Interview - The Cheeky Panda

The Cheeky Panda is an award-winning company that creates sustainable and affordable luxury tissue paper products from bamboo, the planet’s fastest growing plant. The company was founded in 2016 by ‘couple-preneurs’ Chris Forbes and Julie Chen who both live and work together. Originally from the Scottish highlands, Chris previously worked with some of the world’s leading firms on strategy and supply chain before meeting Julie, who runs an online dance shoe brand. It was Julie who gave Chris the idea for bamboo toilet tissue and thus, The Cheeky Panda was born.  
This ultra-sustainable bamboo toilet tissue has many incredible properties including being 65% lower carbon than traditional paper (saving one ton of carbon per 4,500 rolls), hypo allergenic and having naturally occurring anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and odour resistant qualities. Furthermore, the bamboo used is from 100% FSC certified bamboo forests that are not the type of bamboo that pandas eat. This makes it the perfect sustainable, luxury, sensitive toilet paper.
This business has grown from strength to strength over the last year and can now be found online and in the eco-store, As Nature Intended. Even before any product had been sold, The Cheeky Panda beat 2500 4000 businesses to come in the top 10 at the Virgin Media VOOM Impact Award 2016. The company was also a finalist in The Duke of York New Entrepreneur of the Year Award at the 2016 Lloyds Bank National Business Awards.

Angela (A): Thank you both Julie and Chris for agreeing to be part of the book. I’m excited to learn more about your business; whilst being less than a year old you might call it fledgling, but a mature business in many other ways.
Chris (C): I think we are on a journey as well, I mean in a year’s time we will be in a completely different place to where we are now. In a lot of ways, the last year has been fun but we have been very much in creativity mode and now we’re kind of getting really into the execution, which is a different skill set and it’s got a different set of challenges, risks, fears, and opportunities. You know it’s kind of like standing at the edge of the abyss. We’ve tied the cord and jumped over and we are still going, ‘Wee!’, on the way down.
A: So, if we wind the metaphorical cord back a little bit and go to the top of the abyss, how did The Cheeky Panda come into being?
C: Myself and Julie met, I took her to the Shard for lunch and she thought ‘Who is this strange Scottish person?’ and I thought ‘Well this girl is really cute’. We ended up going out with each other and got to know and love each other. We’d both been running successful businesses, like Julie had been running an online shoe business and I’d been running a head-hunting business so we were both business people and she’d been saying ‘Do you know that you can turn bamboo into tissue paper?’ And I was like ‘That sounds interesting’ and she said ‘I’ve got an idea for it, it’s called The Cheeky Panda’. And where I’d got to is that I needed eyes on it, to see it for myself, because if we’re going to do this business we need to see is it ethically sourced? We need to look at the production, we need to look at the spread of supply and we need to know if the business can scale. We went out to China to meet Julie’s parents for Christmas.

A: So, the story starts just over 12 months ago.
C: That’s right. So as part of the holiday, much to my annoyance as I was in holiday zone, Julie booked an internal flight for three hours to get to the middle of China to go and visit a couple of tissue paper factories for two days!
Julie (J): We visited this area with a mountains covered with hundreds of miles of lot of bamboo and pandas living around the forest as well. OBut once he saw it, he was hooked, not only because there is so much bamboo but also for these amazing animalsbecause of the scale so he was really eager to go back again and the yummy food.
C: The thing is we’d done a full tour and we sat down with our current supplier and looked at the potential to scale up production. It was absolutely gigantic and everything was tested as good as you would get it in the West because they have extremely modern facilities out there.

A: How did you narrow down to your preferred supplier?
C: Julie basically did all the translation. One girl could speak English but we were heavily reliant on Julie because the guy that owned the factory didn’t speak much English. So we started with the end in mind and knew that if we were going to do this we’d have to do it with scale, in big volume. Because for each container, it’s toilet tissue so it’s not a high value commodity product. You’ve got to sell a lot of it but everyone uses it and once you’ve got people onto your brand then people stick with your brand. So I said ‘Well it really only makes sense for me if we are doing like forty containers a month’.
We also understood that bamboo was a more sustainable plant to the planet and we went ‘Well why aren’t we using this? This is bonkers right.’ Everyone is talking about biomass, talking about human consumption, how we are using one and a half times more than the planet can cope with and here we’ve got the fastest growing plant on the planet and we’re not using it.
We came back from the trip to China and founded our company at the start of January 2016. We could have done it at the end of December but we wanted to qualify as a start-up for all of 2016. So we kind of went ‘Ok we better start looking at brand, marketing and design’ and I said ‘What we are going to do is we are going to get a crowd funding so we have the money to do it.’  

A: Where did the name ‘Cheeky Panda’ come from?
J: So I went through loads of ideas with pandas and I thought ‘Cheeky Panda’ is the best. I saw lots of cheeky things in other branding like ‘Cheeky Monkey’ and I thought ‘Cheeky Panda’ is quite fun. Then somebody else said ‘Cheeky Panda’, fun cheeky or bum cheeky? And I didn’t know it also meant bum cheeky!

