Let me, Fiona Scott, a feature writer, and media consultant, introduce you to Julianne Ponan, MBE.
Back in the summer of 2017, during my annual break in a French caravan site, I received an unexpected call from a young woman. We had met briefly at a business show, but the connection wasn’t immediate. She got my number through a mutual contact and wanted advice about her upcoming Dragons’ Den appearance. The young woman was Julianne.
Little did I know, that call marked the start of an ongoing collaboration. Julianne, honoured with an MBE in 2022 for her contributions to exports and the allergy community, has a compelling business story, particularly relevant for those seeking inspiration in the business world, especially young women.
I’m delighted to share just some of her story with you all:
Were you born an entrepreneur?
I didn’t have a ‘lightbulb’ moment or anything like that. Looking back, I think I always had entrepreneurship in my DNA. For example, when I grew up, even at a really young age, when my parents would have guests visiting, I would charge them just to go and get a drink. I’d be like ‘yes, 50p, please!’. If they bought a product into the house that I was allergic to, they would be charged a fine for bringing it in. So, I just made-up random rules to make money.
Where did the idea for Creative Nature come from?
I always wanted to leave something like a legacy, to create something that really had purpose. A series of things happened which made it a natural move for me when I was in my early 20s.
I’ve suffered from anaphylaxis since I was a toddler. So, the first attack was at nursery when I ended up in intensive care – and it’s happened several times since. Tests showed I have multiple life-threatening allergies including all nuts, sesame seeds and many more ingredients and products. If I consume any of these allergens, or even breathe in allergens, I can quickly stop breathing as my airway swells. It’s terrifying.
My mum always had to make meals from scratch and it affected my every day life – and my family’s too. I was not allowed to attend (and often wasn’t invited) to certain birthday parties, sleepovers, all of that type of thing. Celebrations involving food were a nightmare for me and I often felt excluded. I could never trust ‘food on the go’ and frankly it’s exhausting.
It was difficult to cater for me and it also impacted what other people could eat around me. It was only at university that I began to see that, with some adjustments, I could be included and accepted alongside everyone else.
Initially at the start of my career, I actually went into something completely different, which was finance. I worked in Beijing and there was clearly a steady career path ahead of me. It wasn’t something I was particularly passionate about, even though I did love my job.
I came back to the UK and realised, that the ‘free-from’ section in the supermarkets was awful. There was very little choice and also there was little labelling which could be trusted – and that’s not too different today.
It was at this point that the idea for Creative Nature came to life. Why couldn’t I shop easily, eat easily and safely and eat something delicious? How could I create on-the-go snacks or food for someone like me? From my kitchen and with the help of my then boyfriend Matt we started developing products.
Even today, with Creative Nature products on the shelves, the ‘free from’ section in any supermarket will have many products which say ‘contains nuts’ or has ‘alibi labelling’ ie. ‘may contain’. So the ‘free from’ is still a minefield for those of us with multiple allergies or unusual allergies. We are still unable to trust product labelling.
At the beginning of Creative Nature, it was really tough as people didn’t really understand allergies, but that is changing now because so many people have allergies, it’s now one in 13 children. That’s two in every classroom.
The food and drink sector is an easy sector though is it?
It’s still a male-dominated market, everyone knows that. When I first started, I remember going for investment and I came from a finance background, so I should have been able to get myself noticed. I understand money and finance in a way that many business owners do not.
To be honest, I thought it was going to be easy yet it wasn’t. It was a lot tougher and getting through to those specific buyers, getting them to believe that your product is good enough to put on shelf was – and is – hard. It feels impossible when you’ve never done it before.
It’s also a fact that women find it far more difficult to get investment than men in business – sadly. That’s something which has to change. Why is it even a thing?
Today our products are ‘on the shelf’ so it’s easier as we do have a proven track record and therefore credibility. I will never forget though what it’s like when you’re starting from scratch.
Could you share some of your tactics from those early days?
Personal branding was the big one. At the beginning, I never really wanted to put my face to the brand. I wanted Creative Nature to stand alone and I would be the silent person behind the brand focusing on product, development and getting into stores.
What I worked out quite quickly was that the adage ‘people buy from people’ is true and our story and my situation were authentic. I suffer from allergies and this is why I’ve created products that truly are ‘free from’ – frankly if it wasn’t true our own products could threaten my life. It’s pretty simple.
I realised that ‘allergy parents’ really related to that and they wanted to buy from someone in the same position. This is why we started to do more things with my story, my face and me being associated with the brand. It was not comfortable but over time it worked.
One of the most uncomfortable moments was sitting with a branding agency. They asked “can we put your face on the brand?” and I was “absolutely not. I am not doing that.”
