An electrical whiz is turning households on to making their own yoghurt the easy way. PAULA OLIVER reports.
It started life in a garage, carries millions of tiny bacteria, and is earning a healthy living for a local entrepreneur.
It is Easiyo, the yoghurt-making business of former builder and electrical whiz Len Light, who invented a do-it-yourself yoghurt maker in his garage eight years ago.
Mr Light says his simple plastic container is now in more than 500,000 New Zealand homes, is making an impression in Australia and Britain, and has arrived on the ice at Scott Base.
Mr Light, who did not eat yoghurt when he started work on the invention, said the business' success can be put down to regularly attending home shows, not relying totally on professional researchers or experts, and continually reinvesting in the company to ensure that it keeps growing.
"It's been a tremendous buzz to see it take off, and while it's been nail-biting, I wouldn't have missed it for anything," said Mr Light.
His yoghurt success story began when his work as an electrical engineer dried up, and he tried to create an electrical yoghurt-maker - for reasons that he cannot explain.
"I don't even know why I did it really. I didn't even eat yoghurt myself.
"But I thought I'd make one with semi-conductors, and then I discovered it worked better with no electrics at all."
Mr Light knew yoghurt, as a staple part of Indian and Arabian diets, did not require sophisticated equipment. It could be made in a bucket left out in the sun.
So he ended up with the thermos-like Easiyo maker, which uses hot water to foster the millions of live bacteria in yoghurt.
"I realise now that I was lucky I didn't know how involved and difficult the whole thing would be.
"It's easy to make a yoghurt-maker, but to make it so it works in all climates and using water is really quite hard - it took a lot of fine-tuning."
Yoghurt contains live lactic cultures that aid digestion and fight bad bacteria. Although they are present in everyone's body, Mr Light says yoghurt helps to replenish them.
He took his invention to health shops, pharmacies, and the Auckland Home Show.
"We told people at the Home Show that they could buy the sachets to make yoghurt at their local health shop, so they started streaming in and the shops rang us to ask for the product.
"Then the pharmacists picked it up and we were away."
He still attends home shows regularly to get feedback from customers, which he can use to improve the product.
As Easiyo's popularity grew, people began asking supermarkets why they didn't stock it, so Mr Light eventually agreed to supply them. Now most of his sales come from supermarkets.
Quick growth led to the business having a lot of creditors. Poor cash-flow nearly strangled the company.
Mr Light took out a mortgage on the family home and relied on some family money to keep it going.
"One of the biggest things about being an entrepreneur is that you can live with risk, and most people have no concept of risk."
New flavours and products were essential to maintain growth and Mr Light used market research to decide if it was worth launching an ice-cream product.
The results indicated it would be better than anything else he had ever made, but it ended in disappointment.
"It was too icy, but the research didn't show that," he said.
"I often laugh when people say we should be more professional, because the one thing we were told would fly, didn't."
He tests each new product on his staff, and while he finds market research useful, the company does not completely rely on it.
The ice-cream formula has been fine-tuned, and is now selling well in Australia.
Eight years after he began his yoghurt business, Mr Light has invested in a new plant.
The sachets are now filled and sealed onsite, which has given better quality than that provided previously by a contractor.
"This is the biggest investment I've made in the business, but I'm sure it will pay off," he said.
"We're putting out half a million sachets a month, so the quality has to be good."
Easiyo now operates from an 1100 sq m Albany building.
The company's biggest hurdle has been to change a perception that yoghurt is a luxury.
Mr Light operates on the theory that if half a billion Arabs and Indians can eat yoghurt, why can't we?
"We've tried to get people to think of it in a more staple way, so they eat it every day.
"Getting the healthy message across is important ... and we're still working on it."
Like any business, Mr Light admits Easiyo has had a lucky break or two - such as the time he took advantage of cheap television advertising rates one January and made a commercial.
"We made it and it went on during the World Cup Cricket when New Zealand was hosting it and we just lost to Pakistan," he says.
"The whole country was watching and there was our ad, over and over again."