A: Great! And it’s lovely seeing the video on your website which explains how bamboo is the fastest growing plant and that the bamboo in your tissue is not the bamboo that pandas eat. The story through your video is very engaging.
C: Initially the video was three minutes long but people disengage so we had to work with it and get it down to 90 seconds.
After we had created ‘Cheeky Panda’, Julie and I then thought ‘Well how the hell are we going to do this because we are going to have to put a global supply chain in place to get our product from China to the UK and to our clients and we don’t know how to do the global supply chain.’ So I reached out to David Rooke from Essex Invest and I said I would buy him a curry. And he said ‘Why do you want to buy me a curry?!’ And I said ‘I just want to buy you a curry.’ So he agreed to meet me and when we turned up to the meeting we basically put the toilet roll on the table and went ‘Right then!’ And he’s like ‘OK!’

A: What did you get in return for the price of a decent curry?
C: The thing it was a six pound curry and the restaurant actually had bamboo in it as part of the decoration which was more of a coincidence than anything else! And David actually knew quite a lot about bamboo himself and he said ‘You do realise that I look after businesses over £100 million pound plus?’ And I said ‘Yes, but I also realise that you’ll know how you can put my global supply chain together’ and he went ‘Well there is that.’

A: So you knew that you’d come to the right person!
C: David said that the Eastern Region Chairman of Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, Robert Edge, works in his team. Robert wrote us a five-page outline of what world class supply and warehousing should look like and then gave us five different supply chain companies to compare.

A: So you deliberately sought someone who you knew would help and that you knew had the information and simply asked to buy them a curry?
C: Yes, that’s exactly what I did.

A: And that is exactly the sort of thinking that gets you where you are which is fabulous for others to learn from.
C: It is. My brain works differently to most peoples, it works upside down so I can see the end goal a lot quicker than most people who need to know each link in the chain. I just go kind of go to the end point and ask where’s the ladder to get me there? It also allowed us to use Essex Invest’s name to get a really good price on our haulage, warehousing and shipping.
Once we had that in place we could work out our costs which was about £12,000 to buy, ship and store a container.

A: In terms of business numbers, the profit potential and the business case of how the business would work in practice, what did you do to get to that stage?
C: We did it the hard way. We downloaded the Harvard Business School template. It’s a 30-page word document and several spreadsheets of numbers which makes you calculate everything from your sales, your operational costs, your supply chain, your warehousing, your margins, your rouote to market, your operations and process.  So we started from very strong foundations in terms of knowing what we needed to do to sell one container, the key milestones. I’ve always tried to plan and stay 6 months ahead of myself. The only way that you can really grow a business in my opinion is if you’ve got a very clear direction about what needs to be done and how it needs to be achieved and make sure that you’ve got all the right people helping you get to where you need to get to.

A: And then what?
C: I asked David whether there was grant funding available from the government and he said that nearly two years ago there was, but right now there’s absolutely nothing. I said ‘Alright fair enough’ but it’s worth knowing because we got a quick answer and avoided a lot of time and energy seeking money that’s not there. So just ask someone ‘Is the money there? No, the money’s not there.’
David said that ‘What we do have is an innovation programme to help entrepreneurs grow in Essex as long as you can prove you can bring jobs to the county and I went ‘Oh yeah, we can do that.’ And he said ‘Well what we’ll do is we’ll get Emma Wakeling from the Essex Innovation Programme to come and meet you.’ We basically did the same pitch with Emma and Danielle Estlea, after which they said ‘Right you’re on the programme.’
The Essex Invest team also gave us two mentors; Graham Broughton, an FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) expert and Sarah Brockwell, ex head of PR for SunGard.  Sarah is wonderful and has all the press connections. Remember this is in April and we have one roll of toilet tissue, a concept explained through a 90 second video, a business plan and a dream. Sarah said ‘You’ve got a great brand, you’ve got a great concept and you’ve got a great story. Just see how it goes’.
We then crowd funded to raise the £12,000 to pay for one container using our video to engage our audience.

A: From the publicity reports, the crowd funding was a huge success.
C: Yes, it was. And very quickly by successfully crowdfunding £12,000 in five days we have a lot of local PR that got picked up by national PR, we ended up entering the Virgin VOOM competition with the chance to pitch to Richard Branson.  2500 companies also went into it and we managed to not have sold any product. We were in the top 10 for the Impact Award and I was disappointed at that. Julie was like ‘Chris, stop being so disappointed!’

A: And what made you choose that award in particular?
J: We researched all the awards available at that time and entered them as they came up. And on the VOOM award, because we were crowdfunding and crowdfunder had a good relationship with VOOM, they encouraged us to enter. So we finish in the top 10 on the Impact Award and Chris was sitting with the guy who was the winner (C: Yes NikoLee Cole from Paint 360) whose already three years into the systems and processes side of things. He gave us a lot of useful insights.
C: He basically said we needed a hook line, it took him a couple of years to figure it out but he said this is what we needed to do. I’ll tell you more about our hook line a little later. To Niko Lee I was like ‘Thanks!’

