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Ella Mills on her evolving role as a founder and what she has learned from failure

Rock bottom is a painful term to describe the lowest point in a person’s life. But what can come with rock bottom is the opportunity to change and reinvent. It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination but with true resilience, many can turn this pivotal time in life into their biggest strength.  

Ella Mills is one of those people. Her rock bottom has led to a juggernaut brand and community that have fundamentally changed the way the world looks at plant-based food. 

Watch our exclusive interview with Ella Mills here

While in her second year at the University of St Andrews, Mills suddenly became very unwell. She was in and out of hospital for months seeing specialists before eventually being diagnosed with postural tachycardia syndrome. The condition affects the functioning of the autonomic nervous system, with symptoms including dizziness, heart palpitations, brain fog and severe bloating. 

“I was fundamentally unable to live a normal life,” Mills recalls. “I would sleep 18 hours a day, I had chronic fatigue and I felt like my head had been disconnected from my body.” 

The 21-year-old was put on a cocktail of around 25 medications a day, but no one promised they would work. “I knew I couldn’t continue along the trajectory I was on,” she says. “I was either going to give up or dig deeper than I thought I had the ability to do and find a solution.” She picked the latter. 

After reading other people’s accounts of how diet and lifestyle changes drastically improved their health, Mills decided to move towards a plant-based diet. While some are speculating that the plant-based food market will be worth £50 billion by 2030, the landscape in 2012 was very different. 

However, she couldn’t cook, didn’t like vegetables, and couldn’t find the recipes that she needed. “So, I thought I’d do it myself – and Deliciously Ella was born,” she says. “It was meant to be a personal project, but it ultimately ended up being a community, a premise, a mission and a brand – and that laid the foundations to form the business.” 

Yes, we’ve succeeded to some degree, but we have failed many times along the way as well

Over a decade later, the Deliciously Ella brand is still going strong. It has evolved to include a range of plant-based food products, an app, a restaurant, seven bestselling recipe books and more. It also has the largest following of any plant-based food brand globally, selling a product every second. Mills now serves as the face of the business and brand director, with her business partner and husband, Matthew Mills, in the role of chief executive. 

However, all is not always rosy in business and Mills is quick to point out that social media doesn’t paint the full picture. “People have seen so much of the growth of the business through the lens of social media, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect reality,” she says. “We’ve gone up, down and all around just as much as anybody else has. Yes, we’ve succeeded to some degree, but we failed many times along the way as well.” 

These failures include discontinued product lines and closing locations – the company was forced to close two out of three of its London restaurants in 2018. Mills says: “It’s a part of growing but I think the faster you acknowledge that you got something wrong and lean into what is working, the better.” 

She also admits that dealing with these failures has become easier as the company has scaled. “Now we look at things and think this is working brilliantly, this has got legs, this needs work, but these are disasters,” she says. “It’s much easier to cut your disasters because you believe in so much of the rest of it.” 

Where other brands have relied on multimillion-pound annual advertising campaigns, Deliciously Ella’s growth has been achieved with almost no paid marketing budget. The key factor? A content-first ecosystem. “Everything is content marketing,” says Mills. She uses the example of her cookbooks. “We essentially get paid for our marketing activity and we get an extraordinary amount of press.”  

She says that this activity, along with invaluable word-of-mouth recommendations and social media content, build a level of trust in the brand. This is what leads people to buy Deliciously Ella products on supermarket shelves.  

The company’s brand strategy has also deliberately kept outside investment at a minimal level. “We had investors in for four years and they owned sub-20 per cent of the brand. We brought them in to help us with a cash flow issue and because we were growing fast; we bought them out in 2021.” 

A constant throughout Mills’s time running the brand has been people pointing to her privilege. Her father is the former Northern Ireland secretary Shaun Woodward and her mother Camilla is the granddaughter of Lord Sainsbury, a member of the family behind the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. While Ella doesn’t blame people for seeing her as privileged, the irony is that the supermarket giant was one of the last major retailers to list Deliciously Ella products.  

Nepotism accusations may have left a subconscious mark but Mills is quick to point out that she always liked to do things her own way. “My mum says that she would come and pick me up from nursery school and all the other kids would be painting while I would be in the sandpit by myself,” she recalls.  

“When I was starting the business, I didn’t want help from anybody. I wanted to prove to everybody else, just as much as myself, that I could do this.” 

With a team of more than 80 people working on the brand, Mills’s days as the one-person driving force behind its growth are firmly in the rear-view mirror. She admits this transition hasn’t been easy. “I do feel very protective, but very removed at the same time,” she says.  

“Ultimately, I think my role as the founder, in so many ways, is to be the guardian of the brand. I have to make sure we are staying true to the reason we’ve always been successful and championing the mission in the correct way, as opposed to feeling like it’s my job to make sure those things happen.” 

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