Julie Chen is the Founder and CEO of The Cheeky Panda, makers of a range of Bamboo toiletry products including traditional toilet paper, facial tissues, kitchen towel, wipes and nappies. The idea for the company was born out of a family trip to China. While in China, Julie and her husband couldn't help but notice the abundance of Bamboo, which is of course one the world's fastest growing plants. It was there where Julie spotted the opportunity to create an environmentally friendly alternative to tree based tissue paper we use in the west. The company finally launched in 2016 and has since reached B Corp status with many of their products now available in over 25 countries. The hope is to continue to grow the company so that one day it is in the position to be able to go public.
Julie joined us to explain what inspired her to launch the brand, detail some of the challenges she has faced in building Cheeky Panda and what she hopes to achieve in the coming years. James and Hector also quiz Julie on her approach to crowdfunding, what it is like running a business with her husband and her thoughts on the importance of increased opportunities for underrepresented founders.
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[00:00:00] James: Hello. Welcome to the riding unicorns podcast. This is the podcast all about growth startups on James Pringle. I'm a technology entrepreneur and investor and founder of Pringle capital. My co-host is Hector Mason. Hector is a partner at B2B investor episode one ventures. This podcast is all about uncovering what it takes to build a unicorn business.
[00:00:36] We speak to some of the best founders and investors. Many from unicorn companies, and ask them about that journey, operational insight, tips, lessons, stories, and the thing that can help uncover what it takes to build a high growth business.
[00:00:52] This week's episode is with Julie Chen from sustainable bamboo tissue product company The cheeky Panda. Many of, you may know The Cheeky Panda as they have been very successful raising funds by crowdfunding. And this episode, we cover brand product market research awards, and Julie's big vision for the company. Let's get started.
[00:01:16] James: Hi, Julie. Welcome to ride a unicorn.
[00:01:18] Julie: Hi James. Hi Hector. Thank you for inviting me.
[00:01:21] James: It's all pleasure. So Julie, maybe we could start by just getting a description of what the cheeky panda is in your own words.
[00:01:30] Julie: Yeah. So the chip on the Proteus eco-friendly, um, tissue paper, biology about wives, from bamboo, which is the world's fastest growing plant. we have toilet paper, facial tissue, kitchen rows. When your wives maybe not face, Like they all kind of biodegradable plastic free. that's what we do.
[00:01:50] Hector: can you bust this myth? our bamboo products that we buy, like, you know, socks or paper or whatever it is, are they, this goes, I once read that viscose is a bamboo byproduct or derivative or something like that. So what that.
[00:02:04] Julie: The material to make tissue and material to my closing are quite different. so the material make tissue is kind of purified, but there's nothing else in it. whereas, or the material to my clothes, they need to be mixed up with other material in order to feel like fabric for clothing.
[00:02:22] that's why it's kind of quite different. in tissue we don't use like vectors or anything like that.
[00:02:27] Hector: that makes very good sense because close made of tissue material would not be effective at all. And Julie, you're moving on to more serious topics. Your, career has been, really interesting and you've, you moved from manufacturing and supply chain logistics jobs to starting a consumer brand.
[00:02:45] So I'm just interested to hear what led you down that route. What inspired you to start the cheeky?
[00:02:51] Julie: I just thought the brand, when I was in Japan over, 15 years ago, as, as part of my, my university course, I was studying broadens and I was study, these name um, so some of the best brands in the world, And I, yeah, I always wanted to create a brand. Cause I understand, I liked the brand can bring to people and, what it means to peoples.
[00:03:19] so that's kind of. In my mind, I'd like to do something like I'd like to create a brand. and why I was working, I worked for, uh, in supply chain, global supply chain. So moving products from one country to the other, and that's where I learned all the manufacturing. I learned all the global supply chain.
[00:03:38] I use these skills and this knowledge every day in cheeky Panda, because we moving cars around all over the world from Asia to UK, to America to meet that is, um, yeah, so, so, cheap and dice is, quite heavy, about global supply chain as well. So that's kind of how my, experience and mine knowledge, most together to contribute to the creation of the cheeky Panda.
[00:04:05] James: Yeah, it's interesting. You mentioned this as a supply chain on the brand. Now what came first? Was it the, brand or the.
[00:04:11] Julie: the idea come fast. so Y I've grew up in China. We use bamboo products quite a lot, and I always know like it's, it goes very quick. It's very friendly material. Um, it's widely used in China as well, but in here, um, it's not really well, no, depending, by the way, when I first introduced.
