Five minutes with... John Vincent

The founder of Leon - the £50m healthy fast-food chain - admits getting the business off the ground was like 'filming a comedy'.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 29 Sep 2017

What was the hardest part about launching your business/surviving the first year? 

Our issues in the first year were very operational. Our first problem was a very practical one – we couldn’t get our new extraction system to work. And neither could our rather rotund builders. One of the poor guys even got stuck in the ducting trying to fix the system. We had to delay the opening for so many days that when we installed CCTV, the team concluded we were actually filming a comedy fly-on-the-wall programme.

No-one had ever created naturally fast-food before and so we often had no clue what to do. After the first day, we learnt so much about the operations that we changed many things for the next day. We launched Leon to live a healthier life – but instead we found ourselves managing the restaurant and working many double shifts. Cashing up at 1am when you already have the stress of starting a business from scratch and haven’t slept well for weeks took its toll.

What financial/funding challenges have you faced - and what advice would you offer other budding entrepreneurs?

We’ve come close to running out of money twice and have needed the support of our investors and our bank. My first piece of advice would be to think about starting a business that doesn’t need much money. My mates at Innocent started with £150k; because they didn’t have to build restaurants and spend capital expenditure, they were able to grow with just this. Businesses that can grow by using revenue from customers have this as an advantage. Second, consider crowdfunding. That was not available to us in 2004. Finally, make sure you raise enough money to have a margin of safety. Better to raise a little more and be more diluted than lose everything because you run out.

What were your biggest mistakes? 

Looking back, I think we made two big mistakes. First, we chose a property early on that did not work, and that hurt us financially. It is typical of many restaurant businesses. Secondly, we didn’t start with a kitchen and operating model that was simple enough. We were so focused on making great tasting food that we didn’t set ourselves enough constraints about how we would practically produce it.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from being your own boss?

Have no ego. Don’t be a perfectionist. Exercise, sleep and eat well. 

What tips have you learned from expanding overseas? 

Most brands that start in just one country will face a choice when it comes to the next phase of growth – do they provide different products or services in the same country or take their existing product abroad? At Bain & Company, we did some analysis to show that the most risky adjacency (is this the right word to use?) was going abroad. But that was an analysis of many industries. So far, we’ve only expanded into Europe. The biggest challenge has been creating a supply chain but with the help of our franchise partner (I say ‘help’ but they pretty much did it by themselves), we got the job done. The biggest lesson is to work with locals and not expect the work to be carried out by people from the UK flying in for a day or two. Local leadership and ownership in the new country is key.

What’s been the most pivotal moment in your career?

I’m going to be greedy and choose three. One: meeting my wife [presenter Katie Derham]. Katie has been a massive source of inspiration, advice and support. Two, gettinga job at Bain & Company. They taught me so much and I’m so grateful to all of my colleagues there. Third, meeting and working with the industrialist Vivian Imerman, with whom I helped turn around the spirits business Whyte and Mackay. He is a hugely accomplished and hard-working businessman who showed me how to think big but act small.

If you weren’t running this business, what would you be doing?

Anything that combines doing good with having fun. My mum and dad, plus the values that I picked up at school and university, gave me a great desire to live life to the full, without fear, while saddling me with a sense of moral duty! 

Photography: Harry Borden

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