Matt Phelps, founder of Funthyme Dining & Events
Where did the idea for Funthyme come from and how did you start the business?
My background is in media sales. During my twenties it was a great job, very social and we had great expense accounts. If you were in the office, it was a problem - they wanted us out and about with clients on jollies constantly. It complemented my lifestyle perfectly.
Then we got to the recession, all the expenses stopped and we weren’t earning commission. I hit thirty. I remember it was Christmas day and I really wasn’t myself. I’m quite naturally upbeat and positive but I felt pretty low. I thought something has got to give because I’ve been in this job for 8 years and not been promoted, I’m not going to be and I don’t want to be! So I decided to try something else.
That day I decided to quit and do something with food. I knew I didn’t want to work in a restaurant kitchen but I knew had passion and ability so I set off to do another ski season. It was a natural and comfortable way out towards a new life. It involved my love - cooking - every day and I thought if that goes well, we'll see what happens.
Whilst I was in France, I applied to a few restaurants in Cornwall and Northamptonshire suggesting to work for my lodgings. The first one didn’t go so well (laugh) but I stayed at the second for six months. It was a really amazing experience, learning about kitchens and equipment and how to work efficiently.
I knew I had to go home at some point. I wanted to be in London with my friends and doing my own thing. The pop-up concept was just taking off and I knew I could that, and also knew I wanted a catering business. It was all really just a jumble of ideas in my mind and at some point I thought it would nice to earn some money!
A friend Paul Wells who runs Brandkits and creates websites and brands for small businesses was incredible to me. We spent hours on the phone whilst I was in Northamptonshire stress-testing what Funthyme was going to be. I came out of the process with a really structured proposition to go to market with. my advice is if you do want to make a change, find someone who is a good listener who can help you turn your ideas into something that makes sense to other people.
That was 2009 and now things are going very, very well.
How did you come up with the name Funthyme?
It was my MySpace name! It was also a bit of a nickname, Funthyme Phelps.
I kind of liked it but a lot of friends didn’t and advised against using it for the business but I felt really comfortable with it. A couple of months in when the brand was live with a website and business cards etc, people saw it in operation and said it really worked and suited me. Plus it's memorable.
What's the thing you love most about running Funthyme?
This may go against the grain of why people want to run their own business, but I really love the hard work. I did a wedding at the weekend for 120 people across two venues in Hackney and Deptford. It was chaos. I was driving up and down the A12 thinking ‘I love this!’ I was really under pressure but it all went really well. All the hard work came together and the clients were really happy.
There are times when it is hard-hard. It's very physical, my back hurts and I don’t get enough sleep.
It can be brutal but I know I just need a good nights sleep and it's fine the next day.
Did you launch as a sole trader or limited company?
I started off as a sole trader because I didn’t think I’d earn much money and it was the most straightforward thing to do. But then after three years I started earning more and I took on an accountant who suggested to keep the sole trader for weddings - so I don’t have to charge them VAT, a really good selling point - and then create a limited company for the corporate billings which offers much more protection for me.
What did you do for work today?
I've had a really nice today. I’ve had three weeks of back to back events and the double venue wedding. I’m a little bit behind on proposals and emails so I started working at 9am to work on these. Then planning for next weeks’ jobs and a wedding tasting at my house. I’m also promoting my supper club Funthyme at the Farm at the moment.
I love these times. It's a really satisfying feeling to work for yourself.
When you started, how did you decide what kind of clients you wanted to work with?
I was inexperienced to start with and the first two years were pretty chaotic to be honest. I was learning on the job. A lot of friends helped me out as clients which led to more introductions. Now I’m a preferred supplier at many of the venues in East London and that really came about from word of mouth.
I wanted to keep it fairly local at the start and to be quite interesting and cool rather than sending out hundreds of sandwiches around London every day. I wanted bespoke and special.
Future brides and grooms visit you at home for a tasting before their big day as you have adapted you home kitchen for catering rather than renting a kitchen space.
Yes, I've nearly always cooked at home. At the start of the business, whilst in a small shared flat, I totally underestimated things so I ended up using the kitchen and fridge at a local gastro pub in exchange for shifts. That was a learning curve!
Now I have a house with a huge kitchen that I converted; it's a really lovely inspiring place to work. I do the majority of cooking at home and then finish things onsite.
Anything you miss about your old life?
I miss work colleagues and friends and banter. But at the same time I’m happy in my own company and I’m normally too busy to notice I’m lonely! I do work with other chefs at home sometimes and at events, there's a great team.
What's your goal?
Good question. Last year I nearly took on an industrial unit and went for expansion. This would have involved a bigger financial commitment and taking on more staff. But I thought to myself ‘do I really want to take that on now, when my girlfriend and I have just bought a house, trying to start a family etc?’ I realised that in 10 years I wouldn’t want to working that hard, that I’d actually want more time off. I’m really happy with the way things are now and I’m earning good money. My workload is fierce in the summer and at Christmas but I do have down time; I go away for 3 weeks in January and get other holidays in throughout the year.
The expansion could work well but I’d be that guy who's rarely at home, really stressed and I don’t want that. I often get asked if I’ll open a restaurant but to be honest, that’s the last thing I want to do. The business grows each year and is in the perfect place now.
Interviewed by Faith Hill, Life Coach