Q&A: Paul Lindley, Ella’s Kitchen

We speak to Paul Lindley, founder of one of the purposeful business movement’s greatest success stories, as he steps down from Ella’s Kitchen.

Paul and Ella Lindley

Paul Lindley set up Ella’s Kitchen in 2006 to make sure that children like his infant daughter Ella could enjoy tasty, organic baby food that would set them up for a lifetime of healthy and nutritious eating.

That mission to “improve children’s lives by developing healthier relationships with food” has transformed Ella’s Kitchen from a fledgling startup into the UK’s largest baby food brand, with 80 employees and an £80m annual turnover. Instantly recognisable by its brightly coloured packs of pureed fruit and vegetables, the brand is now a household name.

Today, 6 April, Paul steps down as chair of Ella’s Kitchen, now a certified B Corp, and leaves the company — with his team having achieved the “big hairy audacious goal” of selling 1 billion servings of organic children’s food.

Purpose spoke to Paul about what he has learned from the success of Ella’s Kitchen, the challenges he has met along the way, and what he plans to do next.

Q. Why have you decided to leave Ella’s Kitchen now?

I feel that now is a good time to let the management team move the business forward, based on the values, vision and mission that we’ve articulated so well together over the years.

We’ve achieved 1 billion servings because we are mission-led. Everyone who’s involved in Ella’s Kitchen knows our purpose, whether it’s our shareholder, our employees or our customers. That focus, that constant going back to our values, mission and purpose, is why we’ve achieved what we’ve achieved.

Q. What will you do next?

I’m really interested in exploring how to take entrepreneurial thinking outside of mainstream business and into other areas of society. There is a need for more risk-taking, creativity, joining the dots in a different way, acceptance of failure and so on — whether that’s in education policy, or public policy or other areas of life.

I’ve accepted an invitation from Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to head up a taskforce to address childhood obesity in the capital. Helping children eat better is of course the main reason I set up Ella’s Kitchen: a third of our kids are overweight, 20% are obese, and 60% who are overweight or obese in primary school remain so for the rest of their lives. So we’ve got to find innovative ways to tackle that issue early in life, because it affects both the individual kids and our future society.

I’m also involved in Toast Ale, a brand of craft beers that uses surplus bread to brew its beer. The founder, Tristram Stuart, is a food activist who is trying to change the fact that 44% of the bread baked every day in the UK goes to waste. By using that fresh but surplus bread to make beer, using the brand and marketing of Toast Ale to spread awareness of the underlying issue, and then funnelling the profits back to a food waste charity, we can both create prosperity and help address the food waste issue.

Q. What’s the biggest learning you’d pass on to aspiring mission-led business leaders?

Listen more than you talk — that’s how you get new ideas and stay inspired.

And remember that business is fundamentally about people, not about money. If you focus on people and understanding people’s motivations, inspire them with a vision and show them how they are a part of it and why they matter, then you’ll have a fantastic business.

Ella’s Kitchen’s brightly coloured packets are instantly recognisable on supermarket shelves

Q. Ella’s Kitchen achieved very rapid growth. Does sticking to your values become more challenging as you scale?

All companies experience this when they grow very quickly. In that first year, everyone is doing everything and everyone is there because they passionately believe in it. As you get bigger, you need more systems, more processes — it doesn’t become corporate exactly, but it does become more professional.

When you hit that point, what used to just “happen” organically now needs more concentration. You have to work it out formally: these are our values, this is the mission, this is how every single job can impact upon the mission, this is how we have to align the different teams.

It becomes hugely important to focus on culture, engagement and communication. How can you encourage your senior leadership to listen? Because the new ideas are within the team as it grows. How can you listen to all of those new perspectives, how can you understand everyone’s personal motivations when there are so many more people? How can you become comfortable as an entrepreneur that your vision and your values are ingrained in the company?

