Building and Selling a Food Business with John Stapleton from New Covent Garden Soup Co and Little Dish

Do you have grand plans to start, grow, scale and sell your food business? Would you prefer more of a lifestyle business? Regardless of your goals, John Stapleton has some great advice for you.

John started New Covent Garden Soup in 1987. He started Glencoe Foods in 1997 (pretty much the same business as New Covent Garden, but in the United States). He then started his third business, Little Dish, in 2006. Two out of the three were successfully built and sold – Little Dish sold for £17 million in 2017!

Over the last 30 years John has learned to embrace adversity, have the courage of his convictions, learn from failure and the power of authenticity. And that’s exactly what we talk about in this episode.

In This Episode You’ll Learn

  • What “experts” thought about the idea of fresh soup in 1987

  • How to push forward with your idea no matter what people say

  • How to embrace and learn from failure

  • How to enjoy the journey of building your business rather than the end result

  • How to set your business up for sale from the beginning

  • What to consider when raising funds and giving away equity

Six reasons angel investors say no - Natwest Content Live coverage

Standing in front of an angel investor can be daunting, and things will quickly fall apart if they don’t believe in you. Three UK angels tell us what makes them say “I’m out”.

John Stapleton, serial entrepreneur and angel who co-founded the New Covent Garden Soup Co:

1. The entrepreneur won’t listen

Some founders, says Stapleton, simply cannot handle advice. “They claim to want the value-added ‘smart money’ that angels bring, but in truth they believe they have it all figured out and are not interested in what the investors have to say,” he says.

Stapleton has a way of weeding out such people: he will ask them to justify some of their fundamental business assumptions during their pitch. “Founders who don’t listen tend to get defensive and their answers either demonstrate this, or suggest that they think you’re not ‘getting it’,” he says.

Another gripe of his: “Many founders believe they know exactly what their target customer wants, but haven’t actually asked them.”

While angels definitely don’t like know-it-alls, they give equally short shrift to wishy-washy ‘yes men’ or people who expect their investor to hand-hold them through every step of their business journey.

2. The product or concept is not scaleable

“Many times, an entrepreneur doesn’t understand the commercial reality of setting up and growing a business,” says Stapleton. “It turns out that what they really want to do is to build a lifestyle business in which they plan to draw a decent salary.” That’s fine, he says, but it doesn’t constitute a growth plan and it probably doesn’t warrant much external investment.

What has often happened, he explains, is that the initial motivation to develop the product was born out of frustration that it did not exist – but the founder often failed to seek out real consumer insight. “They end up designing a product which is relevant only to themselves,” he says. “For angels, the return on investment will be non-existent.”

When owners do have loftier ambitions, they sometimes fail to see that they can’t produce their product at margins that are attractive enough. It’s another frustrating example of a business that won’t scale.


Phil Mitchell, angel investor and co-founder of funding experts Harbour Key:

3. The business is overvalued

Angels see red when people value their business at hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds when they haven’t even got off the ground.

“You need the founder to have a realistic expectation of what stage they are at and therefore what value they really have,” says Mitchell. He explains that if a business has already established a revenue stream or has a product that has been patented – perhaps alongside some big customers who are ready to take it – then they’re going to be a much more valuable business to an investor than “if you’d just stepped out of your bedroom with two bits of plastic”.

If a business has barely begun, he says, then potential investors should be viewed as more of a partner – and the equity the founder is prepared to surrender should reflect that.

4. The management team fails to make a strong impression

“When we have the initial meeting, angels want to know who the people are and feel that they have not just passion but also the skill set to take the business to where they want to go,” says Mitchell. “I like to understand where these people come from. What’s their story?”

The easy way to convey this, says Mitchell, is to add a team sheet in your pitch deck with a bit of information about who you are and why you’ve gone into this. “The angel needs to feel that these people are going to make it happen,” he says, “because it could be two or three years before they take any money out.”

What angels really like are people like the man Mitchell saw last week: a founder on his fourth start-up, who had sold his previous three. “He sells and comes back with another idea: you could see he had a lot of drive, good skills and you could have a lot of faith in him,” Mitchell says.


