IIBN Ireland holds regular breakfast events designed to provide a “hit the ground running” start to your day, with inspirational guests and thought-provoking presentations; they often generate a flurry of Twitter activity, too. On 9th March we heard the fascinating story of Elaine Lavery of Improper Butter; the breakfast was hosted at the Bank of Ireland Trinity branch.
Elaine was just the speaker for the occasion, as this was Enterprise Week, and the day after International Women's Day, to boot. Dublin was buzzing with activity and we were right at the heart of it! She regaled us with her stories of entrepreneurial grit and perseverance – on the “churning” seas of post-Brexit Anglo-Irish trade...
Elaine talked about her days in UCD, from which she graduated in 2012 with first class honours in Business and Law. During her time at UCD, Elaine interned at Deloitte in Dublin and Goldman Sachs in London. Although she had an interest in finance, Elaine's greatest passion has always been in food.
That's why she jumped on the chance to become a chalet chef in the French Alps. It was there that she began mixing fresh herbs and seasonings into butter to create original flavour combinations. The diners were enthusiastic and Elaine and her friend decided to team up to start Improper Butter. “Im” is Irish for butter, and of course Elaine and Hannah only ever use proper butter and proper ingredients.
In a high-energy presentation, Elaine told us about their journey, using simple, fresh ingredients, to finishing a product that can add zing to any dish. From picking wild garlic in Phoenix Park to testing out creative “food solutions” like chicken Kievs and “assembly product” like steak accompaniment, the two young entrepreneurs have racked up some serious experience in a short time.
She took us on a tour of the challenges of high barriers to entry and the realities of building a sustainable business with a niche product, sold in small portions in pockets of demand, in a small market. Elaine also spoke frankly about UK wholesaling clients asking for price reductions after Brexit and the decrease in sterling value, and how they had to use their best negotiating skills to reach a compromise.
Before approaching friends and family for funding, the two of them spared no effort in making their product and business model as excellent as they could. However, they soon recognised that they had reached a stage where a different and certainly non negligible chunk of funds was needed, before they could go on to the next step. Elaine related her experience of that arduous round of funding: people often underestimate the distraction this can be when you’re simultaneously trying to market and fill orders.
As Elaine wrapped up, she invited questions and this gave her opportunity to share her opinions and experiences on the process of raising venture capital, Bord Bia initiatives, social media usage, future plans and the intricacies of establishing an international brand.
Improper Butter is now available in Irish supermarkets and expanding into the UK through independent retailers, John Lewis Retail and Ocado. 2017 will see the expansion of the brand into garlic breads and prepared mashes – we wish all the best to Elaine and Hannah!