Thursday, 03 December 2020
Fed up with being unable to find healthy snacks that she could eat safely due to her nut anaphylaxis, Julianne Ponan set up Creative Nature in 2012 at the age of 22. A 2014 NatWest everywoman Award Winner, she uses superfoods to create protein bars, snacks and baking mixes, which are now sold in major supermarkets such as Asda, Co-op and Ocado, as well as high-end health stores. We talked to her about the importance of a morning routine, making sure your team has a joint vision for the company and the boundaries you need when working with your partner.
What in your routine is essential for success on a daily basis?
It's important to have something that you do consistently every morning — and I will always do some kind of exercise and a spirulina shot to get me going for the day. If you’ve had a hard day, then come home, eaten late and gone to bed with your head full of things, having that little morning routine is an anchor point that resets your system and helps you get back your focus for the next day. The value of a strong morning routine is something I have learned through the years. When I was younger, for example, my mum would get me up at 4am to study for my exams, because I found it hard to study after school and late at night, and that was really good for me. In business, you're often working 24 hours and it's a constant cycle of progression, so having that daily morning anchor really does help.
What do you do on a daily basis to grow as an entrepreneur?
I try to read something new every day and Blinkist is a good app for this. It gives you 15-minute ‘knowledge pops’ on anything from ‘how to garden’ to ‘ways to change a light bulb’ that teach you something new outside your work environment – which I feel is important. I personally don't like reading, so listening to audiobooks and podcasts is another go-to, whether that’s Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek or Blake Mycoskie’s Start Something that Matters. I'd say exercise is also important in terms of keeping balanced. Over COVID we set up Zoom exercise sessions because I felt that our team was starting to become stuck in ideas of sitting in their pajamas to have a call. That was fine to a point, but you do need to get up and be active as well, because otherwise your mind becomes uncreative — and we are a creative, fun brand so we need that.
What are your tips for staying on top of finances, practically, emotionally or strategically?
My previous role was in investment banking so I was able to read a balance sheet and understand where we would need to make cutbacks and how to grow when setting up the business. For me, it's so important to have a cash flow forecast. You need to make sure you know what's coming in and going out of your business and if you can't stay up-to-date weekly then you need to do it monthly at least. – If you're behind with the paperwork and you don’t have knowledge of your P&L and a good cash flow system, you can’t make instant decisions such as ‘Okay, I want to take on that marketing campaign’, or ‘I want to hire this person’.
What is the most effective flex or pivot you made in response to COVID-19?
Snacking dropped off a cliff at the beginning of the pandemic, because people weren’t commuting. We had also just launched our Gnawbles product in John Lewis and Whole Foods and the marketing campaigns around that were pulled because we were no longer allowed to offer samples, which really affected us. Luckily, I'd set up the business to be diverse with a baking mix range and a superfood range as well as the snacking range. So, we pivoted to focus mainly on the baking mix and superfoods sides, to reflect that people were having more in-home occasions. Customers were looking for variety, so we made bundles and variety packs to meet that demand — I think that understanding the customer has been key during this time. And we managed to grow 650 per cent on Amazon by getting onto page one, understanding the early reviewers’ programme and making sure every product was geared towards customers’ eating experiences.
What three websites or apps can't you do without, and why?
Slack and Google Maps are invaluable, as is our CRM system HubSpot which enables us to track every conversation we have. It’s integrated through our email system and database so if someone has a conversation with another person, they will log it, and can also put notes on the system too. Then when someone logs back in, they can bring up that client and see every single bit of information on them, including all the emails and phone calls that have been had, and also any documentation that has been sent to them about pricing. We've used this system for the last two and a half years and we’re now looking at linking it into our stock system as well. I think having an overview of the business like this is important when you're a small team. Everybody needs to be on board, so they need to know the vision and mission — and where we're going with things.
What makes you feel out of your comfort zone and how do you handle that?
I suffer from anaphylaxis around peanuts, sesame seeds, chickpeas, lentils and poppy seeds and so I constantly have that as a big issue in my life. I'm outside of my comfort zone every time I have to get on public transport or a plane, or shake someone's hand because if they've eaten nuts I can stop breathing. I started the company for this very reason — because I want to be inclusive and make a product that everyone can eat. Other than that, I'm constantly pushing myself outside of my comfort zone anyway as I have a bit of ‘impostor syndrome’. I think a lot of entrepreneurs have it though; I always feel ‘am I really an expert in this?’ At the end of the day, though, it's important that you make mistakes along the way and learn from them. Outside business, I also like to skydive and cliff jump… which then actually gives me the confidence to take bigger calculated risks within the business itself.
What sacrifices have you had to make to become a successful entrepreneur?
A lot of people don't tell you how lonely it's going to be. I lost a lot of friends after university because most of my focus was on the business, and your relationships can suffer too. Luckily, I work with my partner and we made a rule when we first started that we wouldn’t take anything about the business — including disagreements — into the house. At the beginning, this meant we would often spend half an hour at the end of the day talking outside our flat. That really worked for me though because it meant that being at home was still fun and we were still having a healthy relationship. I don't think everyone can run a business with their partner, but we've managed to make it work and I'm pleased about that.