From a kitchen table in Northern Ireland to selling in the USA

From a kitchen table in Northern Ireland to selling in the USA
Michael Thompson
Michael ThompsonIconic Biscuits Ltd.

Posted: Wed 4th Nov 2020

Michael Thompson is the epitome of the phrase 'kitchen table entrepreneur'.

After quitting his job and retraining as a chef, he came up with the idea of making biscuits containing alcohol. They proved so popular that one order led to Michael baking 3,500 biscuits using his home oven.

But there's a limit to the number of trays of sweet treats you can store in a family kitchen, so he recently set up his own micro production factory.

The Northern Ireland-based entrepreneur tells the story of Boozy Biccies and how the Amazon Small Business Accelerator e-learning programme has helped him along the way.

The free Amazon Small Business Accelerator e-learning programme is advice from more than 30 business experts in 218 bitesize videos.

If you're already an Enterprise Nation member, log-in to your learning dashboard to access the e-learning. If you're not an Enterprise Nation member, you can join the Amazon Small Business Accelerator for free here.

How did your entrepreneurial journey start?

I originally started out doing web design, but I wanted to do something that was better cashflow managed and a product business.

At the time I was a scuba diver and I decided to sell underwater camera equipment. No-one else was really doing it in Ireland so I taught myself PHP. I bought The Idiot's Guide to PHP and worked through the book and built an ecommerce site.

It did very well. It became the biggest marine supplier in Ireland, and I supplied scuba divers all over the world, but due to a supplier issue I lost the business.

So how did you end up selling biscuits?

For my last big job, I did a lot of travelling. My daughter had just been born and I spent a week away. I came back and she looked totally different. I didn't want to do it again, so I quit.

My wife was working as a nurse and she was happy to take on the shifts. I stayed at home to look after the children but also trained part time as a chef. I thought about going into food sales for restaurants and hotels, but I also wanted to run my own business. The only thing I could make in my kitchen at home without a huge amount of regulation and the complexities of logistics was biscuits.

There are lots of custom cookies out there, but I wanted something I could turn into a big business. It took six months working through different legislation and lots of trial and error before I came up with a biscuit. I researched through Google and looked up what people like. I bought all the top selling biscuits, measured them with a ruler and looked at what ingredients people used. Further research told me which flavours to make and how to package them.

How have you built sales?

I had a job in an aircraft factory, and I was selling loads of biscuits in the factory. Someone suggested I send them to the Try Channel in Dublin, an online channel with Irish people testing unusual Irish-made foods. They featured me and I had 150 orders from America in the week up to Christmas.

I ran the business part time for a few years but then I was made redundant from my aircraft factory job due to the pandemic. It was time to go full time.

I managed to get a personal loan which I've used to fund a micro biscuit factory as I like to call it.

What have been your key challenges?

The complexities of food production regulations nationally and internationally are staggering, but the information is readily available, it just takes time to research, learn and apply it. The real challenges are the unpublished knowledge, where you have to question dozens of companies on every aspect of production; like which type of plastic works with which machine, and can it be replace with something eco-friendly?

I read every whitepaper I could find; on every type of production machine and the materials it uses. I can tell you no end of boring things about the composition of film for wrapping biscuits.

Funding has been non-existent as a start-up moving from part-time. If I was starting fresh there are grants but because I've been trading, I'm considered an established business. Funding is then based on previous turnover, which as a part-time business was tiny. To fund the business, I started to look for larger orders on the condition my lead time would be weeks and months instead of days. It's a harder sell, but it gave me confidence to get a personal loan and go for it.

Boozy Biccies

What has been the impact on your family life?

I have a seven-year-old and a two-year-old, so it takes a lot of planning. I've got to check if they're going to use the kitchen table that day. It has been a lot of early mornings and very late nights. I get them into bed and then I make biscuits until midnight or 1am, get up in the morning and box them.

I always make a couple of plain biscuits. The children call them 'Daddy bics'.

When I left the aircraft company, I thought I had to make more biscuits to make it viable, so I looked at retail. The first shop took 20 boxes so that's 200 biscuits. A week later, they had sold out and ordered 350 boxes. 3,500 biscuits are an awful lot to make in your single oven and using your kitchen table!

