Inspired by travel #5: Oppo Ice Cream

How an unofficial world record attempt on the Brazilian coast led - thanks to fatigue and hunger - to a superfood-inspired business idea

Company: Oppo Ice Cream
Founders: Charlie Thuillier and Harry Thuillier
Started in: Launched into Waitrose and on Ocado in October 2014

Why shouldn’t the most indulgent foods be guilt-free? Brothers Charlie and Harry Thuillier were fed up with the levels of sugar and unnecessary additives in the foods you really want, while being frustrated with healthy substitutes that don’t taste like the real thing.

So, having been inspired by their consumption of indigenous ‘superfoods’ while breaking an unofficial world record on the other side of the world, the pair quit promising careers at Diageo (Charlie) and Google-backed Squared (Harry) to do something about it.

The result? In the words of the brothers: Oppo Ice Cream – the world’s healthiest dairy ice cream! Natural, fewer calories than an apple, yet just as indulgent, Oppo is made using fresh milk, virgin coconut oil and stevia leaf. Each flavour, says Charlie, has its own unique superfood boost.

Harry-Thullier-and-Charlie-Thullier-Oppo

Harry and Charlie Thuillier indulging themselves

After just a year, Oppo Ice Cream was already stocked in Waitrose and on Ocado, as well as Whole Foods, Budgens, Holland & Barrett, Co-Op and various independents. “This is probably our biggest achievement – achieving such growth to be stocked in over 1,000 stores within six major supermarkets in just 12 months,” says Charlie.

2015 was indeed a busy year, with Oppo named as the Guardian’s ‘Start-up of the Year’, invited to No. 10 to join David Cameron on the Queen’s jet to the Milan Expo, and hitting its crowdfunding target in a matter of minutes in January 2015.

Now, the business has undergone a second successful crowdfunding round in which tennis star Andy Murray invested, was named in the 2017 Startups 100, and has been shortlisted for multiple Startups Awards.

Here’s how travel inspired guilt-free Oppo Ice Cream:

Where were you when you got the idea?

In 2011 my brother (Harry) and I travelled to Brazil in an attempt to break the unofficial world record for the longest distance travelled by kite on land, unsupported. We quickly ran out of food resulting in me losing 8kg of weight in just two weeks!

Walking 30miles through mangrove swamp

Walking through mangrove swamps

After a little education from the locals we started eating what was naturally growing along the Brazilian coastline. Coconuts and wild super-fruits fuelled us to the finish line – not only were these super healthy and nutritious, but they tasted great too.

We returned home with an idea. What if natural ingredients could be used to make indulgent food guilt-free…?

Why were you so inspired?

I thought the massive food giants were doing ‘food’ wrong. We as consumers have come to believe that if you want something indulgent, you have to compromise on health. If you want something good for you, you have to compromise on indulgence. I didn’t believe this had to be the case, so set about changing it. I wanted to see if the most indulgent foods could be healthy.

Were you actively looking for a start-up idea or did it just seem too good to pass up?

I’ve always loved selling – previous ‘businesses’ included selling Pokémon cards aged six, starting a tuckshop aged 13, a fast food delivery service aged 17 and student holidays at 21! I seem to remember that Pokémon earned me the equivalent of my year’s pocket money in one week – as a dyslexic child who struggled in the class room, finding success outside of the classroom gave me a lot of confidence.

Harry and I weren’t out in Brazil to look for a start-up idea. We were there for an adventure, which accidentally became a world record attempt. I was focused on starting a graduate job at Diageo as soon as I returned, and Harry was rather enjoying his marketing role too.

How easy was it to start the business on your return?

The idea for Oppo only came a year after we returned from Brazil. I learned a lot about consumer brands and FMCG sales while at Diageo. This coupled with my Brazil experience and my passion for health, great food, and start-ups meant it was only a matter of time before I left Diageo to found Oppo.

Everyone talks about the risk of leaving a secure job and starting a business – however to me it was the other way round. There was a massive risk in not leaving Diageo (a job I didn’t particularly enjoy) and not realising my dream which I knew I would love. I was lucky, I could move back to my parents’ house (and later onto Harry’s sofa – he had no say in the matter) and I had no dependents to look after.

If only I knew then that that would be the easy part. From there it took 25 months of research, three different factories, two specialised food research centres and four grants to develop Oppo. At one point there was just £1.05 left in the bank, with no product to show for 18 months of hard work…but you have to approach starting up a business with a realistic expectation – it isn’t straightforward!