Yet there was a compromise. There is middle ground where we do have my signature on a lot of the Creative Nature packaging, which gives it a personal element backed up by many stories about me and around me.
Another area which worried me yet I recognised would help was public speaking. If you had asked my mum or my dad if I could speak in public they would have laughed. I couldn’t even stand up in class at school – I was too shy and too scared.
One time they were even called into class because I wouldn’t stand up and read a page out of a book. I just wouldn’t do it. I don’t know what the fear was, but I felt like I couldn’t get the words out, I just physically couldn’t read them.
Looking back, I did go to speech classes when I was a child just to be able to pronounce my Rs correctly which I think didn’t help me because it created this sort of worry in my mind that I was not speaking well.
I went to a business show quite early in the journey and I was asked to speak and I was panicking, thinking no, no, no, I just can’t do this. Matt, my husband, said ‘ you have to just do it’. It was the first big talk I ever did and to this day I don’t know how I got through it. I’ve recently done a TED talk and I still feel that doubt and that worry that I’m not going to deliver well enough.
At the end of the day, you can only do your best and prepare as much as you can. Slowly, the more I’ve done it, the more I get used to it and the greater impact I can have – to educate others around allergies.
Then of course, we did Dragons’ Den.
Tell us about Dragons’ Den – the pros & the cons:
The BBC’s Dragons’ Den is a fantastic show. It’s amazing for entrepreneurs especially if you are starting out.
The pros are great if you haven’t been going for that long or your product’s not that well known.
Also, the process behind it helps you get ready for investment. It gets you to check all of your due diligence. It helps you to understand where you are as a business, what your numbers are, as well as putting you in the spotlight.
You will be exposed, you cannot pull the wool over the eyes of the Dragons. You have to get very real, very quickly and you have to be ready.
We were asked four times to appear on the show before we agreed and even then, I was a bit apprehensive. But we did it because we already knew we were going to be launching into a supermarket and that was a huge milestone for us.
I didn’t have a huge marketing budget because we didn’t have investment. We had bootstrapped everything. So being able to get our product on TV in front of thousands of people, suddenly became very attractive.
Our view was that even if the Dragons were going to say no, it’s still a fantastic opportunity for us to prove that we’ve got a product that could be great for the masses.
On the ‘con’ side, I would say you need to be mindful of is how you’re going to feel when that episode airs. Remember the way it’s edited is that sometimes it’s not always what you remember saying – and large sections of the conversation are cut out.
Bear that in mind and have someone working with you to manage all of that and support you through it. Its nature means that you will attract some negative comments or even some trolling on social media and you have to be prepared.
Another practical tip for a product-based business is to ensure that your website is modern, responsive and able to cope. Plus ensure that you have capacity for a big uplift in orders and your supply chain in place. The last thing you want is your website crashing or you are unable to fulfil orders in a timely manner.
Finally make sure you have a plan of action once the programme has aired – which will often be weeks or months after filming.
We needed to make sure that Co-Op and Sainsbury’s all knew that the show was airing. Unfortunately, they still didn’t order enough stock and stock ran out in a week – however we did catch up as quickly as possible. We also did make the most of the resulting PR opportunities.
Why didn’t you take the Dragon’s investment in the end?
It’s actually more common than people realise that entrepreneurs don’t take the investment on Dragons’ Den after a programme has aired. There is a due diligence process which takes place later and it was during this that I had second thoughts.
The reason why I didn’t take it was the fact that in the Den you feel overwhelmed. I mean the lights are on you and you’ve got to make decisions quickly and under pressure. In the real world that’s not always the case when speaking to a potential investor.
Usually, you’ll have time to go back, review documentation and talk to each other a bit more.
My gut was telling me it wasn’t right and this still is one of the hardest decisions I had to make during my time in business. My parents were very much ‘you’ve got a Dragon’s investment, why are you turning this down?”.
At the time it didn’t feel right. I felt the valuation was not where we needed it to be and I felt we had achieved so much from launching into Co-op and Sainsbury’s at the time that actually, what was a Dragon going to do for us? It was too grey an area for me and we withdrew from the process.
How did you get investment then?
A year later we launched a Seedrs campaign which required a lot of preparation and work. It took me around six months to do that raise, so I was going out there speaking to investors, understanding what the market was like, before putting a pitch together to approach Seedrs.
It’s very, very different to Dragons’ Den where you just go on and pitch if you’ve been selected by the production team.
A key thing in that campaign was to drum up the PR around it as well. So as soon as that campaign goes live, you want to be around 75% funded within the first three days and that’s quite a tough, tough ask.
Luckily we did it and we had some fantastic backers and the campaign snowballed, I think once launched we were overfunded in 14 days and we hit just over half a million in funding on a £6,000,000 valuation.
You take marketing and PR seriously – why?
