According to the Food & Drink Federation (FDF), the food sector currently is made up more than 11,600 food manufacturers. Of these, more than 97% are classified as SMEs, with the majority founded by highly passionate and committed entrepreneurs who have seen an opportunity to bring a new food product to market. Many of these businesses even starting by developing their products and fulfilling orders from their kitchens at home.
Chris Kong’s journey was somewhat different, with Better Nature originally founded by four young entrepreneurs who came together to participate in a global incubator programme encouraging plant-based, fermentation and cultivated food start-ups. This inspired a new idea, eventually leading them to become one of the chief producers of Tempeh in the UK.
Getting the business fundamentals right
As is the case for all highly successful leaders, entrepreneurial leadership starts with having a clear vision and then being able to communicate and inspire others to believe in that vision.
“I think it’s important to recognise both words, ‘entrepreneurial’ and ‘leadership’ and to understand how the two elements work together. In terms of leadership, I think it’s critical to have a clear mission and vision,” Kong commented.
In a previous column, I explored the importance of values in informing effective decision-making. Kong also touched on this: “As a young business, our three core values have been fundamental in helping us to define what type of business we wanted to build. Our values stem from what it is that gets me and my fellow co-founders excited. Our values, in turn, have then helped us to define our mission – to be able to answer the question ‘why are we here?’. In our case, our mission is simple - it’s recognising the world doesn’t need to be the way it is. We believe we can a help build a better world where people can live healthier, happier and more sustainable lives.”
Understanding the problem and developing a solution
Many businesses start with the idea of a product or solution and then seek to find a market for it. This is most often a recipe for failure. True entrepreneurs start by understanding and defining the problem and then exploring solutions that best meet this need. Kong agreed: “It absolutely starts from the problem, not the solution. I think it starts off by having a deep understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. This helps dictate what the best solution could be.
“It's also about understanding whether or not the problem is actually big enough that consumers are willing to change habits.” This last point is important – a minor adaptation of an existing product may not be sufficient to change consumers’ current habits. It often needs a significant change to truly disrupt the market.
Educating the consumer
In terms of market disruptors, there are examples where the solution is initially unimaginable from the consumer perspective, therefore requiring the consumer firstly to be inspired by or educated about the opportunities it creates. An example was the introduction of the touchscreen for mobile phones by IBM in the 1990s but only really popularised by Apple more than 10 years later.
Although not quite on the same scale for Better Nature, many consumers in the UK are still unfamiliar with Tempeh, which is, in fact, a 300-year-old Indonesian meat-free alternative form of protein produced from fermented soybeans. Kong recognised this: “it is something we need to work on, because not that many people know about Tempeh outside of Indonesia. So, part of our marketing is also about educating the consumer of the possibilities. We believe the opportunities are tremendous.”
About Chris Kong
Christopher Kong is the CEO and co-founder of Better Nature Tempeh - the UK’s fastest-growing and highest-rated tempeh brand. The mission of Better Nature Tempeh is simple - to help people live healthier lives by taking tempeh, a plant-based protein that originated in Indonesia 300 years ago, into the mainstream.
Since its founding in early 2019, Better Nature Tempeh has won six international food-tech competitions, published four WIPO patents, and has expanded outside of the UK into Germany with a listing in REWE - Germany’s second largest retailer.
In the UK, Better Nature is listed in over 800 retail locations nationwide, including Tesco, Planet Organic and Selfridges, and will soon launch nationwide into another one of the UK’s largest retailers. Better Nature Tempeh is also a best-seller on Amazon UK.
Aside from his work at Better Nature, Chris is an avid cyclist and marathon runner. Last year he cycled the full length of the UK and has recently run the Paris Marathon - all fuelled by tempeh of course - to raise money for YUM, a charity based in Indonesia tackling infant malnutrition.
Developing good partnerships
Earlier in this column the importance of having a clear vision was highlighted, however, this is just the start. It is also about bringing others with you – those in the business itself and others who are part of delivering the vision. Kong was clear on this: “This is where partnerships are really powerful. It’s important to appreciate that no business operates in isolation. We need to galvanise other businesses to also buy into our vision.
“We have a brand and we know how to sell the products. However, we also need to find the right partners to buy into our vision, for example third party manufacturers who produce our products.
“It’s also about how we get people to invest into our ideas, whether it's time or money, or even their job prospects.”
Resilience is a key ingredient
The path to bringing a new product or brand to market can be tough – sometimes even painful. Many will be familiar with Edison’s famous quote: “I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work!”. It is fair to say that, however well you understand the problem, and however creative the individual or team, it is rare to hit on the right solution first time. Setbacks are inevitable and require leadership behaviours, such as determination and resilience to overcome these.
Kong reflected: “I think it’s important to consider both personal resilience and organisational resilience. In terms of my own resilience, I think my ability to deal with setbacks has evolved over time and this comes down to experience. It’s about having more trust in my own ability and having a strong network around me, both personally and professionally.
“In terms of organisational resilience, the four co-founders of Better Nature know we can be truly honest and open with each other about problems we face – it’s super powerful.”
There is a point, however, when resilience and singlemindedness, as positive attributes, can turn into stubbornness. It is important for any entrepreneur to realise when it’s time to pull back and have the courage to realise they were wrong. It is about knowing when to stop pushing and to consider alternative approaches - when to be flexible and understand that there may be another way.
Extending the brand
Even some of the food industry’s most successful products can remain, frustratingly, ‘one-hit wonders’. For an entrepreneur, the ideal is to be able to take an established product or brand and extend it to create other new products or categories. For this to be effective and coherent, it’s a matter of returning to the mission and vision. Kong agrees: “We're not beholden to any one product. and we're also not beholden to the brand because we recognise the brand has evolved. And even in the five or so years we’ve been around, our products have evolved and no doubt it will continue to evolve. However, what we continue to be absolutely beholden to is the vision.”