This interview with Ella’s Kitchen founder Paul Lindley first appeared in Director magazine in March 2015
He sold baby food business Ella’s Kitchen to US giant Hain Celestial for £66m but is still the firm’s CEO, campaigns against childhood obesity, writes rap lyrics and is launching a new company this month. He tells us what he’s learnt so far…
Growing up in Africa made me aware of social injustice. In Zambia, there was huge poverty. The ability to climb out of that was very limited.
My inspirations are Bob Marley and Robert F Kennedy. Both led from the heart and were optimistic the world could be a better place.
Being a financial person doesn’t define me. I started my career as a chartered accountant at KPMG and use my financial background when I’m doing tax returns… but I’m not a suited-and-booted person [working for] big organisations where individuality can’t come through.
Cash not profit is the important thing. Most companies fail because they run out of cash, not because they run out of profit.
Kids’ TV gave me confidence. I spent nine years working at Nickelodeon, first as financial controller, then as deputy managing director. Being involved in discussions about creativity and technology gave me the confidence [to think] ‘I am creative’.
I wanted to create a healthy, fun brand. When my daughter Ella started weaning, she rejected food. I used silliness and games to create smiles and relax her. The light-bulb moment was realising that Ella saw food as part of a game. Working at Nickelodeon, I had experience
in healthy eating – we were blamed for encouraging kids to watch TV and not play outside. Those things coming together spawned Ella’s Kitchen.
Trust your gut instinct. People told me Ella’s Kitchen would fail because our packaging wasn’t in traditional glass jars. But talking to my wife’s book club and NCT group, my gut feel was they would.
Always build a good story. Stories matter – they influence everybody from investors through to the consumer. Ella’s Kitchen is an emotional brand and we built a story around us as a family, thinking it would resonate with people at the most emotional stage of their lives, having just had a child.
Word-of-mouth marketing is very important for us. I believed that if we persuaded people to try our products, they’d market the brand themselves. For parents of young children, their world revolves around their child, and they use every opportunity to talk about how they’re developing, and what they’re eating, wearing or doing. They trust each other and their experiences.
Think global from the start. We began exporting early in Ella’s Kitchen’s life. For a small start-up to get a good market share in the holy grail of America, where UK brands traditionally fail, defied logic.
I don’t think the UK supports the idea of a ‘British Dream’. If we want companies to be global, they have to look beyond our shores in their mindset right from the start. Like the American Dream, having the audacity to think bigger is something we can improve.
I’m a big advocate of flexible working. There’s this huge repository of skilled people who need the confidence, flexibility or opportunity to come back to work. They can contribute so much.
Feminine skills are the future. Skills traditionally seen as feminine, such as communication, compromise and multitasking, will be vastly important in business.
Small businesses can change things. In 2013, we launched the Averting a Recipe for Disaster campaign to improve childhood nutrition – around a third of our children are overweight or obese. We’re asking political parties to put a commitment to under-fives’ nutrition in their manifestos. It’s hugely satisfying to think that a small business – an idea in somebody’s head to start with – can change things.
I’m starting again. When my son, Patrick, was four he asked, ‘Do you think they will do a Paddy’s Kitchen one day?’ Eight years on, we’re launching Paddy’s Bathroom – organic bath products for kids.
There’s still nervousness. I don’t know whether Paddy’s Bathroom will succeed, but I’m glad we’ve given it a try. I’m much more confident now, but that whole start-up boot-strap mentality is something we don’t want to lose.
I like being an ‘outlier’ [Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of what sets geniuses apart]. I love being on the outside looking in and the challenge that comes with that.
I’ve written the lyrics to a hip hop song. Every Child’s Plate is about food, obesity and hunger, part of my project with [South Sudanese rapper] Emmanuel Jal. Check it out on YouTube.
I wouldn’t enjoy making money for money’s sake. I could have founded Ella’s Kitchen and played golf every day. But once you have experience, networks and knowledge, you should put them to good use.
The difference between ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ is narrowing. Ten years ago, creating the UK’s biggest baby food brand would have seemed impossible. Poverty and hunger are solvable – they just require a massive amount of ideas, collaboration, humility and humanity.