Q. What steps did Ella’s Kitchen take to manage this?

Our solution was to invest in a people team relatively early on. We hired our first senior people person once we reached about 30–35 employees. Not many companies of that size would do that, but we knew that our continued growth was likely to add more stress, overwork and juggling of priorities. We had to find a way to manage that, in terms of keeping people motivated about the mission, communicating our progress towards our goals, and showing how each person is contributing to it.

That is all really ingrained now. The mission and the values are integral to the whole process of recruitment, promotion, reward, and so on.

Q. Does a company’s mission start to change and develop as more people join the business?

Well, a new person can help you see the wood from the trees. And of course, the challenges we face today are different from the challenges we faced ten years ago. So we have to bring in new ideas and new perspectives through new people.

We do have a process in place to ensure that the person who joined Ella’s Kitchen last month will share a similar sense of mission and mind-set as the person who joined 12 years ago. But it’s a common mind-set, not a common mind! Within that, we want the perspective that comes from a new set of eyes, a new generation, a new skillset.

To give an example from outside Ella’s Kitchen, I’m on the board of the Sesame Workshop, creators of Sesame Street. There, I’ve seen Jeff Dunn come in as CEO and bring about a complete change in the organisation’s economic fortunes by introducing a single mission throughout the company: “to help kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder”. It builds on the organisation’s history, but Sesame Street is now going way beyond what they would have done the past, such as delivering programming to Syrian refugees and bringing autism into the mainstream.

Q. Have there been any wobbles or difficult decisions as you’ve grown?

Yes, we’ve faced challenges and made mistakes like any other business.

I do remember one occasion when we parted company with a supplier. There was no falling out or anything, it just wasn’t the right fit for the future of the business at that time.

About a year later, I gave an interview like this one, talking about our values as a business. I got an email from the supplier soon after, saying, basically, what the hell are you talking about? They felt that we had treated them badly — that was a shock to us. But their perception was that we hadn’t lived our values in how we had dealt with them.

So what do you do? Ella’s Kitchen CEO Mark Cuddigan and I went round to see them in person and told them that we were horrified, apologised and asked how we could learn to improve in the future — we’d not lived our values, and we had to learn from that.

I thought that was the human way to respond: a face-to-face meeting that allowed us to understand their position much better and avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

Q. You sold Ella’s Kitchen to Hain Celestial in 2013, which must have been a huge decision for you. How did you know that it was the right thing to do?

I started the business wanting to leave a legacy. Before we even talked about money, I needed to be able to look them in the eye and say, if we do a deal, I have to understand your purpose and I have to trust that you will live our values and continue this mission.

Of course we had lots of conversations with bankers and advisors, surrounded by spreadsheets and numbers. But the seminal conversation for me was when Irwin Simon, the CEO of Hain Celestial, was sitting on the sofa in our office. He was just sitting in silence and looking around, and I asked him what he was thinking.

He said, “I’m looking around and thinking, how can I prevent myself from changing any of this? Because this culture and environment is what makes you work. If we do a deal, your job is to make sure that I don’t change any of this.” That gave me a lot of confidence.

Paul is now an investor and director of Toast Ale, which uses surplus bread to make beer

Q. What are the key ingredients of a successful mission-led business?

What’s really resonated with me is a very simple pyramid, a kind of version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, explaining how a business is structured.

At the base of the pyramid is “living”. The business itself has to be able to live and be sustainable, and the people who work there need to be paid a living wage and be well treated.

The second step is “loving”. As a business, you need to love what you are doing and why you are doing it. This is where your mission comes in: at the level above your business being sustainable. It’s also about loving your people and encouraging them to love their job, making it mean more to them than just a paycheque.

The level above that is “learning”. This means being prepared to make mistakes and learn from them in order to improve what you do. Businesses need to continue to learn, I think, while always remembering to point in the direction of the mission. And it’s also about creating the space for your employees and your team to learn, giving them autonomy and mastery of their own skills and their own careers.

