What job did you do in the past?
I worked as a lawyer for 25 years.
I trained and qualified at City Law Firm as an Intellectual Property (IP) solicitor, then moved to become an IP solicitor at M&S where I graduated as Head of Legal Retail and Brand Team.
I also sat for several years on the Plan A committee, and advised on the company’s ecological and ethical ways of working.
What are you doing now?
I make and sell small batches of gelato and sorbet through our business Agosti Gelato, in seasonal flavors using local ingredients wherever possible.
How did you feel in your job before you decided to make the change?
Being a lawyer has always been “just” a job for me, not a vocation.
I had some great experiences and got good opportunities to develop skills, apart from my legal ones, during my time at M&S.
I worked three days a week (officially) once our first of three sons was born, but due to the nature and seniority of the position I had, I was on the phone/email almost every day (including weekends).
I wasn’t ready to work full time, due to family and other non-work related commitments, and I was looking for a new challenge.
why did you change
I felt I had done everything I wanted and achieved everything I could at M&S.
At the same time, I had some health problems of my own, my mother died and left my 87-year-old forgetful and frail father alone in Scotland, and our teenage sons seemed to need more support and encouragement (and rocking!) than ever before. .
M&S was also changing, and at the time I just felt that all the above issues, combined with the future I could see at M&S, made it the ideal time for me to leave.
How did you choose your new career?
Establishing Agosti Gelato was a joint decision, made with my husband.
We both knew that his support would be key to being able to start any business, so it had to be something we both wanted to get into, even though he continues to work full-time at his job.
My husband’s mother’s family is Italian (they’re the “Agostis” from Lake Maggiore, hence the name!) and although they don’t live there now, we’ve spent a lot of time in Italy on vacation over the years.
When we go to Italy we eat gelato and sorbet and always comment on how different the taste is to anything you can get in the UK. The flavors are intense, and actually taste like what the label says it should! We’ve often said it would be great if you could buy something similar in the UK, especially making the most of some of the other amazing local ingredients we have around us in our part of the country.
There was a clear gap in the local market. The more we explored the business (and creative!) opportunities the gelato business offered us, the more compelling it became.
We also wanted every business we started to have strong environmental and community credentials – to support as many other local businesses as possible, using only plastic-free packaging (among many other environmentally responsible steps we’ve taken), and to always focus our business decisions on the ecological and social impact they’ll have, as well as the financial impact about the business
Are you happy with the change?
Although it’s the hardest I’ve ever had to work in my entire life, and I sometimes wonder why I waited until I was 53 to start this, especially when some friends are already winding down their careers and getting ready to retire!
As a tiny startup with big startup costs (gelato machines are very expensive!), rent/utilities to pay, and top quality ingredients to buy, I can’t afford to pay anyone else right now. This means I’m often still working past midnight and then up early again the next morning for school runs and dog walking before gelato work – or early weekend markets!
What do you miss and what don’t you miss?
Sometimes I miss the face-to-face company of office colleagues when I spend hours in the lab alone every week, even though I have Spotify, BBC Sounds and Netflix in my ear when I feel the need to listen to something other than the gelato machines!
I also miss free weekends. I am at the markets every Friday, 3 Saturdays and 1 Sunday every month, and I also have events, personal and wholesale orders to fulfill.
Because of the nature of the gelato, I’m also missing out on the prospect of a lovely summer holiday, as our business is at its busiest then.
However, I don’t miss going to London. Now I can walk to work in five minutes along a beautiful country lane!
How did you make the transition?
After deciding on gelato, we went to Rimini in January 2020 for the world’s most prominent gelato exhibition and it confirmed for us the huge opportunities there were.
During the lockdown I studied hard! Not only learning all the science behind making gelato and how to run my own business, but also how to build a website, transfer my skills in food safety in production, set up business pages on social media, etc.