A: So he shared his two-years of learning with you for free?
C: Yeah, he did.
J: And we had a lot of this during our journey so Chris met a lot of wonderful people and actually they gave us a lot of help and information about how we could get what we needed.
C: We’ve had a lot of help. On the back of success of crowdfunding, we appointed two non-executive directors, one of them wasEd Smith the former head of procurement for RBS with a five-billion-pound budget so he’s got a lot of connections in the financial services sector. It’s obviously very good for us to understand about how to sell our product to procurement people and he’s got experience of managing large scale operations. Then the second person was Khurram Hamid the head of digital media for healthcare at GlaxoSmithKline. He was controlling £15 million and having the best people in digital pitching to him on a daily basis about why GSK should buy their services. Given his experience, he’s helped to build the template for us in terms of what our social media strategy should be. That sort of stuff really helps and suddenly we’ve got these two very senior global heavy weights as part of our management team.
A: And what time scales are we talking about here?
C: April, four months after set-up.
A: At that point you’d sold…
J: We still had a concept. Not one roll sold.
C: We didn’t actually get the product until August.

A: That’s the interesting part isn’t it, you’ve got all these people engaging…
C: Yes, and at that point we’ve got into The Guardian, we’ve got into Management Today, the Huffington Post and there still wasn’t even a packaged product.
J: And the Daily Mail wanted to have a huge feature on us (C: and we said we can’t) and the Daily Mail feature actually came out in August, once we had a product.
C: Just as we launched. It was interesting because we were selling the dream.

A: So you’re selling the dream but also you are engaging people who can sell this big (C: Yeah). What do you look for in terms of experience in the people you’ve deliberately engaged in and with your business?
C: For us it is experience on a very large scale. You have to engage at that level, there’s no point in spending a lot of time engaging at a different level because that’s where you need to get to so you might as well just go straight there. If they tell you it’s not a good idea, you’ve probably got to actually think whether your business model is actually sustainable. The fact that people like our two Directors wanted to get involved and put in £100,000 equity investment from them buying shares in the business because they find it exciting too.

A: And when was that?
C: Still in April 2016, four months after the business was set up.

A: And that money enables you to…
C: Buy more containers and it allows us to actually spend some money looking at proper marketing as well. What we’d been doing was a little bit on the fly, because we didn’t have the money. Our first real test was when we went to the Love Natural Love You Show at Olympia. Three days, 50,000 people and we didn’t stop. Our stand, which was a three metre by two metre stand, was one of the busiest in the entire show, competing against major, long-established brands and we did a of couple clever things. We were wearing panda hats and I had been doing a lot of mentoring at the University of Greenwich, who put us in touch with a couple of the students to help us out as well. We had one of them dressed up as a panda and another helping us out so we had a really sort of young, fresh buzzy feel about it. Automatically everyone was kind of coming around and going, ‘Oh!’ about the panda hats and everyone was talking about panda. The energy was infectious and, although it was a lot of hard work, at the end of the show we knew the market was really there for our product, and we got a number of leads. In fact, we actually met the buyers from As Nature Intended (J: So we are now in their store) which is a flagship eco-store in London and we also met a lot of spas and health centres and even schools saying our toilet tissue is such a great thing, its sustainable and very healthy. So when was that, that was in July wasn’t it?
J: Yes. That was in July.
C: So at the beginning of July so we did a lot of promotional stuff, a lot of pre-sales work as well so that when we went live in August we went live with five clients; three online companies and two janitorial companies.

A: Did you choose them?
C: It was a case of actually trying to contact as many people as possible, there’s no shortcut to hard work. And if you want to push your own brand into the market then you’ve got to be prepared to get your hands dirty and kiss a lot of frogs - hopefully one of them turns into a princess. So Spark Etail, which runs an ethical superstore, was our sort of first major one and what happened is they ordered one pallet from us, they sold it within a week, they ordered another pallet, they sold that within a couple of days and then they went, ‘Oh we better order two pallets’ and then that lasted less than a week and then they went straight into ordering five pallets. They’ve been gradually increasing and we are becoming their biggest seller in this range.
At the same time, we’ve started selling on Amazon as well. It took a little bit of a while to set up the Amazon stuff but what happens is once people start to see the reviews come through, people then get the confidence to know that it’s a good product. I think we’ve got over 30 five star reviews on Amazon now so it’s a completely five star rated product which is a really positive indicator for the market. When people look at your product in the shop they might have a look on their phone first and see if it’s rated well. Positive Amazon reviews are a really good driver for retail sales but also for the janitorial side.
So as we moved through from 6th of August until 6th of September, we had a really good first month of being in the market and we’d had a lot of very positive responses. I think at that point in time we’d also got selected to be a finalist for the National Business Awards and National Entrepreneurs of the Year which was a pretty special achievement considering where we were in our life-cycle and the competition we were up against.

