Jennifer Irvine

Jul/Aug 07 issue

Jennifer Irvine launched The Pure Package in 2004 as a home-delivery meals service tailored to meet customers’ individual dietary needs. In its first year, The Pure Package delivered 70,000 meals and achieved a turnover of £200,000. It has since grown into a multi-million pound operation

If you have a busy city life, it’s almost impossible to eat well. As a person who places real value on natural produce, I thought The Pure Package would be the kind of service I’d like to use. In the beginning, the operation was extremely basic, consisting mainly of me in my kitchen.

The interest from customers built up rapidly and dealing with that demand has been an important learning experience. Obviously I couldn’t cook all the meals on my own, so I took on a team almost from the beginning. I have chefs, nutritionists and dietary therapists who, after a detailed consultation, develop a personal profile and choose a programme for each client. The ingredients are free range, organic and ethically sourced, and we’ve carbon neutralised all our deliveries.

Getting the funding right
At the start, I was wary of taking on any sort of debt or parting with a stake in the business, but to expand I needed money. In order to generate working capital, I took a gamble that people would be willing to pay for their meals in advance and offered them a discount for paying 90 days early. It worked.

Three months after launching, I had enough custom to move the business out of my kitchen and into premises in New Covent Garden. People were still beating their way to our door and high-profile clients seemed more than willing to lend their name to the business. It’s grown largely by word of mouth and now the client list numbers around 1,000 people.

Although I had experience in the food arena, I was surprised by how involved you have to be with every aspect of growing your own business, especially in the early days. You really do have to think on your feet.

For instance, I lacked the capacity to deal with the rapid growth, but I turned that into a positive. To make sure that I didn’t lose the business that was coming to me, I offered to put people on a waiting list and that started a real buzz. I wasn’t particularly celebrity savvy at the time, so I didn’t realise that I had a chef with two Michelin stars on our list, until someone pointed it out to me.

I think taking that approach taught me that it’s not necessarily healthy to grow so fast that you can’t meet the demand. Taking it at your own pace, as best you can, allows you to step back and look at things as a whole and adopt a strategic approach to your business, and we still managed to double our sales each year.

That’s not to say that there weren’t sticking points. For one, I wish I’d put a proper accounts system in place from the start. I used to do it all on a big spreadsheet until I suddenly thought: ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to sort out my VAT.’ I soon realised it wasn’t going to work and had to re-enter everything by hand into a proper accounts package.

There were certain handshake agreements I made that, if I could go back, I would have set down on paper. I had a few nasty surprises where people had said: ‘Sure Jennifer, we can do that for you’, and a few months later the bill arrived.

As a mother and a wife, I’d say the work-life balance has been the toughest part of running a business, but it’s been well worth it. I’ve got a really wonderful team, which takes some of the pressure off.

A helping hand
A few of my clients are inspirational business people too, like the handbag designer Anya Hindmarsh. With her help I came to realise that bringing up a child and running your own business means you’ve got to be open about asking for advice. If I’ve got too much on my plate, I’m not embarrassed about asking for help.

We’re still in quite a niche area so the aim is to increase the presence of our brand. I’d also like to diversify into other areas, like ice cream, water and vitamins. I want the company to be synonymous with healthy products.