The Cheeky Panda is looking forward to another year of growth on the back of a hugely successful 2017 that culminated in winning at The Essex Business Excellence Awards. The Shenfield-based company, which supplies the market with eco-friendly, bamboo-based toilet paper, only started trading in 2016 but has gone on to receive many accolades during their first two years of trading – including ‘New Business Of The Year’ and ‘Business Entrepreneur Of The Year’ for Chris Forbes at November’s event in Romford. Among The Cheeky Panda’s other achievements are a nomination as the ‘New Entrepreneur of the Year’ in the National Business Awards and they also received an invite to ‘Pitch at the Palace’ by Prince Andrew.
Here, SME Magazine speaks to co-founder Julie Chen about their rise and the role that a business-support agency such as Chelmsford-based INVEST Essex can play in the development of fledgling SMEs.
SME: Can you explain a little bit about how the idea for the business came about in the first place?
Julie Chen: Growing up in Asia I have seen bamboo used for many products including paper, tissue, clothing etc. Knowing there are many benefits to bamboo, I had an idea of creating a range of bamboo-based products under the brand name The Cheeky Panda. In December 2015 I took my partner (co-founder Chris Forbes) to visit my parents in China. We took an opportunity to visit bamboo forestry and tissue production facilities. We saw there was so much bamboo there, growing wild on the mountains. We learned that this bamboo can be harvested every year, and would be simply wasted if not used. We thought it’s really a no-brainer to introduce bamboo tissue products to the Western market.
You started trading in 2016 – what were your expectations for how things would go in the first two years and have you exceeded those expectations?
In the first two years we expected the products to start selling well on our online channel and specialised stores such as natural organic shops (they are already selling well at Wholefoods Market, are a number one best-seller on Amazon and will be available on Ocado soon). We would say we are on the right track and achieving milestones.
INVEST Essex has been a long-term ally of yours. At what stage in your evolution did you get in touch with them and was there any particular area of expertise that you wanted to tap in to?
[We got in touch] at a very early stage, when we just had a concept. We were particularly hoping to find out if there was any government funding available for green start-ups. INVEST Essex played a significant part in helping us get where we are now. We first got introduced to three local logistics providers by INVEST Essex, each of whom provided fulfilment solution options. With this direct support we were able to compare pricing and identify the key partners to work with us to quickly assemble a global supply chain and customer fulfilment.
What are the advantages of being an Essex-based business (in terms of travel links, proximity to London etc.)?
Essex is great for business. We are based in Shenfield and it’s only 22 minutes to London Liverpool Street by train. It’s easy for us to travel to London for business events, and we don’t have to pay high London costs. The support from INVEST Essex has been amazing. We have lived in other counties before but have never experienced such a level of support from local authority departments.
How did you feel after The Cheeky Panda won two awards at the Essex Business Excellence Awards?
We were very proud. There are many excellent businesses in Essex. As a young company being recognised at such an important annual event is definitely a big achievement and something to be proud of.
How do you hope to top your 2017 achievements in 2018?
We hope to achieve significant sales and increase export.
Find out more about The Cheeky Panda at http://investessex.co.uk/studies/case-studies/the-cheeky-panda or follow them on Twitter (@TheCheekyPanda1). For more information on INVEST Essex go to the website at www.investessex.co.uk.