Julie Chen & Chris Forbes, Founder’s of Cheeky Panda

S1 Ep3: Julie Chen & Chris Forbes, Founder’s of Cheeky Panda Podcast Transcript

Chris D.: Have you ever wondered how the businesses you know and love have evolved? What inspired the founders to create them, what chances do they take, and what mistakes they make along the way?

Hi, I’m Chris, the CEO of Uncommon, a company that creates exceptional spaces for work. In each episode of Alive with Possibilities, I get to sit down with a different business leader whom I admire and discuss the journey they’ve been on.

In this episode, I’m joined by Julie Chen and Chris Forbes. Together, they’re the co-founders of Cheeky Panda, who produce all of their products sustainably using bamboo and can be found in over 10,000 stores within the UK and over 30 countries worldwide, supplying everything from toilet paper right through to straws.

I’ll be asking Chris and Julie how they arrived at the idea of Cheeky Panda, the market testing they did to get the products off the ground, and the challenges they faced along the way.

I also wanted to let you know that they’re sitting in front of me wearing Cheeky Panda hats. Julie, can you tell us more about Cheeky Panda?

Julie: The Cheeky Panda is a brand that produces a range of ultra sustainable tissue paper products made from 100% FSC bamboo.

We are a B-Corp organisation. We retail our products with Waitrose, Ocado, Boots, cheekypanda.com, Amazon.

Chris F.: And it’s a brand that’s also available not just at home, but it’s also available in offices and we supply through companies like Bunzl and Lyreco to name just a few for the hotel industry and for large office buildings.

Chris D.: And how many countries do you think you’re selling in now?

Chris F.: We are selling in 30 countries all around the world. All around the world.

Chris D.: Can you just kind of describe and just talk us through how you got to where you are today, what’s led to Cheeky Panda, and kind of gimme a bit of background on the business.

Julie: Before the Cheeky Panda, I was running an online shoe business. I came from an entrepreneurial family. I was working for a corporate.

I kind of got a bit of itchy feet to start my own business. So, I imported footwear from China and I built a website and sell it. It’s a successful lifestyle business but I basically didn’t want to sell shoes for the rest of my life. And I just want to do something a bit more meaningful.

So, I started to research ideas and come across bamboo toilet paper in China. Then I had this idea of creating a range of products made from sustainable bamboo and have this panda character selling and telling a story about bamboo.

So, that’s kind of the initial concept and how it came about. I studied brands when I was in Japan and then studied Disney and Nike as well. So, it kind of helped me refine this idea.

We didn’t do anything until I met Chris and then talked to him about this idea. We were still kind of sort of dating and going out. Just mention this idea and he loves it.

I took him to China to see my parents when we were engaged, that’s when we decided to take a trip to really explore this idea and see if it was to bring it to life.

Chris F.: Julie was kind of sort of looking to create a world class brand and she came up with quite a few different ideas and she said, “Well, why don’t we make tissue with bamboo?” And I said, “Well, why would you do that?”

She said, “It’s the world’s fastest growing plant.” And I said, “Well, in a world of stretch resources, that seems quite obvious. Is it any good?” And she said, “It’s great, it’s really silky soft.”

And then we started trialling it and we were using recycled tissue at the time, which was awful and this was just like so much better.

And I went, “Okay, well, actually now, we like the product, we like the idea, let’s go to China, let’s check out the backend. Because you can’t have an ethical business without having an ethical supply chain.”

Yeah, I was just amazed when we went out there it was just like so much bamboo, most of it is going to waste. Modern manufacturing, really good sort of workers’ rights and above national wages.

All the parts of the story were already there, even down to the pulping factory capturing the energy and recycling it from the steam and it was just like it was all built as a sustainable process.

I went, “Okay, well, let’s see. It’s not just us that thinks this is a good idea, let’s just see if other people think it’s a good idea.”

And then what we did is in 2016, once we concept the business, we created a video and we crowdfunded it. If we hadn’t got the money from the Crowdfunder, we wouldn’t have done the business.

