The Bristol entrepreneur who turned down BBC Dragons Den's Touker Suleyman
- Credit: Green & Heath
After rejecting the Dragons, an undeterred Bristol entrepreneur has launched her second company, reveals Catherine Courtenay.
It’s illuminating to hear that business entrepreneur Ellen Green’s grandma ran a haberdashery shop outside Doncaster.
The next thing I discover is that Ellen has, since her teenage years, been in possession of a sewing machine. She’s always enjoyed rustling things up, she says, but ‘I never did clothes - I made bags, cushions for the house and soft furnishings.’
It was a good move to keep her craft hobby going. That sewing machine inspired a complete change of career, and led Ellen to launch two successful businesses, all from her home city of Bristol.
In 2016, she set up Blue Badge Company, which makes beautiful items to aid independent living.
Up until then Ellen had worked in music management, but redundancy, followed by a period of consultancy work, led to her investigating other ways of earning a living. Then came an idea of making pretty fabric holders for the Blue Badges used by disabled people, who, up to then, were faced with just a ‘horrible’ plastic option.
Ellen and a friend, who was disabled, started making the holders, sewing them in a back bedroom and selling online.
Ellen is nothing short of determined when it comes to pursuing a business idea, and she’s the first to admit she’s a risk taker. So when, after taking a stall at a trade show she was faced with an order of 50,000 holders for Boots, she simply said ‘yes’.
‘We’d literally been making them in tens and suddenly having to mass produce them by the thousand blew my mind. There was a moment of elation and then the realisation of what I had to do.’
It was a huge undertaking – even mum came down from Yorkshire to help out. By then Ellen was running the business single-handedly (her friend having moved on), and was in a studio at Hamilton House. Her first employee (‘Who’s still with me today!’) was on hand and it was ‘a real team effort’, she says. But by 2013 their Blue Badges were in every Boots in the country.
It seems a world away from music management, but then again, that former career did teach her all about finance and business, she points out.
Another ‘tipping point’ came in 2015 when Ellen appeared on Dragon’s Den, the BBC One TV programme where people pitch for investment from a line-up of leading business entrepreneurs. She walked away with nothing, turning down an offer of £70,000 from Touker Suleyman, because he wanted to take her manufacturing overseas.
But the episode made good television, a bonus that’s not lost on the sharp 37-year-old.
‘You can’t get that level of publicity; 3.2 million people watched that episode and I was the first one on. I walked away without a deal, but it made good TV.’
It also reinforced her business values. Being challenged over her commitment to making products in the UK, Ellen realised this was in fact a priority.
That ethos has since become an enduring passion, one which is truly realised in her new business venture, Green & Heath, which launched in 2020.
Green & Heath is a homewares and accessories company, using heritage-inspired but contemporary prints. The fabrics are made into high quality items for the home, from cushions and storage boxes to personalised pet beds.
The idea came while she was on maternity leave. Watching period dramas on TV took her back to her founding love of beautiful textiles. She wanted lovely cushions and lampshades for her home, but not if the only quality printed fabrics came from abroad. So why not start from scratch and make them yourself?
All her products are designed and handmade in the UK, either from the company’s Bristol HQ, or from people who work hours that suit them from home. Ellen offers jobs and training to those who find it difficult to get work – often women who have care obligations, such as with children or the elderly, and who find it hard to fit work in around. She has 27 employees on the payroll.
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Sustainability is also important. Materials are sourced locally wherever possible, ensuring money goes back into the community. All products therefore come with zero airmiles. Natural fibres are used, including British wool for cushions and lap trays, and packaging is sustainably sourced.
‘I feel very strongly about Green & Heath,’ says Ellen. ‘It embodies me and what I’m trying to do.’
Some of the fabrics they use are bought in, there’s a William Morris range for example, but others are printed by themselves. Ellen’s now investigating ways of opening up her textile manufacturing to others, possibly finding ways of printing textiles for individual makers, those without facilities or who are working on a smaller scale.
‘It’s an interesting opportunity for us,’ says Ellen. And there’s surely an echo of her industrial textile heritage? ‘Perhaps I’m going back to my Yorkshire roots!’. Wherever her entrepreneurial spirit leads her, no doubt granny would approve.
Bristol is the best, says Ellen.
‘Bristol embraces individuality and entrepreneurship; there are so many amazing companies and start-ups doing interesting things. The networking is amazing, as is the camaraderie, and you can tap into this incredible talent. A lot have come out of the university here and they stay. It is a great place to run a business.’
It’s also perfect for spending downtime, especially if that’s cycling – one of Ellen’s favourite activities.
‘I love mountain biking and in Bristol we have an urban mountain bike trail at Ashton Court. Bristol is amazing for cycling - there’s also the Bristol to Bath cycle path.’
‘I moved here in 2007 and I love Bristol, I think it’s an amazing city. I’ve no intention of leaving anytime soon!’ she says.
Take three companies – Ellen recommends:
Minirig makes great-looking, great sounding, portable Bluetooth speakers and has been doing so for over ten years, with everything designed and built in Bristol. The company uses biodegradable plastics and offers a repair service. The packaging it uses is either recycled or recyclable – with no plastic bubblewrap!
Burnt Soul makes activewear, party wear and festival fashion, using regenerated fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles along with new yarns. Everything is designed and pattern cut at its Bristol studio before being made by a small team of seamstresses.
The company was set up by Robyn, a fashion design graduate from Bristol, after a failed attempt to find a great fitting festival catsuit. She made her own, then everyone wanted one. Burnt Soul now sells around the world to professional skaters, aerial performers and dancers, as well as anyone who loves great fitting bodysuits, shorts and leggings in every colour of the rainbow.
Bristolmade makes 100 per cent natural, organic and vegan skincare products in Bristol. Everything is handmade in small batches and all the products which include creams, treatments, cleansers, balms, scrubs and bath salts, are free of parabens, artificial colours and preservatives.
All the ingredients are whipped, not heated, so maintaining their beneficial properties and the products only contain plant butters and oils and no synthetic stabilisers.
Founder Lisa started making her own products after trying to find skincare products that weren’t made with unnecessary ingredients and chemicals or packaged in single use plastic – no plastics are used by Bristolmade.