If you’re active on social media or have even a mild interest in tasty health food, chances are you’ve come across Deliciously Ella. The brainchild of Ella Mills, Deliciously Ella is a wildly successful home for all things #goodeats. But this isn’t any old influencer fairytale.
Like many social gurus, Ella’s blog is a way of life. It’s what makes her inspiring, authentic and engaging, so disconnecting can be quite challenging. Add in the fact that her husband Matt is also her business partner, and well, maybe we should call her Deliriously Ella. However, the multi-tasking maven has managed to not only stay ahead of the social curve, but to expand into brick-and-mortar, product development and publish a few books along way.
What’s the secret, you ask? Well, according to Ella, creating a viable business model means being smart about division of labor and understanding how to effectively utilize momentum. After racing from one project to the next, she and her partner are refocusing on the brand DNA and building the current team before seeking out new avenues again.
If you’re considering outside investment, Ella has plenty of pointers on how to time it right and find the best fit for your brand. Here, she digs in deep, discussing the highs and lows of working in the business versus on the business, delegating and expanding a one-woman brand into an empire.
The whole idea was that so often healthy eating is seen as a sad thing – not very fun, sociable, colorful, or abundant. And part of that is because people struggle to eat well because they think you need to sit at home and meditate. That it’s all about depravation. The book shows that there are more ways to include healthy foods into your diet and have it feel fun and not just about salads. The book is all about hearty dishes like spiced potato cakes with paprika, cayenne pepper, and cumin. Things with tons of flavors.
When it comes to releasing new books, I only do things that have a purpose. I think about what people want and what they’re asking for. I am obsessed with engagement with our community and readers. I spend four hours a day on social media answering comments and listening to what people are asking for, looking for, and communicating about.
I was finding a lot people were saying: “I don’t know what to give my husband, I don’t know what to give my kids, what should I feed my friends?” Before I changed how I ate, if you had invited me over for a vegan, gluten and sugar free meal, I would have said, ‘no, thank you.’ That’s why when I changed my eating habits I understood why my friends thought that all I ate was lettuce!
With this book, I wanted to show that you can cook things like a big Indian-inspired dish with lots of spices, chick peas, potatoes, cauliflower and coconut rice that tastes good.
THE INSPIRATION BEHIND HER DELI
Having an online community is amazing and I’ve loved having an audience but we wanted to create something a bit more tangible and real, like a home for us to some extent, and that’s why we opened the deli. We hadn’t been working on it for too long before the first one opened. It was about six months so really quick. I am definitely one of those people who makes things happen once they’ve put their mind to it.
JOINING FORCES WITH HER HUSBAND
I started working with my husband a couple of months after my first book came out. Matt was my partner through it all. I was so new to it all and my knowledge and passion and skill set are 100% creative. I love the communications and the food side of it. I am not into the numbers or the spreadsheets. Matt is into all of that so it was through working with him that we were able to make it happen. We were really keen to split the responsibilities in half. We have a very clear divide. He looks after business development, operations and finances and I look after the creative side.
Before Matt joined the business, I was doing everything and I was really overwhelmed. He helped introduce systems. I was working on it as a passion project. I wasn’t structured or systematic. It was less thinking ahead and more, what do we have to do today?
Everyone asks about our dynamic. It’s been amazing but it does mean that we’re not great about not bringing work home. Ultimately, I don’t know how good I would be if we weren’t working together because it’s just been so busy and intense over the last two years. Since Matt came on board, we have done another two books, we opened three sites, we have done two big pop-ups and tons of festivals and events and have launched three product lines in 5,500 stores. It has been so busy so even if we weren’t working together, I would have brought work home.
There have been so many great moments and highlights but there have also been really challenging moments too and very stressful periods being worried about cash flow and having to pay everyone and keep the lights on; all of those unexpected hurdles. When you feel like you’re in it with someone and have a partner to deal with that, it’s amazing. Even if we weren’t working together I know he would be empathetic but it’s not the same as being in the trenches together. Now, when we celebrate, we celebrate together but day-to-day, it’s been really important for us to have separate roles and we’ve worked hard to maintain that so we can focus and give each other space and respect to do our jobs.
ON FOCUSING ON RAPID GROWTH
Honestly, our approach was to go as quickly as possible, which is not necessarily the most sensible thing but we are big believers in momentum. Since the brand was exploding, we felt it was our moment and we had the momentum behind it and that if we didn’t go really quick, we were going to lose that and the next person would come in and we wouldn’t be as interesting anymore.
