Father-of-two Damien Lee, originally from Sydney, Australia, has taken the food-tech industry by storm with his gluten-free, low sugar, healthier noodle brand, Mr Lee’s Noodles. However, his journey to entrepreneurship hasn’t been an easy one after being diagnosed with cancer not once, but four times. I spoke to Damien to find out about his history as a businessman, the health struggles he has faced, and how he has triumphed despite the coronavirus pandemic.
I started my entrepreneurial journey travelling around the world and seeking out different business ventures. From nightclubs, to restaurants, to financial markets, I even joined the army for 10 years!
I decided to move to Bournemouth six years ago from London, as I wanted to live in the south and be close to the sea. Here I started my internet company, called ‘Designed Gadgets’. I invested all my income into it and secured my first big external round. Everything was going well until I received the devastating and life-changing news – my cancer diagnosis. I had been suffering from persistent back pain for years but had been told it was just a muscle issue by my GP. It was only after I had an X-ray that showed the disease had rotted away six of my ribs that I thought, wow, this could be it! I was told I had stage four Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and that the cancer had spread to my chest and stomach. I also had cancer of the blood and was told I only had weeks to live and to start chemotherapy could be pointless due to the late stage of my cancer!
The diagnosis and the lack of treatment options available was a massive shock, I had my two boys to look out for as well as running my businesses. I knew that if I wanted to get through this, I needed to take the treatment, but I also needed to change my lifestyle. As a time-poor entrepreneur, I used to take a lot of shortcuts with my diet. When you’re running around, you tend to eat quick, easy, and often unhealthy meals, with my go-to often being instant noodles! Being half Singaporean, I’ve grown up eating a lot of noodles. They were convenient and tasted…well, okay enough to eat! However, with my illness I decided to give up my guilty pleasure of the ready meals and instant packet noodles, and instead invested time into making healthier food and lifestyle choices. Miraculously, a year later I came out the other side of the treatment and I was in complete remission. But I also lost my start-up, Designed Gadgets. At that point, I thought, ‘What am I going to do now? ‘
One thing I did know was how much I missed my noods and oh, how I had craved them during recovery! I remembered back in 2013, I met two Chinese businessmen and while touring their factory, they told me they were keen to export noodles to the UK and asked me, if I wanted to be part of their business venture. I was flattered, but I knew nothing about noodles apart from eating them! I turned them down, but during our talks I asked them, what their favourite flavour was? They told me they didn’t eat their noodles and said, ‘If you knew what we put in them, you wouldn’t either!’. They spoke about how instant noodle brands were all competing on margin and price, dumbing down their products and how they simply couldn’t afford to put anything ‘real’ in them. Fast forward two years, I realised I needed to do something to change this. I thought, ‘maybe I could be an importer for those guys’. I did some research, and I quickly realised it was a very big market! Being an entrepreneur, I saw the opportunity. I thought to myself, ‘how can I market a cheap noodle to people and sell it convincingly?’. But then I realised that it would be against everything I have learnt and achieved over the past couple of years. I then decided to go in the opposite direction and create the world’s most premium instant noodle with real, finest quality ingredients and absolutely no nasties. I also chose to make gluten-free and vegan options whilst ensuring they were super tasty.
Mr Lee’s Noodles has since raised millions in investments and is now a global brand, with offices in the UK, Australia and the US. Each noodle cup is jam-packed with finest quality ingredients and freeze-dried meat and vegetables for extra freshness and flavour.
I’ve never been in business before where every door we knock opens. Here in the UK, our Mr Lee’s Noodle cups retail for £2.50, our closest competitor is £2.00, but for 50p more, customers can enjoy real food with good nutritional value! People want to know more than ever what they put into their bodies, we recognise that, and our product is perfect for the mindful consumers. I love a challenge and breaking into the unhealthy noodle market was just that! You must listen to your heart and vision; I love it when someone tells me ‘no’, I say ok, here we go, here’s a puzzle, how do we resolve this? I think I took that from my early military days, and I’ve carried it until this very day, personally and in business!
The pandemic has been tough for everyone, but look, we make food. No matter what the crisis, people need to eat and drink. The sector that we’re in is a pretty good place to be, but it doesn’t necessarily make it easy. We have a long shelf life which has helped us but the challenge we faced was in terms of our business model, we rely a lot on the travel business as we are sold on easyJet, Virgin Australia, Norwegian Airlines, and Vueling to name a few. Overnight, almost 50% of our business suddenly disappeared. For any entrepreneur, what’s important is to diversify your risk and not to rely on one channel. You need to be agile and respond to change quickly. I knew we were going to lose our travel business, but our e-commerce business went up by 1,000% comparing to pre-Covid days, so we managed to adapt and focus on our online sales. In April we’ve now launched with Whole Foods Market and Amazon in the US, had successful crowd funding raise with Seedrs and our website continues to thrive!
However, Damien continued to face his own health battle through the Covid-19 pandemic:
Since my diagnosis in 2015, I’ve undergone more than 75 cancer treatments, most recently the cancer resurfaced to my throat, neck and back and I’ve been undergoing treatment throughout the pandemic. But the pandemic in the UK caused a shortage of doctors and nurses, and my chemotherapy treatments were reduced from for part of my treatment cycles which were every 3 weeks for 120 hours (5 days 24/7) for each chemo cycle down to just a single dose over 8 hours. I’ve kept positive throughout and focusing on my business takes my mind off my health struggles!
If I could give one tip to business owners out there it would be to understand the ever-changing market. If you’re an FMCG business, knowing how consumer behaviour has changed is key. There’s the pre-coronavirus world and the current world. If your business model is pre-coronavirus, take a deep dive and re-strategise, things have changed and will change for the foreseeable future, burying your head in the sand and hoping for things to go back to normal won’t get you or your business anywhere! It’s so important to realise this could happen again, we need to take what we’ve learnt from this pandemic and apply it to all future business opportunities. Protect your overheads and don’t rely on the government bailing you out, they won’t have as much money next time. Here at Mr Lee’s we have streamlined our business model and will constantly strive to adapt with the times and the crowded food industry!.
Mr Lee’s Noodles has recently launched its congee range, giving consumers the world’s first nutritious and delicious congee rice cup in under four minutes. The brand is also piloting its noodle kiosks with 42-inch touch screens bringing healthy cup noodles to people on the go.