Whilst I will forever be grateful to quinoa for helping me beat my ninety eight year old Grandma at scrabble (I placed it on a triple last Christmas and she refused to accept it was a word..!), quinoa, for Danielle Copperman, lies at the heart of her business, Qnola.
With a list of stockists that include Wholefoods, Waitrose and Selfridges in the UK along with stores across Europe, China and Japan too, Qnola is the first of its kind grain-free breakfast product, that unlike many commercial cereals consists of purely nutritious ingredients.
Having balanced the business with a modelling career that has seen her walk the catwalk for Dolce & Gabanna as well as preparing for the recent publication of her debut novel, Well Being; it’s safe to say Danielle isn’t your typical twenty-four year old…
I sat down with the stunning brunette in Qnola’s Haggerston headquarters last November, to find out what’s gone on behind the scenes to get to where she is today.
Danielle Copperman. So I never really had that “lightbulb moment”..!
After moving to London at eighteen for a career as a full time model – and as a result radically altering her diet, cutting out gluten, dairy and oats – Qnola was inspired by Danielle’s struggle to find a suitable replacement for granola; a snack that she’d previously eaten up to three times a day.
DC. Granola was the easy option because it was quick for my schedule so I started playing around with other ingredients that I could make into an easy breakfast…
She can. She did. How many years ago are we talking?
DC. Probably around 2013…
SC.SD. So around the time Deliciously Ella started then…
DC. Yes and the Hemsley girls – I’ve known them since they started blogging so I had those contacts and relationships and was really inspired by what they were doing. It wasn’t a big thing back then though; it was still quite frowned upon if you turned down a bit of cake!
Anyway I started playing around with buckwheat and quinoa as alternatives to oats and one day I put a photograph of what I’d made on Instagram. Again though, this was just as Instagram was getting big – most of my friends didn’t have it yet.
Having recently got into fitness herself, Danielle’s following was predominately made up of people within the fitness and wellbeing industry and models. Quickly, photos of what became Qnola gained attention and not before long, she was making bespoke orders for her followers.
DC. I started really organically by speaking to people who messaged me directly. I’d ask things like: “what nuts do you like? What don’t you like?” and I’d make really bespoke flavours based on their answers.
I didn’t have packaging so I got some pots from a friend of mine who started COYO because she didn’t need them and I used to just write people’s names and label them on the front. It was very personal…
SC.SD. And you delivered them how?
DC. Just through the post! It was so easy! I’d sit there on my kitchen floor in the middle of the night making and packaging Qnola after a shoot. The more people started ordering it the more I realised it was a good idea and that there was a gap in the market.
With a demographic made up almost entirely of young, female, fitness foodies back then, word started getting around about what Danielle was up to.
SC.SD. How many orders in did it take before you thought, ‘ok, this could be a business’?
DC. I can’t remember the exact number but after a few months it really did become apparent that there wasn’t anything that I’d actually buy from the supermarket. I’d rather make it myself which wasn’t ideal because of my schedule.
Originally I had the recipe up on my blog because I thought, ‘more people should make this!’ but my Dad was like, “take it down! You can make a business out of this!”
When Danielle moved to New York for work at the end of 2013, she realised what her Dad was saying could be true…
DC. I was so inspired by the food scene out there; there were so many cool products and I just wanted to make that accessible in England. There was nothing quinoa based here at all…
SC.SD. And some people still don’t really know what it is do they?!
DC. That’s true! People were interested but for the first couple of years, it was hard to sell because no one really knew properly what it was exactly. Anyway, after New York I realised this can be a business. People want it, people are buying it and are continuing to buy it, they’d Instagram it so it was getting a lot of hype and I just thought as a model I had a few spare days here and there to give it a go. I was lucky because I never had to leave a full time job – I already had the time and flexibility on my hands.
As a full-time model, Danielle would spend her days back and forth from castings and shoots, studying for an online diploma in nutrition and researching for the business in her spare time.
DC. I thought I’d eventually go to university to study nutrition but then Qnola happened…
SC.SD. Talk me through the steps you took to turn it into a fully-fledged business…
DC. I felt completely lost about the whole process but I knew that I wanted to do it on a shoestring because although I had savings from modelling, I didn’t want to be paying out for a lot! So I’d spend every evening in bed on my laptop looking at packaging samples and setting up meetings with people in the industry… I naturally connected with a lot through Instagram so I was lucky that way.
