Levi Roots bursts onto the stage, singing the classic Reggae Reggae Sauce song. “It’s so nice, I had to name it twice…”
He’s speaking at the WE ARE XPO in London’s ExCel Centre.
“I have a confession: if you’re expecting to learn about business and P&L (profit and loss), get the hell out of here,” he laughs. “If you’re seeking inspiration from hearing a story, if it inspires you like it inspires me, I’m your man.”
He takes the audience through his beginnings in Clarendon, Jamaica. His parents were part of the Windrush generation, being told that there was gold dust on the ground in England. As years passed, his five older siblings (Levi being the youngest) packed their suitcases to move to England while their grandmother wept. When it was finally his turn at the age of ten, Roots set off to the UK having never worn shoes and not knowing how to spell his name: Keith Valentine Graham.
The struggles of racism in England quickly became apparent. He deeply missed his grandmother and when she died when Roots was 16, he started spiralling. After a nine-year spell in prison in 1986, and disbelief from everyone he knew, he turned his life around.
Here are the lessons he’s learned.
The overarching message of Roots’ whole talk is to be true to yourself.
When he went on Dragons’ Den, Theo Paphitis asked if Levi Roots was his real name and he said no, it’s Keith. It was then that Roots realised the importance of being who you are.
“Don’t undermine who you are by comparing yourself with others, by what other people think is important,” he said. “I rejoice in who I am.” That being said, you can benefit from a little nudge. “Sometimes it takes someone else to spot who you are. Someone else takes a chance on you. Hardly anyone changes for themselves – that’s why you should surround yourself with these people.”
It helps to have something or someone to keep you going when you go through a tough patch. “It had to be my Rastafarianism,” Roots said, “But it could be your dog, cat or friend.”
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Mentor and be mentored
Roots met his first mentor at his lowest point. What made the change is that he opened up and listened to someone for the first time – she was the first person who really believed in who he was. “You’re not Keith. You’re Levi Roots. You look to cook,” she said to him. “People who go through the struggle, like me, they need mentorship and someone who can say, ‘I can help you’.”
He talks about going back to prison – for the right reasons – to be a mentor. He worked with a fashion brand, Inside Out, which showcased at London Fashion Week: “If you can pay them attention, the reward is fantastic.”
Have the right people around you
“Peter [Jones] is the most amazing person.” Roots says. “Surround yourself with like-minded people.”
Though his new-found investors weren’t as proactive as you might expect. “The Dragons didn’t do a lot to help me,” he admits. “Peter Jones made one call – to Sainsbury’s chief, Justin King.” Roots left the kids at home making the sauce. He only had 67 bottles and hoped Justin wouldn’t ask for more than that.
“We love the Reggie Reggie [sic] Sauce, he said,” Roots laughs. King went on to order 250,000 bottles.
With this comes the people you don’t want to surround yourself with. He uses the ‘crabs in a barrel’ analogy to describe the desire of others to not see you get ahead. “They couldn’t accept that a black Rasta man from Brixton could get this much attention,” he says.
People told him that his idea was ‘too black, Jamaican and Rasta’, warning him not to go on Dragons’ Den and sing ‘that song’. A few hours after Justin King from Sainsbury’s made the offer, Roots got a second call to say that Reggae Reggae Sauce had outsold Heinz ketchup. “Something I made in my kitchen, something that was me,” Roots says.
These days, he only has one employee – his personal assistant. “The other jigsaw pieces are lawyer, accountant and brand manager. Between them, it really helps to run the brand together.”
How does he do the rest?
Outsourcing is key
When he was given the opportunity by Sainsbury’s, he couldn’t turn it down. However, the sauce had to change because it had too many ingredients to scale it up. “Remember, every scotch bonnet is kissed, every onion cried with. Is my granny cussing me above telling me don’t change the recipe? Do I have it as close as I can get to the original? That was the best decisions that I ever made.”
Think about your goals as a business before you commit, though. “If you’re outsourcing – you’ll have to make that decision too. I had to think very quickly: do I want to keep it secret or do I let it fly and fly with it? It depends on where you want to get to. You could do the original and take years and years, but I wanted to get there faster.”
He adds that, when brand is powerful, there is nothing more important than outsourcing. If a brand is built well then people want to partner with you. “I couldn’t tell Justin King to wait six months until I built a factory. I outsourced to make 250,000 bottles in record time.”
Find your own market
As Roots says, nobody has a right to a market, so you have to go and find your own: “We went to anywhere with ‘shire’ at the end of it. We wanted to introduce Caribbean food outside the local area. Find your market – they’re out there!”
He thought that, as a MOBO award-nominated musician, things would be easier, but he didn’t sell Reggae Reggae Sauce locally for two years because people in the area didn’t want to buy it.
Protect your brand
Following a lengthy legal battle with two ex-friends, Roots realised he should have protected his brand from the get-go, but it was the least of his worries at the time. “Secrets are a bad thing in business. When I won, it was a lesson to protect the brand. The most expensive thing in your business plan is sorting legal things. Otherwise, it will bite you in the backside,” he says.
Protecting the brand also means protecting its identity. For example, Roots has turned down developing £12m of pork products, because Rastafarians don’t eat pork. He’s also turned down alcohol – namely rum – as it’s not part of the brand.
Levi Roots sticks to Caribbean food to retain its authenticity: “As a Rasta man, it helps to keep the brand going. But we know Jamaica is only one island in the Caribbean. I’ve just discovered Guadeloupe and want to explore.”
Read some Shakespeare
Roots tells of how he became acquainted with the Bard during his time in prison: “A lady came in and threw The Complete Works of Shakespeare at me.” He recites a passage from Caesarwhere Brutus said:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune
And we must take the current when it serves,
or lose our ventures.”
That’s the attitude he’s taken into business. “Take the current when it serves,” he emphasises.
He also refers to the line: “Sling and arrows of outrageous fortune” from Hamletcoming back to the central theme of his talk. “Be the best of yourself when it comes. Your journey will always be like this. It won’t be smooth. You have to be you to deal with that.”