“I really messed up the labels”

Some of the most solid-seeming ideas can backfire, as Jacob Thundil, MD of Cocofina, found out.

Perhaps the world’s biggest advocate of coconuts, 43-year-old Jacob Thundil launched his coconut-water brand in 2005, way before today’s taste for the stuff took off. He’s since branched out into coconut energy bars, chips, vinegar and soy sauce (yes, coconut soy sauce) and now sells his in over 3,000 outlets in the UK and exports to 28 countries. However, it hasn’t always been plain sailing for the London-based entrepreneur…

I was thrown into the world of business at an early age. I was born in Kerala, India, where my father had a cashew-nut byproduct business. He died when I was 17, and I had to step into his shoes and keep it going. I actually really enjoyed the challenge, but looking back on it now, what must my customers have thought of me? A teenage boy, trying to do deals and act all serious… Ha!

Eventually, I decided to come to the UK to do a master’s degree and then took a job with British Telecom. I missed home, though. I was brought up in a beautiful place with coconut trees in the backyard and we would go to the beach in the evenings. So, I tried to hand in my notice, but every time I did, they would give me a bit more money. It’s funny how things go your way when you think you have nothing to lose.

After a while though, corporate life really got to me. I went on to work for HSBC and while I was travelling in Brazil, I visited a beach where someone gave me coconut water to drink. It was delicious and made me realise how much I’d missed it. I decided enough was enough and that this was what my life should be about. So, I wrote my notice and then plucked up the courage to quit my well-paid job.

People didn’t like my coconut water at first. This was back when no one had really heard of it. I had decided to try to sell my first batch at a big London food and drink show. The good news was that I sold 2,000 units, but the bad news was that 50% of my customers didn’t like it at all. It was too salty because, back then, I was using coconuts that were grown near the sea.

I found a species that was much sweeter and created a blend that people really liked. I sold around 1,700 cases in my first year and while that wasn’t enough to put food on the table, I could see steady growth. I began being stocked by stores like Whole Foods and customers seemed to come knocking on our door.

Winter is quiet for drinks companies, but we realised that it’s always summer somewhere, so we started to export. We had the bright idea of selling into Europe, but it would cost a fortune to get the 12 different language labels professionally created, so we decided to do it ourselves. Big mistake.

I knew something was wrong when we went to a meeting in Malmö, Sweden, with a retailer called Life, which had around 200 stores. The buyer took one look at our label and he wasn’t impressed. The problem was that we hadn’t thought it was important to have the words ‘best before end’ translated into every language – seeing as ‘BBE’ and the date was clear enough to see – but it turns out that those actual words were a legal requirement.

We’d misprinted around 250,000 labels and lost out on a huge deal. We’d also wasted even more money on exhibitions, and it was a massive and expensive lesson to learn. Still, we used the old labels instead of Sellotape for our packaging and managed not to just throw them away.

We had to wait a year before we could go back to that retailer, but thankfully, he listed us and we sold many, many units through it. Which was great, of course, but highlighted what we’d missed out on for 12 months.

Today, we’ve diversified into all sorts of coconut products – we have 40 container-loads of stock in our warehouse in Kent – and have won an Excellence in Food and Drink Award. I even went on to the Dragons’ Den TV series, where all five Dragons made an offer to invest in my business. It feels a long way from Kerala, which means ‘land of the coconut trees’ in the local language.

This interview was carried out by SIM7’s Simeon de la Torre and first appeared in easyJet Traveller magazine. To read the latest issue (and the entire back catalogue of magazines), visit: http://www.ink-live.com/emagazines/easyjet-inflight