My Early Hour: Paul Lindley, Ella’s Kitchen

He founded multi-million pound baby food empire Ella’s Kitchen and is now pumping his energy into improving the lives of children around the world. Paul Lindley talks entrepreneurship, work/life balance and morning habits…

Paul, 49, lives with his partner and their two children – Ella, 16, and Paddy 13 – in Berkshire, England.

What time did you wake up this morning, and what woke you up?
This morning at 6.50am the alarm woke us up, the radio came on. My son, who’s 13, is sitting a scholarship exam for a new school in September so we’ve come to Oxford with him. I took the dog for a walk, had breakfast, came to Oxford, and now we’re working in Starbucks until we pick him after the exam. Every day is unusual – no two days are the same. I think this is a good example of how I’m blending work life and home life so that both are in sync.

What do you like to do first thing?
I usually get up at quarter to eight; I’m more of a night person – I stay up until past midnight. And i’ll walk the dog. Times are changing, we don’t work 9 to 5 anymore, most people with smart phones see texts or emails outside of these hours and continue working. So rather than looking at work/life balance, this idea of blending is something we’ve introduced as a programme at Ella’s Kitchen – with our 60-odd team – around work/life blend.

Being an entrepreneur is coming up with a way to do something no one’s done before. I don’t think you can say: at 10 o’clock I’m going to solve my problem

I’ve got three jobs now. I’m still involved with Ella’s – I’m chairman, and that takes a couple of days a week. It’s not regimented, just as and when I’m adding value and have something to work on. I’ve got Paddy’s, which I’m running – it’s a start-up. Then Key of E, which is a charity initiative – I’m acting managing director of that and it’s in its infancy. Sometimes I go to Ella’s Barns (the offices) in the morning but more often I’m on the road.

My work is concerned with children – children’s rights, welfare. So we’re very aware of family needs and issues. We mostly have parents working for us and they get the most out of the job if there is flexibility.

Is it not important to have downtime, when you totally switch off from work?
Yes, it’s really important to have your own time. Most people have multiple labels – so you might be pigeonholed as boss, employee, father, daughter and so on – you’re the same person but people see you in different ways. So you need time to be you. I cycle, take the dog for walk, get creative thinking time and can order parts of my life on my own. We lead busy lives – we need that time out to gain perspective.

What I learnt while I was at Nickelodeon was how to create a brand and market it to both parents and kids. I really understood kids

What are your most productive working hours?
My most productive working hours are later in the day. For solving problems or innovating or creating new ideas, I’m most productive when I’m not at a computer or behind a desk. Instead, it’s while I’m doing something else – walking or cycling. You can’t sit down and say: right, I’m going to think of something new.

Being an entrepreneur is coming up with a way to do something no one’s done before. I don’t think you can say: at 10 o’clock I’m going to solve my problem. So in my life, I make space for that to seep in. Obviously you need to do your accounts and have meetings but the added value bits are when you are inspired and creative – and your environment and the people around you are really important for that.

You left your role as director of Nickelodeon UK to launch Ella’s Kitchen, aged 38, what was the driving force behind starting your own business?
Nickelodeon is quite entrepreneurial – it’s owned by two major media companies – and when I was there in the late 90s/early 2000s kids’ TV, the internet – everything was new. We were a young management team creating entertainment for kids, but what I learnt while I was there was how to create a brand and market it to both parents and kids. I really understood kids. During my 10 year-stint, I started off as the finance guy and ended up as general manager.

I learnt how boys and girls are different in their behaviours, and how they relate to their parents. I also became aware of people feeling TV is bad for our health; a cause of obesity, and we as a team were trying to show that it can also be a very good thing.

When I was there, I had my daughter Ella, went through the weaning process, had toddler years – then had a moment when I was on holiday when I put two and two together: I realised there wasn’t a kids’ brand that was about health, convenience and fun – that put kids first, helping them to eat healthy food because it engages all their senses.

I liked the idea so much I had to follow it through. I didn’t have experience in certain areas but did in others. I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t give it a go so I handed in my notice and gave myself two years to get Ella’s to market. That was ten years ago last week. The innovation was multiple but the obvious things were finding the pouch format – we were the first to do that, and others have followed.

Ella's Kitchen pouches

So we put our energy in to creating a brand that was different, changing kids lives by bringing innovative products, organic food, helping to wean off vegetables first, making cook books and later using our credibility to argue for changes in the law.

What piece of advice would you give an entrepreneur, starting out?
There are three things that you’ve got to have in you to be successful: firstly, you need to be passionate about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. The most important question is: why. If it is to make as much money as possible very quickly, I’d say think more carefully – it needs to be more about passion for the business. Money and market share will come later.

Be humble enough to know that luck plays a part

Secondly, you need to be creative. You’re trying to do something that no one else has ever done before and you need to be creative about how you make it work, you need to be able to think about repositioning things to make it work. If you’re not creative, build a team who are.

Final thing: tenacity. It is hard. You’re going to get way more nos than yesses – learn to take them, build on them. I must have made 500 phone calls and emails to engage people, following up from meetings with Ella before Sainsburys agreed to stock us. I learnt from every one. Be humble enough to know that luck plays a part.

