Just six months into research, the founding duo of Oppo Ice Cream thought they’d created a world-beating brand. One retailer loved their low-calorie, low-sugar ice cream, and they immediately whipped up a batch of 750 liters, burning through much of their runway cash.
Disaster struck. The product failed stability tests, meaning its shelf-life was too short. A year later £8,000 ($9,684) of ice cream burst through a faulty factory pipe, leaving the pair with just £1.05 ($1.27) in the Oppo bank account.
The setbacks, though substantial, only strengthened Oppo’s resolve. Now, almost six years after having been inspired by a nerve-racking trip in Brazil, brothers Charlie and Harry Thuillier have seen their innovative product flourish. And as they look outside the UK for growth, Oppo has plenty of tales for entrepreneurs to take onboard.
The brand’s inception was more by accident than design. Charlie and Harry were kitesurfing along the Brazilian coast, burning 7,000 calories daily and desperate for nutrition. They soon turned to local fruits and vegetation, and wondered whether they could use the experience to make a dessert people could enjoy, without any of the guilt.
Thus began a 25-month research project, using four grants and two specialist food research centers. “We were looking at ice cream at the molecular level,” Charlie tells Red Herring, adding that he considers Oppo very much a food-tech firm, rather than a food one.
Soon the company turned to London-based crowdfunder Seedrs, targeting £100,012 ($121,240) of funding in return of a percentage of equity. Oppo became the platform’s “most overfunded” campaign, winning £353,811 ($428,980) from a wide variety of investors.
Since then the Thuilliers have turned to Seedrs for two more funding rounds, which they believe to be essential. “We’re neither accountants nor lawyers and so it has been essential having a knowledgeable and supportive advisor in navigating the technical complexities of crowdfunding,” says Harry.
The PR aspect of crowdfunding has also helped Oppo immensely, whose ice cream is made with fresh milk, virgin coconut oil and stevia leaf. It comes in three flavors: Madagascan vanilla; mint choc swirl and salted caramel.
“Crowdfunding is inherently public and we’ve always utilised this to our advantage,” adds Harry. “It’s not every day that you have a public platform to shout about the success and potential of your business.” Oppo’s second round even attracted British tennis ace Andy Murray to invest, which raised brand awareness hugely.
It is that upstart, media-savvy attitude that has helped Oppo grow so quickly. It now employs ten full-time staff and ships to dozens of UK stores and events venues. The team saw sales grow by 284% the past financial year, and expect more this term.
The food industry, says Charlie, is particularly ripe for disruption–especially from a young firm with solid technological research at hand. The fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) market is home to plenty of innovation. But, says Harry, the majority is owned by a handful of multinationals which are “typically slow, lazy and hesitant to adapt.
“This was proved when Unilever announced they were reducing their pack sizes by 33% to bring the calories and sugar content down,” he adds. “Where’s the innovation in that?”
That slow-moving industry allowed Oppo, with a unique selling point and relatively guerrilla marketing, to gain a quick foothold. “Product is everything. You need to make your product remarkable,” says Charlie. “‘Remarkable’ means ‘cool’ to most people, but it actually means ‘worth making a remark about’.”
“You’re small – great,” he adds. “Remember who you are, and act like David rather than Goliath. Don’t conform to the norm, but excite and surprise. If you’re a David, embrace David. Don’t try to emulate Goliath.
“And a final thought about being new to your sector and as I hinted at above: if you don’t know the rules it’s much easier to break them. Think differently, that’s your advantage over the corporate machines.”
2017 will be spent largely increasing listings in retail and wholesale accounts, the pair says. The Oppo brand will also be strengthened, with marketing campaigns launched alongside additional flavors. With that completed, the company will look to export elsewhere.
With an adroitness at learning from setbacks, Oppo is a brand at which many young entrepreneurs could do well to take a closer look.