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Jazz Shapers

Shaper: Julie Chen

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

Good Morning, this is Jazz Shapers. I am Elliot Moss; it’s where the Shapers of Business meet the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. I am really pleased to say that my guest today is Julie Chen, CEO and Co-founder of The Cheeky Panda – what a brilliant name – the sustainable bamboo tissue and wipes company. Growing up in China, Julie knew the potential and many uses of bamboo, the world’s fastest growing plant which grows thirty times quicker than trees. With a passion for sustainability and business, her career was in branding, supply chain and digital marketing and Julie had an idea to create a bamboo tissue company. But for her husband, Chris, the key concern was scale. Whilst visiting her parents in China in 2015, Julie took Chris to a successful bamboo tissue factory and learnt from the owner that whilst around 27,000 trees are felled every day to service the world tissue market, a large surplus of harvested bamboo was not utilised. As Julie says, “We thought why are we cutting down trees when have such a wonderful resource that we are not using?” They launched The Cheeky Panda in 2016 with £10,000 from a crowdfunding campaign and now export their eco-friendly tissue and biodegradable wipes made from 100% sustainable bamboo to 23 countries worldwide. “Products” Julie says, “are kind to skin, vegan and cruelty free certified.” We’ll talk to Julie in a few minutes about changing mindsets and indeed changing the global tissue market which is worth £50 billion a year. We’ve also got, and you would expect none other than this, brilliant music from amongst others Astrud Gilberto, Georgie Fame and Nina Simone. That’s today’s Jazz Shapers. Here’s the Duke Ellington Trio with Kinda Dukish.

That was the Duke Ellington Trio with Kinda Dukish. I’m with Julie Chen and she is the Co-founder and CEO of The Cheeky Panda. I hope you were listening earlier; they are the bamboo tissue and wipes company and I am holding a beautiful little, the packaging from the tissues, the nice big ones that you stick in an office or in your house or wherever it is. Hello.

Julie Chen
Hello. Hi.

Elliot Moss
How are you?

Julie Chen
I am very good, thank you. How are you?

Elliot Moss
I am alright, thank you. It’s really good to have you here. Tell me a little bit about how The Cheeky Panda was born. Why am I holding this packaging? How did it all happen at the beginning?

Julie Chen
So, Chris and I – Chris is my partner, he’s a Scottish guy – so, we met about six years ago. At the time I was doing my online business and he was doing his headhunting business and so we kind of sort of doing our own thing. I grew up in China so we used a lot of bamboo in… as I grew up and I kind of… I know that bamboo is a very good material. A lot of the time when I was doing my online business, I wanted to create a brand The Cheeky Panda and create all the bamboo products and then just brand them but I didn’t really do anything until I met Chris and I talked to him about this idea. Then, later on, we were engaged and then I took him to China to see my parents and then I sort of suggested we took this opportunity to explore this bamboo idea and that’s when we fly three hours to west part of China to visit tissue factories there, to visit like basically bamboo production. When we got to the City, the City is surrounded by bamboo, we took a six hour car journey to top a bit of mountains to see a tissue production factory and all the way is bamboo. Before we did this trip, Chris had never been to China and he was suspicious of how China production looked like. He thought it small scale, he thought it probably not that modern but when we got to the factory, we were both like amazed at how the modern production but the most important thing we learned there is the people who were in the factory told us, bamboo grows, it’s like a grass, when you cut it, it grows back on the root itself so you don’t have to replant it or anything but only 10% of bamboo were used and like 90% was still surplus and that’s when I thought why are we using trees, that takes thirty years to grown and we have this wonderful resource we didn’t use.

Elliot Moss
Let me ask you a question because obviously this first business – what was the online business at that point?

Julie Chen
I was doing a shoe business and when I was import shoes from China and sell online, that’s kind of small business I was doing like a lifestyle thing.

Elliot Moss
Was that your very first business or had you had other little…?

Julie Chen
Yeah, that’s kind of my very first serious business and not that serious but it’s kind of my first business and I learnt a lot about branding, digital marketing, so I sort of taught myself how to do digital marketing, for example, and how to build a website from scratch so, I learnt a lot.

