When Ella Mills launched her plant-based recipe blog—Deliciously Ella—in 2012, business was the very last thing on her mind.
After spending a year in and out of hospital with illnesses that left her mental and physical health at an all-time low, the 20-year-old simply wanted to explore what effects a less-processed diet might have on her health. And learn to cook in the process.
“I never planned to start a business,” she admits, “but like many founders I realised as I solved my own problems that there was a clear opportunity to do the same thing for millions of other people.”
Ten years ago just 5% of UK households bought into the plant-based category, compared to nearly 50% today, and Deliciously Ella quickly found itself on a similar trajectory.
The blog gained traction within a matter of months, leading to sold-out supper clubs, cooking classes and sponsorships—all of which funded the development of the her first “real” commercial venture, the deliciously ella app, which went to #1 in the UK app store’s food and drink category on day one.
Straight away, publishers clamoured for the opportunity to collaborate on a plant-based cookbook.
“Our first cookbook changed everything,” she says. “Before that we’d been a relatively niche, albeit very committed, online community, whereas the book took us into the mainstream narrative.”
Released in January 2015, that first book not only spent eight weeks at #1 on Amazon—across all categories—but became the fastest-selling debut cookbook of all time in the UK.
“I met Ella a few months after that and we both felt the opportunity for growth was huge,” adds Matthew Mills, her now-husband. “I wanted us to really scale Deliciously Ella, and the first way we did that was through our food products business. Using the momentum from the book we were able to build distribution very quickly.”
Of course, with rapid expansion came rapid teachings.
With an industry-defining range of over 40 plant-based food products, an app and four more bestselling cookbooks in the making, the decision to open plant-based cafes in London proved to be too much too soon.
After posting losses of almost £724,000 ($909,000) in 2018, both branches were closed in their infancy.
“A large chunk of the losses were the write-off of assets, versus trading losses, but it was still of course a blow,” says Matthew. “Running a loss-making business is much more stressful than running a profitable business. It drags valuable time into fixing something that isn’t working, rather than doubling down on the items that are working well.
“We cut our losses at the right time—all of our businesses are profitable, and have been profitable for some time. We’re only interested in new opportunities if they can be profitable very quickly.”
With this in mind, Matthew also chose to retire the company’s original app shortly thereafter, replacing the one-time purchase model with subscription service.
“It grew quickly, gave us sticky, forecastable cashflows, and enabled a second major opportunity within our group for real scale,” he says.
Today, as Deliciously Ella celebrates its tenth anniversary, the husband-and-wife team are projecting revenues of over £20 million (roughly $25 million) in 2022. Even with unlikely decision to open a restaurant (Plants by Deliciously Ella) last June.
“It’s the smallest part of our business,” Matthew admits, “but is an important brand home with a number of valuable soft benefits. It’s traded profitably since opening.”
Their food products (now stocked in more than 6,000 stores across the UK) have been bought by 2.7 million households in the past six months alone.
And, as the Deliciously Ella division with the highest revenue, plans to expand into Europe and the US are imminent.
“Looking back, I’d tell myself nothing is ever as bad—or good—as it may initially seem,” says Ella. “You’ve got to be solution-focused and find a way to keeping putting one foot in front of another.
“Scaling a business is incredibly challenging, and it’ll consume your whole life, but it can provide extraordinary opportunity for personal growth. I’d never have believed we could have achieved what we have ten years ago.”