What We’ve Learnt So Far: the Biggest Pieces of Advice From Starting Deliciously Ella
This week marked a really special moment for Matt and me after we won the Rising Star award at the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in London. It wasn’t something we ever expected to have happened and I’ve been feeling pretty blown away by it. It was an incredibly humbling evening and something that meant a huge amount to us both. I know that entrepreneurship, the concept of #girlboss and starting a business in general is so often made out to be so glamorous and I’m sure what we do can look like that through the lens of social media, but the reality can be pretty different, so it was lovely to take a step back and reflect on how far we’ve come rather than assessing all our obstacles! I have loved every second of building Deliciously Ella but it would be fair to say the last few years have been incredibly challenging at times and a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. The ups, like getting stocked in Starbucks or opening a new site are huge, but the downs – like worrying about making payroll, figuring out how to solve one thousand problems at once, trying to manage a growing team of people, navigating criticism and dealing with things like building delays can feel overwhelming, especially when you don’t feel very experienced. We’ve both learnt so much through this process though and I want to start sharing more of this side of our journey with you, reflecting on both the good and the bad – I want to make these posts as honest as possible too, as I hope that will make them a lot more useful for you. I’m sure some of you stay up all night and spend all weekend working too, it’s definitely a choice you make when you decide to start your own business, and I think it’s important to note that you’re absolutely not alone in that!
When I first started Deliciously Ella I had absolutely no idea that I would end up here. I had no experience in the work place, I’d never had another job before (I started this while I was at university) and I was relatively shy and lacking a huge amount of self confidence. I didn’t know what a P&L (profit and loss) was, I’d never heard of a balance sheet, the only maths I could do was counting on my fingers and I had no idea how to create a spreadsheet, calculate a margin or conduct an interview and I certainly didn’t know how to manage a team of people with much more experience and knowledge than me – it would be fair to say that I was missing pretty much all practical business know-how. Yet fast forward five years and somehow I’m running a team of seventy people, overseeing one of the fastest growing product business and operating three cafes, as well as running a social media platform that reaches around twelve million people a week and writing a series of books that have been published in over twenty languages. It feels surreal and completely unexpected. At times it’s made me feel uncomfortably vulnerable too, but I’m learning to see that as a passing feeling and instead just be grateful for the opportunities we have – I definitely believe that if you don’t put yourself out there and challenge yourself to move out of your comfort zone everyday, you’ll never get to where you want to be.
The question most people have is how have you done it? So I thought that was the topic I should try and cover today. I think a lot of it is luck, being in the right place and the right time; a lot of it is a willingness to do whatever it takes and never take no as an answer and the rest is down to a few factors that I believe have played a big part in our growth and I want to talk about four of those factors today….
1. Finding Endless Optimism
I went to a talk a few years ago where someone said the one quality you need to create a successful business is optimism. Every other talk I’d been to had focused on the slightly more obvious things – creating a great product, clever marketing, good margins and all the rest, but nothing had resonated with me more than this concept of unwavering optimism. The reality of starting your own business means there will be a lot of problems, a lot of unexpected crises and a lot of sleepless nights worrying about everything, some of it rational and some of it completely irrational. Naturally I’m a real worrier and have a tendency to over-think everything, which isn’t the best state of mind for running a business and I definitely spent a lot of hours crying and panicking when we were first starting. I’ll never forget sitting on the floor of the kitchen in Seymour Place crying and telling Matt that we couldn’t leave for our own wedding after a series of disasters had unfolded. Taking this concept of optimism on board was a game changer for me and something that Matt really helped me to embody, after he insisted that I really did need to come to my own wedding! I realised that no matter what happened I needed to keep that feeling of absolute positivity and bring it into every situation. No matter how bad something seemed I needed to be the one that found the solution, found it quickly and helped get everyone else there. Over the last year or so I’ve realised that nothing is as bad as it seems either and even the worst issues got resolved in the end. We’re still here, we’re still standing and I truly believe that with the right attitude we’ll get through anything – that’s not to say that there won’t be huge hurdles and bumps in the road, we still feel those growing pains everyday, but they’re getting easier to handle. I have to say that Matt embodies this attitude better than anyone I’ve ever met, it’s something that he learned from his parents, and it inspires me everyday and I feel very grateful to have him by my side to help navigate the varying twists and turns of the business.
2. Losing Your Ego
This next concept is something that Matt is obsessed with and when we started working together he said ‘we need to be the dumbest people in this room.’ I truly thought he’d lost the plot at this point, but he could not have been more right. We needed to acknowledge where our strengths were and the areas in which we could help the business, and then we need to acknowledge where our weaknesses were and where we could potentially hold us back.