My older sister is an illustrator so she helped me with graphics although the logo I did myself on a Word Document – it’s just a font and a circle – but my sister formatted that into something you could print properly! Then I found some really nice pouches on the Chinese version of eBay…
SC.SD. I’m guessing in bulk?!
DC. At the time it seemed like bulk because it was 200 pouches but now I know what’s involved it seems tiny! Then I’d print the logo labels and stick them on the pouches manually. I thought, ‘oh it’ll be fine, I’ll label them myself and make them look so cute!” but five months on it was a case of, ‘oh my god I don’t have time for this anymore!’
SC.SD. I can imagine! Where did you make it all?
DC. So I started in my flat when I was doing bespoke orders and then eventually I got an industrial kitchen in West London…
SC.SD. I take it the health inspectors had to assess the flat?
DC. They did but because my living room and kitchen were all one room, they didn’t want me to operate it there because it was classed as a “lounging area”…
SC.SD. What was it like hearing that?
DC. It was horrible actually; I remember feeling so knocked down. I was shooting in Liverpool at the time. I was in my hotel room and just rang my Dad in tears saying along the lines of, “this is impossible, it’s never going to work!” One of my sisters text me – I remember this so well – saying, “don’t give up! This is going to be amazing! Why are you letting this get to you?”
I genuinely thought I was going to stop but when I read that I just thought maybe I should at least try and look for an alternative option.
With prices averaging around £2000 per month to rent an industrial kitchen, Danielle went straight to friends to see if anyone had a space that she could share…
DC. All I really needed was an oven. It worked out so well though because one of my friends – who was also one of the first Qnola customers – had a friend who was looking to rent a bit of space in their kitchen so I had a small area and paid just under half the rent… That was probably after about 6-8 months in my flat because after Selfridges were interested, it scaled up quite quickly. I would be in that kitchen until 3am on my own sometimes…
SC.SD. Oh my gosh, that’s mad!
DC. It was a very horrible time! You’re going to think I’m crazy looking back because it was about an hour and a half away from my flat too. I was in Stoke Newington – not even on a tube line – and I had to get all the way to the end of the Central line…
SC.SD. It’s so funny though because so many of the women I’ve interviewed now had a period where they were working such crazy hours and look back now and think ‘how the hell did I do that?!’ It’s obviously all worth it though…
DC. Yeh, at the time you just think, ‘who else is going to do it?’ Looking back, I say I won’t do it again but I probably would if I had to! I am so glad it’s over though- it was hell. Not exaggerating, I was in a pretty bad place.
SC.SD. It sounds isolating…
DC. Definitely. I was on an industrial estate surrounded by just warehouses… it was actually quite scary. The thing is I love that I had those struggles because I now know what’s gone into this. I’m glad I didn’t hire people to do all of those jobs for me because I now know everything about the company and I appreciate every little step because it’s got to where we are today.
Given that Qnola is now stocked in some of the most influential stores worldwide, I was intrigued to find out who approached who to begin with…
DC. My first stockist was Detox Kitchen and I went to them. I was invited to the launch through my old modelling agency and got talking to the owner. I didn’t have the proper flavours or labels then but she was interested so I launched there first. About two weeks later, Selfridges came to me via Instagram and said they loved the look of the product and asked me to meet for a meeting…
SC.SD. That’s incredible because it’s usually the other way round!
DC. I know! I didn’t even know I was supposed to be emailing buyers! Back then I was making all the Qnola by hand; I was so involved I didn’t even have time to think about it.
SC.SD. What impact did the interest from Selfridges have on the business?
DC. Detox Kitchen was selling individual pots and ordered every week but it wasn’t masses. With Selfridges I had to get the product into packets so it was like a real grocery product. It was bigger quantities and at the time, exclusive to Selfridges.
I remember my first meeting with them. Dad came along actually… I don’t think he thought people would take me seriously because I was just a young girl and I didn’t know what I was doing so I’m so glad he was there!
Anyway, we went in with two different sized pots that I’d just stuck a Qnola label on and just said, “this is how it might look but we could also put it into a bag…” I worked with them on what they thought would look best. The buyer was so accommodating though and talked me through how it all worked and then I scaled it up in size so that meant I had to make more per unit! They ordered about 1000-2000 units a week which doesn’t even sound like a lot now but when I look back I was the only one making it!
