My first million: Charlie Bigham, Bigham's

Charlie Bigham’s decision to throw in his job at the age of 28 to tour the Middle East and India in a camper van has proved very profitable indeed…

For many people, taking time out to go travelling is an excuse for an extended holiday, rather than a life-changing experience. But Charlie Bigham's decision to throw in his job at the age of 28 to tour the Middle East and India in a camper van has proved very profitable indeed.

In 1995, after five years as a management consultant, Bigham was restless. Working on feasibility projects for museums and galleries "was a very interesting way to spend your day, but it was all deeply theoretical". He wanted to set up his own business, but he didn't know what to do.

That soon changed after a few months on the road experiencing other cultures. "It struck me as I travelled that cooking a meal for most people in the world doesn't mean chucking something in a microwave. It means chucking a bunch of fresh ingredients into a pan on the side of the street," which is also where Bigham ended up eating most of the time. That's what gave him his idea: to make ready-made meals from fresh food that needed simply to be put in the oven or a pan.

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On his return to London in 1996, he started experimenting in his Notting Hill kitchen. He knew nothing about the food industry, but found that others were more than happy to share their experience. "It's amazing who will talk to you. MDs and owners of companies usually, if you approach people in the right way, give you a bit of time."

Unfortunately, the banks weren't as enthusiastic. Lacking a track record, he was rejected by no fewer than ten of them. He persevered and eventually the Portobello Business Centre gave him some funding on top of his £25,000 savings. Using some sheds at the back of a London trading estate as a factory, he set about selling his first three recipes: "a zesty Caribbean lamb dish, a Cajun chicken with mango and red onion salsa and a kind of satay pork stir fry".

Although he doesn't consider himself a natural salesman, "there's nothing like setting up your own business to turn you into someone who works in sales. All you have to do is pick up the phone". He approached well-known London food halls, such as Harvey Nichols, Harrods and Selfridges, who are "always looking for great ideas". And "once they're trying things then that gives you a little bit of kudos". Soon Waitrose were also buyers. But that presented its own problems.

"We were supplying three different dishes to Waitrose one day, and then overnight went to supplying 30 to 70 stores all in one go. When you grow by 2,300% overnight, it's interesting." Sudden expansion has been the downfall of many a small business, but this was when Bigham's planning experience paid off. "You just need to plan and think, what does that mean in terms of the number of people, premises, equipment... That's all you have to do."

Turnover at Bigham's should hit £15m this year and he's aiming for £50m by 2012. But he won't compromise on quality to get there. "It's a great mistake to think size is everything," he says. You can "cut your quality level and you might grow a bit quicker. (But) I think you're more likely to go out of business because you're probably going to veer into areas you don't understand as much."

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.