[00:04:37] That she could, her, the toilet paper to people. I often get asked, is that very hard? Uh, but now a lot more people are aware of, uh, bamboo and how solid it is, and people were bamboo soles, bamboo closing. They know the benefit of it. So less people asking this question now, but certainly over six years ago, it was quite, the awareness was very low.
[00:05:03] So I had, I had this idea. Um, I was building my, my career and my, uh, my experience in global supply chain. And then also the manufacturing, uh, with my previous to what used to be. and building a brand is kind of always in my mind and had this idea of having kind of a brand that lasts, have a range of products that's using bamboo.
[00:05:28] So that's kind of what I do I have. Um, but it wasn't until, back in 2015. I went back to China with my partner to visit my parents. And we then, kind of, I decided to take this opportunity to explore this idea. so we went to visit a tissue factory where we saw there are lots and lots of. th the region is in west part of China and they are like, the CTS was surrounded by bamboo.
[00:05:58] And, we took like a six hour car journey to a factory, to two in the middle of a mountain to see a factory and all the way it was bamboo. And what we were told is that the bamboo, like. as only 10% use 90% with cell plasm, the factory used Bible because it's near sourcing. They don't have to input power from overseas.
[00:06:21] It's cheaper for them to use locally and distribute locally, but they haven't really realized that actually it's a material that could solve a very big issue, which is deforestation. And so at that point, Thinking, why don't we cut them trees that next 30 years to grow and we have this material there's so much over it.
[00:06:41] We're not using it. that's the one I, this side, my, my brother and I decided that we have to launch this business. It's going to be a potentially resolve, a very, very big problem. We have. uh, yeah, the last one is all started.
[00:06:56] Hector: that is, so this is partly news to me. I'd met. I mean, this is it's amazing. Right? So are there any downsides to bamboo? Is it more expensive or why, why has it taken until now for it to, for it to take off on for it to hit the main.
[00:07:10] Julie: yeah, like I said, the awareness was really low. Um, number. It's not something like through. like in abundance in the west. so the awareness and the benefit of it is quite low. but actually it goes very fast when you have some time, you can actually watch it grow.
[00:07:28] It grows up to 90 centimeters a day.
[00:07:31] Hector: I'm going to go. We need to, some of these faceless, I just want to sit and watch Bambi. That sounds meditative.
[00:07:37] Julie: It's not material that we know, like grow in abundance in a west, and that's why the awareness was quite low. and I've been healing before I even launched the chief and I've been hearing all the big teacher company talking about alternative material, like a more sustainable material, but I never.
[00:07:55] See them launch anything. So it's a very surprising why they don't just do it. Then sometimes that's also take other company more innovative company and entrepreneurs to lead a change.
[00:08:10] Hector: it's super interesting that, and we can, can certainly attest to that fact in what we see in our jobs. day-to-day so, what have been some of the biggest challenges with building cheeky, Panda so far going from zero to one. And then from one to where you are today, what would have been the
[00:08:26] Julie: growing really fast and we're growing as fast as bamboo. And as a result of this, we have, yeah, they asked obviously business challenges to grow so fast and we need. Uh, retain the talent. we lost talent as well, and yeah, we had a supply challenges as well. Um, my last year, which, um, I think everyone quite a lot of business suffered the supply challenges, uh, in consumer goods industry.
[00:08:56] it's the fast girls, a fast pace of this business really bring quite a bit of challenge. But I do enjoy it. I don't enjoy the challenge and resolve the problem and thanks to our team and thanks for people who, our customers who believe in us. and we are, kind of get through these challenges and continue to get.
[00:09:19] Hector: do you think it's a mind. Thing of a founder that, good founders are able to take these challenges on, in the face of adversity still come out on top. what's your attitude to these problems?
[00:09:32] You know, no one saw global supply chain issues cropping up last year. Right? So as well, some people might kind of fold over and give up. what was your.
[00:09:43] Julie: I think it's the region of the business where they are. I truly believe in the chief partner can be a household household name one day. And I truly believe that this is a brand that's gonna cuss through, and become a leading brand in a sustainable space. it's the belief and the vision that I, communicate to my team, uh, my team believing my vision as well.
