Rob Baines always wanted to run his own business. Even at the age of 12, he was subcontracting one of his two paper rounds.
Fast forward a few years and, having acquired a degree in commerce in British Columbia, the Canadian businessman embarked on a whirlwind career in finance - working for three different banks in just five years. But it wasn't for him. Rob confesses that working in investment banks he felt like he was "just a number in the corporate structure - and I'm not a corporate person at all. Me working in a bank was like caging an animal."
SNOG is his latest - and most passion-filled business venture, but it's not his first. After ditching the corporate world for the risky road of entrepreneurship, Rob opened a coffee cart (he couldn't afford a store) at Hammersmith bus station in 1998. The venture - christened Coffee Club - grew and within three years Rob had his own coffeehouse in Fulham, which is still going today. His lucky break was being invited by the Dean of Westminster to do business in the Abbey's hallowed grounds - the first commercial activity to be allowed to do so. From then on, his coffee business expanded rapidly and he soon branched out to set up another independent brand - Tinto Coffee, which now has two branches in southwest London. Business was thriving. But once again, Rob was bored as the coffee business no longer gave him a buzz. "Retail had become numb", he admits.
From frappés to fro-yo
Rob first stumbled across frozen yoghurt in New York. But he felt betrayed when he discovered that the product, marketed as a healthy snack, had an alarmingly high sugar content. But it led him to he realise that there was a gap in the market and he went on to set up his own frozen yoghurt shop in London offering a healthier version of the sweet dessert that he first tasted in the Big Apple. It took a lab and nine months of trials to formulate his icy treat, but Rob explains that getting the product right is at the core of his business: "If I hadn't come up with the perfect formula, there would be no SNOG brand today."
But SNOG's winning recipe isn't all about the product it sells - the ambience of its outlets has been an important part of Rob's success: "If you want to be a brand that lasts," says Rob, "you can't have smoky windows." Architect Pablo Uribe, who co-founded the venture, took charge of creating the right interior for the shop through images, music and lighting. Their aim was to foster an eclectic collection of stores, each with its own personality, rather than a big chain. Rob says: "SNOG is like a baby to me - I have to make sure it grows in the right way".
Though the brand is rapidly developing, he is being careful not to grow it too quickly: "If we opened 70 shops in two and a half years, we would inevitably dilute the brand." Regularly dismissing promises from potential business associates of rapid expansion, the SNOG founder prefers to cherry-pick his sites and his partners. "SNOG as a brand has so many applications - we could do health clubs, hotels or a whole fashion line. But we have to be very focused on exactly what we're doing. We're not going to sell coffee, sandwiches or soup - this is something that every other frozen yoghurt company does because it wants to chase revenue. But in doing that, they dilute their proposition."
Location, location, location
The first SNOG outlet was a boutique-style shop in affluent South Kensington, and a cool hang-out in the heart of trendy Soho was chosen for the second. "We get several enquiries a day from investors and potential partners, and it's up to us to decide which ones work and which don't. Of course we have to expand though, and we're opening this quarter in Rio, Colombia, Karachi, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar." Rob tells us how emerging markets are creating opportunities for everyone - especially in retail: "Rent is much cheaper, labour costs little, there's disposable income and an audience desperate for what we're offering. It makes perfect sense."
With 6,000 fans on Facebook, the SNOG brand now has a substantial following. Rob's aim is to make "going for a SNOG" an event in itself.