Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I learned about the nutritional benefits of hemp seeds around 1993 whilst traveling in Canada, and chose to set up my first hemp foods business in the UK.
That has led to many ventures in the hemp industry including hemp ice-cream, hemp plastics, and cannabinoid (CBD) based products. This culminated in Hemp Foods Australia and Elixinol – two companies I founded that were merged under Elixinol Global in a Public Company on the ASX in 2018.
From the bootstrapped start in the early 90s with several failures to writing and publishing 9 books, and founding three successful businesses has led me to a corporate position where we have raised $120m in just the last two years for future expansion.
The original “Mr. Trippy” hemp ice cream van – selling hemp ice-cream, hemp drinks, hemp soup, hemp bread, hemp clothes, and more!
H.E.M.P. – the first of the authors nine published books including around 300 pages of recipes, nutrition, learning about hemp and sustainability – still available today as an e-book
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
When I was traveling as a backpacker, living on a few dollars a day in North-East Thailand, I learned that indigenous people, although poor, were extremely radiant and happy and seemingly healthy, despite their lack of what we in the West would consider clean living conditions.
I observed them closely and discovered their natural eating habits – living close to nature allowed them to gain the most nutritional benefits from the foods they were eating. On studying this further, I realized that the essential fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6) compounds found in their diet, were missing in most western diets due to the processing of foods.
Later on, whilst traveling (still as a backpacker) in Canada, I met Dylan who shared with me the many uses of hemp – including the hemp seed which contained a perfect balance of omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids.
Soon after I traveled to meet Dr. Erasmus, the author of a book called Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill – he was one of the world’s leading experts of ‘fats’. I asked him ‘if omega 3 and 6 are so important for humans, and hemp is such a great source of these fats, then why does he not promote hemp as the best source?’ He answered that the psychology of people could not be easily changed, and that hemp had a bad reputation as being a drug.
Realizing that hemp did not contain any drug inducing psychoactive properties, this was my aha moment – I had chosen to make it my mission to represent the hemp plant to the masses of people as a healthy, nonintoxicating food they should eat every day.
A hemp field from the early days in the 1990s
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
With virtually no money, I realized selling ‘birdseed’ (hemp seed) would not be so easy, so I considered what most people liked (in my view) – sugar-coated snack foods I thought could be a winner.
Choosing great people as your partners, team members, and employees is the most important thing you can do. Expertise is next, never first.
I then created a snack bar in my kitchen with hemp seeds and other seeds containing good fats. I sold these to friends, family, local health food stores. I believed that people would become ‘addicted’ – ie. their brains would inform them that these foods were so good, as they were so high in good fats, they would start to crave them again and again. This seemed to work.
It then took me through the steps of learning how to create a label design, following legislation, creating a business, trademarking the name, raising my first investment, managing stock levels and eventually working with a small team to support this venture. It took over one year before any substantial order was received but then continued to grow until it reached every supermarket chain in the UK, where I was based.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I remember with that first product, displaying it at small health trade shows on a table and feeding samples to people. I had no professional displays to start – just a few designs printed on my inkjet printer at home. I also remember people thinking I was strange, promoting a drug as a food, and most people ignored me at that time.
As I had done my research I continued to believe in my mission and discussed the product with anyone that listened. It was only at a trade show in Germany that a Canadian man requested a batch of 10,000 to sell in Germany that I found my first true customer – someone that understood the nutrition, and the potential.
I financed this production by negotiating with my supplier to pay after I had received payment.
I remember having a website, on what is now a valuable domain in the UK (hemp.co.uk), as I had learned to program early and understood the need to have a website before they were popular. Of course, today – Hemp Foods Australia spends a significant amount on e-commerce, SEO, SEM, etc.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Over the many years I have learned a few things:
Perseverance. Be patient. If you have a great idea, have done your research, and have been open to other feedback – it is all about timing. Never give up!
More important than any platform/ tool – is the ability and willingness to use it regularly.
E-commerce. This has always been the foundation of each business I have started for several reasons:
- Connect directly with your customers
- Control your message & branding
- Promote to the world via SEO, SEM, etc.
- Partner with successful affiliates who believe in your mission
- Re-marketing campaigns work if you can afford the trials and tests – so start small
- Amazon is amazing for physical products.
- Google and Facebook own the largest potential for traffic – paying for ads works, but again only after research
PR is the cheapest form of advertising. My businesses all started that way – as I had a story and an interesting mission – so using that and creating stories always helped. I remember supplying the first hemp snack bar to Princess Diana’s Chef who said she loved them. You can be sure I used that to gain a lot of PR and free advertising!
Learn more by visiting our social media channels below – where you will find plenty of pictures of our products also.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, our entities trade through ASX: EXL – a public company and therefore most of our data is public. We trade at approximately 50-70% Gross margins. Our growth was hundreds of percent to start, but in recent years a lot more competitors have entered our market, a lot of who want to leave the industry as they cannot keep up with all the details. They won’t be around for long, but they do affect our current sales and the ability to reach customers. You need to be prepared (cash flow) for such times and be flexible enough to focus on the best ROI for shareholders.
Today we are a multi-national business with manufacturing and distribution in the US, Europe, UK, and Australia – plus partners in many other countries including Japan and South Africa.
We have become multi-national as I have loved traveling and continued that for the past two decades. Each country, however, needs its own marketing campaigns and translation of a global brand into a local market.
Author ringing the bell, launching IPO in Sydney, Australia
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The most important thing I have learned in business is people.
Choosing great people as your partners, team members and employees is the most important thing you can do. Expertise is next, never first.
My biggest mistakes have always been putting the wrong people in charge who were not ready. Let people do what they love to do first and create an environment that is full of trust and enjoyable to work in.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
In retrospect, the best/ easiest/ cheapest tools have been Excel sheets and shared Google Docs that we have created internally.
More important than any platform/ tool – is the ability and willingness to use it regularly.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill by Dr. Udo Erasmus
Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer
Tipping Point, Blink, and many more!
Learning about technology, marketing, psychology, and spirituality have been my passions and all have been very useful in business life.
I now enjoy Blinkist – a way to listen while I ride my bike to a summary of many books on these subjects.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Do your research. Consider the long-term future. Be clear on your vision. Focus. Focus. Focus. I see too many people with too many great ideas, where if they just chose ONE and focussed on that I am confident they would be so successful they could easily expand to the other great ideas later (if they wanted).
Listen to and understand your customer – without knowing who you are selling to intimately, you are traveling blindfolded.
Never give up on your dreams – and enjoy what you do – or choose something else you do enjoy!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for experienced, experts in their field that are passionate about making a change in the world.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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