Posted: Sun 16th Sep 2018
Cecily Mills appeared on this week's episode of Dragons' Den and secured funding from Jenny Campbell in her business, Coconuts Naturally. Shortly after the show was recorded though, Cecily turned the offer down. She explains why as well as the story behind the company and her tips for pitching on the TV show.
How did you come up with the idea for Coconuts Naturally and turn that idea into an actual business?
It all started back in 2013. I was working in a very demanding job in London and commuting daily from Brighton. I was exhausted from the driving, and black coffee wasn't cutting it!
Looking for ways to increase my energy I changed my diet to a vegan one. I felt amazing but I missed ice cream. I wasn't able to find any substitutes in the stores so I decided to make my own!
My friends and family all loved it!. I always knew I wanted my own business plus, it felt like the plant-based, non-dairy market was about to get big. These factors all aligned, and it just became really clear that it was the time to just go for it.
So I left my retail career, packed up our house in Brighton and moved back to my childhood home of Cornwall and Coconuts was born!
What start-up challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
So many! Too many to list. But the big ones included funding and recipe development as ice cream is really technical.
Regarding funding, I was backed by friends and family at first which enabled me to get ice cream equipment and really get the ball rolling. And I've had many a night being kept awake with cash flow worries, and have the maxed-out credit cards to prove it!
Somehow you just get through it all though, you need to get creative with your cash I suppose. And always prioritise sales. It's so very easy to focus on other stuff, because as an entrepreneur you need to wear a million different hats.
But sales need to stay as king. My time at M&S during the 2008 recession certainly drilled that into me, and its stayed with me today.
Recipe development took a long time. It's really hard to make a dairy-free ice cream creamy and thick and non-icey with natural ingredients.
Perfecting the ice cream became nothing short of an obsession. To be honest it still is. It's an ongoing process, although today it's more about what flavours we can bring out rather than changing the fundamental mix.
Why did you decide to appear on Dragons' Den?
I had been looking for investment for a few months to fund the next stage of our growth. Being based in Cornwall, with two young children at home, meant that I definitely couldn't make the networking events in London that often enable you to cross paths with those that may help in this area. So I needed to think a bit differently.
I don't watch TV except Dragons' Den! I've always loved it and often watched other great foodies pitch on the show. I just thought, why not? As someone told me recently, fortune favours the brave!
Tell us about the experience pitching on the show.
It was amazing.
It involved a lot of preparation, interviews and initial rounds before you even get an invite to actually pitch to the Dragons.
It's a long day. You need to get there for 6am, and you all wait in the Green Room together. To maintain the confidentiality of the outcomes you don't get to see the businesses when they leave, they go out a different door. So people leave and you don't see them again and don't find out what happened.
I also had my four month old baby with me. I dragged my sister along to help with childcare so that made for an interesting dynamic on the day!
You do various walk throughs, answer some questions beforehand. Then you're called up.
You have to walk through the entrance into the lift, and just wait. The lift waiting seemed to go on forever, the four walls were literally spinning.
That was the hardest bit for me, that anticipation. But then the doors open and you just get on with it.
I felt remarkable relaxed as soon as I stepped into the Den. I had practiced so much, and I was really prepared for it. And the Dragons actually were very affable and made me feel (relatively) comfortable.
Why did you decide to accept Jenny's offer?
Jenny is an amazing businesswoman and that she believed in me just means so much. I've not had a female mentor before so it was a no-brainer for me.
She built her business with two young children at home, with a husband that worked away from home; exactly the same as me.
It just felt like there was so much synergy there and I was really grateful for the faith she showed in me and excited to learn from her and to see what she could bring to the business.
Tell us what happened after the show and why you decided not to proceed with Jenny Campbell's offer in the end.
About a week after we had some key developments come through including product registration acceptance in Hong Kong which was something we'd been working on for a year and a major new listing.
These developments meant that the investment offer was no longer the best thing for the company so it was with regret that I had to decline it.
What business benefits do you think you'll get from appearing on the show? How will you use it in marketing going forward?
The validation from the Dragons of the product, the business, and me are certainly the biggest benefits.
We'll always be able to say that we went on the show and they all loved our ice cream!
What are your top tips for other entrepreneurs considering a pitch on Dragons' Den?
I'd say go for it! Really, go for it.
Prepare until you are bored of your pitch, until you can recite the numbers in you sleep backwards. Then you just have to focus on the end goal, believe in yourself, ignore any fears and go do it!
What plans do you have for the future?
We've got big plans. We want to be know the world over as the dairy-free ice cream experts.
It's my passion, and I want to get our product into as many freezers as I possibly can.
In the short term that looks like continuing to grow our listings in the UK, as well as in the Middle East, Hong Kong and Australia, as well as growing our team in the UK to help support all this growth.
What are your top tips for business success?
Believe. In yourself, your product, your mission
Have faith. You will need it to get you through all the times you get a knock back, a 'no', when an unforeseen problem smashes in on a Monday morning.
Take massive action. There's no getting around it, there comes a point where you just have to get on and do it.
Roll up your sleeves and get on with it. Work late, work when you don't want to, make the call you are putting off, find a way around the problem, find a solution, keep moving forward and never get complacent.
You need to be obsessed with what you do, and that obsession will compel you to keep moving forward.