Business origin stories are often intriguing and inspiring, but that of free-range meat-box supplier field&flower is even better – it’s sublime. Because co-founders James Mansfield and James Flower launched their £13m food business in 2012 not with a glitzy website or fancy app, but with a single cow.
The odd couple
The two James’s (we’ll stick to surnames from now on for clarity) met at agricultural college, but this wasn’t your typical farmer-farmer friendship. Mansfield is a South London lad who somehow ended up studying agriculture: “I’m from Balham,” he says. “But after being turned down for a job with Sky in my early 20s, I took the unusual step – for a townie – of going to agricultural college. I met Flower (as everyone knows him) and we became mates.”
Flower’s background is more common for a former agricultural college student – he’s from Somerset and his dad is a fourth-generation farmer. So this unusual pair went through their studies together, built up a rapport and started to think about what they might do later.
‘Flower, let’s do it’
Flower had a family farm to return to, but Mansfield didn’t, so he attended a graduate recruitment day at a large pork producer in Scotland immediately after leaving college with an Agricultural degree. He hated it. “Industrial farming didn’t feel right,” he says. “So while travelling back to London, I phoned Flower and said, ‘Look, we need to start the food business we always talked about. Let’s give it a go’. He was keen, so we went for a beer in Bristol and mulled over a few ideas. This was in 2011 – I was 28, he was 25.”
The Flower family’s small-scale tenanted farm was a hot topic during the in-pub planning session. The farm was producing an excellent product: grass-fed, free-range, heritage-breed beef but it was being lost in the food chain by being sold at the local cattle market. “We thought: let’s buy a cow from the farm, market the beef directly and see how we get on.”
A plan-free zone
At this point, there was no grand plan, no devilishly clever plot to build a multimillion-pound business, just a tiny seed of an idea. “I drove my VW Polo up from South London, stood in a field, we picked the cow which Flower’s dad ‘loaned’ to us, which we didn’t pay back for six years,” says Mansfield. “We prepared the beef and sold all 32 beef boxes to friends and family. Then we started to offer a beef box every month. And that’s how field&flower began.”
Intriguingly, looking back, the co-founders believe that not having a detailed business plan was actually helpful – at least initially – because it meant that they were flexible. “Lots of entrepreneurs start off madly focused on getting to their first million, or first ten million,” says field&flower’s co-founder. “Fine, but getting a business off the ground is so turbulent that you can make bad calls if you think too far ahead. For us, it was about learning and adapting to customer feedback each month. But there did come a point about a year in when we thought: this could be a proper business; we can grow.”
In walks Billy Brisket
A landmark moment came during their first food and drink show. Thanks to Flower’s farming contacts, they had gained access to more free-range meat products. The question was, how did they get more customers?
“At that time we didn’t know what digital marketing was,” says Mansfield. “But we wanted to sell to people who weren’t our aunties, uncles and mothers! So we went to a food show at Earl’s Court and sold face to face. This guy came up to our stand, an American. He said, ‘Hi, I’m Billy and I’d like to buy a three-kilo brisket.’ We got one out of the fridge and he said, ‘Cool, but I’d like to buy that brisket every month. I also want some diced beef and mince’. It was a big moment because we’d been wondering if selling subscriptions was the way forward and he confirmed it. We christened the American ‘Billy Brisket’ and he was our first unofficial subscription customer.”
Staying in control
The business hit £30,000 of sales in year one, moved up to £500,000 “quite quickly”, and by 2016, via its subscription model, had reached around £2m. “We were on a steady trajectory as we learned and evolved,” says Mansfield. “Ultimately, our customers kept coming back. First they wanted to replace their supermarket beef with our fully traceable dry-aged beef; then they wanted to do the same with our other free-range products. We were very customer-led in how we developed the range”
Despite raising cash via crowdfunding in 2017 to build a butchery and a website, the co-founders have, so far, avoided taking on any venture capital. The reason, says Mansfield, is simple: “We don’t want to lose control. People reckon that if we’d raised £5m five years ago, we’d be a lot further ahead. Fair enough, but we know and love our business, and we want to stay in the driving seat. I’m glad because we own 92% of field&flower between us and we’re still in control.”
The pandemic helped boost sales from £3.5m to £13m within a year, and the two James’s hired 50 people in four weeks to meet crazy lockdown demand. Impressively and encouragingly, the company retained 76% of revenue from 2021 into 2022. Pre-pandemic, field&flower employed 15 people; today it employs 63. The figures look great but getting to this point has taken plenty of mental and physical toughness. How have they done it?
“The hardest period was 2014 to 2017 when we weren’t getting as much traction as we’d have liked,” says Mansfield. “Pure resilience kept us going. You have to keep believing. My advice to any entrepreneur is to stay on an even keel; resist overreacting to highs or lows. I remember coming out of a meeting once and feeling amazing – we’d agreed a fantastic partnership and it felt like the best thing ever. But then I looked at my phone a minute later and read a really terrible email. I thought: scrap this; I’m just going to stay on a level.”
This ‘healthy even keel’ concept became particularly important for Mansfield during field&flower’s recent period of rapid growth. He says: “I worked for 18 months without a break during the pandemic and had a baby. I had to learn to prioritise to avoid working 18 hours every day. So I’d religiously take Arthur my dog out at six o’clock, go running, and be disciplined. The lines were getting blurred at home between work and family life.”
The same, only bigger and better
Today, field&flower sells a vast range of free-range meat and sustainable fish, artisan cheese and chef-prepared meals. Yet the ethos hasn’t changed a jot since 2011 when its co-founders chose the one cow that launched the business. Sure, the high-tech e-commerce website and delivery systems are in place, but the co-founders’ original aims remain the same: to provide excellent quality meat, raised on trustworthy, sustainable British farms and deliver it to front doors across the UK hassle-free. With such a solid, simple foundation in place, field&flower has a stable platform to build on and continue its growth story. After all, there are thousands of Billy Briskets out there, just waiting to be discovered.