Where did the inspiration for MIA come from?
My parents had their own businesses so the idea of starting something new was natural, but it was my six years of amazing experiences in Madagascar that inspired me to apply that independent spirit to MIA. The Madagascan people amazed me with their hospitality, patience and unique culture, and Madagascar’s natural beauty literally took me to another world. I wanted to bring part of that world to others.
The island nation of Madagascar produces amazing ingredients – cloves, black pepper, vanilla and cocoa – yet almost nothing leaves the country as a finished product. The same is true of Africa at large. We started MIA as a collaboration with African communities to prove that this amazing continent is not just blessed with beautiful savannahs but is also full of artisan entrepreneurs who can awe consumers with amazing foods made at the source of the ingredients!
How did you decide upon the name of your brand?
We stayed up many nights on name searches, but there always seemed to be a catch that prevented us from adopting them. In some instances, the name was already taken, in others our branding partner raised issues and the African language names we evaluated just did not come through well in European languages. We wanted a name that was at once bold and soft, short and meaningful and easy to pronounce across borders.
I had sketched M.I.A. in a notebook at one point, but I thought of MISSING IN ACTION and did not like the look. It was not until fellow co-founder Sarah came up MIA as a name on its own that it clicked. MIA would be a name without a need for explanation, but would also stand for a deeper meaning that explained the very ethos of the brand: Made In Africa!
Sarah and I still joke about the person who came up with the name but I have to hand it to her as she discovered the MIA name from the right perspective. It made all the difference!
How did you approach your first stockist?
We contacted some distribution partners and retailers we knew from past experience so we had a good level of trust. That said, agreement to carry MIA was far from automatic. We always started with a call as this is the best way to gauge interest and understand the concerns. We then offered tasting samples because we believe this is the best way to sell quality.
While the above conversation was transpiring, we worked with our PR and branding partners to get press and product awards. The idea was to combine the personal sales approach with third-party recognition with awards and brand impressions from press coverage and blogger articles.
What did you do before starting MIA?
I co-founded another speciality food brand and helped develop it for ten years. There came a point when it made sense to end that chapter of my life and forge a new path. MIA is the result of all that I hold dear from my experience in Madagascar combined with a shared passion for food and Africa that inspires all the business partners to dedicate their time and resources.
Did you always plan to be self-employed?
Being self-employed is not as important as the spirit of the work I do. What I value in MIA is the independence that we have as a business. This independence is mainly a result of the unique investors and brand partners supporting the business. In a sense, I work for the MIA cause as we developed with everyone who has invested their time or money.
What makes MIA unique is that we united a group of people who value quality and ethics as much as financial sustainability and profit. This allows us to take what is often a harder path but we believe that in the end the journey will be more rewarding for us, better for supply partners in Africa and more appreciated by consumers. Being small and independent means we can make decisions quickly for the right reasons.
Please share a business high and low with us.
Our business highs for 2018 were being recognised with a Pentaward, product approval from Whole Foods Market and success on the Seedrs crowdfunding platform. All of these moments were proof that others believe in and recognize the value of the MIA brand and our approach to business.
A low came in the middle of our crowdfunding campaign when we had a couple of weeks with very little investment activity. We knew we had a good product and a rare ethical business model so it was hard to watch the clock tick without getting closer to our target. Then we launched a promotional email to spread the word and suddenly the momentum shifted. In the end, MIA exceeded the crowdfunding target. Success was all about spreading the word!
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs in the food industry?
Start small, listen to those with more experience and understand the consumer because, in the end, the consumer is the difference between success and failure.
Don’t be afraid to tweak your ideas but be sure to stay true to the heart of the business that gave you the passion and courage to start it in the first place. And, remember, most things take about three times longer than expected.
Where do you hope to take your business in the year ahead?
In the year ahead, we want MIA to become the brand of choice for more foodie and ethical consumers, first and foremost in the UK but also in Continental European and abroad. We believe that trial is key to achieving this goal since a big part of our brand promise is quality. To encourage trial, we will increase brand presence with more events, in-store tastings, collaborative promotional programs and a pop-up store. We want to get out and meet as many customers as possible!
Thank you to Brett for taking the time to get involved with Behind the Biz. I hope you enjoyed hearing about his business journey with MIA as much as I did. His passion and enthusiasm shines through and I can’t wait to see the business continue to grow in 2019.
Brett offers wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs. Scroll back up and make a note of them in the front of your diary.