Without exception, the most successful businesses in the world have a brand at the core. Tory Burch, billionaire founder of the fashion brand which bears her name told me, “Having a strong brand identity is essential. With the evolving retail landscape and the impact of technology, the customer is becoming more and more savvy. They want brands they can trust, brands with a sense of integrity and individuality that they associate with quality, craftsmanship and authenticity.”
However, at the heart of brands is a more important truth. Will.I.Am who, alongside being a global brand as an entertainer, has founded and invested in numerous including Beats, told me, “‘Brand,’ is what journalists and industry-people say… we say culture movement. As artists we say culture! Movement! And analysts say brand. I don’t know what a brand is, but I know what a freakin’ movement is…”
Ella Mills is an award winning cookery author and entrepreneur, and a champion of eating well. She started off with the popular blog, deliciouslyella.com, which has had over 110 million hits in the last three years. Her first book came out in January 2015 and has been the best selling debut cookbook ever in the UK and a NY Times best seller. She has since released a further three best selling books, created a #1 app, and with her husband, opened three deli’s in London, as well as launching a product line across the UK. The products, launched in August 2016, are now stocked in over 3500 stores, including Starbucks to Waitrose, Sainsburys, Ocado, WHSmith and Holland and Barrett.
I caught up with Ella to learn more about her entrepreneurship journey.
Q: How did entrepreneurship come into your life?
[Ella Mills] For me, starting a business was something that kind of ended up happening, not something I had the intention of doing.
You so often hear stories of amazing entrepreneurs who they tell you they always had that business instinct, even when they were at school they used to sell marbles or chocolate; and that wasn’t me in any shape or form. It all happened incredibly naturally.
I was very unwell when I was in university and I really struggled with the physical side of that illness, but also with the mental side of not really being able to do very much. That’s when I became interested in what I could do to help myself feel better by looking at diet and lifestyle. At the time, I couldn’t cook and I didn’t really know what healthy food was – and I realised I needed to learn to do that and that I would start recording it online to motivate myself to do that. And that was really where it started, I was doing that, people started following, and after that it was really just me responding to what people wanted.
Initially people started off asking for cooking classes, events, supper-clubs and things like that, so I started putting them on. People then started asking for an app, so I created an app. And then people wanted a book, and a publisher approached me so we did a book.
I met my husband Matt (my business partner) about a month or so after my first book came out. By that point the press had massively picked up on Deliciously Ella, and my first book had become the ‘fastest selling debut cookbook ever’, spending about 10 weeks at number 1 on Amazon. It was amazing, I was really enjoying it but I had no experience whatsoever- I’d never had another job before, I started this just out of university. I was a little bit overwhelmed by what to do next, there were so many interesting opportunities but I felt that I was missing quite a lot of the skills to be able to take them on.
When I met Matt and he said ‘oh, so you’re an entrepreneur?’, and I said ‘no, no, no, I just write a blog’ – I was really embarrassed to own the title and really didn’t feel like I had the qualities to do that… but he really encouraged me and it was by starting to work together that we were able to take it so much further. Combining our skillsets enabled us to do so much more – I loved the creative side, building the brand, engaging with customers, our communications etc, and Matt had real experience in the business development and finance side of things.
Q: How did you build your brand?
[Ella Mills] Initially, there was no intention of doing anything with Deliciously Ella – it was a personal project, and that allowed it to grow as a community, and a space, that wasn’t commercially focused. I think this gave it a level of authenticity that perhaps some brands struggle with and in retrospect it’s been a really interesting approach, albeit an unusual one. We were able to create a brand before we created a product – and that means that the spaces that we can now go into are so vast, because people know Deliciously Ella not just for a single food product but for an entire lifestyle play.
Right now, our big focus is scaling in the food product space. We launched our first range of energy balls last August, we’re launching a range of breakfast products in July and more products in September. We feel really lucky to be have the authenticity and credibility to operate in pretty much any part of the supermarket – whether that’s energy balls, breakfast and snacks, soups, pasta sauces or everything in between. Most of the time a company will create a product, and then create a brand around that product, which makes it challenging to go into such different parts of the store. We look at our competition within the energy balls where we started, and it would be challenging for them to start making mueslis. The association with the brand isn’t there, but it is for us. And that’s the bit that we’re so excited about with the business, the opportunity to go into so many different spaces and still be able to communicate directly with the community. I also really believe that people connect with people, they don’t connect with a brand the same way quite so often, which allows us to have a much deeper relationship and engagement with our audience than our competition.
Our social media has about 45 million impressions a month, which is amazing – and that’s direct communication. We don’t have a marketing team, we haven’t needed a big budget to spend on any of that, we have this direct consumer relationship which enables authentic communication with them and creates this level of trust between us and them, which is incredibly exciting.
Q: How do you build a sense of community in your social network?
[Ella Mills] The word engage is the most important thing when it comes to creating a strong brand.
When I started Deliciously Ella, I had nothing else to do. I basically just spent all day in bed on my own, so I was so delighted to speak to strangers over the internet, it was great! From day one, any time someone would comment I would comment back to them- and I started to understand our audience really quickly. I probably spent 3 or 4 hours a day on our social media channel replying to people.
Even today, there are numerous people who I massively respect, who have been phenomenally successful who tell me that ‘it’s not a good use of your time’ and that I’m ‘too available’ – and I completely appreciate that, except that’s what’s created the community that passionately supports what we do, and their support has opened up so many doors.
We launched our product last August, it’s been less than a year and it’s gone into three and a half thousand stores. We’re doing a nationwide rollout in Tesco in September and Starbucks was our second ever customer; that would never happened if we never got that kind of exciting communication with people. And that level of trust.
