Growth & Customers

I quit my career to start a funeral company

After seeing exposés on the funeral trade that left her horrified, discover how Poppy Mardall started her own funeral company, Poppy's.

Poppy Mardall

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Poppy Mardall had a successful career with one of the world’s largest brokers of fine art, Sotheby’s.

But despite this, she couldn’t ignore the nagging voice inside her head that longed for purpose.

After becoming unwell with typhoid, Poppy was left bed bound for months and found herself watching exposés on the funeral trade. These left her utterly horrified and repulsed as she learned vulnerable family members were manipulated into spending more on funerals than they could afford.

With no knowledge or background in this field but a desire to improve this industry, Poppy set out to learn the funeral trade from scratch and start her own company.

It was never going to be an easy undertaking, but Poppy let her naivety and confidence guide her in this male-dominated industry, while juggling a family and coping with a scaling business.

Here’s her unfiltered advice below:

Listen to that nagging voice in your head and let it guide you

Kate Bassett:

So Poppy, take us back. You had this glittering career as deputy director at Sotheby’s.

What made you quit that job to start Poppy’s?

Poppy Mardall:

I absolutely loved my career at Sotheby’s, and like lots of those jobs you get when you’re young, you fight quite hard to get it.

And I think that’s sometimes quite self-perpetuating, that it’s competitive, and you know you’re lucky to have that job and people keep telling you that.

And it was really fun.

I was cataloguing artwork, so I was mostly kind of working in a basement, taking paintings out of frames, and cataloguing sculptures and researching those artworks in libraries and auctions are great fun.

But as the years rolled by, I had this sort of returning feeling that, whilst it was fun, there was some purpose and meaning missing for me.

And I think it’s interesting when you work in a company, you can sort of look around and say, “I can see that you guys are really suited here.”

You start to, I guess it’s that tribal thing of, do I belong? I was having a good time, but the older I got, the more I just felt like I don’t think this is my place.

It was really a difficult thing to let go because I’d studied art and, again, that sense of privilege, it was such a privileged place to be, but that nagging feeling inside that I needed to follow my own path was becoming kind of louder and louder, and I was funnelling it into extracurricular activity.

So I started volunteering as a Samaritan and I became a volunteer at my local hospice, because I think what my brain was doing was saying, “It’s okay, you could just do that stuff over there.”

But again, as time went on, I think I just felt like, no, I need to find out what this nagging feeling is and do something about it.

Kate Bassett:

It’s really brave to listen to that nagging voice in your head and actually quit a job that you are comfortable in, that you are doing well, to find something else, especially when you don’t know what that something else is.

Trust your misery and use it to find your purpose

Kate Bassett:

How did you then find purpose and meaning? What led you to set up Poppy’s?

Poppy Mardall:

Well, reflecting on your question, it’s interesting. I was becoming miserable, and I really trust my misery. If I’m feeling miserable for a day, that’s fine. If I’m ill, that’s fine.

But if you’re feeling that way day after day, and you know that something in you is not expressing itself like it used to, I think you do feel sort of compelled to do something about it, or I did.

I did that thing lots of people do where I thought, well, I’ll just sort of show up at nine and leave at five and bring a notebook and jot my ideas down.

But like lots of kind of dutiful employees, the problem was I was committed to the job while I had the job. So what I started to realise was I’m not going to figure out while I’m here.

I mean, it took me two years to figure that out. So that wasn’t a kind of overnight awakening. And so I basically saved up some money to live off.

So the kind of pact I made with myself was, try and save up enough money to live off for three months and that can be a period of time to get creative.

And what’s interesting looking back is, I think, the wildest idea I had at that time was really not very wild at all.

Because I think that’s another problem about trying to think creatively while you are still in the rut you are in, is that your brain just doesn’t have the space to think as openly as you need to think in order to really answer that question.

Kate Bassett:

What was the not so wild idea?

Poppy Mardall:

So I was an expert in 20th century British art, and it was like, maybe I’ll set up my own gallery. Maybe I’ll go and work for that gallery.

I don’t want to speak for other people, but I think for me, it’s like you are in this pond, and you’re on this lily pad and the lily pad you’re on is shrinking, or it’s not happy. And so you just look to any other lily pad close by, and you’re like, well I’ll just jump to that lily pad.

