What started as an initial back garden experiment has become a powerhouse global business for Darina Garland. Here she explains how having time to develop a side hustle can be the making of entrepreneurs.
A business built on childhood memories
The Ooni wood-fired pizza oven is one of the success stories of the last few years. Now sold in over 80 countries, it’s helped define a new category of outdoor cooking and tapped into a growing market demand for high-quality food experiences at home.
For founder Darina Garland and her husband Kristian, it’s been quite a journey since they created the world’s first portable pellet pizza oven back in 2012 – and one that’s been driven by a simple desire to allow everyone to make restaurant quality pizza at home.
And this desire owes much to Garland’s childhood experiences of eating pizza. The taste of pizza from Sicily as a child still evokes powerful memories.
“I went to Naples with my family when I was about 12 and I still think about that pizza we had,” she recalls. “It was a simple margherita and it was the size of the table. It was outstanding and I can genuinely still taste it.”
Driven by curiosity
But if the love of good pizza was a driving force behind Ooni, arguably the key factor behind its success was having the time to experiment.
“We’d just had our first child and had a bit of time to tinker and explore,” she explains. “Kristian wanted to make a great pizza and he got really good at doing it in a domestic oven. But it was only good and he really wanted to make it better. That’s when he realized that it needed to be wood-fired and cooked on really high heat to get that perfect crust.”
So he began to look at buying a pizza oven and realized they would have to pay around £2,000 for a traditional installation. It was bulky, took up a lot of space, and took ages to heat up.
“He couldn’t believe there wasn’t something smaller so being the practical person he is, he just decided to make one! So that’s where the idea came from. He started prototyping the first Ooni and it was the size of a suitcase and could fit on any outdoor tabletop.”
The real innovation came from the fact that they used wood pellets. This is compressed wood and allowed them to generate heat of around 500 degrees Celsius in a small space within 10 minutes. This meant you could cook pizza in around two minutes.
“This was the spark for our business and we were pretty blown away by it,” she admits.
From there they quickly realized that they could be on to something big. “If we liked it that much, we knew there’d be a market for it,” she says.
From prototype to production
“Kickstarter launched in the UK at the same time and that was a great place to test crowdfunding to see if people liked it as much as we did. So much good stuff happened when we launched that Kickstarter campaign.”
Soon after, interest began to snowball and Selfridges got in touch to say they would be interested in selling their product.
“We didn’t even have a retail package or anything so we had to run to catch up,” Garland laughs.
With average growth for the first three years at 340 percent, they quickly made the leap from start-up to scale up, getting other retailers such as Bloomingdales and John Lewis on board and growing fast overseas.
“The U.S. is our biggest market,” she adds, “and we’ve had some epic success. But we still feel we’re scratching the surface in terms of the opportunities.”
With offices in America, Germany, and China, they’re well placed to exploit these opportunities.
Culture and purpose
But it’s not just a great product that’s helped put them on such an exciting growth trajectory. Having previously worked in education business, Garland explains that she saw lots of different leadership styles and was keen to put culture and purpose right at the heart of their business.
“In our previous job, we saw how important autonomy is for people and we wanted to get our culture right from the beginning, so we didn’t have to sew it in afterward,” she says. “We want diversity and connection to our culture and values.”
If they’ve made mistakes along the way, it’s been in hiring people that weren’t properly aligned to their culture.
She also adds that the fact the Ooni is in high demand is as much a challenge as a blessing.
“Global shipping and logistics are incredibly challenging just now,” she notes. “it’s incredibly difficult to get things out of China and container prices have gone up exponentially. There have also been challenges with tariffs and selling into the U.S. But all in all, it’s been a very positive experience.
“If I was to look back, the only thing I’d do differently is hiring people faster.”
Valuing fresh thinking
People are at the heart of Ooni, and Garland credits her team as the real reason for their success. “The only reason we’ve grown the business is because we’ve got a great team who bring fresh ideas and fresh thinking to the business every day – and this is something we encourage,” she explains. “When new people join we ask them to look at the business with fresh eyes and tell us what they’d do differently.”
This culture of constant learning is firmly embedded in the business and it’s something she thinks all entrepreneurs should adopt.
“My advice to entrepreneurs would be to know why you’re doing it,” she smiles. “Have a great idea, believe in it, and make sure you’ve got a strong purpose.”
“The secret is about connecting with people, asking advice, learning and testing ideas,” she stresses. “That’s absolutely been the most important part of our journey. It always amazes me that when you ask people you admire for help, they often say yes!”
This interview was originally part of our magazine Tribe. You can check out the magazine here.