Tips for Virgin StartUp Foodpreneur Festival 2015 - Masons Beans

Ben Mason is the founder of Masons Beans, creating fresh baked beans with a gourmet twist. Last year Ben won not one, but two awards at #VirginFoodFest - Best New Brand, and the People's Choice award. Here he shares his experience of entering, how his business has developed since that brilliant day, and tips for this year's Foodpreneur hopefuls (you can enter here!)

And there I was, stood on a stage, with my arms wrapped around Richard Branson. It wasn’t quite what I expected of my first month in business, but it felt good. He has a nice beard.

Let me take you back a bit, to before the Branson hug. You see I’d just launched a brand of fresh baked beans, Masons Beans (or Proper Beans as it was back then). Our beans are slow-cooked, have chunks of real tomato, smoked bacon and other delicious bits, but no added sugar. It’s a chilled product, cooked just as you’d make at home.

I approached Virgin Startup about six weeks before we were ready to launch. I’d funded the development myself but needed some cash for the launch. As part of that process I’d noticed the Foodpreneur competition online. I popped in some words about my project, and thought little more of it.

I don’t remember a whole lot about the next few weeks. It was wild. I’d managed to land Fortnum & Mason as our launch listing, based on the fact that Henry Heinz had launched his beans in the very same store back in 1886. I’d pitched them saying that it’d make a great story for the press. It worked. And the timing was a stroke of luck too. There we were, delivering our first batch of beans to Fortnums, launching to the trade at the Speciality & Fine Food Fair, and talking to a bunch of journalists at the same time.

The trade show was chaos, but we got away with it as total newbies. And then the press headlines started rolling in. The Guardian were unsure about the idea but the Daily Mail came out swinging, calling us ‘twice as good as Heinz’. The Telegraph, The Grocer and others all said lovely things. I felt charmed.

At this point the finalists for Foodpreneur were announced. I couldn’t believe that we’d been nominated for Most Exciting New Brand alongside the luscious-looking Duke of Delhi, and brilliant brands like Sweet Pea Pantry in the other categories.

I went in to record the pitch video, which would be seen by our judge Richard Branson. And this is where we were incredibly lucky. We had a fresh story, hot off the press. We’d launched the previous week; no one else was doing posh baked beans; and it had just been validated by lots of press coverage the previous week.

A few weeks later was Foodpreneur itself. I arrived to set up our stall. Everyone else was looking super polished and shiny. I was sweating and shouting at the two brand new chafing pans that were refusing to heat my beans. Luckily some cardboard and gaffer tape fixed the issue, and the beans were just about hot as everybody came round for a taste. Again I was trying to stir beans and tweet furiously at the same time - the People’s Choice award was up for grabs, and to win we had to get the most mentions of our hashtag.

Next was the award ceremony. First up was the People’s Choice award. I heard Richard Branson saying the word "Beans", and found myself stumbling up onto the stage. There was some confusion over whether there was a trophy or not, so I went in for a hug instead. And that was how I found myself locked in an embrace with the world’s most famous entrepreneur.

Next they announced all the other categories, with winners Sweet Pea Pantry, Sweet Virtues and Killer Tomato collecting their trophies. I nearly fell off my chair when my new mate Richard said our name again. He had a trophy for the second prize, so no more hugs.

We’ve had a great year since then. The award was a great part of our story. And our story helped land more press coverage, more awards and listings at Ocado, Selfridges and others. It’s not all been that charmed, but one thing we haven’t lacked is story. And story gives you momentum. And momentum is crucial in a startup.

So that’d be my first piece of advice to you. Think about your story. Why would my mum care about what you’re doing? Be honest with yourself. Why would she actually care? Our story was about 130 years of tinned beans before it was about my beans. And it was about people before it was about business. Be super clear in your pitch, and think about story before product.

And my second piece of advice would be about luck. Every startup needs the wind behind them. We were lucky with our launch timing, our press coverage, our awards. And that powered our story which convinced retailers to stock us and people to buy us. Recognise it when you have it, and take full advantage of it.

Enter this year's Foodpreneur Festival by clicking on the button below - or why not join in with the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #VirginFoodFest?

Register for Foodpreneur Festival 2015