And the Crowdfunder was a market test to make sure that it wasn’t just us that thought it was a good idea, that other people thought it was a good idea as well.

Chris D.: You mentioned this trip to China to go through it and review it, but with the crowdfunding, there wasn’t any main moment that you decided, “We’re going to go fully for this business,” or was that?

Julie: So, when we were visiting the factory, we were really amazed that they produce really high-quality toilet paper, like the best quality toilet paper I have ever seen. They are made from locally sourced bamboo.

And what we learned was that there was only 10% of bamboo used. 90% was still surplus. That city we went to was surrounded by bamboo and the whole car journey of five, six hours, we just saw bamboo all the way.

When we really decided that why are we cutting down trees? We got this wonderful resource, we are not using it.

And that’s the moment we thought we have to bring this to life and then come back to the UK and then launch the crowdfunding campaign to test the market.

Chris D.: To get to that stage and then kind of think to yourself, “How are we going to actually push this forward and test it,” gave you lots of feedback on the product and that there was actually genuinely a market. Was it conclusive from that crowdfunding?

Chris F.: One of the things I said to sort Julie at the time was, “My mates would never let me forget if I had a container worth of toilet roll in a warehouse two years later.”

Chris D.: Amazing.

Chris F.: So, yeah, I mean, the market test was kind of like a little bit of a sanity test and I said, “If we don’t hit the target then we won’t do it.” But then after about three weeks of being in the campaign, we knew we’d hit the target.

So, we started production and we didn’t wait for the campaign to finish to get things moving. We were like, if actual total strangers think this is a good idea, and they’ve not tried the product but they’re still willing to buy packages that we were offering, then we’ve got some really good market validation.

And the good thing about that type of market validation is that we were able to then take that to retailers like small sort of eco shops or eco platforms and say, “We’ve created a product and this demand for this product, would you like to list it?”

So, a lot of people kind of create a product and then start marketing after the product’s in market, where we actually started marketing the product before we even had it and then showing the crowdfunded demand.

And then that meant when we got the product in, like the first month we did about 10 grand of sales.

So, it’s a good lesson in trying to do things in tandem and in parallel rather than having to sort of wait for the product and then we’ll start selling it.

Chris D.: So, in terms of challenges, what have been the kind of biggest challenges you’ve had with Cheeky Panda? And I guess I’m kind of interested in your careers in general.

Julie: I think with the Cheeky Panda it was challenge after challenge. The first challenge was pandemic and lockdown and suddenly everyone wants toilet paper and supermarkets can’t get enough.

We were only doing five, six containers a month knocking supermarket stores and suddenly everyone came back to us and asked if we got any stock. And of course, we didn’t because the demand was like 200 containers.

So, we had to quickly ramp up the production and supply in order to supply the demand.

So, I have a lady working in China at the moment, she didn’t really sleep, she just managed to do all the paperwork and ship 200 containers to the UK to supply the demand.

That was the first challenge we had. But it kind of takes our supply chain whether we can supply kind of emergency demand like this and it did.

And then after the demand fades away, the demand for our brand is still there. So, we maintained the growth after the pandemic, which was nice.

But then soon after that we had a supply chain issue. We had huge — the boat got stuck in the Suez Canal and that caused a lot of supply chain issues with good delays shipment being unavailable and various lockdowns in different ports.

So, that is another challenge we had to face. We very quickly put together an inventory management system, before we were using a spreadsheet to forecast our inventory.

At that time, we had ERP and inventory forecasting systems to manage the supply chain and that made a difference.

Everyone in our business can see the demand, can implement demand, we can all kind of share our demand and focus with our clients. That makes the communication with clients a lot more smoother.

Otherwise, a lot of clients wouldn’t be able to get their stock. So, that’s the second challenge we have.

And then after that was supply chain inflation last year, which was another big challenge with this business. We went through challenge after challenge but we survived it.