And I know what would’ve happened, I would’ve jumped to that lily pad, and then I would’ve got the same feeling. It probably would’ve scratched that itch for a couple of years, and I would’ve got the feeling again.

So I’m so glad that things turned out the way they did even though they were somewhat dramatic.

Use travel as a way to reset your thinking and clear your mind

Kate Bassett:

See, you had this three-month buffer and this plan to work out what you were going to do, what happened next?

Poppy Mardall:

I went to Ghana for five weeks because travel for me has always been a really good way to just clear the decks. And there was a real, again, I don’t know if this speaks to people, but it’s really visceral for me.

There’s something about being in a certain workplace surrounded by your colleagues, being in your community surrounded by your friends, everything’s the same.

And for me to think clearly and openly, all of that has to go.

I have to go somewhere else. I have to eat different food, hear different languages. None of those things will be possible now because I’ve got some more children, but again, privileged, in my late twenties.

So I went to Ghana, had an amazing time, spent a few weeks just having fun, but just, again, with a notebook. Then when I got back from Ghana, I got really sick and then found out quite quickly I had typhoid, and then I was properly ill for a month.

I was in hospital for a few weeks, and then I just took so long to recover. It was sort of nine months in total before I was back at full strength.

So my plan definitely fell apart.

And what’s interesting is how strongly I now feel that without those nine months I would never be working as a funeral director now.

If you find something you don’t like in an industry, be the one to change it

Kate Bassett:

Because it was while lying on the sofa recovering that you started to watch these exposés on the funeral trade.

What is it that you found so shocking, and how did you think you could change that industry?

Poppy Mardall:

I love the idea of, because I sometimes think when I tell this story, there’s this idea of a 19th century novel that I’m on the sofa with typhoid kind of thinking about death and watching exposés about funeral directors.

So the way it sort of happened was, I started thinking really broadly.

So I was thinking about all moments in life that feel quite democratic and also quite critical. What are those democratic critical moments in life? And birth is obviously another one.

What is one of the things that happened to all of us that really matter? I don’t know, just for me, I was really interested in that.

And so, at that point, death was just one of those ideas, and I was kind of fiddling around with a few at the same time, which again, I think was really helpful. I think it meant there wasn’t too much pressure on any one outcome at that time.

Yes, as I started to get stronger, and I started to recover, and I was exploring the world of death, I came across three or four exposés within the period of two or three months, it was really bizarre, and all the exposés showed the same thing.

So they showed really manipulative sales techniques towards grieving people. So just selling quite hard, and selling stuff. Not selling good service but, how about another limousine and why not choose this casket rather than that simple wooden coffin or, a good amount of guilt selling.

And I found that really repulsive, and also really poor treatment for the dead. So at that point I didn’t have a sense of what good death care would look like. I’d never seen a dead person before and hadn’t arranged a funeral.

I mean, I’d been to many funerals, but I hadn’t arranged one myself. So I was not like I was coming at care for the dead with any strong conviction, but just what I saw, I really disliked.

So sort of production line treatment of the body. So people being stored in sort of open metal racking in large warehouses, wrapped in plastic body bags. I look back, and I think, what was the kind of fire that got lit? And I think, for me, there’s always something about telling the truth.

So in life, if you’re practising something, and you can explain it, and you can justify it, most people can sort of get their heads round it.

But I really dislike that kind of out front, seemingly caring, service, when actually what’s happening behind the scenes is anything but, really gets my goat, particularly when the people you’re working with are highly vulnerable and can’t really do anything about that.

So I think it was this combination of, never thought about this before, death happens to absolutely everyone and bereavement happens to all of us many, many times. This just felt so important and such horrible things were happening, and also, no one seemed to care.

And I think the combination, it was a like Venn diagram of like, “Oh, that’s got Poppy Mardall stamped all over it.”

Learning the trade of being a funeral director from scratch

Kate Bassett:

So you were propelled ahead partly by anger and shock, but how did you make that transition and learn the trade and make that jump from art expert to funeral director?

Where did you start?

Poppy Mardall:

One of the things I love about having had a creative training, both in terms of studying art and then working at Sotheby’s, is I think creative training can free you from thinking that everything needs to be rationally connected.

