The Cheeky Panda’s revolutionary bamboo-based alternative to traditional tissue paper is rapidly growing in popularity. Entrepreneurial husband-and-wife team Julie Chen and Chris Forbes founded the business in August 2016 after Julie had been telling Chris about the incredible uses of bamboo.
While on holiday in Szechuan, China, to meet Julie’s parents, the couple visited a bamboo plantation and realised that bamboo had huge potential to create a sustainable tissue product. They knew that sustainable products had become hugely popular in the UK, so the couple set about working on a sustainable toilet tissue brand.
The Cheeky Panda now turns over £2m annually and was recently valued at £20m. Selling through Amazon has seen Cheeky Panda’s sales rocket to £150k monthly, and the business has just raised a new £1m investment from Northern & Shell to further build the business.
The brand gives a nod to the most famous advocate of bamboo, and the business is now growing as fast as bamboo!
Business Leader Magazine spoke to Chris to discover more about Cheeky Panda’s commercial success and its exciting future.
CAN YOU GIVE AN OVERVIEW OF THE CHEEKY PANDA?
We sell a sustainable alternative to traditional tissue and toilet paper products. Made from virgin bamboo kun, Cheeky Panda products are rich in natural goodness and free from harsh chemicals – while also saving thousands of trees and natural animal habitats around the world. Our products are also the first of their kind to be Vegan-registered in the UK.
Responding to the rapidly growing demand for sustainable, eco-friendly and natural alternatives to household items, we offer a range of high-quality products from toilet and facial tissues to kitchen towels and baby wipes.
Founded by myself and Julie in 2016, The Cheeky Panda is now one of the UK’s top 100 start-ups, a multi-million pound business, and our products are sold in more than 12 countries including Ireland, France, Belgium and Dubai.
WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE BUSINESS?
Julie and I have always shared a passion for a more sustainable future. On a trip to see her parents in China, we went to investigate whether we could turn bamboo into toilet tissue. We were amazed by scale, ethical sourcing and modern manufacturing processes that would be at our disposal. We then market tested the concept through crowdfunding, and after overachieving our target the business concept became a reality.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF BEING A HUSBAND-AND-WIFE ENTREPRENEURIAL TEAM?
We were both running our own businesses before The Cheeky Panda, so we were already entrepreneurial, which made the idea of running a business together feel completely natural. Julie is brilliant at design and has developed the brand and the product range, while I have been more involved in the business strategy and financing.
Some couples might find it creates stress or conflict, but we have complimentary skills and can solve problems quickly. We both know how to sell and are passionate about the product, so we love the business and don’t mind talking about it after hours or on the weekend.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF USING BAMBOO AGAINST TRADITIONAL MATERIALS?
Bamboo is awesome! It’s the world’s fastest growing plant and it is a type of grass so it doesn’t create soil erosion – unlike trees which need to have their root system dug out in order to regrow. It also doesn’t require chemicals or fertilisers, it’s just an incredibly fast-growing, ultra-sustainable, soft and natural product. What’s not to love?
ARE CUSTOMERS BECOMING MORE ECO-FRIENDLY AND ALIGNING THEMSELVES WITH BRANDS THEY BELIEVE IN?
Absolutely, yes, and we’re seeing customers’ buying habits evolve in a whole host of categories and sectors.
In fact Cambridge University recently ran a study on our behalf. Surveying the public, they found that 75% agreed that the sustainability credentials of a product would influence their purchasing decision, and 86% agreed that consumer habits can have an impact on the environment.
On the other hand, 72% disagreed with the idea that ‘green’ products are either ‘exclusive’ or the preserve of certain communities, like green activists. This shows a significant shift over the last few years, as green and eco-friendly products move from being specialist, niche products to become a popular mainstream category in their own right.
THE BUSINESS IS VALUED AT £20M JUST TWO YEARS AFTER IT WAS FOUNDED – HOW HAVE YOU ACHIEVED THIS GROWTH?
When we first started The Cheeky Panda, I got my hands on a copy of the Harvard Business School business plan. We spent 70 hours detailing all aspects of the business, including threats and opportunities, with a contingency plan for every eventuality. Last week I reviewed that original business plan and we have achieved 80% of our objectives.
We have moved through the gears very quickly and our investors are delighted with our progress – we certainly didn’t expect to be selling in 12 countries so quickly.
Our team deserves a huge amount of credit for that growth, as they love the brand and manage all our partners and customers brilliantly. Although the team is small, we have created more than 100 jobs – from manufacturing to supply chain, finance, legal and marketing. It’s very positive to know that we can make an impact by creating jobs while also providing sustainable alternatives.
CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOUR £1M INVESTMENT FROM NORTHERN & SHELL?
Northern & Shell are a great investment partner, they’re incredibly knowledgeable and they have so much experience of taking products to supermarkets and other retailers. We love working with them and they are like a big brother for us, which as a start-up is very useful.
HOW HAS AMAZON HELPED YOUR BUSINESS?
Amazon provides a fantastic range of services to help young brands disrupt existing markets. We were put onto Amazon Launchpad, which helps early adopters find exciting new products. The first reviews started rolling in and we quickly built momentum and a fanbase.
After launching in 2016, we were then selected for Amazon Prime and Amazon Pantry in 2017, and earlier this year we were awarded the prestigious Amazon Choice award. But Amazon isn’t just a great sales tool, it also helps us validate our products and makes it less risky for buyers at mainstream retailers to list us because it allows us prove demand for the products. I also do keynote talks with Amazon Academy and Enterprise Nation.
Twenty years ago, we simply could not have built this business without millions in start-up capital. So I’m very thankful that we live in such a progressive digital age where global players like Amazon can give us access to an international marketplace.
For more information on Cheeky Panda and to find out where you can purchase their sustainable products, visit their website, here.
Business Leader Magazine is the UK’s leading B2B media platform and includes a national print magazine, daily e-newsletter sent to hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and packed events network. Keep up to their news by subscribing here.