My first million: a valuable lesson from Jeffrey Archer

When Susie Willis set up baby food company, Plum Baby, she spoke to various expensive marketing and packaging consultants. But it was her unconventional approach - learned from her former boss - which really made the difference.

When you have a small baby, pureing apples and mashing carrots is the last thing they have time for, hence the popularity of pre-prepared baby food. And with a hectic life running a cookery school from her home in the New Forest, Susie Willis was no exception. However, when her third child, Francesca, arrived in 2003, Willis began to wonder what exactly she was feeding her daughter. How, for example, could a product that declared itself to be organic have a shelf life of two years?

"I began taking notice of the misleading language on labelling that once floated over my head, like gently steamed to maintain nutritional goodness'," she says. "That's rubbish! It has been processed to within an inch of its life, then cooked to an extraordinarily high temperature to sterilise it." Baby food producers may have been using organic food, but because it was processed any nutritional value had been eliminated.

"I looked behind the label and thought I can do this 100 times better'."

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After tracking down a food research centre in the Cotswolds, the former Savoy Hotel cook perfected her quinoa, beetroot and blackberry recipes, which were home-produced, with real shelf lives. Researching the market proved more challenging, though, and it took her nine months of squirreling around libraries and interviewing groups of mothers to compile a business plan suitable for investors.

Marketing and packaging consultants got her talking to the right people but they didn't come cheap. "We had to dig deep, really deep." Willis raised £30,000 against her Hampshire home and another £20,000 from personal savings, while a marketing grant and bank overdraft brought a further £15,000. But despite the hefty debts, she remained pragmatic throughout: "It was just a case of saying no to a lot of things, such as holidays."

Ironically, Willis' big break came through ignoring her expensive consultants. She approached Sainsbury's directly with her home-produced products in June 2004. After a 40-minute meeting, "I was going to replace their own home-brand baby food and was selling into 400 stores. That stuff doesn't happen ever, ever, my consultant told me". But the work was just beginning. Many manufacturers were tied into exclusive contracts with her competitors, so it took Willis another year to find a distributor in the Loire Valley in France capable of making her products to the exact specifications.

Since launching in March this year, Plum Baby has sold one million pots of baby food, with a forecast turnover of £2m in 2006. They've now moved into Waitrose, Boots and, just this week, Tesco, selling into a total of 1,800 stores across the UK. Next year, they hope to do £10m.

Willis has done all this by flying in the face of convention. As a former assistant to Jeffrey Archer, such an approach wasn't new to her. He may be a bit of a twit, she says, but he's a "single-minded, tough-skinned person. He's probably the most unpopular man ever to walk the planet, but from him I learnt that you don't let anyone ever knock you down".

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.