At the top of the pyramid is “legacy”. This is why the most successful businesses are the most successful businesses: because they care about legacy and the footprint that the business will leave. In those types of businesses, the current owners are just stewards, because the legacy is sustainable and long-term. Thinking about “legacy” also means encouraging all of your team to leave their own legacy, their own footprint, within the business.

If you can get people thinking like that, so that they are working for you and with you, then it all aligns.

Q. Why do some mission-led businesses fail? For example, your follow-up project, organic toiletries business Paddy’s Bathroom, recently closed.

First and foremost, your business has to be a business — as before, it has to live, it has to have a clear route to profitability. I think this is the mistake I made with Paddy’s Bathroom.

The learning from Paddy’s Bathroom was, if you can’t find a sustainable business plan or a route to profitability, then you’ve got to decide whether you continue, or whether you are a charity that needs external funding. I decided that it was a business, and that the plan I’d designed wasn’t a sustainable plan.

Q. Is it dangerous to start with the mission, rather than starting with the business plan?

Certainly for startups and entrepreneurial businesses, the “why” is really important from the beginning. That’s the seed that’s planted and makes you go and do what you want to do. But it’s got to be in balance with your business.

Q. Entrepreneurial businesses like Ella’s Kitchen have made real waves in the food industry by creating commercial solutions to serious food challenges. Will the food giants ever be able to follow suit — or is their very model broken?

I’m excited and optimistic about the food industry. There are so many businesses out there that are coming through with innovative ideas and different ways of reaching consumers. It really challenges the big brands and the big multinationals.

Unilever and Danone are good examples of large businesses that are trying to do something different. But it’s a challenge for corporations to convince people to trust them and believe that their mission is genuine. And even when it is genuine, it may be hard to implement, because there are thousands of people it has to go through to come to life.

For a large corporation to change, the impetus has to come from the very top. For an entrepreneur whose vision was there in the company from the very beginning, it’s much easier.

Q. But there’s no inherent reason why large corporations can’t bring forward-thinking food ideas and products to scale?

The problem is more that all businesses are forced to operate in an ecosystem and an environment where too much of our “humanness” has been removed.

As an individual, you might have this job or that job, but your life will be much more defined by your relationships with your loved ones, your children, the football team you support, the charity you support, your home and your mortgage, and so on — all of those things are important to you, and they’re important to you over the long-term.

But everything is led by short-term thinking. Shareholders are motivated by short-term gains, executives are incentivised by bonuses and short-term targets, private equity has two-to-three year horizons, politicians are on four-to-five year voting cycles, even schools have their pupils narrowly focused on two-year exam cycles.

All of this encourages a focus on short-term results, not the long-term benefits we really want. Big business is caught up in that ecosystem, no matter what the individual business leaders might want. They are more caught up in it than entrepreneurial businesses, sure, but all of us are caught in a world that has this fundamental problem. The next generation of leaders need to evolve this into an ecosystem that encourages more long-term thinking.

Q. So the issue is really more about the ability of leaders to make long-term decisions, than about the size of the organisation?

Yes. As individuals, many business leaders are making normal decisions in an abnormal environment. They are under short-term pressure to make decisions that are not necessarily in the long-term interests of either the company or society.

There are lots of ideas we can explore in terms of altering incentives and penalties to encourage a change in this behaviour. This is why I really like the notion that business is fundamentally about people. The businesses who get that, whether they are small or large, tend to think and act in a more holistic way.

Focus on people and we will find solutions, because we will become more collaborative within our businesses: from the investors and the CEO down to the shop floor worker.

I’m optimistic. If we can get more “humanness” back into our economy and our business plans, then we’ll have better businesses. We’ll make more money and create more prosperity, because we’ll have a better idea of what we want to do with that prosperity. And mission-led companies that “do well by doing good” are a big part of the solution.


Inspired? To find out more about how you can embed values, vision and mission within your company as it grows and achieve your own “big hairy audacious goals”, get in touch with The House on 01225 780000 or email steve@thehouse.co.uk.