Charlie Bigham founded his eponymous food business in 1996, after starting his career as a management consultant at Andersen (now Accenture). He is quick to point out that he does not make ready meals – they are hand-prepared in a kitchen, not a factory, and you cook them in an oven, not a microwave (so there).
The business took off quickly after Waitrose became a stockist and has consistently grown since, without equity funding.
Did you grow up wanting to start your own business?
I was pre-programmed to want to have my own business. I have the right temperament for it. There can be lots going on but I find it quite easy to switch off and relax, which means that in places where other people might get wound up, I can keep a level head. It’s good for the business but more importantly it’s good for the rest of my life.
How important is corporate experience for entrepreneurs?
I don’t think corporate experience per se is a good thing. What is really important is exposing yourself to excellence.
For me, it was working for the world’s leading consultancy – I learned loads there. But you can find excellence in many guises, as diverse as joining the marines, working in an amazing restaurant or doing extraordinary voluntary projects.
I was also quite fortunate – after Andersen I joined a small consultancy of six people, which had risen to about 30 when I left, so I witnessed first-hand the growing pains and the excitement of running a business that’s growing very quickly.
What skill have you had to work on the most as an entrepreneur?
Probably the one I’m still working on, which is listening to other people. Being determined enough to do your own thing and having clear views are important and useful, but you need to balance them with listening as well. It’s not always an easy combination.
How did you settle on a name for the business?
Naming a business is one of the hardest things to do. I tried to come up with a name, but didn’t manage it. Eventually, I found a friend of a friend who had a fancy, successful design agency and asked a favour.
They went away for two weeks, came back and said we’ve got a brilliant idea: you should call it your name. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but I said fine.
Sometimes it’s a bit embarrassing, because people can wonder whether I’ve got such a massive ego that I’ve just got to put my name on everything, and that’s not me.
But there is a good side to it. I can be very firm with my team and say ‘look, it’s got my name on it’ – it’s the perfect excuse to set the bar just that little bit higher.
Do you have any regrets?
Probably a thousand and one things. My attitude is you’ve got to take risks the whole time, which means you will make mistakes. That’s a good thing because you can learn from them and move on.
Keeping a list of mistakes you’ve made on a piece of paper is a waste of time. Learn, move on and forget about it. Just don’t make the same mistake twice.
What’s your advice for fledgling entrepreneurs?
Get on the phone. However shy or reluctant you are to cold call strangers or near strangers, you’ve just got to put that aside and ask for advice and help. It’s absolutely vital, and my experience over the years is that people are very willing to chat.
If you can do it, market research is also very valuable, especially if you’ve got a consumer product. There are lots of things you can do at a low cost. In our early days, my wife, my first chef and I would cook food and get people to eat it in front of us on weekends. You get a reaction and find out what people like and what they don’t.