Case Study

I’d still be grappling around chasing sales without my mentor

As someone new to business, Amanda Gordon needed the help of an experienced business mentor to best direct her passion and ambition.

When Amanda Gordon decided to launch a new company, she was bursting with ideas and enthusiasm, but lacked the knowledge and role models to help translate them into a successful business. Mentor Ashley Cooke helped her to focus and prioritise, and the results have been transformative.

Amanda launched her business, Smartfreeze, in September 2021. As with so many entrepreneurs, she identified a gap in the market based on her own need. “I used to throw away a lot of the food in my freezer because I couldn’t remember how long it had been there, or I realised it had been there too long,” she said.

The Smartfreeze concept is deceptively simple. You put leftovers, or batch cooking, into silicon containers, and scan the QR code on the lid, which links to an app on your smartphone, where you record the contents. You can either decide on the length of time you want to store the food, or default to the Food Standards Agency guidelines. The app then sends you notifications at various points, prompting you to extract a particular box from the depths of the freezer before it goes beyond the use by date that you’ve stipulated.

Knowing what you don’t know

At the time, Amanda worked in technology risk for a large investment bank. “I wasn’t very technologically advanced, but I knew enough to be able to convey what I needed to an app developer,” she remembered. Less confident about sales and marketing, she realised help was needed. “No-one I knew had their own business, so I had no resources to draw on,” she added.

Searching for “free mentoring” online, she came across the Be the Business Mentoring scheme. “Be the Business told me that had a programme aimed at small, black/ethnic-minority owned, businesses – people like me – and put me on the Strive programme,” she said.

Amanda was then introduced to Ashley Cooke, an experienced businessman and long-time mentor.

“Amanda knew more than she realised,” added Ashley. “In fact, she probably knew too much – she was reaching out in all directions, a bit like a kid in a sweetshop. She was extremely enthusiastic, but she lacked focus, so was being pulled from pillar to post.”

Learning to focus

“I was obsessed by making sales,” Amanda admitted. “Ashley told me that I should focus on my business plan instead, and initially I was a bit resistant to that. Once I did though, the sales started coming in.”

Ashley introduced Amanda to the Business Model Canvas, which comprises nine building blocks, including customer segments, value propositions, channels, customer relationships, revenue streams, key resources and activities, partners, and cost structure. “It provided a framework to hang her enthusiasm on,” he commented.

During the 12-week programme, Amanda and Ashley communicated over Zoom. She recalled: “I used to record our conversations, and would work though all the advice Ashley gave me, and send my ‘homework’ over to him the day before our next meeting, where he would give me feedback.”

Ashely’s advice inclued encouraging her to be bold in seeking funding to help develop Smartfreeze. “He told me that I was the ideal candidate – a female black entrepreneur working in technology,” she said. “He told me what I could apply for, and I’ve been able to pitch based on the business plan he got me to do. I’ve now got something like £100,000 of funding available to me.”

New direction

With marketing, sales and funding now moving in the right direction, Amanda is trying to grow the business. One important step is to move manufacturing and production from China back to the UK, where she has more control over it.

“I want to ensure my business, including my supply chain, is as ethical as possible in order to get listings in the shops I want to be in,” she explained. While online sales are lucrative, listings with the likes of John Lewis and Lakeland will give her physical exposure – acting like a shop window for her brand.

Amanda will also use the funding to experiment with different-sized containers, make improvements to her app, and hire a full-time social media content creator.

“Without Ashley’s input, I’d still be grappling around,” she revealed. “I’ve got more direction, a solid business plan, and I understand my business a lot better – including what I need to do to differentiate it from my competitors. Apart from anything else, that’s helping me to raise finance.”

She’s also gained the confidence to enter some awards schemes – which, as she says, amount to “free marketing”.

A flexible programme

Amanda and Ashley had a three-week break from the mentoring mid-way through, because Amanda was busy with other things. Ashley said: “The Be the Business structure is good, but I tend to adapt it to the needs of the particular mentee I’m working with, because I want to help them. That often means building in flexibility.”

His purpose in the mentoring was to get her to the point where she asked even more questions. “She’s done this, with incremental wins along the way. I wasn’t necessarily teaching her much, but just getting her to look at things that could help her improve what she was doing.”

But he thinks his biggest contribution was to get Amanda to focus. “If you have an objective, you can measure everything else against that, and that allows you to prioritise, and break down the big objective into a series of smaller ones.”.

Moving on

For the time being, their relationship is continuing informally, after the end of the 12-week Strive programme. “Ashley and I get on very well,” says Amanda. “We are very different – and I think that’s why I’ve got so much out of the mentoring. He tells me I can reach out to him at any stage.”

“I’m always more than happy to help – but it’s important that mentees go away and experience things themselves, rather than being spoon fed,” he said. “I don’t want to be a comfort blanket, but to provide a bit of support as and when.”

A measure of the success of their relationship is that Amanda has just moved onto the 12-month Be the Business Mentoring programme, and has given up her day job to concentrate full time on Smartfreeze. Ashley helped her determine the type of mentor who would be best suited to helping her through the next stage of her business’s development.

And why does Ashley like mentoring? “I see it in terms of the bigger picture. If I can help someone become successful, that’s good for my pension.”