[00:10:11] And we just get through it together. the founder believes in the team believers thing, and then the customer believe we're believing it, then the investors will be leaving it. And then we all kind of work towards the same goal. And every day with we feel that we are making a difference.
[00:10:28] we inspire a positive change, so, and the difficulties actually, and I think back it's actually, the challenges are. Part of the process that is making the business. Interesting.
[00:10:44] James: you got, it sounds like you've got your supply chain sets up and you had your vision and that's really served you. Well, I was wondering what have you had the most success? Is it being D to C or have you gone through retail and how has that experience been kind of working with retail?
[00:11:01] Julie: So we are opening child now. Um, that means we not only just DTC, but we also said in retailers, we are setting in Waitrose. we selling on Ocado. Uh, we said in hopeless market planet, organic lots and lots of independent stores across the country. we also setting in mono pre. heat in Germany. So that oversees shipper markets as well, careful in Dubai, for example.
[00:11:29] and we also said in B2B, like supply tore the payment to build things, and catering in the industry restaurants. Um, we have bamboo papers doors, so we are really all many channel. so during the pandemic, when one channel, for example, buildings really, closed down, locked down everyone.
[00:11:48] When you go home, then the online sales pick up. so we kind of, uh, um, Omni channel approach. It helps kind of, the risk in some way, because if one channel kind of stuff as the other channel actually pick up. so yeah, so the only channel strategy works really well for.
[00:12:09] Hector: And Julie you've had a lot of success with crowdfunding and, I saw you, you've done quite a few rounds on, crowdfunding sites. And so I wonder, what's your approach to crowd funding? Why have you taken this route and why do you think it's worked so well for you?
[00:12:23] Julie: I think it wasn't really well because, In the other stage and we were encouraged to go to like Dragon's den, and the very, yeah. with our evaluation that we pistol crowdfunding. And if we were to go back to dragons, then I don't think probably going to end up with a valuation. but we crowd funding is that we got not just got one or two dragons, which could be helpful, but we got like a few hundred now of yourselves and, Investors that was in different sectors.
[00:12:56] So there are people working Amazon, for example, I could give us a device. There are people work in supply chain. For example, I could give us help. And there are people working in various industries. people in VC funds that could be. Us as well. So it's that the big community that we are able to build with crowdfunding, I think the value is is that invaluable.
[00:13:18] And also they are loyal customers. They are people who go out and tell their friends about cheeky Panda. So this is the, this kind of community we are building. with our investors, Which I think is a real value of crowdfunding.
[00:13:35] Hector: that's really interesting. I just want to dig in on this a little bit, because crowdfunding is something that I really love, but I don't, feel like the industry has done as well as it should have done. I think it's beginning to pick up, but I don't think they've done a good job of showing founders.
[00:13:51] How beneficial a crowd raise can be to start us. And it sounds like you were at shear company and a founder who's really, seeing benefits from, from the crowd. So I wonder, You did your raise and then these people, the Amazon person, the VC, the P person supply chain people, did they, did they seek you out and say, look, I'm now an investor.
[00:14:12] I've put like a hundred quid or whatever into your company. Did they seek you out and offer the help or did we use strategic and kind of drawing that, those skills out of your inbox?
[00:14:22] Julie: Yeah, so we send updates quite regularly to our investor mailing list. Um, so for example, as new product launch, for example, we send a questionnaire to our investors and they will provide that rudely a real genuine feedback. And also for example, another example is that we had the Waitrose launch and they our investors will be the first one who goes, we've chosen to pick up the protest and tell their friends about it.
[00:14:47] so we do engage with our investors, so many list, so like us see this platform. so that was really well for us, to feel the business to this stage. but I think going forward, what we do. Uh, need, institutional investors for the next stage of.
[00:15:05] James: it sounds like you've done a really good job of kind of leveraging those investors, which is great. you mentioned you've got lots of different products now. uh, how do you go about adding a new product to the range? Like what sort of market research do you do as part of that discovery process for.
[00:15:21] Julie: Oh, okay. So LA um, that is kind of really just, done without it's not how traditionally a brand would launch a product. It's not the process how it's been done. Traditionally. It's more of, Followed by my gut feeling as a mother and a user of, equal for any products. so it hasn't been really done in a more kind of process driven way.
[00:15:52] but I love innovation and I love, to. Think of ways that we could reduce ways to can replace traditional material with more eco-friendly materials and what can we innovate in our everyday life, um, to make our, essentially more sustainable. I start with toilet paper and well last always because a lot of people, everyone use it every day.
