Podcast: Encounters with success – Paul Lindley OBE
The latest episode of our series talking to individuals who have achieved outstanding success in a range of fields. Entrepreneur, author and activist Paul Lindley OBE talks to Richard Dyson about how he founded and ran the groundbreaking baby and toddler food brand Ella’s Kitchen, as well as how his values have shaped his outlook on business – and his campaigns and activism supporting young people.
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Richard Dyson: Paul Lindley OBE is billed by headline writers as a successful entrepreneur, and he is that, but far more. His business and more recently, his charity, campaigning work and books, revolve around a profound simple philosophy – the world looks different through the eyes of a child. Take a childlike view of things he says and you'll immediately invoke some of the attributes that are key to success like being tenacious, single-minded, creative and honest. Hi Paul and thank you very much for talking to us.
Paul Lindley: Hi Richard. Thank you, that's a unique introduction. One I very much appreciate as long as your listeners see childlike as something very different to childish. Very, very different. Let's go with the imagination.
Richard: Quite, well we'll get back to that. But firstly Paul, you established a food brand – Ella's Kitchen, which most people will know back in 2006 and it achieved a million-pound turnover in year one. It created your fortune. You sold the business in 2013 and have stayed on for several years. But now, most of your time goes on charitable and campaigning work.
You're a passionate believer in the power of business to do good for society. In the same vein as that childlike theme, your focus really is on children and on the future. And we're going to come back to that and to your books. But let's start, if I may, with the business itself. Tell us about the founding of Ella's Kitchen, and most importantly, why was it such a success?
Paul Lindley: Okay, thank you. Well the founding, so Ella is my daughter. I guess the idea that's triggered it all was from two things that came together in my life at the same time. One is that I'd had my baby Ella and as a family, we were weaning her. She was great for a while and then she stopped eating. I just had to use silliness, mess and games to try and make her laugh to open her mouth to pop the food in. And I sort of copped on that if you can make food fun for children and babies, then they'll like it.
The second thing in my life was, I was working at Nickelodeon where I was Deputy Managing Director and sitting at my desk there, I could see that television was great, but it was being blamed for a lot of poor health among children and they weren't going outside, they were watching television and watching bad ads. So I could see that our children's health was declining and sort of bringing the two things together, I'd worked out that if you made food fun for kids they'd like it. If you could make it healthy for parents and healthy, then everyone would like it. And that's what I set off to do. I worked out that there was a gap in the market. No one else was doing that and so I set out to create my own brand. It took two years, after leaving my job, to find Ella's Kitchen on the supermarket shelves for the first time.
Richard: And so actually, that wasn't really about this thing that I guess came later, which was this child's view of the world then, that was just you spotted a gap in the market?
Paul Lindley: No, I spotted a gap in the market and then had to work out how do we get to the market? And how do we make it different? At that time, all baby food was very functional. It was purely designed to attract a parent, the mother at that time, completely, into the store. It was seen as a loss leader by supermarkets and consequently, no one was investing in it. So it hadn't evolved for two generations. It was in glass jars, it was pretty functional, it was all pretty much orange and had very old-fashioned recipes, I guess. So what I thought of was to appeal to the child, to appeal to the baby. Think like that baby will think, think as a toddler will think and make it really appealing for them. Make it so that it attracted all of their senses; it was visually stimulating, it tasted great, smelt great and was tactile.
So innovated in so many different areas; innovated in the packaging away from the glass jars, something that was much more tactile and helpful for the parents – in a pouch. Made it in bright colours and put together unusual things in recipes that perhaps parents wouldn't do at home that works and were healthy and good. So mixing fruits and vegetables together, for example, and using some unusual fruits and vegetables. And then marketing in a very different way. Marketing appealing to the child in the parent and making the whole stressful task of weaning more fun and more human, but without taking the seriousness of the nutrition and the routine away from it.
