Mia & Ben: Daniel and Karina
Names: Daniel Auner and Karina Gentgen
Company name: Mia & Ben
Location: Berlin based, UK first country for launch
Date launched: July 2019
Number of employees: 12
Ages: 36 (Daniel), 31 (Karina)
A baby food business with big ideas: Mia & Ben are taking first steps into the world of High Pressure Processing (HPP) to make yummy, nutritious meals free from preservatives and high in vitamins. Providing the ideal product for time-poor parents, still keen to feed their kids well, even on the go.
Read the full Q&A to get a scoop of the good stuff, and learn what it takes to break into the food industry, one tiny spoon at a time.
Tell us what your business does:
Mia & Ben is new player in the baby & toddler food market and the UK (and Ireland’s) first dedicated HPP food brand for children. Instead of traditional heat based production methods we have harnessed High Pressure Processing (HPP); the latest innovation in food production technology.
The result is a next generation, fresh puree product set to disrupt the children’s food market by becoming the only brand to successfully deliver the same taste, texture and nutrient value of homemade baby food. Our product comes in a convenient pouch format that works as a snack smoothie for older toddlers too, and suits the busy lives of 21st century parents.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
Our first entrepreneurial adventure was establishing Soupe du Jour, a healthy soup restaurant in Soho, London. The experience taught us a great deal, especially about what customers want. Our most important learning was that parents struggled to find appropriate and appealing food for their little ones when on-the-go; and we were regularly asked – ‘Can my baby eat this?’ That was why we felt compelled to investigate what was out there for babies and young children.
How did you know there was a market for it?
We trawled supermarket aisles and health food shops, only to find the shelves saturated by ambient, heat processed product stocked alongside other long-life, tinned goods. So the idea of creating a fresh, healthy and nutritious food for babies and children, that was practical and portable, yet tasted just as good as food made at home, was born.
What were you doing before starting up?
Daniel – I studied in London and went on to work in banking. I liked the food that was available in the city but I was aware that you couldn't get good soup. That's why I launched Soup de Jour with an outlet in Soho.
Karina – My background is in business and foreign languages. I joined Soupe du Jour when a second shop opened in the City of London. I then joined a fast growing B2B corporate catering start up where I was in charge of the Operations in London and UK-wide.
Have you always wanted to run your own business?
Daniel – I’ve always had big dreams and ambitions, and a need to challenge the status quo. That said it took me some time to come to realise that running my own business was what I really wanted to do. I started my career in a big financial institution and I enjoyed my time there, but I didn’t feel I could accomplish everything I wanted to. There was also a creative side in me that wasn’t being satisfied.
So I decided to quit, and the very next day I set up my own restaurant. We offered fresh and healthy soups and stews, many coming from my family's recipe book, and I really enjoyed seeing something I had founded come to life. It was clear to me from opening day that I would never go back to my old career.
Karina – I would say the same! I come from an entrepreneurial household, both my parents set up their own businesses – my father for example runs a third generation construction business founded in 1932, so I’ve been fortunate to grow up with the freedom and responsibilities that come with that.
In my early career I enjoyed working in different areas of the family business, but I got hooked in the startup world where there is still a lot to build, you can see that your actions have an impact, and where a few people with a shared mission can achieve a lot. At Soupe du Jour this spirit was incredible and Daniel and I realised that we have complementary skill sets and that we work really well together.
How did you raise the money?
We wanted to build a best in class product, so we knew that there would be a long development phase before we saw the first revenues.
We managed to fund a 2.5 year long R&D phase with money coming from different sources. On the one hand we have a great group of investors that support us, and on the other we have received about EUR 1m in form of an EU grant. The grant was very difficult to achieve but given the massive benefit of our products over widely available shelf-stable brands, the board of experts voted in our favour, aiming for us to help change eating habits for the better for the next generation.
Describe your business model and how you make money:
We are a manufacturing business and our revenue comes from sales of our product to supermarket chains and independent stores. Our first listings are with online grocery retailer Ocado and whole food stores Abel & Cole. We also launched at Dunnes stores in Ireland this week.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
Our ambition had always been to make the best and safest baby food product possible, and achieving that goal took much longer than even we initially expected. Finding the best production partner, getting the packaging right and making sure the recipes are as balanced as possible couldn’t just be MVP-tested like in tech start-ups, for example. It needed a lot of time and patience and a financial buffer, which is why fundraising and developing R&D through European grants have been part of our day-to-day activity from the very beginning.
Understanding retail structures has also been a big challenge since the vision for a fresher product on shelf has to be backed up with reliable and safe structures (especially in refrigerated logistics and for baby food) that need to be built with care and the right partners. Our supply chain and products needed to get certified by organic and Soil Association bodies, as well as BRCGS in order to be set up as a reliable partner with the big supermarkets – that’s a lot of processes for a fresh start-up like ours.
Therefore, we started to develop a team with experts in Sales, Marketing, Supply Chain and Quality Assurance in order to make sure we always put the quality of the product first and become a brand that parents can trust.
What was your first big breakthrough?
Getting the listing with Ocado. We had worked so hard to get the product right and to then get positive feedback from the buyer and agree on the listing was a fantastic moment!
The second big one was being present for the first production run and getting to see the final product in the final packaging for the first time. And our most recent breakthrough was actually seeing the product on shelf in Ireland when we listed it with Dunnes last week! Hopefully there are many more to come!
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Whilst we don’t want to give too much advice because we don’t feel like we have it all figured out yet, we would say to surround yourself with the right people at the right time and hire key support into the team when you feel like you need to take a step further.
Also remember that your core product is the reason why the business is there – so don’t ever compromise on its quality.
Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
Our mission is to move baby and toddler foods to the fresh aisle so our ambition is to broaden the product range to include different meal and snack options – all fresh of course! Hopefully we can also expand into other markets in Europe where we have already gotten some great feedback.