5 minutes with Damien Lee, instant noodle disrupter

Virtual kiosks and going against the grain have helped to turn Mr Lee's Noodles into a global brand.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 22 Nov 2018

Damien Lee is in his own words a ‘restless soul’.

Over the past 30 years the Sydney-born, Bournemouth-based entrepreneur has been 'bouncing from one thing to another’. After a career in the military, he scaled successful businesses in international security, executive recruitment and maritime satellite communications (among many others).

But Lee says his latest venture, Mr Lee’s Noodles - a brand of healthy, high end instant noodles - is different.

Since launching in 2016, Mr Lee’s Noodles has exploded and the product is now stocked on major airlines including Tui and Australian carrier Jetstar, and rail services including Southwest Trains. It is set to launch in supermarkets in the UK, USA, France and Australia over the next year.

But Mr Lee’s is far more than posh pot noodles.The company has developed a range of virtual ‘noodle kiosks’. Packed with a 47- inch touchscreen, facial recognition software and serving hot noodles 24/7, these machines offer the chance for an extra stream of income through the harvesting of demographic data.

Ever the fans of disruptive business plans, hot noodles and a touch of Minority Report-esque tech, Management Today needed to find out more.


So why instant noodles?

In 2014 I was diagnosed with late stage four cancer and was told I only had a few weeks left - it was in my chest, it had spread to my stomach. That gets you pretty focused.

I was offered treatment and I thought let's take the bull by the horns here, I need to change everything,  go raw, take all the nasties out of my diet and change my lifestyle.

Twelve months later I was told I was in complete remission and that was the beginning of Mr Lee's noodles.

After coming out the other side, I was looking for something to do and had - prior to my illness -  met two brothers who owned China's fifth largest instant noodle manufacturer. They told me that they didn't eat their own noodles because of what they put in them. They said the competition is so fierce, the whole industry is pretty much a big race to the bottom. 

I saw that there was a huge white space here to create a new noodle that would be the world's costliest, but one that is not bad for you. People care much more about what they eat nowadays so I thought they'll pay more for a better product.

How have you managed to achieve such a quick global expansion in such a competitive market? 

I based my whole model around the fact that this was not supermarket-first. I thought I've got a limited marketing budget, so how can I compete with the 20 other brands - and the Unilever marketing budget - and still be the most expensive on the shelf?

I knew that I had to build the business through different channels first, before then going to the supermarkets.

What I saw as the big soft underbelly of the market was to go to the travel industry first - the planes, trains and hotels. We wouldn't be competing with other brands and we would get lots of eyeballs. I also wanted to create a different distribution channel, which was my noodle kiosks.

Now we've got supermarket launches happening over the next year. We’ve built the profile of the brand and we've proved that people will pay more for our product.

Kiosks? Aren't they just glorified vending machines?

People call them vending machines, I don't. I think vending machines are a dinosaur. I see vending as a very dull, very boring, very bland experience.

So I thought, wow here's another opportunity. Vending is a big business, its a multi-million pound business for the UK but it needs to be shaken up.

You'll find the vending machines usually tucked away in the back staircase, but I want Mr Lee's noodle kiosks to be front and centre in the high footfall areas.

It takes around 45 seconds to receive a meal from our kiosk - that for me is what I call golden time. I have a consumer by my machine for up to a minute and while I've got them I can engage with them via my screen.

Because the software has feature recognition, it understands who you are. It will tell the host site how many people have passed the location, the age, the gender of the people and the peak times. That is valuable information for marketing teams.

So not only will we be selling healthy snacks, they will be getting great data from us and we will be able to push smart advertising.

Won’t people be worried you’re spying on them?

We don't capture personal data, what we are capturing is demographic information.

The software is not 100% accurate but it classes people into age group brackets like child to young adult and puts that within an age band. It's nothing personal, it doesn't capture images of people or their facial features. It's completely compliant with the new data laws.

We’ve piloted it with Compass Group and in universities, which was a complete success, but then we had a problem with our vending partner going bust so we've had to bring ourselves back from that. Now the launch is about to happen in May.

Has the expansion caused problems in terms of manufacture and supply?

Yeah there were some hurdles, absolutely. We've had to significantly scale up - which is a good problem - and we had to open up a co-packing facility in Australia. So we've got two manufacturing hubs now.

When you get a big new order, you high-five for 30 seconds and then realise 'holy-shit', it means a lot of money upfront and a hell of a lot of work, but when you get three of those all for the same month you are really in different territory.

So the joy suddenly goes from the team's faces as reality dawns. It gets you focused again.

Over your career, you’ve been involved in many different industries. Do you have a specific strategy when approaching a new project?

In pretty much every business I’ve been involved in, I've never had prior experience in any of those sectors.

I have a very big ethos on blue sky thinking. I believe that naivety - by having no prior experience in something - is a big plus. Other people will say 'God how can you go into something you have no experience in?' But why not?

So I've always had a policy in my business models that I don't employ people from within the market during the early stages. I don't want to ever be held back by people that will tell me 'you can't do it that way, because this is how it's been done for years'. Of course you are going to make mistakes along the way, but mistakes make you stronger.

Image credits: Mr Lee's Pure Foods Co.

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