UDHI SILVA, CO-FOUNDER, SNAFFLING PIG, MEDICAL SUPERMARKET AND STARTUP LOGISTICS
“I get my work ethic from mum and dad,” says Udhi Silva. “Dad was a car mechanic and mum worked at M&S. They set a brilliant example.”
Their son certainly grew up with a big appetite for graft. In his childhood, Udhi had not one paper round but three – one every morning, another on Thursday afternoons and a third on Friday evenings. Then, come the weekend, he’d play hard, spending his pocket money at the local Superbowl.
A businessman in the making
All the signs were there – this lad had the hallmarks of a future entrepreneur. And the signs were spot on. Today, Udhi is the co-founder of three exciting businesses that have a combined turnover of £10m. For the boy with three paper rounds, launching a mere one was never going to be enough.
He says: “In my late teens and early twenties I read tons of business books, became fascinated by entrepreneurs and did business studies at uni. But I was pretty average academically. I ended up getting a job as a junior buyer for Dreams sourcing bedsteads from the Far East – it gave me my first taste of doing deals with suppliers.”
His next step was Harrods – again as a buyer: “It sounds glamourous but was actually quite dull. We were in a dingy office, not on the pristine shop floor.”
So, what’s the big idea?
Then came the role that led to Udhi’s first start-up – he became a buyer for a private healthcare provider, BMI Healthcare. There he met his soon-to-be business partner, Nick Coleman. “Nick did the same job as me,” says Udhi. “We sat opposite each other, each trying to prove we were the best! There was plenty of photocopier banter and we soon started talking about launching a business together. We were both up for it but lacked a strong idea. We plotted all sorts of things – a pizza or Subway franchise, a care home – loads of things. But we didn’t have £200,000 lying around to invest! So we kept talking.”
The canny pair kept their ears to the ground, too. In 2009, on hearing that the government wanted to give GPs greater control of the NHS purse strings, their big idea landed. They would simplify GPs’ lives by doing all their buying for them. It made sense. They had the requisite knowledge thanks to their current jobs and the demand seemed to be there. Udhi says: “At BMI we bought everything that a hospital needs, from pens to medical kit. We wanted our start-up to do the same for GPs’ surgeries. So, we did some research. Or rather I asked my girlfriend’s parents to put our idea to two of their doctor mates. They liked it. So we resigned, went to Currys on our lunchbreak, bought two laptops, and launched what would become Medical Supermarket.”
A terrible sales pitch
But the path forward was not smooth. Is it ever? The new business partners spent day after day cold-calling surgeries. Their pitch was: let us take over your buying and we’ll save you cash. But they soon discovered they were flogging a horse that, although far from dead, was certainly not a sleek, speeding stallion: “We’d make 80 calls a day and get maybe one meeting. Our pitch was terrible, absolutely terrible, but we were on a mission. We cold-called every day for six months and picked up several clients. But we weren’t making much money despite our hard work.”
A stag-do. Eureka!
Nevertheless, the persistent duo were not about to give up. They felt they just needed to find the right angle of attack and everything would fall into place. Their instincts proved correct. On a stag-do, Udhi met a software developer. Chatting over a beer, the IT guy came up with a suggestion. Why didn’t Udhi and Nick become the suppliers? Instead of working all hours doing thousands of individual deals, why didn’t they build a branded e-commerce platform that sold everything a surgery might need? Bingo.
“I came back from that stag-do with a spring in my step,” says Udhi. “I told Nick we were going to become the Amazon of healthcare. Next, we convinced the software guys to build our e-commerce platform in exchange for a slice of revenue. The move completely transformed our business. Medical Supermarket was born.”
The start-up now grew beautifully. After a stuttering start, they had a genuine success on their hands. And today Medical Supermarket is a market leader, selling more than 60,000 products to GP surgeries all over the UK.
In strolls the Snaffling Pig
But one business was not enough for Udhi and Nick. The irrepressible entrepreneurs wanted a new challenge and started to discuss ideas – just like they’d done over their employer’s photocopier a few years back.
“We had a wager – whoever could come up with the best business idea would get £500 and a steak dinner.” What they came up with in 2014 was as far removed from doctors’ surgeries as you can get.
“One day Nick walked into the office with a bag of pork scratchings,” recalls Udhi. “He said, ‘What do you reckon?’ I was like, er, they remind me of uni. And Nick said, ‘Yeah, but look at how beer’s gone all crafty and popcorn’s gone all gourmet. People love experimenting with flavours and no-one’s done anything with pork snacks – yet.”
A household brand in the making
The £500 and steak dinner went to Nick. Within days, the pair were phoning suppliers to find out how they could make an improved version of traditional pork scratchings. What tempting new seasonings could they use? How could they give their product a premium look and feel? How could they source the best meat? They put a small amount of capital into their new business and started to build.
Today, The Snaffling Pig Co – whose range now includes beer, cider and sauces as well as pork scratchings – has snouted its way into Tesco, Sainsbury’s and hundreds of pubs. Online sales are rising fast and the foundations are in place to nurture Snaffling Pig into a household name.
A big part of its success is down to Udhi and Nick’s effective use of PR. Snaffling Pig pork crackling advent calendars (one’s called Auld Lang Swine) regularly receive coverage on national radio and TV – they’ve appeared on This Morning and the Chris Evans show to name just two. Moreover, Nick Coleman’s 2019 appearance on Dragons’ Den – which attracted £70,000 of investment from entrepreneur Nick Jenkins – created a wave of interest. After building Medical Supermarket – a successful but necessarily dry brand – the founders are clearly having great fun with Snaffling Pig.
And here’s Nick and Udhi’s advice to founders looking to court big retailers such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s. “You’ve got to be memorable,” says Udhi. “For example, we’ve asked supermarket marketing teams if we can park our pig van – our ‘Hamborghini’ – in the car park and give away 500 advent calendars to staff. We do little things like that because building brand awareness is as important as building buyer awareness. Engagement with the buyer and his or her colleagues is vital. You’ve got to be persistent but in a subtle way. And remember that supermarkets need innovative smaller suppliers. They need points of difference to attract shoppers.”
Hitting the entrepreneurial hat-trick
It won’t surprise you to hear that the man who once had three paper rounds – and his equally driven business partner – haven’t been able to resist a third roll of the entrepreneurial dice.
While much of Britain was on furlough during 2020’s nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, they launched another business – Start-Up Logistics. Udhi explains: “During Covid, some small brands struggled to get their products out to customers. We’ve always run our own warehouse logistics operation, so some companies reached out to us for help and advice. We began offering a storage-and-shipping solution for three food and drink brands, which soon rose to eight. After increasing our capacity, we now have 38 brands in our warehouses, from peanut butter to Champagne. It’s turned into another business. It’s crazy, really.”
A story of hard work, action and persistence
Udhi and Nick’s story is laced with initiative, hard work and an inspirational ‘let’s do this’ ethos. It shows how acting on new ideas takes you on exciting journeys. Looking back, the pair made several key decisions along the way. Perhaps the most vital was choosing to stick with Medical Supermarket after the initial business model fell apart. Instead of walking away in despair, they persisted and modified their approach. From there, the rest fell into place and two more businesses were born – each with bags of potential. This all goes to show that successful entrepreneurship is about doing and learning, not planning and dreaming – something the boy with three paper rounds knew from a very young age.
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