Elliot Moss
But you obviously had a desire to do your own thing again because I am just, as you were talking about, you flew to China, you took another three hour flight across from the east to the west and then there was a six hour car journey, I mean, I am exhausted just listening to you. Just before we go to some more music, what made you actually want to do it rather than just having this great idea? What is about you, Julie, that made you get up and literally get in the train, the plane, the automobile and so on?

Julie Chen
So, the business I was doing is quite a small scale and grew up in a family where my dad is entrepreneur and doing entrepreneurial thing is probably, I feel, is in my blood and I have desire to do it and when I was doing the online business it’s very small scale and I wanted to do something a bit bigger.

Elliot Moss
And you certainly are doing that. We are going to pause it right there. Stay with me for my Business Shaper today, it’s Julie Chen, she’s the Co-founder and CEO at The Cheeky Panda. Time for some more music right now, this is Astrud Gilberto with Stanley Turrentine and Ponteio.
That was Astrud Gilberto with Stanley Turrentine – I hope I am saying it properly – and Ponteio. And if that wasn’t correct, you can let me know how I should say it. I am with Julie Chen today and she is my Business Shaper here on Jazz Shapers, she is the Co-founder and CEO of The Cheeky Panda, they make tissues and wipes from bamboo. Now, we were talking about the fact that you went, I feel like I’ve closed my eyes and I’ve gone on this plane and I’ve landed, I’ve got in the car for six hours – I get car sick so I am really, I hate long journeys, I am thinking this sounds big – go up to the top of the mountain and you see this incredibly modern factory and you husband is overwhelmed by the fact that there is bamboo everywhere. At that point, was it obvious that the two of you were going to do something? Or did that happen when you got home?

Julie Chen
I already had this idea and I had been talking to him since we moved in together and he saw samples fly over and this like toilet rolls made from bamboo lying around in the house so, by taking him to this trip, he knows I was serious.

Elliot Moss
And is that what you are like, Julie? Are you serious? If you say you are going to do something, do you do it?

Julie Chen
Yeah, that’s, yeah.

Elliot Moss
That’s generally you?

Julie Chen
That’s generally if I am determined, believe in something, I would just do it.

Elliot Moss
And, you mention your dad earlier and you said your dad was an entrepreneur and it was in the family. At what age did you know that wanted to do something and at what age did you decide one day, I am going to run my own business? Do you recall?

Julie Chen
That, probably since I was like ten.

Elliot Moss
Really?

Julie Chen
Yes.

Elliot Moss
You should see her eyes, they’ve just lit up. Of course, I was born to run stuff. And this business, you kicked it off in 2016, it’s been funded significantly since then, a few million pounds from various places. The climate issue now, the sustainability issue now, has popped, as one would say. It’s been there for 25 years, ever since I have been in the world of work, people have been talking about it but it feels much more real probably because the downside is real. You are not on the bandwagon but it’s incredibly good timing.

Julie Chen
Yeah, and I would like to think we actually push this trend as well because for Cheeky Panda we have a three-I commission so it’s innovate, impact and inspire, so that’s core of our business and we are not just producing products, we like to inspire people to be eco-friendly, be healthy and have this kind of mindset, have this kind of lifestyle and that’s the mission of The Cheeky Panda. We do a lot exhibition and we do a lot of promotion and advertising as well so this kind of create some trend and then probably either smaller brands that will follow and the bamboo becomes trending at the moment and also like people start to be aware and understand that okay the climate change is a serious issue. For Cheeky Panda, the name is quite fun and it’s all about bringing this sustainability traditionally belonged to only a group of people who understand it and people who maybe just a small range of people who really doing some work around it.

Elliot Moss
Yeah, it’s got bigger now, people are getting it.

Julie Chen
It’s got bigger now and it’s for The Cheeky Panda, it’s very important for us to bring sustainability to the mass market.

Elliot Moss
In terms of production, and funnily enough if I had have gone on that journey, six hours I am back in the car again, I have got up to the top and I go “Whoa, this is a long way”, I actually would have thought that the factory would have been phenomenal because my understanding of Chinese manufacturing which now accounts for roughly 25% of all global production and therefore when, you know, issues happen, supply chain is hit significantly but it’s because over many years, the quality of Chinese manufacturing has improved and is hugely scalable and so on and so forth. Where now are you making the products? Is it in lots of different factories or is it back in that factory at the top of the hill?