A: And what challenges did you have in terms of physically getting the product ready and out to sell? 
J: We did quite a few changes on the packaging and that took us quite a while.

A: And did you use an agency or how did you do that?
J: No; what happened is we had our first version of the packaging and we quite liked it but there was a debate, some people really loved it and some people didn’t. And our two mentors suggested some changes so what I did was I did some crowd sourcing and we used a freelancer and got them to design a new logo for us. But in terms of layout of the packaging, I did it myself and then I asked the agency to finish it.
On the back of the packaging we have our story here and this prototype shows our ideas, it has some very nice wording on it as well. We write the story and then get a copywriter to polish it. But in this process we asked a lot of people’s opinions; basically, Chris went to the pub every weekend and I gave him 10 designs and I’d say ‘Go and ask your friends.’

A: Market research down the pub!
C: Market research having a beer, call me the working panda!
J: So a lot of people gave their opinions and we finally chose this one which everybody is really happy about and we are happy about it as well.
C: And then you’ve got that whole shipping lead time, from manufacturing it to bringing it to the UK, which takes about 2 months, and then you’ve got all the import clearances and VAT at about £2,000 per container.

A: So how do you navigate the cash flow implications of buying in US$, importing and managing the inevitable shipping and delivery delays and having enough cash to fund it all?
C: We actually got affected by the Hanjin shipping line going into bankruptcy. We had a container worth of goods sitting on one of their container ships anchored out at sea which thankfully only cost us £500. We had arranged public liability insurance and product insurance and, luckily, I said ‘We need shipping insurance. The chances are nothing will happen’ (A: and thank goodness you had it!).
J: We only had one container on the Hanjin ship otherwise it would have been a total disaster.
C: We had 4 containers, 250,000 toilet tissues, en route and only 60,000 on Hanjin which got affected. It was one week’s delay. We use a third-party supplier to basically take care of the end to end logistics so that reduced our operational risk.
After the Brexit vote when the pound tanked, all the margin in our original business plan designed back in February / March disappeared because we were buying from China in dollars, which was now more expensive given the value of the pound had dropped so much. We were looking at it going ‘Ah oh, we’ve basically done the business model on 145/150 exchange rate and there’s no margin in the game now’. So we used Brexit as an opportunity to reoptimize our supply chain. We went into the supplier and queried if our pallets were optimized and they weren’t. We were stacking them 1.4m high but UK pallets can be stacked up to 2.4m high. Basically, we were paying double storage and double haulage. It turned out to be an opportunity to optimize the supply chain to make the money back that we lost on Brexit exchange losses.

A: Well done. And what prompted you to ask those types of questions?
J:  I looked at the margins and kept pushing Chris saying ‘There are no profit margins, there are no profit margins’. Although we had investment money in our bank, I had to make a spreadsheet and show Chris there were no profit margins and to do something about it! So with that kind of pressure, Chris can think of really good ideas.
C: Well that’s kind of my upside-down brain, I thought ‘Well I can’t change my price because I’m already on top of what the market will pay - you know £5.49 on Amazon and £4.49 in some places. But if I put it to over £6 I’m going to stop people buying it, £6.50 and they’re definitely not going to buy it.’ So I thought ‘How can I keep it at the same price and how do I do that?’ I spend a lot of time working alongside PWC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) Consultants, and their operations supply chain arm.  

A: Is this in your other business as a head-hunter?
C: Yes. So I racked my brain and thought ‘What would they do?’ And they would ask, ‘Is your supply chain optimized? Is there gain to be had in there?’ And when we went and looked, there’s an extra 30% sitting there which covered us so we didn’t have to change prices and do all this running around. Under pressure, I looked at it in a different way. Going forward now we’re fully optimized although there’s nothing else to give, we are as tight as you can get it.

A: 30% through looking at it a different way – that’s fabulous. What else?
C: Chatting to people in facilities management, they think our product is such a great innovation they’re walking us round all their top clients. It looks like we are going to be the Innovation of the Year 2017. And in addition to that we’ve also been reaching out to the supermarkets. Surprisingly we got our meetings, we met with two of the leading eco-luxury supermarkets in the market.

A: And what do you think it was that enabled you to get those meetings?
J: I think it’s the product, the concept and the name. Essentially it has to be a good concept for people to even want to meet you and spend their time to talk with you but there’s also some strategy in terms of getting this product into people’s hands.
C: I think once they could see that it’s such a highly-reviewed product online from the Amazon ratings as well, I think that it makes the journey a lot faster than it would have been five or ten years ago. Back then I imagine that they wouldn’t have wanted to see us until we were much bigger and well-established across a lot more retailers.