I spent days designing our branding, building the website, sourcing suppliers for our ingredients and packaging that meet our quality and “eco” specifications, sorting through the laws of company registration, trademark and domain names, and experimenting with seasonal flavors using a small home gelato maker, in time that we prepared for launch.
How did you develop (or transfer) the skills you need for your new role?
I used aspects of my legal knowledge, and all the commercial knowledge and other skills I gained at M&S.
Knowledge in the design and development of food products and packaging, best practices for sustainability and branding and marketing skills, are all things I have acquired in close cooperation with my business colleagues at M&S.
I was supposed to go to Bologna in April 2020 to study at Carpigiani’s famous gelato university, but unfortunately the pandemic stopped that. So instead I studied with them online for most of 2020, to learn how to make gelato and sorbet, and more importantly, the science behind making them delicious!
What didn’t go well? What wrong inquiries have you made?
As a family of five we have all managed to have covid at separate times since activation.
This meant that for three of the hottest weeks last year, as well as the Christmas period, I was in isolation and unable to produce or sell anything.
I spent money on equipment before I started production that cost a lot in my first year of trading (still going!) that I really didn’t need until this summer and also some that I just don’t have time to use at all. calm down! They won’t go to waste, but I could spread the cost better.
How did you handle your finances to make your shift possible?
We were lucky because many years ago we bought a rental property that we sold to help fund the start-up.
I also found a suitable unit to rent within a five minute walk of my house (a stable block on a local farm, it was an office that I converted into a small commercial kitchen). It was the smallest unit that came up the entire time I was looking, which made it more affordable for us.
What was the hardest thing about the change?
Setting up and running the business while trying to minimize the impact on our family (and my social life) was the hardest thing.
It’s really exhausting!
Also, as the sole manufacturer/dealer of the business, when you get thrown a curveball (like I was two months ago when my 93 year old father collapsed with covid and needed extra care for a week), sales drop completely.
I was used to being part of a much larger team in my previous career that could pick things up when I wasn’t around. Not having someone else trained as backup who can make/sell the product during these busy weeks (and during covid last year!) is probably the hardest thing.
What help did you get?
Virgin StartUp is a great place to start when formulating your first business plan and has lots of helpful seminars and events (not just for food startups).
I googled tons of free online advice and also acquired a huge amount of useful information and contacts from various Facebook food groups I joined.
I have had tremendous support and encouragement from other small local food businesses, many of whom I have met at the markets I attend or through a local women’s online networking group.
What resources would you recommend to others?
The Virgin StartUp website is a great resource to check out.
There’s also a huge amount of free advice for food start-ups on Food.gov.uk and various Facebook groups (I recommend The Food Hub, linked to the Bread and Jam Festivals).
What did you learn in the process?
Adaptation and resilience are the key to success!
Our original business plan included opening a gelateria in our village. Fortunately, we didn’t get the lease for the property we were looking at, as we planned to launch it in May 2020, which was a disaster for us during the lockdown.
We adjusted the business plan to focus instead on manufacturing rather than retail in the first place. This has now evolved into private sales, local markets, local wholesale opportunities and events large and small. This is a program that we can grow with at our own pace.
Focusing on production instead of running a gelateria/cafe is much more flexible in terms of the times I have to be in the lab making a product, so it’s easier to fit into our busy family life and also much less of a financial commitment as we operate and expand.
What would you advise others to do in the same situation?
Make a full and comprehensive business plan before you completely fall in love with your business idea.
Everything seems to cost more and take longer than you’d imagine, so it’s best to map everything (and more!) out on paper before you commit.
Don’t let age be a barrier to trying something new! I have 13 more years until I reach official retirement age – that’s still a lot of years to fill. I’m happy to fill them with something I enjoy, where I can support other local businesses, where all the big decisions about where we take the company next are made by our family, and where the fruits of my labor belong entirely to the family and not a big corporate company.
For more information on Heather’s businesses, visit www.agostigelato.com