Of Dragons and superfoods: Creative Nature’s Julianne Ponan on seeking funding on TV

Julianne Ponan speaks to GrowthBusiness on growing superfoods company Creative Nature after a management buy-out, and her plans after appearing on BBC 2's Dragons' Den.

When Julianne Ponan took the helm of Creative Nature, the company was in dire straits. Now, her superfoods snack business is turning profit, and is available in most supermarkets in the UK. It was an intense 18 to 24 months, she tells GrowthBusiness ahead of her appearance on BBC 2’s pitch-to-rich show, Dragons’ Den.

Ponan started her career in banking before, and while working in Beijing, she was brought into Creative Nature. “I did an MBO (management buy-out) at the age of 22 using my own money because I saw Creative Nature as a brand that could be turned around,” she says. After a lifetime of dealing with anaphylaxis, Ponan was used to making her own snacks, from bars to baking mixes. She transferred that expertise into Creative Nature’s food portfolio, which now includes high-protein flapjacks and allergen free, organic muffin and brownie mixes.

The superfood brand was struggling with heavy losses before Ponan turned it around, and two years later, it was profit-making, and available in most stores, from Tesco to Sainsbury’s.

“We started as a two-person company at the time, so it was hard,” she says, referring to Matt Ford, the company’s operations manager. “We had to do a lot of cutting back, but because of my background in finance, I was able to look at the books and manage what was going out of the company. We also secured better trade deals with our suppliers. Once we turned profit, we then reached out to supermarkets.”

The hardest part of the journey was securing finance, she says. “In 2014, I wanted to give up. I didn’t think I could take the business any further. I brought it to profit but I wanted to scale it quickly. It was really hard to get the credit terms, and a lot of people didn’t take the company seriously because of my age. But I managed to get better relationships by building my network up and by talking to people.” And although she came across as even younger than her years, Ponan believes what helped her was that she knew exactly where she’s going with the business. “I had a vision and goal and you need to have numbers to back you.”

In order to raise growth capital, Ponan tried alternative finance, but quickly realised it wasn’t for her. “I tried crowdfunding but failed at it. Raising money through crowdfunding relies a lot on publicity and at the time, we weren’t in many places. People didn’t recognise the brand, and unfortunately, some of the company’s previous employees were trying to sabotage Creative Nature. We decided to take a step back and work on being listed in more supermarkets. Once we were in Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda, things completely turned around and those investors came back asking to buy the business.”

As an exclusive to GrowthBusiness, Ponan shared that Creative Nature has signed a deal to go into two major supermarkets in Iceland. “The next step is exporting; getting into places like Dubai. The five-year plan is to get into the USA, but we need the right backing and make sure we’re scalable.”

“If you asked me a few years ago, I was petrified of public speaking. If you’re thrown in the deep end you have to get on with it. You’ll be amazed with what you can do. When you’re growing a business, you live it, breathe it, sleep it. You get used to having to fight for it.”

On Sunday, August 20, Ponan and Ford will appear on BBC 2 Dragons’ Den to drum up investment to scale the business further. “But more than the investment side, I think Dragon’s den will be good for publicity, as well as the dragons’ expertise and guidance,” she says. “I was absolutely terrified (appearing on the show). It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done! It’s very different when you’re on a stage and you can’t really see the audience that well. It’s the whole environment of being in that scenario; scary but such an incredible feeling. As an entrepreneur, when you’re outside your comfort zone, that’s when the magic happens.”

Update: Why Deborah Meaden wants in

After her appearance on Dragons’ Den, Ponan was delighted to receive an offer from veteran business tycoon, Deborah Meaden, who made an offer to invest £75,000 in return for 25 per cent equity in Creative Nature. This included an option to buy back 5 per cent and reduce the equity to 20 per cent.

The Dragons sampled two of Julianne’s superfood protein bars, plus a vegan Chia and Cacao Brownie and a Chia and Mulberry Muffin, both of which are gluten, nut and dairy free, organic baking mixes. They were all very enthusiastic and complimentary about the products even asking “how could they be so healthy, when they taste so good?”.

Although Ponan accepted the deal on the show, new circumstances have recently led her to decline the investment offer.

“Being in the Den was an incredible experience. It was amazing to meet Deborah and have her want to invest in Creative Nature. I’m sure we would have benefitted from Deborah’s expertise and I would have loved to have worked with her. However, since the filming of the show, I have secured even more contracts directly with major supermarkets by myself and have decided that the investment deal offered wasn’t the best current route for my business,” she says. “Deborah was very understanding when I explained why I had decided not to take the deal and wished me well for the future.”

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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Dragons' Den