A: It sounds like having a clear end goal of a large-scale business with a high volume of sales has meant you’ve been more deliberate in targeting your potential buyers.
C: Most definitely. For example, on the smaller chain retailers, we’ve now been signed up with three distributors and then they’ve got five hundred clients each so they’ve ended up selling our product for us which has been useful. That’s like an adoption curve where more and more people take up our product and so demand snowballs. We’re hopeful that in the first half of next year we’ll actually get a supermarket contract. For us that’s pretty significant volume which then leads to another set of challenges because we’ve always got to have buffer stock. So if I’m selling 10 containers a month I’ve got to have, just on current sales, one month’s worth supply as buffer stock so 20 containers at any one time, and that’s not including anything more I’m selling on top of that. Then you get yourself into quite expensive warehousing costs because you might be making money off the volume you’ve got there, but you’re now spending money on warehouse costs. You have to look at each different stage and what your options are.

A: So what helps you to know where you are?
C: This is all about staying six months ahead of yourself and knowing what’s around the corner. We’ve done a lot of financial planning, we’ve had a beauty parade of the banks to make sure we have enough funds. The great thing about being in the National Business Awards was we got to meet the corporate bankers straight away. We weren’t put in the small business category who have a completely different way of looking at the business, they’ve got a completely different level of sign off.
Each bank had a different view on what they actually offer which helped us do all sorts of financial planning around a ten container deal a month contract with the factory in China. ‘How are we going to fulfil it? How are we going to finance it? If the upfront costs were £300,000, at what point do you get that cash back in the business? What happens if suddenly you get into two deals of ten containers? How do you manage that?’

A What did you come to learn?
C: Say one supermarket has ten containers a month and then say another supermarket has ten containers a month or say a big janitorial has ten containers a month. Suddenly I’m shelling out £900,000 and we are still a one year start up so banks could look at that and go ‘Oh my god! What the hell are we going to do here?’ And now having met with the banks, we know they are comfortable to do because we’re targeting triple A clients which is quite encouraging.

A: Those early discussions with the banks really helped you to know that you had the financing in place the business needed, but, had you have not known already, shaped the clients you needed to target to get that sort of funding.
C: Yes. Having that comfort takes a bit of the pressure off but then, planning forward we thought we might need some PE (Private Equity) money and what’s the right level of PE? So we reached out to three different PE companies, all came back and all were extremely interested. We were all like, ‘Alright let’s park that conversation, let’s concentrate on landing one of these big deals that we’ve got going on and then once we’ve got that we know that we then have that money available and we can really scale up.’ Next thing to look at is how do we scale up because we might not get any deals done.

A: You always have that forward look which helps you to be prepared.
C: Part of good business planning is to be ahead of yourself, because last thing you want to do is land a ten container deal and then can’t finance it or operationally your warehouse isn’t big enough to be able to cope with it. Or your supply chain back from your point of origin, your factory producing it, is stretched. Because if you get a big deal like that and then you can’t deliver it or you deliver it for a while and then it falters, you lose the trust you’ve built in the market. And if you do things well and you’re always doing things people will trust you to do more things and bigger things. If they think that you’re amateurs, then they’ll go ‘Nah! We like it but there’s just too much risk.’

A: So how do you make sure that, operationally, your partner companies can deliver when you need them to?
C: Euroserve Uniserve had been our supply chain fulfilment partners, organising getting the product from the factory to the UK and then to the end customer. They’re a massive company here in the South East but they couldn’t optimize our supply chain for us so we went to a company called Soimarcko which have got a haulage business which allows us to move the pallets at the height that we want to move them so we can store at that height and move it. As part of optimizing the supply chain, we had to move our partner which was a little bit of a pain but necessary. You can be the rabbit in the headlights and just wait for a car to hit you or you can make a move and we just decided that actually, commercially we need to do these things now rather than wait. We are now looking at a number of storage options. South Essex College has got an operations and supply chain team that train their students up on professional warehousing so they are looking at putting together a warehouse and we can use for buffer stock.

A: And again, how did you make that connection?
C: I went back to Invest Essex and went ‘Do you know anyone who has got any space?’ because otherwise it’s just going to end up costing a fortune. At some point, we’ll probably get PE money and we’ll build our own space. In the meantime, we’ll hire some space to house our stock but if I’m landing a container in March or April, where I am going to put it all without it costing a fortune? So, I was thinking there must be privately owned businesses in Essex that have scaled up that are not optimal right now. They think in two years’ time they are going to be the size to use all the space, but for the next six months they have spare. That was the sort of thinking that led to the South Essex College option. There are another couple of similar options of people that have got large spaces that are not necessarily fully used at the moment so you can get that at a heavy discount. This is all part of planning for the operational side of things.

A: I’ve got a couple of contacts with some spare space if you need them.
C: Good connections are good connections –  I believe you should never try to reinvent the wheel on anything that you do. Good business is knowing what you’re strong at. For example, Julie plays really well in the blue zone, the creating, marketing and design side of the business.

A: And all the financial side of it too by the sound of the numbers.
J: Yeah, we call that the red zone. I’m not particularly keen on the administration but, at the moment, I have to do it, hopefully it won’t be too long!
C: And Julie knows I play very well in the black zone which is the strategy zone, but I don’t particularly enjoy the red zone. Again, I find myself sort of bogged down in all the operational stuff. But I’ve been working with Greenwich University for the last three years as a mentor for their business students and we’re getting a free Intern for three months that they’re paying for.