We really felt this is the moment the supermarkets are going to want to talk to us. This is the moment landlords will want to talk to us. This is the moment when great people will want to join our company, because it’s exciting and we needed to capture that excitement and really run with it. I think up until really now or a month ago, our thing was really just go! There will be problems and issues on the way but let’s just get out there, get established and get in the supermarkets and open the doors. For the next six months though, we really want to refine it and focus on more practical things like branding and team structure and slowing down and refining and making sure everything is really right before we push again. I really think it was the right decision because you don’t always have those opportunities.
We thought about it on day one and went to meetings and were really close to getting investment and then realised that we wanted to make mistakes on our own and that we needed to that involved. When we opened the first site, we ended up opening a very small space because it was what we could afford using the book royalties and we didn’t have a manager. We had a couple lower level team members helping us but we did the food ordering, I did the tables, and Matt did the serving. We did it and it was insane. It was like 20 hours a day and we didn’t sleep for months. It was super intense and I did a book tour at the same time. Like, it was absolutely out of control but it taught us so much and got us so close to the business that we would never would have had if we had had outside investment.
I wanted to understand who were before going to investors. I had such a clear idea. Still, we have no marketing department. I am our marketing department. I am our creative department and we have only had PR recently. I passionately believe in the power of social media and direct communication with our audience so I didn’t want someone to come in who had done it all before and say, ‘no, this is how you should do it’. Deliciously Ella was built on breaking the rules. It had been the fastest selling debut cookbook in the UK and that happened before I had press, media and with no TV, support. That happened with social media and community building and I really felt that was our strength.
I wanted to take that to investors and say, ‘look, we’re outselling our competitions and we have done no marketing.’ We have managed that because we know our audience, we know who we are and we know how to communicate with them. I wanted to be able to have that so people could get behind it where originally, we were just selling an idea. Had we got investment earlier, I think it would have been so easy for someone to come in and tell us what to do because they had the experience we were lacking.
Towards the end of last year things were going really well. We had had established out first supermarket listing, we opened three sites, and we were like okay, now we want to go to the next stage and we can’t.
Because we were spending so much time dealing with orders, we weren’t spending enough time growing the business and actually working on development. That was when we were like, okay, this is the right time. Now we can go out and say this is who we are, these are our numbers, these are our projections. We are not inventing them. We are not making them. I knew we could get way better valuations because of that.
ON CHOOSING HER INVESTORS
We want strategic money. We wanted to support from investors who have done these things before.
From our perspective, the most important thing was to find people who really understood the business and understood who we were and why we wanted to do what we wanted to do and what the point of it was. And knowing nothing goes to plan and it might be better and it might be worse – it will definitely get worse at times!
Everyone is going to have problems and I think the reason we also wanted strategic advice is because we wanted people who had been in similar positions so could say, “when we had this issue with our manufacturer, this is what we did… this is normal, that is not normal, be concerned about this and don’t be concerned about that”.
The main part of our business and revenue is the retail and products in stores and will continue to be that way so we wanted people who have done that before; people who know that supermarkets do what they want to do and that in there will be challenges that come up in the space we’re operating in.
ON DELEVOPING DELICIOUSLY ELLA PRODUCTS
The media part of the business is the most visible but product development is the big focus internally, as it’s where we get the most revenue. It’s so scalable. Having a blog, social media and books with recipes covering day to night meant we have the credibility and authenticity to go into every aisle of a supermarket, which is so unusual.
If you like at our competitors like the Naked Bars or Lara Bars or that type of thing, they would have to create a whole new brand if they wanted to expand to a different product category. We are able to create different products all under the same brand.
And thanks to our content, our audience is as connected to our juices as they are to our granolas so it opens doors. So many people know Deliciously Ella in a lifestyle [context] so it we could easily extend to yoga or retreats. The possibilities are endless and that’s really exciting.
WORKING ‘ON’ THE BUSINESS VERSUS WORKING ‘IN’ IT
I find that really hard. We are still working with small budgets. I would love to hire 100 people and have so many ideas of things to do, but we aren’t there yet and I find that the most challenging part. We are still very hands on on a practical level because we have such a small team so if someone is on holiday or is sick or can’t be there, we still need to do their jobs.
Sometimes I will be working in the deli and washing up because someone has called in sick and then have to go talk to the CEO of a big company. That is kind of the funny part, having to piece it together. But it keeps us so connected to the business and so connected to the soul of it and what people are actually doing every day.