And business is going stronger and stronger. Now, we can feel like we can deal with anything.

Chris D.: Very good.

Chris F.: Almost kind of sort of say we see more black swans these days than we see white ones. Whether we’ve had currency pegs coming off, or like Brexits, or pipe inflation like war supply chain issues.

I mean, I’d sort of been in business since the late ‘90s, so I mean, I’d seen a Dotcom crash and I’ve seen credit crunch before.

And I’ve traded through markets that have been quite bearish markets. Sometimes the companies that come out with the bear markets are the ones that become the strongest ones.

So, I think that kind of sort of teaches you an awful lot about resilience and agility. And I think that one of the things that we’ve done really, really well as a company is that we’ve remained agile. We pretty much have a hands-on culture.

So, even like the senior people that work in the team, we’re all into the weeds of the business on a daily basis, whether it’s Julie doing the brand stuff, and myself doing sales, or our CFO doing numbers.

We don’t have people telling people what to do. People actually lead by example. And I think that’s probably what you need if you’re going to have an agile company to be able to have people that understand all the data and all the things that are going on around them and they can adapt to market changes.

Chris D.: You hold onto that through the cultural side, kind of the biggest element, you think?

Chris F.: Yeah, I think it’s a big part of what we are.

Julie: I think it’s also the mission of the brand to really help us conquer these challenges and bring people together. In the most challenging moments, we need people who are really committed and willing to not sleep and ship 200 containers for example.

And also, with the supply chain inflation when the price goes quite high, we need customers who believe in our mission and are willing to support despite the pricing.

And also, investors need to believe in us as well. I think it’s that strong mission we have that sees us through various challenges as the capability and leadership within the team.

Chris D.: And what’s the headcount of the company?

Julie: About 30 or so.

Chris D.: You’ve grown fairly quickly. I think that’s fair to say.

Julie: Very quickly, yes. We always adopt the system first approach. That’s why I believe instead of hiring 10 people to do all the processing, we invested very early in a very good ERP system. So, a lot less like human input errors.

And we’re still now, optimising a lot of systems, kind of adding all different modules as well with the aim to reduce human input, and let machines do all the work.

Chris F.: Yeah, I mean that’s just straight through processing. So, the thing is we know with the systems that we’ve got set up, we could add a 5-million pound contract into our business and it wouldn’t fall over.

We wouldn’t need to hire another free financial administrator. We wouldn’t need to hire another four operations people. We might need to hire an extra head because you can sort of plug and play through EDI into our core system and then back to the warehouses.

As long as we’ve got all those processes set up, it just means we’re really nicely set up for scale.

And I think the size of the company now, I mean, I think there’s been different milestones.

I think we started off and probably the first big milestone is when we got to about sort of 50,000 pound a month turnover and the next one was probably a 100,000, and then half a million. And then when we started getting over a million pound a month turnover.

There are different challenges for the different sizes of business. And I think that’s one of the things that people that might be listening to the podcast, yeah, I used to look at people that would sort of turn over 350,000 and go, “Wow, I’d really wish I could get there.”

And I think if you’ve got good products and you’ve got good people then you know how to be commercial in the marketplace and I think you’ve got every chance of being successful.

Chris D.: It definitely sounds like you’ve set everything up being very deliberate about the setup on every element and that’s probably what’s allowed you to kind of scale so quickly.

I mean, the amount of countries you are now in with, I guess as you say, the sort of size of the team in terms of the amount of people you have, but in terms of the scale of the business is vast. Like that’s quite amazing.

Often people who are covering that amount of different geographies have a much, much bigger team. So, it’s probably testament to the way you have set the business up.

Another little question about each of those milestones or any other moments in the business, how do you actually celebrate all of these things? So, how do you celebrate success and I guess even failures?

Chris F.: We did have a point when we were celebrating success on a more regular basis and then like a lot of the big success happened during COVID, during lockdown and we ended up doubling up the size of the team and not actually having met them.

