Alison Wetton: How I muscled in on weight loss

While working at WeightWatchers, Alison Wetton spotted a gap in the market between the established weigh-loss businesses. Five years after launching her business, it was pulling in £3m a year.

It was while working as a group leader at WeightWatchers that Alison Wetton realised "there was something missing". The market was split between established organisations, such as WeightWatchers, "who helped you lose weight gradually", and newer firms with "drastic diets that cut weight quickly". Wetton felt a firm that combined quick weight loss with long-term planning and group support would win customers from both camps. So in 2004 she decided to "take a step back" from the sandwich-making business she ran with her husband.

She surveyed hundreds of people who were trying to lose weight and analysed the food offerings and group meetings of her competitors. By 2005 she had decided All About Weight would "borrow all the best bits" of existing firms. It would place clients on customised diets built around its own range of foods. It would also offer support online, or via weekly group sessions. "What made us different is that we offered everything from get-slim-quick diets with liquid meals, to more gradual options."

Wetton also tried to offer "different food" from rivals. She consulted top dietician Dennis Jones and "tried to improve on what was out there". They focused on products that rejected the "low-fat approach", opting instead for "healthy fats". She also ignored the "replacing calories for sugar trick" used by some companies.

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Up until this point,Wetton had "been quite lucky". Jones had agreed to work for "next to nothing because he was passionate about weight loss". The sandwich business had financed her research. But her luck ran out when she tried to find a food producer to help her turn nutritional ideas into tasty, affordable meals. "The big boys [her competitors] had heard of what I was doing and they had put pressure on food producers not to help me." While Wetton knew what type of food she wanted to make she needed "a lot of help" to develop her meals. With "all doors closed to me", she still hadn't found a willing manufacturer a year later. The breakthrough came through an old contact in the sandwich industry. "We used a spice blender to season our sandwiches when they heard about my problem they offered to give it a go." They also offered to produce the first batch on credit. Ten thousand samples "sold like hotcakes" to the people she had met during her surveys.

That early success convinced her husband to wind down the sandwich business and in 2007 All About Weight began trading. "We invested in IT so we were able to offer a solid online service. We were also the first firm to include an online screener that checked applicants' medical history." The firm also began hiring consultants to run group sessions for members in their area in return for a cut of the profits.

All About Weight was helped by the "community nature of weight loss. People who want to lose weight often know like-minded people through groups." Sales "snowballed". In the first year, revenue topped £1m and by 2009, £3m. So far, Wetton has rejected "various offers" from private-equity firms. Indeed, her firm is currently looking for people to work as weight consultants abroad. What works here "can work anywhere".

James McKeigue

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a certificate in journalism from the NCTJ. James has worked as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries.He also had a spell at ITV, as welll as wring for Television Business International and covering the European equity markets for the London bureau. James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.