How Woman of the Year 2018, Sally Preston successfully bounced back from a decade of disappointment and frustration to build an extraordinary global brand worth £27m
“I banged my head against a brick wall for 10 years,” says entrepreneur Sally Preston. “I tried every which way to make it work, but there comes a point when you’ve banged your head so much that you’re bleeding. Then you have to stop.”
For nearly a decade, Sally tried to shake up the British baby-food market with her frozen product, Babylicious. She had done her market research and knew mums and dads loved it and she knew the price was right. Babylicious would be a hit. She was sure. There was just one issue to overcome: Babylicious was frozen and baby-food aisles do not traditionally contain freezers. But Sally felt confident she’d overcome this obstacle. “I knew the concept was right,” she says. “At home, mums and dads cook, purée and freeze food for their babies, so ready-made high-quality frozen baby food makes sense.”
What Sally didn’t count on, however, was the supermarkets’ inability to adapt their hardwired processes. Getting them to change was like trying to alter the course of a super tanker. She gave it everything she had, but was eventually forced to conclude that, despite their assurances to the contrary, selling frozen baby food was too big an operational jump for large supermarkets (for the time being, anyway).
It’s testament to Sally’s determination that it took her a decade to accept defeat. It was a bitter pill to swallow. Like many an entrepreneur, she knew the first rule: never give up. Sticking to this mantra has taken Sally to some dark places. Ultimately, though, it has paid off. She now runs a multi-million business, Kiddylicious, built from the ashes of Babylicious. For sheer entrepreneurial resilience, Sally’s story is a masterclass.
“Success is like an iceberg,” she says. “People see the tip but don’t see what happens below the waterline. Down there you’ve got pain, disappointment and constant reminders of all the times you’ve been let down. People say, ‘You’ve done so well so quickly’ but what they don’t realise is that this has taken over 15 years of refusing to give in.”
Not long after founding Babylicious in 2002 – three years after giving up her career as a food scientist at M&S to spend more time with her two children – Sally hit her first problem. “I registered ‘Babylicious’ as a trademark,” she says. “It was mine – I’d made it up. But I soon found out that someone had registered the same trademark two days earlier. That person – and I still don’t know who they are – was being malicious.”
The IP Office was unable to grant Sally her trademark and she had to re-brand, costing her £32,000. The saga does not end there, however, and Sally, showing the sort of fight she would need plenty more of, turned to Leeds-based IP law firm, HGF. “We fought it and eventually they decided ‘Babylicious’ had indeed been filed in bad faith. I won the name back. I have no idea who did it or why but I just had to get on with it.”
Not long after, someone tried to damage her fledgling business again, this time by spreading false rumours that the Advertising Standards Authority was investigating her. “Cutting a long story short, after spending £10,000, we found out who had been spreading the rumour. They promised to stop and we had to fight to rebuild our reputation.”
Undoubtedly, though, overcoming the failure of Babylicious after years of hard work – and millions of pounds of investment – was Sally’s toughest challenge. In 2009, Babylicious ran out of money after funding endless supermarket trials. Despite her steely determination, the dream was dead. At least, that’s how it felt. But yet again Sally’s rhino resilience came to the rescue.
“If you have an issue, face it head on. You can’t eat an elephant in one sitting, so break it down into small bite size chunks. Don’t hide the problem – gather as much collective brainpower as possible. Make your decision and don’t waver – others might not agree but at least they know where they are going. However, there is one big caveat: if you’re going down a road and it becomes clear it’s not working, stop. Do something different. Be prepared to change and say ‘OK, sorry, I got it wrong.’ And remember, you can’t see around corners, so never lose the resilience to keep on going.”
“We came across some fruit crisps – snacking products – and thought, well, why don’t we try this instead?” she says. “Babylicious was put into pre-pack administration – which was horrifically stressful – and we transferred the assets into a new company, the Kids Food Company. It was like taking the heart from a corpse, putting it into a new body and kick-starting it.” We continued trying to make Babylicious work for a further 2 years, but eventually in 2012 we gave in with Babylicious and turned our attention to Kiddylicious.
Despite the painful process, the Kids Food Company emerged like a phoenix from the ashes. At first, it comprised a team of just six and only two products under the new Kiddylicious Snacks brand: apple crisps and pineapple crisps. “They sold well,” says Sally. “Retailers wanted new and innovative baby snacks. We delivered them.”
They quickly built up a portfolio of funky, pioneering snack products, led by a woman who had undoubtedly been scarred by the past 10 years but who had become wiser through the painful process and still retained an unwavering belief. “There’s no doubt it takes its toll,” Sally says. “It’s emotional. It’s stressful. You need good, solid friends who believe in you and a certain amount of bloody-mindedness.”
By the end of 2013, sales were at the £2.5m mark and the plan was to become a £5m turnover business. To get there, Sally took a “giant leap of faith” (by now something she was used to) and she moved to larger offices and doubled the size of her team. “We invested every single penny of profit back into the business,” she says.
The gamble paid off. The Kids Food Company now comprises 28 people (all of whom own equity in the business), exports to 26 countries and sells three products somewhere in the world every second. Sales stood at £700k in 2010; by 2016, they had risen to £8.4m and in 2017 they were over £16m (with a global brand value of £27m) – a staggering 90% growth in just 12 months.
For Sally, the winning formula was a long time in coming. Years of toil felt like it had come to nothing when Babylicious bit the dust, but in fact it was just the long first chapter in a bigger book. Chapter Two – the creation of Kiddylicious – would never have been written without the travails of the first. The cuts and bruises caused by that brick wall were not in vain after all, and the future looks very bright indeed.