“WE FORGOT TO BRAND OUR OWN EVENT”

Pizza-making businesswoman Manon van Essen got so carried away creating an unforgettable publicity event, she neglected to mention the company name

Handwritten digital greeting cards and cauliflower crust pizza may not appear to have much in common, but to Netherlands-based entrepreneur Manon van Essen, they represented opportunity. She built and sold her first business in her 20s, and now she’s brought her veggie-based Magioni pizzas to the UK. She explains how she’s learned the value of stepping back once in a while to look at the big picture.

I was always entrepreneurial. l started selling bracelets when I was 12. Fast-forward through school and I learned to use internet trends as a source of inspiration. One of my first ventures was a tech company: an app that allowed you to personalise digital greeting cards using your own handwriting. It got 100,000 downloads a month and hit the top 20 in 30 countries.

Digital companies are great in that they can scale really quickly – my idea was sound and the downloads kept on coming. That said, the technology itself was hard to develop and it took six people to make it work. But I was only 23 at the time and I wasn’t a tech girl, so I didn’t enjoy it. I also didn’t know how to make it bigger, so I sold the app and looked for the next thing.

The growing online interest in cauliflower-crust pizzas intrigued me – I had noticed there were 13,000 recipes on the web. I didn’t know if I could create something that would ever be suitable for a supermarket to sell, but I dream big, so decided to try. I started Magioni in 2016.

I was a terrible cook and pretty soon realised I needed help. I went off to train in a pizzeria for three months. People laughed at me, they thought my idea was crazy and I had a lot to learn about health and safety in the food industry. It was hard, but the experience pushed me.

Next I needed a manufacturer to create the recipe. I knocked on several doors and eventually found the right one. The bases in the first batches were 80% vegetable and a bit of a disaster – people handed them back in taste tests. Now we use around 40% veg.

All we had was a product and a logo, but we did have 12,000 social followers. Posting pictures on social media helped us gain traction and support, which got us a foot in the door of the biggest supermarket chain in the Netherlands. They offered us 40 stores to start with.

At first, the packaging was ugly, but we didn’t have the money to make it better. Creating our brand identity took time. It was like Britney Spears growing up in the spotlight: it makes you cringe when you look back, but everyone has to start somewhere.

I believed if you had a brand, you should make a story around it. We loved the idea of organising a pizza run – perhaps a little too much, as we got carried away with the fun, the giveaways, the obstacle names – ‘Tomato Terror’, ‘Cheese Mania’. What we neglected to look at was the ROI [return on investment]. No one knew that they had run a Magioni pizza run that day. Our logo was nowhere to be seen and as a company we didn’t earn anything from the event.

We are now in 1,000 stores, selling 13,000 pizzas a day, with 10 staff running operations. It’s easy to get swept along without putting the proper business structures in place. I don’t think I’m the best manager, but I’m learning quickly.

We’re currently based in Amsterdam, but we’re moving into the UK. Yes, I have nerves about Brexit, but I’m sure we’ll manage. A lot of UK food comes from outside Europe and with Waitrose on board, as well as a number of influencers, we’re confident. It’s still very recent – ask me how we’re doing next year!

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:

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