And I think that was certainly not how we would’ve liked to have grown. And certainly, sort of very challenging in terms of not being able to celebrate the wins with your team as they come along.

And I think we’re trying to sort of get back to that place now, where we can do sort of more team events and sort of feel everybody has got a big part to play in what we do because of the nature of how we run things here.

And to start to celebrate in a more collaborative manner, whether that’s sort of like away days, or like hikes, or taking them out for a nice experience.

Chris D.: Has there been anything that, I don’t know, you’ve had a milestone that you’ve hit that has been a big one to you in a personal capacity that you’ve then gone, “I want to go and do X, Y and Z.” 

Chris F.: Well, we haven’t really sort of taken any sort of fancy holidays or anything like that. Probably the biggest milestone is we decided to have our child in the middle of startups.

So, not only did we have a really fast growing business, we thought we’d chuck a baby into the mix as well. Just for the hell of it. Just to test yourself some.

But you can’t put life on hold just because you’ve got a business. And I think that a lot of people sort of say, “Oh, I need to do this before I do other personal things.” And I think it’s important that you try to balance out.

Chris D.: Letting a business completely take over that has its own different challenges. You clearly have examples of where you can do both.

Back on the success element, do you put that down to any particular habits that you guys do? Is there anything in there?

Chris F.: One of the things is both myself and Julia are avid studies of business as well. We surround ourselves with exceptionally talented entrepreneurs and leaders. We learn from them.

And if you look at our board, I mean we’ve got Giles Brook he’s a legend in FMCG and has had a number of sort of big successes behind him when he was with Innocent, and then he was CEO for Vita Coco for Europe, and being part of Mindful Chef and another others.

And Simon Duffy as well who built the Bulldog Skincare brand and sold that business and now, he’s got Waken which is a thing.

And we study places like Google and stuff like that and like if you look at how we sort of track and manage things, we manage it through OKR systems. We have sort of like SLAs and KPIs throughout the business.

So, despite actually being a small company, we’re actually very structured. And some of the structures you would see based on our sort of levels, it’s the same as what you would see in larger organisations.

And I think that’s one of the things that we did very early is we downloaded the Harvard Business School template when we set up the business and spent about 40 hours writing the business plan, which kind of covered a lot of the things that we ended up encountering.

But then you kind of sort of go into it with your eyes open and know not each of the different areas that you need to focus on.

And I think if you’re going to be serious about developing a business as an entrepreneur, then you should be serious about the time that you put into the thinking and planning around it because if you plan it correctly then it’s all about the execution. And as Julie likes to say, “Culturally eat strategy for breakfast.”

Julie: Yeah. But I think in the early days we didn’t actually have expertise in FMCG, we did have quite a bit of trial and error despite running other businesses before.

But it was last year we put together a management team who actually got FMCG experience and that made a difference this year.

Chris D.: That makes sense. So, in terms of advice, do you have anything that you’ve been told during your career that’s kind of really stuck with you and B, wish you kind of knew sooner?

Julie: Biggest lesson for me is to engage with experts a bit earlier. A senior management team should have come one year early and that would probably help us a bit more.

That is probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned because in the early days it was done with passion, lots of passion. And Chris and I have lots of passion and then we employ young team graduates with lots of passion but don’t actually have experience.

So, that was quite a few years of a lot of trial and error. Despite that, we still achieve fantastic success. However, if experts have come into the business a bit earlier, it will make more difference.

Chris F.: I’d agree with that. I mean, I think that right in the middle of COVID was when we should have been bringing in a CFO and COO because it was just like putting out fires everywhere and trying to sort of meet demand.

We kind of weren’t able to sort of stand back and kind of look at it from a more structured point of view.

I think seek out and surround people that are better than you even if it just means you get an hour of their time or you buy someone a beer or buy someone lunch or a coffee.

If you can sort of work with experts and they can give you 20 years of experience in an hour, then that’s much more valuable than reading a book or spending lots of time doing your own research.

