Mak Tok’s journey from market stall to Dragon-backed business

The nerves, the pitching, the deep-breath-and-relax networking – there’s plenty to love about The Pitch events. But nothing beats watching Pitch startups go from strength to strength over the next few years.

Since making it to The Pitch Final in 2017, Mak Tok founder Will Chew has been busy.

Mak Tok’s artisan Malaysian chilli pastes are now stocked in major retailers like Ocado and small independent retailers and restaurants across the country. To date, they’ve sold around 40,000 units, with an expansion into sauces just around the corner.

Will also made a memorable appearance on Dragon’s Den, securing a £50,000 investment from Dragon Sara Davies.

We caught up with Will last month to talk about his experience with the Dragons, alleviating nerves (spoiler alert: it involves honey) and learning to pitch with confidence.

Mak Tok’s journey to Dragons’ Den

Mak Tok was founded when Will set out to create the flavours of his mum’s cooking from his childhood. His cousin Shang suggested it could become a business and, while figuring out where to begin, a local market stall became free.

Will went to the market with 50 jars of chilli paste, with the ambition of selling three or four – he was sold out within three hours and Mak Tok grew from there.

The business started out lean, investment-wise. Will won competition grants from Sheffield University and then accessed funds available for Sheffield-based businesses. It was actually the potential marketing opportunity that first led Will to Dragons’ Den.

“The hardest part is to get your foot in the door with buyers. Buyers have got a lot of other suppliers and upcoming brands to deal with. So for a new person coming into the market, you really need to stand out. We thought, ‘Oh let’s do a marketing or PR angle’. That’s why we went into Dragons’ Den initially,” he said.

Changing your pitch to fit different audiences

Will is in The Pitch history books for giving one of the most animated and memorable pitches we’ve ever seen, but he knows that the same pitching performance won’t work for every audience.

“Changing my pitch for different audiences is one of the hardest things to do. I can’t be that animated character when I’m talking one-on-one to a buyer, for example. That’s where I get really nervous. 

“How do I normally change? It depends on how much sugar I take. So if I’m meeting a buyer one-on-one, I’ll try not to take as much sugar. If I’m pitching to a group of investors like on Dragons’ Den, I’ll have had half a tub of honey before I go in. Having that sugar rush helps alleviate all the nerves,” he said.

Stomping feet and a Superman stance

For startups without honey to hand, Will’s other tips for reducing nerves come from his experience at The Pitch.

“I think I learned this from Annette, who trained me at The Pitch. She said, ‘Go out there, stomp your feet – that’s important – and then take a deep breath’. That’s really important, because every time someone’s on stage, they’re either really nervous they might fail or really excited so they rush through. Take a deep breath and have that Superman kind of stance.”

His other advice to startup founders is to try not to be too hard on yourself – chances are you’re doing better than you think.

“As entrepreneurs, we’re quite hard on ourselves. For every success, you don’t see it. For every failure, you magnify it.”

Hear more from Will in our short video interview or follow in his footsteps and apply for The Pitch.

Kat Haylock

Kat Haylock

Kat is the head of content at Inkwell, the company behind The Pitch. She's worked with small businesses for the last four years, championing Britain's startup scene and anyone who has snacks.

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