Michael Parker: making a million from sherbet dib dabs

Michael Parker thought he might possibly make a few extra quid selling sweets online to a generation of nostalgic adults. Seven years later, his turnover is approaching £3m.

If you're a child of the 1960s and 1970s, the mere mention of 'strawberry shoelaces', 'sherbet dib dabs' or 'aniseed balls' may well be enough to have your eyes glazing over and your mouth watering. And that's why Michael Parker, 43, thought there would be a few quid in selling them 30 years on to a nostalgic nation of sweet-toothed adults. "But it was only an idea I had in the pub with my brother," says the founder of Aquarterof.co.uk, the online 'traditional' sweet shop. "We thought it would make a couple of hundred pounds a month. We never thought it was going to get as far as it has."

The son of a chartered surveyor, Parker grew up in Beaconsfield, Bucks, where he remembers there was "a little sweet shop halfway along the mile-long walk to junior school". It wasn't until years later, in 2001, that his childhood visits to the shop would inspire him to set up one of his own. He was running a small marketing business at the time, turning over £50,000-£70,000 a year from his spare bedroom, when he stumbled across "a sweet called Anglo Bubbly Bubble Gum, which I hadn't seen for 25 years".

The sweet made Parker nostalgic for the other sweets of his youth, and he realised others might feel the same way. So he blagged his way into Booker Cash and Carry in High Wycombe and came out with a trolly stuffed with £85-worth of sweets, which he threw in the back of a Fiat Doblo van. "I drove home scared to death that I was going to get stopped by the police because it was dragging at the back with the weight of the sweets." After investing £2,000 in building a website, and buying weighing scales and servers, Parker went live with "a gaudy and horrible" website in July 2002.

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For a long time, very little happened. Parker took orders off the internet, weighed the sweets and at 3pm, walked the 30 yards to the Post Office to send them out. "I'd be lucky to get £100 of orders a week," he says. But he stuck at it if it failed, he thought, "well at least I'll be very popular with all my nieces and nephews".

Business slowly increased. But the real turning point came when Parker hired a public relations firm in 2003. "They sent out a press release saying there was this really great little sweet shop on the internet." A few papers picked it up. Then, on 4 December, The Sun ran the story. "Things went mental," he says. Five days later, he had to stop taking new orders. Suddenly he was doing £20,000 of sales (normally a month's worth of business) every day. "It was a horrible time because I knew that if we let people down at Christmas we would be dead in the water."

By the turn of the year, he had put new processes in place, buying new servers to host the site because "every time we got news coverage the website crashed". Turnover came in at £1.5m in the year to June, and should hit £3m this financial year as it begins selling sweets to retailers. It now sells over 700 varieties of sweets and is growing partly, says Parker, due to media coverage. "Another product might have tanked, but it just seems that the sweets are a nice, fun little frothy story. It can't help but bring a smile to your face when there's so much misery around."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.