Jamie Waller, entrepreneur, investor and committee member at The Supper Club, a community of founders and CEOs of high-growth businesses:

5. The founder wants a large salary

About 90% of the investment decks Waller is sent don’t give him the vital data he requires: numbers. “Not just pie-in-the-sky revenue forecasts, but actual costs,” he says. “What are you going to spend my money on and when?”

When these details find their way to him, he says that in more than half of all cases he is stunned to see founder/CEO salaries at £150,000 – £250,000. “I built my business for seven years before paying myself £100,000,” he says. “It took me 10 years to get to £200,000. Entrepreneurship is about taking risk. Paying yourself £150,000 in year one of a start-up because you can afford to with investors’ money is not risk.”

A more reasonable salary for a founder in their first venture, he says, would be between £50,000 and £80,000.

6. There is too much focus on perks and fun

“I get around two investment pitches a week in which the founder has budgeted for pool tables, weekly staff entertaining and unlimited holiday entitlements,” says Waller, who was once very close to making a £100,000 investment in a business only to be told by the boss to “come along on Thursday after 3pm as the team will have stopped working as we have pizza and beer on Thursday afternoons”. He cancelled the meeting and closed his wallet.

“Investors want to see money being used in the right way and at the right time,” Waller says. “A good example is a business I invested in recently that had a £15,000 budget for a staff party – but the criteria for the party was hitting a £5m sales figure that year. That’s good business. You’re paying a fee for success.”

Why business success depends on surrounding yourself with self-starters

Here, John Stapleton, founder of the New Covent Garden Soup Co, gives his four top tips on surrounding yourself with self-starters to drive growth and scale.

Building a culture where staff are self-starters can be key for a business

Ben Lobel

Being a new entrepreneur can feel both bewildering and exhilarating. In the early days of any business journey, as an entrepreneur you will need to be all things to all people. Because of this, you will need to be extremely tenacious and ride the rows of obstacles that will be thrown your way. In the beginning the entrepreneur does, and almost is, everything – simply because there is noone else and everything is down to you.

The setbacks you face will often feel both challenging and time consuming, and there will inevitably come a time when you can no longer wear all the hats you needed to wear when you were getting started. Eventually, you’ll need to find people out there who are better suited to managing some of the areas of your business than you are.

At this point, you’ll need to build a support network, improve your processes and structures for business scale and free up some of your own time so that you can focus on the areas you’re more passionate about (and probably are best at) – it’s very likely it’s these areas that drove you to start your business in the first place!

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New Covent Garden Soup Co. founder John Stapleton backs Latin American food start-up - Just Food

New Covent Garden Soup Co. and Little Dish co-founder John Stapleton has backed UK-based Latin American food business Capsicana, investing in the company as part of a crowdfunding campaign.

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Can Startups Really Benefit From Having a Mentor? - Fleximize Coverage

Can Startups Really Benefit From Having a Mentor?

Startups often struggle to find tailored guidance on navigating business growth. John Stapleton, co-founder of three FMCG businesses, shares his thoughts on the value a mentor can add to a startup.


The road to building a successful startup is not always a smooth one. There are a lot of things to get right - strategy, budget and competition to name just a few. This can lead to many budding entrepreneurs forgetting one of the most crucial influences that they need to drive success: a mentor.

In entrepreneurial life it is inevitable to feel as though you are swimming against the tide. There is a lot of excitement that comes with the freedom of making things up as you go along, however, having a sounding-board can help reduce some of the chaos. Navigating a new and unknown landscape can be simpler if you have the guidance of a mentor.

Drawing from my own experience, I didn’t have a support network to assist me in weighing up the pros and cons of available options when my first business began to grow at a rapid pace. Armed with hindsight, I believe a good mentor is a great source of proactive support to any entrepreneur in a startup environment. 

What makes a good mentor?

There are several aspects that define a good mentor: 

  • A good mentor should be a non-executive and maintain an arm's length relationship with the business. 

  • It is vital that they know the industry well and understand the challenges that the business faces. 

