Ella's Kitchen's Paul Lindley on fast-growth and getting into supermarkets

Ella’s Kitchen already makes more than £30m a year, did you always know it was going to be such a fast growth business?

I was very clear that, to fulfil our mission, and reverse obesity and bad health in our children, I had to be in supermarkets and international markets."

Paul Lidley, founder of Ella's Kitchen

It was the plan, but I didn’t know if it would happen. My mission was always very clear; I wanted to better the lives of children by improving their relationship with food. I set the business out to have significant social benefits. I was very clear that, to do that, and reverse several trends of obesity and bad health in our children, I had to be in the supermarkets and international markets.

Ella’s Kitchen’s plan was for fast growth from the very beginning because of the social and business aspects. From the business point of view, Ella’s kitchen was built on economies of scale, so growth needed to happen.

How did you make that growth happen?

From the beginning we had a mission. There was a clear focus on purpose and profit that allowed us to recruit, motivate, promote and reward an excellent team. They made the business growth possible.

The business is simply about the people and the relationships. By getting the right people who got what we’re about, were motivated by growing our business and were driven to achieve the purpose of our business, we were able to grow so fast.

What made children foods ready for a fast growth start up?

Children’s food is a very defined market. It’s either on your shopping list or its not. The size of that market and the lack of recent innovation made it ready for growth.

We created an emotional brand when everybody else was very functional. I think everyone else missed a trick. When people have babies, they are at the most emotional point of their lives. We work with that emotion to bring fun and colour to our products.

Then we believed that people around the world weren’t any different. I thought; if it works for the UK, it will work elsewhere. That proved to be the case when we launched internationally.

How did you know it was the right time to expand?

We had international interest from the very first month. We knew there was interest out there and our fundamental belief was that people want the same level of health for their babies across the world.

We took it step by step. We knew the brand was working here in the UK. I knew I had a business that would work. After three years, we were ready to find a market that was big enough to be interesting, but not too big to risk growth at home.

With the help of UKTI, we went to Sweden and Norway. We launched in May 2009, three years into the business. Now, we have a 30% market share in Norway and we’ve launched in 15 countries around the world.

What was the biggest challenge of going abroad?

Identifying the right market. We very much took our approach like a baby learning to walk, slowly before ever thinking about running.

We went from market to market. Each time we looked at a new market and new dynamic, we looked at the culture and society there to get a hold of their view on baby food and family environments. We needed to understand the people and the industries there.

Then we figured out what the model for each market was. Did we need to use partnerships, distribution, online? You need to decide that on a market-by-market basis. It’s not about using distributers everywhere. In one territory we went direct to retail, in others we’ve established subsidiaries.

We’ve also faced challenges from time differences and being able to react quickly. It’s harder in practice than it is on paper."

If you’re a branded business, each market has to understand that brand. Be prepared to reinvest in the branding and to understand the local culture and dynamic. I’ve always found more opportunities than challenges when expanding abroad.

Another challenge is making sure you don’t grow too fast. If people want it everywhere, you have to make sure you can support it and you can distribute it. We’ve also faced challenges from time differences and being able to react quickly. It’s harder in practice than it is on paper.

Do you have any advice for businesses with more demand than they can keep up with?

You cannot run out of cash. A lot of growing businesses fail because they run out of cash. You have to ensure your cash flow is secure with payment turns and with bartering. 

What is your one tip for small businesses looking to create fast growth?

It’s your people. You can do all the math, logic and analysis. You can know there’s a market and you have a product to fill it, but you need to have people you believe in.

You need people who can take ideas on their own and deliver something extra. As long as they agree with your values and your missions, you should empower people to improve what you’re doing and discover fast business growth.

How do you know when it’s the right time to hire your first employees?

One of the mistakes I made was not hiring early enough. I remained a one-man band when turning over £2m. I realised that, though I was a good jack-of-all-trades, other people were much better than me in certain areas. I needed to focus on certain things.

Starting a business is lonely as well. There’s a lot of pressure and no one to understand that pressure with you. Once I started finding a team, I built it up very quickly. I was on my own one day, then within a year I worked with ten people operating out of my kid’s playroom.

Now, we have around 70 people in the UK and resources around the world.

How do you retain key members of staff?

If you get your people right, they are your biggest asset but, if you get it wrong, they are your biggest liability. How that happens all depends on the quality and motivation of your team. We looked for people who support our values.  We recruit by mind-set, not skillset. We’re really seeking to understand people’s motivations.

We have a black and white probation period that people go through. We can convey how we work and we can see if people can reach the goals they said they could.

Then we use as much of a rewarding system of benefits and flexibility as possible with our staff. We do an employee net promoter score every month where every manager is scored by their staff and their bonuses depends on that score.

You can never listen too much in your business. You should listen to everybody. You need to create ways for people to talk to each other, with days out, free lunches and cross department teams.

How did you get your product into supermarkets?

It was all about tenacity. I never ever gave up. I got into Sainsbury’s without ever selling anything. You need passion too and you need to know your mission. When you go and pitch your product, you need to show why you care.

I got into Sainsbury’s without ever selling anything. You need passion too and you need to know your mission."

You need to go in and understand why they would want to take your product. You should creatively offer to give them solutions to what they want. These solutions need to be different to what everybody else offers them. Maybe its your product, maybe its in your working relationship or maybe its in the social aspects your product can offer their line.

Then you need confidence in your business. You might not know every answer to every question they ask you, but admit to that rather than making anything up. Have the confidence to be honest.

You gave Ella’s Kitchen first product a lot of research time. Did it change much during that time?

I had the idea for the brand before I had the idea of the products in that brand. I set out what the brand was about during the first few days and weeks, then I looked for product innovation that fit with our mission. That’s where the products came from.

We created the flexible pouch and it revolutionised baby food. Everybody is into pouch baby food now. The quirky recipes with healthy and organic ingredients came after that. People saw interesting things on the shelf that they hadn’t seen before and they loved that the products included vegetables and other things.

The product range evolves, but each time it does, we keep checking back against our brand and our company values.


For more from Paul Lindley, check out his advice on how to win awards for your business here


If you're running a fast-growth business like Ella's Kitchen, apply to join the Breakthrough 50 here


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