[00:16:17] It is a big market. And from there we then start innovating a teaching role, patient tissue, pocket tissue. So we created the whole tissue, right. And that has been done quite successfully and serving really well online and in some stores and then they to on, w when I was pregnant with my child, he's now S three L um, and then I saw, there wasn't enough bio-degradable baby wipes in the market. Um, so that's when I saw I can do better. I can use the most eco-friendly in the most pure ingredient and hundred percent biodegradable material to create a baby wipe that is, Baten and other wife's in the market. And that's why I did so.
[00:17:04] When my child was born, that's what we use the cheeky Panda baby wives. And they don't only know weight to nappies as well. so that's kind of product development journey is based around what a household needs English everyday life.
[00:17:20] Hector: Yeah. It's been a space that has just taken off. Right? I mean, I use small, at home, which is like direct to consumer through the postbox, washing up liquid and stuff. that's great. And people just, it's also a question of awareness. People are going online to look for household items now, whereas not long ago, they probably would do in that far last, it's a great point.
[00:17:42] And it's also good timing. so running, running a business with your husband, let's talk about this because, we see it. From time to time, episode one. And, um, we've invested in, in businesses where the, founders, uh, uh, partners and it just interests me, you know, how do you, how did you get comfortable that it's not going to get, get in the way of your relationship and how do you keep, how do you keep the founder relationship kind of separate and functional
[00:18:11] Julie: I like it because it, I ha have someone I can brainstorm, kind of anytime I like, but not after 10 o'clock that's when Chris gets really annoyed when I start talking about business. So, uh, anytime before 10, 10:00 PM, I can talk to him about business. And I ultimately often have random ideas coming to my mind and I can talk to him about it and would debate about it.
[00:18:38] we have different opinions as well, which we debate, but that's fine. doesn't really impact our relationship. so I, I like it in a way that like, to have a relationship who is my soulmate or understand me really well, but we can also. Talk about business because business is very big part of our lives.
[00:18:57] And I can't really image how I can separate the business with personal life now, um, because it's such an important part as such a big part. so I actually, we both enjoy this relationship, but we also kind of, try to play our own strengths and weakness. So. Um, more on the branding management side and he's more on there, business to business sales, kind of taking a, coaching role rather than a management role.
[00:19:26] So we, we, we separate our responsibilities and that way we don't kind of interfere, which with each others. that was quite well. and yeah, and like in weekends we spend time with our child, So in weekends, we don't, tend to do com take me out somewhere. so we don't talk a lot about a lot of our business in the weekends and this, I have a random idea.
[00:19:51] Um, but it has been working well so far and I, I enjoy this kind of relationship.
[00:19:59] James: Yeah, I do a little bit similar with my partner, Harriet. I'm involved in her company. It's quite special to be able to build a business together. and I wonder whether you feel, whether that involvement has helped you to build a culture. That kind of feels a bit like a family as well how do you guys describe your culture at cheeky ponder?
[00:20:21] And do you think of it a bit like a fun.
[00:20:24] Julie: Yeah. Yeah. Certainly. Cause they quizzes like that and I'm like a mom and we have cut a lot young, young talents. Yeah. It's kind of a big family really. And we go out hiking quite a lot. and every month we have a team event, yeah, it's, it's like a big family. I don't know how I'm not too sure how the team thing and see us funder also a couple, but yeah, we try to be as professional as we can.
[00:20:53] And in business always say, events, things that needs to be discussed and debate. We will do that as well. Um, like we were colleagues, not like we were couples. yeah, we would like a bit, the culture is like a big family and with quizzing myself in being more like a more senior, you know, in a business and there's lots of young talents.
[00:21:13] Uh, however, now we start adding senior managers, which will make it look more professional going forward because we now have, people who come from FMCG industry who come from, Global supply chain lead from, very big companies, for example, like Finsta for all girls. Um, so the senior management team will look a lot more professional than it's early stages.
[00:21:39] Hector: Yeah, that's going to be an exciting period. And you've already touched on your sort of ambition to be a household brand, which you're already becoming. what is your ambition for cheeky Panda and what, what do you think it can become? You know, if you get into dream mode and, and I think 10 years out, 15 years out, what, what does the cheeky Panda.
