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In this series, I interview leading food founders and food business experts. The aim is to extract their experiences and any tips & tricks that they may have learned along the way!
In this post, I interview Wojtek Kolan. He's the CEO of Love Yourself. Love Yourself, which is one of the meal prep companies on the The Meal Prep Market mobile app is a fairly recent business, it was founded about three years ago and it has grown now into a multi-million-pound revenue per year business.
Wojtek is going to share with you a lot of really good insights into his background, which is unbelievable. You see, when he was just 4 years old he moved to Australia and he has led a really successful life and career. He truly has a lot of wisdom to share and we go through it in this episode.
Here's the interview in written format
Hi Wojtek, I love this name, it sounds really cool – where are you from?
Yes, actually, I'm what you call a Pozzie. I'm half Australian, half Polish.
That's really interesting, how come?
At the age of four, I moved to Australia. My parents left me when I was three years old and they went to Australia. So I travelled all by myself at the age of four to Australia. So I arrived there. I didn't speak English or anything. So it was a big change as a young child. So I spent 20 odd years living in Perth in Australia.
And after that?
Then I came to London in the year 2000 and then I was more involved and more interested in having a good time backpacking, travelling, doing these kinds of things. And then I had an opportunity in one of the places I was working to go out to China. So I was working for this company, and they sent me off to China to sort out their electric scooters because this company was one of the first in the UK to sell electric scooters.
When was that?
This was back in 2004, so it was way before. Now we see these electric scooters everywhere on the road. So this guy came up with the idea in 2004 and he had problems with his manufacturing plant in Shanghai and he goes, Wojtek, do you want to go to China to fix the problem? I thought: ‘Fantastic, Yes, I'll go there.’ So I went there and ended up fixing the problem of the electric scooters, the manufacturing issues, even though I had no idea what I was really doing.
So how did you get into entrepreneurship?
I found some other products that were out in China and I brought those products back and I showed my boss these products and he goes: 'If you can sell them, we'll buy them;'. So within a few days, I got the products onto Ideal shopping channel and we ended up selling £250,000 of product in 24 hours. And that kind of started my previous life in the gadget business. So I was doing that for about 15 years and I successfully built up a company to about £40 million. So we were doing all kinds of innovations, electronics, those kinds of items. I put the button on the selfie stick and that was really successful. We sold a few million selfie sticks, so that was fun. I got to travel the world, went to the best restaurants, stayed in hotels, and I flew business class everywhere. It was a really nice journey.
And how did the Love Yourself journey start?
My friend said he's got this idea about changing and revolutionizing the way that food is delivered. So he told me about it was basically that we deliver food exactly what people need for breakfast, lunch, dinner. We'll give them all the calories that they need and we'll cook it fresh to make sure there's no additives, no preservatives, none of the nasties.
That seems great for busy professionals, doesn't it?
Yes, one of the biggest problems is you get when you go to the high street or if you go out for lunch with your work colleagues, there's not very many healthy places to get food. Quite often you're stuck on an industrial estate and the only options you've got are Greg's, Subway etc. So even if you want to eat healthily, you can't eat healthily and then you end up spending, like ten pounds anyway for something you didn't even enjoy in the first place. So I thought, this is a really great idea, but we have to do it. So it's cheap and affordable. Because I was thinking, let's go mass market. We needed to get the right price point. So we probably positioned ourselves too cheap to begin with, because I didn't understand the complexities of this business, the cost of delivering fresh every day, of producing fresh meals. So there's actually a reason why not many people have done this before, because it's bloody complicated. It's very operationally, challenging it's. So that's why you end up having processed food, treated food, canned food. For food to be delivered fresh, it needs a whole logistics and transportation to keep food at a certain temperature. So, yeah, it's challenging to give our customers the very best we can at an affordable price has always been the goal. And one of the things I've really enjoyed doing along the way is knowing the effects that food has on people's lives. It can really help people. It can make them healthier.
If you're healthier, you're happier as well!
Yeah, exactly. You're healthier, you're happier. So it's just helping people along that journey as well as well as mental health. I've got a few theories about diets and mental health and how they interlink, which maybe we can talk about later on.
Well, that's a really impressive story. I can't help but think that, going back to your very formation years, kind of being dropped and travelling alone to a completely new country so young in a country like Australia, that must have really taught you how to kind of fend for yourself a lot. Of course, always staying with your family all the time is how we wish everyone would grow up. But at the same time, you can't ignore some of the benefits of that because you just become very independent.
