"If you die rich, you die poor," activist entrepreneur Paul Lindley puts his money where his mouth is

17 min read

06 March 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

What should entrepreneurs do once they hit it big? Sell their business and sit on their riches? For Paul Lindley, founder of kids impact brand Ella's Kitchen – that wasn't enough. He's started an entrepreneurial competition that, with the assistance of a leading university, will help the winner grow their impact business idea to greatness and, just maybe, change the world for the better...

“My view is that human beings are unique,” says Paul Lindley. The entrepreneur, child welfare campaigner, and founder of kids brand behemoth, Ella’s Kitchen, continues his bright and buzzy delivery as we sit down and begin to chat about his latest project.

“We can imagine something that doesn’t exist, we have an unlimited supply of ideas. However, we are prevented from developing these ideas because of a series of constraints, including lack of time and money.”

With such an opening statement, you could be fooled into thinking that Lindley is something of a philosopher as well as a highly successful entrepreneur.

Well, I guess you could say that he is both.

After all, through Ella’s Kitchen, and the health conscious products it produces, he has lobbied the government and has forced them to acknowledge and address the dire state of childhood obesity in the UK.

But that isn’t where Lindley’s entrepreneurial story ends, as post-Ella’s Kitchen success, he’s launched something that’s having a go at changing the way business is done, which if done right, could change both economic and social society for the better.

Lindley launches an impact entrepreneurs competition with a world-leading university

From the moment we meet, it’s clear that Lindley is bursting with enthusiasm about just IMAGINE if, the entrepreneurial competition he’s launched with the Berkshire based red-brick giant, the University of Reading. Founded in line with the U.N’s sustainable development goals ” to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”, the mission is ambitious.

But it’s necessary, with global issues like poverty, social inequality and pollution, Lindley’s competition is trying to ensure that it’s the entrepreneurs with world-changing and world-improving ideas that get exposure, and their ideas off the ground.

And no wonder he’s excited, because, by the end of the day, one of the final ten finalists will receive £75,000 pounds worth of academic support to grow and develop their business idea.

Let’s find out more…

Universities are a knowledge bank for entrepreneurs and their business ideas

Think about that sink-or-swim moment when a budding entrepreneur is pitching their business idea to investors. What do they need to succeed?

Well, an abundance of facts and research is a good place to start, and just IMAGINE if provides just that, says Lindley…

“A global top 200 university such as Reading can provide the tried-and-tested knowledge about how an impact product or service works,” says Lindley. “Furthermore, it can convince investors of its viability and could mean the difference between securing that crucial cash injection or failing to,” he adds.

Customers already like impact businesses, so business leaders must now respond to this demand

Forget the cliched image of activism and ‘activists’, (perhaps you picture them as anti-establishment and constantly angry), Lindley firmly believes that business-based activism holds untapped opportunities for creating enterprises that can change the world for the better;

“Business itself is the best form of institution that we, as a human race have created to create wealth, prosperity and ultimately, impact,” he says. “Social businesses are what our society is increasingly asking for, consumers want to buy from these businesses which mean the movement is coming from the bottom up. So, now we have to disrupt things from the top and change the culture of business from the opposite direction,” he adds.

The competition, that’s set to take place after our meeting, is a clear effort made by Lindley to stimulate this ‘top-down implementation’ of change, where each finalist pitches their idea accompanied by an entrepreneurial mentor. So, facing a crowd of other entrepreneurs, investors and journalists, their ideas are given exposure, connections and even potential funding.

Just IMAGINE if: What happens once the winner has been selected?

Ella’s Kitchen founder Paul Lindley wants to help other entrepreneurs start their impact businesses.

“We have a pot of 75k that can pay for a PhD,” says Lindley. “Then the university, in conjunction with the nearby Henley Business School, will sit down with the winner and decide what kind of research they need to grow their business, whether that’s business advice, business planning, product testing or even a PhD for the company,” he says.

It’s clear that one of Lindley’s ultimate goals is to change the culture of how business is done, and it’s a hefty old culture to change. After all, the ‘idea’ of having a great idea doesn’t gauge much respect in the business world in and of itself. It’s only when the idea holder gains investment that the business is given any credence.

Lindley is trying to change all that by bringing value and respect back to the idea of simply having, a great, and potentially world-altering idea, and the competition itself is giving people the opportunity to showcase that.

Lindley also says that educational institutions have more potential to change society than we might think, and apart from quenching a thirst for individual intellectual rigour, they can contribute to the business and social economy…

“We might all question the point of universities in several years time,” says Lindley.”Right now, it’s largely for isolated research purposes or personal economic benefit, such as helping someone get a job, but how about the impact it could have on wider society?”

“University institutions are among one of the most trusted institutions compared to business, politics, or the church. So, how can we build on that trust to do more for our society? We can start by helping to import knowledge from universities into the commercial world so businesses can scale it.”

“The idea is that there’s an impact business pipeline,” says Lindley. ” This begins with fostering a relationship between universities and their research-based resources, with supporting a budding entrepreneur’s impact idea. Following that, hopefully, the business, having been given support from the university, can have an impact on the social and environmental world,” he says.

