Founder Focus: Livia’s
Never underestimate the drive of a woman seeking sweets—especially a woman with a degree in neuroscience. When Olivia Wollenberg realised she could no longer enjoy stereotypical sweets, instead of succumbing to a diet of often-bland FODMAP-free foods, she took the problem into her own hands by launching Livia’s.
Creating confections free from major food allergens like gluten, dairy and eggs, Livia’s sweets are accessible, natural and additive-free. But how does a degree in neuroscience help translate into creating a confectionary empire? We caught up with Wollenberg to find out.
WHAT WAS YOUR EUREKA MOMENT?
I was in my final year studying Neuroscience at UCL when I was diagnosed with a number of food intolerances. I love ALL things sweet, so having to give up my favourite treats was almost impossible. It can be so difficult to make sudden, drastic changes to your diet and this was something I really struggled with.
It was then that I discovered the confectionery market was clearly lacking indulgent and delicious treats which were free from the ingredients I could no longer eat. So, I saw an opportunity and grabbed it! I became so passionate about being the person that would solve an increasingly common problem, and although I had no prior experience in food or business, I made sure that I very quickly became an expert.
WHAT WAS YOUR ELEVATOR PITCH?
Livia’s takes the most simple, high-quality ingredients and turns them into the most exciting and sublime tasting treats. We are crafting confectionary for the future, the whole of our range is gluten, dairy free and vegan, with no nasties and no additives. Livia’s is the better, and only way to indulge.
HOW DID YOU TEST YOUR IDEA?
By giving the products I was making in my parents’ kitchen to everyone and anyone. I always knew that I wanted Livia’s to be mainstream and not just liked by people with allergies and intolerances.
So as well as testing products on people who followed a healthy diet, I always did and still do make sure to give my products to men, women and children who have never had free-from products and who eat traditional confectionery. When those people said that they would choose a Livia’s treat over Cadbury, I knew I was onto a winner.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE SOMEONE THINKING OF STARTING A BUSINESS ON THEIR OWN?
Starting a business like mine has been all-encompassing. If I didn’t love what I do and feel so passionately about the mission, I wouldn’t have been able to persevere through the tough times. My best bit of advice is to make sure that you love it. You need to be the biggest advocate of your brand and your products, and you have to believe in it 100% otherwise no one else will.
DO YOU HAVE A MENTOR OR ARE YOU ONE?
I have a number of people who I have been able to turn to at times of need, but not one specific mentor. I recognised from day one that I was not an expert and that I could learn so much from people around me. I always made sure to network and act like a sponge, absorbing information from all sorts of people around me.
Some of these people had direct experience in the food industry; however, some of them, like my Dad, simply have general business experience, but this was incredibly valuable too. I was able to succeed the way I did because of the help of people around me, and I will always recognise that.
WHAT IS THE BOOK YOU WOULD RECOMMEND THAT EVERYONE READS AND WHY?
If I Could Tell You Just One Thing by Richard Reed, founder of Innocent. Getting snippets of advice from such a hugely diverse group of individuals is invaluable.
WHAT IS THE MOST WORTHWHILE INVESTMENT THAT YOU HAVE MADE?
My team. A company like mine wouldn’t be anything without the strong team behind me.
WHAT ONE FAILURE ARE YOU GLAD YOU EXPERIENCED?
I never use the word ‘failure’. It shouldn’t and doesn’t exist in the Livia’s vocabulary. Some things don’t work, but that is often the best way to learn and improve. But there have certainly been many learnings… some of which happened very early on.
One example is that of the crumbles, the first and only Livia’s (formerly Livia’s Kitchen) product sold for over a year when the company was founded. These were initially produced from my parents’ kitchen. I tried to find a manufacturer for them and I discovered they were not a commercially-viable product since they were chilled and had too short a shelf life.
So, I had to make the very difficult decision to discontinue this range, even though it was all that people knew me and the company for. I was terrified about doing this and breaking the news to everyone, but I did so in a way that made everyone assured that even better and bigger things were coming their way! And indeed it was!
In the background, I had been working on the Million Squares since realising there was a risk that crumbles may have to be discontinued, and so did everything I could to ensure that these were an amazing product and that they could swiftly take the place of crumbles on the shelves. This is exactly what happened, and Millionaires have now become our most iconic product range and sold in thousands of stores across the UK and globally online.
The crumbles may have not worked for us a company, but the best learning from that is that nothing is too detrimental if you don’t allow it to be. You have to pivot and constantly adapt and evolve.
WHAT’S YOUR PLAN B?
There is no plan B. I become more and more confident in Livia’s every day, and the growth of the company gives me every reason to be!
TALK US THROUGH YOUR MORNING ROUTINE?
I generally wake up very early—at about 5.45am. About three or four times a week, I will go to a gym class like spinning or barre at 6.30am, and then I am generally in work by 8am or so.
I usually make a big cup of tea with a bowl of creamy porridge with as many toppings as can fit in the bowl, and then I get to my work, which varies every single day. No day since I started the company has been exactly the same.