It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone can appreciate the feeling that you get when you eat something that’s really good. David, the co-founder of the Good Brownie company, has a distinct vision for how his brownies should be enjoyed and taste is only the start.
If you’re thinking of starting your own artisanal business, you could do a lot worse than read his thoughts on how to to invest your heart and soul into what you’re doing to get to a great result. A long read, but a good one.
How and why was the good brownie company founded?
I suppose really it stemmed from my gluten intolerance, I lived in Hong Kong for 5 years and lived in Canada for close to 10 years and the whole time I had stomach issues that were pushed to the back burner and that I didn’t really get time to sort out. It turned out when I eventually had tests done, it was a gluten intolerance and even then I didn’t think it was that big a deal. I thought if I just cut back on bread, it would be fine, but as most people find out that have a gluten intolerance, it’s kind of an ongoing thing and apparently the kind of history behind that is, the 10,000 years that humans have been cultivating crops is a relatively short time in the existence of humankind, we haven’t really adapted to some of the chemicals and processing that goes on. When I found that out it kind of made sense to me. So then I started to eat better, and I started to feel a lot better.
I started looking around for cakes and sweet things because I have a sweet tooth, and I did manage to find them and they were disgusting; really dry, a bit like eating sand, which I’m not in the habit of doing. At around the same time I was importing bags from Morocco and selling them in markets and there was a guy selling gluten free brownies, I thought ‘great, I’ll try them’, and they were really nice, probably better than anything I’d tried before that wasn’t gluten free. I was surprised because it was the first time this had happened. So I decided to buy some wholesale from him and sell them on another market, with my bags, and the brownies sold in about 10 minutes. I felt I was on to something and I was about to order more from him I thought, ‘how hard can it be to bake brownies?’
Turns out it was a lot harder than I initially thought, but I worked away and like cooking so it was an interesting process. I had no rules because I didn’t consult any cookery books or anything, so I didn’t know what you supposedly could and couldn’t do. Chilli and mango and things like that came from that, because I just did it. There was someone who said to me ‘well, no you can’t really do that’ and I said ‘why not!?’ so, I did it anyway and it worked. Bananas and cream and all these other flavours came from this kind of naive mindset; just try it, why not? Eventually I felt that I had kind of perfected the recipes and the taste was very good. Then I got creative and started to make more flavours, really to service my own needs, being gluten free. It became a business from that. I’d gone to Camden Market with a homemade usherette tray with brownies on it as samples and was giving them out to see what the general reaction was, and everyone that tried them really liked them and they started to give me cards and said come to our office. So, I said yes, and that’s how it grew.
Whats the best thing about working at The Good brownie company?
The best thing is that there’s nothing that I don’t enjoy. Well, i’m trying to think of something that I don’t enjoy. I’ve never had a business that I have enjoyed every aspect of continually. It’s been nearly 5 years now. I still love the baking, I still eat them and I still enjoy the taste. I still really like meeting new people and seeing their reactions when they eat my brownies. I guess more than anything I’m always looking forward to someone saying I don’t like it, so that they can feedback and say it needs more of this or that so I can continue the process and improve it. So its a difficult one. I enjoy every aspect of it, across the board; the baking and the delivering.
I would’ve thought that you would have gone straight for the baking, creating new recipes, I’m surprised that you didn’t.
Well, I used to do sales and I’m used to meeting new people. I’ve been in all different types of sales – door to door, phone sales, working in retail. I’ve always seen people trying really hard with sales, being very pushy, kind of up your ass sales. The word sales I don’t really like because it shouldn’t be about really shoehorning someone into purchasing something they don’t really want, it should be their choice. That’s why I like selling brownies. I’m not forcing anything on anyone, I don’t try and upsell anything. I’m happy if you want to buy it otherwise you don’t need to buy it. I’m providing something to people that they genuinely want and enjoy. I’m not trying to force anyone to buy brownies. That’s why I offer a range as well, some people are counting calories or have intolerances like me. I like to please people with regards to whatever they want. If they want something vegan they’ve got the option if they want something palio they’ve got the option or if they want bananas and cream or chilli, lime and mango they’ve got the option. Hopefully, I can make people say oh thats a bit unusual. The best thing for me is when someone enjoys something that they didn’t think they would like.