I just didn’t have this barrier that said, “Well you’ve been at Sotheby’s, now you must…” I didn’t feel restrained by that.

But of course, there was a ton of stuff I didn’t know.

And really what I did was I just started really openly reaching out to people and saying, “I don’t know much about this sector, but I don’t like what I see and these are my skills, and I’d love to get involved. Could we have a conversation?”

So I wasn’t asking for anything at that point more than just a conversation.

And I was reaching out to, so there was an amazing man who ran a blog called The Good Funeral Guide called Charles Cowling who was just very provocative in his criticism of the sector. So I just asked him for a conversation.

And I did that with some non-religious celebrants who work in the sector. So I was sort of picking people who I thought probably already think there’s something wrong here and just offering to come and have a cup of tea and bring them a box of biscuits and talk for sort of 40 minutes.

Again, as I talk, I realise how privileged a position I was in to have the time and the freedom to work like that, but it was really helpful because it meant I gained people’s trust sort of early on and one conversation turns into five more conversations and people just kept introducing me to other people.

So Charles Cowling, although a very sort of progressive provocateur, had good relationships with some traditional funeral directors who wanted things to change.

And so he connected me with a couple of funeral directors who just let me come and spend the time behind the scenes in their mortuaries.

To be honest, I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think a lot of what needed to change in the sector meant that there was a lot that I didn’t need to learn from the sector.

I needed to spend some time with the dead because I needed to figure out whether I could become passionate about care for the dead, because at that moment, I was passionate about care for the grieving, but I didn’t know much about the dead and I just needed to see if I could get passionate about that.

And turns out I could.

Because I think one of the misconceptions about mortuary care is there’s this idea that everybody who works in a mortuary is sort of obsessed with fetishising the body. And you think of sort of mortuary makeup and lace trimmed coffins.

Actually, my opinion is, great death care is treating that person who’s died as if they were alive, as in they’re an individual and you need to find out what care they would have liked to have received, and you find that out from their family.

So I could get really passionate about that, treating people like people.

I just went step by step meeting one person after another, asking for small favours, being charming, not being afraid to kind of hustle.

I would go and work for a day for free at a funeral director, and I’d send a nice card afterwards, so I’d send some chocolate.

I think these small things are really easily overlooked. People respond really well to you being a charming human being.

The old skills still work now.

Your naivety and confidence can help you start up a business in just three months

Kate Bassett:

And how long did you spend in that period of listening and learning before you took the leap and launched Poppy’s?

Poppy Mardall:

Yeah, not long. And in retrospect, that was such a sign. I’m so glad I did it that way though. I would be terrified to do it that way now, the naivety of and the confidence that comes at that time in your life.

But yeah, it was probably three months once I’d really started meeting people.

So the second funeral directors, I went and spent about a month within their mortuary and my plans were coming together quite fast.

So at that stage I was crystallising a sense of, I want to provide a service. I don’t want to just be kind of another advisor or, I want to provide the service myself, and how will I do that? Because you need stretchers and vehicles and fridges and, I don’t know the first clue about all the paperwork that’s involved.

So what I decided was, let’s just take one service that is poorly provided now. And so the service I picked is now known as direct cremation. We called it simple cremation at the time. And basically, it’s having a cremation with no ceremony, very, very affordably.

So it’s collecting the person who’s died, caring for them as beautifully as you would care for anyone else, having a simple coffin, bringing them to the crematorium in a simple vehicle, and we allowed and encouraged family to come to wave them off if they wanted to, but there was no ceremony.

So it meant we could offer the service very, very affordably.

Also, crematoria often offer much more affordable rates early in the morning. And so we kind of would have nine o’clock sessions, which meant it could be done affordably.

And so where that was clever is it stopped me from feeling overwhelmed. It was like, “Okay, I can provide this. This is the paperwork I need for this, this is how much I’m going to charge. It’s just one fixed price.”

I visited all clients at home, so I didn’t need any meeting rooms. And that felt like a very personal service in a sector that rarely does that.

Other funeral directors weren’t offering this service, so from the very early days we got quite busy. But all of that was crystallising when I was spending time with these funeral directors, and I was talking quite openly with them about my plans, and they said, “Why don’t you start by doing it from here?”