Yeah. I didn't actually realize this until recently in my life, very recently, that the stress of leaving Poland and travelling to Australia at such a young age would have imprinted on who I am today. So basically the interpretation of that is always in survival mode. You have flight free Faun. When you're in survival mode, your body is different. So at the age of four, I would have been in survival mode, getting on that plane all by myself during the Cold War. So this is like the Hut, the peak of the Cold War. So it was very difficult even to leave Poland because there was communists everywhere. It was quite difficult. So I don't remember all the details, but I'm sure I would have been quite scared as a child travelling and going on that plane. And when I arrived in Australia, we had the camera crew, the West Australian newspaper arrived. And I just think that whole at such a young age, whatever happens to you at that age, it kind of stays with you. It imprints a certain defense mechanism. And so I think I've had to maybe not fence for myself because I had very loving parents and really nice small family in Australia. But it taught me to be resilient and adaptable.
Resilience is probably the best predictor for kind of success. Can I ask what kind of background did you have? What did you study or did you kind of learn by yourself to create all of these products? Are you more of an inventor type or more business-minded?
Yeah, I'm more of a creative. So I'd say my key skill is having a good eye. Good eye for a product, my eye sees things that maybe other eyes don't see. So I tend to know what works, and what doesn't work. And as a teenager, I quite got into computers, even at the early ages of the Internet. I was an early kind of hacker-esque kind of guy trying to find out, pushing the limits. What is this Internet? How can we hack the Internet? What can we get from it? So that was really I learned a lot about computers and about the World Wide Web at an early age, even like before Google. Actually, I think it was before Google using a search engine called Ultra Vista at the time, back in 20 19 94 Vista and Go as a search engine, they were doing all different banner advertising, gambling sites, cost per clicks, CPMs, all that stuff. That's a completely different era of the Internet is where we are now. I think the era that we're in on the Internet now is I think it's very difficult for new brands to come in. The Internet is so congested and populated for any new brand to come in. They need to have a really big budget to make any impact because it's going to take them a long time for Google to pick them up, SEO to start working and it's difficult to keep a customer because there's so many new companies popping up. The loyalty amongst the customers is a lot lower than what it was ten years ago. So I think there's been a major shift in the Internet and even more so with social commerce that we're living in now and even more is coming around the corner.
It's quite a complex digital world that we live in now, but for sure, I mean, you had the kind of early Internet experience, but you must also have new Internet experience because Love yourself is how old?
Just three trading years.
And from what appears to me the growth has been incredible. While also at a time probably you were one of the really early ones. Maybe at the beginning you had a couple of competitors, but now there are many meal prep companies on the market and ready meals.
Yeah, I think we made it just in time, just in time to start the company because you had the likes of people like Hello Fresh and Gusto who do their recipe boxes. So they've owned that recipe box market where you have to cook the food yourself, but nobody was really doing ready meals. So the way I saw it is it's like the next stage of that development. Why cook when you can get everything delivered ready to eat fresh, calorie, controlled and in a way that was a bit of a blessing for us. We started the company and left the company in a pilot mode for a year just to see whether customers like it. We had very minimal expenses, very minimal kitchen, and we're seeing if customers liked it and to see what the repeat orders were with customers. And it seemed to be working. We were delivering 150 deliveries every day, we had repeat customers but we weren't making any money. However, we could see the business was working and it could be scaled and then covet happened and I actually saw COVID happen probably earlier than a lot of other people because I'm quite close to China and I was just reading about what's happening in China with COVID, so I just thought, well, this is a good opportunity now to do some marketing about covert. You want to stay home, stay safe. So COVID really helped us in terms of getting out there to customers, helped us so much that we outgrew our kitchen that we were in, we couldn't produce any more. Our orders went three times. Basically, they went up to 600 deliveries a day in a short period of time, so we couldn't produce all that food in that kitchen space. So during lockdown, it was difficult to find any place to rent because everything was closed. You couldn't see any real estate agents. So I went to my local Church and I spoke to the priest and he said that we can use the Church community hall as an add-on to our packing area.
That's a really good add on. You had a higher force pushing yourself forward!
