How did it all begin for Velvet Cloud?
Michael (Aisling’s husband and co-founder of Velvet Cloud) grew up on a sheep and dairy farm here, in Rockfield, Co Mayo.
We met studying ag science in University College Dublin (UCD). After college we went to live and work within the food industry in France and Italy for about 10 years.
While there we noticed the strong prevalence of sheep dairy products on the shelves and in restaurants. We wondered why with so many sheep in Ireland there were no sheep dairy products available. We returned to Michael’s home farm, but at that point we weren’t making much money from traditional sheep farming.
We looked further into the sheep’s milk gap in the market and made some kitchen batches of sheep’s yoghurts to send out to chefs, for feedback. They were all really delighted with it and so we officially began trading in 2015.
Did you carry out market research at the start of your business journey?
My background is in sales and marketing, so I have done all our market research to date. Our initial research showed us a big increase in awareness of gut health. We also saw the increasing demand for dairy alternatives and a greater interest in local artisan produce. There were lots of market trends working in our favour. Our research showed that – at the time – there were about three farmers milking sheep in Ireland, but they were (and still are) all making cheese. Market research is a vital part of starting any business, but it’s equally as important to keep an eye on market trends and what other companies are doing.
How vital is previous industry experience when starting a business?
We both had farm and food knowledge, but neither of us had ever milked sheep. To gain real knowledge of sheep dairy, Michael had to go to England and join the British Dairy Sheep Society. While making yoghurt is fairly straight forward, making cheese is a complete art and science. Michael has done a lot of different courses on cheese making. So, as long as you have access to the relevant knowledge and the will to upskill yourself you will be OK.
How has your business been coping with COVID-19?
We were very unlucky at the beginning because about 40% of our sales go to the high-end restaurant sector. So we literally lost that market overnight. Sheep can’t be turned off though, so we turned to online sales on velvetcloud.ie. We have been developing, growing and learning about the power of online ever since. It is opening our eyes to huge opportunities.
Do you avail of any support services?
We have gotten both grant and training assistance from the Local Enterprise Office. They and Bord Bia were particularly helpful over the last 12 months, in supporting our transition to online sales and growth. Michael is also on the committee of CAIS (The Association of Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers). That network is extremely supportive of each other and the entire industry.
Looking back, what is your best piece of advice for an aspiring entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurship is very hard work and is not for everybody. If you relish very long working hours and are motivated by risk, then that is fine. But it is not for everybody and certainly not recommended to those who like a nine-to-five job.