How we grew by 400% and hit 7th in the Fast Track 100

400 and 25,000. 

In the Ooni story, these two numbers stand out like haggis on a Hawaiian pizza. The first is the company’s percentage growth over the past 12 months. The second is the minimum starting salary for new Ooni employees in the UK. Few companies exhibit such steep growth or raw recruitment power, so how has this Edinburgh-based hardware company done it? 

Ooni Pizza Ovens are selling so fast that the company has risen to seventh in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 list. Until 2016, however, Ooni had just seven employees. At the time of writing, it has 184. The expansion over the past five years – and especially over the past 18 months – has been extraordinary. 

The business began in 2012 when husband and wife Kristian Tapaninaho and Darina Garland discovered a market niche for alfresco pizza ovens. “Kristian and I were living in Lewisham running an education company,” explains Darina. “We’d just had our first baby and Kristian got into making pizzas. But he was disappointed because his creations, although tasty, were not like authentic Neapolitan pizzas. The problem was our domestic oven – it reached 250 degrees Celsius. A proper pizza oven heats to double that at least.”

Kristian – who’s from Finland and whose parents were entrepreneurs (his mum ran the supermarket bakery) – thought about buying a traditional pizza oven. “The thing was,” says Darina, “we had a small back garden and were renting so we didn’t want to install a permanent oven outside, also the ovens on the market were £1500+. What we wanted didn’t exist, so Kristian – being a practical Fin – decided to build one.”

Working with a welder from Catford, he built a portable oven about the size of a carry on suitcase – the first-ever Ooni pizza oven. Kristian’s invention cooked pizzas to crisp, authentic perfection in less than two minutes. “We were blown away. Launching a business selling these ovens felt like a no-brainer,” says Darina. “Allowing customers to create truly great pizzas at home has been our focus ever since.”

We’ve learnt quickly from our mistakes – the very rare times that we’ve  gone wrong with hiring  is when our team members haven’t shared our company values, so we now prioritise values alignment above all else.

Next came a Kickstarter campaign – one of the first in the UK. They priced the ovens at $299 and the campaign netted over £30,000 in 30 days, smashing the target by more than £20k. “The crowdfunder gave us tons of publicity and fired the imaginations of many people,” says Darina. “People’s hearts and minds were lit up by the idea of making restaurant quality pizza at home.” 

Fast forward to 2020 and Ooni – already cooking on (wood, charcoal and) gas for over seven years – turned up the heat to become one of the business success stories of the pandemic. “We were in a good place already because we’d worked hard on SEO, on our digital offering, and on innovating our products,” says Darina. “But then sales rocketed during the first weekend of lockdown and just kept going. Our biggest challenge was ordering enough stock.”

Ooni’s ovens brought happiness to countless people during lockdown. “We’re grateful – we know we’re in a lucky category,” she says. “People loved making pizza outdoors with their families at the height of Covid and they still do. We’ve received an insane amount of gratitude from customers saying their ovens gave them profound moments with loved ones. But there’s still so much potential. Lots of people don’t know about us yet and great pizza cooking at home is here to stay.” 

During the company’s crazy growth, Ooni’s recruitment and retention strategy has been stress-tested to the max. Between 2016 and 2019, its seven-strong team rose to 51. And since March 2020, a further 130 team members have joined their team. Ooni now has offices in four countries – Scotland, where the vast majority of its workforce is located), the US (Austin, Texas), Germany (Bonn) and China. What has it taken to manage such vigorous, dynamic growth?  

“Our recruitment strategy is the key,” says Darina. “We’ve learnt quickly from our mistakes – the very rare times that we’ve  gone wrong with hiring  is when our team members haven’t shared our company values, so we now prioritise values alignment above all else. It’s working. By the time the pandemic started, everyone was on board with our way of doing things. They share our passion and values, so they spread the Ooni culture for us.”

Our people are the life and soul of our business. We want to show that we value everyone. With a good starting salary, you can get onto the property ladder faster. It makes a difference to your real life. 

The company’s wheels have shown no signs of coming off despite stomach-turning acceleration down the blind alley of Covid. Another big reason for this solidity is Ooni’s decision to unveil a minimum entry-level salary of £25,000. This pioneering offering is attracting top talent and boosting morale and staff retention. “I can’t believe more companies don’t offer this sort of starting salary,” says Darina. “Our people are the life and soul of our business. We want to show that we value everyone. With a good starting salary, you can get onto the property ladder faster. It makes a difference to your real life. We’ve also shifted other salaries up by 10% and offered an unexpected 2020 retrospective bonus. We called it the WTF Bonus!”

The past 12 months, with its 400% growth, has caused many WTF moments at Ooni. And the years ahead look sure to contain many more. Pizza is a global language, understood by all and loved by billions. Ooni’s fledgling offices in China, Germany and Texas show precisely what the company is shooting for. “We sell our products in 90 countries but we’ve only just scratched the surface,” says Darina. “We think our potential, particularly in the US, is massive.” 

Next time we chat with Darina, who knows what Ooni’s two headline figures will be? The company’s growth rate will surely slow after the maddest of years, but if it stays ahead of the chasing pack and replicates its UK success around the world, the numbers may get more jaw-dropping yet.