So really revolutionise baby food to the extent that we launched with products that were 50% more expensive than the glass jars and everything else that was around it on the shelf. And you know, as you just said in the introduction, made £1 million turnover in the first year and double that turnover for each of the first seven years of its existence. So the price wasn't an issue to the consumer because the product was different. It was of a quality and it was a resonance to their lives. And so really found that market or that gap in the market by appealing to the toddler from the very beginning and having a mission that was around the toddler's development and the baby's development so that they grew up finding food fun and helping them develop a healthy relationship with food throughout their life. So we put all the focus on the child from the beginning.
Richard: That amazing growth suggests that you were dead right in spotting the opportunity. And because we're going to talk beyond Ella's Kitchen, I'm keen to ask, apart from that immediate commercial success, dramatic as it was, what were you learning as the business grew? How was it beginning to develop into these other things that your life has winded out since?
Paul Lindley: Sure. Well, I think my learning from that were two broad things that everything else in my life, subsequent to that, has hooked on to. Then perhaps I can just explain a couple of things why I also think that Ella's, you know, was so successful and became the biggest baby food company in this country so quickly and in many places around the world as well. So the broad stuff around what I've learned from that experience are two things.
One is people matter. People matter to business, people matter in life. If you focus on the people rather than the profit, the profit will come. You know, you can have the best business plan in the world, but you need people to deliver the business plan. You need people to invest in you, you need people to work with you, and you need people to buy from you. By humanising business, by putting them right at the centre and understanding motivations and behaviour, you'll understand the economics will follow. So I think in business, psychology beats economics, people beat strategies, in a way, because economics and strategies are numbers and words on pieces of paper, and you need the human-ness, the innovation, the motivation and the understanding of people's behaviours to make it work. And that applies to obviously marketing and things like trust, but also to understand how the finances work and why the price point's right, or why the capital investment that we made works.
Richard: Sorry to interrupt you there, but you had had a commercial life before Ella's Kitchen. You'd been an accountant and you'd worked at Nickelodeon as you said. What was it about Ella's kitchen that made you see those things in ways that perhaps you hadn't in your previous careers?
Paul Lindley: Well, I was in the privileged position of creating the business in my image, if you like. So I could set the values, the brand, the culture, all of which I intuitively thought were the most important things in a business but had never been in a position to call the shots before and set all those things. And as I saw they were working, I hugely invested and hugely valued the people. Very early on I think we had about 15 people. We got, what other organisations would call a HR department, what we called it was the keeping-people-happy team. And really understood the reason why someone wanted to work for Ella's, how they saw reward, how they developed themselves, and ultimately, they were happier at work. They stayed longer and they helped deliver the mission of the company because they thought about that mission and their involvement with the company beyond the hours of 9-5 or however they worked. So, people, this is one of the things that I learned.
And then the second thing was a very toddler-like thing, actually, which is ask the question, 'Why?' All the time. Or as toddlers do, 'Why not?' And if you ask why to everything in life, I think, or better still as I say, why not? You, sort of, get to your mission and you get to what your purpose is if you question things all the time. You know, ask questions and question the answers. Because then you find the little angles. The 1% chance. The things that other people haven't delved deep enough to look at and haven't spotted the opportunity. And they also question whether you're going down the right road or not and allow you the opportunity to change direction and to keep evolving and to keep relevant. So that's a philosophy of mine, I had to constantly question why of anything and then to keep people right at the heart of it. So, they are the two things that I've taken on to my other work and that colour my view of life.
But perhaps getting back to Ella's on that, I know you asked at the beginning about why Ella's was successful and yes, we took that high risk of a different kind of packaging, different kind of recipes, different price point, different kind of marketing, a very different company. But I think the few things that I've learned from that experience that I've seen and try to take to other businesses and how the economy ultimately works are perhaps, yes, you need a business plan and that needs to work, and it needs to be relevant, and you need to find a market, and you need to find a gap in that market and there needs to be a market in that gap. And those, kind of common, MBA type, you've got to be smart around your plans. But they all just stay on a piece of paper unless you take the next three or four things I'm going to say to heart and deliver on them.
First of all, setting values right at the heart of the company, build your business around values. Work out at the very beginning what they are, how you're going to interpret them and hold yourself accountable to them. Because if you set your values up at the beginning, you will have a consistency of decision-making right the way through your business. Those easy days, when it's an easy decision, that's no problem. Once it's a really hard decision, you've really got to delve deep and to understand what is right and wrong for you.