Everyone had to work because we're food production. We were considered key workers, so our drivers, our staff and all the production people, they all had to work in order for the company to do what it has to do. So it was nice working from the Church different environment to where we are now. Then after that Church episode, then we got some angel funding, met some lovely angel investors that came on with some very good experience and then we could start looking at places because we couldn't stay at the Church forever, we needed something professional. Then we moved to a place in Park Royal where we've got quite a big kitchen now about 300 m² of space and we're producing about 5000 meals a day at the moment.
Wow! And is that all direct-to-consumer or do you also have any wholesale?
No, that's all direct-to-consumer. We've got B2B projects in development at the moment where we'll be doing our own range of healthy sources. So anything that we do and love yourself, we have to add a different element to it. So we don't want to use any sugars, any fats, nothing processed. So we're coming up with 100% natural organic range of sources, hot sauces and other products which are low carb to sell to the BGB market.
Wow, that's really impressive. How did you get to so many orders? Of course, as you said, COVID helped. But as a fairly new business, what kind of has been the driver to that? What sales channel have you really found a lot of success and probably that differs from each stage of the company because maybe when you're very early, something maybe not very scalable work and then maybe something else works when you're a bit more mature and then now maybe something else really works.
I think what you said is very true. Different strategies work at different stages of the business. What worked really well when we were smaller was doing events. We could go to a small event like private fitness people hosting an event of 40 or 50 people attending and we would sign up ten to ten people at those events, but they weren't very scalable because we could never find enough of those events. Maybe that was due to covert at that time. So everything that we kind of wanted to do, we couldn't really do because of COVID. So we quite quickly switched our mentality to being very internet digital driven. And then we discovered Facebook and Google, especially Facebook. Facebook was really good sales strategy for us for about two years. It was giving a very good return. We knew with Facebook that if we put £1 in, we would get £5 come out the other end. So it wasn't like a slot machine where you put your money in. A lot of marketing is like a slot machine. You put your money in, press the lever and nothing comes out. I think Facebook was more like a vending machine. You could put your money in and you know what's coming out. But all that changed last year with the iOS update coming in. Really through all the data, all the tracking data, Privacy policies, it really made that investment a lot worse. And it's just been on a downward trend ever since. I was seeing an article the other day that Facebook the cost of advertising on Facebook has increased 90% over the past twelve months. I can validate that. It's definitely we're not getting anywhere near the bang for buck than we were before. And I think that's due to a lot of new companies in that space, a lot of competition and a heavy reliance on social media retail sales.
So what do you think now? You kind of think that really works because to be honest, as a new app, very natively digital, we bet a lot of our ads in the Facebook advertising budget and actually the first couple of weeks it really worked well, but then it's been really terrible and we're actually exploring right now new sales channels. For instance, we're trying to connect with gyms, we're trying to do some offline, but we're still very much in the exploring phase. So for you, what's really working right now?
At the moment, there is no magic bullet. We're looking for that. That's something that's really special, to be honest. The past few weeks have been really quiet generally, I think, in the online space. So I'm not surprised. I've been speaking to other people, and they're saying the same thing. I don't know whether just on a very short time focus is the threat of inflation, the war in Ukraine, all this negativity in the news, whether that's having an impact on consumer spending. Well, one thing that we've got a good base of existing customers that keep on ordering. But in order to get new customers at the moment, it's very difficult. It's a very tricky time.
You said you have a really good eye for product ideas, understanding if they will work. We believe, of course, that it's really important for enabling customers to have on one app. So first of all, to order meal prep on an app, and second of all, to kind of have it's amazing that there are all these new meal prep companies. But for new customers especially, there are many people getting into meal prep because it's a fairly new concept. And with all these new companies, there's a lot of offering. But it can be quite overwhelming with all these companies with their own niche to kind of find the one that really works for you. So we believe that everything in an app will be very beneficial for some customers. Many of your customers are surely happy to just order from Love Yourself. But we believe that there are some people who may get bored a bit more easily from the same company, so those people will benefit from an app in which they can order one week from Love Yourself, one week from another meal prep company, all in the same app, one account. Do you think there's merit to that? And what do you think would be kind of our challenges if you want to help me out?