  • A mentor should also help build on the strengths of the business, while offering a wealth of knowledge that comes from their own personal experience.

  • They should be able to do all of this while maintaining a refreshing and energetic passion for developing the entrepreneur and the key players in the team.

How can mentors add value to a business?

A mentor should be in a position to pre-empt problems or obstacles that lie ahead, whilst ensuring that hidden opportunities are recognized and seized. A great mentor will also offer the ultimate startup tool - a ‘Little Black Book’ of contacts which can open doors that many entrepreneurs are unable to leverage themselves.

When mentoring entrepreneurs, I ensure that I offer as much insight and advice as possible for them to be successful by supporting them to make their own decisions – not by making the decisions for them. This can sometimes include speaking to customers of the businesses to gather their opinions before feeding back to the executive team.

This external information enables me to provide the tools and guidance needed to form the strong foundations of a mentor-mentee relationship. It is important to strike the right balance but, once fine-tuned, it can accelerate the growth of a startup and help a business become more competitive.

How do I choose the right mentor for my business?

There are several factors to consider when seeking a mentor, each as integral as the next. Direct entrepreneurial experience and knowledge of implementing a 'disruption strategy' are vital characteristics of a startup mentor. 

Crucially, an entrepreneur should not seek a mentor until they have taken the time to consider what both they and their business hope to achieve from the relationship. The entrepreneur should also consider what style of guidance or providing advice is best suited to them. 

There is quite a significant difference between engaging a mentor and engaging a coach, as both serve different purposes. A coach will use methodologies to coax answers to problems, whereas a mentor will draw from his or her own experiences and provide advice based how they have tackled similar situations. Bear this in mind when deciding what would best suit your business needs and style of work. 

Boundaries and milestones

Once a mentor has been appointed, a critical first step is mutually establishing goals, frequency of input required and relevant deadlines. This framework will not only set milestones, but it will help the mentor and mentee realize what success looks like to both of them. Rules of engagement, such as meeting frequencies and levels of involvement, also need to be addressed up front.

The most important element of a mentor/mentee relationship is for the mentee to take the driving seat. An entrepreneur works with a mentor because they have mutually recognized the business has the potential to benefit from the mentor’s insight. Therefore the mentee needs to take charge of the relationship to ensure that they can deliver the optimum outcome by working together.

I have found that meeting outside of the business environment or the company setting is the most efficient way to elevate productivity. Avoiding inevitable distractions from the business often allows the entrepreneur to think clearly and laterally to recognize what is actually occurring within the business. The best business decisions are often the most considered and there is no better way to move a business towards success than to involve someone who has been there before.

Strength is not being afraid to make mistakes - Class PR podcast interview

TFB 045: Strength is not being afraid to make mistakes

With John Stapleton, co-founder of New Covent Garden Soup Company, Little Dish and serial entrepreneur.

It’s not often we have someone on the show who has completely invented a new category of product – but John Stapleton was part of a duo that did just that.

John is one of the co-founder’s of The New Covent Garden Soup Company, the guys who took soup out of the tin, made it fresh and put it in a carton.

In the late 1980s this was completely revolutionary and sparked a new way of manufacturing, selling and consuming soup. It’s fair to say John is a true pioneer – he even had to build his own factory to get his soup on the shelves!

On today’s show, John shares the story of his entrepreneurial journey from the early days of NCGS through to toddler food brand Little Dish and the work he does today mentoring young startups.

John has so much insight and wisdom to share and is a big proponent of moving beyond our fears to fulfill our business visions.

In this conversation you’ll learn about the need to clearly define the audience for your product, build a brand that speaks entirely to that person and why it’s better to start with a grassroots marketing strategy rather than trying to be ‘the next big thing’ overnight.

If you are a food startup, or in fact any kind of startup, you’ll learn so much from this conversation – so sit back and lap up this soup-er advice!

UK sports nutrition deep-dive part two - what does the future hold? Just Food Comments

In part two of our look at the UK sports nutrition category, Andy Coyne takes a close look at the opportunities in the market and at threats to its continued growth.

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