My two big learnings are: business is really about people; you have to form trusting relationships. And the best businesses are those that have a purpose, in their mission, that helps solve social issues.

You launched Paddy’s Bathroom last spring. This is a social start-up, how much of the profits go to providing clean water in Rwanda?
This is a good example of me trying to take my own advice by building a people-centred business and doing some social good. Paddy’s is a range of playful and gentle products for babies and toddlers, sold in most of the major retailers, and from a social point of view, the products are natural, not synthetic – no parabens, or artificial ingredients, so gentle on the skin (better for eczema).

Ethics and values are as important in purchasing decisions as price and quality and the more traditional things that will always be important

But we also created our Drop Buy Drop programme so that for every drop of water that a family uses with our products in their bath, we’re donating a drop of clean water for people in Rwanda. We’ve teamed with DelAgua, and fund the filters that they distribute.

We’re also making use of technology: we link the barcode on back of each bath product to the place the clean water is being donated. So you put the code into our website and you can see where your money is going. We donate 50 cents of every product we sell and that provides clean water for one child for one month. Over time you can see how these children are so much healthier using this clean water.

Ethics and values are as important in purchasing decisions as price and quality and the more traditional things that will always be important. Paddy’s needs to clean children, and for them to find it fun, but an added part of our brand – and another benefit of buying a Paddy’s product – is that you’re doing good for a child in another part of the world.

Paddy’s is the business I’m trying to grow and opportunities like this to build awareness of what we’re doing for parents who already trust and believe in Ella’s is great. I don’t know if it will success or fail – but I’ll do I’ll my best.

What was your upbringing like in Zambia?
I had the privilege of being brought up in a part of the world that is beautiful, people are fantastic, experiences were fantastic – Zambia was right at the forefront of political events in 70s and early 80s when I was living there. But I came to school in the UK and had an education here.

It’s given me lifelong love of Africa and everything African – a massive belief that Africa has a great future ahead. Also, It led to me founding the Key of E with a fellow African – an ex Soldier who became an international hip hop artist. We aim to support entrepreneurs whose businesses help children. It will pilot in Kenya next year.

Having had the privilege to start, build and sell a business, I guess I could have thought: that’s me done, I’m going to play golf

Where do you and your family live now, and is there anywhere you’d prefer to be living?
We live in Berkshire, in England, and I love it. In the UK, we’re a diverse and welcoming people, I love that the industrial revolution happened here, and the technology evolution is largely happening here. The business environment is great. I love our liberal attitude and way we live. So I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

My work and interests are around the world – Ella’s is available in 50 countries – and I love different cultures and people. But we’re a tolerant open society here in England, that gives boys and girls every opportunity to do what they want to do; to speak their minds, speak truth to power – to be who they want to be.

How have you managed to juggle family and work – do you feel you have enough time with your partner and children?
That’s the hardest question of all. We have to make compromises all the time and you just have to do your best to balance primary responsibility of bringing your children up well and supporting your family and wife and also achieving your personal goals and commitments to your team, your consumers, your business.

Constantly – I mentioned the ‘blend’ – it’s a compromise. There’s a different answer for everybody. I’m sure everybody wishes they spent more time on one part than another, and that’s how I feel about it. I see my son play football whenever I can but sometimes miss parents’ evening because of work commitments.

Paul and Ella -
Paul pictured with his daughter, Ella, after whom he named his first business

Did you ever feel concerned about including your children’s names and images in your business; that it might breach their privacy in some way?
My aim – publicly and privately – has been to really give them an example of what someone can do if they follow their passions. It’s more important to do that than to follow the rule book or the narrow oath. They are not involved publicly, as they are still children, but they are aware of the things we’ve done – the challenges along the way, but also what we’ve achieved.

The best way to teach is by doing it myself and including them. Both businesses are centred around a normal family living a normal life with ups and downs in eating, hygiene, chemicals VS natural products – that resonates so we try to use our family experience as something people can relate to.

We’re in a world where man has made poverty, abuse, hunger… because there is enough food and money to go around but we’ve chosen a system that puts it in the hands of a few

You’ve achieved so much in your work life, so far. What’s the dream, career-wise, from here?
Having had the privilege to start, build and sell a business, I guess I could have thought: that’s me done, I’m going to play golf. But I think you have a responsibility when you’re in a priveleged position and have experience, stability, a network – to continue.

I feel I have unfinished business in Paddy’s and Ella’s – there are still hungry children on streets of Britain, and obese children. And we can reduce those numbers, which really excites me – so I will continue to work on that. I also feel a responsibility to help other entrepreneurs who are maybe starting up and to use whatever influence and connections I’ve got to make our society better in some way.

Hopefully I have a lot of years of creativity and activism in me and I choose to use that to make changes.

If you had the power to change any one thing, what would it be?
It would be to do with children – the suffering that children go through in all sorts of different ways – physically, mentally, illness, food and hygiene – through no fault of their own. We’re in a world where man has made poverty, abuse, hunger… because there is enough food and money to go around but we’ve chosen a system that puts it in the hands of a few. I’d choose a world where you blend profits and capitalism with a more humane and empathic world that is safe for children.

Main photo by Daniel Lynch