Allergen-free food: spotting a gap in the market
Founder and CEO Julianne Ponan was inspired to start Creative Nature when she was frustrated at the lack of healthy snacking options for people with severe allergies.
“I suffer from anaphylaxis – an extreme allergic reaction to certain foods,” says Ponan. “But back in 2012 there weren’t many healthy snacks that catered for the top allergens.”
So she started experimenting in her kitchen with ingredients and flavours. And she came up with a snack bar that she thought tasted delicious, nutritious and was safe to eat. She prepared a test batch and hit her local high street to offer samples to the public.
But the taste test didn’t go as planned. “Some people even spat out the bars because they didn’t like the taste,” says Ponan. But, she says, the feedback was useful and honest. “I knew I had more work to do,” she recalls.
I went to a few angels and they laughed at our forecast. They said it was absolutely ridiculous and we could never launch into a supermarket on our own.
Julianne Ponan, Creative Nature
Finding a recipe for success
After much trial and error, Ponan honed her recipes and won two gold stars at the Great Taste Awards, the only cold-pressed food company ever to do so. Soon, the company launched in stores such as health food chain Holland and Barrett.
By 2014 the company was in profit, but was not growing as fast as Ponan wanted. So, she decided it was time to seek external investment.
“I went to a few angels and they laughed at our forecast,” she says. “They said it was absolutely ridiculous and we could never launch into a supermarket on our own. And one investor even called me a little girl.”
The sweet taste of victory
Ponan believes that getting turned down for the investment was one of the best things that could have happened. “My operations manager Matt and I then made a plan that we were going to launch into a major supermarket. And we were going to do it on our own.”
So Ponan researched the top European trade shows. She identified the one where they would stand the greatest chance of success with leading supermarket buyers. “We went in thinking that we had to get something from this show and we felt the pressure 100%,” she says.
Then Ponan got a phone call: “A Tesco buyer called us a week later and said she wanted to launch us nationally in three weeks’ time.”
The race was on to enlist everybody she could to help fulfil the order. And Creative Nature launched in 77 Tesco stores around the UK. The supermarket deal proved to be the turning point that Ponan was after. She then expanded the range, and employed a branding agency to redesign the packaging.
Know your worth
Today, the company’s range is sold in most major UK supermarkets. And with the help of the Department for International Trade, it exports to Switzerland, Malta and Denmark. And Ponan has her eye on even more markets, including the US.
The company has a run rate of £1.4m and looking to hit £1.8m by the end of the year. And next year, according to Ponan, Creative Nature is “looking at hitting £3m”.
Creative Nature has caught the attention of the wider SME ecosystem. The company won the UK Small Business of the Year at the FSB Celebrating Small Business Awards 2018.
During her growth journey, Ponan was even in the enviable position of turning down investment from Deborah Meaden on the BBC’s Dragon’s Den. “We went on Dragon’s Den got an offer and it would’ve been amazing to work with Deborah, but it also would have hindered our growth,” she says. “It wasn’t the right valuation. When we launch in the US, we will need equity to give away for investment, so my gut said no to the offer.”
And Creative Nature has done just that. In September 2018, the company surpassed its £350,000 investment target for 5.97% of equity in the company, giving it an impressive pre-money valuation of £5,508,000.