[00:21:59] Julie: yes, I would like to take, some market share on Andrix and Michelle and half of they become number sewer, number four in this category. Um, that's what I like to see. I like to see as a brand that grow up with the younger generations and when they have their family and cheap Panda is what they choose for their household.
[00:22:25] Um, so that's my region for the cheap Honda, um, in the next 10 years.
[00:22:29] James: Yeah, it's exciting. maybe we could learn a little bit more about. you, the economics, every company is really different. what are you guys trying to do more of? What does success look like to you? Is it range of products or a number of sales? Like what are you trying to expand and grow and What the successes.
[00:22:48] Julie: Necessarily in the last three, five years, is there, the goal is to IPO the business, Don't tell him wise. I think was always, they're very, very good material. The more people use bamboo, the more, bamboo can be maintained and be harvested.
[00:23:05] And actually the process is really good for the environment. So I think that the more cheaper than grows, the more benefit you will bring to the environment. Because what we are doing now is validate a lot. Layer is a demand for this product, um, for bamboo and later on, and, you know, later stage you are, you varied in various different areas, into our everyday life and use this wonderful material.
[00:23:32] And now I help people, go more bamboo maybe. And that's good for the environment. How is the mobile bamboo? that's better for the environment, and use mobile bamboo. so to kind of help develop a cop 26 goal, I think this could be a very interesting and, very important contributed.
[00:23:54] Hector: Yeah. It's great. Hey, Julian, you you've won lots of personal awards. you've won the, The 10 ones to watch in the Sunday times, fast track 2020, in the FTS 30 UK female entrepreneurs to watch, I think there were a couple of others, but it will probably take too long to go through the mode.
[00:24:12] So, also, you've now been asked to be on riding unicorns, which has to be the pinnacle of any sensible person's career. so you're, uh, you're a well decorated entrepreneur and, um, I wonder what these, kinds of awards mean to you If, if.
[00:24:26] Julie: well, it's really unexpected to be honest. did a serious, they didn't expect any of these to come to me. And I just trying to, create a good brand, a manager, a good company. and that's all I try to do. I think kind of good things come to you when. doing good things as well. so yeah, it's, it's really, I expected, but I'm very happy that I, my fr my work has been recognized, and I hope that can inspire more people to do something, to contribute to the environment, and also hopefully inspire more female entrepreneurs to, To, to do good.
[00:25:04] And, hopefully we can see more female entrepreneurs, being recognized.
[00:25:10] Hector: there's no doubt that you are achieving those goals. Julie said, great work, great work on that. It's, you know, being in the public eye as a female entrepreneur doing really great things and raising millions and millions of pounds in, venture money is, surely an inspiration to not.
[00:25:26] Julie: so far, there hasn't been enough female entrepreneurs and also ethnic minority entrepreneurs to be recognized. And I certainly hope that, this could change, because females, we have loads of creativity and loads of good ideas. and yeah, there should be more capital awarded to female entrepreneurs that could create amazing things for the world.
[00:25:53] Um, yeah. I'd like to see that happen.
[00:25:56] James: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think that's a great message to leave as a, as an ending note. So, Julie, thank you so much for telling us your Vita unicorn. we always like to end these podcasts with a dinner party guests game. So I wonder if you were to have dinner with three people, who would they be?
[00:26:18] Julie: Okay. So uh, Steven Bartlett, is the first one
[00:26:22] Hector: hey, you're not allowed to say that.
[00:26:25] Julie: Uh, I think he's a cool guy. Um, and he's a social media genius as well, with trying to figure out social media to have more like, influence. So yeah, he has opportunity, definitely. and then, Leona though. The cup for you is my second choice. And I like him because he like super cool eco-friendly guy.
[00:26:50] yeah. And this said the one is a low in Musk.
[00:26:54] James: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Julie. Yeah. We've really enjoyed having you on and there's lots of operational insight that, and absolutely that needs to be more done to support female entrepreneurship and you're shining light for that, absolutely. In the market. So it's been great to have you on the podcast.
[00:27:11] Julie: Thank you for having me.
[00:27:13] Hector: Yeah, thanks, Julie.
[00:27:14] James: That's it for this week. Thanks very much for listening. To stay up to date with the latest episodes, please follow or subscribe on your favorite podcast platform. We also have a newsletter called reading unicorns, which is another great way to get every episode direct to your inbox. Please tell your friends about it and engage with us on social media And we'll see you on the next episode.