I completely appreciate that people think social media is a waste of my time, but spending all day being obsessed with our customer, interacting with them in every way that I can, answering every question, trying to understand everything that I can about them, matches everything that we do and everything that we produce.
Q: What is your responsibility as a role model?
[Ella Mills I definitely feel I have responsibilities as a role model.
Social media is a really exciting platform, especially for young businesses, because it does sidestep that prohibitive budget of marketing and PR that most people don’t have when they’re getting started – but it is a space that you’ve got to tread quite carefully in because it is a highlights reel… and there is a danger that comes with that.
From my perspective, it’s about trying to be careful and neutral with everything but still stand for something. Trying to create that balance is the most challenging part of being a role model in social media.
Q: How do you manage your resilience and mental health?
[Ella Mills] It’s really exciting that there’s such a buzz around entrepreneurship and young people starting businesses, it’s a really positive thing – but it comes with a certain perception of what entrepreneurial life like when, in reality, it’s polar opposite.
Running a business means that you often have no social life, and have many sleepless nights – it’s hard – and because of that you’ve got to be passionate about what you do in order to take that strain.
Looking after your mental health is incredibly important; it’s very easy to get completely overwhelmed.
Operating within a public space brings a whole other dimension your mental health as you get constant feedback from your audience. I try to set myself a way of looking at it where all criticism is divided into two categories. It’s great to hear positive feedback but constructive criticism is what makes you much better… It helps you refine what you’re doing, helps you think though the process again and again, and helps you make sure what you’re doing is the best it could possibly be. I think it also pushes you forward a lot and forces you to re-examine what you’re putting out there really. That’s a really positive thing.
Equally you also have criticism for the sake of criticism. From my perspective that spreads out into two again. The first thing you need to learn about operating in a public space is that it’s just not possible for everyone to like you. There’s always going to be misunderstandings, there’s always going to be issues to iron out, and you just have to be okay with that. People are going to comment ‘you rushed into your marriage, it won’t last’, or ‘looks like you’ve put on some weight’, or ‘don’t you find her voice really annoying?’. You just have to find a way to completely ignore those kind of points, they don’t help anything. You also have points in the same way, where customers will say ‘I don’t think you should do this’ or ‘I don’t think you should do that’. And you obviously take it on board and examine it, but you know what’s viable for your business. You’ve just got to say ‘thank you so much, I appreciate it’ and let it go, because you can’t please everyone and some things are just never going to be viable.
Q: What are your views on female entrepreneurship in the UK?
[Ella Mills] We were at the Ernst and Young London entrepreneur of the year awards on Monday, and there were about 30 nominees across the board and only four were female. Category, after category, was just men, of a similar age and ethnic background – and that was quite depressing. I was honoured that we won the rising star category, but it was a shame not to have more inspiring female business leaders in the room.
Part of the issue is that it’s incredibly intimidating being in these situations – I know for me that’s something I have to work on every time. Before we went to the judging day, I wanted to leave because I was so intimidated, and sitting there I really felt like the odd one out, and felt quite insecure about that.
In my mind, I felt that everyone was looking and judging – thinking that I was just a silly girl… and that’s something you’ve got to work at – you’ve got to get your mind around saying, ‘I’ve earned my place here, I deserve to be here, I’m excited to be here’. But I think confidence is a massive issue on that stage.
Someone said to me ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ and I really liked that, that really resonated with me. It made me realise the important of talking about what you’re doing and trying to be as open about that as possible. I do believe that you’ve got to have people to look up to, and be inspired by, to push yourself that little bit further.
For women or for any kind of minority, you have to realise that you are the minority so you’re not going potentially have as many role models; and that’s why I think the more people that can be talking about it, the more open conversations we can have about it, the more changes can come.
You read so much about entrepreneurship, how it’s so exciting and it’s such a kind of buzz word, but I think it’s so much nicer to actually hear people’s real experiences. That’s more inspiring, because you see that they’ve got so far – but you realise all the hoops and hurdles they’ve jumped through, and the disasters that they’ve been through to get to that point.
And I think that’s inspiring to realise that struggles are normal, they’re part of the process. Everybody, no matter how phenomenally successful they end up goes through that. I doubt that anybody’s started a business and worried about whether they could make payroll every month….
Q: What would be the key advice you would give to the next generation of entrepreneurs?
[Ella Mills] Your attitude is absolutely everything, and you have to be continuously optimistic, almost naively optimistic. The number of bumps and hurdles on your journey is going to be huge and if you can always have that optimistic attitude, saying ‘no, we’re going to find a solution’, and going straight to finding the solution rather than dwelling on the problem, you’re going to get a lot further a lot quicker.
It can be very overwhelming and very daunting looking at everything you’ve got to deal with and everything you’ve got to sort, but I think that if you can look at that in a positive light, see every challenge like it’s an opportunity, you can overcome all of that a lot quicker.
As soon as you start to lose that optimism and see it all as very challenging, it becomes very challenging.
Importantly, you have to surround yourself with the best people that you can, and take your ego out of it completely. I started Deliciously Ella on my own, it was a very personal project and suddenly I realised I could only get so far on my own. I loved creating the brand, I’m passionate about what we do, I’m so enjoying learning everything, but I’ve never had another job before, I didn’t have experience in FMCG, I didn’t know what a balance sheet was, I’d never heard of a P&L. There was no way I could run a team people on my own, and I think that being able to accept that, and really acknowledge where my strengths were, and how I could help my company whilst acknowledging where I needed other people, was really important. You have to go out and find the best people you can, incentivise them, give them really good autonomy, and let them bring everything they can to your business, and I completely credit that approach with how far we’ve been able to come.