Paul Lindley, Ella's Kitchen Founder, On How His Daughter Being A Fussy Eater Inspired His Empire

Daughter Who Inspired Ella's Kitchen Brand Finds It 'Cool' And 'Embarrassing'

Paul Lindley founded Ella's Kitchen baby and toddler food after experiencing problems getting his eldest daughter to eat.

Sticking to his ambition of producing fun, healthy, organic food for babies and toddlers, he set himself just two years to get the product to market - and succeeded.

Here he tells us how he fell into the food market, and why it was worth remortgaging his house to bag a deal with Sainsbury's.

What were you doing before you went into kids food?

I worked at KPMG for five years and trained as a chartered accountant – I didn't enjoy it at the time, but it's helped me with the new business.

Then in the 1990s I worked in the media division and left to work for Nickelodeon in 1994. I was initially hired as the financial controller and worked my way through to being the general manager.

It was the years of the boom of the internet and the digital bubble at this time and I learned masses. There was a real entrepreneurial feel at Nickelodeon and I really enjoyed the kids programmes.

Then, in my last few years there I had two or three other ideas that I wanted to work one – one of which was Ella's Kitchen.

I rejected two ideas before I settled on Ella's Kitchen; the first was a platform that would give kids access to digital money to spend online, the second was a TV show – which I actually made a pilot for – which dealt with issues around promoting healthy food, family time and food and so on, but the interest in Ella's Kitchen soon took over.

Ella was born in 1999 and when she was between one and two years old she just stopped eating certain foods, as some kids do. But we worked out that if the food was fun, she'd try it.

How old's Ella now? How does she find the whole food label being named after her?

She's 13 years old now. She finds it really cool, and at the same time also really embarrassing.

What happened next?

I gave myself two years to get the product to market – I was determined it should be healthy and fun as the key themes. I spent almost two years playing around with nutritionists in my kitchen to find the right food.

I also wanted to focus on packaging –the brand needed to feel personal. After a year I started pitching to supermarkets – I didn't want to go for the small market route.

Sainsbury's agreed to list us in 350 stores with two of our products, right before my two-year deadline. So we had our new organic food in fun packaging and I went back to the TV channels I'd worked with to ask for free advertising slots. Thankfully, Nick Junior followed up with me and by January 2006 we'd taken off.

It started with just two products, now we have more than 80 and we're in all major retailers in 12 countries around the world.

I worked on my own for the first year and a half, then by year three I had nine people working in my house. Today, we have 54 employees in the UK and another 10 in a US subsidiary. We've currently got 10% of the baby food market in the UK, and 23% in Norway.

People's lives have become more stressful and where you’ve got two parents earning an income your time is tight.

Where did the money come from to start you off?

In the first two years I spent £20,000 of my own money developing the technology and the food to allow us to start up. When we got the hosting deal with Sainsbury's I had to remortgage my home and put another £200,000 into the business.

Some of Ella's Kitchen's products

What hurdles did you face?

Two weeks before we got the listing at Sainsbury's said they’d take a flyer, and I thought I'd made it. I realised I needed to make it fly off the shelf but I needn't have worried – supplying demand was always more of a problem for us than creating demand.

Taking on the challenge of staff was tough – how do you create one team with the same goals when they join at different stages? Much of the first 18 months has been spent looking at building a sense of purpose to what we were trying to achieve beyond just selling products.

When did you start exporting?

Funnily enough, about two or three weeks into our placement with Sainsbury's we got a call from Malta asking if we could ship out there, but we didn't start exporting until 2009. We started with Sweden, Norway, Ireland and then the US and we've added three of four markets a year since.

Our ambition is to be the first global organic premium food brand for kids. So far, the research shows people are prepared to buy at a premium.

Have you seen no impact from the recession then?

No, not really. Our growth has been bigger than the baby food market as a whole. It seems to be the last thing people will give up spending money on.

The higher the price of the baby food, the more people want it, although we have seen older kids' food has been less recession proof.

The only way we've really been hit is with the price of commodities (cereals and grains, as well as petrol) yo-yoing.

There must be lots of companies competing in the baby and toddler food space – how do you make sure your brand stands out?

Competition isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but out brand does need to stand for something unique. Some competitors have very closely imitated what we do, but they don’t have the many layers we've created all the way through the company. Our focus is kids first; and we've got a huge amount of academic and market research to back our findings.

The other thing about our brand is the food isn't just about how it tastes; our brand has bright colours and tactile packaging.

But understanding how babies taste is important too – for example, babies have around three times as many tastebuds as we do and taste things with 10 times the intensity that we do.

We worked with Rachel Stevens (former S-Club 7 singer) recently creating 'tasty tunes' where we relyric-ed some songs to include fruit and veg words – that helps kids to interact with fruit and veg.

What's hard about your job?

It can be a very lonely job, being an entrepreneur. No one quite understands what is going through your head. It can be good to find mentors and to network with other entrepreneurs to help with that.

The biggest lesson I've had to learn is to identify which big things deserve your focus and to not spread into things that don't really matter.

The other lesson was that a business is solely about relationships and building layers within your team.

What advice would you give to any one looking to following your footsteps?

The key to success is to be passionate about what you’re doing. Be creative and be able to get beyond any barriers to entry you may face. What you’re trying to do isn't an easy thing, otherwise others would have done it before you.

You also need tenacity and a thick skin. You’ll be told 'no' a lot, but you need to be able to understand why they've said no.

And simplify everything. You should be able to get your business idea across and why it's different in a tweet.


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