Paul Lindley grew his children’s food business from nothing to a national bestseller – and set out to address child obesity at the same time. We chat to him about how he did it

The job title on Paul Lindley’s business card is simply “Ella’s Dad” and, should you meet the company’s head of HR, you will encounter the “head of keeping people happy”. The business Lindley founded, named Ella’s Kitchen after his daughter, is the UK’s best-selling baby food brand, and he credits a good deal of that success to its evident empathy with their target market of parents.

“Our whole approach has been disruptive,” says Lindley, reflecting that baby food was “a category which had not seen innovation for decades”. The brand’s distinctive, brightly coloured pouches stand out against the drab glass jars that had always dominated. “Our packaging actually revolutionised the category.”

Ella’s Kitchen: challenging childhood obesity

As well as standing out on the shelves, Ella’s Kitchen has carved out a position as the brand challenging the UK’s childhood obesity problem. In its campaigning work against obesity and malnutrition, it has sought to disrupt not just a market segment, but a social problem with severe health and economic consequences.

“I set up the business to improve children’s relationship with food,” Lindley says. “I wanted them to grow up with a healthy relationship with it, understanding where food comes from and how to cook it.” To ensure that Ella’s Kitchen products were healthy and well suited to the needs of its toddler target market, Lindley enlisted the support of university researchers in developing the initial recipes.

For him, the disruptive cycle began with a clear mission and rigorous analysis: “My vision was crystal clear – we had a simple mission and a BHAG – Big Hairy Audacious Goal – to secure 1 Billion Tiny Tummy Touch Points – servings of our foods – by 2017. I had also done my homework, research and planning of how we might have a chance to achieve this before launch.”

The importance of gut instinct in business decisions

Nevertheless the entrepreneur, who has built one of the most successful UK food businesses of the last decade, does not discount the importance of gut instinct. “Small businesses don’t have the luxury of big budgets for R&D or marketing. The ones that make it have good gut feel and the confidence to believe in it,” he says.

In the place of endless research budgets must come an affinity with customers, if a business is truly to change the way a market operates. In Lindley’s case that meant “thinking like a toddler”, which he defines as “never giving up, being creative, honest, diving straight in and having fun”.

Indeed, he believes that most entrepreneurs “will actually think like a toddler, even if they don’t know it. The successful ones accept higher evaluated risk and believe in themselves more than average”.

Building the right team of people

When it comes to building a team, Lindley argues that people’s affinity for the company’s beliefs and core mission is the most important consideration: “I did not set out to employ a disruptive team, rather I’ve always valued talent with skills that either I lacked or are better than my own. Most important to me in building a team was ensuring each and every one could live the brand values 24/7, and so our team has primarily been built on a values mind-set rather than disruption or even skillset.”

Other factors have allowed Ella’s Kitchen to distinguish itself from the competition. “The exponential growth of social media is where a revolution has occurred for consumer product brands in their relationships with their consumers,” Lindley says. “Ella’s Kitchen has been nimble enough to embrace this new way to position a brand. Transparency and consumer power has helped us stand out.”

“Transparency and consumer power has helped us stand out.”

More broadly, he believes, “The last decade has seen a huge change: the recession, currency instability and technical innovations have changed both business and consumer culture.” Yet even in a relatively volatile market, he does not let worries about new market entrants take over: “I have learned to worry about the important things I can control, and not the rest.”

Challenger brands will come and go but for Lindley “true disruption you only really see once in a generation for any single category”.