Playing with the Big Boys

Alison Heagney is a very brave woman. Single mum to 4-year-old Daniel with experience in the employment sector, Alison is stepping well outside her comfort zone and into the lions’ den of the big supermarkets when her new product, Magic Meatballs, hits the shelves in Woolworths later this month.

Mel caught up with her to find out what it’s like to be playing with the big boys.

Mel: What experience do you have in the food industry?

None. I had absolutely no background in food when I started this.

Mel: Wow! What possessed you to create a food product?

The catalyst was my son Daniel. I just couldn’t find good healthy food that fit his taste and my lifestyle. So I created what I then called “emergency meatballs”: a well-rounded meal that Daniel will actually eat. I’d keep them in the freezer so there was something for those days when he wouldn’t eat anything else.

It occurred to me that other Mums need a product like this. That’s where the Magic Meatballs idea started.

Mel: With so little background in food, how have you managed to get yourself into a major chain like Woolworths?

I’ve had a lot of help. Locally, the 6 Degrees co-working network in town has helped keep me accountable, as well as connecting me with experts like you. And I got advice through ETC Small Bus Connect, who suggested that I explore contract manufacturing.

Over time I’ve been able to build a strong team around me. I engaged a consultant with expertise in commercializing food products. He’s really helped me to understand how the business works. We have contract packers in Melbourne with the capacity to produce for hundreds of stores. And a brokerage firm that can make sure my product is on the shelf.

Mel: What has been your biggest learning so far?

You need deep pockets if you are going to play with the big boys. We haven’t even started production and already the packaging has cost me a fortune and I’ve had to pay the factory up front.

I’ve had a devil of a time juggling the finances for this project. Woolworths can change their order from week to week, which means I may need more or less money. So I have to keep revising my estimates all the time.

And I know I’m not going to make a dime out of this for at least a year.

Mel: That’s tough. Do you have any regrets?

There are times when I think, “I’m out of my depth. I’m risking too much.” But it’s too late now. I’ve bought all the chicken and production starts this week.

But I’m excited about starting production on Friday. I think of all those people at the contract packer that I’m employing. I think about the Mum who doesn’t have to worry about what to feed her kid. I think about Daniel’s future.

It seems to me that most people who become successful entrepreneurs have a sense of desperation. That’s me. This has to work. There is no other option.

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