This week on my Mums in Business series I’m delighted to be featuring Jane who has used her passion of food and the environment to create Octopus’s Garden Seaweed that aims to communicate the health benefits of eating seaweed and make it more readily available in food products. Jane has worked hard to do this by creating Umami Drops and Pickled Seaweed, and both products can literally be applied to anything, even your cheese on toast.
This is a story where Jane has worked really hard to grow the business, yet at the same time being realistic about what she can achieve whilst raising children. To find out more about this Jane, her story and this unique product read on…..
Tell me a little bit about you, your background and Octopus’s Garden Seaweed?
These days I absolutely love (and live and breathe) seaweed, but until a few years ago it hadn’t occurred to me that the seaweed I saw growing around our shores could be eaten! Life ‘Before Seaweed’ for me included a 17-year career in the environmental sector – working in consultancy and more recently in local government. During my thirties, in my spare time I had found myself increasingly absorbed in the world of food, and in particular – eating for health. I’m a sucker for a superfood. You should see what goes into my morning smoothie! But I never imagined I would end up founding a food business.
I first became aware of edible seaweed (aside from in sushi) when my best buddy was volunteering in Japan, helping to restore seaweed farming operations after the tsunami. We got talking about what an incredible foodstuff it is and how underexploited it is here despite the British coastline being blessed with an abundance of beautiful edible seaweed species. I started picking it and cooking with it, and I absolutely loved it.
I have been harvesting seaweed and cooking with it for about 6 years now – ever since I was pregnant with my first born, who now has an unusual knowledge of seaweed species for one so young, and loves to munch the stuff straight from the sea! During my first maternity leave I had a vague notion of setting up a business based on my penchant for seaweed, but I remained in employment for another few years. I spent some time during my two maternity leaves developing some product ideas, and then I finally left my day job just over a year ago (when my daughter started school).
My business – ‘Octopus’s Garden Seaweed’ – aims to make the delicious flavours and health benefits of seaweed available to more people in ready-to-eat products, using seaweed sustainably produced in the British Isles.
I launched my product ‘Umami Drops’ in April 2018. Umami Drops are delicious drops of super-concentrated seaweed essence with an intense savoury-sweet flavour. They are a unique and versatile vegan condiment and deliver a nutritious flavour burst whether splashed on top of avocado on toast, a plate of noodles, a bowl of soup, or even used in place of Worcestershire Sauce in a vegan Bloody Mary! My second product – Pickled Seaweed – is hot off the press, having been launched earlier this month (December 2018). Pickled Seaweed is a scrumptious all-natural accompaniment for sandwiches, toasties, burgers, cheese and biscuits, savoury pastries, cold cuts, seafood, salads, slaws, and just about anything else. Both products are made using organic seaweed grown on ropes at sea in a Marine Conservation Zone in Northern Ireland.
What were your motivations for setting up your own business?
When I discovered edible seaweed, it really chimed with my passions – both on the environmental side and the health food side. It felt very much like I had found my ‘thing’. I enjoyed my day job up to a point, but didn’t feel like the work I was doing really reflected the reasons I had wanted to work in the environmental sector. Plus I didn’t feel I had ever done anything that was very self-directed with my career. I had always worked on behalf of clients or councillors, and thought it would make an interesting change to try working for myself.
Seaweed remains a fairly niche part of our diets here in the UK. Many people associate seaweed with Japanese and Chinese restaurants, although that is starting to change. There has been something of a surge in interest in edible seaweed, and it now crops up frequently in restaurants. But most people still don’t cook with it much at home. In my experience, people are interested in eating seaweed, but don’t always know what to do with it – how to cook with it, or they don’t get around to it. But seaweed is so good for us and so delicious that in my mind it should have a place in our diets on a day to day basis. So the idea behind Octopus’s Garden Seaweed is to make it as easy as possible for people to get some seaweed – specifically organic British seaweed – onto their plates!
Although I have now given up my ‘day job’, environmental sustainability remains central to my endeavours. I believe that seaweed – which grows abundantly around the British Isles without the need for land, freshwater, pesticides or fertilisers – has the potential to play a small but important role in our diets an increasingly resource-constrained world.
How do you balance the business around family and childcare?
In a way, having children (and the associated maternity leaves) gave me the space to explore edible seaweed as a business proposition, and then when our older one started school it felt like the right time to make the leap and give up my day job. If my partner and I had both stayed on in our jobs, it was going to be a real challenge to manage our time around school hours and school holidays. We live hours away from our families – so don’t have regular childcare support from the kids’ grandparents, and we didn’t want our children to be constantly in after-school clubs and holiday clubs. I suppose what I’m saying is that my daughter starting school gave me the excuse I needed to leave my job!
In another way though, having children makes it FAR harder to make progress with my business! I currently have 18 child-free hours per week (term time only) which isn’t really enough, so I try to do bits and pieces of work most evenings and weekends too.
My daughter in particular seems to have inherited my love for seaweed, and will happily potter alongside me when I’m obsessing about seaweed at the beach. She snacks on seaweed that she picks as we go. I ate a lot of seaweed while I was pregnant with her, and I can’t help but wonder if she developed a taste for it in utero! And both my kids love Umami Drops – ideally neat, straight on their tongues! I’m more than happy with that because it’s a fantastic rich plant-based source of iodine, which they (and all of us) need in their diets.
Since setting up the business what’s been your biggest success to date?
It’s still early days for me, but I feel really pleased that I have developed two products which are genuinely different, delicious and really good for you. I love to see people try Umami Drops or Pickled Seaweed for the first time – and be surprised at just how tasty seaweed can be. Umami Drops were shortlisted in the Healthy Boost category of the Great British Food Awards 2018, and I think that the judges’ feedback reflects this nicely:
[Umami Drops were] a hit with the judges, who all agreed upon the uniqueness of the product. The judges also agreed that this would make a fantastic alternative to flavour enhancers and additives often used in stocks, soups and more or indeed, salt. What’s more, the judges were pleasantly surprised at its taste – in spite of it being a concentrated form of seaweed and packed with iodine, they found its umami flavour particularly moreish!
What’s your top tip for Mums who are thinking about setting up their own business?
Things take time, especially with children around, so try not to be too hard on yourself when you don’t make progress as quickly as you would like. (I still need to get better at taking my own advice on this!)
If you like what you’re reading and would love to be part of my Mums in Business series just drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or have a nose at some of the other businesses I have featured in the series: The Honeymoon & Holiday Fixer, Pink Spaghetti, and Bag All Done