Chris D.: With a little one as well, how do you maintain work-life balance? Is there such a thing for you both?

Julie: We are quite lucky that we have grandparents to help. I think without grandparents it’s going to be really hard. So, his mom helps and looks after my son from like in the morning till 5:00, six o’clock and that’s when we are off.

And on the weekend, we took him out to various national chess places to explore. We make sure we spend time with him, but the rest of the time, when we need to work we just really dedicate ourselves to work.

He’s now a lovely 4-year-old boy, very curious.

Chris D.: Probably gives you a different perspective on what’s going on in business life because he doesn’t know or care what’s going on in your busy days and just has to focus on him when you’re with him.

Chris F.: Yeah, he doesn’t like us talking about business.

Chris D.: Does he like the hats?

Chris F.: He loves all things Panda.

Julie: He loves pandas.

Chris D.: Excellent. Kung Fu Panda must be his favourite. He’s got no other choice. That must be it.

Chris F.: He does like that.

Chris D.: Do you think about legacy, do you think about where you kind of want this to go? You obviously have the kind of ESG links or the sustainability links. That must be a main net driver of the business.

But where do you think it will go as a company? And I guess you’ll then also go?

Chris F.: I think legacy is an extremely important part of what we’ve done here and we were inspired by Innocent’s journey to take on Coca-Cola and bring alternative, more nutritious drinks to the market.

In the same way we don’t believe in deforestation. We’ve put in paper packaging, we’ve disrupted a lot of different products. And we were the first UK bamboo business, now, there’s a couple of other bamboo businesses, but we were the first ones to do it.

And if we can kind of sort of make the world a little bit better and then we can inspire other people to follow in our footsteps and then sort of make items that are currently wrapped in plastic or not sustainable, make them more sustainable, then I think we can live in a better economy and we can live in a better world.

And you can have all the money in the world but if the world’s not in a good place, then what’s the point?

And I think that’s something that we should all be sort of very mindful of in terms of what our legacy is, and what our next generation is, and what we can do for our leg of the journey.

Julie: Yeah, and I think there’s still quite a lot to be done. Making sustainability mainstream is kind of our mission and I do believe that the Cheeky Panda could be the leading brand leading this movement. I’d love to see Cheeky Panda become a household name.

Chris D.: If you could leave our listeners with one key takeaway or piece of wisdom from your journey, what would that be and why?

Chris F.: Probably the most important thing is cash is king. If you’ve got the best idea or the best product and you don’t have a way to kind of sell it and market it, then it’s just a great idea that never reached its potential.

So, you really need to kind of sort of figure out how you’re going to sort of fund things and keep a very close eye on payroll and your operational inventory requirements and try to plan it six months ahead.

And if you can always plan six months ahead in terms of your cash requirements, you’ll always be in a relatively decent place.

Julie: A strong mission is very important in communicating that with the market and the various stakeholders because when you are running a business, you will encounter various challenges.

It’s important to have a clear vision and mission that holds everyone together.

Chris D.: In terms of Cheeky Panda, you’ve obviously got lots of different kinds of accolades and awards certainly around the sustainability side. Has there been any that have been more beneficial or that the consumer has really kind of bought into?

Julie: Yeah, I think veganism is one of them. We are the first vegan society approved toilet paper brand. Actually the entire range is vegan and cruelty-free. So, people really resonate with this accreditation.

And another one is B-Corp because there’s a huge B-Corp movement in the UK and we certified in 2017, which was the first hundred companies in the UK that got certified. So, yeah, these three accreditation kind of really helped.

Chris F.: Yeah. And what I would say about B-Corp is as Julie said, we got it in quite early and I think there were only six of us in the company when we became accredited.

And you’re building on really strong pillars because B-Corp’s all about sustainability. It’s about your products, it’s about your people, and your purpose.

And if you can kind of have that as strong foundations as you grow and you’ve got that, then it really kind of helps you. And a lot of companies become sort of bigger and try to put those values in later on down the line.

