The Dragons go nuts for Cocofina 


Cocofina’s founder, Jacob Thundil, along with his business partner Manisha Solanki, showed us exactly how to win over the Dragons with his coconut product based business. 

Cocofina is an established food and drink company that bases its products on the well-known ingredient, coconut. From being the first UK coconut water seller, its success has caused the company to branch out into creating different products, but still with the base ingredient of coconut. From water to nectar, bars to chips and oil to vinegar, the wide product range along with the healthy benefits, clearly impressed the Dragons to the extent that all five made an offer to invest.I got the chance to talk to Jacob about his experience in the den, as well as finding out what advice he would give to startups and of course, coconuts, coconuts, coconuts!With all five dragons offering the full amount of money of £75,000 and Souleyman offering £100,00 the duo had the dragons eating out the palms of their hands. Talking about his experience in the den, Jacob explains his decision on choosing a joint investment from Nick and Sarah “Sarah is an obvious because of the food, but she’s also young and very energetic, as well as coming across as very positive. Nick is very strong on marketing and we’re not strong on online marketing. Nick has literally built a business on printing greeting cards and selling them and has been very successful, so we wanted to have them on board.” Jacob’s love of coconuts stemmed from a very young age. He grew up in Kerala, India which actually means ‘the land of the coconuts’ so, it’s literally in his heritage! From growing up in such a coconut-filled environment, Jacob confessed this inspired him to eventually create a business with an ingredient that was a much loved part of his childhood. “For me, coconut water is one of the things I go really crazy for. Even now, when I land in say, Thailand, I drink 4 often in the first 2 hours. I am really really crazy for it, I don’t know why, I just have this obsession for it!.”Even though Jacob’s love for the coconut has been apparent for a very long time, he didn’t start the business until 2005, prior to this he was working for HSBC and BT. I was surprised at the contrast between the business he has now and the businesses he previously worked for. The direction into creating a food and drink business was fairly opposing to his more engineerial background, so I questioned it, in which he replied: “It’s not that different” He explained, “My dad passed away when I was 17 and I was running my dad’s business plus doing an engineering degree at the same time. So, when my friends were playing games and going to play football, I was on a business trip to Hong Kong. “But I enjoyed it, because I got so much experience from the age of 17. After that, I trained my mum to take over the business whilst I continued my studies. My family were all business people and I was thinking that you needed to become a professional so, I became a professional for say, 14 years. I thought ‘this is it, get a mortgage, buy a car, get married and follow the dream’.Although this was Jacob’s initial life plan, it didn’t particularly work out in this conventional way: “At 30, I was thinking ‘if every day is going to be the same, what am I going to do? Is this it?’ At that point, I was sitting on a beach in Brazil, where I would travel with my boss on work, and I got given this coconut to drink.” After receiving a spark of inspiration, creating a coconut water business then became something Jacob wanted to pursue. However, he faced challenges as he realised that due to lack of awareness around the benefits of coconut water, there were virtually no buyers for it. “Slowly it started evolving because people started looking for more healthy drinks. As well – travel. A lot of people travel and this drink reminds them of their holiday.”Jacob was working part-time during the early stages of the business, where he worked evenings and weekends. Before deciding to work on the business full-time, he got his first batch produced and went to the taste festival in Regent’s Park to test out his product’s potential and to secure his confidence in that this was the right decision to make.  50 per cent of the audience disliked the product, claiming it to be ‘salty’. “I was buying coconut water from India. Indian coconuts that grow near the sea are quite salty because the fact that the water comes from the ground. So, then I found a special species of coconut that’s quite mild and that’s grown inland, not near the sea – in Thailand and the Philippines.“We got our first food and drink award in 2006 in which the judges said, ‘if people are looking for a healthy drink, they would love Cocofina’. As Jacob began to gain listings and pitching to wholesalers, the business started to grow and he began to spend more time in his business and less with his current employer at the time. Even though he became the first person to sell coconut water in the UK, he decided not to take it to supermarkets: “A lot of people don’t know me, only the health fanatics know me. I have my niche and there are a lot of brands that came afterwards and they were just trying to make money and they’re getting pushed off of the shelf in the supermarket.“For us, being stocked in Holland and Barret, there are only two brands – Vita Coco and us. So, there’s a choice for the consumer, do they go for the mass market brand or the health brand?Coconut-based products tend to have a lot of health benefits and so, I asked Jacob if this was something he was trying to encourage and promote, “Not really. It’s like, if you like chocolate, you like chocolate. Coconut’s another flavour like chocolate, so if you like it, you like it. I am trying to sell a good quality product for people who really like coconut. I think I have enough consumers who will buy something healthy because it’s good, not the other way round. I wouldn’t have anything that taste’s bad, because I don’t think I need to. I try and find an alternative.”I was intrigued to find out where the inspiration of creating other coconut-based products arose from. Jacob explained how he once made a snack bar for his son, which went down pretty well! Confessing that he really liked his invention, he started giving away the snack bars he was making. Within 3 weeks of launching the snack bar, he sold 25,000 units and the rest is history. He brought out two new flavours of coconut snack bar and is currently working on his 4th which has pineapple in and Jacob describes as “incredible”. I asked Jacob who his inspiration was and he heart-warmingly replied: “I don’t have any superheroes but I have my brother-in-law. When my dad passed away, he was someone I looked up to because he works really hard. He’s a doctor and he would go and for doing rounds on a Sunday, even though it wasn’t part of his work. As far as he’s concerned, the patient was in his care and he didn’t care whether it was Saturday, Sunday or Monday if someone needs to be seen to. So for me, he was someone I really looked up to.”Not many can say that they have experience of running a businesses from the age of 17, so I was keen to discover what advice Jacob would offer to startups: “There’s a few things I would say. Number one is, in the beginning, don’t choose profitability. Try to put in the least amount of money as possible. “Number two is, try to not have so many fixed costs. In the beginning, you don’t have income to support your overheads, so don’t have a fancy office, and don’t have a big mortgage. The only person that’s going to notice your own car is yourself, so you don’t need to impress anyone, you need to keep your costs low. What happens a lot of the time is when we progress in our jobs, our needs also increase.  What I’ve tried to do is keep my costs at the level where I was on my second job. If you need to reach your dreams, there are some sacrifices you need to make. You’re not going to travel business class on day one, that’s afterwards and you’ve got to put in your sweat.“When I started out, I had a serious fear of selling. I just couldn’t pick up the phone and call someone, I was always saying ‘I will do it tomorrow’. I think the sooner you conquer this fear, the better, just go for it! If someone says ‘no’, that’s fine. “When you sign up to new channels, new distributers and even suppliers, be very careful because you can’t put a step back because once you’ve done a deal with these people and products are on the shelf. All the distributers that I currently have and have gained over the last 10 years, I haven’t lost any of them. It’s a very important decision, so don’t take it lightly. If someone came and said ‘I want to buy your product’, you don’t need to say ‘yes’, you need to figure out if it’s working for the brand. “Re-invent yourself and everything 12-18 months, because who you were 18 months ago is not who you need to be 18 months later. The situation has changed, the world has changed, your business has evolved, and you have other people working with you. You are not going to say ‘this is my business, so I am going to be who I am’, you’re going to say ‘how has the business changed and how do I need to change myself and upskill myself to work in this sort of change?’ He continued, “If you end up focusing too much on your job and are not giving work to other people, then other people’s efforts are being wasted.”

Check out my review of the Dragons’ Den episode that featured Cocofina