Richard: I'm hearing that and I get it, but what does that mean in practice? I think some people listening to this might be curious. You know, you're growing this business very fast. Some of your customers are huge retailers notorious for the cut-throat treatment of suppliers. In practice, was it that easy to ask these difficult questions and stick to your values?
Paul Lindley: Yes. Because what's the point otherwise? So, we turned down a major retailer for three years in a row which would have grown our revenues, would have grown them at a margin that we couldn't sustain. So, we would have been hoping to increase the volume to reduce the individual price. But that was hope and we didn't like the way that we were expected to fund and position ourselves within their store, which wasn't why we started. So, we turned them down. Eventually, they came and we did a deal that worked for us in recruiting people and more importantly, in divesting of people whose values didn't fit with us that we may have had in a team. Those difficult decisions around making sure that the team is right, pulling together as one, as united in their goals together and when there's one bad egg in a team of 20, that's very different from one bad egg in a team of 200, and you've got to act on those things. So being able to refer back to your values, I don't think it's difficult. I think it causes difficult decisions and it's easy to duck out of it for the quick buck or for just pushing the problem down the road.
But if you're serious about wanting a sustainable long-term business, and I'll put this into your world a little bit with investments. If you're looking for a quick buck and you don't really care what you invest in, then don't worry about the industries, the ethics and things of the companies you involve with. You live with yourself as to whether you're happy with that. But if you think that it's important what the companies that you do, how they operate and what their values are, then I think most people want to align with organisations and investments and something that's happening in the world aligns with their values. And if that happens when we pick the smoothie off the shelf in the supermarket because we believe in the company that's got the one with the woolly hat on top and is saying they do something beyond selling smoothies to the world, then why shouldn't we do that when we invest in our pensions or individual investments? And so I'm optimistic that the world goes further toward adding value into their decisions.
Richard: Very interesting. And I know we'll hopefully get to that a bit more. But perhaps when you look back over Ella's Kitchen and your withdrawal from it in the past, when you think about what constitutes success generally in the creation of a business, it is then so much more than that commercial success and market share and so on. It is these other elements that you've touched on, like team and values.
Paul Lindley: Well, I think they all drive that commercial success. So, I was talking about values. I could talk about, you know, be obsessed by your customer and listen to them and don't tell them what they want. Listen to what they want and have mechanisms within your organisation so you can respond to changes that they're asking for. Have an awesome team. Praise them, deliver what they want out of their career and their work, their job. Help them be connected, help them be autonomous within the company and make decisions themselves. Empower them, help them master things and then learn by themselves, and ensure that they've got the right mindsets or that you employ people with the right mindset to work in a team like that.
And I would say the final thing is, always, always, always find ways to just deepen that authenticity that you stand for something beyond making profit and providing something as cheaply as possible to sell as much as possible. Be authentic because people believe in that who buy from you and that shines through and crucially, for any business that's a brand, a consumer brand, you've got to get that trust. As I was talking about people earlier, trust is fundamental to business. It can take a very long time to build up, and it can take seconds, one decision, to lose and you never get that back. So that consistency of being underpinned by values to build that trust. But trust is uniquely human and it's so difficult to define. My experience and my advice to others starting businesses or in leadership of business is really to spend so much time working out how you build that trust with authenticity and how you protect yourself from it being broken by unwise or random decisions that reflect badly and then you're on the back foot all the time. So, all of those things I talk about, about human beings at the centre of business, it's not about the profitability as the centre thing. That comes when you put people at the heart.
Richard: And there's so much I still wanted to talk about on that, but just one quick question then. It's quite a long time ago now that Ella's Kitchen was founded. Do you think the public and consumers value that sense of authenticity more now than then? What's changed in the marketplace? Is there more cynicism? Is there more willingness to look deeper into how a business is run?
Paul Lindley: I don't think human beings have changed in those 20 years. I think the opportunities for them to look under the covers, to ask questions, ask why and find out more information. I think consumers are much more empowered. The balance of power has moved from the business and the leadership within business to wider within the business. I think employees for the best run companies have a better say or a bigger say in how a company's run.