What tips have you picked up from watching the Amazon Small Business Accelerator e-learning videos?

I got an email about the Amazon Small Business Accelerator and I immediately replied. It was the perfect timing for the business.

I've been working through the videos and making a list. There's something in every video, especially the case studies of Amazon sellers such as Nudie Snacks and Coconut Merchant. It's when seeing other people's businesses that you realise they were in the same position. They started out small and now they have a warehouse and a forklift.

There's a great video regarding the 'About Us' page on a website. I have looked at 'About us' pages on other people's websites but I didn't value my own. I went back and revisited it and thought there was lots of information missing. I have a background in marketing and PR, so I had a press page ready to go but the value of an 'About us' page hadn't occurred to me.

I have also watched the videos about selling on Amazon, especially the FBA [Fulfilment by Amazon] side of things. As an existing Amazon seller, I've already used some of the tools and services but there's lots more to it and seeing the videos gives you an idea of what you can do. I found the tips on how to lay out your product listings particularly useful. I've gone back and revisited all my titles and descriptions. It has made a big difference.

My evenings are currently split between applying for BRC Food Safety Certification and taking a break to watch the e-learning videos!

What are your plans for the future?

I have plans for three new designs with a whisky biscuit coming out this Christmas. For production, I'd like to move out of my current kitchen. It's 270 square feet which is ideal for what I need now but I'd like to see it fully automated and BRC accredited. I'd like to employ machine, bakery and quality staff. I'd also like to have salespeople on the road and fulfilling online orders from Amazon and our own website.

I already have American buyers who want to buy the biscuits for retail, but I can't make enough yet, so I've got to go through the accreditation and systems to sell into the US. In two years, I'd like to see my products in the USA, and I have two other territories in mind I'd like to expand to.

How has COVID-19 impacted on your business?

It has been tough in that I lost a job and because of the structure of the business, I didn't qualify for COVID-19 schemes.

But looking on the bright side, although I was forced out of my job, that means I'm now growing the business. It's brilliant and I love doing it but it's also slightly terrifying!

Online sales are up and everyone I talk to likes that it's a new product and something they can sell, they're excited about it, they love the biscuits, they love the design, the brand, the flavours. Production-wise, because I'm on my own, I can come into work and the restrictions of the lockdown don't affect me.

What's your advice for other business owners?

Make a list of what you want to achieve, refine that list to what you can actually do and how long it will take. Then work the list, relentlessly.

Think about how you can automate. Lots of businesses are craft based and very hands on, but if you can't scale the business, you're going to be doing that forever.

The free Amazon Small Business Accelerator e-learning programme is advice from more than 30 business experts in 218 bitesize videos.

If you're already an Enterprise Nation member, log-in to your learning dashboard to access the e-learning.

If you're not an Enterprise Nation member, you can join the Amazon Small Business Accelerator for free here.

Michael Thompson
Michael ThompsonIconic Biscuits Ltd.
I'm the creator of Iconic Biscuits and the brand Boozy Biccies. I started out in the security industry before moving to web development and programming. In my spare time I was a marine photographer and started an online retail store selling underwater camera equipment during the Dot Com era. After making it the largest supplier in the country of it's kind, it blew up and I moved to PR photography, shooting numerous well known brand names and government PR jobs.  From there I founded a social media marketing consultancy before being acquired by a marketing agency and co-directing it. I then took a position as Sales and Marketing Director for an aerial defence manufacturer, before taking four years off to stay at home with my new daughter. During this time I retrained as a chef and developed my line of biscuits.  At the point of launch, my biscuit production was stalled by an outsourced producer being unable to fulfill the orders. I took a typing role at an aircraft parts manufacturer and turned the job into a section within a department, running my own team, solving regulatory records issues. During this time I continued to make my biscuits at home, at night and sold them online to the USA and into the factory sites where I worked. In 2020, I left the job to fit out a microfactory and begin fulfilling retail orders and expand my exports. In my spare time I still love being at home with my daughter and younger son, as well as gaming online, reading, photography, eating and studying. I also hold advisory positions in charitable organisations.

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