The founder of the UK’s leading baby-food brand on how forgetting the rules and thinking like a toddler can change the world and help a business be a force for good.
Paul Lindley launched Ella’s Kitchen in 2006 with just two products. Today the organic baby-food business is the number-one baby-food brand in the UK, with global turnover of £70 million. As he prepares to step away from the company he founded, Lindley discusses business growth, the key to leadership and his passion for using business as a force for good.
How did Ella’s Kitchen come about?
When my first baby, Ella, was weaning and wouldn’t eat, I started being silly to get her to open her mouth. I quickly realised that if you make food fun, kids will eat it. I also was aware of the statistics about children’s poor health: a quarter of kids are overweight when they start school, and about 60 percent will remain so throughout their lives. I wanted to improve children’s lives by giving them a healthy relationship with food from the start.
What skills did you take with you from corporate life to entrepreneurial life?
I’d been working at [children’s TV channel] Nickelodeon, where I learned about children as consumers. It’s a channel that kids think is for them, by them, and I wanted that concept for Ella’s Kitchen. I realised that if we thought from the point of view of a child, and created food they wanted because it was fun, we could create a brand different from everybody else’s.
Talk us through your start-up process
I gave myself two years to get my business off the ground, and used £20,000 of my own savings to fund it. I developed samples, created recipes and worked with labs and manufacturers to get it right. Once I’d done that, I started approaching supermarkets. Of the six I pitched to, Sainsbury’s was the one that agreed to work with me.
A value-led business means you can employ passionate people who live those values
What do you think is the key to a successful pitch?
There are three: tenacity, creativity and passion. It took tenacity to find the people I needed to approach, to get them interested enough to take my phone call and then to arrange a meeting. You need to be creative, because the people you’re presenting to will have seen hundreds of pitches before. Finally, you must be passionate about your product or service. That’s the beauty of pitching yourself rather than employing a professional – you’re the only person able to show how much you care about what you’re trying to sell.
Exporting was the key to the growth of Ella’s Kitchen. What advice would you give to businesses now?
Businesses shouldn’t be afraid to export, as business broadly works the same way wherever you are in the world. However, it’s vital to do as much research as possible, make sure you understand why another country might want to trade with you, and visit any country you’re considering exporting to. When I visited China, I had second thoughts: there isn’t a baby-food market there, so it would have meant creating a whole new market as well as a brand, which would have been too vast a challenge.
What is the key to a successful business?
Four things. The first is values: a value-led business means you can employ passionate people who live those values. Secondly, you need to be customer-obsessed. As a small start-up, we had no money and couldn’t compete with the big guys in our sector. We just needed to understand what consumers did so they’d feel much more comfortable buying from us. Thirdly, it doesn’t matter what an entrepreneur thinks or does – it’s the team. People listening to your vision and articulating it, amplifying it and implementing it. Finally, actively find ways to deepen the authenticity and trust of the people who embrace your brand and business.
What were the main things you learned from launching Ella’s Kitchen?
Firstly, business doesn’t exist; people exist. When we buy something from a business, we’re really buying from other people. If you put business in that context, you start to understand that it should be operated and run just as human beings run the rest of their lives. Secondly, I think ‘why’ is the most important question in our personal and business lives. When we ask why, we understand motivation. Every one of our whys will be different, and when we’re selling products, we need to understand the customer’s why.
Tell us about your book, Little Wins: The Huge Power of Thinking Like a Toddler
It’s based around the idea that if you want to be a great leader, you should think like a toddler. We learn fantastic skills over an 18-month period of our lives: smiling, walking, talking. Most of all, we learn through play, and we do far too little of this now.
How does thinking like a toddler translate to the corporate world?
Toddlers have been creating businesses for years. One day a little boy asked his dad what a tickle looked like; 126 million Mr Men books have been sold since. My own little boy told me he liked ‘the red one’ best – that’s what our smoothie product became known as. If we ‘grow down’, forget about playing by the rules, and think about things in a different way, we can change the world.
What have you learned from thinking like a toddler?
Don’t conform. When I started my business, people told me to use glass jars so consumers can see what they’re buying. But I said, let’s try a pouch, it’s convenient for mum and dad. Everyone said you can’t mix blueberries with broccoli, it doesn’t work. But it did – because we were willing to try it. Most of all, I’ve learned that we’ve got to be given permission to fail, so that we can adapt, learn and get better.
You sold Ella’s Kitchen five years ago to American firm Hain Celestial for £66 million, and now you’re leaving the company. How does that feel?
It’s never easy to say goodbye, but I’m leaving Ella’s Kitchen in the most capable of hands. We share the same values, and I’m confident they’ll continue to ensure the business is a force for good. I’m incredibly proud of how far it’s come over that time and what has been achieved since its inception.
You work with a range of other companies helping to change the world through business; tell us about those
I’ve partnered with hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jal, who was a child solider in Sudan in the 1980s, to create The Key is E, a charity that supports entrepreneurs whose businesses help children in Africa. I’m part invested in – and on the board of – a fantastic craft beer brand called Toast, which uses surplus fresh bread in their beer. I’m also on the board of non-profit organisation Sesame Workshop, whose mission is to help kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder.
What other plans are in the pipeline?
I’ve just been appointed chair for the Child Obesity Taskforce for London. There is real potential to create a major health breakthrough for London’s children and set their future on a different trajectory. I’m very excited about the possibilities there.
Finally, what advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
There’s a great Mark Twain quote: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than the ones you did do.” That’s worth remembering.