Founder Focus: Tom Mercer of MOMA
Think back to the early Noughties and breakfast on the run – if you didn’t hanker after a bacon sarnie from the greasy spoon on the way to work, you were kinda screwed when it came to morning options. Which is where Tom Mercer came in. The 42-year-old founder of MOMA (Making Oats More Awesome, in case you were wondering) launched his first brekky stall in 2006 at Waterloo station – made from a converted filing cabinet in a piece of recycling genius – giving commuters a healthy start to their day with his porridge pots. Three years later, he’d set up a further eight stalls in London train stations and had a major business breakthrough when Waitrose began stocking his porridge. By 2017, MOMA was the fastest growing porridge brand in the UK and has since partnered with school breakfast clubs across the UK to give kids a nutritious start to the day. In 2020, MOMA launched its own oat milk, winning it a Great Taste Award.
Tom, who lives in Northamptonshire, with his wife and two young daughters, shares the story of how he really did make oats more awesome…
What was your eureka moment?
Back in 2005, I used to walk over Waterloo Bridge every morning from my flat in Waterloo to my job as a management consultant for Bain & Company on The Strand – and it struck me that there was nothing decent for breakfast – there were coffee shops selling croissants and muffins, but there was a gap in the market for a quality on-the-go breakfast. It made a huge difference to my mornings if I had a good breakfast – so that was it, I wanted to create a breakfast that would be healthy, filling, and convenient.
How did you test your idea?
I stayed up all night in my flat in Waterloo making oat smoothies. I bought water bottles from Tesco, emptied them out, took the labels off and printed new ones, filled them and gave them to commuters on their way to work the next morning, and emailed them a survey to see what they thought. Overall the response was great but a couple said they didn’t trust the dodgy bloke giving them breakfast under a bridge in Waterloo!
And how did things progress from there?
I didn’t want to set up a food shop, I just thought, wouldn’t it be great to sell to people in places that are busy at breakfast time on their way to work? I’d stand outside coffee shops and fruit stalls and count the number passing by and how many of them stopped to buy and it worked out at about 2%. So I thought, if I get a pitch where 10,000 people pass, then 200 of them will stop and if they all spend £2 each, then that’s £400 I’ll make – that was my methodology. There was a lot of red tape over getting the stall, but I finally got permission to do one at Waterloo East station. I’d get up at 2.15am every morning to make the products and get them in the van by 6am, we’d be selling from 6.30am until about 10.30am to catch all the morning commuters. My employers were incredibly supportive and gave me a leave of absence to look into it, and I handed my notice in after two months.
What is your elevator pitch?
We take oats and craft them into delicious food and drink products – from porridge to oat milk, bircher muesli and granola. It’s all about oats, and has been since we launched 16 years ago.
What obstacles did you face?
Lots. The main issue to start with was getting sufficient shelf life on our main product which, at the time, was bircher muesli. It was amazing as a product produced fresh every day but that was unsustainable and quality dropped off if you kept it for more than a few days. I was a bit naive to start with – we had a brilliant product, we made it fresh every day, but it needed a longer shelf life for it to be stocked in supermarkets, so we had to start using a preservative.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Get the right team around you. I know it’s old hat but it really does make a difference – when you have people that do their job better than you could do it, you are on to a good thing.
What advice would you give someone who wants to start a business on their own?
Be super objective about the quality and viability of your product. As an entrepreneur you have to have passion and drive, but that can cloud your judgement – get external input and base your decisions on logic.
Who is your biggest inspiration and why?
My wife! For her support and belief in me, and being a great mum alongside everything else she does.
Do you have a mentor or are you one?
I have two informal business mentors – my dad and our main non-exec director, Andrew – both of them have been there, done it, and always have sound advice. My dad is a farmer, but there’s a lot of business that goes on with farming too, and he’s very progressive. While I often try to help people that ask for advice when setting up, I don’t mentor anyone regularly. It’s something I would like to do, and I think it’s very valuable.
What’s your plan B?
I’m happy with plan A at the moment, so no plan B right now. But we’ve had to change direction several times in our journey, like selling our products into other places rather than direct to customers – I think it’s important to be open to change and pivot when the need and opportunity arise.
What is the most worthwhile investment that you have made?
People. This could be from someone to help you with basic jobs when you set out, to a director-level person later on. People that help make the journey successful but also enjoyable.
What do you know now that you wish you had known before?
That there’s not a solution for everything. Sometimes a service or product might be great but it’s just niche. It’s these moments when you need to be objective and pivot your offering or try something new
What one failure are you glad you experienced?
Our bircher muesli is amazing, but it was relatively niche in a lot of the supermarkets we were selling it in. It took me too long to realise that (7 years!) but I learnt a lot.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Temper your passion with more objectivity – and know when to change tack.
What is coming up for your brand?
Lots of innovation, particularly within oat milk, and some exciting marketing to really drive it.
How do you find balance in your daily life?
Family, friends, and (not enough) exercise
How would you like to be remembered?
Eek… hopefully that’s a long way off. From a career point of view I’d like to be remembered as impactful and progressive. From a personal point of view, well I encourage my daughters, who are six and three, to be kind, brave and curious – so I think those are good things for me to aspire to.
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