Yeah, I think what you've done, you're definitely the first person to enter a platform business for a platform marketplace. Right. So you're kind of like a marketplace in a sense. I think you're the first one to capture that. And there's so many meal prep companies now in that space. I think it makes sense that you've got the supply chain of different companies. You just need to focus on getting the customers to come in. On the other side, I think any platform is always a chicken and egg scenario. Do you need to get the supply first or do you need to get a customer first? It's always a difficult challenge. We've been trying to balance this, but to be honest, we've been really happy with onboarding companies like Love Yourself. It makes us feel that we had a really good start in terms of supply side. I believe that very soon for both of us, we'll find a way that we don't need to use the likes of Facebook and Instagram, that we can use our own proprietary software there to talk to our customers, to our customers, customer society, to the influence from our customers and the people they know, the further relations. And I think that is the best way of gaining customers is through having a good product, then referring them to their community and so on. I think that is what we're working on more rather than having bigger spend budgets, it's more about let's use utilize the people that we've already got, the community that we're very close with and let them become ambassadors, let them talk about Love Yourself to others. And I think we can facilitate this whole community building through clever software that we can infiltrate.
Are you kind of talking about kind of maybe blockchain, for instance, such as, I'm not an expert, but from what I understand, there are some opportunities in blockchain of kind of removing the middleman, whatever that's Facebook or for example, in the music industry, it's your Spotify, your Apple Music kind of having that more direct relationship with your fans or in our case, with our customers. Do you think that can be kind of the feature for companies?
I'm not smart enough to understand blockchain, how blockchain can be used to acquire customers, but I do believe that by having a platform of our own, instead of using a website like Shopify, which is very limited, by having our own platform, which is built for the needs of Love Yourself, then we can turn that into a social commerce experience. Okay, that's a very interesting insight. At the moment, there are many opportunities as we talk about blockchain. The masterverse apparently is going to come eventually, maybe not. There are many concerns. Nick, what is your background? Are you a technical guy?
No, I mean, I'm talking technical right now because it is fascinating, but I'm no expert at all. I'm the food guy in Marvin's Dan. Abhi, who is the CEO and the founder, he is a software engineer, and he's very savvy online and in digital stuff, that kind of stuff. He, of course, made the app with some other technicals and the website and all the back offices, et cetera. But you seem very kind of creative and also intuitive person. So, yeah, it's good to bounce those ideas off of you. So do you see, for example, ideally, that Love Yourself's website will become almost its own social media platform?
Yes, it will become its own social media platform with commerce integrated. Yeah. It's not just a transaction, but it's a whole more built for content creators to post their content, to bring their community into this platform. So other like minded health companies, whether they're nutritionists, personal coaches, personal trainers, all kinds of, wellbeing, people, they can all come into our universe and interact with one another, whether that's doing broadcasting, videos, community posts, forums, chat, it's going to be a place of love. Yes. Weather wider, love Yourself community can hang out and interact with each other. We've been working on this for quite some time, but we're very excited that we're close to launch. Really. Something close to, like a very social platform is close to launch. Yeah. Wow. That's a big as with all these things, it should have been ready earlier, but there's bug fixing and all these. It's getting the finesse rice for the last final part, which always takes the longest bit of time because we don't want to launch something that's not going to turn people away. We want to launch it to make sure that's bug free, because we've got an app at the moment. But it's purely a commerce transactional app.
Wow. This will revolutionize the company. Wow. And I mean, even the industry, probably because there aren't any. Like, I can't think of many websites, even not just meal prep, in which they're not just transactional, but they're also social at the same time. I'm really curious to see when you launch it. Let me know, because I'm really curious to see how it is. So you mentioned that you also have got an app to launch, or is that only on the website?
It's a mobile-first approach. The whole platform has been built to be in your pocket. And the objective is, of course, as we know, people are switching more and more towards mobile, and probably soon we will have even smaller gadgets that can connect you to the Internet and to the virtual world. Like, for example, Apple watches are kind of a fair starting point, I guess.
How do you see that affecting ordering food? For instance, however, I've listened to a podcast interview by Stephen Bartlett, interviewing the founder of Deliveroo, Will Shu. And towards the end of the podcast, Will kind of talked about how he sees the Deliveroo app becoming, as you said, less and less transactional. But rather than necessarily more social, it talks about it becoming more emotional. I think that's kind of the word they use. So more about the story, the background of the food, maybe even the smells, even. What do you see in the future?
Yeah. I think food is always a very cultural community social experience. But by nature, food has been for generations a social way of interacting, whether it's families or get-togethers, friends, different religions, cultures. Food is quite often the pinnacle of a defined culture. I think food and social community is very important. But I do like what the delivery guy we just mentioned said about bringing the flavour and the smell and bringing the emotional concept of food. I think that definitely gets your mouth watering when you see something nice on-screen and you can almost smell the flavours coming out.