But then to the outside, to the consumers, the consumers have more power, because the technology advances means that green-washing, for example, is very difficult now. Transparency is what consumers expect. A chief executive can be emailed, as they could 20 years ago. The whole social media, public conversations can happen now that the chief executive can't duck or is ill-advised to duck if it's raging. And so they must respond and that response ought to be thought through and if that response is built on, 'Well, here are our values and this is what we've set up.' Then, you know, that's a very defendable position. So to answer your question, I think the technology culture and, in some ways, legislation, has all moved the balance of power over to the consumer and so businesses have had to respond and are much better because they respond.
Richard: And perhaps because some of the crises that the world faces in general are so much more demanding of a response than in the past.
Paul Lindley: Yes, absolutely and don't get me wrong, another angle to this is employees and teams. So if you are a business that wants to retain or employ the brightest and the best and the people who you think will move your company the furthest and keep them with you for the longest, you've got to treat them as human beings. You've got to understand their motivations for working for you. The brightest young people now coming out of university are going to be able to challenge companies in a way that they weren't being able to challenge before at the interview stage. Just saying, 'What are your values? Okay. They're words. Now show me, please, how they are played out every day. How do you actually do this? Because these are my values and I want to work for a company that overlaps with that.' And the companies that don't will fall off the FTSE 100 list or will struggle and the companies that do, will attract those talents increasingly. So the power shift there, I believe, has moved as well over the last twenty years.
Richard: I mean this is a part of what I wanted to ask you about next, which was, that period post-Ella's Kitchen, where you were thinking about and finding new ways to use your skills and promote your vision for how a business could work better in society, what success commercially could deliver to society? Tell us a bit more about that process.
Paul Lindley: I thought I was in this incredibly privileged position that I had no sense was coming. It wasn't part of the overall plan to say, 'Okay now in my mid-forties, I'm in a position where I don't need to work again financially.' But emotionally and intellectually and as a human being, spiritually, I absolutely did. I spent so much time over eight, nine years, defining what the values of Ella's Kitchen were, what its brand stood for, who it was, why it existed and what its purpose was. And I thought, 'My goodness, I need to do that for myself now, to make sure that I am true to myself and I can do the things that I want to do.' Given that, I'm in this privileged position and I do feel a responsibility, as well as a sense of myself, a sense of wellbeing, to use the experiences and the wealth and the ideas and the networks that I have, to do something further. So, my passions, or my thoughts, were trying to bring together two different things.
One was around using the incredible power of entrepreneurship to places outside the for-profit business world. Entrepreneurs are born out of businesses but there should be more entrepreneurial thinking in public policy and education and charities, social enterprises, civic society. There are untold problems and challenges in all of those spaces and the innovation, the connections and the creativity that entrepreneurs often bring, aren't really embedded in the cultures of those other spaces. So I was really interested in trying to bring over any skills that I might have, or any networks that I might have, to be able to address problems in those other spaces. And then the other thing was really around children's wellbeing, their welfare, their rights and helping more children thrive.
Richard: Before we get there, sorry to interrupt there, but before we move onto the children focus, just what is it that has meant that some aspects of the economy do not have that? Why don't they have that entrepreneurial culture?
Paul Lindley: Of the economy? Or of society?
Richard: Of the economy. You talked there about public policy, third sector.
Paul Lindley: Yes. I think it is cultural in many respects. So, for example, in public policy, a government has the balance and has the culture of thinking, that it is in this incredibly serious position of it's got public money and it needs to be accountable for spending that public money well, obviously. But by spending it on something that doesn't work, necessarily, is seen as, 'We're not going to take that risk.' Whereas, we're never going to solve problems if we keep doing the same thing again and again, which tends to happen. Because they're worried about spending something and it's not going to work. Whereas in private business, in an entrepreneurial setting, you use that as a positive. You say, 'Okay, that didn't work. What have I learnt? How am I going to adapt? How am I going to pivot? How am I going to do it again, differently?'