This is the first year that the competition is taking place, but Lindley hopes it will become an annual affair that might be taken up by universities across the country, ” I’m a believer in little ripples, you can plant a seed and start a journey, ripples become waves and influence things,” he says.

“I hope the government looks at what we’re doing here,” says Lindley. “Especially in a post-Brexit world, universities have to compete for students and professors in a global market, they need to stand for something that’s distinctive,” he adds.

Universities must become more vocational to produce the next great impact entrepreneurs

“Look at what James Dyson has done out of the University of Warwick,” says Lindley.”He’s created a university within a university, there’s a Dyson institution that concentrates on engineering and innovation,” he adds.

“This means that graduates consider themselves a graduate from Dyson university, not Warwick. It’s a key example of how universities can become more vocational, and thus beneficial to economic society,” he adds.

“Look at the free school system here in the UK. From the 1900s, free primary school education was given so that working-class boys can go to school and all come out the same,” he says. “Then they go into the army or a factory and all do the same thing, whether that’s reading a map, or cleaning a gun,” he adds.

“We haven’t changed that much today. GCSEs narrow to A-levels, and it’s all about testing academic sameness. We don’t need that. We need entrepreneurs who have the bravery to think differently, to think about something not existing and to make it exist.”

The ‘Ella’s Kitchen’ story: How did it become so successful?

We then steer the conversation to Lindley’s great commercial success story to date, Ella’s Kitchen. So, what made it so successful?

“The Ella’s Kitchen story was not about thinking about how much money it would make or how much it could be sold for,” says Lindley. “The impact mission, (helping children foster a healthier relationship with food), was central to the business from the outset,” he says.

“We created products, such as healthy eating cookbooks that sought to lobby the government to change laws,” says Lindley. “The output of delivering a focused mission grew turnover by double and triple digits every year since its existence,” he says. “That means that people want to work and invest in the company because, by-and-large, people want to do business with a company that has a good and impactful mission.”

Impact isn’t enough on its own, it has to be sustainable: Lessons learnt

But then, if there’s a formula for business success where impact organisations are concerned, then wouldn’t every business with a strong mission strike the big time?

Lindley assures us it’s not that straightforward…

“I had another business called Paddy’s bathroom, and it had impact built into the heart of it, but the business still failed,” says Lindley.

Whilst Lindley’s second project created some great social impact, (one drop of clean water for every drop of shampoo sold went to clean water projects in Rwanda), – the company never made a profit.

“The problem was that whilst the company was impact driven, it wasn’t commercially sustainable in delivering that impact,” says Lindley. “So, we closed the business and learnt a valuable lesson, that social business IS business, you have to make sure you can deliver on those impact goals whilst running a business and seeing it grow commercially too.”

So how does Lindley ensure that he doesn’t make the sustainability mistake again?

Here’s the impact model Lindley follows to ensure success…

“I use a model that I call the ‘four Ls’, it’s living, loving learning and leaving a legacy,” says Lindley. “The company has to make a profit, and deliver what it’s trying to do on an impact level too. It has to pay its employees a living wage, they should come to work and leave satisfied, and love what they do and employers should reward them for it.”

“I firmly believe that stakeholder serving businesses won’t be massive FTSE 100s in the future, Why? Because all businesses, great and small will soon be redefining what their missions are and they won’t be solely commercial.”

“There’s also L for learning, we have to learn as a business and accept that we are going to make mistakes, as well as learn from them. Legacy is also really important. You’ve got to explain why your business exists, is its aim to make its corporate shareholders money, or to do something else? CEOs and business owners should be thinking about what sort of legacy they want to leave behind, what do they want to be remembered for?”

Overcoming the profit vs impact binary

“The power paradigm is changing in business,” says Lindley. “By 2020 the majority of consumers will be millennials who will have a different paradigm and dynamic about how they purchase and why they purchase. They will also be running institutions, both business and others, this will change the power dynamics entirely.”

But is entrepreneurial activism enough to foster this change? According to Lindley, it needs to be a collaborative effort, and the government can and should do more…

“Think about the things that have changed in society, and what’s acceptable, whether that’s drink driving or not wearing a seatbelt, it’s hard-hitting media and public sector campaigns that have really worked,” says Lindley.

“Think about that episode of Blue Planet that shone a light on the extent of plastics pollution in the sea, and the animals that are suffering from it. That was a big trigger for stimulating the anti-plastics movement in the UK.”

Could this also happen in the business world? We’ll have to wait to find out.

Impactful business makes a better business: Here’s how to start

“The Fundamental idea about running a successful impact business is creating a culture and internal governance that means that impact culture its institutionalised rather than a founder’s whim,” says Lindley. “Business leaders must make impact part of their company constitution over saying simply maximising shareholder return.”

Our conversation comes to a close via the proposition of a series of rhetorical questions from Lindley, “business leaders must ask themselves this question, does their money define them by simply sitting in the bank?”

“The saying goes if you die rich, you die poor. If your money isn’t doing anything else through your business, what is the point?”

“Impact is a state of mind, it’s about having an open mind versus a closed mind. Society is changing and so are consumer needs. Innovation means that businesses can’t stay still. Only businesses with open minds will change and prosper, whilst those that refuse will fall.”