On life and cheese
Rasa Jusionyte talked to Fancy Cheese maker Mike about the in's and out's of; life, dairy business and crowd funding
Michael is not a regular cheese maker - well, who is a regular cheese maker these days anyway? Mike's Fancy Cheese, the company he set up after dropping out of university, is now an award-winning cheese-making business based in Northern Ireland. Young Buck, the signature raw milk cheese, already drove Michelin-starred restaurant chefs crazy and can be found paired with ever-so-popular craft beer. We talked about Mike's Fancy Cheese crowd funding campaign and the bumpy road Michael took to turn his idea into a self-sustaining business (the story includes girlfriends, crazy partying, a huge debt and nice strangers).
Mike, can you tell us a little about yourself? We'd like to know where you grew up, what did you do after school, what was your first day as a grown up, do you have a dog and if you were to write a book, what would it be about?
I am from Belfast. A born and bred city boy with no farming or rural background. When I was at school I knew for sure I didn’t want to go to university. Unfortunately for me, I went to a well-to-do grammar school and the teachers were pushing everyone into higher education. It's hard to resist pressure when you're at that age and so I went to do Computer Studies (smiles), but as you can guess, I never showed up - I quit before I started! At that time, I was doing home care for people with learning disabilities and loved it, I just sort of thought the degree would be a waste of time and money.
At the same time I thought myself as a bit of raconteur, learning to play guitar and reading loads of pretentious books! I had been the sporty type at school, had trials with Newcastle United, and played for the local North Ireland team Glentoran, but I quit football when I discovered wine, women and song (to the dismay of my dad!).
I suppose this is when I started to realise that just because your good at something doesn’t mean you should have to do that thing all the time if you don’t enjoy it.
For a while then, I was doing home care and really loving it. My next step was getting a social work degree, so I went to do it (Mike smiles again) - after the first six months I already hated it. Essays really aren't my thing! I dropped out. Keep in mind, I still had a large student loan in the bank plus the social work bursary... so I hit the road and drove around the UK for a few months living in my car or with strangers and having lots of fun. When the money ran out, I came back with my tail between my legs and needed a job to pay it all back. That was how I fell into my first food job, working in a family deli called Arcadia, on the Lisburn Road. Again, I hated big chains, and large personality type businesses - but loved the idea of working in a little family run deli where you knew all the customers. Back then, I was was about 19 or 20 years old.
I still haven’t had my first day as a grown up, although when you see £74,000 in your bank account that could have been it! Oh and I have a cat! Fred, he's chill, loves cheese and shedding hair. Again, like me!
Ok Mike, let's get serious -what’s your pitch? How do you describe what you do in a sentence or two?
I make cheese. I sell cheese. I run fun events that involved people eating cheese and getting drunk in strange places.
We also have the tag of starting a new tradition of raw milk cheese making in Northern Ireland, being the only raw milk cheese makers.
How much cheese do you eat on a normal day and what is the best way to enjoy a piece of cheese?
Not that much - don’t want to be eating the profits! When the orders come in, me and Jonathon (my friend and employee) will taste through the batches on the shelf talking about them and where best to send them. So we eat a lot of Young Buck, and its amazing, how different it can be each time.
‘Mikes Fancy Cheese’ - the name of your company is very fun and a little cheeky. How did you come up with it?
Before I raised my money through crowd-funding, I was looking at the option of purchasing or hiring all the equipment, so I needed to register as a company. I didn’t know exactly what type of cheese I'd be making at this stage, so I couldn’t name it after a signature recipe or similar. I was reading an old American cheese book form like 1908 and there was a section in it talking about “fancy” cheese, which was basically any cheese that wasn’t cheddar. I just really liked the term fancy cheese, and then I have no idea where Mike came from. No one ever called me Mike or anything, I like to say I have 2 personas now, Mike for business, Michael for leisure.
"I like to say I have 2 personas now, Mike for business, Michael for leisure."
What’s on the playlist while you’re in the kitchen?
When we are making cheese we'd usually have talksport blasting! Haha, I know its not cool or trendy or hip, but there is something about talk radio that I love! I really like the fact people want to phone in to air opinions. Sometimes people can become a bit inward in artisan/tech/hip circles, and forget that we are the minority and if you're only interested in what the minority are doing then you're missing something. Like for instance, the elections, everyone on my Facebook and twitter were all so shocked that conservatives got back in, because their liberal friends on their Facebook feeds were full of labour voters! I just went a bit off topic, but you get the gist yeah?
What’s the best thing about Living in Newtownards?
I actually still live in Belfast. Newtownards is about 30 mins outside Belfast, that’s where all the cows live! Me and Jonny head out about 6.30 when there's no traffic, and then when we are on the way back, we can do all the deliveries to save having to spend a whole day just out delivering!
On cheese business and its biggest lessons
Was running a business your big dream and a life goal? Some entrepreneurs say they are a bit unemployable, so they never really had much to choose from apart from starting on their own.
No, I never had an idea of what I wanted to do. I loved working in the deli, it was great: you could go out, enjoy a few drinks, wake up ,go to work, spend the day among great people and then go home and not have to worry about anything. It was actually on one of the first dates with my girlfriend now of about 7 years. We were causally talking about what we wanted to do with life and I said I wouldn’t mind working in the deli forever, and she basically told me to drop her home because, if I had no drive what was the point?
With a few friends I used to put on club nights and loved that idea of having complete control over something. We are still pretty close - one of the guys is now a stand up comedian and the other does all my graphic design and recently quit his job to focus on hand painting signs!
A lot of people move to London to start a business, you headed to Northern Ireland. Did not living in London work out as a strength?