I still think I will manage it. When we first started working together, Matt was obsessed with the Reed Hoffman quote about why you should try to be the dumbest person in a room and I started to really connect to that. He was totally right about trying to get the best people in. Our Head of Innovation had worked in manufacturing and retail for years, and I was in it for 18 months. I don’t know what I was talking about, but he does. You can bring so many people in that you can learn from who are phenomenal in leading different areas. And actually the best thing I can do is be me and bring the personal reason our company exists [to the fore] and focus on the connection to community. That’s what I can do for us and what I can do better than anyone else. There are lots of other things I love doing like taking photos for our blog that someone else can help with because they would probably be better at it…
For so many people, I think that’s the hardest part because you’re so attached it. I worked on my own for 18 months. It went from just me, and then Matt and I and then all of a sudden there were all of these people and who have opinions based on their experience. It’s all about learning when to say, ‘no, I know our brand and that’s not right,’ and when to say, ‘you know this area and this kind of business strategy and I am going to listen to you and say I am wrong.’ It’s an ongoing process and I think it’s what holds most people back – it is the most challenging things to get over.
ON HIRING & TEAM BUILDING
I think number one: follow your gut instinct on whether someone is genuinely the right fit because they might be on paper but then they might not really get the soul of your business and ultimately nothing is more important than that and I think culture is everything.
The next thing for me was appreciating that it’s not about me anymore. It’s our company, not my company and that is a really important distinction because no one builds a great business on their own. Doesn’t matter how clever you are, how good your idea is, it doesn’t matter if you create the best code or the best app. You can’t run it without other people – no matter how intent on it you are, you can’t.
We gave away 12% equity to our key team members and that was really important to us. We wanted them to feel like they have a stake in it. They have helped us create this – it doesn’t matter that it has my name on it. I wouldn’t be here without them and it will not grow without them so they deserve a piece of it. I think acknowledging that is really important to make people feel motivated and included.
Having Matt helped too because I had to give him half of the business overnight so it immediately changed my mindset from ‘this is mine’ to ‘this is ours’.
HOW SHE JUGGLES ELLA MILLS THE INFLUENCERS WITH THE DELICIOUSLY ELLA BRAND
I will only ever do something that I feel is right for our brand. When Intimissimi first got in touch about me being in the campaign, I thought it was totally random, but they explained it was all about empowering women, and being strong. It does increase our profile but anything like that has to fit with the kind of general look of our brand.
I don’t want to be a celebrity. From day one I said no to every party, every opening, every premiere. I am not interested in that. There are amazing opportunities but I don’t want to be known for what I wear. I don’t want that. Deliciously Ella is about helping people eat better, feel better, live better, doing better for the planet… it’s not about my shoes. It’s fun to get dressed up and go to those things but I want our day to day to be about avocado toast much more than my shoes and I think that was an important decision I made early on.
The collaboration with Neal’s Yard made sense because it’s about celebrating natural living. Their amazing ingredients connect so well with our audience and what they want so it just expands what we do rather than pigeonholing us.
We get approached every day to endorse things and be part of things that are just so random and not connected to what we do. Our audience follows us for a certain reason and I want to give them what they want. I don’t want to start bombarding them with stuff they are disconnected with or things that aren’t why they started following us in the first place.
We have been tempted to take partnerships in the past. We’ve had a few times where we were really f*cked. We didn’t know how we were going to pay people but then we’d have an opportunity come in. We could have done it but we would have been selling our soul so ultimately in the long term the credibility means more than anything else.
ON LIMITING WHAT SHE SHARES
From day one, I was really keen to have a divide. Deliciously Ella is a tool and a resource for eating better and living better. I didn’t want it to be pictures of my friends or my shoes or any of the rest of it. I think it is important to have your personality in your communication. I do really believe people connect with people so having that real human touch and personal element definitely works well, but I also need to have my space. I will always do videos in my kitchen and show me making dinner but I don’t want to show you who has come for dinner. I don’t want to be like, “these are my friends…”. Some things are mine and have nothing to do with the Deliciously Ella brand. If we go on holiday, I will show you the beautiful view because it’s beautiful to see and I can show you Matt and I having a lovely time, but I don’t need to show you our hotel room. I don’t need to show you what I wore to dinner. I don’t want to do that.
I just need to do what I am good at. I like clothes but I am not a fashion blogger and I will never be. I would fail terribly doing that. Just do what you are good at. No one can be all things to all people.