Yes, that would be an amazing technology. There's a lot going on here in the world of smells. For instance, they even developed a device that basically can smell your room. Like you put this small device in your room and it can detect from smelling any harmful stuff in the air. And yeah, there's a lot of new technology in the world of smell. And I'm pretty sure that in the not too distant future, there is going to be that technology of being able to allow customers on the app to press something and then smell the meal. And that's going to be so exciting.
I think in our lifetime we'll see these kinds of new innovations coming into place, especially inputting into our brain playing Pong, for example, just with your brain. That will definitely happen. Yeah. Are we going to start, do you think, with this new technology, like games with very basic games such as the games in the 80s or they're going to be straight away super? I think it will take some time to learn how to use your brain to send off the right frequencies and communications to that device. I've tried some of these early contraptions where you see a Pixel on the screen and you have to use your brain power to move that Pixel. I wasn't very good at it, but I saw some other people who have been practicing and they could move their Pixel around quite well. So I think it's just a matter of time until we have a very simple game like Pong or Pacman that could be used with the power of your mind.
As you said, you're Polish, and if it's possible would you be able to share your thoughts as to what's going on in Ukraine? So not just you as a person but also as a business kind of took this kind of current situation to heart. For instance, on our most superficial level, I believe, like your Instagram picture now has the flag of Ukraine. So originally being Polish and having basically ran away from a war, albeit a cold war, but still a conflict. How do you kind of process what's going on?
To be honest, it's been so difficult to process. I mean, this is the most unexpected thing I've ever seen in my life. No one would have predicted that this was going to happen. I remember like 30 days ago when the Russians were at the Ukraine border. Nobody thought they were going to cross it. Then one day I wake up and I was watching this, I've been monitoring this going on. So I find out I've got an interest in the activity that goes on. I've been checking the news almost every day and then I check it one morning and they say that the Russian soldiers have walked into Ukraine. I was shocked, really shocked. Do you even believe it? At first? Maybe you felt like it was some reporting against could be fake news, because I always am very careful about the news to always look at news subjectively. I don't trust one source of news, but yeah, it was true and completely shocking. So sorry for the people that have to put up with that happening in their country.
Yeah. To be honest, it's like beyond my imagination. Perhaps you can imagine better. But yeah, imagine living your country, your livelihood, everything behind because of the choice of some people with enormous amounts of power that really cannot relate to your situation. I really wonder when, as a word, we're going to realize that we're all humans. I mean, there are no borders at the end of the day. It's just something that we made up many years ago that doesn't make sense...
I completely agree. I don't believe there should be flags. There should be one United Earth, one Federation of Earth, where there is a central government that would control the better interests of Earth as a whole. I know that's a little bit Star Warsy, but I don't think having flags and wars and competing the world has enough resources to go about around to everyone without certain countries taking the biggest share of those resources, which I think is ultimately unfair.
Yeah. I mean, even just talking about food, how much food do we waste? Not just in the UK, but in Western society. And then, of course, there are many areas of the world, many parts of the world that don't have access to food. But there is enough food so we should not have an hunger problem. So there is more than enough food, but it's just a misallocation of resource.
It is a misallocation of resources. There's so much that we could all do to help Africa. It's within our power to end poverty. I don't believe that the world's interests are aligned because everyone's too worried about their own country's interests and the power of their greed ultimately.
Let's talk about some positives. What are some positives either in your life or Love Yourself? What's really driving you? For instance, when I kind of get outside of business, when I cook for my family or my friends outside or inside my home and they complement my food, that's when I feel the best. What action results in maximum satisfaction for you?
I think helping people, for me, is my ultimate higher purpose. I enjoy helping people, whether it's our customers, our staff, or just random people. I enjoy putting a positive effect and leaving positive footprints to everyone that I touch. I try, but by no means it doesn't work out a lot of the time. But I think you're right. It's all about the amount of negativity in the world at the moment with the inflation and the war and all this, and there's just negative news all the time. But I think there's a lot of positive news that we can have. Everyone listening or reading this interview are all very lucky people. We're born in the top 1% economically. We've got food on our plates, we've got shelter, we've got safety, although we may not think it's safe, but it's still a lot safer than most other people. So we're all very blessed. And I think we need to think about that every day and think how blessed we are and thank the higher powers that they have chosen us to be in this position, and we should do our best to help others and not take you for granted.