01 March 2018

How I run a small business with my mum

Stephanie Johnson, co-founder of Pollen + Grace, explains how she runs her successful business with her mum Hazie Allison

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We speak to Stephanie Johnson about the benefits of running her business with her mother.

Name: Stephanie Johnson, founder

Business: London-based producer of freshly prepared vegan meals including breakfast pots, lunch boxes, snacks and hot meals. The business started out delivering lunch boxes and juices to local businesses. The company expanded rapidly and now has a range of ‘100% natural’ products in more than 50 retail outlets across London.

Background: Pollen + Grace started out with Stephanie Johnson and her mum Hazie Allison, cooking healthy lunchboxes in their home kitchen and delivering them to local offices. Responding to local demand, the pair quickly moved to larger premises in Clapham Junction, London. Joined by Stephanie’s best friend, Kristina Komlosiova, the three are now aiming high with national distribution through retailers being their goal. Already selling through Ocado, and with turnover going from £37,000 in 2015 to a predicted turnover of £1.5m in 2018, we talk to Stephanie about what it’s like working so closely with her mum.

How did Pollen + Grace come about?

Stephanie Johnson (SJ): “It was always natural that I would end up involved in something to do with food. I was a chef but I came out of that because of the traditions involved in the lifestyle of a chef. The business came from me wanting to get back into food after taking a sidestep into events. I have always been fascinated with entrepreneurship and wanted to have my own business.

“Four years ago you would not get Quinoa or a green juice in the supermarket. I had to create these things for myself and I was always underwhelmed by the options out there. I wanted to create something that was genuinely exciting that just happened to be free from gluten and dairy and was not segregating me or restrictive.”

How did your mum get involved in the business?

SJ: “My mum and I had bought a house together in London. I roped her into it saying, “It will be great, we get to work together and cook lunches in the morning and have the afternoons off”. Obviously, it is not like that at all, as she likes to remind me. It is almost three years since we launched and it has been a whirlwind which has meant we haven’t had a lot of time off.”

What role does your mum play?

SJ: “Kristina and I run the business side of things, while my mum is much more interested in the human side. She is a bit like a mum to everyone in the company. It adds a different dynamic, she makes sure everyone is okay. It is very valuable - especially as a fast-growing start-up.

“In the beginning she was helping in the kitchen, preparing the lunches and helping deliver them. Having someone like her making the food every day was very valuable because she knew exactly what quality we were aiming for. Now we are cooking such big volumes it is physically quite a demanding role so she manages the office and general wellness of our staff. There are about ten staff in the kitchen and eight in the office. Everyone is on the same site. It is important for us all to be together and my mum gets to split her care equally.”

What has working with your mum been like?

SJ: “I didn’t think about the logistics of living and working together in a really early stage start up and the stress that went along with that. It is probably a tribute to our relationship that we are still close. We are not living together anymore. One or the other is great, but doing both is difficult because it is hard to go home and switch off. It was challenging in the early days - but also really nice because when you are that close with someone you can be yourself. You have to be disciplined about drawing the line between work and home. Every fortnight we do something as a family with my sister. Kristina, my mum and I will all hang out at the weekend too. It works well.”

What has been the best thing about working with your mum?

“As the business has grown we don’t interact as much as we did in the early days - we have different responsibilities but I get to see her regularly. Most people get to see their family at the weekends whereas I get to see my mum day-to-day. She understands the ins-and-outs of my life and I hers. We have something to share which is really nice.”

Do you have any advice for others about working so closely with family?

“The relationship my mum and I have has always been very equal so it is not your typical mother/daughter relationship. Choosing your partners wisely is important because running a start-up is exceptionally stressful. The reason it has worked well for the three of us is because we are all 100% aligned with our vision and values. That allows us to navigate the tricky decisions and opportunities that come up.”

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