“A milkround with a mission to reduce plastic waste.” When you read that statement, you just know there’s going to be an interesting story behind it…
The Modern Milkman’s goal is to revolutionise consumer habits by delivering fresh ways to return and reuse packaging, shop ethically, and feel good about convenience. This vision to reset our throwaway society was born from Simon’s experience within the food + farming industries, as well as David Attenborough’s call for action to combat the huge amount of plastic waste in our oceans. (If, like me, you’re an Attenborough groupie, you must be on the edge of your seat).
In keeping with this month’s storytelling theme, Simon talks to us about how he has used the power of his story to inspire change in consumers, influence and empower his team and drive forward his business, one milk bottle at a time.
So, Simon — what’s your story?
I grew up on farming and butchery. My grandad was a farmer, so my dad grew up in farming and wanted to be (and eventually trained) to be a butcher. Once he finished the training, he and my grandad opened a shop in the 1970s in Nelson, a small town in Lancashire.
So when my brother and I were born, obviously we got stuck in at the shop — we were there all the time, so I grew up around food and farming, working in the shop and during school holidays we’d both go to work on different, bigger farms in the Yorkshire Dales with 400–500 cows and 1000+ sheep.
But I didn’t get on with my Dad at all — we fell out constantly — I went about 3 years without even speaking to my Dad whilst we lived in the same house. So that really stopped me from continuing in the family business, whereas my brother continued and became a butcher, ran the family shop and everything.
I was always interested in things that moved so I trained as a mechanic and got into motor sports. I started working in a Cumbria-based rally team but the pay was horrendous so I thought “I’m not doing this forever” and went freelance. I was about 19 and got into GT racing. I loved it — in a lot of ways I regret ever leaving. I was working with Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche, and did a lot of endurance racing. I traveled all over the world, I saw so much of Europe, a lot of South America, and the UAE.
That exposed me to a lot of very successful people. A lot of GT racing teams are owned by very wealthy individuals who drive the cars, but they’ll also have two really hot shot racing drivers that drive with them, they’re long-distance races so you can’t do it with one driver. These people would have amazing stories to tell. They’d made an absolute shit-tonne of money, and many off their own backs, from nothing.
When you come from the North West, it’s not like London where you constantly see startups and these things going on, so for me this experience in GT racing made me realise that what I’d learnt in my family business about food was not apparent to everyone — people didn’t understand food. I was working with alot of people my age, traveling all over the world with them, but a lot of them didn’t understand where food came from, the relationship between food and farming, and the value of it. At the same time I got exposed to all these successful people that made me think “Actually, this is possible, you know”. It is possible to build your own business and do something good.
This was around 2008, and at that time food was experiencing a movement. There was a focus on ethical sourcing. My brother was still working with my Dad and he had the idea of starting to farm free range chickens — at which point we created a business called Roaming Roosters.
I met the team at HelloFresh off the back of that time with Roaming Roosters — Ed, Freddy, Luke + Patrick — right back in the early days of HelloFresh when they were a tiny new company doing 100–200 boxes per week, and they used the brand of Roaming Roosters to build a lot of what they did, and renamed my brother “Nick The Knife” and ‘poster-boy-ed’ him all over the place, using us as a tool to build their business.
We grew Roaming Roosters over 5–7 years and then sold it in 2015. Imagine… and that was all off the back of having a go! After we sold Roaming Roosters, I built a wholesale business specialising in supplying companies such as HelloFresh, Gousto, Muscle Food — a lot of the big online food retailers in the UK. About 6 months after we were acquired in 2018, the Modern Milkman was born.
It’s a great story — what a fascinating career! I’m intrigued — why do you tell your story in that way?
Well, because a lot of the stories I heard influenced me, and gave me the courage to have a go for myself — so that’s one part of it.
Also, story-telling is cultural evolution — who you surround yourself with, what you do, how you spend your time — it gives you the knowledge and experience to grow and move forward. If you’re never surrounded by people that have done something good, then how are you ever going to have the confidence to do anything good yourself? Some people are just naturally and unbelievably successful, but the majority of people need that inspiration to have the confidence to try something new.
What do you hope people will experience, hear or do when listening to your story?
I think it’s hearing what those stories did to me — this idea that anybody can do it. I am nothing special, I am just a normal person from Lancashire, you know what I mean? I’m no different to anyone else. So I hope that it inspires them to get up and give it a go and believe in themselves to do whatever they want to do. This doesn’t just apply to running a business, it could apply to anything — even running a marathon — but it’s about inspiring people to get up and give it a go.
Stories, indeed, can be very inspiring — whose story has inspired you?
Lots of people! I was very lucky to work with a guy called Matthew Riley when I was building Roaming Roosters. He was from the North West area, and I worked with him for 6–7 years. He was extremely successful, and has built a multi-billion pound business from nothing. He’s had a massive impact on me — he’s been an inspiration to me and guided me from a young age through how to be successful.