You feel good about providing people with things that they want. Our whole culture is made up of forced sales. Advertising, forcing things on people, engendering a feeling of lack. ‘What’s missing in your life is chocolate brownies’. Television and advertising is basically a drug. People crave things that they don’t necessarily need or want, this whole artisan market is changing that. I like to think that people view the Good Brownie Co. as though one of their neighbours has baked a cake and brought some over for you to try. It almost feels like a kind of trade-off knowing that you’re giving something to someone that you’ve enjoyed doing. Giving them a piece of that passion.
The best thing about these artisanal businesses that are popping up is that people are providing you with something that they have a passion for. They’re not doing it because they don’t have a choice. It’s not like my mother’s telling me: ‘What are you going to do in life unless you bake brownies?’
What were, if any, the biggest struggles that you have faced?
I wouldn’t use the word struggles, instead I would use the word challenges. If it’s a struggle then it has a negative connotation but, a challenge is something that you look forward to overcoming. You find ways to get past it, and that’s the way it was here, it was like ‘oh ok, what do we do about that?’ So its all positive, Not ‘Oh shit, how are we gonna do that?’. So I guess if I were to try and pinpoint something then initially I kind of had a choice: do I want to go the market route and set up four or five market stalls? And from a business model perspective that’s about having more and more venues to sell your product. Did I want four or five market stalls and employ a few people and make it a little less personal? I could’ve started to have the brownies made in a factory but I didn’t want to be removed from the process so I deliberately chose to keep it small so that I was doing most of the baking myself. I didn’t need to go beyond my own kitchen and I know the people that I am working with well. I have a trust in them. So the challenge was do I go that route to get more revenue? But I decided no; it’s not about the money. It’s about providing a good product. I don’t want to make it into a machine that I can’t handle. I think when I had a business in Hong Kong I had 14 people working for me and it was a constant logistical headache, someone’s always sick, someone was always stealing and if on of the team let down my customers it was a headache. It was hard work and it was 24 hours a day. The challenge was to grow according to our needs and also maintain an income but with low stress levels.
What is the most interesting event that you’ve experienced?
In the business? Apart from meeting you? Actually, joking aside, it is meeting people like you. Meeting people is always a nice thing you never know where it’s gonna go, how the interaction is going to unfold and that’s nice. I like the intrigue around meeting new people. Essentially people make the world happen. If you don’t meet people then you don’t experience that; the good and the bad, they’re all part and parcel. I’ve had experiences that were unpleasant but I’ve learned from them I hope. I’ve been to offices where the staff love me going in and love the product but for some reason the owner or manager hasn’t been very happy. In the two cases that I can think of it is because they have a specific agenda and if anything comes between them and their end goal, which presumably is money, then they can sometimes react badly. So even though I felt like their staff were being productive because they weren’t leaving their desks, presumably [the bosses] thought it wasn’t conducive to a good working atmosphere.
In one of these occasions I had been given permission to come in. Out of respect that he had invited me into his business and his place of work I was very accommodating I didn’t make a fuss, I offered anyone brownies that wanted them and I was polite and left, and that was it. One day I went in and he was upset about something and he vented on me. So I had come in with brownies as usual and I went to their desks and he just came running at me. I thought he was going to run into me and he just exploded at me saying ‘What the fuck are you doing? Who the fuck invited you in here?’ – shouting. I just apologised and said I didn’t mean to intrude and as I was walking out he chased me and thought he was going to hit me. I thought ‘this is a bit over the top’ and all I could have done had he hit me was report it to the police as an assault. He could’ve just said to me I’d appreciate it if you didn’t come in anymore and that would have been fine. The staff were all looking very bemused at his behaviour. And then the next day when I was walking past the building several of the staff came out and apologised to me on his behalf and said that he’s and idiot and he’s just really intent on his work.