A: They will be your red zone person for a while!
C: Yes. We are already in discussion on what our next key hires looks like. So we’ve got to get an operational person in, we’ve got to get a sales person in and we’ve got to get someone who does all the digital content for online sales. While there’s a lot of advantages to leveraging off third parties, if you’re going to build a core team, some of that’s got to be having them in-house, working for our business. And if we’re going to go to a certain point in the journey, we’ve got to get to the position where the business can run for us.

A: Yes, that what I focus on with business owners. When they are out of the day to day doing in their businesses, on average, the valuation of that business is worth Four Times More® than when they are bogged down in the day to day delivery of their product or service to customers. It’s working on the multiplier of the business.
C: We’ve been working with Shirlaws a cooperate advisory which has been advising us on just that.  One of their global partners Hugo De Pree has shown us how you can build multipliers in at the beginning rather than sort of getting half way through or to the end and then trying to actively engineer it. A part of that is actually creating a cooperate culture document up front.

A: That’s exactly it. It’s not just having the document but recruiting the new hires now to fit the culture. As you say, engineering it up front. What work have you done to identify and define key core values and messages which is essential right at the beginning of every business?
C: We looked at a number of different companies that we admire in the market place and then said ‘Ok, what are their values and how do they do things? And then how do we adopt this and treat it as part of our own culture?’
We’ll have people coming into it from a fresh start and the business has got a lovely story, great eco credentials, it’s a start-up and it does use a lot of digital as well. So it has a lot of things that young, dynamic, hungry people would want to be part of rather than necessarily mature, staid cooperate businesses without much growth but pays good money.
J: My vision is to further build the brand that people like. The Panda in the Cheeky Panda. At the beginning, I wanted to make the panda a celebrity and I’m thinking ‘Where do I go at the moment and how do we do it?’ Because my time is spent a lot in the red zone administrations so once we can have someone take care of that, I will spend my time building our panda as a celebrity.

A: And while we are talking about vision, what products do you see beyond toilet tissue?
J: Facial tissues and pocket tissues in three to four months’ time.

A: Are they underway at the moment?
J: Yes. There are other developments too like facial wipes, baby wipes and different kind of wipes. That’s the next stage.
C: Yes, and we’ve got hand towels and we’ve got jumbo rolls for the commercial side.
J: And for the retail side, in the future, probably nappies and lady’s sanitary products.
C: It’s all about innovation. It’s always about staying ahead of the curve and if you’re forward thinking people with a strong brand, people will automatically trust new things you’re bringing in. You can develop a following of people that will actually be automatically looking out for what you are bringing to market. Julie’s concept is that there’s not one really strong eco-brand in the market, there’s not one eco-brand that everyone can point to, like Nike from a sports point of view. We see a real gap in the market.
J: So for me it’s a life-style brand, not just a brand of tissue. A brand that people use and feel good because they feel ‘I’m a Cheeky Panda, I love the environment’.
C: ‘I love the environment and I can show the world that I love the environment’.

A: ‘I buy through Cheeky Panda’.
J: That’s the brand vision but we have a big journey to get there.

A: And all paper, or do you see it going wider given there are so many bamboo fabrics and materials?
C: We can do fabrics and towels and t-shirts.
J: It’s unlimited so with bamboo you can do a lot of things.
C: I mean if we can create an eco-brand then there’s no limit to really what we can do with it. For the next three years we have the paper tissue suite of products under Cheeky Panda, so there’s more than enough to do.
J: There’s a lot of things we could do - even bamboo wine, bamboo water and stuff like that.
C: There’s a fine balance here between vision and not getting too far ahead of yourself. Fighter pilots have this thing called target blindness. If you have too many things on your radar, then you end up shooting down nothing. What we’ve got is we’ve got new products that are a natural extension. Once we feel like we’ve got a strong adoption curve within that, then there’s brand multipliers. We are already doing some of that stuff like panda toys and panda hats but our goal right now is tissue and it’s good to have these new things but, ask us that in a years’ time.

A: That’s a really good strategy as you say, avoiding target blindness and honing in on a few.
C: Yes, just honing in. I mean we are lucky as we’ve met with the big janitorial companies that we want to work with and they all want to work with us. And we’ve met the buyers at the supermarkets we want to work with.

A: And again, all premium target customers?
C: Yeah.  We feel there is real goodwill. We’ve already got the three biggest distributor companies so we are working with the suppliers to the market, now we need the market to buy. We’ve engineered it so we’ve got the mechanism to market and we’ve sold to the people that are the market and part of their job is to help sell and bring our product to market. As long as we maintain that, the domestic market could do quite well for us for next year. It’s an exciting time, it’s nice to have the largest janitorial company talking about you as the innovation of 2017.