You know, James Dyson had something like 1,500 goes at getting his patent right for his vacuum cleaner. JK Rowling, in her own little business of being an author, sent the Harry Potter off to dozens of publishers before she got that. So the idea that you can fail in public life is seen as something that just can't be done. Yet, it's fundamentally human. You, I and everyone listening to this, failed more times today, in the things that we do, than we'll succeed at. But each time, we'll learn and adapt. If we take my heroes, the toddlers, each one of us is privileged to walk.
Richard: Tell us a little bit, as you finish articulating that, just mention your book, for those who haven't come across it. 'Little Wins. The Huge Power of Thinking Like a Toddler'. I think you were going to talk about one of the kind of core ideas in that.
Paul Lindley: Yes. Well, that book was really a culmination a few years after I'd sold Ella's, of my reflections on Ella's Kitchen journey and why it was successful. But also, what I've learnt around how incredible toddlers are, how they're the best human beings. And the wonderful thing is, everyone who would read that book was once a toddler and therefore, this could speak to things that everybody, all of us, went through, learnt and physiologically developed, psychologically developed at that age, that we tend not to use, as much as we should in adulthood. Obviously everyone's childhood is different, there are happy childhoods and there are less happy childhoods but the evolution of development, of stages that we all go through, between eighteen months and five years when our brains are developing and our humanness is evolving – they're critical. And so, what I tapped into was the amazing opportunities that we have at that age to really develop.
In my book, I talk about nine skills that we learnt over that period but many more as well, that gives us this imagination and free-thinking and self-confidence of our place in the world. And our questioning, asking why, a curiosity, bravery, and an un-cynicism that we looked at the outside world as we try to absorb it, that we lose as we grow older. And that's either through parenting, through our schooling system, through our corporate systems. Some things for very good reasons and we survive because of that. But some things, not because of a good reason and they knock out the idea of imagination and failure.
So the book is really around trying to unlock our personal potential, not by learning new stuff but by rediscovering old things that we once did and having that opportunity to grow down, two minutes a day, and look through those eyes that we all once looked through. And see if we can change our confidence or our view on creativity or our persistence and determination, our collaborations, our communications and our playfulness. All things like that. And it's relevant to the question that I was just answering a second ago about failure. Every one of us who has got the privilege to walk, didn't decide to walk, we fell over 500 times. Each time, we just adjusted something so that 499th time, we'd get it all right. If we're prepared to do that, as we learn to walk or ride a bike or swim, why don't we do that in other aspects of our lives, when we're adults? When it's seen as a failure and embarrassing and shameful to fail at something, we should embrace it. As long as we know how to learn and adapt and move forward. And if we did that more in non-entrepreneurial businesses, in our public policy and discord, then I think we'd find, quicker, the solutions to some of the global challenges that we have.
Richard: So, that's part, in a way, of your answer to my earlier question, which is culturally adopting some of this courageous, persistent approach of a toddler, would represent the solution to some of what's not working, in aspects of the economy?
Paul Lindley: Absolutely, spot on.
Richard: But Paul, I'm conscious of time and I want you to talk a little bit more about this idea of the focus that you're still placing on another aspect of youth and childhood, which is the role that today's children are going to play in tomorrow's society and tomorrow's economy. And why that is so important to you, and why you look at aspects of how we function as a society and conclude that it's not child-centric enough. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Paul Lindley: Sure, thank you. Well I'm writing a book at the moment that really poses this question. If we want the brightest possible future for this country, how do we do that? I contend that if we want that brightest possible future, we need to ensure that every child has every opportunity to become the person that they have the potential to be, to thrive. I base that on the idea that we live in an increasingly volatile, complex and ambiguous world where it's just uncertain. The future's uncertain and the pace of uncertainty is increasing, as we're seeing some of the awful news, at the moment, from the last two or three years. And if we're going to face that that future's coming, if we want to face that with hope and with confidence, we need a thriving society to be able to do that.
