Irish Women in Business: Elaine Lavery and Hannah O’Reilly of Improper Butter
For the latest in our series of editorials focusing on Irish Women in Business, we’re talking to Elaine Lavery and Hannah O'Reilly, founders of Improper Butter.
Improper Butter is a range of delicious Irish flavored butters that combines grass-fed Irish creamery butter with an great variety of fresh ingredients to bring you a range of incredible flavours that including garlic, flat leaf parsley and lemon butter, sea salt, chive and black pepper butter, garlic, chilli and basil butter and Improper butter with Cashel Blue cheese
Here in her own words, Elaine describes how herself and Hannah met and how they came up with this great idea.
Hannah and I met while studying at UCD. I was studying Business and Law; Hannah was studying Commerce. We actually met in the chamber choir, but we were also in a few classes together and worked together on the odd project.
Intuitively we were drawn together.
We laughed at the same things, read people and situations the same way and had the same appreciations for the finer things in life! We didn’t know it at the time but we never had more disposable income and freedom. A lot has changed since then. We have never been so busy or poor!
We both finished our final set of exams in UCD in May 2012. I went off to complete a summer internship in Goldman Sachs in London for the summer. I thought I was set up. The Olympic games were on and the sun shone for a good bit of that summer, but I saw none of it.
Being inside the world of the financial markets was fascinating, but it was not for me. I couldn’t stop wondering what I could achieve if I was working 15 hour days for myself rather than for someone else. Unsure of what direction to take my career, I decided to take a year out.
I took myself off to the French Alps to combine my love of cooking with my love of skiing by working as a chalet chef. I have always been a massive foodie. My love of cooking came from my love of eating. I wanted to be able to cook nice things so I could eat them myself. My time spent in France was a dream.
Hannah also took a year out. She has a gift of a beautiful singing voice. She was always asked to sing at weddings, funerals and other events. She decided to give professional classical singing a chance and went off to complete a diploma in voice at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin.
During that time Hannah began torealise that if she was to pursue music, she would spend the next ten years of her life living out of a suitcase, travelling the cities of Europe alone. The level of competition in the industry is tough and as determined and talented as Hannah is, she wasn’t secure on having the future success of her career dependent on being in the right place at the right time. She wanted more control over her destiny.
She was drawn back to the world of business, and especially marketing, which she had always loved in college.
I returned from France last April with the idea to develop and market an original food product, one that used the finest of Irish produce. The concept of flavoured butters had been in my head for years, since I came across a recipe by Nigel Slater – a lentil soup with a Moroccan spiced herb butter swirlled into it. It was delicious. I thought, why isn’t anyone adding value to Irish butter in this way?
In Ireland, we have the best butter in the world. People know garlic butter. My idea for Improper Butter builds on that by doing something that restaurant chefs have been doing since the 1970s. Scratch cooking at home has risen in popularity in recent years. Improper Butter is a convenience product to aid the home cook: a butter for spreadingon your bread, melting on your fish or meat, stirring into you potatoes, tossing over your veg.
I told Hannah my ideas. She was at a crossroads also having just completed her diploma. She said she would be interested in getting involved. I couldn’t believe it. I had a business partner and a best friend ready made and waiting, and one that knew how to make things look good. I was a tastemaster; she was a marketer.
My one concern about going into business with Hannah was not a falling out. Neither of us are queenie nor demanding in friendship terms. But I was concerned that she never used to reply to my calls / texts / emails. I needn’t have worried about Hannah’s availability; Hannah focuses on what is important in the moment. When she’s with you, she’s with you. When we are not together, we communicate constantly. If our business is successful, Whatsapp can talk 50% of the credit.
We started conducting market research last summer. That included going into supermarkets and speaking to managers about consumers and consumer behavior, conducting focus groups and selling a product at farmers markets. We launched our retail product (a range of four flavoured butters) in November. We now have roughly 40 stockistsof Improper Butter around the country, from independent grocers to butchers and fishmongers. We also supply Improper Butter to cafes, restaurants and other businesses such as manufacturers of other prepared foods.
It suits us both being our own bosses. We are both very headstrong and have a clear, shared vision. We are learning by doing. In the first four months of starting the business we learned more than we did four years in college. We both work upwards of 12 hours a day, six days a week. It’s hard to switch off, but because we are both so passionate about our product and our business, you want to be tuned in 24/7. Because you wear every hat when you’re bootstrapping, you’re learning and figuring out things as you go along. It is an education.
What makes Improper Butter stand out at the end of the day is the product. It’s the quality of the fresh herbs and ingredients we source to blend into Irish creamery butter, our recipes and our production methods that make the Improper Butter a stellar product. Taste and provenance are everything. If you buy a block of Improper Butter it will transform your meal.
With regard to advising people who want to take the leap and start their own company, I would iterate as the well know sports-brand does: just do it. But having a good idea is only 1% of the way there.
Get the idea out there, learn about your customer and appeal to what they want by constantly adapting. Most businesses succeed because of the people behind them are driven, passionate, professional and hard-working, not because they had the best idea.