So, the sooner you can become a B-Corp, the better the foundation is to grow. And I think outside of public companies, it’s probably the highest standard of any private company.

And if there were lots of B-Corps in the world trading with each other, I think that the world would be a better place.

Chris D.: We at Uncommon got certified. And we probably did it the other way where we started doing so many things and then it was a long process just to then really stop and get everything in from a structure to comply with the B-Corp element.

But the beauty that we had as a business was that we were truly aligned and we were going down that route anyway. So, it was kind of a nice certification, if you will, of what we were already doing.

I guess what I’m saying is it was authentic to what we were doing and it’s the same very much for you. Like it’s authentic to the brand, it’s very much central to the brand.

And yeah, if there were more B-Corps, I think it’d be a better place, a better world, and that kind of shining the light on a higher purpose really. I think it’s got to be good for business and got to be good for the planet.

So, Julie, you’ve been recognized in the Financial Times as a leader in the consumer goods market. Do you want to tell me a bit more about that?

Julie: Yeah. So, I was ranked by Financial Times as one of the 30 female entrepreneurs to watch last year.

Chris D.: Amazing.

Julie: It was quite a surprise because I didn’t know myself until I saw myself in the newspaper alongside 29 other amazing female entrepreneurs. But yeah, it was a very nice surprise and achievement, a thing for the FOI pudding too.

Chris D.: Very well deserved.

Julie: Thank you.

Chris D.: Finally, we are asking each of our guests to leave a book on the Uncommon bookshelf for listeners to look upon and hopefully be inspired. What book would each of you like to leave and why?

Chris F.: I would like to leave Grow the Pie. Grow the Pie is a book by Alex Edmans about how you can actually be a sustainable business and actually be a benefit to society rather than sort of like older style businesses, which would be taking from the environment and not necessarily giving back almost like exploitative.

But that’s the old worldview and there’s a new worldview. And yeah, if you can take the time to read that book, it’ll inspire you.

Chris D.: When did you first read it?

Chris F.: About three months ago, it was recommended by one of my friends who is the head of sustainability at one of the big consultancies.

Chris D.: Okay. That’s definitely getting added onto the bookshelf and shared with lots of people. Julie?

Julie: It’s Richard Branson’s Just Do It. I read it before I started Cheeky Panda. It’s just one of the best business books ever in terms of brand building.

Chris D.: The hats and the kind of this brand element comes slightly from Richard Branson from that point, or being your brand, and you think and is that true? That’s where you kind of picked up some of that element.

Julie: Yeah. Wear your brand, that’s what Richard Branson says.

Chris D.: Yeah, I mean, you’ve taken to wearing the brand quite literally. I love that. Like it’s quite literally there.

Julie: Chris’s idea.

Chris F.: So, Richard Branson’s idea. But yeah, the panda hat was something nice sought out and phoned.

Chris D.: I think the beauty of a book like that is it’s kind of really making you think about things and doing it in kind of those seminal moments while you are forming business ideas is very helpful.

It’s probably very challenging and it makes you question, which is wonderful.

Last thing that’s left for me to do is just say thank you very much, thank you for coming. So, thank you, Chris, and thank you, Julie.

Julie: No problem. Thank you.

Chris F.: Thanks for organising, Chris.

[Music Playing]

Chris D.: Talking to both Julie and Chris as Cheeky Panda was so inspiring as they’re clearly students of business.

I really like the story about how they saw a gap in the market, but rather than fly at it, they spent time really planning out all aspects, including working out how to scale before they even started.

Today, I see so many people run out into the world with great ideas, but they don’t do their homework and find life tough because of it.

As in like Chris’s focus on the adage, cash is king. It’s so true and not often heard these days.

The lasting memory, which I will have from this interview is how they earned the embodiment of their brand. It fits so seamlessly with them and as a result, it’s so authentic in nature.

I hope listening to this story has inspired you. And if you haven’t already, follow Alive with Possibilities wherever you get your podcasts, as there are different learnings in each and every episode.