Julianne Ponan faced the Dragons and emerged with her head held high and her business acumen sharpened. She subsequently turned down an offer for £75,000 support from notoriously tough Den panellist Deborah Meaden and chose to go it alone.
Julianne’s appearance on Dragon’s Den in August 2017 proved a turning point in her business career as owner and CEO of the superfood snack bar business Creative Nature. She would not have changed a nail-biting, stomach-churning moment of it.
“Being in the Den was an incredible experience, surreal and daunting,” she says. “It was amazing to meet Deborah, and hearing her offer to invest in Creative Nature made me think ‘they believe in me!’ I’m sure we would have benefited from Deborah’s expertise and I would have loved working with her. However, since filming the show, I have secured more contracts with major supermarkets by myself and have decided that the investment deal offered wasn’t the best current route for my business.”
So how did the famously astute and plain-speaking investor Deborah react to being told she was not needed as business adviser on this occasion? “She was very understanding when I explained why I had decided not to take the deal and wished me well for the future,” Julianne says. Her confidence belies her age and relative inexperience in the business world. She has chosen to strike out on her own and do it her way before her 30th birthday.
Julianne’s dizzyingly speedy journey up the business ladder is remarkable. She was brought up in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, the daughter of a Kenyan-born mum who works in the care industry and a dad from Guyana, South America who is an entrepreneurial garage and restaurant owner.
On the advice of her mother, Julianne took a degree in business management and finance at Northampton and after graduation went straight to work in Beijing for a year – “an amazing experience, living the high life. But it’s a very full-on, 24-hour unsustainable lifestyle,” she tells me.
Back in the UK, Julianne looked for a challenge and discovered the snack company Creative Nature, which had been established about three years. She could see the potential of the business, but it was £56,000 in deficit and struggling. Her degree and experience led her to do a due diligence investigation and, despite the obvious drawbacks, she saw what she could turn it into.
Julianne admits this was not the best way to get into her own business: “It would have been easier to start from scratch. It’s been a tough lesson.”
She took into partnership her long-term friend, primary school teacher Matt Ford, because “he is a whizz at logistics and I knew he was the person I wanted with me in the venture. We are very close and I knew he would be willing to take the risk on me. I needed someone to handle the operations and logistics.”
Together, the pair began formulating recipes for their allergen-free, superfood snack bars in their home kitchen. “We were mashing ingredients, trying them out together to see what we got,” Julianne remembers. They also rebranded the company, changed the packaging, learned how to trademark a product and finally got rid of the previous management and employees.
When they were satisfied they had a product to work with, Julianne and Matt started a small-scale production run and took samples into Kingston High Street to test on the public.
Again, it was a tough lesson: “Some people liked it, some said it tasted horrible. We had to take all the comments and make them work for us. It took about 12 months to get the right taste and consistency.”
One of the hardest lessons was how to market the bars at the right price and volume. They reduced the former 50g bar to 38g and sold it for 99p – a more economic and saleable product. Three of their bars won Guild of Fine Food Great Taste Awards in 2016 and again in 2017. Favourite flavours are apple pie protein and ginger detox and salted caramel.
All are made without sweeteners, nuts or sesame seeds, a nutritional choice made by Julianne with her own health in mind. She is highly allergic and can go into anaphylactic shock if she even comes into to contact with any of these ingredients. It was one of the reasons she got into the business in the first place. “I wanted to find something I could safely eat – and offer to other sufferers,” she said.
The bars are now on sale at several major stores, including the Coop, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Sourced and the company is branching out into baking ingredients and juicing powders. Julianne and Matt are also looking at the export market, working with the British Chambers of Commerce and major international airlines to find outlets beyond Europe.
The Creative Nature team is deliberately kept small, just six people in the office, eight selling into stores, five working in warehouses in Manchester and Wales. Julianne regards herself very much as one of the team and wants to motivate her staff to do their best for the company, while having fun. “Staff are my biggest asset and I need to understand them, where they are in their life and where they want to be,” said Julianne. “We have team meetings every week, but I keep them short. A boss needs to tell the team where the business is going, be positive about mistakes and find out how to avoid them.”