Founder's podcast #3: Chris Forbes | Cheeky Panda

 Chris Forbes and Julie Chen, Founders of Cheeky Panda

Chris Forbes and Julie Chen, Founders of Cheeky Panda

Welcome to the Founder's Podcast. We'll be bringing you short talks with the founders of the sustainable startups we host in our space to get a glimpse into their stories: what made them get up one day and decide they want to start something new and how they turned an idea into a successful company.

Today we're happy to have Chris Forbes from Cheeky Panda with us.

Chris followed his wife Julie and together they created the company leading the industry of bamboo toilet paper and other products selling in top retailers and chain stores from Planet Organic to Tesco and Amazon and winning endless prizes and competitions and the way. Lately they've secured another million funding from Northern & Shell. And we're here to hear all about it.

 

Chris: I'm Happy to answer all questions and share some of the journey. So what would you like to know first?

 

Well, we'll start with the personal. You started Cheeky Panda with your wife?

 

Chris: Yes, so Cheeky Panda was Julie's idea. She talked to me for about year before we actually created the company and it's one of those things - she worked with sustainability, LED lighting before right in the early stages when it came into the UK. She knew the space and said: I think that bamboo tissue is going to be in the future of tissue. I was running an executive search business at that time, so I said Well it sounds interesting. Let's see. And she kept talking about it, kept talking about it.

 

Finally it was on a trip to China, at the end of 2015. I went to meet her parents and as part of that trip we went to investigate bamboo. What surprised me was the scale of the bamboo. There was obviously no point in a business unless it can scale and then the second thing was how modern the manufacturing was which I didn't really expect. It was a way better than anything we've got in the west because they were all new factories, super optimized even using the pulping steam to power the pulping plant. So that really surprised me and even from an ethical point of view they are doing everything to the correct standards and it makes creating this business a bit of a no brainer.

 

 Julie and Chris, When it all started.

Julie and Chris, When it all started.

So you left the suit behind?

 

Chris: No, I still wear the suit, and actually i have just sold that business. I've always been a corporate guy, but I've always been passionate about sustainability as well.

 

We took baby steps into creating the company. We crowdfunded it initially, to make sure there was a market for it. We started off with just £10,000, but we overfunded. So we did well and saw there's demand for it. After the first couple of months progressed we could see there was a real appetite for it! Then it became less of a part time project but rather a full time project for the both of us.

 

But you stepped into a new ground, you background is not loo paper.

 

Chris: I've spent a lot of time working with management consultancies, the likes of PWC and Ernst & Young. So I knew all about the supply chain, fulfilment and operations as well corporate finance. I say to people that I have done a 20 year MBA because I knew all the theory about how to grow great businesses and the things you need to do but I've never actually done it in practice. It's so much nicer to actually have a product rather than just talking about services and it is much more rewarding to be running a product based business rather than just consulting.

 

Still you're stepping into a new grounds and it's not empty. There are some big names in the loo paper business.

 

Chris: The size of the market in the UK is 1.8 Billion, the global market is 50 billion. There's a lot of very big players that have got long term relationships. It shouldn't be underestimated what we've tried to achieve in this space. The way I see it,  it hasn't been disrupted in 20 years and it was ripe for disruption. It takes people from outside the sector to disrupt the sector. We just approached it with fresh eyes. The people in the industry said they would never have done half of what we've done because it's too crazy. But to us it just seemed like a second nature thing. "It's obvious. Let's do it!" We caught the big guys off foot a little bit because we do things very fast, we're creating new products that would have taken them years to develop..

 

 "The way I see it,  it hasn't been disrupted in 20 years and it was ripe for disruption. It takes people from outside the sector to disrupt the sector. We just approached it with fresh eyes."

"The way I see it,  it hasn't been disrupted in 20 years and it was ripe for disruption. It takes people from outside the sector to disrupt the sector. We just approached it with fresh eyes."

So you're venturing into new ground and leaving the safe ground behind. Did you get support from people?

