Joanna Jensen founded the award-winning family skincare brand Childs Farm in 2010. In 2017 the company got a huge boost as customers started posting ‘before and after’ photos of their children’s sensitive skin online demonstrating the positive effects of Childs Farm products.
They disrupted the market, reducing the market share of other more established brands such as Johnson’s Baby from 32% to 15%. In 2022, they were awarded B-Corp status as Jensen sold a majority stake of Childs Farm for £40m to PZ Cussons, with ambition to build the brand globally.
This 6ft tall woman with back-combed grey hair swooped in and dumped her keys and handbag on my desk. ‘Who are you!’ she boomed. I told her my name and she replied, ‘You can’t be Joanna, we already have a Joanna. Do you have a nickname?’ Well, I did. My maiden name is Dover, so my friends had always called me Ben. ‘Well that’s it then, we’ll call you Ben!’ And she walked on.
You could say that I turned up totally unaware of what to expect when I first met Kathini Graham. I had left school at 18 and was meant to go on a gap year. To earn money I went to Manpower and was offered a temporary role as a receptionist at a London estate agents called Kathini Graham.
We had a hairdressing allowance, which Kathini particularly gave to me. ‘So scruffy’ she would occasionally say and walk off. However, she did realise I wasn’t stupid. Before long I was covering for people on holiday and eventually became a letting agent. What she did was give me responsibility at a very early age. Kathini didn’t care about my young age. I was a pair of hands, had a brain and I made her money.
Kathini was like a Cruella de Vil character: her striking looks and charm meant she could get anyone to do anything. She was brought up in Kenya, was Amazonian in size and wore these black capes that did up at the neck. This was the late 1980s and her clients were people like Ava Gardner, the late film actress. I would go and get her coffee and stand in the queue with the likes of Jack Profumo. It was a different world.
Kathini Graham was an all-female office, all bar one man. We were expected to get on with it.
I stayed for a few years before leaving to run, aged 20, a big lettings department at Hamptons. I never told anyone how old I was, as I never filled in the form and people assumed I was older.
Her legacy to me is ‘just work it out’. I say it to my kids all the time: "What do you know, work it out from there and come to me when you’ve made some progress," I tell them. What else did I learn? Well, good hair works.
Her work ethic also set me up through my current life. I have no problem working late at night and weekends and not telling anyone I’m doing it just to get ahead. I just wanted to shine.
When I started Childs Farm I had come from an investment banking background. I didn’t know the first thing about fast-moving consumer goods. I think that’s what helps challenger brands coming into an environment and not knowing the current way that it works.
I knew that there was nothing on the market for my children that worked. I wanted to create lotions and potions that could help their dry and irritated skin, as well as my daughter’s eczema.
Nothing had changed since the 1970s and when I had my first meeting with retailers I thought, "Really? Let’s stop procrastinating here. Let’s give it a go." I didn’t have a clue but I went in with belief and I taught myself something new literally five times a day.
It was all trial and error but it made me look at how these businesses were run through a different lens. I just looked at the most logical, sensible and quickest way to get things done.
When you are a founder or creator, you have to be hugely self-reliant and you can’t rely on other people to fill the gaps that you have. I had no clue about accounting software. I would phone Sage and was practically best friends with the help desk. I didn’t mind asking idiot questions as that’s how you learn.
I looked at what I needed – shampoo, hair and body wash, two bubble baths and a moisturiser – and we launched with six products. My girls had never been able to have bubble baths due to their sensitive skin, and my youngest had hated bath times because it hurt. When they are little, you have to keep them clean. The dirtier their skin, the more prone they are to infection and sensitivity. I just wanted formulas to soothe, not irritate.
I then went on a crazy journey giving out products to anyone who had poorly skin. You have to know your consumer. We had little bottles for parents to try and our conversion rate was 64% would likely go on and purchase. That was unheard of.
I would say to anyone with a new business like ours that sampling is the way forward. Get people to try before buying. If you are getting a low conversion rate then it’s about thinking of the price point and whether you are marketing something a consumer wants to buy.
I like to keep a company really lean and hire people who care as they put so much in. If you are hiring people who are intellectually curious it does mean that you get much more involved in what people are doing.
By 2016, there were around nine of us working round the clock (with 35 staff before I sold a majority stake in the company). We were all learning, laughing our heads off and didn't care if someone got it wrong. We weren’t spending absurd amounts of money and as you get bigger it’s about maintaining the camaraderie and element of exploration and discovery together. That was what made it so incredibly special.