It was October 2019 when Alexei Khatiwada left his job in finance. A successful career, decent salary, office camaraderie – all gone. In its place – the excitement, uncertainty and fear of solo entrepreneurship.
“It felt like a huge risk,” Khatiwada says of his decision to launch Lexi’s Crispy Treats, a homemade, low-calorie snack business. “I had a very humble upbringing; my family were asylum seekers. And there I was, leaving my job behind to throw my life savings into selling snacks.”
But Khatiwada was sure there would be a demand for what he wanted to create. “I’ve always been a snacker and I’ve always struggled to find something that’s satisfying, affordable and low on calories,” he says. “I also worked in an office for 10 years, so I knew I was far from the only one.” After many hours reading industry reports in the British Library, he was convinced there was a gap in the market.
With no experience of launching a business, though, Khatiwada knew he needed some support. High on his list was a bank manager – “someone who could offer personal input and sound business advice; not just a place to monitor transactions”. As he scrolled through his contacts one day, he decided to reach out to James Katirai on LinkedIn, an old graduate scheme acquaintance and now local business manager at Metro Bank’s Orpington store, to see if he could help.
He could: supporting young startups is a key part of Katirai’s role. “I believe a good bank manager can play a fundamental role in starting a business,” Katirai says. “I used to work with global corporate clients, but you don’t have the same connection. With SMEs, their business is their life. And we can help them grow, solve problems and, ultimately, put more money in their pocket. So when Alexei contacted me, I was curious to hear more.”
Lexi’s Treats wasn’t quite Khatiwada’s first foray into the food business. “In my old office, everyone was always looking for a quick snack, but we didn’t have a vending machine or canteen. In the end, I decided to set up my own and donate the profits to charity.” Mr Pig’s Tuckshop, as Khatiwada called it, became so popular that he ended up running five of them throughout the building. He even inherited the nickname Mr Pigs.
Khatiwada says he has his Ukrainian and Nepalese parents to thank for much of this entrepreneurial spirit, as well as a strong work ethic and passion for cooking. He needed every ounce of each to keep him going as he toiled away in his tiny London kitchen and hauled bags of Lexi’s Treats on the bus to sell at the local market. “I even went back to my old office and stood in the canteen handing out snacks. That was surreal,” he recalls.
All the while, Katirai was never more than a phone call away. “I’d act as a sounding board for marketing ideas and help out with Alexei’s business plan,” he says. “When Alexei said he needed an accountant, I knew who to connect him with. I was even doing regular taste tests!”
The hard work soon began to pay off; Lexi’s Treats was developing a loyal following and in early 2020, Khatiwada was preparing to launch his first packaged products for wider distribution.
Then the pandemic struck. Suddenly shops, cafes and offices were closed; retailers weren’t interested in new products. Supply chain issues drove up costs. “I started to panic,” Khatiwada says. “I’d spent a lot of time preparing the perfect launch and it had all gone out the window.”
While Katirai helped secure a government loan for Lexi’s Treats, Khatiwada spent several weeks replanning. Eventually, he decided to change his entire business model, with a new online shop to sell directly to consumers.
Khatiwada had spent months building Lexi’s social media profile, and his tales of startup life had attracted several thousand Instagram followers. Now, he needed them to become customers. “I put my savings into a big production run ahead of the online launch and prayed it would work,” he says.
On day one, Lexi’s sold 10,000 Crispy Treat bars. Nine months later, he has sold more than 170,000. He modestly puts it down to a combination of luck, hard work, and Katirai’s invaluable support. “James has helped me in ways I didn’t even know I needed,” he says. “Recently, he told me about a new magazine that was looking for advertisers, for example. He’s connected me with potential stockists and even spread the word about Lexi’s on his own social media channels.”
For his part, Katirai says he couldn’t be prouder of Khatiwada’s achievements. “To be honest, I thought it was a bit of a crazy idea at first,” he says with a smile. “But he’s created a really great product.”
Now, with the economy reopening, Khatiwada is about to launch Lexi’s Treats with a national retailer.
“It’s funny,” he says, “this is the path I initially wanted to go down. But now I have the luxury of exploring it with a loyal customer base in place. There are new flavours and new snacks in the pipeline – even exporting internationally. I’m really excited about the future.”
To find out more about what Metro Bank can do for small businesses, and go behind the scenes with Alexei and James as they record their very own national radio advert, go to metrobankonline.co.uk/start-up-stars