To listen to fresh-faced entrepreneur Fraser Doherty speak on the topic of leadership in business, you’d assume he was the inventor of the latest killer smartphone app or some other whiz-bang technological breakthrough.
Instead, the dapper young Scotsman found his fortune in the stodgy old world of jam. That’s right, jam: the stuff you spread on toast, crackers, scones, sandwiches, or whatever dainty snack you’re enjoying over tea with Grandma.
Doherty was in Victoria on Nov. 8 as part of Marketing Central Victoria’s Leadership Series of lunchtime talks. In a presentation dubbed “The Adventures of Jam Boy,” he regaled the crowd at the Marriott Inner Harbour Hotel with the tale of how, at age 14, he invented SuperJam, a product that would propel him to winning the Global Student Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2007 — and dinner with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street.
“I was always ambitious, always an entrepreneur,” said Doherty, who was born and raised in Edinburgh. “As a boy I was always coming up with hare-brained schemes to make extra pocket money.”
One of those schemes involved his grandmother’s secret jam recipes, which are 100 per cent pure fruit and sugar-free; she revealed the concoctions to him about six years ago, when he was barely a teenager. He began cooking up larger batches of the jam in his parents’ kitchen and selling it at farmers’ markets, church fairs, and other small-scale, DIY outlets. Eventually, said Doherty, his family gave up trying to prepare meals in the kitchen because the budding entrepreneur was always in there cooking jam.
At first, the product was simply called “Doherty’s” with a very traditionally styled label. Young Fraser wasn’t too concerned with how the jam was branded and packaged because he was doing so well at the local markets that he was having trouble cooking enough to meet demand.
Although he didn’t know it at the time, Doherty’s jam was catching a wave of consumer desire for products with less sugar and artificial sweeteners. U.K. manufacturers weren’t meeting this demand, he says, because of a mentality that jam was jam and it didn’t need change or innovation. He found that sales of jam were flat or even down in many outlets, and as he scanned the shelves at Britain’s major supermarket chains, he saw an opportunity and decided to attend a “meet the buyer” event put on by grocery giant Waitrose — an experience he likens to a quick, “American Idol”-style audition for fledgling companies trying to break into the food industry.
“The success of SuperJam had very little to do with the product itself,” Doherty said. Waitrose loved the jam, but a deal “hinged on whether they liked the labels.”
They did not.
Doherty had come up with a very modern, stylized, non-traditional label that emphasized the jam’s content of highly nutritious, so-called “superfruits” such as blueberries and cranberries. The labels evoked comic-book panels with the logo emblazoned on what appears to be the muscled chest of a superhero. For someone Doherty’s age, the look was perfect, but for Grandma and teatime, not so much — and Waitrose told him so.
It was back to the drawing board, literally, but Doherty lacked the means to hire an advertising agency. He eventually found a small design firm that he could afford; they produced a label that Waitrose liked, but the grocery chain wouldn’t stock SuperJam unless Doherty could supply it in mass quantities — and that wasn’t going to happen using Mom and Dad’s kitchen. Doherty struck a deal with a manufacturer that had some production lines in its factory that weren’t being used, and SuperJam was born.
At that time, Doherty was 16 and finished with secondary school. He completed a year of university before dropping out to focus on the business.
“I felt really strongly that this was what I wanted to do with my life,” he said to his Victoria audience, which was made up of many students, whom he urged to stay in school.
Doherty says he put everything he had into promoting SuperJam — and it paid off. The media lapped up the story of the teenage jam sensation. “Everything just took off,” he said. Articles appeared in Forbes, The Sun, and The Scotsman, to name just a few, while Sky News and BBC News have broadcast profiles of the jammy lad’s incredible journey.
His competitors didn’t mind, either, as all the free media was great exposure for jam and delivered a boost to the industry’s sagging profile. “They’ve been quite positive about it in many ways,” Doherty says of his rivals.
Now age 20, Doherty is already a millionaire, and SuperJam is on the shelves at Waitrose as well as major UK chains such as Tesco and Asda. He’s eyeing international markets for the product and has published The SuperJam Cookbook, which contains the now not-so-secret recipes his “gran” handed down to him. (“She’s thankfully unaware of her intellectual property rights,” he joked.) He donates product to senior centres and other organizations for the elderly so that they can put on tea parties and dances for widowers, shut-ins, and others of advanced age who don’t get enough social contact.
Doherty attributes his success to sheer determination and finding a good story for his product.
“When somebody said ‘no,’ I didn’t let it stop me,” he says. “A brand is really just a story, in a sense. Would SuperJam have happened without my story? Everybody has a story to tell. Actually, my gran’s story would have been even better.”
Although the product he’s selling is about as timeless as they come, Doherty has embraced 21st century techniques to tell the story of SuperJam, using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and his blog to directly connect with consumers. “I love the idea of having a conversation with the people who are actually using the product,” he said.
Part of that conversation inevitably turns, as it did during the question-and-answer segment of Doherty’s Victoria visit, to what’s next for this 20-year-old business sensation.
“I really don’t know,” he teased. “Marmalade?”
For more information, visit www.superjam.co.uk.