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Inspirational Female Founder Spotlight: Liz Warner

Liz Warner, CEO & co-founder of Different Kind. After a successful TV career working on award winning shows such as Grand Designs, Nigella, River Cottage; and The Undateables; Liz went on to become Comic Relief’s second ever CEO, a role she held for three years until 2019.

Passionate about changing business to be a force for good, Different Kind was born in 2021. On a mission to do retail differently, with goods that do good – the team source brilliant products, created by people with strong ethics that work for positive change. Well designed, well made, well intentioned.

Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?

I started out as a feature writer working for national magazines. I’ve always loved sharing people’s stories and giving people a platform, that has been a constant thread throughout my career.

From there I got my break working in TV, on a chat show at the BBC. I really liked the teamwork after the solo style of work of a feature writer, as well as the daily deadlines and pressure of a live show. I spent my 20s working on various productions as a freelancer, until I was approached to join Channel 4 as a Commissioning Editor.

It was an exciting time to be part of the team, developing and buying shows such as Grand Designs, Nigella; Location Location, Location; and Gordon Ramsay’s Boiling Point.

I like innovating and starting things and had a very clear idea of the TV production company I wanted to run with a very strong culture which included all. Not many companies were run by women then, but I went for it with a small bank loan (thank you NatWest) and a lot of ideas.

Betty quickly became known for shows that had a contemporary edge – about young people, debt, eating disorders, we did many series for BBC and C4 including working with many people with neurodiversity – the longest running series was the Undateables, which was based on a documentary we did about a specialist dating agency for people with learning differences.

The Undateables was Bafta nominated, we won an Emmy for the drama we did on child abuse and RTS awards but being in the best indie awards and the recognition of the culture matter most to me. That is more of a legacy to the industry.

If you employ a super diverse team, those people bring a richer mix of ideas to the screen and the. people can see themselves in those shows. I am proud of that, and I hope others take some of that culture into the companies they now work for and run. It’s something which continues to inspire me and part of the Different Kind ethos.

Just a month after I had left Betty, which I had run for nearly 15 years, I got the call from Comic Relief to apply to be CEO. The chairman was Tim Davie – now Director General of the BBC.

Richard Curtis and Sir Lenny Henry were two of the founders. It was an immense privilege to lead the charity and to see so much of the work done by frontline organisations and projects funded by the public donations and partners.

From here, I went on to co-found Different Kind, which specialises in the hand-crafted, the foraged, the hard-to-find and the small batch.

Everything we stock is created by small producers who also have a social purpose and who are all trying to change the world in their own different ways – such as selling products that employ refugee makers, support women farmers, empower sex trafficked women to train and gain confidence, or work with the creative skills of young adults with Autism and learning difficulties.

Because shopping isn’t just about physical objects. Different Kind is far more than a store, you can buy gifts which are much more than a desirable item – you are giving empowerment, knowledge and sharing positive stories – we are calling it regenerative retail. 

How did the idea come to you for the company?

It was Sir Lenny Henry’s 60th birthday, when we went to buy presents for him, and I asked could they come from makers with a social ethos. We found recycled glasses from Ngwenya and a stunning cake from Luminary Bakery – both makers now feature in the Different Kind store.

We went on to send similar gifts as a thank you to trustees and talent. The gift was offering two presents, one as a thank you to the recipient whilst also helping producers with a social or ethical purpose. Creating a bigger platform to enable others to purchase goods and gifts in this way felt like a real calling and something we had to do.

It took six months of research during lockdown to find, evaluate and agree the range with the makers and producers and then another three months to build the website and find the fulfilment house in London. It is Mail Out which is a warehouse which trains young people with autism and learning difficulties.

How did you achieve awareness?

It’s been a journey. We started off small, launching a pilot online shop which we shared with friends and family. If you can’t convince friends and family that something is a good idea, it would be a hard ask to win over the general public, so it was a sensible first step to gauge general feedback.

From there word of mouth has been a powerful tool for initial awareness. We have tapped into our existing network and contacts from TV and production.

Social media has been an important aspect for us to share stories, as has radio. An interview with BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours which mentioned our Lux Luz candle – whose proceeds help women who have survived domestic abuse – resulted in the product selling out.

PR has helped us to grow this awareness, focusing on opportunities within Christmas gift guides. Press coverage has enabled us to get in front of a broader audience, with the endorsement of trusted publications. Although a brand awareness piece, we have seen a direct correlation between coverage and sales, with a record day for online sales after three of our products were featured in The Guardian Christmas gift guide last November.

Hosting ‘commercial breaks’ at company conferences and events has been a powerful way to achieve awareness. A 5-minute slot in between proceedings at corporate events, where someone in the team gives a brief overview of Different Kind and shares a few stories from producers, they have been really well received and something we now get asked to go and do on a regular basis.

