Interview with Ella’s Kitchen founder Paul Lindley

Want to know how to start a food business from scratch? Former accountant Paul Lindley reveals how he created the hugely successful Ella’s Kitchen, and shares his top tips for aspiring entrepreneurs.

What’s your career background?

I am actually a qualified Chartered Accountant; I used to work for KPMG, before moving to work with Nickelodeon, where I stayed for about nine years. That might seem to be a surprising career ‘path’ for an entrepreneur!

In reality however, my previous experience provided me with the fundamental financial and branding skills I needed to build Ella’s Kitchen, and then Paddy’s Bathroom and my social business The Key is E.

Where did the idea for Ella’s Kitchen come from?

The idea for Ella’s came partly from my work at Nickelodeon, where I became passionate about kids health and well-being. The main driver though, was personal experience. We had problems weaning my young daughter Ella, getting her to try new foods was a real struggle – and something I know is a challenge for parents across the world.

I set out on a mission to improve children’s (and parents!) lives by helping kids to have a healthier relationship with food. I wanted to create something innovative and disruptive; a baby food product that was convenient and fun that appealed to babies and children directly, to encourage them to have healthy food habits that would last their lifetime by stimulating all of their senses.

How did you turn your idea into a business? What were your first steps?

I gave myself two years to really consolidate the concept behind Ella’s Kitchen before launching in the market. My first aim was to reinvent the traditional glass jar design for baby food. So I created the ‘pouch pack’, which is far more convenient for parents, allows the food to be less processed and is colourful and tactile for children to use and be stimulated by.

Next, came experimenting with the flavours of the products; my initial ‘market research’ was pretty simple, since my consumers were living with me! Next was the long process of developing the products and packaging, working with experts in food regulation, dieticians and specialists in children’s health to get the final prototypes.

What were the biggest challenges you have had to overcome?

One of the biggest challenges I had to deal with when launching Ella’s Kitchen was getting supermarket buyers to see the potential of my idea.

I didn’t want to start selling in small farm shops and delis; my goal with Ella’s Kitchen was to have a real impact on children’s health – for that I need to sell in serious volume! I contacted hundreds of people and was rejected or ignored time and again, but things eventually took off through our first deal with Sainsbury’s.

I had to re-mortgage my own home to raise the money we needed to launch overseas – every business venture involves risk, but for me, not trying would have been the biggest failure. I’ve never looked back.

What is different about your approach?

It is often said that you have to put yourself in the shoes of your customer, for me those shoes were a few sizes smaller than my own! I took that advice to heart; we approached everything from a child’s point of view, engaging with them across all of their senses.

For both Ella’s Kitchen and Paddy’s Bathroom, we are competing with huge multi-nationals, and negotiating with enormous retailers for space on the shelf and we have to have a point of difference, be noticed and be wanted! Nobody else works from a ‘child first’ view.

So we positioned our brand differently; we took simple, natural, good ingredients, and mixed them together in unusual ways to create new sensations of taste, smell and texture, and created packaging that really connected with babies and toddlers, using colours and even names that really interested to them.

My first product ‘The Red One’ was actually named by my son Paddy, because that’s what he called the smoothie with strawberries, raspberries apple and bananas!

When did you realise Ella’s Kitchen would be a success?

I think as an entrepreneur you always have to have faith in your product, and believe that it’s going to be a real success, one that’s worth making financial risks for.

But, probably our breakthrough moment was when I got the deal with Nickelodeon to run an advertising campaign for Ella’s at our launch, in exchange for a revenue share of the sales we made. It was effectively no cash risk to me.

I persuaded them that our adverts would keep children watching during commercial breaks, and that advertising a healthy product would help them to address some of the criticism they were receiving about contributing to children’s poor health. Those campaigns proved invaluable to our success, and certainly helped secure our first buy with Sainsbury’s. That was a real turning point for us.

Why did you want to get involved in the Foodpreneur Festival?

Britain is at the heart of the food and drink startup scene and the Virgin StartUp Foodpreneur Festival is a great opportunity to celebrate that. It’s also a chance for me to be available to new food entrepreneurs, and to offer them advice on getting started and scaling up.

One of the best parts of my job is being able to use my experience to help other entrepreneurs. I’m so grateful for the similar help I received from others when I started, that I really enjoy giving back now. Britain is an innovative, creative nation that loves food and we produce world class food and drink brands and entrepreneurs.

Giving back is important to Ella’s Kitchen. Why?

I have always believed that business can be a real force for social, and environmental good, it’s something I am actively campaigning about.

That’s why we’ve tried hard to be ‘good in every sense’ as it says on every Ella’s product. Not just through the food we make, but by working on our environmental impact, and giving back to our local communities.

I think it’s an exciting time for business at the moment; social responsibility is now high on the agenda of huge corporate businesses, as well as budding entrepreneurs. Business is the most powerful man-made force we have, and I don’t believe there is a limit to the positive impact it can have on the world.

And finally, what are your top three tips for aspiring food businesses?

  1. Set yourself clear goals – My businesses are based on a set of fundamental values, and are driven by a clear defining mission that pushes us forward. Once you have that primary purpose, you can set yourself the achievable goals that will mark out how you’re going to realise it.
  2. Think imaginatively – The best entrepreneurs are always looking at things in a different way, interrupting their plans and challenging themselves to try things they are not yet capable of.
  3. Never give up! – Building a business is not easy, but having real belief in yourself, your team and your idea will keep you on the right path, even when you’re struggling.

You can find out more about Ella’s Kitchen on their website