How I turned a serious health issue into business success

By Julianne Ponan

There can be a multitude of reasons for wanting to run your own business. The risks are significant and pitfalls aplenty, but setting up a small business in the UK is more popular than ever, regardless of age. For some, the lightbulb moment is but a flash in time. A dream of going it alone that remains a dream, but for many others it continues to flicker until they take the plunge and make it a reality.

I had that lightbulb moment six years ago when I was just 22. I was working for a health food company and I knew the owners were keen to sell. I had my own vision for the business and wanted to put my own stamp on it. I didn’t really consider my age at the time as I felt confident that I could take the business on.

I had always been interested in healthy foods due to the multitude of food allergies and intolerances I had suffered from since the age of four years. On more than one occasion, these allergies led to a life-threatening situation when I was out and about ingesting products with the potential to trigger a deadly anaphylactic shock.

I could find products that covered off one allergy but not multiple ones together. This is a problem many others face and I wanted to tackle this head on. I used to make my own cereal bars at home as I couldn’t find anything better on the market. I knew that if I could find a way to make them on a larger scale, others would love them too.

And then came the opportunity…the owners of the company I was working at asked me if I would be interested in leading a management buyout. I obviously did my due diligence beforehand and I knew that the company had significant losses (over £56,000).  At the time its product range included incense, candles, statues and some superfoods but I knew that the business had so much more potential.

Once I had acquired the business, I rebranded and trademarked the Creative Nature Superfoods brand and set about adding new ‘free-from’ products and removing other products that weren’t selling. I also had to let the existing management team go which was a hard decision to make but the right one for the future of the business. I asked my boyfriend Matt, who had previously worked at the business with me, to be the Operations Manager and set about turning the business around with no money, no experience and my network of contacts.

In the early days, we tried crowdfunding but it wasn’t successful. We had high hopes, strong numbers and dreams to launch into a supermarket within the next six months, but investors didn’t want to know and we failed to raise our £150k target. Comments like ‘you’re too young’, ‘unrealistic targets’ and ‘just a little girl’ didn’t deter us though, so we focused on proving them wrong.

Getting trade credit from suppliers was the biggest problem as they just didn’t take me seriously or trust me because of my young age and I looked even younger than I was. Eventually, I called many suppliers after long conversations and meeting, I found one that understood that I was serious and had a clear business plan. He took a chance on us and offered us 60-day credit.  We have since enjoyed an excellent working relationship, so it is crucial to find suppliers who are the right fit for your business.

Today, I’m glad to say that Creative Nature is in significant profit and thriving; our healthy but tasty allergen-free products are now stocked in major supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s, Asda, Co-op and health stores around the UK.  We’re even exporting to stockists in Europe, 3 major supermarkets in Iceland including Netto and the UAE.

Age is but a number. What matters is belief in what you’re offering, and the confidence and determination to see things through.

Julianne Ponan is CEO of Creative Nature Superfoods