28yo’s cheeky move leads to $2m a week
Tushar Menon was still in uni when he had this $100 million idea - but he started with a Google search and a cheeky ad on Gumtree.
Seven years ago, Mr Menon was finishing up his degree in commerce, finance and accounting at UNSW and working in a sales call centre for an insurance company.
"I've been a gym junkie since I left high school," the 28-year-old said.
"At that stage all I did was work and train, counting every piece of broccoli and rice I was eating. For weightlifting, you need to count your carbs and macros."
But long hours working and studying meant he struggled to find time to prepare the kind of food he needed - so he went looking for a ready-made option.
"All there was was Lite n Easy and Weight Watchers, nothing that had the protein content I was looking for," he said.
"I Google searched 'ready-made meals with high protein', there was literally nothing. I knew there were others like me that wanted a bigger ready meal."
Mr Menon saw there was a gap in the market for something similar tailored to weightlifters, bodybuilders and other athletes.
It was 2012 and his older brother Nishant, 33, was in the US working at a tech start-up, "so I had the start-up bug".
"I thought this could be an idea to pursue," he said.
After carefully preparing his own meals, Mr Menon had no trouble coming up with the actual product.
"I put together the copy for the website, what the meal plans would look like - that part was relatively easy," he said.
But he "didn't know where to start" with the actual business side.
"I remember I was Googling 'how to start a business'," he said.
"I found a couple of manuals online, downloaded templates of how to put together a business plan. I had no experience in hospitality, either."
In a slightly cheeky move, Mr Menon even started advertising for a chef on Gumtree "way before we could start".
He "used the interview as an excuse to pick their brains" about how it could work.
"It was a lot of reading and learning," he said. "That was a three-month process."
In March 2013, the brothers rented a small commercial kitchen in Potts Point and launched My Muscle Chef as a side hustle while still working full-time.
They hired two staff from Gumtree - and roped in their dad to keep an eye on them as they prepared meals to deliver to customers' homes.
"We needed our wages to pay their wages," Mr Menon said.
"To do marketing I'd set up sampling tables at gyms around Sydney and offer their customers a discount if they ordered."
In the early days, Mr Menon would drive across the state to ensure customers were happy with their meals.
"After three months we had about 300 customers spending $150 a week, which was decent revenue," he said. "That's when I decided to quit my job."
Mr Menon says he had "a bit of nerves" but was "very confident the idea would work because the response was so positive".
"I was quite young and had nothing to lose" he said. "I hadn't applied for any graduate jobs, so I thought if I'm going to take a risk this the time to do it."
In its first year My Muscle Chef brought in revenue of $827,000. Year two was "around $5 million, year three was $10 million, then $14 million, then $19 million".
This year, the business is on track to turn over $100 million.
"We're turning over close to $2 million a week," Mr Menon said.
"It's surreal, to be completely honest. The first four years the growth was there but not as exponential."
Mr Menon attributes the success to continued focus on "product quality".
"It seems quite basic but sometimes companies that grow quickly, that's the first thing that gets compromised because the aim is just to get the product to the customer," he said.
"We've invested heavily to make sure that doesn't happen."
Setting up the company's Yennora factory in Western Sydney was "almost like starting the business again".
"All the food is made in-house, we don't purchase anything. It's easier to control the product that way," he said.
He also stresses being "very agile and customer focused".
"All of our decisions are data-driven, we do lots of surveys," he said.
Mr Menon says the biggest change, as a result of customer feedback, was introducing a vegan option.
"Earlier this year there was a lot of noise (about vegan)," he said.
"We got everyone to stop what they were doing, got senior management into a room and said, 'We need to launch vegan by May.' It was all hands on deck. In 12 weeks we designed and launched a whole new vegan range, it was phenomenal."
Vegan now makes up a "huge" 7-8 per cent of My Muscle Chef's total sales.
"We get a lot of customers that call themselves flexitarian, they have three or four vegan meals a week and the rest is fish or chicken," he said.
My Muscle Chef has also seen huge growth since launching its first retail product in May last year. "A lot of customers were asking where they can purchase individual meals," Mr Menon said.
"Around the time YouFoodz was making a splash, we thought there was an opportunity."
Its meals are now stocked in Harris Farm Markets, IGA and Romeo's Foodworks outlets around the country, and the company just signed a major deal with Caltex.
"We hired one sales rep to go to different IGAs to build a relationship - it's easier to work with independents because you don't have to go through a head office," Mr Menon said.
"It grew quickly and now we have 1200 stockists. Growth has been exponential in the last six months. Two weeks ago we got our biggest contract, Caltex is on board with 400 stores."
Online still makes up 70 per cent of the more than 190,000 meals it sells each week but "that gap is closing quite rapidly".
"Retail is definitely growing faster but (it also gives) brand exposure," Mr Menon said.
"Customers buy one meal and then jump on the site and order them."
Despite the success, Mr Menon says he has made "plenty" of mistakes. The biggest lesson has been learning "when to let go".
"The first five years I was still doing customer service, jumping on to reply to email queries and chats, just because I wanted to be involved and I wanted to see what the customers were saying, and also being involved in logistics and marketing," he said.
The business has now hired "a lot of skilled staff in marketing, logistics and operations" and employs more than 320 people.
That includes Mr Menon's mother and father, who still help run the business.
"To a certain extent it's good to be across everything that is happening in your business, as we grow we don't want to miss out on the finer details, but it's just finding the right balance," he said.
"We don't want to be the barrier to our business growing."