What was interesting about that was the psychology, the mindset that people are in, they are so wrapped up in whatever it is that they are doing that can lose contact with basic humanity.
Whats the best piece of business advice that you’ve ever received?
The best bits of advice that you get, that you learn from, are the things that you deem to be negative at the time, that impact you negatively. They’re the things that you will learn from and evolve from. The the easy things and the nice things make you smile and it makes you feel good and it boosts your ego but doesn’t really improve you or help you in any way. It just satisfies the things that are easily satisfied.
Whether it’s your personal life or your professional. If everything goes tits up and makes you feel like shit. If you apply yourself, eventually you’ll think ‘you know what? I contributed at least 50% to that happening’ and when you can learn to take responsibility for that you’ll learn that you get what you give and it all comes back to you.
The good things they don’t really impact you in any way; they’re nice and you want to maintain that status quo but the way to get that is to think about the bad things and apply that in a way that makes you feel happy. It’s easy to posture and put a big smile and shake someones hand and give platitudes. When someone doesn’t like a brownie for example it’s not a problem for me, it’s brilliant. It gives me an opportunity to make it better or to improve and perfect what I do. So I’m very interested in the person that doesn’t like my product. I want feedback. Whereas people telling me they like them – as nice as that is and much as good as it makes me feel – it doesn’t instruct me on how to improve my service or product. Its not a mass produced thing, it’s more individual and connects me to the reality of what I’m doing. I’m baking for individuals, I’m not baking for people I never see, that what’s important to me.
What is the best thing about the people that you work with?
I’ve got three people that work with me. One that’s a mainstay; that’s Megan and she’s been with me now I think nearly a year. She’s an all rounder and does graphic design for market stall set-ups. She’s reliable honest just all round good. With Megan I found someone that I can trust, rely on and someone that can take some of the responsibility from me. I enjoy doing everything, but as the business grows, the less time I have to specialise in any one area. I would like to afford more time to bake and to create new flavours. Despite having 21 flavours, I’m curious to try new flavours, I want to do a savoury one with caramelised onions, I’ve got all these ideas in my head that I wanna try and experiment with, that a lot of people pull faces at and say ‘Don’t do that. It’s just a gimmick’ but it’s not. I really wanna create different flavours and see if they work, but I haven’t got time to do that because I’m just trying to maintain my 21 flavours and my existing infrastructure which is growing all the time. Megan relieves a huge work load for me which is great and which allows me more time to do the things that I want to do and think more about how I want to do the business. And my wife Steph, the co founder of the business as well. I love working with my wife and I love working from home because I get to spend time with my children.
Because I have a small team it means that I like all the people I work with as people. I haven’t had to employ people that I don’t know, that I don’t have a relationship with. I’m lucky to be in a position where if a relationship doesn’t work and it’s not gelling, then I can find someone that is more compatible. I’m not stuck in a factory with fluorescent lights burning my retinas, I’m not in that position. I’m there with my family, I’m happy, I’m baking, my daughters are there laughing enjoying themselves. What I do is I give them bowls with flour in and sugar and they play about with it and pretend to make brownies, and obviously they are eager to do what I am doing and eventually they will but for right now they talk to themselves and say ‘I’m baking brownies’.
Maybe that’s the difference between a home made product that I do from my own kitchen and something baked in a production line where there is no love, it’s just a job, you’re working for a salary, and you don’t necessarily care, you’re just producing something that meets the aesthetic. You don’t necessarily care because you don’t meet the people that are eating them. I’m in the position now that I feel lucky that I can bake them at home and take them out, it’s like having a dinner party in everyone’s office.
And the worst..?
