Co-founders of healthy food start up Pollen + Grace Stephanie Johnson and Kristina Komlosiova noticed a gap in the market for natural grab-and-go options that tasted as good as it looked, before the healthy food scene in London really got going. Three years on, they’re raising their Series A round. Ilana, Motley Co-Founder, caught up with them to find out more.
Give us Pollen and Grace’s elevator pitch.
Kristina: Food that’s good for you, and tastes as beautiful as it looks.
Steph: It’s got to taste good. Be an exciting experience. And well-balanced and delicious, of course.
You mentioned you couldn’t imagine being here three years ago. How did you get going?
Steph: We started in March 2015. There were a few months of planning before we actually launched. It started with my very small amount of savings so we just had a bike, a website and my kitchen. I would cycle round to the tube station every morning to flyer outside it, get home, see what orders had come through, make them, jump back on my bike and deliver them.
Kristina: We went after customers before we’ve been big enough to. In the early days, it was Planet Organic. We just sent them an email. W H Smith was also a completely cold call.
Did you always want to start your own business?
K: Steph knows much more exactly where she’s going. I’m just vibing it.
S: I’ve always been fascinated by business and I’ve always been fascinated by food. When I was seven or eight, Jamie Oliver was coming on the scene and I thought I wanted to be a TV chef. But as a child I was constantly setting up shops, selling pet rocks or paintings or flowers from the garden.
As a career, though…entrepreneurship is so available now, but it’s not something people tell you can do.
K: Especially not when you’re at school. It feels very unachievable.
S: I thought I needed to get to a certain life stage, or be managing director of someone else’s company, or wait another ten years, when I’ll be old enough to do it. It was only when there was someone I knew who had started their own business - I thought I can do it too.
K: I think it’s really important to get some work experience in the professional world, though. A little understanding of how to deal with people. But it doesn’t have to be twenty years...
You met at work. Was it love at first sight?
K: We sat on opposite sides of the office for the first six months; but then we started travelling together for work, and it grew from there. We decided to quit our jobs at the same time.
S: I started the business off. But I was struggling on my own and was whinging to my fiancé about how I missed working with Kris. So he told me to call her. I said, “Why would she want to get involved with a highly risky start up, where she’s going to get paid nothing?”
K: She said “Can we talk?”, and I thought, “She’s pregnant”… But when she started talking about Pollen, I didn’t think about it twice.
You have a very distinctive aesthetic. What inspired it?
S: If you rewind back four years, our vision was to present food differently. Then, most food photography was very garish and childish. We took inspiration from the beauty industry. Now a lot of other people have gone down that route, but a couple of years ago it wasn’t done at all. We have a pretty strong vision, which is based on what we like as people - simple, elegant, clean. Back in the beginning, we were inspired by brands like Daylesford, Aesop, Serial Magazine. But now, if I’m being honest, we don’t really look to other brands for inspiration.
Where do your recipe inspirations come from?
S: Product innovation – NPD - is meant to be the biggest challenge for a new brand, but that’s the thing that has always come most naturally to us. We have so many ideas, the problem is narrowing it down, looking at things commercially and deciding where to focus.
K: We have a naturopath nutritionist who works with us on the recipe development, who uses progressive ingredients way ahead of the curve. Sometimes we don’t even know what they are. Although there are lots of health benefits we can’t talk about because of legislation around labelling. It’s stuck back about 15 years in the past. I’m aware there’s lots of false claims in the market, but you can really only talk about Vitamin C. Our products are far better for you than we can say they are.
How has your organisation changed since the early days?
S: The hardest part of the journey has been keeping the culture. We were a small family where everyone does everything and we all work in one room. Now we’ve had to create structure, departments, management teams.
K: We’ve tried to avoid hiring in top management. We prefer growing people up with us. And we don’t micromanage at all. We give them projects and leave them to it. Although it’s a fine balance between trying to shield people from the stresses of the business, and letting them see what’s going on so they can grow and learn.
S: We do a lot of the shitty manual jobs ourselves. Like changing the fly-traps. We’re a food production business, and food safety is key. So I’ll do anything from unloading packaging and crawling around in the loft space, to changing the sticky pads on the fly traps.
K: Finance is horrible. I do a lot of finance and it kills my soul. It has to be done, but it’s not exciting.
What’s your most memorable day so far?
K: Back in the early days, when we were in Clapham, we were running extremely low on cash. We had to go to withdraw some money from our credit cards to deposit it into our accounts so we could pay payroll. I happened to have a £5 note in my pocket so I thought, every little helps, and deposited the £5 as well. Our finance advisor was baffled, but that was a very accurate representation of early day life. You give the little things, and there’s always a way to make things work.
S: I can’t remember specifics, but what I can remember is the ups and downs. The highest highs and the lowest lows in one day. Being a small fast-growing business, cash flow is always a challenge; you’ll have a day when some of your customers aren’t paying you on time and you’re thinking, “How are we going to survive?”; then you’ll have a conversation with the likes of Tesco that want to stock you in fifty locations and make your dreams come true. Or when Jake Gyllenhaal bought one of our lunchboxes. My mum was sampling in Planet Organic; she saw him at the till and got so excited, she went up and made him try some samples.
How do you have difficult conversations between you?
S: We just have them. We don’t take anything personally. We both know we’re on the same team. There aren’t difficult conversations we have to have between us, there are difficult things about stuff we’re both dealing with together. But we’re completely aligned on our visions and our values, and we both give the same amount. If there are any stresses, it’s nothing personal.
Has being a woman defined you in your roles as business leaders?
S: We’ve never really considered it. We’re just us and we’ve either been oblivious, or we haven’t been exposed to being treated any differently. We’re raising money at the moment and for the first time, a VC said to us, ‘How have you found raising your Series A round as females?’ and it hadn’t crossed our mind.
K: In all the investor meetings we’ve had, it’s been 99% men and maybe there’s been a token female there. We have a Board of Directors and everyone refers to us as ‘the girls’; you could take offence, but it doesn’t make me personally devalued.
Our early focus groups found that most women have been bought a piece of jewellery they hate. Resonate?
K: I got a gold necklace in the shape of a heart from an ex-boyfriend. It was engraved with ‘Love is a Journey. I didn’t like it, but I wore it for quite a while. Until I dumped him.
If you could have a piece of art by any artist on your wall, what would it be?
S: There’s a giant canvas by William McLure that I’m obsessed with it, and it’s £8,500. I discovered it on Instagram. I was hoping it would be a 30th birthday present, but I turned 30 five months ago and it hasn’t happened. So maybe in five years’ time. My sister, is an amazing artist, Emily Hana. She makes art for people who are too famous to make their own art anymore. She does a lot of prints and installations. My walls are completely filled with her art.
What are you reading right now?
K: I’ve been reading innocent’s brand story for about three years… But I normally read Dan Brown, or conspiracy theories.
S: I’m reading real trash at the moment. There’s a series called Outlander, where I’ve watched every single episode, and I got so emotionally attached, I started reading the books. But the best book I’ve read this year was Shoe Dog. The struggle was real. That’s exactly what it’s like. It was so nice to see a brand that’s got to that stage go through all the shit that you go though.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given to you?
K: It’s cliché but don’t be afraid to ask questions.
S: Just start. That was a big barrier at the start. I though, I have a vision of where I want the business to go. I didn’t want to start by making two lunchboxes but actually that’s what you need to do. Letting go of the fear surrounding that is the probably the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given.