Bringing Fresh Ideas to the table background image

Bringing Fresh Ideas to the table

Nick and Dave Mentoring Session

Dining in the grand livery halls of the City of London is a tradition nearly as old as the City itself, but when Nick Levens and Dave Pay, the entrepreneurs behind Life’s Kitchen, decided to take their high-end catering business to the next level, it was to the latest technology that they looked for growth.

For the past decade, the business partners have been providing venue management, event management and catering services to some of the most prestigious venues in the capital – running banquets in the likes of Guildhall, Painters’ Hall and Tallow Chandlers’ Hall. Now they are developing a concept called My Life’s Kitchen that will use a mix of video, ecommerce and personal service to find a new audience.

“We want to leverage the brand that we’ve built up and push the business forward,” explains Levens. “The idea is to share the success of our food and service with our guests via membership of an exclusive club.”

It was while they were developing this new concept that they saw an opportunity to work with co-founder Sophie Cornish, through the Ready Business Mentor scheme. Following a Dragons’ Den-style pitch event,
they were chosen as one of five businesses to receive mentoring from Cornish. “One of the reasons we were attracted to working with Sophie was that she has experience in the things we were looking into,” says Levens. “She has a successful online business and experience of working in a partnership.”

The relationship between Levens and Pay has been pivotal to Life’s Kitchen since the start. They had worked together before in the catering industry and wanted to collaborate on their own project. To make sure their relationship isn’t put under any strain by the introduction of a further business endeavour, Cornish introduced them to the business psychologist Tony Crabbe in one of her mentoring sessions.

“We were keen to explore how our partnership would work if one of us were to concentrate on another strand of the business,” says Levens. “We talk every day but we never debate why we work well together. Tony and Sophie both probed and challenged us, asking interesting questions. Tony said he doesn’t come across many successful partnerships and told us that we must not damage one of the strongest aspects of our business.”

Cornish used another of the sessions to road-test the My Life’s Kitchen concept. “She encouraged us to talk to our clients and put out a survey to see whether there was an appetite for what we were proposing. We were delighted to get a positive response and felt confident that the idea had legs.”

As part of the scheme, Vodafone invited the Life’s Kitchen team to take part in an innovation session where they worked on the technological aspect of the business and floated the idea of developing an app. “It got the whole team thinking about how we could use tech to make people’s lives easier,” says Levens.

Then it was back to Cornish to discuss how best to market Life’s Kitchen. “She pointed out that we have a visually rich operation and we should use social media to take clients on a visual tour, tell our story and inspire,” says Levens. “Social media is a way for us to have a proactive conversation with clients, so we’ll now be using it for that. ”

Some of the businesses taking part in the mentoring process are young start-ups with limited experience. Life’s Kitchen’s involvement shows that any business can benefit from mentoring, no matter how established they are. “It has supercharged our plans for the new part of the business,” says Levens. “These conversations are valuable to a business throughout its lifetime. It has really helped us to step out of our day-to-day bubble.”

Sophie’s view

Life’s Kitchen is 10 years old, just like my business, and is built on a partnership too, so Nick, Dave and I immediately found we shared much common ground: memories of gruelling hard work in the early days, being aware of the preciousness of a great business team, and the knowledge that whatever stage you’re at, and however established, you need to keep pushing forward and stay in love with your business.

And they do. Nick and Dave bring all the energy, charm and ambition of their winning presentation to the day-to-day of their working lives. I particularly applaud their plan to build up a whole new business idea, My Life’s Kitchen, as well as their readiness to go back to the days of ‘will it work?’ The pair completed the Down and Dirty test from the book, Build a Business From Your Kitchen Table. It’s a quick and easy way to face up to the strengths and weaknesses of your idea.

And their idea came out pretty strong. They need to understand their new customer — an online shopper, not a corporate diner — and find the right focus between the technology they need and the expertise they already have. Our key session was with the business psychologist Tony Crabbe. He challenged Nick and Dave to the very point I’d hoped he would, with a surprising outcome. Far from splitting off their skills to work separately on different areas of the business as it grows, which is what they were expecting to do, the session made it clear to all of us that the greatest strength of the business is in what they do together.

So in fact we’ll be seeing plenty more of the Nick and Dave show, and I’m absolutely certain it will be a good one.