In this open but fascinating interview with Renée Elliott, she talks to me about everything. From meeting her husband and business partner Brian over 30 years ago whilst doing a backpacking Eurail trip, to moving to England, starting Planet Organic and how the idea came about.
She further explained the differences on how her English and American friends reacted to her idea when she first started, difficulties in setting up the business and more.
Renée Elliott is the founder of Planet Organic, UK's only organic supermarket chain with 5 stores (soon 6) in London and on-line ordering, a company she started 18 years ago and this is her story.
Can you give us some background about yourself? You were born in the US, when did you make the move to the UK and why?
I went abroad for the first time when I was 20, in 1985. I was with my sister Lauren and we were doing a backpacking, Eurail trip that started in England. During our first week here, we were out late one night clubbing and missed the last train home. We asked a cop what we should do and he said to take a nightbus from Trafalgar Square.
We got on the bus, which was empty, and it went one stop to Lower Regent Street where a tall, dark and handsome man got on. We talked and laughed on the whole journey. I travelled round Europe with Lauren, went back to Boston, finished my degree and then moved to England to date the bus guy. Brian is my husband and we have been together now for nearly 30 years.
What were you earliest moment of being entrepreneurial?
I’m not sure I ever felt entrepreneurial. It’s just that when I moved to England and had to get a job, I realised on the first day of work on a Monday morning when a colleague was moaning about not being able to wait until Friday, that I would have to love what I do for the next 40 or so years – or die. Then I quickly realised that I really dislike being told what to do and decided that I should probably have my own company.
Why organic foods?
Well, I was an English major at uni with a minor in Health, but I think the turning point for me was when I read ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ by Lappé about the horrors of industrial meat farming in America. Up until then, I was completely naïve about food production, trusting – like many people do – that if it’s on sale, that it is not only okay but actually good to eat. I also studied ageing and the affect of how what we eat through our younger years creates illness as we age. It makes perfect sense to me to eat the best possible food in order to be as healthy as possible. You’ll never fulfil your dreams if you don’t have health as your foundation.
How did the idea for Planet Organic come about?
I nicked the concept from an organic supermarket I saw in the burbs of Boston, near where my family live. Supermarkets in America are all pretty downmarket – we don’t have the range that y’all have here – so I was impressed and excited when I saw this organic and natural market. It was beautiful, with the best quality foods available and not raft of garbage you find in conventional stores. I was smitten and decided to take the concept to England.
It must have been tough getting a business started during those times, how did it all unfold?
Anything worth doing is tough (try raising kids), but I am incredibly determined. What was depressing was English people who would put up barriers to my dream, whereas my American friends were gung ho and very excited for me. If you want to start a business, you have take that leap of faith and commit 100%. Think of the trapeze artist: you can’t grab the next trapeze unless you let go of the one you are on.
One of my favourite quotes, which I have found to be very true, is by W H Murray, a Scottish mountaineer and writer. He said, ‘…the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.’
What was the hardest part of setting up the business?
Raising the money wasn’t easy because no one got the concept. It was such a new and big idea that explaining it was tricky. We had pictures from the States to try and explain what we meant. Setting up the business was completely new to me, but it was baby steps. You did one thing, like chose designers and then just went on to the next.
It’s funny because people will agonise about starting a business, but will often decide to have kids without much thought. I think that starting a business is a cake walk compared to raising children!
How were you able to fund it?
My business partner at the time had excellent financial connections through his father, which is where most of our investment came from. My best girlfriend, Julia, though, insisted on putting money in, as well, although I begged her not to because I knew it was such a high risk business. She just looked my in the face and said, ‘Renée, I trust you completely as a businesswoman.’ Well, you can’t argue with that.
Can you remember those early days, thinking of the company name, opening the company’s bank account to the first six months or so of running the business, how excited were you?
It was very exciting at the beginning. I clearly remember slightly drunken naming-the-business dinner with friends. My sister Lauren was over from the States and was determined to be the one to name it. She thought it should be called ‘In One End’ to make people think about what they eat. Maybe something more to do with food, the planet or something like that, I suggested. Then she blurted out Planet Organic and that was it.
They are so many challenges that entrepreneurs go through trying to build a company, or making it successful, can you share a challenge you faced and how you overcame it?
No one challenge comes to mind, but with any and all of them, the necessary characteristic is determination. My dad, Edward, always said I have grit and determination. He said, ‘If you put Renée in a barn full of poop and give her a shovel, she’ll keep digging because she’ll think there’s got to be a horse in here somewhere.’
What would you say were some of the key fundamentals that were implemented to accelerate the growth of the company?
There will always be competition, but I believe that you have a great product – best quality food -and are doing an excellent job – great service – that you will keep your place in the market. This, plus innovation or always being at the cutting edge, is what we have kept our focus on.
Can you tell us some of the little things that you miss from the early days?
I miss sharing lunch or tea with my partner every day. I miss knowing everyone’s name. And I miss talking with suppliers about new products.
What role do you take in the company now?
As Founder, I am now the brand guardian, the keeper of the values, ensuring that they are respected and maintained. On a more practical level, I write recipe blogs and annoying food blogs, I create recipes for our kitchens for Food to Go and I help create training for the team.
What do you do outside work to unwind?
I cook, bake, walk, do Pilates and Skype my family and friends who are far away.
What are your plans for Planet Organic and yourself in the next 5 years?
For Planet Organic, it is to get to 10 stores – probably in 3 years. And for me, it is do a sterling job raising my kids, Jess (11), Nicholas (8) and Cassie (5) while continuing to promote health in the community through other channels, my mission when I started Planet Organic.
Before I leave you today Renée, what advice do you have to anyone reading this interview hoping to start a business or even perhaps even started and struggling for attention, investment or a proof of concept?
Here are some tips:
• Love what you do.
• Only talk with friends who support you. Dump the rest.
• Take money from investors who understand and believe your concept.
• Hire the best financial person you can afford.
• If you’re a woman, start your business before you have kids.
• You have one life. Do something great with it. Don’t give up.
Thanks so much for your time Renée