Navigating surges and spikes during a global pandemic with Joanna Jensen
We interviewed Joanna Jensen about the challenges as an SMB of keeping up with an unexpected boom in demand in 2020.
8 min read
Joanna Jensen is the Founder and Chairman of Childs Farm, the UK’s No. 1 brand for baby and child toiletries. In 2020 they launched Farmologie, a sister brand aimed at adults with sensitive skin, against a backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, while also managing to grow Childs Farm’s direct-to-consumer sales by 7000%.
Childs Farm has been nominated as one of the Most Adaptive Small Businesses of 2020 by QuickBooks UK.
It’s a pleasure to talk to you today, Joanna! Can you tell us about your company’s journey?
Quite simply, Childs Farm was created for the needs of my children. My daughters both had sensitive skin and atopic eczema when they were babies, and it seemed like none of the products on the market at the time could alleviate it. I didn’t want to use steroids on their young skin, so I decided to create my own range of skin care products for children and babies.
I was very lucky to work closely with Tom Allsworth (now known for Make up of the Revolution) to develop the initial product range. Amusingly, we initially met in 2010 at a Little Chef restaurant off the A303 where he immediately understood my desire to create a range that could be natural, vegan and, most importantly, effective.
“Since then, our rise has been meteoric - and it’s all come from word of mouth.”
We launched in Boots and Waitrose in 2014, and by 2019 we had become the largest baby and child supplier in the UK. In 2019 we were selling one baby moisturiser every 14 seconds! We had a couple of completely organic PR spikes in 2017-18 that raised our brand profile enormously. The first was a mother who had used Childs Farm products on her daughter’s chronic eczema and saw amazing results in two weeks. The second was a woman who had been living with psoriasis, who told us that discovering Childs Farm had changed her life.
“What was interesting about the users of our child and baby products was that 27% were adults. Launching an adult brand was the logical next step.”
We launched Farmologie this year in partnership with Boots, with an aim to support adults in the same way that we have been able to help children. There is a huge demand out there for effective, natural products made using sustainably sourced ingredients and sustainable packaging. I’m proud that all of our products are great for skin while also being great for the environment.
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Tell us a bit about your journey into entrepreneurship.
I have always had an entrepreneurial mindset. I come from a hardworking and enterprising family, so from a young age I was encouraged to have ideas and make them happen. When I was a child I successfully made and sold little model pigs through my grandparents’ antiques shop - and I haven’t been able to sit still since!
“Entrepreneurship is a common state of mind. If you have it, you can build something.”
I have had some great jobs in the past, including working in investment banking, and I ran my first company when I was 20. Childs Farm arose organically from a personal need: I wanted to solve a problem - sorting out my children’s skin so their sore skin was soothed - and the resulting solution turned bathtime from a battle into an absolute joy.
2020 has been quite the year. How have you adapted your product offering to this year’s changing circumstances?
We were definitely in the right industry for growth during a pandemic that has ravaged other businesses, but that has come with its own challenges. When the coronavirus first hit we were so worried; after all we’d done and achieved over the years, we didn’t know if this would be challenged - or, worse, destroyed - so my heart goes out to every company damaged by COVID in 2020.
“We were very decisive; we thought our stock level would be at risk if we continued to push promotions, so we pulled all promotions at the beginning of lockdown.”
During COVID, our supply team has been absolutely superb. We had enough stock throughout the initial lockdown - it’s only very recently that we’ve found it challenging to replenish and this second lockdown will be a test. Some of our key offline stockists on the High Street had vastly reduced footfall and have, like many, been badly hit in 2020. We’re lucky that we have a mature relationship with Amazon and that we were able to grow our direct-to-customer sales by a whopping 7000% to be able to ensure our consumers got the products they wanted.
In 2020 there has been an overwhelming focus on handwashing, which, of course, makes our hand creams and handwashes more relevant than ever for those with sensitive skin. For this reason, during the summer we launched an unfragranced handwash and created three new hand creams in tubes - the lead time between offering the products and getting them into stores was around six weeks so we are extremely proud of this turnaround.
“Our experience with the previous PR spikes was actually very useful, as we knew what to expect along with a huge, sudden increase in demand during COVID.”
We talked to the whole team about what a spike might look like, what to do and how to manage it effectively - and, most importantly, when this spike would abruptly decline. The team did an absolutely amazing job and still managed to launch Farmologie in July this year. We definitely had our share of difficulties - for example, we wanted to make the packaging completely sustainable, but the only suppliers of metal-free pumps are based in northern Italy, and the factory completely shut down as a result of the coronavirus in the spring. Needless to say, there were lots of Plan Bs and Plan Cs!
What are your top tips for managing your business finances in 2020?
I would tell my fellow retail business owners that cash is king - remember that too much cash in stock means you can become limited in what you can do and can miss opportunities. As well as applying for any relevant government loans, I think it’s really key to understand how your bank can help you through facilities such as Invoice Financing. This allows you to get early payment on Blue Chip retailer invoices such as Boots or Tescos. The bank will pay you the majority of the invoice, so if there are 90-day payment terms, for example, you will be able to get your payment much quicker, with the balance being paid on the normal due date.
“Invoice Financing can be a game changer for small businesses - it fills the massive gap between sale and payment and allows you to keep a much tighter rein on your cash flow.”
Who are the people, products and practices that have helped you cope with the uncertainty this year?
The hardest challenge of lockdown was for the team, many of whom have young families at home. When both parents are working and the little ones are running around it’s an absurdly ridiculous scenario! They were amazing and my hat goes off to them.
On a personal note, my boyfriend Jonathan, who is an executive coach, has been a godsend. I am grateful for my children and his children, who keep it real; friends, who keep it fun; and the Childs Farm leadership team, who never cease to amaze me with their resilience.
In terms of products... gin! And Ottolenghi cookbooks.
“When it comes to practices that got me through 2020, I have to say dog walking. Fresh air, movement and canine companionship shouldn’t be underestimated.”
What inspiring or encouraging words would you send to your fellow entrepreneurs?
I have a sticker on my computer that says If you can dream it, you can do it. It’s a quote from Walt Disney, but I think I would add “so dream big”. I am a believer in manifestation: if you believe that something can happen, it will.
“Don’t underestimate your ability and power to create change. I created something for my children, which in turn worked for other people’s children, which in turn worked for adults. Small brands have the power to change the industry.”
If you’re an SME, stick to your ethics and values and allow them to manifest themselves through your brand, and then your team - that’s an authentic brand. I would also recommend that you look to the legacy of your brand. Don’t leave it till later - if you know that your operations or your product have an environmental impact, change it now.
Be Prepared with QuickBooks
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This interview has been edited for clarity.