SC.SD. For a start-up though, that’s huge!
DC. I know! It went from a couple hundred small units a week to a couple thousand big units!
SC.SD. And how many are we talking now?
DC. It differs each week because we’ve got stockists all over the world now but off the top of my head, at least 10,000 a week… It’s definitely growing!
SC.SD. I take it this is when you realised you needed to get a team on board?
DC. That happened soon after Selfridges actually. I was talking to a photographer I shot with once and I explained that I was feeling really burnt out. He just emailed back saying, “if you need someone to help with Qnola, I know a girl called Lucy who’s just left her job and wants to get into the wellness industry” so I had a meeting with her at the Selfridges food hall.
It was my first interview. I had no idea what I was doing so it was more of a chat but I loved her. I got so caught up in everything afterwards though I forgot to email her so she emailed me a week later following up! I was so afraid of committing because I had so much on, I couldn’t possibly think about telling someone else what to do as well so I was getting so stressed thinking about it!
Anyway she walked through the door – I remember I was elbow deep in quinoa trying to make a big batch – and she just said, “so… erm… shall I just jump on?!” She literally put on some gloves and I just said, “use the bowl over there, there’s the coconut oil, here’s the recipe, just go for it!” She really hit the ground running… It was such a horrible time for her to join because it was so manual and she’d come from an office job with management experience but I think she enjoyed it!
She almost managed me which was completely needed! I didn’t ever think she shouldn’t be telling me what to do, I just thought she was amazing and so efficient…
SC.SD. What did her role involve?
DC. She was everything in the same way that Lydia now is everything! At the beginning she helped with online orders and going to the post office while I was always more sales and talking to the stockists. Then when we left the kitchen and got an office she was more sales, operations and logistics and I was more Instagram, marketing and events…
SC.SD. That’s the beauty of working at a start-up though isn’t it; the exposure you get and the different hats you have to wear?
DC. Yeh it’s so interesting because it doesn’t feel like a job as you’re doing something different every day! You’re learning how to build something which is such a skill to have because if you were ever to set up a business yourself, you’re prepared and know what to expect. You know from experience that little things go wrong all the time!
When Lucy left Qnola after just over a year however, Danielle faced the undesirable prospect of having to work once again on her own…
DC. I didn’t see it coming. I wanted her to be happy but just thought, ‘this is the worst thing that could happen! How am I ever going to find someone as good as her?’ When it’s your business you don’t think you’ll ever find someone that cares about it as much as you but actually, they do exist! That was another time I rang Dad in tears though – he gets that a lot!
I found Lydia by emailing all my friends in the industry which was such a nice way to do it because I didn’t really know where to look. I think having contacts and friends in the industry is so important for moments like that and to this day, that’s what I’d still do if I ever needed anyone.
Two years ago Danielle outsourced the production of Qnola to a manufacturer…
DC. It sounds easier than it was but we spent months trying to find a manufacturer. We tried the product out on one but it didn’t work on their machines because the quinoa just went through their oven, but then I found another one and it was such a great collaboration. They had a small site, made it all by hand and they made granola already so it was perfect!
SC.SD. Was it an intimidating prospect at the time having to hand the production over or had you got to the stage where you just thought ‘we’ll be alright’?
DC. I think I got to the stage where I just thought ‘if this doesn’t work, I’m stopping!’ I was exhausted and it just wasn’t sustainable; it just had to work. It was weird handing it over though. Just seeing how other people did things was so interesting. For instance, if the measurements went a bit off in my kitchen I’d take it to heart but to see how a factory operates was so calming. They were obviously a lot more organised so it felt good to hand it over!
It was so odd seeing it in the shops labelled, zipped and heat pressed for the first time though…
SC.SD. I trust that you took a photo?!
DC. I took a few photos!
SC.SD. You’ve obviously mentioned some tears and burn out along the way… looking back what’s been the hardest part about this journey?
DC. I think it’s just been so overwhelming at times and I’ve had loads of bad days where I’ve questioned why I’m doing it. When you’re running a company on four hours sleep on your own, your mind is your worst enemy. You’re irrational, you start thinking really extreme thoughts and everything is blown out of proportion but it’s stress and uncertainty because you don’t know where it’s going…
SC.SD. That’s definitely been the hardest obstacle for me; trusting the process is leading somewhere when you’re having those low moments…
DC. Exactly. When you’re employed and you’re having a bad day, you drag your feet and go to work but with this, if you don’t do it, no one’s going to do it and even when you don’t know what to do, you have to do something!