And so that’s what I did for the first, I think, three or four months, is I used their mortuary and I worked with their team.

So when someone died in the night, I would go out with their team in their vehicle and bring the person back to their mortuary, and we’d go out on the day of the funeral together.

And that didn’t last very long, but it was the lucky break I needed to just get me over the line.

Being a woman in a male-dominated industry can work in your favour

Kate Bassett:

And you started out with that one quite simple service, really focusing in on that.

How did you then go about expanding the business? What were some of those early challenges you faced, especially as a woman in a very male-dominated industry?

Poppy Mardall:

Our very first client called and said, “You look lovely. I definitely want you to look after me and my husband who’s dying, but I don’t want a simple cremation, can you help?”

And so from the very early days, that was a brilliant way that we grew, was just a case-by-case basis. Like, “Yeah, sure. I can do that.”

Because I was never passionate about simple cremation, it was just something I felt like I could cope with at the time.

So I really highly recommend that as a way to grow, which is like, tell people what you can do and then listen to other requests as they come in one by one.

I have to be grateful to my gender for what it has given me in terms of how quickly we stood out from the crowd. Because Poppy’s is not only founded by me, but it’s also called Poppy’s. It’s a woman’s name, it’s also a flower.

None of these things are synonymous with the kind of big black cars and men marching around in top hats that you think of with the sector.

We got a lot of press early on, and we had quite a lot of fans early on within, so maybe, a coroner’s officer or a hospice palliative care nurse might make contact and say, “It’s so refreshing to see a young woman shaking things up. I’m going to tell people about you.”

So certainly my being female has given me a platform that I think I wouldn’t have had, had I been a kind of white, 50-year-old man.

I mean one of the reasons why I became a funeral director was because I didn’t want to have a role in the sector where I had to get permission from the men in order to be able to do my work. If I’d become a celebrant or if I’d become a sort of advisor, I would’ve had to get my business from funeral directors.

And so the whole point about becoming a funeral director was like, I’m just going to speak directly to the public. And women have been caring for the dead in our communities since the dawn of time.

Funeral directors are a very, very recent invention. Like midwives, it’s largely been women’s work. So I mean, I had some really hilarious and bizarre experiences.

I remember going and speaking to a coroner’s officer about the service that I was launching, and he was nice to me, he wasn’t threatening me, but at some point, he said, “You should watch your back.”

And there was some, I mean, the funeral sectors a strange world, but there was some strange kind of veiled, threatening language used at times. Funeral directors, occasionally.

But again, the power of providing your service directly to the public means you don’t have to bow to that. I’m not trying to skip this question, because I’m sure there are things, I think I have to say I grew up in a family that really made me feel like that the world was something that I could shake up.

And so I’ve had always had that in me. I think the times where my gender or sex has been used against me, I just feel like saying, “Go and do one.”

Securing your own premises and finding mentors

Kate Bassett:

And how have you scaled up, Poppy, and what were some of the specific challenges you faced around that, and how did you go about finding mentors to help you grow the business?

Poppy Mardall:

A lot of the growth that came in those first few years was just that sort of slightly mad, flying by seat of your pants, organic growth.

So just flew in, and actually the challenge was much more managing that and trying not to burn out and trying to make sure others didn’t burn out.

Definitely those first few years, so the press we were getting and the reputation we were building and the fact that the service was so unique in such a kind of outdated sector meant that we didn’t have to work that hard to grow.

The way I was treating myself at the time, because I was a young person, I was ambitious, and I was hungry, we would just kind of say yes to everything, and I’m not sure that was the best for me or some of my colleagues.

I think working with an ambitious founder can be challenging because they have this burning sense of what needs to happen, and that’s very attractive, and you want to work with those people, but they’re not always the most realistic people in the world.

I look back and think I could have done with a few more, what are those ropes called? But tether the tent to the ground. Is that a guy rope?

Kate Bassett:

Guy ropes.

Poppy Mardall:

I could’ve done with some more like guy ropes. So when I think about how we scaled the business, it was not chaotic. It was very, very thoughtful, and careful.

But it was like, say yes to stuff, kind of deal with that later, the reality of that later, and hired some really great people from the very early days.