As we are an online shop, pop-up shops have been a brilliant way to connect with customers, share stories and talk to people about who we are and why we exist. Being able to do this in person has helped to achieve awareness.

How have you been able to gain funding and grow?

The business has until now been self-funded and financed by our team of female-founders, with some extra support from business loans. There are four co-founders, each have put in funding, time or sweat equity.

As we begin to scale, we will likely be looking for investment to support our growth, from like-minded impact driven ethical investors.

What are the key successes?

We’re proud to have built a committed customer base and doubled the number of pop-up shops. Pop up shops weren’t planned as part of a business plan, they happened very organically after we were asked by a corporate gifting client to host one.

They have become more than just a marketing tool and are a key part of the overall strategy. We have found them to be a brilliant way to build brand awareness, giving customers and potential customers the chance to meet the people and passion behind the brand name and online shop, grow our community of retail rebels and drive sales.

Corporate gifting was an interesting evolution and one that will grow. Companies that come to us for seasonal hampers, year-round gifting and client gifts want to ensure they are gifting with purpose, meaning and looking beyond the gift itself to ensure it offers sustainability – both from an ethical and environmental perspective. The giving back sentiment whereby they can support causes, small independents and businesses with strong ethics.

Christmas 2023 saw record sales and growth of our online shop, which was a brilliant way to end a busy year for the team and our producers.

We’re also very excited about the development of our own label which will be launching in 2024.

What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?

  • Cash flow
  • Cost of living crisis
  • Brexit
  • Launching mid-pandemic

As a team we have worked hard to overcome the challenges we have faced and where we can turn these into positives, or rather opportunities.

The pop-ups have been an example of this. Although initially not something that were possible due to guidance and restrictions, there has been a craving for physical retail post-pandemic and for shopping to offer an experience.

This year we are launching an ‘International Hamper’ which has been developed in line with import restrictions. Challenges like this often make you more creative and bring new ideas to the table.

We love working with our growing community of producers, however many of them are very small batch producers, so that has been a challenge. We work closely with them to help find solutions to scale up without adding pressure and stress.

One example is a Bristol bakery we work with called Step and Stone. Founded by two women, Jane and Jane, they make delicious, handmade lavosh, biscotti and cheese biscuits, working alongside people with learning differences to close the employment gap.

We worked with them on a development of a biscuit for Christmas gifting that could be pre-made and frozen, meaning they could make them in smaller batches in the summer months, ensuring this was sustainable for the team to commit to.

What are your plans now/for the future?

Later this year we will be launching our own range, whilst hosting more pop-ups and developing our online shops product offering and producer community.

Our mission is to challenge the norms of the retail industry, showcasing how it can be done differently, with kindness. We may be a small team, but we have big ambitions on how we can make an impact.

What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?

  • Get more sleep! It’s essential for running your business and looking after yourself in general, everything flows from you.
  • Get a coach or business mentor, they help to set goals, get yourself out of your own way and a short conversation could spark big change.
  • Reach out to your community, whether that’s through a co-workspace or a group of individuals who own their own business. Running and launching a business can be lonely on your own, having a network of people who understand and can empathise can be invaluable – both for sharing the highs and the lows.
  • Don’t use your own money and be risk averse. Women are more likely to self-fund and use their own money. Accessing funding is one of the biggest barriers women face when starting a business, more so than men. But the funding is there, and I believe through education and networking, we can help to reduce the gap.

Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?

  • Listen to your audience and customer about what they want and what they are trying to tell you.
  • Hire the best you can afford and invest in your team.
  • Really try to enjoy the process and every step of the journey. If you can find joy in the small, everyday things, things often feel easier and more enjoyable, even on the hard days.

Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?

  1. Dame Anita Roddick, the Body Shop founder – she was such a visionary and way before her time.
  2. Laura Ashley, again leading the way and making a lasting mark on fashion and business.
  3. Simon Griffiths, founder of Who Gives a Crap. What they have done with such a mainstream product, making it aspirational is truly incredible.

It’s hard to single out one of our producers as there are so many inspiring entrepreneurs. As the overarching theme is for International Women’s Day and the theme for 2024 is #InspireInclusion the founders of Step and Stone deserve a mention. Co-founders Jane and Jane are both mothers of children with Downs Syndrome. Their children opened their eyes to a world of possibilities, seeing what they are capable of. Step and Stone celebrates people with learning differences. They work with young people with learning disabilities and help them to develop their skills and confidence so they can eventually move into employment. Not only are their products delicious, but as a community interest company, all their profits are ploughed straight back into the bakery.

What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?

  • Always trust your gut.
  • ‘Hire slower, fire faster’ – take the time to hire the right people and put the right team in place.

What are your Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn social handles and also website links so our readers can connect with you? 

URL: thedifferentkind.com

Instagram: @differentkindstore

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/different-kind