Pretty much. Our USP as a startup looking for money was that we were going to be the first raw milk cheesemaker in Northern Ireland. I had been offered the opportunity by one of my customers that they would fund or co-fund me to make cheese in England, but moving back to Northern Ireland was always on the agenda. I wouldn’t be doing this, if I wasn’t doing it in Northern Ireland, at the age of 25 a lot of friends were moving away to London or even Australia in search of 'the good life', but I wanted to create something that would drag people back! That’s why we run 'pay-what-you-want' beer and cheese nights. I want Northern Ireland to be a place people want to come live in.
Sorry, if we come across a bit rude, but why you? … What made you think this can be a business and what convinced your investors? We’d really like to know what was in your mind before you started, were there days when you thought ‘oh hell, this is a crazy idea and I think it’s time to run away!’
It was a long journey and not something that was intentional. When I left the deli, it was to go to the School of Artisan Food, to do a cheese diploma. I knew I wanted to move back to Northern Ireland someday, but I thought we were talking 10/20 years kind of thing. I was writing about cheese at the time www.onemanandhischeese.blogspot.com just for a bit of fun. Then, as part of the course, there was a trip to France to see some of the best cheese affinuers (maturers) and producers of comte, that weekend I went for a night out in London and got a bit tipsy and lost my passport and a few other things so I couldn’t go! I was not going to waste the 2 weeks and got in touch with a cheesemaker in Leicestershire, went and helped them for a fortnight and that’s where I ended up working when I left cheese school!
During cheese school I was always thinking how am I going to make this into a business, as everyone who was making cheese seemed to come from a family of farmers, or had been working in the city and got a large redundancy payment, and here I was racking up debt to learn about cheesemaking. So that was always in the back of my mind when I was making cheese!
I returned to Belfast about 3 years ago on the hope that there might be some interest, I had been in discussion with guys who make yogurt and have a big estate, but that fell through as they wanted control over everything which I wasn’t ready for doing. I went down all other routes of traditional banking and being 26 with no security... they weren’t ready to hand out the 80k. We didn’t fall into any start up schemes here either - lots of small loans or venture capital for high growth companies - not exactly cheese business, is it? I was running out of options when equity crowdfunding idea popped along. Someone had mentioned kickstarted, but 80k is a lot of cheese to give away, and it was when I was researching that I came across Seedrs.
The Not-So-Fancy Pre-Investment Stage
Did you work evenings and weekends and had a day job? How did you pay your first rent after starting the company?
I was doing a bit of part time in the deli, but included in my start up was a wage, as we needed to start making cheese regularly in small batches to reduce any chance of wastage, so I was full time from when we made our first back in Nov 2013.
How far did you get before raising money? And can you tell us about the preparations for the seeders round?
I knew how to make the cheese, I wanted to make it and had people in line to buy - it was just about trying to convince people to give me the money! The Mikes Fancy Cheese Branding was already in place, Young Buck was developed as we watched the cheese mature in the store.
So the minute I found Seedrs, I whacked up a campaign around Jan 2013. After 3 weeks we were at about 14%, in crowd-funding, momentum is everything... I thought it was a case of once its up you can sit back an relax. I was really wrong.
I happened to be at a crowd-funding day in Belfast, where they explained what it was. Actually, I was the only person who had a live campaign, so after the free lunch anyone who stuck around had a good interest. I pulled the campaign out on the projector and got feedback from everyone. One of the first comments was that the video, was basically me talking to a web cam. There happened to be a guy who ran a video company, he said he could do me a video for free with the idea we'd work together, if it was successful or he could use my terrible video as an example of what not to do.
So he did the new video and we took down our campaign, let all the investors know what the craic was and why we were redoing the campaign, with all our PR then in place we relaunched with already 12% in March 2013 and 28 days later hit our target.
Does Life Gets Better Post-Investment?
...or is this where the pressure begins?
Yes! Getting builders to give you realistic time frames and waiting on expensive equipment to arrive was the biggest pressure. But since then taking on my best friend as an employee has surpassed that, as now we have to make cheese and money!
What was the first thing you bought? :)
Our equipment! It took about 16 weeks to arrive!
Can you give us a simple step-by-step guide to scaling up?
We do it in such a gradual way it hasn’t effected production or anything really. Our unit was always ready to produce a certain amount of cheese, it was just a case of fitting in an extra make, buying more shelves, trying to time making more cheese with getting new customers - the cheese takes 4 months to mature. Our biggest issues were how to deal with bad cheese as we doubled the amount of milk in each batch, I won't bore you with this!
The Best Kept Secret: Community Growth
How did you find your first customers? …And then more customers?
The customers were always in place. I had been going around telling people I was home to make cheese for about a year, so pressure was to get it out to the waiting customers. It was a case of when the cheese was ready and just going into the best restaurants and asking to speak to the chefs or owners. You learn not to be shy. There was a huge demand locally, as we made a good product and it was local too.
How do you go about social media and creating content?
I try and be as open as possible with what we do. I love using Instagram to take pictures of cheese, the making process, anything fun we are doing to get people stoked on cheese life!!
What about marketing? What worked for you?
Never have enough cheese! People love something they can't have. So we have made sure not to get too big too quick. We entered our cheese in the Irish cheese awards, in the first year we won silver and this year we won best blue, so things like that really worked and got the word out!
I guess it really was about embracing cheese. I am known as the Cheeseman, I go to gigs, bars, shows, poetry nights and I have to be be social - you never know who you can meet on nights out. People love doing business with people they like, my biggest customers are also my friends, they give honest feedback on our product as we are always working with them to make sure they have the best cheese out of us. You can't possibly have enough of raw milk cheese, it is never done!!