Cecily Mills, the founder of UK vegan ice-cream brand Coconuts Naturally, won investment on the business pitch TV programme Dragons’ Den only to turn it down after the show aired. She explains her thinking to Andy Coyne and tells him about dealing with growing pains.

  • Name – Coconuts Naturally
  • Location – Cornwall, UK
  • Product – Organic, vegan ice cream
  • Founded – 2015

just-food: We’ll get to your Dragons’ Den experience in a moment but tell me how a Marks and Spencer store manager based in Brighton ended up making and selling her own ice cream from Cornwall.

Cecily Mills: I had a career in retail and after Marks & Spencer went to work for [fashion, jewellery and homeware brand] Oliver Bonas in London. I was commuting up to London from Brighton and adjusted my diet because I needed more energy. That’s where things started, with my own dietary changes. That started me on a journey. I had been vegetarian when I was younger but had started eating meat again, although I wasn’t really into it, so it was a relatively easy process to go vegan. It was about what worked for me.

just-food: But how did a lifestyle choice convert into running your own vegan ice cream business?

Cecily Mills:  I’d always wanted my own business and wanted to work for myself. That was always in the back of my mind. And, on top of that, I didn’t want to continue with an exhausting commute. Those things put me in the frame of mind to look for something else. My passion was for plant-based food but I missed ice cream and there was a lack of tasty and natural ice cream on the market and so the dots started to join up. I went to the Natural & Organic Products show at Olympia in London and it just felt like the right time. The family home was in Cornwall so we rented out the house in Brighton and moved there.

just-food: What was the set-up in Cornwall in those early days?

Cecily Mills: It was more of a testing lab than a business. There was an annex at the house so I could move the business into that and install a slightly more expensive ice cream maker than the one I’d got. I went to a local trade show and then took my products to exhibit at the Natural & Organics Product show in April 2015. From that, I got a national distributor [Queenswood Natural Foods]. I also met a lot of buyers and that gave me confidence to go back to Cornwall to see how we could make it happen. I needed that sort of reaction to sort of prove the concept.

just-food: And you received investment backing from friends and family rather than the bank?

Cecily Mills: Yes there was no bank investment. I needed money to buy machines and we came up with a shareholder structure that allows me to get back a majority of the company. But, without that backing, we wouldn’t have been able to get started. We needed GBP30,000 (US$39,580) for machines alone.

just-food: Did you have a mentor at this stage?

Cecily Mills: No, there was no mentor. I was concentrating at this stage on availability of ingredients and cash flow. There were so many things to think about. The biggest issue was manufacturing, installing and maintaining the equipment. At that point, it was just me and I had a six-month-old baby as well. It was really tough.

just-food: You were also trying to get the flavour combinations right – there are now six including rum & raisin and coconut & caramel. Did you seek outside help?

Cecily Mills: About a year later I decided to outsource the manufacturing to a business in Cornwall. It was a good partnership and took out so much of the stress. The branding was done in conjunction with a freelancer.

just-food: What did you do about getting the product to consumers?

There are very few organic ice creams on the market and non-dairy organic ice cream is even rarer

Cecily Mills: We went to independent stores and businesses rather than farmers’ markets. The Lost Gardens of Heligan [a Cornish attraction] was a customer from day one. Then we got into Morrisons in the south-west [of England] and got a customer in Dubai. Asda in the south-west came on board about three or four months after Morrisons in 2017 and then came Ocado.

just-food: Many food start-ups that gain listings with major supermarkets worry about fulfilling the orders and about being able to deliver the sort of volumes they require. Was this a concern for you?

Cecily Mills:  I wasn’t that confident. It was really difficult because it was such an unknown. It was really nerve-wracking but the buyers have worked with us and have been amazing.

just-food: Your products are organic, do not use nuts or soya and are sweetened with unrefined coconut sugar. Specialising in coconut as a main product obviously means importing ingredients. Has that been an issue?

Cecily Mills: Quite a lot of our ingredients are imported from places such as Ecuador and Indonesia. But our manufacturer takes care of that.

just-food: Why did you seek to gain investment and a mentor via the TV programme Dragons’ Den?

Cecily Mills: It was a necessity. The business is so cash-hungry. We needed cash to grow.

just-food: You asked for GBP75,000 for 20% of the business and, although they all loved the product, some of the ‘Dragons’ were put off by what they saw as a complicated ownership structure, involving family and friends. Nevertheless, you got two offers and shook hands with Jenny Campbell, who put up all of the money for a 30% stake. But, after the show, you walked away from the deal. Why was that?

Cecily Mills: It was a regrettable decision to have to turn her down but we got new contracts, which I can’t announce yet [understood to be a UK national listing with a major retailer and a first order from Hong Kong] and that changed the dynamic of everything. We needed more money for working capital and my main investor came forward and said he would back us with a lot more money.

just-food: Remind us of the financial figures you quoted in the ‘Den’.

Cecily Mills: Turnover in the year to March was GBP87,000 with a loss of GBP33,000 and we are projecting that in the year to March 2019 turnover will be GBP330,000 with a profit of GBP48,000.

just-food: Dragons’ Den was filmed in April but aired last weekend (16 September). What has been the response like since?

Cecily Mills: It has been a massive boost for us. It had three million viewers and we have been featured on local news channels. My inbox is rammed with enquiries. I hope it leads to more listings.

just-food: You claimed on Dragons’ Den that your product is unique but there’s a lot of dairy-free ice cream out there isn’t there?

Cecily Mills: Competition is pretty fierce. It is such a growth area that everyone wants to get in on the act. But there are very few organic ice creams on the market and non-dairy organic ice cream is even rarer. 

just-food: You’ve alluded to new contracts at home and abroad and I understand you are looking to add two new flavours to the range. What is it your goal?

Cecily Mills: We don’t want to be seen as a non-dairy ice cream but as a delicious ice cream that just happens to be non-dairy. Our taste and texture are richer than dairy ice-cream and that’s our own little niche.