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My first boss: Jeremy May, co-founder of NICE wine

·6-min read
Founders Lucy Busk and Jeremy May met each other through industry contacts.
Founders Lucy Busk and Jeremy May met each other through industry contacts. Photo: NICE wine

London-based start-up, NICE wine  co-founded by Jeremy May and Lucy Busk, both with backgrounds in innovative food start-ups is the fastest growing canned wine brand in the UK, with 400% growth so far in 2022 compared with the same period in 2021.

It is forecasting sales of £5.1m ($5.86m) this year, while NICE’s growth has seen a team of four in 2021 rise to 15 today, with 75% of the leadership team being women. The brand, which launched in 2018, is now stocked across all Virgin Atlantic flights.

After three years in the insurance industry working in the Middle East, I had hit a fork in the road. I came back to London, aged 27, where Steve Higginson, of Winterbotham Darby, gave me the opportunity in the food and drink industry. This was 10 years ago and he took a punt on me.

I was later headhunted by the founders of Propercorn, Cassandra Stavrou and Ryan Kohn. I was their ninth employee at a fledgling business which had had never sold their popcorn abroad. I was to lead the charge of its international export business.

Cassandra and Ryan wanted to hire entrepreneurs. I think they wanted to be really proud to see their alumni become entrepreneurs in their own right. I came out of the interview thinking I must join this business and it felt like Propercorn was going to be the perfect apprenticeship for me.

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I must be one of five former employees who now own their business. I joined with the business turning over a couple of million and a few years later we were doing £12m.

I learnt what it’s like to run a branded business in the food and drink space and I wouldn’t have even thought about starting NICE wines without their stewardship. They had a brother, sister relationship where anything goes, coupled with disagreements and finding common ground.

Their main business value was for popcorn to be ‘done properly’. It was installed early on that you should never go into a single meeting where that isn’t talked about in the first minute. There was no corner cutting; they led by example by living for those values. The duo also weren't shy in being direct if they felt that these levels weren’t being kept up.

As a start-up, it’s David v Goliath when coming up against big business and you have to lean into your points of difference. You may not have the biggest budgets but if you have meticulous attention to detail and expectations of each other, that value becomes intrinsic in the business. That’s what Propercorn has.

We have evolved this at NICE. One of the values — ‘direct feedback is our love language’ — is written in quotes on the wall of our office. If you all agree in the company that it’s something you will live by, all to the greater good of constant improvement, then that can only be a positive thing.

Jeremy May was at a crossroads after working in the insurance industry in the Middle East.
Jeremy May was at a crossroads after working in the insurance industry in the Middle East. Photo: NICE wine

We have a team huddle at the end of the month where anyone, from sales directors to marketing, can raise their hands and say what could be done to make our business better. There are no bad ideas after all, and we want to foster that culture of bringing forward ideas.

Cassandra and Ryan projected a united front and shared everything with their business. They would seek to celebrate the good times and I’ve no doubt that when things got tricky, they wore the burden when times were tough. To some extent we now share more information than others would and we have been open and share our P&L and cash flows.

When Lucy and I first looked at launching at NICE, we both felt we had the credibility in the food and drink market, that we had a good idea (there was a proven concept already in the United States), an experienced founding team and customer demand. We had even gone to Sainsbury's (SBRY.L) before we had a brand, name or wine. We told them the idea of launching with the tag of being the Brewdog, Propercorn or Innocent of wine. They said NICE could launch in 600 stores if we were true to our words.

Read more: My first boss: Ugo Monye, former England rugby star

When we met each other we were industry contacts. We knew we could launch a disruptive brand in food and drink but before we knew it, within one week Lucy had seen through Instagram a canned, branded wine on sale in the US. We didn’t need a second glance and we now sell one can every five seconds.

We quickly found that it's not just the 'on the go' occasion that needed better options. Wine in general seemed obsessed with the past and often only caters to either wine connoisseurs or 'cheap plonk' drinkers. We think there's a vast middle ground that aren't wine experts but know they want to drink good liquid and in a way that suits their lives better.

The ‘bag in box’ concept came when we realised during lockdown that consumers perhaps didn’t want to drink the whole bottle of wine. With cans, we haven’t scratched the surface. We are now in nearly all Sainsbury’s stores and have almost tripled our rate of sale year on year.

The brand, which launched in 2018, is now stocked across all Virgin Atlantic flights. Photo: NICE wine
The brand, which launched in 2018, is now stocked across all Virgin Atlantic flights. Photo: NICE wine

Late last year we launched on Virgin Atlantic and now we are on every single route. We have crossed the threshold of being slightly niche to serving 2.5 million cans this year to consumers who may not have heard of the brand. We’ve also launched wine on tap for the casual drinking environment.

We see ourselves as wine innovators at large, while it all started with the can. But we can’t rest on laurels and need to stay ahead of the competition. We can’t just build a canned wine business for the next 20 years; we want to build loyalty in wine, one that the consumer can trust.

Cassandra and Ryan have since taken a financial interest in the business, are very supportive when we’ve needed them or have just have taken a step back or let us get on with running our business in the vision we have for it.

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