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Michael Sladden, MOB Kitchen
The man behind the smooth running of the UK's leading food media brand sheds light on MOB's unique approach.
MOB Kitchen needs little introduction. What started as an Instagram channel posting recipes to feed four-for-a-tenner has become a food media giant with hundreds of thousands of dedicated fans across social and podcasts, award-winning cookbooks, a talent management arm, food trucks and even its own data insights platform.
We sat down with one of its earliest employees, and now Director of Operations, Michael Sladden - to dive into the past, present and future of MOB Kitchen. Please enjoy!
What is something that you think will be big that not a lot of people are talking about right now?
Number one, young creatives and production companies that focus on low-fi, phone shot content all about storytelling, not about cameras, or production quality, or big budgets or anything like that. I think that you'll see that cropping up a lot more; just from my own personal experience. People with Tik Tok, Instagram reels, all that stuff… Anything that isn't in that short form and people smell a rat. You'll see more and more brands take a step away from traditional marketing and focus on those things, especially our generation and the generation below us grow up. From our perspective, we want to plug a gap in the UK food scene. In music and in sport, you have these youth icons. It's just not the same in food. Food in the UK is very ITV, very BBC 6pm: all quite glossy. There's no one really that represents food for a cooler youth scene. There are people out there, like you have Chicken Connoisseur, and you have a couple of people floating about, but not many. That’s the scene that we'd like to see explode, because it's one we want to be at the forefront of.
You guys are doing a good job of decentralizing: you've clearly been pushing the other chefs and building up their social media profiles.
Yeah, and it's been a process: they didn't happen overnight. It was a case of introducing people to the team who were coming on specifically to fill that role and then scouting fresh, new talent. We've just launched the talent management side of our business, so it makes business sense for us to have a large roster of personalities on it. But it's also great to have such a variety of content, one that’s representative of people of all backgrounds, and that is something that feels so natural to us.
Could you speak about like what, if it goes well, the MOB Kitchen talent management arm might look like in three to five years?
We have a vision to become a huge talent agency. We have a vision as a business that if a brand wants to do some marketing for their new product, then they come to MOB Group, let's say, for our influencers and for our own agency: essentially to be one stop shop for marketing budgets, particularly within our age bracket of 18- to 35-year-olds. We have an amazing platform to build talent: it is a money-making venture, of course, but we could really change lives through this. And we already are: What Willy Cook has grown from 3000 followers to about 150,000 in the last year. He was able to quit his job and now works exclusively in this scene and is commanding some large spends from multiple brands. If we can do that for loads of people, whilst entertaining our audience, then it's a bit of a no brainer.
What are your guiding principles through all this? What filters do you have on?
We never commit to an idea without testing it. We always expect criticism, and always learn from it, and don't get upset by it. Very rarely do you go into a project thinking that it will make it past its first iteration. But that's how we grow and that's how we learn. Only then do we start to establish systems and stuff like that. Really, we just experiment and see what works. If something looks like it's working, then we'll push harder.
You put it nicely there, not expecting things to go past that experimentation phase. Even just articulating it like that inspires innovation and risk taking. What guardrails have you got in place that have encouraged your growth?
Truth is it’s been quite slow. From the outside, it doesn't seem so slow, but MOB has been around for about four and a half years. And when I look back, it's just slowly ramped up. It’s been content first and innovation first. We never get complacent, and never stop being creative. When we really care about something and put our all into it, it works, and when we don't, it doesn't. The most important thing about MOB is the people and if we're feeling inspired to be creative, and try new things, then there's not much you can't do if the idea is good and you're asking people for feedback. If that’s in place, you're sort of set up for success really. We are so lucky that we work in a space where every single piece of what we do gets scrutinized by the audience gets scrutinized by the client. Let's say your job is, I don't know, an analyst, you don't have sort of half a million people looking over your shoulder and saying, I would have done that spreadsheet a little bit differently. We have that for everything we do. So, it's sort of a blessing and a curse, it means that we can't get complacent and can't be lazy. But it pushes us to be better all the time. And you know, even if we get one comment saying, “that was crap”, we will worry about that comment and ask them why, then sort of build from there.
It sounds like you haven't lost the mindset of a small Instagram channel that would care about every single comment.
No, we haven't. And that’s largely down to Ben (Founder of MOB Kitchen), who lives and breathes our community and our content. It would be easy at this stage for him to take a step back but it's that constant pursuit of making our product better, getting more people involved, making better recipes, better foods, and creating the solution that we're always trying to create, which is helping people to cook. That mentality has trickled down: and it amps up the team to step up and meet those standards, which is amazing.
But I guess as you grow, as you have more people join the team, having that individual asset just becomes less and less practical?
