ll start out with 101 ideas and 99 of them are probably rubbish, two of them are good, and only one of them will work.”
Why the detour from fashion into the health market?
Food and drink was something I really stumbled into from fashion. Visual merchandising for Selfridges was always very much a stop gap, to learn how to build brands and make businesses work before going into my project ‘Love for Design’, which was working with charities and brands to create limited edition pieces for the causes. My business partner at the time and I also had a food distribution company that came from me being asked on so many occasions during my time in fashion to source things from the Far East, Asia and Eastern Europe. Having contacts in those regions fully diverted my head to food and drink. I started enjoying that business more than the fashion. Fashion is more opinionated, trends are mapped out and set and so forth whereas food seemed even more evolutionary to me. The issue of selling sugary drinks to children really hit my conscious, which is why I created Appy drinks.
Why did you choose the name Appy?
It refers to our technology. We were the first technologically interactive juice cartons in the world. We had a lot of firsts when we started out actually – we were the first to create a stevia kids drink, the first stevia all-natural ice pops. We also have an app, where if you scan our cartons you can play and create games interactively. The reason for that was, we didn’t want packaging that once you’re done with it you simply throw it away. We wanted something recyclable where the kids could keep it and use it and play with it. So we are called Appy for that reason, because of all our products are linked to the app.
“We were the first technologically interactive juice cartons in the world. We also have an app, where if you scan our cartons you can play and create games interactively.”
As the CEO and Founder of Appy drinks, how involved are you in packaging, branding and design?
I’m involved in every step, from the production houses to formulating drinks. This week I’ll be working on the packaging. It’s every process. I have to sign off on everything, because I can’t allow things to get out into market, only to realise later on that there’s something wrong. And every formula has to be tested, so then I know it’s not been adjusted and that it’s perfectly right for the children who will be drinking it. I’m a Virgo, so I’m naturally very controlling on the brand side of things! I love what we’ve done and I don’t want anyone to be take it in a different direction, so I have to stay on top of what we’re doing in every department.
“I can’t allow things to get out into market, only to realise later on that there’s something wrong.”
How are you innovating as a start-up in the race against larger companies?
I think the larger companies tend to lose their identity with who started it and it can get pulled in a certain direction. We’re still close here and close to the issues. My mother suffers from diabetes, a few of my colleagues suffer from diabetes and some of my other family members too, so it just didn’t feel right to sell something sugary that I wouldn’t personally give to my kids. It’s very easy to create a cheap drink, fill it with sugar and make it profitable. It’s a bit more difficult if you have to use innovation to come up with a better product. When it’s a matter of a) do you want to spend your time innovating or b) spend your time making more money, people will usually go for the money part. It’ll always be the start-ups doing the innovating, which is why we do a lot of with start-ups to help push them forward.
“When it’s a matter of spending your time innovating or spending your time making more money, people will usually go for the money part. It’ll always be the start-ups doing the innovating”
How do you view the corporates who exploit our addiction to sugar?
It is certainly one problem. The other debate is the natural debate, which is coming up quite a lot now. The sugar debate is getting the attention with people in the media bringing light to the issue, but I can’t help but think some of those sugar debates are getting lost in translation. Now people are bashing companies like Innocence and saying Coca Cola has the same sugar content as fruit juice. It’s silly to be honest, because yes that may be true sometimes, but that’s evading the context that Coca Cola is pure sugar and chemicals, while juice has some benefits toward fibre and contains fruit. So now we’re trying to change the argument – do you want to give your kids artificial products, low-sugar drinks that have artificials in them to keep them sweet, or a fruit juice that maybe has a bit of sugar?
People’s diet nowadays are rife with gluten intolerances and lactose intolerances and all sorts of dietary problems that were never that big thirty, forty years ago. We can’t always blame sugar and salt, because these things that have been around for as long as we’ve known. We have to start looking at the processes; how brands want to keep their stock on the shelves longer and use artificial sweeteners while claiming a low or zero sugar status. And it’s difficult when buyers and consumers are only just coming around to the idea that artificial chemicals are much worse than sugar. Sugar is a natural substance at least.
How do you compete against companies like CocaCola when pitching to buyers?
When we did our pitch to Tesco, one of our first buyers, we brought in the chemicals of zero calorie drinks and asked the panel if they would willingly give that to their children. It would cause a shock because people genuinely don’t always realise what’s in these big-brand drinks. Tesco are doing quite a good job on that front at the moment, banning all added-sugar drinks from their kids aisles. We’re working with them to promote the artificial argument and bring about some more awareness.
What’s it like being a mentor on the Virgin Mentor Scheme?
Mentorship is really important here, even outside of the Virgin scheme. This is why we launched the Appy gardens for start-up companies who need help getting their products to market. We’re not a massive company by any means, but at least we can help feed off each other and inspire. Plus we want people around us who think the way we do and want to make healthy products affordable. A lot of start-ups will, and do, try and run with the premium priced healthy foods, but we’re saying that shouldn’t be the case. We’re trying to teach start-ups how to make an impact on the supermarket shelves and how to make the products affordable for customers, too.
“Mentorship is really important, even outside of the Virgin scheme. This is why we launched the Appy gardens for start-up companies who need help getting their products to market… We’ve helped Jamal’s Kitchen, who make jerk sauces and are now in Selfridges. He’s now getting investment, which is brilliant.”