Julie Chen
Yeah, it’s spreading to different factories.

Elliot Moss
And no issue with distance? It sounds silly here but you are a UK based business. Is it quite straightforward logistically to manage the fact that all your production is over there?

Julie Chen
Yeah, I worked in a global supply chain before and I learn how to manage that through my previous job and so that wasn’t a difficult thing for us.

Elliot Moss
And, of course, you are Chinese so that makes it more straightforward as well.

Julie Chen
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it’s easier to. My Chinese…

Elliot Moss
Culturally at least you are clear what’s going on because…

Julie Chen
I think the language and culture background does help with the business.

Elliot Moss
I am sure it does. Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper, it’s Julie Chen, she’s the Co-founder and CEO of The Cheeky Panda. She’ll be back in a couple of minutes but first we are going to hear from one of our partners at Mishcon de Reya with some advice for your business.

There’s a smorgasbord of former Jazz Shapers for you to enjoy, the delectable tastes of each one will be smashing, and of course you can hear this programme with Julie by asking Alexa to play Jazz Shapers and there you can hear many of my recent guests, or if you pop Jazz Shapers into iTunes or your preferred podcast platform, the full archive awaits. But back to today, it’s Julie Chen, CEO and Co-founder of The Cheeky Panda, the sustainable bamboo tissue and wipes company. So, the trip’s happened, you’ve agreed to set this thing up, you’ve got some funding, small amount of funding at that stage, you now have to build a team, Julie. How do you and your husband Chris – at that point I imagine he’s by then your husband – how do you then go about doing this? That’s a pretty tall order isn’t it in a new sort of product in a new category as it were, there is no bamboo category here.

Julie Chen
Yes so, we did some exhibition in natural organic exhibition so while we were exhibiting, Chris and I were the two main person who organised the trade show then we hire some interns to help out and then most of the intern we hire from Greenwich University, and they are very passionate about this concept and they just really engaging with people and then eventually one of them we hire for a longer term intern and now she is our best performing sales superstar.

Elliot Moss
If I recall, you started the business in the house, in your house, it then went to a small office and then it’s gone to a bigger office, is that right?

Julie Chen
Yes, that’s right, that’s right.

Elliot Moss
Is that fun? Does it make it feel more real when you are in a bigger place or was that excitement in the early days of the house actually quite exhilarating, quite buzzy?

Julie Chen
We didn’t really know when we started this business, we didn’t really know how we would go and at the point it wasn’t really clear like how big this business can become because at that time, only very small percentage of people are really eco but now, four years later, 90% of people are really eco.

Elliot Moss
As in they think about it? As in, we all want to do our bit in a small way.

Julie Chen
Yeah, and at that time when we talking to people about the value, people will think, “Oh it’s such a niche product” but Chris had a very important function in this because he believed this will be, for some reason he just believed this is not niche, this is mass market.

Elliot Moss
And then remind me where you are stocked in, in the UK because I think Ocado is in there, is that right? Amazon?

Julie Chen
Yeah, we now Amazon’s best seller. We are stocked in Ocado, Boots, Superdrug, Holland & Barrett and we are exporting to a lot of countries.

Elliot Moss
And revenue has gone from obviously zero in the first year to significant amounts now? And is it growing, each year is it super fast tracked, is it sort of growing rather than a few percent, I imagine it is pretty significant year on year?

Julie Chen
Yes, around 50% to 80% year on year.

Elliot Moss
Wow.

Julie Chen
So, yeah when we were back in the house at the time it just like when we start the business we didn’t really want to spend a lot of money in offices while there’s not enough revenue coming in and that’s the reason we run it in the house and then we had Kelly who we employed as intern, come to the house every day and work and later on we then start have another two employees who come to the house and worked. But no one really take it serious but they all love this concept and no one really know where we would go, whether you become a serious business or not, they just really simply loved this concept.

Elliot Moss
And now it’s both a loved concept and indeed it’s a proper business. Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper, it’s Julie Chen and she’s the Co-founder and CEO of The Cheeky Panda which is actually called Colin in the advertising campaign which is quite funny, if you go onto YouTube and put in The Cheeky Panda, Colin, you will see little Colin doing his thing in a café which is quite funny. Time for some more music anyway, it’s Georgie Fame and The Harry South Big Band with Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.