There are so many ways you can market your business and it doesn’t all have to be paying for ridiculously expensive billboard campaigns or print advertising or things like that.
There’s PR, so working with someone who can specifically push you, the business and your personal brand – often. Someone who sees opportunities for you, your products and your brand and takes them.
You can employ an amazing PR agency to do that for you but if you don’t have the right story to tell, you’re still going to be in the same situation. You have to acknowledge and understand the power of stories and the power of people stories around you, your team, your brand and your products.
It can’t just be about pushing your product all the time. It’s not about selling. It’s not about the ‘what’ it’s about the ‘why’.
One tactic you use is influencer marketing – tell us about that.
We have an affiliate marketing campaign that we run pretty much all the time. So, we have specific affiliates who have worked with us again and again where they have our products and then they post about them.
What’s exciting is the affiliates within our programme will all get new products as they come out and that enables them to post all at the same time. This creates a snowball effect where everyone can see your product on the same day and it can appear as if 1000s of people are posting but actually it might be 50. I think that kind of amplification can really make your product look bigger than it is. It creates strong energy around your brand. Coupled with PR, this has worked well for us.
We also do events for influencers. For quite a few years we’ve done a ‘Bake Off ‘ spin-off event where we’ve hired the replica of the Great British Bake Off tent and invited 20 influencers to bake a banana bread or one of our baking mixes and we’ve put a timer on it.
We make it look like a ‘Bake Off’ style competition and if we run that alongside the actual tv show, it works so well. In other words we’re tagging on to a big event which is aligned to us and we make it ‘our own’.
Last year we also did an amazing marketing campaign when we partnered with Sony for the Matilda movie. We were one of the only small brands to secure such a prestigious partnership.
We chose a partnership because it fitted in with our mission and our ethos. The character of Matilda stood for a girl who was brave and defied all the odds, which is how we see Creative Nature.
Tell us about your MBE:
Honestly it still doesn’t feel real. Every time I see my name with those letters I have to remind myself ‘Yeah, I’ve got an MBE and that’s pretty cool’. The investiture itself was something I guess I’ll remember forever.
I’m proud to have been recognised around my business and also around the work we do to campaign and advocate for people like me. There is so much work still to be done.
Last year we ran a schools’ campaign which reached well over 100,000 children where we worked with ‘allergy parents’ to spread the word about allergies in schools and the impact it has on those living with allergies. We have also campaigned around not having nuts on aircraft and, I’m pleased to say, our products are now stocked on some airlines.
Yet there’s so much more to do. I’ve got ‘alibi’ labelling and the truth around ‘free from’ supermarket aisles now firmly in my sights.
Those of us who suffer from allergies or intolerance of some kind are a small yet growing minority and we deserve a ‘safe’ space at any table.
Has the MBE opened any doors for you?
Definitely. I do think people take you more seriously. I think you get more opportunities for public speaking and I’ve found that people who dropped off my radar – perhaps they didn’t take me too seriously previously – have suddenly popped up again.
There is something which happens around your credibility that you’ve been found to be deserving of this kind of recognition. I’m deeply grateful for that.
I think it’s under 1% of people that have an MBE come from a mixed race background like me which is quite surprising. Yet at least that small percentage is growing and we’re going in the right direction. It would be fantastic to see more entrepreneurs like me on that list.
What’s coming up for Creative Nature in 2024?
So many things! We’ve got a airline that will be launching with us which is really exciting. We’ve got our first savoury product and it will be available on Virgin Atlantic.
I think it’s a ground-breaking product, especially for people with allergies to gluten or dairy or sesame or anything like that, because it means you can have it on board and plane staff can serve it to anyone.
We’ve got some cool shows that we’ll be attending. We’ve been selected as a brand to go to Gul Foods in the Middle East for example. I’ve also been confirmed as one of the four ambassadors for WTCE (World Travel Catering and Onboard Services Expo), which is one of the biggest airline shows in the industry.
We are clearly making headway in the airline sector to make it safer for people like me to fly with allergies.
On top of that, we’ve got lots of things going on with the supermarkets. Ocado has just launched our sticky toffee pudding mix and we will looking at rolling that out to other stores too.
Are you also supplying the first top 14 allergen ‘free from’ baking mixes in Holland and Barrett?
Yes, we’re in over 750 stores with our carrot cake and chocolate cake mixes. And then we’ve also got our brownie and banana bread mixes in selected stores too. It means you can have our mixes whether you’re suffering from IBS, because it will help in that regard, looking to avoid any sort of gluten or dairy or nuts, you’re just allergic, or maybe you just want a tastier, healthier baking mix that you can serve to everyone.
*To find out more about Creative Nature, Julianne and the ‘real’ top 14 ‘free from’ products she’s created with her team visit https://creativenaturesuperfoods.co.uk