I’m the first to admit that I’m definitely a stubborn person, I like doing things my own way and I always have an opinion on everything! I ran Deliciously Ella on my own for the first few years, it was an incredibly personal project and I felt so protective of it. I was hesitant to let other people in to what I was doing, yet I desperately needed them – I could never have taken it much further without them, as I simply didn’t have the knowledge or the confidence. Matt was the turning point in our business and my journey with it and it’s thanks to his wisdom, his experience, his calm resolve and his unwavering vision that we’re where we are today. I have a huge passion for the message behind Deliciously Ella and I love creating the brand, the food and the social media. Matt had worked in finance and business development and had a real understanding of running a company. Neither of us had ever worked in the food space or a retailer though and we knew we could only get so far without people from that world. So we prioritised finding a team with the expertise and experience that we lacked, we learnt to take their advice and let them have real autonomy in their areas of the business. We learn from them everyday and feel so lucky to do so, and in the same vein we try to take advice from everyone we’re lucky enough to meet. We really believe that to do well we both need to be sponges and soak in everything we can. So my advice would be to read every book, watch every TED talk, ask every question and just learn learn learn. We’re still learning every day and there’s so much more to go, it’s a never ending process, but I’m loving improving my knowledge and can’t wait to take it all further.
3. People Are Everything
The other pillar in our journey so far has been the people that have come on it with us, and that’s our team and you guys, the amazing community that have been kind enough to support us in the most phenomenal way since day one. As I said above our internal team have enabled us to do so much, but so have you guys. More than anything we want to be guided on everything we do by you and be as engaged as possible. When I first started writing Deliciously Ella I was really unwell and I was spent most of my time on my own at home, so I was pretty thrilled to chat to strangers over the internet! I quickly realised how much I enjoyed connecting with everyone and how much I learnt from each person I engaged with, and that’s been the cornerstone of the Deliciously Ella community. I’ve always obsessed over reading every comment and trying to respond to as much as I can. When you see people replying on twitter, responding to your Facebook message or liking your Instagram photo, that’s me. It’s what I spend hours doing everyday – every evening, morning, taxi journey and weekend I sit there and go through it all. Lots of people think I’m mad, and a lot of people I’ve spoken to have told me what a waste of my time it is, but I really believe it’s been instrumental in our success. I make notes on what I see, both on the positive and the negative. I try not to shy away from constructive criticism, as I find it’s often the best guide and helps us understand you even better – at the end of the day we’re nothing without a customer base, so I want to make you guys the happiest I can and give you the best content that I can.
4. Accept That You Can’t Make Everyone Happy
This is the point that I struggle with the most and the one that I’m still working on everyday. There is an element of vulnerability for anyone starting their own business, as you’re really putting yourself out there, and that really intensifies if you choose to operate through the public lens. The birth of social media has been instrumental to our success and we’ve really taken advantage of the amazing platforms that have been created in the last few years. Having the ability to create a brand and talk directly to your customers and community everyday is revolutionary for a small business and it means you can start a company without a big marketing/PR budget. That being said, when you’re talking to millions of people it is inevitable that some people won’t like you and I’ve realised that no matter who you are and what you do, you simply can’t please everyone. It’s not possible for everyone to like you or what you do and you have to find a way to be ok with that. There will always be complaints to deal with and misunderstanding to iron out and you’ve got to divide the criticism into two categories.
The first is, constructive criticism, which is so important. This is what makes you reasses what you’re doing, ensure you’re doing it as well as you can and ultimately I think these challenges are what push you to do better and be better in every sense. Of course it’s lovely to hear that someone is enjoying what you’re doing, but that doesn’t necessarily help you improve. I’ve found it’s looking at your weaknesses and working on those that helps you most in the long run, even if that can be hard to do. Giving great customer service when an issue arrises also brings you so much closer to that customer and we’ve found that being incredibly understanding and generous in our responses has often helped us form a better relationship with the person that was initially unhappy.
The second is the kind of criticism that you just have to find a way to ignore, because it brings you down and it’s not constructive. This can be things like people writing totally unnecessary personal comments telling me I’ve put on weight, that I look pregnant (when I’m definitely not!), that I have an annoying voice, that I am just generally annoying or that I rushed into my marriage so it won’t last: I don’t think there’s a huge amount to gain by taking these on board, and you’ve got to find a way to totally ignore them. Likewise when customers make suggestions that you appreciate but that would stop your business from being viable, you have to acknowledge them and then move on. Lots of people will have suggestions of how you can do things better, but only you know which ones of those and valid and which just aren’t.
I could go on for hours and hours, days even, on what I’ve learnt but I have a feeling that you’ll get bored after a while so I’ll stop here for today! I really would love to hear more from you on this though. What else can I help with, what else do you want to know about and how often should I write these. Please do comment below, not just because I’ve confessed my love of chatting online, but also because I really do want to be helpful and I know how overwhelming this can all feel. I’m passionate about inspiring people to start their own business, as well as getting them to eat more broccoli, so anything I can do in this space just let me know…
P.S. Here’s us looking really happy (and blurry!) with our award last night!