That was Georgie Fame and The Harry South Big Band with their take on Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag. Julie Chen is my Business Shaper, we are talking about The Cheeky Panda. You and your husband, I meet some people who work with their respective husbands or wives or boyfriends and girlfriends and so on, what’s the dynamic? Are you able to switch off when you are not working? Does it matter if you don’t switch off? Has it improved your relationship? Let’s do a bit of couple therapy for a moment.

Julie Chen
I think in the beginning when we had different opinions on how to do things and sometimes we had to debate, most of the time it is in the evening but…

Elliot Moss
Nervous laughter. It was in the evening, we were having a glass of wine and we got angry at each other, there was some fierce fight… no but, how, firstly who wins the arguments?

Julie Chen
Most of the time, me.

Elliot Moss
You see, that’s what I was thinking. It’s very good, it doesn’t really matter what the topic is but you win. But in terms of the dynamic, what’s Chris, what does he focus on mostly in the business?

Julie Chen
So, Chris’ background is in headhunting so he had a lot of experience in business sales in financial surveys so, he headhunt senior directors for banks, big consultancy companies, big four accountancy firms for example, so he has a lot of experience in financial surveys and understand the capital market and also business to business sales and my background is I did this online business so I understand consumer. We had a different opinion, he thought, okay in the very beginning he wanted to take the business to, he wanted to sell to buildings and then I say okay that might be slow, I say we need to go consumer, online and retail.

Elliot Moss
And you won.

Julie Chen
I won.

Elliot Moss
But in terms of now the day to day, your, how does it, you know, on a daily basis, how do the two, the joint CEO’s of the business, or he’s a Director but it’s, you know, the two of you are running it. How does it split? Who focusses on what? Does he focus on people and operations and you focus on kind of market strategy? Is that how it?

Julie Chen
Yes so, over time that we start to understand each other’s strengths so I focus on management and sales and marketing, and then he look after back office as well as business to business sales and look after investment as well.

Elliot Moss
And the switch off thing? Do you ever switch off from work?

Julie Chen
Yeah, sometimes but it probably didn’t work that well so I have to go back to sales and marketing, that’s what I can do better.

Elliot Moss
And, in terms of when you are at home and stuff though, can you stop talking about work together or do you still find yourself talking about work quite a lot?

Julie Chen
Yeah, we do talk about work quite a lot but we just sometimes just, when I go home, my baby is asleep about 8.00 o’clock so I have an hour to play with him so I generally play with him and talk a bit with Chris and we both play with Leo and then he will go to bed and then we will just watch a film together.

Elliot Moss
Good, you actually do switch off. Stay with me to hear my very balanced Business Shaper here, it’s Julie Chen. She’s got a few more words with us in my final chat with her plus we’ll be playing a track from Nina Simone, that’s in just a moment.

The uplifting Nina Simone with Ain’t Got No, I Got Life, I love that, completely and utterly. Julie Chen is my Business Shaper and she is the Co-founder and CEO of The Cheeky Panda which I really do quite like too, it’s a brilliant idea, it’s incredibly timely and having travelled a little bit in Asia, in Hong Kong and in China, the bamboo thing always struck me because of construction actually, many, many years ago because you great big scaffolds going up the sides of huge buildings and it’s both strong but obviously comfortable and soft when you blow your nose on it. Pretending I’m doing the advert now. This has grown fast, this business, and it continues to grow. It looks like the sky is the limit. Do you ever think about how big you want this to be or is it not like that? Is it just let’s keep doing the right thing, getting it stocked in different stores, getting it exported? Or have you got a number in mind?

Julie Chen
Yes and we do have a number in mind and, but for me it’s not, number is important but the most important thing is to be a good business, be a good brand as well as a good business and that’s what I want for The Cheeky Panda and I believe doing the right thing, you will get to the right number.

Elliot Moss
And, in terms of doing the right thing, I see that you are B Corp Certified. What made you do that? Because the B Corp movement is big in the States, it talks about, it basically ensure that you run your business in a sustainable and ethical way and it’s definitely picking up here in the UK as well now but what made you specifically go “We need that?”