A: And what is it that you think really attracts them to you?
C: They’ve all got pressure on sustainability and there’s not enough products for what the market needs. There’s not enough green products, there’s not enough low carbon products, there’s not enough sustainable products. The market’s screaming out for them and all they are getting is consultants telling them what they should be doing, costing them hundreds of thousands of pounds for reports but with no actionable way to deliver the recommendations on those reports.
The key thing that Niko Lee Cole said to do when we met him at the Virgin VOOM dinner was have a hook line. Get your statement out. So our statement in the cooperate market is for only every 1000 employees that a company has, by switching to bamboo tissue, they save one tonnene of carbon per month. If you’re a government organisation and there’s 10,000 people in that department, we save that department 10 tonnes of carbon per month. If you’re a bank like Lloyds who’ve got 75,000 people, we save them 75 tonnes of carbon per month. In this market people normally just talk about carbon savings in terms of kilos. We can actually talk about carbon savings in terms of tonnes. And that’s without the sustainability element added in. Just on its own that’s a very strong thing.
With the fastest growing plant on the planet, it’s the most renewable resource, you’ve got the health benefits of what bamboo has got such as naturally occurring anti-bacterial and anti-fungal qualities, a luxury soft silky feel. So we’ve kind of knocked it out of the park.
If you look for one thing that we are trying to do here, I think our social mission is that we see ourselves, not so much as entrepreneurs but eco-preneurs. We sell to people who don’t just buy but can help get us to sell more by them saying to the market ‘Look you can create high quality, green, affordable, sustainable solutions too’. The more people follow what we do, the more they tell others. And that’s really what our overriding vision is.

A: That’s really compelling.
C: And if you want to know one thing that you can take away from today then it’s probably that - helping to lead others. I think that on our business plan we quoted Sir Isaac Newton and he said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. And literally we have begged, borrowed and worked with the great and good to get this far, this fast and it’s unparalleled what we’ve been able to do, essentially just me and Julie in a year. But we’ve not been alone in this journey, we’ve had so much help. People understand what we are all about and they’re just getting behind us and it’s a wonderful thing.  

A: Sounds like they buy into you as much as the brand.
C: They buy into the fact that there is a story there; we are not big corporate, we are quirky people but we are responsible as well. We are good at engineering things and making things happen. A lot of businesses fail because there’s one leg missing on the tripod of a great product, a great route to market and being great operationally. Perhaps they are not strong enough in their product but they’ve got the route to market and operations working well. Or they’ve got a decent product but they’ve tried to push things on the market. We genuinely think we’ve got all three and that’s probably the difference between success and failure.

A: Where does your tripod metaphor stem from?
C: This is what I coach people on a day to day basis from my recruitment business, working with companies like Ernst and Young, PwC and Capgemini. Because I work at Director and Partner level, I’ve got to coach them through their business plan in terms of what the market is, how you get there and how you deliver it and it’s basically a three-legged tripod. I do that with them so it’s a natural extension to take all these concepts and all these wonderful people that I’ve met over twenty years and then apply it to this business. It’s kind of like doing a twenty-year qualification MBA and now was the opportunity to put the theory it into practice.in business until U could do it for our business.
J: He just needed to execute his knowledge on a product and I gave him his product!
C: But if it was any other product, I wouldn’t have touched it but because this has so many unique features to it, for me it’s a no-brainer. For me thisThe scale and potential of this idea and this concept comes along once in a lifetime.

A: Fantastic. And when have you seen that your thinking or how you were approaching things meant that you were standing in your own way?
C: Well Julie pulls me back. I go running off in different directions, she gives me free reign to a certain point. But when she sees that I’m still going and going in the wrong direction she pulls me back and goes ‘Oy – Wrong way!’
J: There needs to be a strategy because everyone uses this product. However, I do understand that not everyone will buy it so it really needed to hit the right place in the beginning. Chris is a very good salesperson, he wants to sell to everybody and he thinks he can sell to everybody. But because there’s so little time and there’s only two of us I say ‘We need to focus on certain channels. We need to penetrate this channel and create strong demand in this channel first and then spread it out.’ So when Chris was going too far I would pull him back!
C: Sometimes I’d go into the mindset of putting the cart before the horse and Julie says ‘Man put the horse first!’

A: Can you give me an example of that?
C: At the very beginning we looked at America. We started having quite a lot of conversations with partners in America. Julie said listen, ‘We need to establish a strong domestic channel in the UK and then you’ll get an adoption curve from European channels and then we can probably tackle America. But you’re losing time and focus here.’ I was just looking at the numbers and thinking, ‘Wow- America is a huge market!’ and I love a big market!
But then Julie keeps me straight. We both complement each other really well. Our skills are different and we both know ourselves as people. We’ve each got very good self-awareness and know what the other one is good at and what the other one’s bad at. Julie will gently nudge me and I’ll do the same to her and by doing that, it makes us a strong team.
There were a couple of really nice articles that were written about us being, what we call, couple-preneurs, in terms of working together and asking how does it feel because obviously, we are in business together and we are living together and we spend a lot of time with each other. Where the strength comes from is actually understanding each other and understanding ourselves. I think if we didn’t have that and we weren’t passionate about what we were doing then there would be all sorts of friction. We are actually very happy and chilled.
J: We like to enjoy life as well!