In terms of the people we have helped there have been quite a few! We’ve helped Jamal’s Kitchen, who make jerk sauces and are now in Selfridges. He’s now getting investment, which is brilliant. We have helped a few healthy drinks companies on how to approach their branding and generally believe in paying it forward – getting brands in touch with other brands. When I first started I didn’t have a lot of help and sometimes (you learn the hard way!) people just wanted to steal your idea. I came from a non-traditional education background and I’ll admit, when I was younger I was a bit naughty, so I understand how to get those from unconventional backgrounds with business aspirations to market. With Virgin we’re focusing on school leavers, who weren’t necessarily cut out for the education system and are looking to find their path.
Rebel Wrap Up
What’s your all-time favourite moment of the entrepreneurial journey?
The beginning I think, coming up with the initial idea. The most nerve-wracking part is when you actually go to market and see people reactions. If people like it, great, if they don’t then it’s back to the drawing board. When we first launched our Appy drink pouches we made them so healthy, unbelievably healthy, that the market rejected them – they just weren’t as tasty as they could be. I think I was 28 at the time. So we fixed and played with these formulas for about three years, understanding how difficult it was to get the drink and the health benefits right in one go. When we eventually achieved it, they were tested again on the market and those three years really paid off. In terms of other ideas, the original idea was the best part because of the challenge to make it simple. The one problem we have a lot nowadays is that it’s very easy to make complex ideas, but very difficult to come up with simple ones.
“we fixed and played with formulas for about three years, understanding how difficult it was to get the drink and the health benefits right in one go. When we eventually achieved it, they were tested again on the market and those three years really paid off.”
What’s your personal advice to those looking to start their own business?
Focus. It’s the hardest thing, honestly. You’ll start out with 101 ideas and 99 of them are probably rubbish, two of them are good, and only one of them will work. So you need to know how to pick, and then how to back yourself and make it work. I think in a way, everything in your life does lead to something unexpected later on. For instance, I didn’t expect to go into food and drink, but I grew up on juices. I loved juices as a kid and developed a really sweet tooth. Then my mum got diabetes. She didn’t understand the long-term damage sugar had on the body. Combined, I can see how these things put me on the path to where I am. Sophia from Tg Teas is doing really well. She’s from an Asian background and grew up with those specialised teas, and that all led to her making her product.
You have to really think about what has formed you and the things you like, and not underestimate how much that can help you in business. As long as your business is going to help people and solve something for people, you’re not going to go far wrong. And as long you pay it forward you’ll not lose sight of helping people. It’s also not for everyone to be an entrepreneur, sometimes you are the vital help to the entrepreneur and help make the dream work, which is just as important a role.
“…everything in your life does lead to something unexpected later on.”
Do you have any new products lined up or plans for growth?
We’re developing snack boxes for kids at the moment, trying to get children more into vegetables – no easy task! We’re also looking to change all of our lines to organic eventually, hopefully by next year. We think that’s our biggest focus, trying to make everything natural and organic. We source ethically already, but it’s time to source organically. I’m writing an article at the minute exposing the origins of artificials and that industry. Without going into too much detail, artificial companies are known to sabotage organic farms, fearing that the organic market might take over or get bigger and lower their profits. The sabotage, I’ve found, involves artificial-promoting companies buying plots of lands next to those of the organic companies and letting pesticides blow over onto the organic produce, rendering them unable to claim the organic label and having to shut down the operation. It’s quite a big problem, so we’re on a long term mission to work with government agencies to stop this happening. In doing so we have to play our part and pledge to buy organic and bring in the orders for them.
We’ve spent the past two years coming up with even tastier formulas and have just about cracked it so they’ll be coming out next year. We’re also working with some airlines to create snack packs for them and with restaurants and cafes to do the same. We’re spending some time to focus on our adult range, too. When I go to my dad’s fringe and my mum’s fridge, it’s full of high sugar juices and products that they don’t seem to realise are harmful. It’s hard to tell them that what they drink shouldn’t really be 100% juice and sugar, there should, by our ethos, always be water in there. So we’re trying to get vitamin juices that can run alongside other, purer drinks like water and milk.
“As long as your business is going to help people and solve something for people, you’re not going to go far wrong.”
A Day in the Life of an Entrepreneur with Bobby Patel
Wake up and unwind with some tickle time with the dog and then watching Everybody loves Raymond whilst glancing at my list of emails from overseas clients (they wake up much earlier due to time difference.)
Take the dog for a walk to clear the mind before eating my Oatmeal Porridge with different toppings – Banana is my fave.
Make sure I drink a glass of water to cleanse the pallet before directions are given out to the team.
Have a series of meeting with the departments to give them a update and hear from them what they have been up to.
Catch up with the mammoth of emails that hopefully are demanding more orders from Appy.
Have a quick bite, usually Lentils or Pasta.
Review our sales performances for the week so far.
Have a catch up with the design team to ensure new packaging and innovations are being made on time.
Have a walk to the shops to unwind and recalculate the day while getting nibbling at a small bag of cashews.
After catching up with the last of the urgent emails, get on my way home.
Pick up the dog from my parents home and have a brisk 30 minutes walk to forget work.
Dinner time. I am vegetarian and have never eaten meat in my life so choice can be limited, but thankfully my wife who is non-veggie makes me some great dishes, my fave is vegetable pie.
I unfortunately need to catch up on last emails which were less urgent and/or needed some thought before reply.
Is trash TV time so I can forget all the woes and joys of the day.
Last little play with the pup before he and I fall asleep.