Yeah, definitely. This last bout of growth has been very fast. So, it is actually something that we're looking to do: we're building out brand guidelines, tone of voice guidelines, and starting to cement these things in place. Also, the team will start to feel more comfortable making decisions on behalf of the brand, which comes with time, of course. In that startup transitioning to small business, or medium sized business phase there’s a lot: it's training people, doing your job, and making sure that everyone's having a good time. You have to be everywhere. Obviously, we hope that the content will just produce itself at some point. But again, within those teams, it's so important to instill that level of creativity, empowerment, and the urge to do things better every time and every day so that we don't lose basically that pursuit of growth. Not growth just for numbers sake, but growth for the sake of the wider business and so that the audience grows, and we get better and better at content as we go on.
Are there any companies that you've seen go through what you're going through that you look at with admiration?
It’s such a standard answer but I look at Gymshark and what Ben Francis has done… It blows my mind! The ability to grow at that speed and for that guy to stay as grounded as and as humble as he is, to concede his mistakes and his flaws and to hire above him… It blows my mind for someone that young to be able to build a brand and an empire like that. We are complete minnows compared to them and it's good to have people out there that you look at and feel inspired. It's crazy because there aren't tons of businesses in between us. If you think of consumer brands with a small workforce plus a young founder, there aren’t tons of them. It sort of goes MOB Kitchen, then a few others, and then Gymshark, like 50 years ahead! The parallels I see between a company like Gymshark, and MOB Kitchen is the founder: they have walking and talking brand guidelines. If you have a founder, who is wandering around saying, I thought of this cool name, that's the brand sorted here, the brand guidelines and passes it off to someone else, there's no real inspiration there.
One of the things that really impressed me was Ben posting a month or two ago saying that the meals were coming a bit unaffordable. It was such an authentic apology and such a clear example about having a clear purpose and turning that into a clear brand.
That’s why I talk about the feedback model. We have constant communication with our audience who are literally just an audience of people that follow us because they want to. There is no financial transaction between us or them. We went into that post thinking that we'd sort of lost the plot. And then actually, a lot of people were like, “no, you haven't, we love this new stuff.” That’s the communication that really has pushed us through. One thing that I would say to any small enterprise is just ask as many questions to as many people as possible. You never have all the answers, and no idea is that good until it's been checked. Again, talking about Gymshark, they're a social company, too. They've existed on socials the whole time. And that's how they grew. They grew by building that community and it’s so important. The idea of having a huge business structure with a social media executive who just sits in the corner and posts stuff and doesn't feed back to the brand, or whoever's in charge of making decisions… that blows our mind, because all we do is look and see what people think
I never thought it that way, your audience don't pay you anything do they? That's a unique business model, and unlike Gymshark, whose customers obviously pay their billsI wonder if it's a purer relationship with the audience as a result?
We’re rarely trying to flog something to our audience. We would never do that, unless we thought the thing was worth it. There's never been any sort of greed with MOB: we've never looked at the audience and tried to manipulate them. For us the audience is everything and creating content that flies with the people that have decided to follow us for whatever reason is exactly what we want to keep doing. It'd be very easy to come up with some sort of ponzi scheme to nab some money from them, but we just approach everything content first. Putting on events, doing cookbooks, and doing products, maybe asking people to pay a monthly subscription to an app for a small amount, we would only ever do any of those things if it were something we'd pay for ourselves. So that's always been our model.
It will be an interesting transition, to start having those conversations with our audience, and say, “we have loads of new content on our app, it’d be great if you could part with a quid or two a month to have a look.” And that's something that we're going to have to navigate.
Would there ever be a MOB restaurant?
Potentially, yeah. We have the food truck, which is a great way of testing the appetite for a more physical sense. Probably in a couple of years’ time, it will be realistic. I don't think we want to do the big restaurant chain thing though.
Maybe a food market?
Exactly. Curating amazing talent is where we sit. We’ve pivoted to do more of this curation of amazing talent and food, rather than us being a standalone brand that tries to do everything itself - because there are limitations to a brand, of course, and we're aware of that.
Our final question is always the same: is there a resource or something that other small business and start-up founders should listen to, read, or watch?
It’s called The Ride of a Lifetime, by Bob Iger, who's the Disney CEO. You think you've had a stressful day, read about a time where one of his employees got killed by a crocodile at Disneyland while he was off doing something else. Some crazy shit going on around when 911 happens, too. It’s a great story of a guy that was just committed, made difficult decisions, was very humble, and kept pushing through. There are just so many lessons to learn. It seems that business doesn't really change too much as you grow through it. I related to it a lot; although my personal experiences are small fry compared to anything that he's faced having run one of the biggest empires in the world.