Our small business star this week is Matt Kemp, owner of Underground Cookery School, a London-based cookery business that hosts fun events for informal occasions.

Matt started out by cooking in his spare time, in between his full-time job, for a number of restaurants, sometimes for free. Wanting to learn as much as he could, Matt paid to join a cookery school run from a home in Chelsea. After being made redundant from a sales job, Matt launched himself into the world of cooking and soon garnered experience working in restaurants Pont De La Tour, Bibendum, The Ivy, The River Care and Scott’s.

His break came when he was put in touch with a priest who had a spare kitchen in London. In exchange for catering for church events, Matt used the underground rooms of the church for running his own business.

1. Starting out meant doing everything from marketing to running the classes

The original intention behind Underground Cookery School was to provide classes for people in the City who could drop in after work and learn the basics of cookery. In the early days I didn’t have any help – in order to succeed I needed to turn my hand to multiple things. I’d start by going to all the markets, then I’d dress up in my whites and hand out leaflets in the street, afterwards I’d deal with the admin, and finally take classes at the end of each day.

2. Customer demand helped to grow and define the business

I found it difficult to rely on individuals for classes, and there was considerable demand from companies wanting to offer their staff a team-building event that included everyone. I decided to adapt the formula to offer fun and informal corporate cookery sessions and soon after I was able to afford employing staff.

After nine years in the church, we’d outgrown the premises and had enough money saved up to be able to move to our own bespoke, state of the art kitchens, just by Old Street tube. Staying close to our original routes, we still stage events for the church and use their premises when we’re fully booked at our main site.

3. Staying ahead of the market is vital when new competitors arrive on the scene

The market constantly throws up challenges but it remains buoyant. We were the first cookery school in the City and now there are about seven other competitors. For this reason, keeping ahead of our rivals is as essential as striving to be unique. We pitch ourselves as the only cookery school dedicated to hosting corporate-only events and, as such, with us there is a heavy emphasis on trying to be more fun and informal.

4. A distinctive brand helps to stay one step ahead

Our roots were in creating cookery classes that are fun and informal, and these principles remain as important to us today as they did when we started 12 years ago.

It’s very important for us to have a singular identity. As the business has matured, people are more familiar with our brand. As a result we spend a lot of time and effort making sure what distinguishes us from our competitors is well known in the city and included in our brand and its message.

We also focus on keeping up with developments in the industry. It’s as important in our industry and any other – if we don’t adapt to change we could concede the advantage to our competitors.

5. Our online presence is fundamental to the business

My business lives and dies by our presence on the Internet. When we started it was essential to feature in the Yellow Pages. As the years have gone by this has been totally usurped by the Internet; I never want to become complacent as a result of this particular lesson!

Most of my day is spent coming up with creative ways of embracing digital media to ensure we’re ahead of our competitors. For example we update our blog, produce cookery videos for everyone on our mailing list, update Twitter and Facebook regularly and correspond with our connections on LinkedIn. We also organise regular blogger events and analyse all digital advertising campaigns.

6. Success comes from having the best people

Our greatest success has been to hold onto the best staff, which creates a happy atmosphere managed by people who care about our clients and the business. We’ve also continued to grow both financially and in terms of our product.

As we grow, it’s essential to keep a very close eye on staffing costs, suppliers and how we invest the money coming into the business. We’re looking to grow the business by using our brand although I don’t want to give too much away at this stage because this is a new project I’m working on!

7. Sometimes you can’t predict when things will get tough

In 2008 the recession hit us very hard and our staffing went from eight full-time workers to just me; it was an extremely difficult year. We were able to bounce back to the point where, in 2012, we moved to new premises but at considerable cost to the business. The first six months were very difficult and there was no money, made worse when London hosted the Olympics which frightened away 80% of our usual business. Then in December we were flooded, which cost the business income and money to make good our premises. However, we survived all three issues.

8. Never stop making your business better

As continued and growing competition remains our greatest challenge, it’s important to look forward. In light of my experience, if I could give one piece of advice to others looking to get into this business it would be to never give up in the face of adversity and never stop looking for ways of making your business better.

Find out more about Matt and the Underground Cookery School by visiting: http://undergroundcookeryschool.com/.

For more advice and insight from business owners, visit our Small Business Stars hub.