Liam Watson is the mastermind behind all-natural milkshake Canny Milk, which creates drinks with taste and personality using ingredients like Belgian Chocolate, strawberry puree, vanilla pods, banana puree and Red Tractor certified milk.
He embarked on his business journey two years ago with support from his business partner Simon. Working from the heart of Newcastle, the pair have been on quite a journey so far, but it isn’t over yet…
While working as a herbalist making natural supplements for retailers such as Tesco and Amazon, Liam Watson had the idea to start Canny Milk.
“While I was working for a lot of big companies, I noticed that I was seeing people taking a plant, processing it so much that it wasn’t a plant anymore and putting it into drinks to thicken them. I thought it was insane!”
With an idea of his product and the factory he wanted it to be manufactured in, Liam took to the web and found his business partner Simon on business social network Linkedin.
“I looked for the top bloke at the factory - it was Simon. I connected with him and sent him a message. It said he worked in Bristol, and I offered to fly down and meet him for a drink. But as luck would have it though, he was actually based in Newcastle. We met up in Newcastle for a beer, to talk about the product, and from there we met almost every Friday for the next 18 months to develop the drinks.”
But, how did Liam know he was making the right decision? Well…
“I didn’t really. I don’t think anybody does, you just take a chance. I’d met Simon and he knew the food and drink business really well, while I knew a lot about plants. He seemed to think it was a good idea and wanted to do it with me. I thought with the team we had we certainly could give it the best crack that anybody could.”
Having some experience in a similar field really helped Liam in setting up the business, allowing him to apply his current skills to the creation of Canny Milk.
“I’d been fortunate enough to have learned a lot of decent lessons in my time as a herbalist. I had dealt with a lot of big companies and, whereas with Canny we aren’t the manufacturer, with the herbs you manufacture everything so I had an idea of dealing with wholesalers and big brands like Tesco. While I definitely had some transferable skills, and there was plenty I could put to use, there were plenty of things I didn’t know too!”
After experimenting with a few different ways of making the milk, Canny was backed by the Finance for Business North East Proof of Concept Fund, managed by Northstar Venures, which helped with its launch.
“We were backed from the start; Northstar Ventures saw what we were doing and believed in not only us, but the product. They really believed in our team which is what delivers growth for our brand.”
Along the way, Liam gathered as much advice from as many sources as possible, from business support services to mentoring programmes.
“I’m super into mentoring. I used to meet somebody every week but it's proving to be more difficult now - after a while you start to run out of new people to meet and learn from. But, every month I still try to go and buy them a coffee or a beer and just have an hour with them picking their brains about what they think.
These days he’s sleeping a lot less…
“I was getting my hair cut the other day and someone asked how old I was and when I said ‘27’ the guy was shocked and said ‘you’ve had a hard paper round.’ On a physical level it’s hard because you never sleep. You can’t switch off from it.”
But the pros far outweigh the cons….
“Being your own boss definitely has its benefits. I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s difficult for sure, but it’s flexible and I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve been able to do some nice things. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some cool people that I wouldn’t have, if I wasn’t making this drink. It's growth that excites me.”
Liam discovered that making the first move in business certainly pays off. A sneaky phone call got the big guys at Virgin Trains on board, literally, with the Canny full range now available on all trains travelling from Newcastle to London.
“The Virgin contract’s going really well and they have been fantastic to work with. I got in touch with them. I sort of cheekily rang, I found the bloke's number, rang the switchboard and pretended I knew him, just sort of chanced it and it paid off. I then got the train to York and let him try some of the drinks. He then got back in touch and said ‘yeah I love it'. I think you have to make the first move in most situations. Not much worth having just comes to you.”
A trade mission to India with the Department for International Trade (DIT) gave Liam an insight into the Indian market and the opportunity to learn from some expert advice.
“We were able to discover that although there is potentially a huge market for Canny Milkshakes in India, the drinks market is really price sensitive, so we’d need to secure large distribution to make it worth our while.”
More exporting opportunities started to open up, with Snackies subscription box in Paris beginning to make semi-regular orders for the range of natural milk drinks.
“The volumes aren’t huge right now but I think probably within 12 months I’d like to think we’re sending at least a pallet somewhere.”
Although Canny has its roots firmly in the North East, and even donates 5% of its profits to Newcastle’s Life Science Centre. The milk has also headed north of the border.
“Expanding into Scotland was a natural progression for us, but the only problem is that ‘Canny’ means good and genuine here, and in Scotland it means can’t!”
The Canny Milk journey isn’t over yet, with many more opportunities for growth in the pipeline.
“I think in the short term we want to get a large listing. At the minute, it is all done through wholesale and independents. It would be nice to think that we have got a big customer.
We have the Virgin contract and I’d like to see somebody of a similar size coming on in about the next three months."
But in the end, the size of contracts aren’t the main thing for Canny Milk:
“We’re not trying to be the biggest flavoured milk company in the UK, we’re just trying to be the best."