The Cornish Gouda Company produces beautifully hand crafted artisan cheeses on a small family dairy farm in Cornwall. The Dutch family moved from the Netherlands in 1998 to start dairy farming, but due to years of poor milk prices the family could no longer afford to continue running the business.
Standing out in a crowded marketplace, Giel Spierings mentions the mass produced products which he differentiates from using traditional methods.
What does your business do?
We produce hand-crafted artisan cheese, Cornish Gouda, in a variety of ages and with a few different flavours, on a small family dairy farm.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
The idea was born out of necessity. I came home to my family dairy farm from college to find a ‘For Sale’ sign on the gate. I was only 19 and it was a huge shock to find that we could be about to lose everything.
I decided that to give us a chance we had to diversify, and so I started making traditional Gouda cheese with the milk from our cows.
How did you know there was a market for it?
Honestly, I can’t say I did. It was more a hope than anything else. One thing we did know as a family was that the Gouda cheese that was most often for sale in England was nothing like the cheese as we knew it in Holland. The mass-produced stuff in the supermarkets was so bland and tasteless. We were sure if people could taste the real Gouda, the cheese as we knew it, they would love it. Traditional Gouda is very similar to cheddar, but with a higher moisture level, which makes it creamy. It’s nutty with a very distinct flavour.
I could make the cheese the traditional way. My grandmother used to make it. She taught my dad and my dad taught me. I also spent time learning the skill from my cousin in Holland, so I was confident I could produce traditional Gouda. I just hoped that it would be a success!
How did you raise funding, and why?
A lot of discussions with the bank! That was the main way in the beginning, lots of negotiation to secure the money that would let the business get off the ground.
Once we’d got started the next sticking point financially came when I was trying to increase production. I needed enough finance to secure more equipment and increase output, but I was finding it hard to do that.
Things got a lot easier when I started working with business coaches from Transform, a support programme for businesses in Cornwall with ambitions for high growth run by Oxford Innovation. They helped me to produce a full, professional business plan which I could take to the bank. This enabled me to get the finance I needed to purchase equipment and hire additional staff so we could take that step up and increase production.
Once we could get all this in place we were able to gear up 10 times on what we were doing before.
Describe your business model in brief.
We use the milk from our own cows on our own dairy farm to make the cheese. The ultimate aim would be that all the milk produced here, 100 per cent of it, is used to make our Gouda cheese.
Your lowest point was…
Starting out was very rough; trying to really get production going and at the same time not see the farm sold out from under us. We were literally extending our overdraft over and over again and it made for a really horrendous 18 months.
Not succeeding wouldn’t just have meant that the business was a failure and the associated costs of that, it would have meant we lost everything, including our home. As you can imagine, the pressure was almost unbearable.
Your highest point was…
I’ve had a few which is great. Recently becoming a supplier to upmarket supermarket chain E H Booth, often known as the ‘Waitrose’ of the North, was a massive step forward and a real achievement which working with Oxford Innovation helped make possible.
I think my personal highlight came at the Great British Cheese Awards in 2016 when Cornish Gouda won the hard cheese category. The competition was really tough, as you’re up against a diverse range of cheddars and farmhouse cheeses in that section, so for a Dutch cheese to win against that is fantastic. It was a really amazing day.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
Stick at it. It’s not going to be an easy ride and you have to be really determined to make it. I’ve learned that most new businesses don’t last long, that 25% don’t get past five years and of those that do only half get to 10 years. You’ve got to expect ups and downs and be prepared to dig in and work through the tough times to have the good times.
Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
Still making Gouda at the farm and ideally, using all the milk our cows produce to make the cheese.
If you weren’t an entrepreneur, you would be…
If I hadn’t started Cornish Gouda I would still be involved in the dairy farm business. If the farm had been successful as it was and there hadn’t been that urgent need to diversify, I think I would have finished college, then travelled to different dairy farms around the world in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, learning about how they run their farms and bringing back ideas to make our farm more efficient.
So basically, if things had been different, I’d have been a farmer first and foremost, rather than an entrepreneur.
If you could go back in time, would you do anything differently?
I think if I could go back in time knowing what I know now, I’d have got to where I am a lot faster!
If I’d known more about the opportunities for help available for start-up businesses, like the assistance I found through Oxford Innovation, I probably would have looked out for them and pursued them a lot sooner.
What is your philosophy on business or life, in a nutshell?
Try and take pleasure in every day you’re working and really appreciate the successes. Thinking about those highs and keeping them in mind is what gets you through the lows.