 

Chris: Well I did bet everything on this. I used the money from my executive search business to fund the creation of a new business, like a typical entrepreneur. I always believed it would work but you never really know. So the first 18 months we didn't pay ourselves a salary and worked out of the house. There was a lot of high pressure, there was a lot of risk and all the money that we we made we ploughed it back into the business.

 

I think that people could see that we were serious about it and it wasn't just like our hobby or a play thing. The more people saw we're serious, and the better that we did, then more people start to support us. I think that what we've done in the last two and a half years to get to where we are, 20 million valuation, is is a lot of hard work and a lot of belief and and a lot of support from a lot of people as well.

 

We haven't just done by ourselves and you know we wouldn't be the size it wasn't for the team that we've got currently and also we've got some great investors and people that have gone out of their way to help us. It's amazing when you're doing something entrepreneurial the amount of support you actually get from the wider market. It's been quite rewarding from that perspective.

 

I wouldn't have expected it to go on this fast. It was in the business plan. Weather I believe what was in the business plan or not is entirely different matter. I wouldn't tell my investors that... They're quite happy because I think they took a pinch of salt as well. To suddenly be across the international markets and be selling throughout Europe and the Middle East as well, and we have plans for the wider world, you know, it's sometimes quite surreal.

 

It sounds surreal. Remind us how big your team is?

 

Chris: There's eight in the team, but within the Cheeky Panda company there's about 100 people that work on the manufacturing and the supply chain. We outsource a lot of it. We've got great partners and we lean heavily on them and we wouldn't be able to have done as much as we could without that. We're a decent sized business no in total.

 

 The Cheeky Panda Team in a celebration at Sustainable Workspaces.

The Cheeky Panda Team in a celebration at Sustainable Workspaces.

At what stage did you move out of the house and realized you need an office?

 

Chris: When we did our seed funding round that was kind of when we realised we need to get a team in place. So we've proved ourselves in markets and at that seed stage we were already making about 20,000 pounds a month in sales. So we've kind of got to a point that we realised we can't grow any further with just the two of us, and realised we need to raise some money and build a team to scale up.

 

So we scaled up and then we were looking for a workspace. We knew Sustainable Workspaces and James as you guys have been buying the tissues from us, and it seemed like a natural fit as well to come in here. So we came in here the start of June and we're really enjoying it.

 

Yes, for us it was great to see the faces behind the tissue that we've been using. So it all sounds amazing and sounds like you were really taking over the world.

 

Chris: We're having fun. I think that's a very important thing and we have got a young team, a young team of good leaders. They're ambitious people themselves, we've given them an opportunity that if they were sitting in a large corporate it would have taken them many years to get the same level of opportunity. For me it's all about the team, not just about what our vision is. The only way you can ever really be successful is having great people around you. We've chosen well and they seems to be having fun as well which is very rewarding from a personal level for me.

 

I see your around with then and it seems like you're enjoying leading these youngsters.

 

Chris: It's having a culture. It is very hard to retrospectively design a culture. I'm a great believer in culture and if you can create the right culture in your company in the early stages then it means that when people join at a later stage the culture is already set and everyone has a sense of belonging and purpose. I think that's the difference between why companies can be good against companies being great.

 

Good Stuff. There's a quote for us.

 

Chris: Excellent! Maybe someone will use that at some point!

 

If you can create the right culture in your company in the early stages then it means that when people join at a later stage the culture is already set and everyone has a sense of belonging and purpose. That’s the difference between why companies can be good against companies being great.
— Chris on building a leading team
 

Alright the last question for you: five years from now?

 

Chris: That's a tough one. There's different routes for us. I guess we'll only really know that in about a year and a half time. The stock exchanges are courting us. They obviously see us as a full IPO potential. That's a massive commitment. Part of me thinks we would partner up with one of the large FMCG players at some point. So if we can make a difference, that's why we're doing this and if we can make a bit of money at the same time as making a difference, then everyone's going to be happy.

 

The one thing that I really want; I want to inspire other green entrepreneurs. We’re pioneers, as a lot of people in the space are, and if other people can see how we’ve disrupted a sector by creating a sustainable product then hopefully it can inspire people to create more sustainable products across more sectors and then we can start to move towards a better world.
— Chris's inspiring epilog.