We first met Charlie, the Co-Founder of Oppo when he was speaking at a Virgin Start-up Food event, telling the audience about his story. Although we were just given a few snapshots of the journey so far we were engrossed and wanted to find out more. We caught up in the following weeks to discover how Oppo came to be, what the biggest challenges are that he has overcome and what advice he would give to aspiring food entrepreneurs:
Tell us about the story of Oppo so far:
In 2011 my brother (Harry) and I travelled to Brazil in an attempt to break the unofficial world record for the longest distance travelled by kite on land, unsupported. We quickly ran out of food resulting in me losing 8kg of weight in just 2 weeks!
After a little education from the locals we started eating what was naturally growing along the Brazilian coastline. Coconuts and wild super-fruits fuelled us to the finish line – not only were these super healthy and nutritious, but they tasted great too. We returned home with an idea. What if natural ingredients could be used to make indulgent food guilt-free…?
The idea for Oppo only came a year after we returned from Brazil. I quit my graduate job at Diageo and set about making ice cream guilt-free. If only I knew then that that would be the easy part. From there it took 25 months of research, three different factories, two specialized food research centres and four grants to develop Oppo. But you have to approach starting up a business with a realistic expectation – it isn’t straight forward!
Oppo is what I understand to be the world’s healthiest dairy ice cream. Natural, fewer calories than an apple, yet just as indulgent Oppo is made using fresh milk, virgin coconut oil and stevia leaf. Each flavour also has its own unique superfood boost.
We launched into Waitrose and on Ocado in October 2014 and we’re now also stocked in Whole Foods, Budgens, Holland & Barrett, Co-Op and various independents. This is probably our biggest achievement – achieving such growth to be stocked in over 1000 stores within 6 major supermarkets in just 12 months.
It’s been a busy year. In January we became the world’s fastest food/drink start-up to reach target through crowdfunding (doing so in a matter of minutes), were awarded the Guardian’s ‘Start-up of the Year’, and this summer I was invited by No. 10 to join David Cameron on the Queen’s jet to the Milan Expo, showcasing the best of British business and innovation.
And we’re not stopping here. If ice cream can be made guilt-free, what’s next!?
What has been your biggest challenge setting up?
There have been many…making ice cream guilt-free has certainly not been easy!
Six months into the challenge we thought we’d cracked it. It tasted amazing and we started pitching to the major retailers. One immediately loved it. Eureka! We made up the first batch of 750 litres to test the processing. Disaster struck. The product failed stability tests meaning that its shelf-life was too short. Back to square one.
14 months in and we hit another hurdle. A burst pipe during factory trials meant that £8000 of ice cream was left strewn onto the floor. With £1.05 left in the bank account and a year’s worth of work literally on the floor, Oppo seemed finished.
Oppo is now on the shelves, has a suitably long shelf-life and isn’t all over the floor which makes all the months of work worth it! Challenges come up every day but we always look to overcome them by keeping positive.
What did you do for kitchen space in the early days?
When starting Oppo I had an idea. I also had experience with consumer brands and FMCG sales, built up whilst at Diageo. But…I had no money to hire space! The space also had to be just right. Oppo was an incredibly difficult product to create. The percentage parts of specific ingredients need to be exact down to the last 0.01% and the machinery we use needs to be of a certain type and quality otherwise it doesn’t work.
To begin with I did an awful lot of research myself! Google and meeting as many industry experts as possible both taught me a huge amount. I had to persuade factories to lend me their space. For the first 11 months I worked with two factories but it just didn’t come together. Enough was enough, so I got 2 government grants and hired space in a lab for 3 months. Here was where I looked at the molecular structure of ice cream to determine the importance of sugar and fat (plus the other ingredients I wanted to get rid of like artificial flavourings!). I then worked to replace these arguably unhealthy ingredients with natural ingredients which were crucially healthy, in plentiful supply, and once formulated together could legally be called ice cream. This formulation had to match the expectation of traditional dairy ice cream. I then spent a further 9 months at a third factory scaling up this recipe to full commercial scale. It took a long time!
What advice would you give to any aspiring food entrepreneur?
The product is everything. You need to make your product remarkable. ‘Remarkable’ means ‘cool’ to most people, but it actually means ‘worth making a remark about’. As a start-up with zero marketing budget, word of mouth and an epic product is key.
You’re small – great! Remember who you are, and act like David rather than Goliath. Don’t conform to the norm, but excite and surprise. If you’re a David, embrace David. Don’t try to emulate Goliath.
Fill up that glass — to succeed and enjoy your inevitably tough journey I believe you need to be enormously positive. See opportunity where others see challenges, and reward where others see risk.
And a final thought about being new to your sector: if you don’t know the rules it’s much easier to break them! Think differently.