From start-up to scale-up with plant-based toppings
With a business idea in tune with the zeitgeist and a business degree, Alice Knap was ideally placed to turn her vision into reality. Her company HUJ makes plant-based sandwich toppings and has just started scaling up.
A rice cake with margarine and salt on top. That was what Alice Knap was eating for breakfast one morning five years ago when she decided that people wanting a plant-based diet needed something that tasted better than that to put on their sandwiches. Out of that idea came a business that now employs Alice and about fifteen people.
No sooner said than done. Alice and her then husband started experimenting with flavours and textures and the result that emerged was two vegetarian pâtés under the name HUJ. Many months of product development and tasting sessions followed and the sandwich topping was launched on a small scale in 2018. Today the range also includes a vegan cream cheese and HUJ has expanded beyond its first deliveries to local food shops to supplying hundreds of stores across Sweden.
“We’ve got a product in a growing segment that lots of retailers believe in, which has naturally smoothed the way. Many retailers agree with our view that this is just the start of a shift to vegan food,” says Alice Knap.
Put her studies into practice
Before embarking on this journey, Alice had no idea it was even possible to start up and run your own business. After graduating from the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg, she spent two years running a cleaning company.
“The Swedish Tax Agency had just made payments for cleaning services tax deductible and I saw the company as a bit of a project and an exciting opportunity. I only had to buy a car, a vacuum cleaner and other equipment so it was quite a low threshold to launching a business. Social sustainability was an important aspect of our business concept. We only employed young people who hadn’t had a job before due to high youth unemployment,” she explains. Here in her own company, Alice Knap got to put many of the things she had studied into practice, from bookkeeping and marketing to leadership, follow-up and customer management.
“I learned a lot and realised that it’s perfectly possible to run your own business and that a lot of it is fun too.”
Alice Knap’s degree from the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg was in social sciences and the environment. She studied environmental science and the basics of business economics and then chose to focus on sustainable enterprise for her bachelor’s degree.
“I was only 18 when I applied and I thought I’d probably end up working as an environmental consultant and help companies to be more sustainable. Companies have a major impact on our society and on the climate and I wanted to work in that field somehow. But it didn’t quite turn out that way in the end, although of course sustainability is an important personal motivation in my current job.
Having a basic understanding of business economics has been an important factor, especially for feeling that you’re on top of how it all fits together.
“It might sound obvious but when I meet other people who don’t already have that grounding, I realise how it’s given me a head start.”
Exciting scale-up phase
After a while working as an economist, Alice Knap worked as a consultant for the state-owned venture capital company Almi, which supports start-ups and growth companies by providing loans and business development. This brought her into contact with many new start-ups and their stories.
“I learned a lot about what it’s like running a company with ambitions for growth.”
And in 2021, growth was what HUJ was all about. From selling their products in 240 stores at the start of the year, HUJ now has products in 700 stores across Sweden and employs seventeen people.
“We’re not a start-up any more. We’re in a scale-up phase. 2021 was our first year on that journey. It’s exciting, I have to say. There’s no end to the challenges that come with growth and they just get bigger and bigger because everything is on a larger scale. But it feels great, especially because we’re a little team doing this together. In the early years I was mostly on my own because I was the only one on the operational side.”
Don't be afraid to ask for help and advice
Alice Knap has plenty of experience to share with anyone looking to make their business concept a reality. She’s especially keen to pass on ideas about making contacts and vanquishing that feeling of loneliness you get in the start-up phase.
“Don't be afraid to ask for help and advice from other people. Especially if, like me, you’re new to the industry. People love offering a helping hand. And then you need to sift through all the advice and make your own decision because it’s not uncommon to get completely contradictory advice from different people!”
It’s also important to find your “why factor” and be passionate about your concept and your product. There will be times along the way when you feel like everything is against you.
“When that happens, it’s good to have a motto or a clear objective saying why you are doing what you are doing and that gives you a bit of a boost. Personally, I can’t think of a better job than running HUJ and it’s a privilege to be able to work with your passion, making life easier for people who want a plant-based diet and being part of building something from the ground up.”
BY: Lisa Stevik
Lives: Just outside Alingsås in rural Sweden.
Studied: Programme in Environmental Social Science
Job: Founder and CEO of HUJ.
The best thing about my job: My amazing team and being part of building something from scratch.