Working with major retailers can be a huge and crucial step for your startup. But when it comes to grabbing the attention of the right people and pitching like a pro, what do you need to be thinking about? Minor Figures is a brand revolutionising the way we drink ready-made coffee drinks, combining great quality cold-brew with simple ingredients. They're stocked with major brands globally, including Sainsbury's, Planet Organic and more. Here is co-founder Jonathan Chiu's advice for selling to major retailers.

I have always liked a good quote. So here are my three bits of advice about being an early-stage business and pitching to major retailers, with quotes borrowed from a military man, a musician and a boxer.

A battle is won or lost before it is ever fought - Sun Tzu

Learn everything you can about your target.  At a high level, know the retailers’ strategy and core values.  At a lower level, learn everything you can about the category. Gather category reports, and speak to anybody you know within the retailer or category. Don’t be afraid to ask a silly question. Better you ask it on a fact-finding mission than find out about it in the pitch.

Be very clear about your mission. Know why your business, product or service exists. A good way to find the right answer to this is ask yourself “What would people miss if you didn’t exist?” You must find that reason.

Then marry your knowledge about your target with your mission. This is the heart of your pitch.  Why your product uniquely solves a category problem or provides a category opportunity, and how your business aligns with the retailer’s strategy and values.

For us at Minor Figures, our mission is to get people drinking better quality and healthier iced coffee. Specialty coffee is on the rise and healthy food and drinks are on the rise, yet iced coffee remains dominated by sugary coffee-flavoured milkshakes and stuck in the past.  We provide the opportunity to update the iced coffee category and grow the category by bringing new consumers into the category, and by trading up existing customers.

Minor Figures - How to prepare to sell to a major retailer

It is no longer to be the best of the best; you have to be the only ones that do what you do – Jerry Garcia (The Grateful Dead)

I used to work at a design agency that had a picture of Jerry Garcia with this (his) quote in reception. If you are just a slightly better version of an existing, trusted and proven product, then it will be a harder slog to get listed. Do the work early and make your product extraordinary - then your product will do the hard yards for you.  We have the only cold brew coffee in a handy grab-and-go juice box (with straw).  It is also the only long-life, shelf-stable cold brew. When we launched our cold brew coffees we immediately were featured in Monocle, The Grocer, Shortlist, Stylist, Harpers Bazaar and many more.  Within two weeks of producing our first product we had orders from Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, and from that base we started to grow.  This speed to market would never have happened if we just created a better version of existing cold brews.

Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth – Mike Tyson

So you have an extraordinary product that satisfies an issue that concerns the retailer and category.  Done deal - you’re as good as listed, right?  Wrong. As much as you can do before the meeting to prepare, be prepared to change tack when in the room. The good news is, you know the product better than anyone else.  You can talk more knowledgably, confidently and convincingly that anyone else about it.  Don’t stick to your pitch if you are off-footed; be confident and put your presentation back in your bag.

I had a meeting once with a major supermarket where the buyer opened with “You have to be spending £1million+ on advertising to be listed. We are not (insert other supermarket name)”.  I had been preparing my pitch for weeks and there was no way of ‘barrelling through’ that expectation. So I took a few deep breaths and started exploring the option of a regional listing where I could provide more targeted marketing support for fewer stores and grow from there. A couple of weeks later, we were listed.

Finally, celebrate the wins.  There are not many better feelings - and if you lose, read the ‘The man in the arena’ speech by Theodore Roosevelt and I guarantee you will get back on the horse and ride it hard.

Want to learn more about working with major buyers? Join us for our event Doing Business with Big Business, and learn directly from big brands about the procurement process.
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