Not everyone would want their career to follow as school nickname. But Edward Hancock — or the “cheese monster”, as he was branded in year nine — has turned his schoolboy love of a good Emmental into a £1.5 million business.
It started aged 11 during a family holiday in Reims, France when Hancock was “mesmerised” by a restaurant’s cheese trolley: “I’d never seen anything like it, and I just absolutely love cheese,” he recalls.
“I thought I’d spend my whole career doing that, but then there was cheese,” he says. “I’d have cheese with anything and everything. My favourites are a two-year-old Comté and Cornish Kern.”
In 2014 his local cheese shop in Wimbledon closed down. Hancock had been spending £35 a week and was worried about “where I was going to get my cheese fix now”. He tested out various cheese delivery services, “all of which arrived sweaty. At the flats I used to live in, when a cheese delivery had arrived the whole entrance lobby would stink!”
Hancock decided to see if he could do it better himself. He spent spare evenings and weekends sourcing wholesalers and ordered a “massive industrial fridge delivered to my mum’s house on a cul-de-sac in Kingston. I basically told her as it turned up on her driveway that I was setting up an online cheesemonger from her house”. He then sourced packaging and organised couriers, investing £25,000 to set up The Cheese Geek, a site where fromage fans can subscribe to monthly delivery boxes, buy one-off hampers, and order “pick-and-mix” British artisan cheeses.
His site went live in September 2017: initially Hancock spent hours picking everyone’s cheese. “Each subscriber would take me 30 to 40 minutes in those early days — I would ensure they ate the cheeses in the right order, make sure they hadn’t had those cheeses before, and that they couldn’t get more than one in a supermarket.”
He knew he had to computerise the process: “Luckily, one of the genuinely transferrable skills from my life in finance was developing algorithms. The only difference was building ‘algos’ to allocate cheese, rather than look for patterns and trends in market data.”
Now, when a subscriber places an order, Hancock’s Cheese Allocation System, which he dubs Cassie, picks the right cheese for each customer. The tech stack is what makes his business hard to copy, Hancock believes.
By Christmas 2017, Hancock was sending out around 130 boxes a week. Today it’s 1500 a week during “off peak” and up to 6000 boxes a day during busy times like Christmas and Father’s Day.
It wasn’t all smooth-running: in the early days, a delivery of 15kg cheese was sent to The Cheese Geek’s registered address — the firm’s solicitors at the time. “Somehow they didn’t know the packages were cheese, and it was only after they had been sitting there all day, and began to stink, they figured it out and called me.”
By April 2018, the business finally moved out of Hancock’s mum’s kitchen. “Her house just smelt so cheesy so it was fair enough.”
Headquarters: Raynes Park
At one stage, the entrepreneur accidentally became a cheese market mover. Cornish Kern won a “best cheese in the world” award, and before that news hit the press, Hancock ordered “about 100kg of Kern, sitting in my mum’s dining room”. When news broke about the award-winning cheese, “the price went almost doubled to £20/kg, and there was a national shortage — I ended up being the only place in the UK you could buy Kern.”
Kern profits aren’t all that’s in Hancock’s war-chest: he has raised £2.1 million since starting, from a combination of angels including £150,000 for a 7.5% stake in their business from Steven Bartlett after an appearance on Dragons’ Den. Demand went into “overdrive” during the pandemic, when sales soared to 10 times the previous year’s figures at one stage. Hancock finally moved to working as a part-time consultant in his finance role at the start of 2020, and relocated The Cheese Geek from a 700 sq ft site to a 7500 square foot warehouse in Raynes Park, growing from three employees to 20.
Hancock’s “ultimate dream” is for foodies to use his app in “a large handful of countries in the world, and get locally sourced, artisan cheese delivered within 48 hours.
“Ultimately, we want to take artisan cheese mainstream, so wherever people want to purchase or enjoy this kind of cheese, we want to be the first name they think of.”