An interview with Ella’s Kitchen founder Paul Lindley
Paul Lindley's kids' food company is as popular with parents as it is with children. He tells us why.
Ella's Kitchen is very close to founder Paul Lindley's heart. Stemming from his desire to make a difference to parents and children – his own included – the children's smoothie company is something of a personal crusade.
Little wonder then that Lindley's passion spoke to the judges of this year's NatWest Startups Awards loudly enough to gain his venture the title of Micro Business of the Year Award.
After 10 years at Nickelodeon, Lindley's decision to set up on his own was prompted by his family. Wanting to spend more time with his young children, he was also becoming concerned with the well-documented rise in childhood obesity.
In 2002, 30% of children were medically overweight, he says. “As a father, I was passionate about doing something to make a difference.”
With a very formative concept in mind – a children's snack that would be fun, nutritious and tasty – Lindley decided to leave his well-paid job to focus solely on developing the product.
“I had to put my money where my mouth was. I knew if I didn't, I would always regret it.”
To retain 100% equity he self-financed the business with £200,000. Much of this was ploughed into an 18-month development phase that allowed him to finalise the exact nature of the product and his own business plans.
The end result was Ella's Kitchen's Smoothie Fruits, a snack consisting of nothing but crushed fruit.
“The texture, the taste and the smell – the smoothie fruits were designed to appeal to kids' senses,” says Lindley. “The names of the two smoothie fruit products, The Red One and The Yellow One, came from kids themselves. Children were involved in the whole process, and helped choose the recipes.”
The care lavished on the products is clear to see, with the personal touch central to the design and marketing. The pouches are distinctive, colourful, attractive to kids and, importantly, feature Lindley's seven-year-old daughter – the Ella of Ella's kitchen – something he feels adds to the integrity of the brand. “It is real and it is honest,” he says. “With Ella being on the packages, parents and kids can feel the connection with the brand.”
Once the product was complete, Lindley struck an innovative deal with Viacom Brand Services (VBS), the advertising house of Nickelodeon, in order to gain Ella's Kitchen massively valuable TV advertising.
“I was on the other side of the table from what I was used to,” he explains. “I persuaded them to use their media positively for kids. And instead of the usual rate card, we found another way.”
The deal involved VBS receiving a share of the revenue, and in return it devoted time and cost helping Lindley create the advert, which was shown on Nickelodeon's channels. The advert was seen by three million parents and children and is set to run again shortly.
With this impressive coup under his belt, Lindley approached supermarkets. Getting Sainsbury's to take the product on was a ‘huge challenge' says Lindley.
“I sent our first letter and phone calls into Sainsbury's in April 2005, and followed up with many, many phone calls and emails – never getting to actually speak to anyone over the next few months,” he explains, stressing the difficulties in knowing the right person to approach.
However, in July he finally made contact with the person who was in a position to help and she invited him in to talk about the product. He went in alone and made a strong impression. “I think my enthusiasm, passion, strategy, brand and products all connected with her,” he says.
In mid-September Lindley was told Sainsbury's would launch the Smoothie Fruits nationally, in over 300 of their stores. “It was then that I thought ‘Oh my god, now I really have to do this!'” Lindley says, describing the process as ‘incredibly rewarding'.
Successful sales enabled Lindley to diversify into baby food in August 2006 and despite the notoriously competitive market, things so far look promising.
More than 700,000 pouches have so far been sold in Sainsbury's, and the year's turnover is expected to hit £800,000.
This bodes well for the company. Other products are in development for next year, and it's looking likely Lindley will need to recruit to keep up with the success of his company.
Unsurprisingly he's optimistic about the future, and enthusiastic about the potential of start-ups. “Me winning the Startups award and getting this recognition should be an inspiration to others – it is possible to make a difference.”