So always focused on hiring passionate people from outside the funeral sector. Not that we would never take anyone from the sector, but an assumption that if you’ve come from the sector, you’d struggle to open your mind in the way that we want you to open your mind about how things could be.

And always thinking ahead, I guess. We started off using the premises of other funeral directors. I think I’ve always been quite good at thinking what’s the next thing?

We’re going to grow out of here, let’s assume we’re going to grow out of here, what’s the next thing? Rather than getting to a point of having to say no.

So we persuaded our local public mortuary to rent us some space, and then we moved into our beautiful headquarters in Tooting in 2015. And again, it had probably had four times as much space that we needed at the time.

Well, and also the second bit of scaling up, just because I’m completely open and won’t claim to be good at everything, that I think I managed those first few years of organic growth really well.

And that is precisely now why there is this senior team at Poppy’s that is not me, is because I think this next phase of growth that we’re on right now, which is much more kind of brick by brick, it’s like, it’s not like work gushing through the windows.

It’s actually a much more strategic path to being who we want to be in the next five to 10 years. I still haven’t done that before.

I mean that’s the irony of setting something up, is whatever phase were at, I haven’t done it before. And to have some other people on board now who have some experience with those things is crucial.

Mentors, I have quite strong feelings about mentors because I think it’s one of those, a bit like true love. It’s got that sense of, I’ll know them when I find them, and it’ll just be this one sort of God-like character that’s going to kind of know me and love me and stand by my side, make me be all I can be.

I definitely went through some years of just like, everyone’s got a mentor, I don’t have a mentor and maybe if I had a mentor, I’d be much more successful.

What I’ve found along the way is that there are just lots of people who would love to help in small ways, often for free, if you just take the time to ask nicely and remember to say thank you and acknowledge them for their support.

So I’ve never had one kind of wizened, silver haired, mentor, even though I would’ve loved the sound of that.

But I think I have been quite good at recognising the people who, when I’m with them, I come away feeling like, “Yep, good challenge. I’m going to go and think about that.”

Then more recently, we have started paying someone to come and meet with us quarterly because we don’t have a board.

So she is absolutely a solid paid for mentor, but she doesn’t replace all of the people who, and there’re probably like tens of them, who I could just message and say, “Can you talk to me about this thing?” Or, “Could we have an hour on this thing?”

I just want to dispel that idea of, maybe some people do have that one mentor that really kind of sees them through, but there probably are just people in your community who would give you some time, and you like each other, and you’ll just want to keep me to have coffee every now and then.

Bringing in a CEO to lighten your load

Kate Bassett:

And what is it that made you bring in a CEO in 2021, especially as the founder of the business, the person with the vision, the ambition, and your name above the door?

How hard was it to hand over the reins?

Poppy Mardall:

So I didn’t bring a CEO, I brought in a COO, first of all. So what happened was, I realised that I needed someone by my side who had some real experience of running a large organisation.

I’m organised, I’m not disorganised, but I don’t have that kind of Gantt chart like brain, that it started to feel like we needed those skills at Poppy’s.

And so ran a process, an amazing woman applied who I had seen from afar and admired from afar, called Claire Montague, and she’d been COO at Royal Trinity Hospice for eight years, and she got the job.

I remember we’d go for these weekly walks, which we still take, and her brain was sort of racing. And I just remember feeling like, I’m so tired. And I just kept saying to myself, “It’s okay, it’s been a busy few years. Just wait till next week, just get some sleep, get some rest.”

And for the second time in my life, I fully burnt out in sort of January, February 2021. And so off the back of that I asked Claire to move into the CEO position.

So it was not strategic, it wasn’t like, “Poppy’s really wise, she’s been planning this for months.” It was absolutely like careering off the edge of a cliff and realising, this is the second time this has happened now.

I’ve got three small children, I love this business, there’s so much that we can do, but I can’t do it in this role at this point in my life.

And Claire is an absolute rocket of a person and I know she would do an amazing job.

Thankfully she said yes.

So I don’t know how many people are doing that stuff proactively or for how often as founders it happens to you, but it definitely happened to me, and now I’m just so thrilled that it has.

The relationship between a CEO and a founder is much like a marriage

Kate Bassett:

So you were almost forced into that situation where you needed to take a step back, Claire took on the CEO role.

