[Interview]: Edward Hancock, founder of Dragons’ Den success Cheesegeek
Cheesegeek has recently found success on Dragons’ Den when it secured a £150,000 investment from the programme’s newest Dragon, Steven Bartlett, for a 5% share in the business. Here we talk to founder Edward Hancock about the company’s journey to date and how he and partner Richard Simpson plan to develop the business over the next five years.
Edward, you founded the business in 2017 and were joined by Rich as a partner a year later, what were you both doing prior to that?
I was a fund manager, building and running a systematic trading strategy for a family office.
Why did you choose to set up a cheese business?
First and foremost, I have always been obsessed with cheese, so it was always something that might have happened. But I’ve also been fascinated by great brands and how they tap into consumer psychology to make their product more than just a commodity, but a lifestyle. I’d seen so much innovation in almost every F&B industry, but my own passion, cheese, had been totally left behind, despite the fact over 80% of us eat cheese every week. So I basically decided to do it myself.
And why did you opt to follow a subscription model?
There are quite a few huge advantages to the subscription model, and I’m not really talking about MRR. The fact most of us concentrate our cheese eating around Christmas means that the artisan industry in particular finds itself constantly short of demand for 11 months of the year, and never able to produce enough in December. This also means most of us never get to experience the true seasonality of cheese, and artisan cheese tastes different across the year. And finally, I’m all about getting consumers trying different cheeses, branching out, and not feeling intimidated to do so. By curating five new cheeses every month for a subscriber, we can build a relationship over time that feels less like a transaction, and more like a cheese journey. Every cheese you have ever tried is now rated and stored in your account, so you actually start learning about new cheeses in the best possible way.
You’ve grown the business substantially in the last few years, going from 100 orders in the run-up to Christmas 2017 to 11,000 in the same period in 2020, many of which are from longstanding customers. How have you built such a loyal customer base?
Put simply, we have built loyalty by having a great product. Our retention is really good, and in everything we do, we try to appeal to everyone, regardless of cheese knowledge or experience. I think this actually represents the vast majority of the cheese loving public. Huge enthusiasm for cheese, and perhaps not confident in their knowledge. Having said that, when we get a proper cheese expert saying our cheese is in the best condition they’ve ever had, that feels pretty good too.
What have been the main challenges in getting to where you are today?
Well, the first one was trying to fit the industrial fridge I ordered in 2017 through my mum’s front door (I turned her house into my first business premises). Beyond that, there have been so many challenges. Trying to re-define perceptions about British cheese, and the artisan cheese industry, ensuring our cheese arrives at customers doors in perfect condition and building out a tech solution that provides an experience that really captures people’s imaginations. Finally, scaling so fast brings challenges as managing rapid growth pulls you in a lot of different directions, and you must react and adapt so fast.
What was the impact of the pandemic?
Pre-pandemic we were growing consistently at 2x year-on-year, and almost overnight that went to 10x. We grew from three staff to nearly 15 in 18 months, and 750 square feet to 7,500 square feet.
How did you fund the business prior to your success on Dragons’ Den?
A combination of bootstrapping and angel investors.
What was it like preparing your pitch for the programme and how did you feel once in front of the Dragons?
We prepared very thoroughly which probably did help contain the nerves to some extent. Having said that, nothing prepares you fully for when those lift doors open.
In 2021 you decided to rebrand and launch a new website. What was the thinking behind that and how have the new brand and site performed?
Our branding and website hadn’t changed at all from when we were six months old and had a budget of a few thousand pounds. So an update was much needed, both to maintain an innovative feel to our branding and messaging, but also to drive better acquisition with all the lessons we’d learnt over the intervening years.
You have now secured a £150,000 investment from Dragon Steven Bartlett. How do you plan to use the funds? How else will he contribute to the development of the business?
The funds and expertise of Steven will be focused on marketing and ensuring that we are connecting in the right way with our customers, and potential customers. We are not only building a business and a brand, but we are also trying to build our industry up as well. Steven brings huge expertise and experience in modern marketing approaches, and this will be invaluable.
Will you always be an online business, or would you consider opening physical stores?
Our focus is online for the foreseeable future, but I would be lying if I said I haven’t ever imagined what a Cheesegeek physical store would look like. Hotel Chocolat is a great example of a brand that built huge success with an online subscription model, and then expanded to bricks and mortar and beyond. And the rest is history.
How else do you see the business developing over the next five years?
I think our proprietary tech stack is really interesting. Everything we do is with the aim of getting more people aware of and excited about artisan cheese. So currently, that is in the UK, but the same message applies anywhere in the world where you have a fertile culture of cheese!
Our tech enables us to build a community of cheese lovers all over the world. We can create a single resource for cheese ratings, cheese information, content from cheesemakers…the list is endless. It will feel like Vivino for cheese.
I dream of a day when just using the Cheesegeek app, you can travel anywhere in the world and have local artisan cheese delivered to you within 48 hours, with all the information, tasting notes and pairing notes you might need. The ultimate democratisation of cheese.