#SelfStarterStories: From being completely unemployable to becoming a Founder of her own micro-nutrient food brand
This week's #selfstarterstory features Alessandra Bester, Founder of Functional Food Co.
My son was the reason I started all of this and set up the Functional Foods Company. But what we do is meant to make a difference to many. We are dedicated to producing allergy friendly, Low FODMAP foods which are not only delicious, appealing and interesting, but they are specifically designed for people who have identified or are exploring the connection between what they eat and how they feel.
#PickYourselfUK caught up with Alessandra to learn more about her entrepreneurial journey.
What was your last job?: I have been completely unemployable for years. Single mum to a disabled child. I have tried to earn an income from doing some photography, consultancy. Never believed I had any value...
When did you choose to PICK YOURSELF instead of waiting to be chosen by someone else?: After a decade of looking after a child with such complex needs, my health was affected and I was crushed both physically and mentally. I was disabled and needed to help myself. My son and my life was a nightmare. I learned that if I am not 100% there, there is no one else that could help. Social services cleared away and I was left hopeless.
I watched my son falling apart at the realisation that his mum, his friend, advocate, psychotherapist, occupational therapist, teacher, nurse... was no longer able to support him.
We lost everything. I was useless at taking care of him and myself but I had no choice. I took my health into my own hands as I could see the NHS didn’t have any solutions.
With very small steps it took almost 3 years. I improved and every day I was able to do more. I had to work very hard to be functional, use hands, walk, sit. Till today I have to make adjustments to my workday to allow for some tasks to be achieved. I had to do it for my son.
People around me praised me for my work and all the creative ideas I have had to manage my son’s eating disorder. They encouraged me to share the ideas with others in a similar situation. I could see that my work could be accommodated around my life as it is. That I don’t have to compromise. So Functional Food Co was set up offering allergy friendly, FreeFrom, low FODMAP snacks that I developed for my son and to manage my own health over the years.
What was the most challenging part of starting a business?: What is still very challenging, is the fact that, in my mind I still see myself as an able person who should be equal to other start-ups.
I can see how far ahead people who started at the same time as I are. I find it very challenging to accept that I have to do it my way, at my speed, and it will take me longer as I have to still manage being a carer and my own health is very fragile. I also find people judging and underestimating me. Seen me as a risk to invest in or to support, but I have yet to let anyone down
Do you do everything yourself? What do you outsource?: At the moment I do most tasks myself or overlook, teach and train others. From accounts, sales, marketing, to actually producing the products, packing, posting, delivering. I recruit people who, like myself, are not otherwise easily considered for an employment.
Single mums who only have few hours a day. People who are full-time carers to someone, -now trying to return to work and need a ‘stepping stone’ or a safe transition. I also offer work experience for young people with special needs like my son. I teach and overlook what they do. I hope to be able to get more help in the future and outsource more tasks.
What is your favourite marketing tool ?: I love videos as long as I am not in them. I need to overcome this and start using it more. This is more time-consuming than twitter or writing blogs.
How do you market your business?: I am trying to get my story out to the public and inspire people. I think that, if my son and my life can be so challenging, it justifies promoting these products so that others who face similar challenges and struggles can benefit in every way possible. I also support other parents whose children have special needs and this is one of the ways we gain exposure and customers. I would love to be able to reach more parents whose children struggle with eating, in case I can offer some help.
When you first launched, how did you get your first paying customers?: I have sold my product when still developing it for the market. My local health store Peppercorn supported me, allowing me to engage with customers and ask for feedback.
Later, very soon after we launched, we unexpectedly won a 'Free From' Food Awards and that got us orders from bigger retailers.
How did you get your first traffic to your website?: This has not been easy, but having the support from parents of special needs children for so many years on Facebook groups I have generated followers who have observed my journey with my son, and my health on Facebook.
The support came from them. Life of a single parent can be very isolating. Add autism and illness and it gets really difficult. Facebook was the only window into the world during those times. The love from the FB community was a driving force.
Nominate one person/friend who believed in you from the start, and what would you like to say to them today?: Ahh! I have a long list of people who didn’t let me quit but Tanya R and Maria have been on my case. What would I say? It only takes a small gesture. Any sort of contact. Any question. Any interest to lift a spirit of someone in my situation and Tanya and Maria have always been there. Thank you x
What would you say to someone who is toying with the idea to start a business but haven't yet?: Well! Look at me. If I can do it and I have all the additional challenges, then you can too.
You don’t want to miss out on something wonderful just because something could be difficult!
If you could have dinner with one entrepreneur, who would it be and why?: Team innocent! I just love their entire set of values and their approach. From how and whom they employ to whom they invest in. Ethics and social impact is very important to me. I would have many questions to ask..
To stay up to date with Alessandra's entrepreneurial journey, please find her social media channels below:
Alessandra Bester has qualified for the #PickYourselfUK Small Business Entrepreneur of the Year award 2018. If you'd like to enter yourself or nominate a small business entrepreneur for this award, please submit your story below.