SC.SD. Definitely! Because you never had that experience of switching off at 5-6 o’clock in an office job and were used to the irregular hours and unpredictability of castings, do you think your background as a model has helped you with that aspect in any way?
DC. I guess so. I was definitely prepared for failure and for not getting something I wanted from castings but I could always justify that with a ‘they wanted a different look’ approach. This felt way more personal. I wanted to make this work and it was down to me whether it did or not… Although that’s not entirely true because if you speak with a buyer and they’ve had a bad day or they’re sick of samples, they might just say, “no I’m not interested” regardless of whether the product’s good or not. I’ve definitely been so determined with Qnola to make it succeed because I knew that everyone would love it if they tried it. With modelling, I couldn’t force someone to hire me!
SC.SD. That’s very true! Let’s talk highs along the way!
DC. Selfridges coming through Instagram was amazing!
SC.SD. Which is insane given that they’re the biggest food hall! Did you celebrate?
DC. Do you know what, I can’t even remember! When you have your own business it can sometimes be a case of “that’s great… next thing!” There’s always so much left to do… I remember when we got stocked in Waitrose, my parents sent me a selfie of them at dinner in Bath toasting with a glass of champagne!
SC.SD. That’s so cute!
DC. I know! I think I probably celebrate more now than I did then! I’m always thinking ‘it’s so great we’re in Selfridges!’ Getting interest from people abroad is always inspiring and I think all the press coverage too. I was used to being in magazines as a model but now it says ‘Danielle Copperman… look what she’s doing!’ That’s always exciting!
SC.SD. I can imagine! There’s obviously a stereotype that comes with being a model so do you think founding and running Qnola has earned you more respect?
DC. Maybe! I mean a lot of people think we roll up and have an easy life but it’s really not easy being a model! There are so many ups and downs but now when I meet people it’s so nice because they often say, “it’s so cool that you’re more than a model”. One of the first features I got was on a big American TV show and it was about how models can be role models too.
I remember when I was modelling for ASOS I met another girl there who was setting up a frozen yogurt company and I remember being so inspired by her! It was so refreshing to talk about more than just modelling! Especially now there are so many influencers around; it’s nice to have something more to say for myself than I’m photogenic and good in front of a camera.
SC.SD. If you had to choose between Qnola and modelling, where would your loyalties lie?
DC. I’d never turn down a job back then, I still wouldn’t. I’d make the time for a shoot and focus on this in the evening.
The brand has obviously developed and made a name for itself so it’s harder to do the commercial jobs now as it’s not just a model and a brand but I still have a few castings a week. I think there’s been a big shift in that industry though; there’s not as many castings now because people can look on Instagram so I focus my time more on Qnola, writing and recipe development nowadays…
SC.SD. You’ve obviously mentioned your Dad a few times throughout this chat… how have those closest to you responded to the journey you’ve been on and have any relationships evolved for the better/worse?
DC. Definitely! When I began I never really saw my friends so I’m so glad they stuck around! All my friends were at uni anyway so it was good timing really as everyone was busy. My family have been really supportive though. Dad’s helped a lot with legal stuff and money and Mum has always been great. She’s more of the sensitive soul and is always saying, “oh darling, if you’re not enjoying it don’t do it” but then I’ve got tough love from Dad! It helps having that balance! My sisters have been amazing too and have helped with events, handing out free granola and generally spreading the word.
I’ve had three boyfriends since I started this so it’s been interesting see how they react…
SC.SD. Bit of a shock to learn that there’s more to you than just a pretty face?!
DC. It’s really funny, without sounding big headed I think they find it inspiring. With one of them though, there was a battle for time and he would often say, “this is crazy, you need to stop!” But that relationship was at the worst time. It was when I was working until 3am, I was the only person doing everything and I made sure I did. It can be a real strain on some relationships but my boyfriend now is so cool with it. He’s always saying “do what you’ve gotta do!”
SC.SD. Which is great because it would be easy for them to feel intimidated by how successful you are…
DC. Definitely. I think times are changing with women doing more for themselves now but a couple of years ago, perhaps it seemed like I was choosing work over them. Yes it helps having someone say, “turn your laptop off now” but I also need support and to know that they understand. My boyfriend now gets that I have to work most nights…
SC.SD. What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from this journey?
