8 Explosive Lessons from a £200m Journey

Entrepreneurial journeys don’t come much wilder. In March 2021, Juliet Barratt watched through tear-filled eyes as Cadbury owner Mondelez International bought the business she’d co-launched in her spare bedroom 11 years ago. The deal was reportedly worth £200m. So why the tears? Quite simply because Grenade was her baby. She’d conceived and nurtured the brand and now it was flying the nest. This really was the end.

Juliet says: “The weekend before the deal wrapped up I was sobbing uncontrollably. Something was happening that I couldn’t control anymore. It was an amazing end to the journey but it was like giving away a piece of yourself. Your baby is going to a new home and it’s really, really final. Everyone was inviting me out to celebrate but I didn’t want to. It was such a weird feeling.” 

Four years earlier, Juliet and Alan Barratt sold a major part of Grenade to Lion Capital for £72m so they’d always been working towards this conclusion, but the air of finality took her by surprise.  However, the dust has now settled, the tears have dried, and she can look back over her incredible achievement from a fresh, unique, far-reaching perspective. Therefore, we thought it was the perfect time to ask Juliet to reveal the key lessons of her Grenade success. Here’s what she said:

1. You can’t kid your customers.

The Grenade journey has taught Juliet that long-term success depends on having a deep, heartfelt belief in your product. Sensing an opportunity and launching something out of mere self-interest just won’t work. You need unfakeable (and unshakeable) emotional conviction in your business.

“You’ve got to genuinely believe in your product,” Juliet says. “If you set out on a business journey just to make money without believing passionately in what you’re doing, you’re setting your idea up to fail. Consumers are savvy. If founders aren’t authentic or genuine, it comes through loud and clear in their products. However, there’s a caveat: you need a credible product or brand in the first place. If you’re trying to solve a problem that isn’t there, it doesn’t matter how much belief you have, it won’t work.”

2. Define and agree on your long-term goal.

Grenade’s founders always wanted to build something massive. However, Juliet now realises that it doesn’t matter what the goal is. What matters is defining your goal and getting interested parties to agree on it. Doing that avoids future conflict and ensures everyone knows where they are headed. 

“It’s vital to define your goal,” says Juliet. “We wanted to build a global brand from the start. But others might prefer a nice lifestyle business. Or maybe you want to create a market leader in an extremely niche sector. Or possibly your target is to sell your business in five years. Whatever you want to achieve it’s critical to have that goal-setting conversation early on. Identifying and agreeing on the parameters is fundamental to the long-term health of your business.” 

3. Don’t dive into foreign markets. Take a strategic approach instead.

By 2019, Grenade was exporting to more than 80 countries. But in the early days things were, naturally, very different. Seeing her company’s overseas sales grow from zero to off-the-chart taught Juliet many lessons but her key takeaway is this: when exporting, proceed methodically and with care.

“We were approached by a US retailer in May 2010,” she says. “They loved our product and wanted to stock it. We were over the moon and said yes immediately, despite having no US team and not being US compliant. At the time we didn’t realise that getting product on the shelves in America is the easy bit. Making it sell is much harder. We wanted to grab the opportunity but with hindsight we’d have taken a more strategic approach to international growth. Today, it’s tough to get traction overseas unless you’ve already got a strong UK brand and can prove your credentials. My advice is don’t run before you can walk. Get Britain sewn up first and then look at rolling it out overseas. If you fail in one country it can damage your long-term prospects everywhere.”

4. Never panic. Avoid wild reactions.

This lesson is particularly pertinent due to Covid. The pandemic led to a range of reactions from entrepreneurs, from hunkering down to retain the status quo to extreme pivots. Time will tell whether each reaction was a success or a false move. Some pivots will no doubt prove successful but Juliet’s experience has taught her that cautious, measured responses are usually the right way to go.

“Grenade grew well for a long time,” she says. “We plateaued for just one year. When everything is growing, everyone is euphoric, but you must be prepared for tough patches. They don’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. We always say 2015 was the year we held our nerve. That experience taught me that rash decisions are best avoided. Be measured. If things aren’t going well, don’t assume you must realign strategically. Have some reflection time before making big changes.”

5. Let your belief carry you through the lows.

At the start of Juliet and Al’s Grenade journey, things were challenging. What got them through the worry was an intense belief in their products. Lesson One above shows the importance of entrepreneurial conviction from a customer’s viewpoint. Lesson Five reveals why it’s vital from the founder’s perspective too.

“In business, the highs are high but the lows are very low,” says Juliet. “And because we are husband and wife founders, everything we had went into Grenade. We didn’t have escape routes or mentors whom we could ask: ‘Is this normal?’. I had a house, Al had a house and we had a mortgage on another house, so we had three mortgages to pay. I remember lying on the floor one night and just thinking: ‘Oh my God, what have we done?’. It was dicey at times, but we always knew deep down we were doing the right thing. That’s why we were willing to put everything on the line for Grenade. We always genuinely believed it could be a truly monstrous brand.”

6. Pour your personality into your brand.

Today, Grenade is owned by a multinational corporation. But it was brought to life by the vision of two individuals. The co-founders’ guts told them what would work and they went with that feeling. Juliet believes that the individuality which stems from entrepreneurs following their instincts is vital to long-term business success.

“The most important thing about Grenade was the DNA that Al and I injected into it. We were hands-on and never wanted to be a corporate business; customers bought Grenade products because they liked the story and brand feel. If we’d become really corporate it wouldn’t have had the same feel. As the founder you have a gut feeling; you know what’s right for your business. Don’t change with the wind or you will lose what makes it special.”

7. You don’t have to sell.

Selling equity is not an instant passport to success. In fact, Juliet points out, bringing in external cash may damage rather than bolster your business depending on your personal goal (see Point Two above). So, think twice before taking on investors. 

“Do you need the money? Do you want investment?” says Juliet. “There’s this idea that you need a load of debt or investors to have a successful business. But actually the biggest thing you can hold onto is your equity. Selling is such a personal thing. It’s about your personal reasons. If you want complete control over your business, then think very carefully because once you get investment then not all the decisions are yours. Some people think that’s great; others find it really difficult.”

8. Look after yourself.

The final key lesson that Juliet absorbed during her Grenade journey is the importance of keeping yourself feeling good, fit and healthy. Founding and running a business is demanding and can take over every aspect of your life, so it pays to find a ‘balancing’ activity or space that re-energises you and provides perspective. For Juliet, that was exercise.

She says: “I was on the treadmill at 5.40am this morning! For me, the routine of exercise is important. There have been times when I’ve had to go on the treadmill at 10:00pm because I hadn’t found enough time in the morning. But I knew I had to make myself do it. For me, exercise is the best release there is and it also gives you time to think. It’s an integral part of my lifestyle.”

The final word.

When Juliet Barratt looks back over her Grenade journey, she is able to see it laid out before her in its entirety with the benefit of hindsight. This puts her in the perfect position to share the lessons learned along the way. Of these, the most powerful centre on the concept of entrepreneurial belief. Belief is what led to Grenade’s launch and powered them through the testing early days. It energised their mission and allowed them to stand out from the crowd. Moreover, it gave Juliet the confidence to pursue – from day one – a seemingly impossible mission of turning a concept dreamt up in a Birmingham spare bedroom into a “truly monstrous” global brand. Belief is a potent drug indeed – no wonder Juliet mourns the journey’s end. However, in founders such as Juliet, entrepreneurial belief – like hope – springs eternal and another window will sure to be opening soon…