Spice girl: Pinky Lilani

Pinky Lilani set up Spice Magic in 2000. She now believes that she should have built up a stronger brand for the cooking and lifestyle business.

Pinky Lilani set up Spice Magic in 2000. She now believes that she should have built up a stronger brand for the cooking and lifestyle business.

I came to England 34 years ago, having never been out of India before and not knowing how to cook – we always had our own chef in India. I had my children in the UK and over the years I learned to cook and took a great interest in it.

The business originally grew out of being asked to teach. When my eldest son was 11 someone asked me to teach an adult education Indian cookery course and I went in with lots of enthusiasm and energy.

One of my first eager students just happened to work for Sharwood’s and asked me to do some consultancy work with them. As that developed, I was introduced to supermarkets and I started doing a lot of developmental work around Indian food for them too. One thing grew out of another until the business incorporated a range of products and services all built around me and my spices.

Literary ambition

Based on this success, I decided that I would write a book that I would publish myself. The trouble was, no-one wanted to buy it because they hadn’t heard of me. I realised that I needed to be more creative and get my name out there.

I approached book shops and asked them to let me do a short demonstration on how to cook Bombay potatoes and sell my book afterwards. It really started to work, and soon I was getting into my car and going all over the country with just my wok and my books. A chance meeting with a journalist, whom I invited to my house for a cookery course, turned into an article that resulted in hundreds of requests in the space of just three weeks.

I realised that I liked getting involved with the people who were buying my books. I also liked the idea of bringing clients into my home, and that was where the Spice Magic corporate teambuilding days grew from. When people come into my home to cook, they feel more relaxed, which makes the teambuilding work much better.

The spice of life

I also started to tour as a motivational speaker. With me, I’d bring my own spice box, containing my eight essential spices. That turned out to be a big hit with listeners who wanted their own. Since then I have joined forces with ASDA, which matched me up with one of their spice suppliers to create a commercial spice box that was sold in-store.

One thing I wish I’d realised when I set up the business was that it should have been more about the brand and less about me. If I’d built up more collaborative ventures, such as the one with ASDA, I would have had a model I could sell on. I would also have put more emphasis on merchandising, such as tea towels and aprons, which can deliver a higher margin.

At the outset, I didn’t see all the opportunities out there and I was very risk-conscious. On reflection, I should have taken more risks to build the business faster and hired people to do certain jobs such as marketing, rather than micro-managing everything myself. If you really believe in your idea, nothing should hold you back.

Pinky Lilani was named Woman Entrepreneur of the Year at the inaugural TiE UK Gala Awards in December.

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