My first million: Sally Preston, Babylicious

Despite an initial run of bad luck, a combination of high quality and convenience turned out to be a winning formula for Sally Preston's baby food business.

There are many reasons to set up your own business but you won't find Sally Preston's featured in any inspirational manuals for entrepreneurs. In 2001, having just come through an acrimonious divorce, the food technologist found herself battling skin cancer. "I had this idea and thought life's pretty bad as it is already, what have I got to lose?"

Her idea was simple: better baby food. "If you give your child the best food, you've lovingly cooked it, peeled it, pured it, put it in an ice-cube tray and then you froze it." The trouble is, that takes a lot of effort. As she points out, pre-prepared foods might have been of relatively poor quality, but they were convenient. "So what I did was try and break the link between poor quality and convenience."

So with £50,000 raised against her Ealing home, Preston went to visit Waitrose in early 2002. "I told them I thought we needed to feed babies and youngsters better-quality food and I'd set up a firm to do exactly that. And they completely agreed." She made a deal with a factory in Leicester, which agreed to make all the food by hand. She then had to deliver the food to the supermarkets herself. Preston bought a Mercedes freezer van, taking her products around the UK, from Monmouth in Wales to Ipswich and Milton Keynes down to Southampton. "I was a white van woman."

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But if there's a god of entrepreneurialism, he had it in for Sally Preston. The brand initially had to be launched under the name Tastes Delicious', as the name Babylicious' had been registered as a trademark just a few days before she got going. "Strange and spooky", it turned out to have been filed in bad faith a deliberate attempt to undermine her business. A trademark battle ensued. Preston won and orders with the likes of Sainsbury's and Ocado followed. "The irony is that it cost me £34,000 to change from Babylicious to Tastes Delicious and back to Babylicious because of the packaging and marketing," while damages came to just £500. There was more trouble when a hoax caller pretending to be from the Advertising Standards Authority told customers that M&S had made five official complaints against her firm. "It was awful. Financially it was crippling." But she "managed to get back to all the people who had cancelled meetings and orders," and battled on and in 2003 finally received a lucky break, winning the HSBC start-ups awards. "That was a pivotal moment in taking the business to another level." Sponsored by Sky News and Express newspapers, the award brought invaluable recognition for the brand and helped get Preston into more stores. The £25,000 prize didn't hurt either. "It also genuinely confirmed my belief that I was on to something."

The business is now turning over £2.5m, while Preston reckons the brand is worth £4m. Not bad going for someone who thought she had nothing to lose. "You have to be like a Weeble you remember those toys that wobble but never fall down? And you do get knocked. You just have to keep bouncing back for another round. You can give in or sulk or you can get on with it. And I just got on with it."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and was a senior writer for MoneyWeek. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example digging 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.