DC. It’s funny because at school and uni in business studies you’re always told to assess the risks – and don’t get me wrong it helps and it’s different for different business models – but I still haven’t made a business plan and no I’m not the most successful business in the world but it works.
I’m a big worrier and I worry most days but just don’t think about what could happen. I think you just have to start. As long as you have an idea that you want to try, try it in your spare time – you need to get used to not having any spare time anyway – don’t over think it and go for it! Sometimes you make mistakes but they all happen for a reason and they always make space for better opportunities.
SC.SD. Love that! And your favourite quote?
DC. I have so many! Off the top of my head, ‘when you make it to the top, send the elevator back down’.
Any woman who has her own business inspires me but also anyone who’s open to sharing. I’ve met a few people that think, ‘this is my business. I’m not sharing. Why would I help you?’ They’re not my kind of women. We’re all in this together, we’re all part of this industry, we’re all here for a limited amount of time, we’re all trying to do something that we enjoy…
SC.SD. Do you think they’re jealous?
DC. I’d never take it personally but I do think people can be competitive by nature and naturally they think, ‘I don’t want to help that business grow, they’re going to steal my idea’ but that can be so childish! We’re all grown adults. It makes me think they’re insecure.
There are so many cereal brands for us to compete with but I trust that Qnola is different and I know I have customers that buy it every week. I don’t think about giant brands like Kellogs because we have a completely different audience. Why would I waste my energy on trying to stop them from seeing what I’m up to?
SC.SD. It slows you down…
DC. It really would. So if anyone emails me – yes I can’t always meet for coffee – but I always send advice because it’s all so hard I try my best to help. That’s how I got here; from women who gave me advice! Little things like where to get a label printed, how to get a trademark… The more women collaborate and lift each other up, the more amazing things will happen.
SC.SD. Couldn’t agree more! Last question then – actually it’s two – how do you see Qnola evolving going forward and are there any other projects you want to launch on the side?
DC. There’s lots of other projects going on! I do want to give a bit more attention to modelling while I can because I’m getting old in the modelling industry (!) but I want to be the Creative Director of Qnola for ever. My dream would be to get a bigger team and keep it going but whilst I’m a business woman, I’m not business-y so my focus lies in the more creative side. When I started Qnola it was very much all about fitness and food but now I know that there’s more to it than that. I don’t want to give a Qnola product to someone and say “you’re going to feel great once you eat this!”
SC,SD. It doesn’t work like that!
DC. Exactly. Qnola is great as it’s given me a platform to bring other things into the brand like ‘Wake up Well’, holistic treatments, my new book etc… so the foodie side isn’t where my interests solely lie. There’s so much more out there that I want to share!
After sending me on my way with a whole selection of Qnola goodies to try – if you haven’t tried the cacao and cashew flavour yet, I highly recommend – the journey Danielle’s been on in the past five years has been nothing short of awe-inspiring given her age.
Yes, sitting in front of a model wasn’t perhaps the best idea for my self-esteem (especially when you’re rocking a Rudolph nose from the sub-freezing temperatures outside…) but all the negative stereotypes about models aside, there is so much more to Danielle’s story than a career centred on her appearance.
From naively playing around with super foods, posting a picture on Instagram at nineteen and engaging with the eager reaction that followed, to her willingness to reach out for help and learn from those already established in the industry; Qnola’s organic following and success worldwide is testament to the uncontrived nature of Danielle’s approach to business.
Yet though the brand’s Instagram feed looks polished from day one, the energy it takes to persevere in those early days – especially when you finish alone at 3am on an industrial estate and your mind is playing tricks on you because you don’t know if it’ll be worth it – should not be underestimated in any way, shape or form. The journey can be isolating, it tests every ounce of your strength at times and there will be days where you question quite seriously why you started; but for Danielle those days make her appreciate what Qnola has become so much more as she wouldn’t be where she is today had she not fought back from those lows.
Beauty, brains and bravery all wrapped up into one, the American TV show were right about what they said.
With the commitment to roll with the natural momentum her brand picked up, the confidence to say “yes” to opportunities that flocked her way and the consideration to share advice to anyone starting up in need of help; Danielle is a role model to aspiring business owners in more ways than one.
Image credits: @ritaplattsphoto