Julie Chen
B Corp is the very highest standard, company like Body Shop, Innocent, they are all B Corp company. For us, B Corp is about people, planet, profit so, doing things in the right way, in a ethical way, making sure we run the business exactly ethical and not just on products but also how we run the whole business, how we organise things, how we pay people, we just want to make sure is it the right thing and we want to reach the highest standard and B Corp is so far the highest standard in the market. They are, is a scoring system and doing to be approved, take a lot of time. We understand where we are now but we still have a long way to go to reach the highest score so we just want to use B Corp as a guidance to guide us to run this business.

Elliot Moss
So, Julie, just talking about that it makes me think that A, doing the right thing and you said it is important to you but B, I mean I like your inspiring mantra as one of your three I’s as it were. Is the buzz of running this business bigger than the amount of money you might make because I don’t see you as, I can see you obviously have numbers in your head and stuff but it looks to me like you are excited by the fact that you are running something which is doing a good thing and if the growth comes, well the growth comes. Is that right?

Julie Chen
Yeah, for me, it is. For Chris, it probably slightly more commercial. That is how it is but…

Elliot Moss
One of you needs to be, I guess.

Julie Chen
Yeah, one of us need to be otherwise it will just go to our company, purely ethical and probably like a charity but Cheeky Panda is not a charity and what Chris believe is we can do ethical thing, we can create good products, we can be eco-friendly but we still make profit and that’s what Chris believes and Cheeky Panda is not registered as a charity or anything.

Elliot Moss
No, but you do give money, I know that you are investing in protecting the, I think I am going to say this hopefully correctly, Khe Nuoc Trong rainforest in Vietnam?

Julie Chen
Yes.

Elliot Moss
And doing a number of other things. I should mention by the way, you speak four languages right? And so your first language is Chinese?

Julie Chen
Yep.

Elliot Moss
Taiwanese number two, Japanese number three and English number four. Just for the record. I should say that’s, we don’t often get the chance to interview people whose fourth language happens to be English and have such a fantastic chat. It’s been really lovely talking to you. Thank you and really good luck with this business, I think you have absolutely got a brilliant opportunity to make this a special business.

Julie Chen
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
Just before I let you go though, you can’t get away with it that easily. What’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Julie Chen
It’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, I think it just tells such a lovely love story. If I think my relationship, it’s about probably when we first me, we not after run this business and have one kid, I probably not like the pretty girl he met the first time but we still have a very good relationship, we are still married to each other and it just for me, this song tells a very beautiful love story and that’s why I love it.

Elliot Moss
That was I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You from Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Julie Chen. She talked about the three I’s in her business: innovate, impact, inspire. She talked about doing the right thing and finally, really importantly to her, the more money that that business makes, the bigger their impact can be on sustainability issues and on society in general. Really good stuff. That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a super week.
We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds of more guests available for you to listen to in our archive. To find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Julie Chen is CEO and Co-Founder of The Cheeky Panda Limited – one of the UK’s fastest growing fast moving consumer goods brands, which was recently ranked in the country’s top 100 start-up companies.

Growing up in China, Julie knew the potential and many uses of bamboo, the world’s fastest growing plant which grows thirty times quicker than trees. Passionate about both sustainability and business, Julie and her husband Chris launched The Cheeky Panda in 2016.

Producing eco-friendly tissue and biodegradable wipes made from 100% sustainable bamboo – The Cheeky Panda range is kind to skin, vegan and cruelty-free certified.

A bestseller on Amazon, the range is also available in Boots, Ocado, Superdrug, and Holland and Barrett, as well as being exported to 22 countries worldwide.  

Interview highlights

Being entrepreneurial is in my blood.

When I was doing the online business it was very small scale, but I wanted to do something bigger.

If I’m determined and believe in something, I just do it.

To innovate, impact and inspire – that’s the core of our business.

It’s very important for us to bring sustainability to the mass market.

We are not just producing products, we like to inspire people to be eco-friendly and healthy.

When we started, we had no idea how big the business could become.

Over time you start to understand each other’s strengths, so I focussed on management, sales and marketing, and my husband looks after back office functions, sales and investment.

Numbers are important, but the most important thing is to be a good business and brand.

We understand where we are now but we still have a long way to go.

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