The Startup Interview: CheesePlease
There’s more to cheese than the basic Cheddar you find on the shelves of your local Tesco supermarket. That is according to Andrew Seed, a twenty-three year old from Lancashire who has launched his own company, CheesePlease, to make local, hand-crafted cheeses more accessible to the general public and is telling the stories that go with them. We met for a chat about entrepreneurship, cheese, ice cream and leaping at chances to be your own boss.
On the dot of twelve, Andrew appears outside Looking Glass Books, a small bookshop cafe tucked away in Edinburgh’s modern Quartermile development. The sun is shining and it’s notable in his dress sense — despite the recent cold weather, he’s only opted for a thin jacket atop his black shirt and trousers on this February afternoon. He orders a small coffee and we grab two plastic bowl shaped seats, the only seats left on what is an unusually busy lunchtime in the cafe.
We’re already chatting about entrepreneurship by the time we’ve settled which makes me regret not wearing a live microphone permanently, but I get my iPad switched on and ask Andrew whether he counts himself as an entrepreneur. “I don’t really relate with the term,” he says, his right arm leant on the table. “For me, the term relates more to individuals who carry some risk and really do this full time whereas this is more of a hobby for me at the moment.” He balances running the company, which he started last October, with his studies in History at the University of Edinburgh.
Currently, the company plan to send out experience boxes consisting of four local speciality cheeses and a number of accompaniments on a monthly basis. Andrew sent the first batch of experience boxes shortly before Christmas. “Have they been well received?” I ask him. “I received some really good feedback. I emailed all eighty customers after Christmas asking them to tell me about their experience, thirty did and provided some really positive comments.” He’s also learnt from his mistakes, however, and frequently points out the extortionate shipping cost incurred by using Royal Mail to send out the boxes. “That’s something I’ll be looking to improve next time with a proper distribution company,” he says.
“So why cheese?” I ask, trying to understand the inspiration behind the company. “My great-grandfather was a cheesemonger and, as a wedding gift, he was given a cheese stall by his in-laws 0n Preston Market,” Andrew tells me with a sense of pride. “He grew and grew until he had a number of shops around Preston. So there’s a bit of heritage there but I’ve always really, really enjoyed cheese, learning about cheese, trying cheese when I go somewhere new and listening to the stories behind the producers and the cheeses themselves.” He’s clearly passionate about it. “One of the problems you have is trying to access good cheese. For example, cheese you might buy in Devon is often not available outside Devon. Due to economies of scale, the dairies just don’t have the ability to market their good further afield.”
Andrew believes that his company, CheesePlease can solve this problem. “I want to make these cheeses accessible to people, allow them to be experienced, tasted as well as tell the stories of the artisans who produce them.” The company then aims to sell more of the cheeses included in its experience boxes through its website.
In my opinion, today’s consumers have very little interest in where their food comes from so I ask Andrew why he believes it is so important to tell the cheeses’ stories (he includes literature on each of the cheeses in his experience boxes). “By knowing who they are and their background, you have more affinity to the product and their tale. You can picture them making the product and get a real sense that the cheese you’re eating wasn’t produced on a production line but that it was hand-pressed for consistency and I think people appreciate that element.”
“And how do you decide which cheeses to include in each box?” I ask Andrew. He tells me that there are more than 700 cheese producers in the UK — that’s more than in France apparently — but that he has, so far, had a connection with all of the producers. “The Smoked Lancashire is produced is produced across the fields from where I live — it’s probably my favourite type of cheese. The blue cheese came from Devon where a friend of mine lives so I’d been and tried it before, the Gallybagger came from the Isle of Wight where a friend has a holiday home, and the brie type cheese came from Somerset where my mother comes from.” It sounds like he goes on cheese holidays — maybe that’s a new market for Andrew to explore.
“I’ve got more out of the past few months doing this than I have in the entirety of the last four years studying.”
