In 2003, fifteen-year-old Fraser Doherty charmed his way into a meeting with a national supermarket buyer. Dressed in his dad’s old suit, Doherty pitched a high-powered retail executive on SuperJam, the all-fruit jelly he cooked on his parents’ stove using a generations-old family recipe.
The buyer listened politely but rejected the pitch: the packaging was wrong, the price was wrong, the production was wrong. They weren’t interested. Rejection at such a young age would crush most young entrepreneurs—but not Doherty. That early setback put the jelly magnate on a path to success and within five years, he hit $1.2 million in sales.
From a young age, Doherty was an irrepressible salesman. At just eight years old, he visited a local poultry farm and convinced the farmer to give him a box of eggs. Using the top of his television as an incubator, Doherty hatched the chicks and set up a small poultry farm in his back garden. For the next few years, he collected the eggs and sold them to his neighbors.
Doherty’s poultry plans were cut short when a fox burrowed under his fence and ate the means of production. But that didn’t keep him down for long. He later joined forces with an eccentric local butcher, selling rashers of bacon door-to-door. “It wasn’t really a normal job for a teenager, but I thought it was a lot of fun at the time,” said Doherty in his book SuperBusiness. After a few weeks knocking on doors, his charm and enthusiasm had earned a long list of regular customers, who placed regular weekly orders.
Then came Doherty’s eureka moment. “I was visiting my gran and she happened to be cooking a pot of [jelly] when we arrived, in the same way as she had for as long as I could remember,” recalled Doherty in his book. It was a tried and tested recipe, refined over decades of trial and error—his product development was already complete.
“I ran round to the supermarket and invested about [$2.50] in a few oranges and a bag of sugar,” said Doherty. He rushed home and cooked his first batch of jelly using his grandmother’s recipe. Then after decanting the jelly into jars, Doherty hit the road again, selling the still-warm jelly to his neighbors. When the last jar was gone, he’d made a cool $5.
Over the next few months, Doherty built up his customer base, securing regular delivery deals with most of his neighbors. At his peak, he was personally cooking hundreds of jars every month and distributing them to dozens of local families. Everything seemed to be going perfectly for the upstart jelly magnate.
Eventually, Doherty ran out of neighbors and he turned his attention to bigger markets. He cooked up a special batch of his jam, borrowed his dad’s suit to make himself look more professional and asked his mom to drive him to a ‘meet the buyer’ event for one of the country’s biggest supermarkets.
“I’m sure I must have looked ridiculous,” Doherty told The Times in 2016. “I had no idea how to make a presentation. I thought I could just tell them about it but then they explained there was a long way to go before you could sell something to a supermarket, there’s the commercial side, the pricing, the need for special labels. It’s tough.”
Doherty warns would-be entrepreneurs to be wary of local validation. “[F]riends and family can say what they think is the right thing, that your idea is fantastic, when sometimes it might need a bit of work.” To find out if they truly have a good product, they need to take it to new audiences and markets, introduce it someplace where they are unknown and will be more likely to receive honest feedback. That honest feedback may hurt but if they’re willing to adapt, it can make their business significantly stronger.
While the supermarket buyer did reject Doherty, she threw him a lifeline: if he fixed the problems—pricing, packaging and production—and came back next year, they’d take another look.
Doherty started his brand overhaul by updating his production. He toured the country in search of a factory that would gamble on his new jelly. Most said no but one agreed to give him a shot. Next, he worked with the factory to tweak the production for scale, bringing his prices into line with his competitors. Finally, he found an ad agency to re-envision his brand. They tossed out the old, twee labels, and replaced them with a sleeker, minimalist look.
When Doherty pitched the supermarket buyer one year later, he had a legitimate product and a viable business plan. After seeing Doherty’s updated jelly, the buyer agreed to roll out his jelly across their stores.
Doherty says he doesn’t regret his first pitch nor does he think it negatively affected his second. In fact, he believes entrepreneurs could learn something from his youthful enthusiasm. “Go out and give things a shot,” he said in an interview with New Business. “Don't be afraid to try things and see what you learn.”
Doherty’s supermarket deal put his jelly on hundreds of shelves around the country—but that wasn’t really the win he thought it would be. “It’s one thing to get it on the shelf, quite another to persuade people to take it off the shelf,” Doherty told The Times. “When it launched, we didn’t know if it would work or not.” To make matters worse, the supermarket had only purchased a test order. If his jelly failed to sell, it would also be the last order.
Doherty knew it would be a challenge to achieve the sales that a national retail chain wanted. SuperJam was a new product that no one had heard of yet. Luckily, fortune was on his side. One of his first retail customers was a journalist who saw a story behind the brand. A young boy using his grandmother’s jelly recipe and selling it in a national chain—it was a compelling rags to riches tale.
Shortly after Doherty’s jelly started appearing on shelves, his face started appearing in newspapers. “Sweet taste of success for teenage jam tycoon,” read one headline. “Jampot of gold,” read another. Many business owners, especially young and inexperienced entrepreneurs, would have shied away from the attention but Doherty embraced it. He understood that a strong brand narrative could differentiate his company from established competitors.
After securing his first supermarket deal, Doherty gave dozens of newspaper interviews, cultivating a hero brand as the self-styled Jam Boy. Soon, he accepted a publishing deal from Capstone Publishing to write a book about his business experiences.
His story even spread to South Korea, where local foodies loved the quaint narrative. “Scotland seemed to them a romantic story,” said Doherty, in his interview with The Times. “It’s almost the opposite to their culture, they make microchips and flatscreen TVs, so a country of castles and hills and whisky is in itself romantic.”
His Korean importer started by ordering a couple hundred jars but quickly increased his order to a couple thousand jars and then 20,000 jars. Doherty was even invited to appear on Choi Yura Show, the Korean equivalent of Martha Stewart. "I spent a few months practicing some key phrases in Korean,” he told the BBC. “I tried my best, memorized a few sentences and recorded the show. Later, unfortunately, I found out my part had been edited out. I had been replaced with a cardboard cutout of myself.”
As the media coverage grew, so did Doherty’s sales. Suddenly, the young entrepreneur was moving tens of thousands of jars per week and generating millions of dollars of revenue in the process.
Since launching SuperJam, Doherty has founded a charity dedicated to reducing loneliness amongst elderly people and co-founded a craft beer subscription service—but he remains as passionate about his jelly as ever. And while he is no longer the fresh-faced teenager who graced newspaper covers, his story still resonates, too.
People flock to hear Doherty’s motivation speeches at business conferences and universities. He says the most common question he gets is how to motivate yourself when things don’t go right. He replies that he’s experienced his fair share of challenges and failures—whether that’s a literal fox in the henhouse or a national retail buyer rejecting his product—but he also explains that the most important lesson an entrepreneur can learn is to listen to their customers. They will motivate you to keep going.
“I thought about giving up,” he said in a BBC interview. “The reason I didn't was that I listened to the feedback from the customer. Not every idea you try is going to work. Probably the first version of an idea is going to be wrong. But if you are willing to give it a shot and then listen to the feedback that you get from customers, maybe change it, try something else then you probably will stumble upon something that does work."
Feature Image: via SuperJam
Image 1-5: via SuperJam