Mr Lee’s Noodles: Damien Lee
After being diagnosed with cancer, the serial entrepreneur did 18 rounds of chemotherapy before being given the all clear - and starting up again
Tell us what your business does:
Mr Lee’s Noodles Company is an award winning, new brand of gourmet, gluten-free noodles in a cup. We are a limited company that operates within the ready meal sector, and we have a delicious range of six authentic, oriental flavours.
We are very proud of the product we have created, one of the lowest cup noodles in salt, sugar (Sugarwise certified), fats, calories with absolutely no artificial colouring, flavouring or MSG’s – and we push everyday towards our goal of making consumers live and eat better.
One of our USPs are freeze-dried ingredients, which lock in most of the nutrients, making us, what we believe, the healthiest cup noodle on the market.
Not only is our product unique amongst the market, but we have also developed ‘Noodle Kiosk’ vending machines that are set to revolutionise the food-to-go industry.
Our digitally operated vending machines create an engaging, customised experience for tailored audiences, with the capability to be monitored online and give the user fun infomercials, third party commercials and viral videos.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
The idea came unexpectedly when I was suddenly diagnosed with an aggressive, terminal form of cancer. My world turned upside down! I went raw in my diet and took all the nasties out, and after 18 rounds of chemo and chemo related treatment, I was free, but I found myself asking what next?
I realised that I had a love for cup noodle products, but I could no longer eat them due their unhealthy contents. And then I thought, let’s make a healthy cup noodle, but let’s do it in a way that nobody has ever done before.
How did you know there was a market for it?
I knew there was a market from the go, as the UK instant cup noodle sector is already growing 6-8% per annum. But it’s a race to the bottom with price wars and lowering the quality of ingredients to keep the production profitable.
We fit uniquely within this space as a healthier alternative at a higher price point.
The breadth of the market is both international and domestic, ranging from as far away as China to the US, India and Central / Eastern Europe. Global instant noodle sales are currently over 100 billion units per annum, expecting to hit 120 billion by 2025.
What were you doing before starting up?
Throughout my life as a practicing businessman, I’ve ran several successful and challenging companies, and prior to Mr Lee’s Noodles I was heading an internet start-up called ‘Designed Gadgets’- but due to my diagnosis and subsequent battle with cancer, it was sadly put aside.
The summer before I established Mr Lee’s Noodles was a tough one. I was in remission and I found myself thinking what happens next?
Have you always wanted to run your own business?
By having a natural risk reward mentality, I’ve always had an interest is running my own businesses. From Australia and Denmark to Sweden, Singapore, France and Nigeria, I’ve built my companies from the ground up, including a successful financial recruitment head hunting company, an international security company, maritime communications and more.
I’m self-defined as ‘unemployable’ as I’ve never really worked for anybody, and Mr Lee’s Noodles is truly the combination of all my life’s experiences, travels and business background coming together.
How did you raise the money?
At the start we used our internal circles to raise the funds. We were a new business concept without a physical product, so everybody was running on dreams and ideas in order the secure the private investors we later did.
In the first month of operations, we won a listing with Compass Group UK, the market leader in contract catering what has immediately boosted our future sales and funding scope.
Describe your business model and how you make money:
Our business model is both disruptive and strategic. We intend to generate revenue through multiple wholesale and retail channels, making an initial ‘non-traditional’ decision to steer away from supermarkets.
Through our online store, Amazon and Mr Lee’s Noodle Kiosks we can enter the market with a more exclusive product and keeping our margins.
Our product and Noodle Kiosks will enter hotel chains, coffee shops, fitness centres, places of business and food retailers, and are already selling at five hotel chains in Scandinavia, boutique hotels in Scotland and local, influential businesses.
Our price point of £2.99 per cup reflects the premium value of our product and USP for a guilt-free, healthy, gourmet and convenient light meal. From a range of overwhelmingly positive blogger and tabloid reviews, early market successes and corporate buys, our business model is already proving to be a success.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
The biggest challenge I have faced post my treatment has been trying to innovate the vending industry. In the West, both consumers and suppliers have poor expectations of vending machines, as they are usually loaded with non-desirable, junk products, and often most are ‘out of order’.
Trying to make vending machines modern, efficient and exciting to use is a challenge, and we have had vending experts in the UK questioning whether this would be possible.
In addition to this, having an instant cup noodle that was truly healthy and getting rid of all the nasty ingredients expectedly added extra layers to this challenge. But today we have proven that there is always a market for innovative products and new manners of distribution.
What was your first big breakthrough?
Our earliest, big breakthrough came in our first month of being an operating business – Compass Group’s ‘The Idea Works’ event in Manchester. Described as “15 minutes, four judges and one big idea”, this prolific process shortlists companies with the biggest potential to pitch to four industry experts on the Compass Group panel, in order to secure a national and international listing on their real estate.
We are very proud of how we performed – a business with no packed product and just a Noodle Kiosk shell, and at the time we were pitching how we would revolutionise the market with a healthy, guilt-free noodle.
With the expertise and experience of Compass Group, this process has led to a range of future successes, and we are very fortunate to have had the opportunity to secure such an early listing with the market leaders.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Never be afraid of trying something new and to fail trying. The strength is to get back up each time and trying again until you succeed. Your true strength is your mind and how you apply it. So go out, live it and use it!
Where do you want to be in five years' time?
Going global is my main growth ambition, as I’ve already expanded my noodles into the travel and hospitality industry, looking to eventually sell my products globally. By making my noodles available in thousands of locations, through our digital vending kiosks and other retailers, I can flood the market with high quality, healthy products.