Lessons Learnt from Entrepreneur John Stapleton, Founder of New Covent Garden Soup



In this blog article you will find out the lessons learnt from entrepreneur John Stapleton co-founder of New Covent Garden Soup and Little Dish.

John founded New Covent Garden Soup (UK) (approx £22 million in sales when business sold).  He took it to the US -New Covent Garden (US) ($9 million in sales).  He also created Little Dish (approx £17 million in sales), a children’s ready meals company.  John shared his lessons learnt at Eagle Labs, Cambridge in October 2018.


John Stapleton Eagle Labs

Lesson 1


Don’t put your faith in conventional wisdom


When John’s co-founder, Andrew came up with the idea of New Covent Garden Soup they were told that the idea was crazy.  They were even told that they could kill someone!  John’s aim in creating a fresh soup was to enable consumers to taste the ingredients used to make the soup.  Apparently canned soup completely alters the flavour of the original ingredients.

John and Andrew started the business back in 1987 and did not just create a new soup but a whole new category.  Fresh soup was completely ahead of its time and they needed to alter consumers’ buying and eating habits.  They also needed to educate the market, something which many entrepreneurs have to do .

Neither John nor Andrew knew anything about the food industry when they formed New Covent Garden Soup Co.   John was a student at the time, admittedly in food science but not in business.


Creating trust


It’s important that consumers trust you when you create a food business says John.  People told him and Andrew that they wouldn’t be able to create this trust with consumers.  They also told them that they wouldn’t be able to find the retail space to sell it.  The two faced a lot of opposition with their business idea.

At the time, the chilled category was dominated by retailer own labels.  It was not easy for the duo.  However, with both his companies John stuck to the courage of his convictions.  He felt that people were fed up with canned food.  With Little Dish, he felt that parents needed quality, tasty and convenient foods for their kids.


Lesson 2


Grow a thick skin because failure is inevitable


When John launched Glencoe Foods, a soup company in the US, he did not succeed.  Despite raising $2 million, the company did not get off to the flying start. In fact John went through a hellish time and had to close down operations and lay off staff.  This was a very difficult experience for him and he suffered a significant knock back.


You will always face adversity


As an entrepreneur John believes that adversity comes thick and fast.  What he was able to do nonetheless was to analyse what happened and what went wrong.  He learned a lot about himself and through the experience is now more aware of his own feelings.  He is determined to not go through that type of experience ever again.

John had to prove to himself and to others, that he could succeed so he tried again with Little Dish , this time succeeding.  As Lou Holtz once said, “Show me someone who has done anything worthwhile and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.”


John Stapleton adversity


How can we prepare ourselves for adversity ?


John believes it is important to embrace who you really are and to be authentic.  He grew up on a farm in West Ireland, so this made him literally ‘down to earth’.  When he was a small child, many cows died from a mysterious disease and this became a massive challenge for the family.  He saw his father’s reaction which was to grin and bear it, and John adopted a similar approach.

John had also been an international triple jumper.  He strove to be in the national Irish team but he damaged his ankle so he couldn’t compete in the LA Olympics in 1984.  He had to watch all his team compete, but rather than get depressed about it he just got on with his life.

John feels that “these early experiences define our personalities.  It’s not just business acumen that is important, it is dealing with things so that you are true to yourself.  Leadership and success is routed in authenticity.”


Lesson 4


New Covent Garden Soup offered clear differentiation


One question I asked John was how he took New Covent Garden Soup past the early adopter stage and onto the early majority.  He said that he did a lot of NPD and experimented with flavours.

The company incorporated seasonality into the product and invented Soup of the Month.  Original, fresh sounding flavours were introduced such as beetroot (after the Eastern European soup –borscht) and luckily this attracted much press attention which helped to grow the market and build the brand.  Being constantly innovative was key to his success.


Lesson 5


Involve customers as much as possible


Selling a product through retailers means it is difficult for a brand to build a direct relationship with its customers.  In order to combat this, New Covent Garden Soup held many competitions to find out what flavours customers liked.  Just like Walkers it encouraged them to come up with their own flavours.  This way New Covent Garden Soup was able involve customers as much as possible.


Covent Garden Soup

Lesson 6


Believe in yourself and do the right thing


John believes that a solid belief in your idea is absolutely essential.  This is key to attracting investment.  Even if you don’t have all the answers, sometimes you just have to wing it.  He believed in his value proposition and vision.  He did some adhoc market research and succeeded in gaining the interest of Waitrose.  The soup was first put out in 10 of its stores. That really helped encourage the other retailers to stock the product.

Originally John didn’t find the entrepreneurial path easy because he was a scientist.  He was used to making decisions based on hard evidence rather than his own judgement. However he learnt quickly that he had to trust himself.  You can still be uncertain as an entrepreneur.  However, if you believe in yourself you can turn this into a competitive advantage.


Trust your gut feeling


John had a gut feeling about one of the original manufacturers of Little Dish products.  It was not good and he decided to cut ties with it.  This paid off as when the horse meat scandal broke.  He was able to say hand on heart that the meat contained no horse meat.  Furthermore, he new exactly where it came from.


Lesson 7


To succeed in marketing build in as much emotion as possible into the brand


John says that when educating consumers you have to be careful. It is important to not try to scare consumers. Instead you need to educate them just enough so that they can figure it out for themselves. He says it is important to build as much emotion as possible into a brand.  It’s important also to convey the tangible benefits, highlight the benefits and connect with the customer.

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