What would you rewrite if you had the opportunity to?
Well, I wouldn’t rewrite any of it as all of it is what has made me who I am. Also it’s the bad bits that teach you the best lessons. What burns you most, you know, you don’t touch it again, do you, if it’s hot? And that’s what I’ve taken from it.
But one big learning for me was that the type of industry that I’m best in — having gone from a retail business, to wholesale, and now back to a retail business — is that working in a wholesale business is not where I best operate. I’m much more consumer-facing, personally. I understand consumers and their needs, in a way that I don’t understand how to run a business-to-business company.
It’s taught me what I like, but I had to do something different in order to learn that. It makes you realise what you wouldn’t do again, but also confirms those things you like best.
Was there a particular ‘story’ that inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
I never really set out to be an entrepreneur. I just saw an opportunity with Roaming Roosters, because my family owned some land, to start farming free-range chickens and it just grew and scaled from that. Up until that point, I never really thought “I want to build a massive company with thousands of employees’’. Then when I met Matt Riley and saw what he built with his business, and how to think differently to scale things, that switched me on in a different way. I’d seen how to do it in a small, local environment, but then meeting someone like that — from where you grew up — who has built something amazing with the same surroundings (background + geographic) — their story makes you believe it’s possible.
I met him after I had already made the business successful locally. Then he heard about the business and started mentoring me. I thought what I’d achieved so far was pretty decent, but then you see someone who’s built massive companies in a short space of time, and you think: “WOW, that’s unbelievable — how did you do that?”. It got me to think bigger. Without seeing it, you don’t believe it’s possible.
Amazing! So what about The Modern Milkman and your customers. How does an idea about people shopping local, turn into a story?
If you take The Modern Milkman, our story was that we wanted to remove single use plastic, and that drove us to source products and sell it locally, so that we can use ‘return and reuse’ packaging. We couldn’t have done that shipping things from one farm to all over the country. That idea and that story is vital to the success of The Modern Milkman because it’s what creates buy-in from every direction — be it shareholders, employees and customers. Businesses with purpose are massively taking over and companies that are just there for the sake of it, don’t have a long shelf life.
When have you seen your story ‘click’ with someone? Has there been a moment when you’ve seen someone become instantly bought in to your mission off the back of understanding your story?
Not so much an individual moment, but what is clear with Modern Milkman is that the mission and vision just click with people in a way that I’ve never seen before. And that’s not just within our team.
I met John Roberts (the founder of AO.com) about a month ago and he started mentoring me, and instantly, he warmed to what we’re trying to achieve as a business.
Recently, we also had a call with a candidate for a People + Culture role, and they also just instantly warmed to the business.
I don’t know what it is about this business, but people really get it. I’ve come from food and farming and my previous businesses have always been in this sector, but they’ve never had the buy-in that the Modern Milkman has had and the way it attracts people to it.
I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is, but it’s quite an easy mission to get your head around. Reducing Plastics.
You’ve just finalised your Series A — congrats! How did storytelling play a part in your fundraise process?
The big thing with the series A stage is that you have proof of concept already but you’re looking to scale — and that’s what the funding is all about. So I think storytelling is a massive part of fundraising as you don’t necessarily have anything tangible — not like series B or C where you have a proven business that just needs further funding to grow into a new country for instance. At this point, it’s about selling a compelling story about what it could be; and then getting the investors to buy into what that story is.
Are the next chapters of your story clear, or are you still writing them?
So it’s all about growth — expanding our geographical coverage — the next 12 or so months is about getting across the UK. Then looking at vertical integration — creating packing plants, bottling our own milk, and developing a carbon neutral milk plant. Obviously, there’s a huge stigma around the milk industry being really bad for carbon emissions so we’re looking to dispel that by creating a carbon neutral milk brand by working with farmers to feed animals differently, using waste better and creating power from methane to offset and hopefully get to a carbon negative state in milk production.
Amazing — that’s SO exciting! And how are you now using your story to inspire your team?
I think it’s a big transition for me — moving away from the ‘how’ to the ‘why’. It’s early days, but I’m starting to develop this through knowledge sharing workshops with the team to create knowledge champions within each department. For instance — plastic vs glass — why is glass better than plastic given that carbon emissions are worse from glass? We get a lot of questions around things like this from customers and about how we align our values to how we make decisions — it’s important for me to explain why we do what we do, so that of course, the team understands also and can confidently stand in front of a customer and answer that question comfortably. It’s all in the WHY. Telling the stories to underpin each of the why’s — explaining the background is important, as is starting that education piece from Day 1 of someone’s career with us.
If there’s one thing you’d like the reader to take away from your story so far, what would it be?
Hopefully it gives people the confidence to do what they want to do after having heard that someone else has done it!
To make sure you don’t miss out on more fab Founder Stories, shimmy on over and sign up for our newsletter, Unleashed Thinking.