Andrew first pitched his company at 3 Day Startup, an incubation weekend run by LAUNCH.ed which has featured in a number of my prior Startup Interviews. I’m interested in what experience he had at the event and how it helped him to launch the company he runs today so ask him to explain. “I delivered the pitch and then a mentor told me that, ‘now that you’ve told us you’re going to deliver these boxes, you’ve got to give it a go’ which made me realise that I could do it and should give it a go,” he says. “It was a bit of a kick towards having a go. What’s the worst that can happen? In just over a month, I’d sold out and was ready to ship the product out.” So has it been a learning curve for him? “I’ve got more out of the past few months doing this than I have in the entirety of the last four years studying,” he tells me enthusiastically.
“You jointly won the Santander Pitching Competition with Katchspace [a cardboard furniture competition who will feature in a future Startup Interview]. How have you used the winnings?” I ask. “That money is being invested in website development,” he tells me. “I see the website as my shopfront — it’s what people see and it needs to portray what CheesePlease is all about.” Its interesting to see just how times are changing. Although Andrew’s great-grandfather invested in physical shopfronts in Preston, Andrew’s business is primarily online, noting that today’s consumers are spending more and more online than ever before.
“On the internet, you’re selling a product. At a market, you’re selling the product but you’re also selling yourself.”
Nevertheless, Andrew has spent some time at market stalls selling his product. “Would you do that again?” I ask. “Yeah, it was so much fun,” he says, without the sarcastic tone I half-expected. “We spent two weekends down on the Grassmarket from 9–5, telling people about our product. It was fantastic to interact with customers. I guess that, because I’m primarily internet-based, I’d loose out on this interaction without the market. On the internet, you’re selling a product. At a market, you’re selling the product but you’re also selling yourself.”
“What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?” He sits back in his chair. “Never let an opportunity pass you by,” Andrew says. “If you’ve got time, say ‘yes, I’ll do it’ and, by following this, you tend to get the most out of your situation.” It’s advice his father gave him — another example of how many entrepreneurs are inspired by their parents — and is also the advice he’d offer to others. “Grasp every opportunity and milk it for what it’s worth,” he finishes with an unintentional dairy-related pun.
I ask Andrew what he thinks about graduate entrepreneurship and the risks involved (many graduates perceive entrepreneurship as too risky, opting for graduate jobs even though they would like to be their own boss). “Do you aspire to be an entrepreneur when you graduate?” I ask. “I took an internship over the summer — twelve weeks at a company and a job offer — but it wasn’t for me so I packed it in and went home after six weeks to sell ice-cream on the banks of Lake Coniston, a business I’ve run for a few years. Selling ice-cream was something I enjoyed and I felt I got more out of my summer than I did at the internship.” He goes on, saying: “I think there’s too much of a mentality that you should just roll out university straight into a graduate role without considering what that means and what you would really like to do as a job. I think it’s far better to take a step back and say, after this long in education, what do I want to do?”
“So should universities’ careers services do more to encourage such thinking?” I ask Andrew. “Well maybe,” he says. “I think it’s good that they encourage regular graduate job schemes — not everyone is interested in entrepreneurship. But maybe people like LAUNCH.ed should be earmarked earlier on in students’ university experiences so that they’re aware of the alternative opportunities out there.”
I reach my final question for Andrew: “Why Edinburgh?” “Oh really?” he says with a slightly disappointed tone of voice. “Maybe you should ask a different question. But really, it was my fourth or fifth choice.”
I opt to rescue him with a different question which I hope will be more appealing: “Why should we all eat cheese?” The answer is, for Andrew, a no-brainer: “Because it is a fantastic, tasty product, it’s nutritious, it’s a saturatory experience which ignites every taste bud, it’s got a fantastic aroma and, in many cases — unless it’s Cathedral City Cheddar — it’s got a fantastic story behind it to.” If that isn’t a reason to try his experience boxes, I don’t know what is.
We get up — I’m pleased to vacate the uncomfortable plastic bowl of a chair I’ve been sat in — and head back into the sunshine. I’m off to a tutorial but I suspect Andrew is off to the library for some more work on his dissertation. Or maybe he’s going to research the next cheeses to send out to his fans.