If you think about it, society is nothing more than what happens when children grow up. The people that are going to look after me and you and all of our listeners, in our old age, are children right now. People that are going to invent the thing that is going to address the problem that we don't even know is coming, are children right now or are not born right now. The leaders of our countries and our politics and everything else, in twenty or thirty years’ time, will be children today. So if we want a thriving society then, we need thriving children now. And my work is around, 'How do we better make children thrive?' Help them thrive and help them find their purpose, is part of it. Help them have a better voice and more variety and their wellbeing being looked after.
But if we don't do that and we as a society decide to prioritise some other things, in all honesty, over their wellbeing, whether that's the number of GCSEs that we expect them or want them to achieve, over their wellbeing, in terms of their mental health around the pressures over the quantity, rather than the quality of their GCSEs. And we do it in our economy, with a relentless focus on growing GDP and growing our economy, at the expense of the wellbeing of the planet, the wellbeing of our people – it's quantity again. I'll pick on cigarette companies because they're easy to pick on but GDP grows if all of our cigarette companies triple their profits next year or their turnover. Is that good for society? Is that a good thing, that we've grown GDP, if that's the reason it's grown? We can have all sorts of debates on that but maybe we should be focusing on the quality of the companies that we've got, the outputs, the innovations and the ways we improve people's lives through our companies' prosperity rather than the overall quantity of it.
You know, my book, my contention, I've got some wonderful essays, contributing are experts in all sorts of areas of childhood. But the idea is that it's not just that we ought to create a society that can produce thriving children because they will become thriving adults. That is part of it. But we ought to be producing thriving children because we ought to be producing thriving children. We can learn from them, we get joy from them, evolution is about adapting to changing environments, it's not about being the biggest or the fastest, that quantity point again. It's about being able to adapt best and unless we bring up our children and help our children thrive by adapting to the environment that is going to be this next decade or this next generation, then we aren't going to face the challenges that we don't know are coming or can't anticipate, with confidence and be as hopeful as we should be.
So that's what my book is around. There's a series of policies, there's a series of ideas, that just changes our mindset to think about, 'What is success in this country?' Is success the biggest possible economy? It doesn't matter what those companies produce, how in sync they are with the environment or people, is that the definition of our success? Or is it that we can produce happy, confident children who will be thriving adults that will be engaged citizens, compassionate and kind people? Who can produce prosperity that we need to make life better for everybody but also have social justice and compassion and community spirit that, 'We need to do this together, to face this volatile and uncertain world'? That's what will come out next year. I've got a whole year to write it and collaborate with others on it.
Richard: I look forward to reading that. I wanted to ask one last question, which is, what you've described there would apply to any generation but is there a sense that our generation, in a way, is perhaps more than in the past, bequeathing a bunch of problems and questions for the next generation? Which really are quite a big ask in themselves.
Paul Lindley: Yes. I'm not sure. I think the heart of what you've just said is true. I think that pace of change is happening at an unprecedented speed. So that the children and anyone under about 30 today have lived their life, moving from crisis to crisis that they can't control. Global, macro crises, whether that's terror and the way the world's changed from terrorism. Whether that's the global economic crisis and the fallout of austerity, none of which they control and the outcomes of which have been hugely unequal. Whether that's public health, we can look at COVID obviously but mental health from a personal point of view as well. Whether that's a crisis in our democracy, given that we live in a time where the challenges to liberal democracy are different than they were in the 20th century. Populism has come through in various world leaders and you've had unusual votes, unpredictable votes and things like that.
So, there's crisis after crisis after crisis and the biggest one, I think, is the fact that we have this social justice crisis, which is not necessarily headlined every day. The world is more unequal, this country is more unequal in both opportunity, wealth and access than it has been and that I think is the one thing that our generation, you know, your listeners will be all sorts of generations but people in the privileged position of being leaders, in various aspects of society now, are bequeathing success and access to some of our children, and a lack of that ladder to get to that success for others, more than ever before, is what I believe.
Richard: Paul, thank you so much. I look forward to reading your book when it appears. And perhaps then, you might come back and speak to us again. But until then, thank you so much for your time. It's been a pleasure and fascinating talking to you.
Paul Lindley: Thank you so much for the opportunity to share some of that Richard. Much appreciated.
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