In any given day, I go into 30 offices. Some are small, some are big, some are rushing around to go to meetings, some are very caught up in what they are doing and don’t want to be disturbed. In other places they’ve got time to chit chat, and it’s a release for them for 10 minutes in their day. I have to judge and be aware of what they want or don’t want at any given time. It’s not always easy and I don’t always get it right. Generally speaking, I can go into an office where people are up for a conversation and it probably gives them some good headspace to work on whatever they are working on, because they’ve had that short break as opposed to ploughing away at something all day long with blinkers on, getting worked up about it and fretting over it and everything else. So I need to read the situation.
The worst thing I can talk about is the time where I thought the guy was going to hit me. That’s probably the worst scenario that you can come up with. Where a client wants to punch you in the face. Not because you’ve got a bad product, not because he doesn’t like you but because he’s venting on you for whatever his personal issues are. To be fair, I empathise with him and I learned from that and I didn’t want to ever be in the position he was in. So I try to interact with people in a way that doesn’t stress me out. Learning from any scenario. If I say that everyone that I deliver to is part of my team effectively. Because if they’re not happy then they aren’t buying from me and that’s the end of my business. So everyone I deliver to is part of my team, they’re on board, they like my product and they interact well. My worst-case scenario is that I never get to interact and it becomes a depersonalised service. People generally choose a product by its advertising potential, so luckily for me I’m not in that position where it’s about the power of my packaging and low price points that seduces people into buying my product. It’s me personally there able to talk about my products and interacting with the people I deliver to.
It’s like chatting to a friend, you want to chat to your friend you don’t consider it as they’re giving something to you and you are giving something to them, it’s not like work. It’s never like work. I almost feel like I’m getting something for nothing.
What surprises you about working at Good Brownies?
Everyone has got different tastes so I have extended my menu to try and cater to everyone and what’s been a really big surprise for me has been people really liking my brownies. I haven’t yet come across anyone that has said ‘It’s disgusting. Get it out of my face, my mouth, my office. It hasn’t happened and I don’t think thats just because I’m hand picking the people that eat my brownies. What’s most surprising to me is when people say stuff like, ‘I don’t like chocolate but I really like your brownies’, quite emphatic about the fact that they haven’t got a sweet tooth but they buy my brownies all the time.
What else surprises me is when people say stuff like these are the best thing I’ve ever eaten, and sometimes I think that they are just saying it because they feel like they should but then I realise that they could have just said it was nice or nothing at all.
What is your plan for the future?
More of the same pretty much. It’s to try and keep and integral awareness of what I’m doing and try and expand it in a way it doesn’t lose touch with the initial idea. That’s a very convoluted way of saying I love what I do. Which is baking creating and by extension giving that to people to try. So the future for me is building this to a point where it’s not overwhelming my ability to cater to the needs of other people and keeping it cottage.
What is the single biggest piece of advice you would give to anyone setting up a business?
Well, I would say that I would give no advice, because advice is something that curtails your ability to express yourself, good or bad advice it’s still pigeonholing it still diverting people into becoming a narrowed version of themselves. So I would say the best advice is no advice.
To be reliant on what other people say, inhibits what you do yourself. In practical terms people can advise you on things like how to open a bank account, but no one can really advise you on your own imagination, your own sense of self, your own sense of value, your own sense of how you extradite your product into the wider world is up to you. The more freedom that you have to do that, the more innovative, the more compelled you are to think for yourself. Had I listened to all the advice I was given I wouldn’t have done anything. I wouldn’t have set this business up, I wouldn’t have done it the way I’ve done it.
What has been the single biggest factor leading to the success of your business?
There is no single factor. It is an amalgamation of all the contributory factors that create what I’ve got. If i reduce it to one single factor, the business isn’t really the business that it is. If I only did one type of brownie or only thought one way it would be a single monetary pursuit it would be a single expression of myself.
If you are reading this and are tempted to try some for yourself (who wouldn’t?!?) head over to Goodbrownies.co.uk and chat to David about coming to your office or buying a packaged box.