My recommendation would be to never force an idea – amazing ideas are everywhere, it’s the right timing which is crucial, coupled with fantastic execution.

What research did you have to carry out to learn more about the sector and the market opportunity?

To begin with I did an awful lot of research myself! Google and meeting as many industry experts as possible both taught me a huge amount.

I worked with the first ice cream factory I tried for five months but we failed. I then went to another ice cream factory for a further six months but again they couldn’t help. Enough was enough, so I got two government grants and hired space in a lab for three months. Here was where I looked at the molecular structure of ice cream to determine the importance of sugar and fat (plus the other ingredients I wanted to get rid of like artificial flavourings!).

I then worked to replace these arguably unhealthy ingredients with natural ingredients which were crucially healthy, economical, in plentiful supply, and once formulated together could legally be called ice cream. This formulation had to match the expectation of traditional dairy ice cream. I then spent a further nine months at a third factory scaling up this recipe to full commercial scale. It took a long time!

How much did you invest in getting started?

I invested a small amount of my own money and around £10,000 of grants before launch. Upon launch I needed to raise further funds, and was offered my asking price from two venture capital firms. But it just didn’t feel right, so rejected it.

The next morning I was giving out Oppo samples in the coffee shop beneath my flat in return for some feedback when I met someone who asked for three more samples to take home. I received a phone call within 15 minutes from this lady’s husband who happened to be the CEO of crowdfunding platform Seedrs – Jeff Lynn. We met in the coffee shop and I decided to raise through Seedrs. We ended up raising £300,000 and are now looking at doing a second round using crowdfunding again.

Crowdfunding is a fantastic way of raising brand awareness: we now have 197 investors who avidly spread the word among their friends and family. It also democratises the investment process – it was great to be able to give Oppo customers the chance to own a part of the company. We’re very conscious that we are working with other people’s money and we’re working hard to make their investment work. So far we are out-performing initial expectations.

How quickly after starting did you experience what you’d describe as ‘success’?

It has to be creating the product. A product which stayed true to our philosophy and achieved our aims. With Oppo, product is king. Industry professionals said it was impossible to create a guilt-free ice cream that matched the taste expectation of traditional ice cream. They had tried and concluded it could not be done.

I was adamant that there could not be any compromise, which might be why it took me so long. It not only had to be the healthiest dairy ice cream on the market, but it had to be the best on taste, texture and indulgence. Creating Oppo and receiving 5-star customer reviews in Waitrose and on Ocado as well as many awards and testimonials from industry professionals has been thrilling. Watch this space for our next product!

Where did you go for advice?

It’s amazing – if you ask the right questions, to the right people, in the right way, then lots of people will be willing to help. The entrepreneurial community is incredibly friendly and full of very knowledgeable people, with most willing to guide and advise. I used to go to a monthly networking event hosted by a branding agency. Here I met more people who invited me to other events and introduced me to potential mentors. In fact it was at one of these events that I met one of the most important people to Oppo – I started by asking him his thoughts on a couple of challenges I had. Then I took him for coffee and he slowly became a mentor, and now he’s an investor and non-exec director in Oppo. Put yourself out there and ask for help, you never know where a conversation or simple question can lead!

What advice would you give to others who travel looking for start-up ideas?

Don’t look for an idea. Don’t force it. A fantastic idea can come just as easily from speaking to a friend in the pub, walking down the street, or in our case on the Brazilian coastline. Just be open. Open to new experiences, new cultures and new people. This is true of wherever you are. If you anticipate a travel inspired idea, don’t try and have a lightbulb moment as you go through passport control or you could miss your idea. I always think that the most creative and best ideas come from passive thought i.e. when you don’t put pressure on yourself to create something amazing.

My idea came on the Brazilian coastline. But who knows where our next one or yours will come from. It could be anywhere and at any time. Good luck!

What are your future plans?

In 2016 we will treble revenue and treble distribution, further raise awareness of Oppo, and launch into a new category.

Distribution for us isn’t a challenge as we are so unique and on trend, but raising awareness is a challenge on no budget. This year we’ve found there are two key methods of raising awareness that really work for Oppo – edible advertising (consumers rarely believe Oppo tastes as good as we say it does until they taste it for themselves) and PR (educating on the product/story). We’re rolling out both strategies considerably more this year.