‘Making tissue from bamboo? I never would have come up with that’

Chris Forbes and Julie Chen might be laughing now, but the political turmoil of 2016 almost flushed their fledgling business down the drain entirely.

By Mike Peake on 14/11/2019

The Cheeky Panda make sustainable, eco-friendly toiletries from bamboo | iwoca
Photo: Cheeky Panda

If you stick with your business dream long enough, there may come a day when you get to experience a genuine ‘wow!’ moment that validates all the long hours you’ve put in.

It might be securing a major industry award or seeing double-digit growth for the first time. But for London-based Chris Forbes and his fiancée, Julie Chen, their chance to punch the air came rather undramatically – when they were online, looking at Amazon.

“We’d seen our sales on Amazon grow from £5k a month to £20k, but being made ‘Amazon’s Choice’ – where they recommend your product – was something we just hadn’t seen coming,” says Chris. “They don’t tell you, it just happens. And when it did, sales went from £20k to £50k a month.”

What it lacks in glamour, this story certainly makes up for in business kudos. Being named Amazon’s Choice is something most brands only ever dream of – and, truth be told – the incident was just one of many incredible landmark moments that the young company has enjoyed. Awards? They’ve got a wall-full. Celebrity endorsements? How does Joanna Lumley and Sir Richard Branson sound?

It’s all very impressive for a company which only started in 2016 and whose products are designed to be thrown away. In fact, it could be said that the whole business is going down the pan. The Cheeky Panda makes and sells paper products such as loo roll and tissues that are made from bamboo.

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Catching the environmentally-conscious zeitgeist

What The Cheeky Panda has cleverly been able to do in the three years since launch, is capture the public’s attention at a time where we are all becoming more environmentally conscious. If you’re going to throw bits of processed tree into the toilet, why not do it with paper that is made from the fastest-growing plant on Earth?

Chris was running his own international recruitment business when The Cheeky Panda started, and admits that he was slower to get behind the idea than his partner was. Having been born and raised in China, Julie was aware of bamboo’s superpowers and that the plant was already being processed in factories in Asia to make paper products. She also knew that 90% of harvested bamboo goes to waste.

Chris also confesses that he had something of an outdated idea about China. But a “tyre-kicking” visit to the country in 2015 demonstrated just how advanced its manufacturing capabilities were.

“The bamboo processing plant we visited had a gigantic production capacity and it was all really well run at the back end,” says Chris. “It seemed a no-brainer once we’d seen that.”

A successful £10,000 crowdfunding campaign proved they were onto something, but then, with Julie fully committed and Chris working on the business part-time to help with the launch, disaster struck. The Vote Leave campaign triumphed in the Brexit referendum and instantly wreaked havoc with their financial calculations.

The two founders had based all of their assumptions on sterling being worth around $1.45-$1.50 USD, and when the exchange rate tumbled to $1.25 overnight, their margins disappeared – forcing Chris to go back and look at his supply chain to see how the fledgling business could cut costs. For the first year, he and Julie didn’t take a penny out of The Cheeky Panda, and even in year two – when sales were at £50,000 a month – they only took the equivalent of a graduate’s salary.

Staying lean is something Chris feels quite passionate about. “I think one of the most important things to understand when you’re starting a business is how long it is going to take before you make enough money to sustain yourself,” he says. “Don’t be tempted to sell equity to pay yourself a salary: it’s a slippery slope when you do that.”

Currying favours

Right from the start, Chris has made his own luck – a good example being the time he took the head of Innovation Essex out for a curry.

“I’m pretty sure he thought I was going to headhunt him,” laughs Chris. “And then I put a toilet roll on the table.”

That encounter led to Chris being put in touch with “the guy who used to run Felixstowe docks” who, in turn, sent Chris a five-page email outlining how he should run his supply chain – pretty priceless information.

What the founders didn’t know, however, was just how drawn out the process of getting a listing in a supermarket was going to be.

“It’s particularly long when you're disrupting a market where you have incumbent players who have been there for 20 or 30 years,” says Chris. “Even though we could see that consumer trends were going in the same direction as us, the length of time it takes for people to make decisions was really frustrating.”

Their tenacity paid off, however, and today The Cheeky Panda is stocked in Boots, Ocado and several other retail outlets. Next stop: the world. The company is currently in the middle of a European rollout, with a US launch planned for next year. Sales are promising and the business is on track to be turning over £800,000 a month by next summer.

As for working as a couple, it’s not the recipe for disaster you might think, Chris says. It all comes down to the pair's complementary skill sets and both being pretty pragmatic. The former headhunter, however, is magnanimous to the last.

“It was all Julie’s idea,” he says. “Making tissue from bamboo? I never would have come up with that.”