A: So, you live the Cheeky aspect too!
C: Yeah, we do! We are quite fun people as well.

A: Fantastic. And if there was one additional nugget of advice what would that be?
J: I think for entrepreneurs, lots of people would just do everything on their own and I think that’s a big mistake. We both made that mistake with our own businesses before this one. I truly believe in bringing more people into your business, even just share your ideas. Don’t be afraid that people will steal your ideas or anything, because people will give you advice and help to make your business better. I think the more people you engage, the better your business will be.

A: So collaboration with others.
J: Yeah that’s right.

A: Fantastic, what about you Chris?
C: If I was giving one piece of advice is know that it’s not easy, but if you truly believe in it and the market likes it, it will succeed. Yeah that’s my piece of advice.

A: Thank you both.
C: And you know the thing about markets is everyone thinks it’s a great idea when it’s successful. People will be doubters along the way and they’ll ask you what are you doing and why you are doing it and if it’s something completely new, they’ll think you’re off your tree because they don’t understand it. But have courage in your convictions. All the great entrepreneurs, people all said they were mad when they were doing it. Everyone said it would never work and nobody will ever buy it and, what happens is afterwards everyone goes ‘My god they’ve just got the market’. And if it is different from the norm, then it’s probably a good thing.

A: Yes. You must be distinctly different in any market to be noticed.
C: Yes. I think if you’re doing like a ‘me too’ thing, where’s your differentiation?
J: Even if you’re doing a ‘me too’ thing, you can still be different in maybe the way you market it. You can market it a little bit differently so even the very, very boring things can be interesting. If you do a clever social media strategy you can still make yourself stand out and be different. It’s like toilet paper had never been anything exciting - but we’ve made it fun.

A: Thank you both very much indeed. It’s been a treasure trove of tips and information that anyone in business can learn from and is perfect for the book
J: I just wanted to say that I like your book ‘How To Fly High’, it’s really good for people who want to start a business and people who want to be entrepreneurs, they would be very keen to read this book. Chris is also always keen to tell people our story and be part of the book too!  

A: Fantastic. Now you are!

In brief
Start with the end goal in mind including clear and specific desired outcomes to give focus and direction. Financial modelling is crucial to this. By understanding where and how you make money you’ll know what you can tweak and what needs a completely fresh approach if circumstances change. It also gives clear focus to the size and scale your business needs to be to deliver your end goal.
Planning six months ahead of yourself allows you to not only know what’s around the corner and how it impacts the here and now, but gives opportunity to adjust course and avoid wasting time and money. Be aware, some ideas may send you down the wrong roads but asking people for their help and advice can vastly reduce this risk and, if you don’t have experience of what’s ahead, find and ask someone who does. It’s amazing what can be achieved for the price of a curry!
Thinking forward also allows you to access and secure skills that you’ll need a few years ahead. Talk to people now with the experience and contacts needed further down the road and you’ll accelerate your growth. They will help you to avoid costly pitfalls and open the doors you need, but currently find difficult to access.
Don’t try to know and do everything on your own. Share your ideas and people will give you help and advice to make your business better. However, be prepared to get your hands dirty too -there’s no shortcut to hard work too.
Be distinctly different to get noticed; this could perhaps be a unique idea or a different way you market a product e.g. a clever social media strategy or, in the case of The Cheeky Panda, making something traditionally boring, fun and engaging. Awards and competitions rapidly increase awareness of your business through local PR that could be picked up nationally. They also provide a great forum to meet and learn from the experience of others such as Niko’s hook-line.
Finding your hook-line sells your product or service for your by making the decision to buy a no-brainer for your target customer. It also accelerates the adoption curve of those who want your product, and only yours. Finding and amplifying your hook-line message to the right audience is, quite literally, gold for your business.
A lot of businesses fail because there’s one leg missing on the tripod of a great product, a great route to market and being great operationally. When you’re thinking and building forward with a strong brand, compelling hook-line and consistently reliably delivery, people will automatically trust new products or services you offer. However, there’s a fine balance between vision and not getting too far ahead of yourself; avoid target blindness and hone in on a few key products, goals and markets.
Strong business requires a strong team that is compelled by what you do and that know and play to their respective strengths. Be clear and vocal about the purpose of your business (why you exist), to attract those who are as passionate about that purpose as you. Be intentional about the culture you wish to create considering the values that you admire and recruit to those values. Also, make sure you know your own strengths and weaknesses to build a core team with the strengths necessary to complement yours. After all, if your end goal is to maximise the sale price of your business when you come to exit, you ultimately need the business able to run without you.
Finally, have courage in your convictions. People all said the great entrepreneurs were mad to begin with and look at where they are now!