Talking business with Simos Kitiris, founder of Yumbles, the food website that offers hand crafted products from little known producers across the UK.

Online marketplaces they’re springing up in abundance, services, products and drumroll food… But Yumbles is aiming to corner a niche in niche itself, bringing the British public and the wider world hand crafted products from little known producers across the UK; heart shaped cheese, gourmet marshmallows, salted caramels, not to mention a pean to savoury craftsmanship. ‘I’ve been back to back this afternoon!’ Cypriot born founder Simos Kitiris laughs, ‘welcome to my kitchen,’ I add… Here we are on Skype, discussing the merits of awards to begin with: Yumbles won The Good Web Guide Website of the Year in the food category just last November, and the glow clearly hasn’t worn off. ‘It was very motivational for us, a pat on the back every now and again.’ Simos grins (I can see him now). ‘Have you won any other awards?’ I venture. ‘No but we also haven’t entered any others,’ he laughs. ‘You have to be in it to win it!’

Yumbles launched at the beginning of last year, ‘Really it’s only been in the last six months that we’ve been marketing the site to consumers and getting sellers onboard.’ The husband and wife team (Simos co-founded the site with wife Katie) were travelling up and down the country, stumbling all manner of interesting foods (try the Lavolio sweets for a particularly interesting backstory) when inspiration struck. ‘We were constantly frustrated that you couldn’t find any of these amazing foods online, we realised that although we have such an amazing range of food producers in the country they are not necessarily web savvy, they do a lot of physical events and they are amazing at cooking but they didn’t really have the right platform to market and sell their food online.’

Then to a tangent, chocolate soufflé, that’s when it can go really wrong can’t it?
Dinner party cooking, two batches in two pans, very lucky as I burnt one of them. That’s me reciting an anecdote, which brings us circuitously to health and safety. Bringing niche foods to the public…. ‘It’s ultimately their responsibility,’ Kitiris says, ‘but because we are a curated marketplace we test all the food, and we check what history they’ve had, for example some of them have been trading for a number of years, they’ve got everything right, when it’s new business obviously we ask a lot of questions about where it has come from and there are a lot of rules and regulations depending on the kind of food, if it’s something that contains meat for example it’s a lot more rigorous. It’s important to stress that we’re not going for numbers, it’s not an open for all market place. It’s not like Amazon or other marketplaces where you can find anything under the sun under one roof. We promise that we find the most exciting and unique foods for you… That’s part of the value we bring to consumers.’

Marketplaces are notoriously difficult,’ Kitiris says, ‘because they have different dimensions so you have to have to worry about the demand and the supply and always keeping them in balance. It’s the chicken and egg situation; a constant balancing game between the two, and the other thing obviously is that we’re covering very new ground; a lot of these businesses have never been online, so we’re working very closely with them to make sure that they present the products in the right way, so they can understand the online space a bit better.’

In five years' time Simos and Katie hope Yumbles will be ‘a top of mind brand name when it comes to food,’ it’s also an alternative to going to places like supermarkets. Our vision is to make the UK a tastier place if you like. We find that by and large we feel that people could be a lot more adventurous, but the choices are not there right now, the chances are very limited.’
‘Yumbles’ came from the desire for a name that was easy to remember and evoked warmth. ‘We wanted something that reflected the food and what we are about,’ Kitiris say, which no doubt it does. ‘We have a lot of people who do twists on classics like drinking chocolate, the other day we found someone who puts gold leaf in it, this morning we’ve been trying some pastilles, cocktail flavoured ones they contain, alcohol, you think wow that’s a Gin and Tonic in a sweet. ‘For Valentines we’ve had a lot of success, things you wouldn’t necessarily associate with it like heart shaped cheese, they are amazingly popular.’

Both Kitiris and wife Katie come from an online background, ‘I co-founded People per Hour. I’ve been doing that for the last seven years, so that’ s another online market place, in a different industry and Katie worked for eBay, Gumtree and also PPH.’

How does it compare launching a service marketplace as opposed to strictly product? ‘There are definitely a lot of learnings that carry through,’ Kitiris says, ‘there’s lots of things I wish I had known when I started PPH, in many ways it’s easier the second time round, on the other hand I would say every market place has its challenges. What you can take is the way of looking at the businesses; what’s healthy and what’s not working, some of the metrics are common across for example, but the difference is that Yumbles is a consumer proposition whereas PPH is business proposition so the consumer space is fairly new to us.’

‘I think the one thing I would say is that you should never underestimate the amount of effort in time and money in terms of time and investment needed to get something like Yumbles off the ground. Marketplaces that don’t do very well, I think it’s just because people hugely underestimate what it takes to get traction. If the idea is sound, you should really persevere and experiment quite a lot. It’s a secret sauce building a marketplace because you have to get all the ingredients right and it’s only by trial and error, unfortunately there’s no magic recipe, I wish there was!’

Entrepreneurs have told me before that they invested too much in the site and then left themselves short when it came to marketing, is this true of Kitiris’ experience? ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I think it’s definitely true more so for consumer propositions I think, you can’t just pick up the phone and start calling consumers, whereas when you are marketing to big businesses then it’s easier to target them. It does take time and obviously you need to have really good people and hiring good people costs money and it’s often the case that you underestimate what it will cost. There’s not much point in spending a lot of money if your metrics are not in place either, then you’re just wasting it.’ Whilst he’s coy about exactly how much the site cost to set up he will say, ‘I am confident that in the course of Yumbles’ life it will need investment to the tune of millions to take it to where we want it to be. You can make something smaller but we have higher ambitions for it.’

‘There’s nothing better than getting an email [from a seller] saying thank you that was amazing sales I wasn’t expecting.’ Kitiris reflects as the interview draws to a close, which brings me to my final question, his favourite quote, ‘When you’re going through hell keep going!’ he laughs [Winston Churchill]. Yumbles is well on its way.

Interview by Alice Kahrmann, February 2015