What would be your tips on making that relationship work?

Poppy Mardall:

I don’t feel it was forced on me.

What I would say is my body often knows what’s right for me before my head does, and as it happened, I knew it was the right thing and I felt good about it. But I still haven’t figured out how to figure these things out before they happen.

When it comes to tips for a good relationship, I think it’s pretty much the same as any other relationship.

So again, I think it’s important to think, why is this any different to how you would be respectful with a partner, or how is this any different to how you’d be respectful with a friend?

So first things first is, without trust, there is nothing. So I think in any relationship like that, it’s very easy to start feeling like, “You said this thing last week, or why did you do that?”

And Claire and I have a relationship where we just get those things out very, very quickly and fast. And all of this has been hugely helped by the fact that when she moved into the CEO role, it was my strong feeling we should consciously build our relationship by doing some work with a kind of third party.

And so we hired this awesome man to run sessions with us, I think it was every month or six weeks for about six months, which was a real, consciously creating our relationship.

Sort of like marriage.

Kate Bassett:

Like couples therapy?

Poppy Mardall:

Yeah. Like pre-emptive. Isn’t that a Christian thing? Don’t some Christian couples do a course before they get married, which is like, “What do you guys think about money? How is this going to play out?”

And he sort of did that with us, and he’d say amazing, he’d be like, “What do you both think about the word power?”

It was really good. I would highly recommend this, because particularly if you don’t really know each other and particularly because I’d seen her from afar and had this sense that she was wonderful, and then you’re going to be working so closely together.

He really taught us, I think, to lean into the idea of just being honest with each other, sounds revolutionary. And so that’s what we do.

So yeah, just quickly bringing up and talking through the things that have happened that have irritated us, or we haven’t fully understood why that happened or what that meant.

I strongly feel like, as the founder, it’s my job not to get in the way. So I really take her lead on what my presence in the building should look like.

And I think related to that, there’s a sense of if, again, like any relationship, if something comes up, and we disagree, who cares the most about this thing?

If she really cares about something and I don’t care that much, then why do I need to have my way on this thing? It’s just like, that’s good reciprocal behaviour.

And I think for me a deep sense of, at the end of the day, we have a joint vision for what’s possible, and if our egos get in the way of that, we won’t succeed. So keeping that goal in mind, it’s not about her, it’s not about me, it’s about applying ourselves to achieve this thing.

But it’s always just remembering that, as founder, you have this weird cloak that you wear that is not like anyone else.

And I think you just have to be careful about what you say and where you dig your awe in. If in doubt, keep it inside for a bit and stew on it a bit longer and make sure you really mean it when you say it.

Something that we do religiously is we take a weekly walk. So we walk every Tuesday for an hour and a half across Tooting Common in our welly boots, whether it’s pouring with rain or snowing or blistering sunshine.

And it’s amazing to me how, you might think, well “We’re very busy, we don’t have time for this, is this really a good use of our time?”

And sometimes we’re not talking about work, we might be checking in on each other’s lives, and it just gives our relationship a resilience that I know when the hard times come that’s going to be worth its weight in gold.

Kate Bassett:

That’s such a good tip because not only is it really good for your mental health to get outside, but it takes you away out of your workplace and into a neutral environment where you can really discuss things.

The difference between a founder and a chairman

Kate Bassett:

So where do you dig your awe in now then? What does your role look like?

Poppy Mardall:

So I’ve worked quite hard to be really specific about the two parts of my role.

So I have a founder role and I have a chair role, and they’re really different.

And I think that’s been really helpful to me. Rather than becoming this sort of amorphous opinion former, that I’m really clear about, when am I being the founder, and when am I being the chair?

So the founder piece for me is quite a wide role. So a huge part of that role is speaking publicly about Poppy’s. So trying to raise awareness about great death care, trying to raise awareness about Poppy’s, trying to let people know they have a choice when someone dies and that they can have a beautiful experience, is massive.

Claire does that work too, but I’m a big resource for the company being able to commit myself to that and as the storyteller. And as someone who’s worked as a funeral director, it’s helpful to have that experience.

Clearly setting the strategy alongside Claire. So I don’t feel like I’m the lead there, or she’s the lead, we do that side by side. And then I think there are some founder pieces too around, again, not ever undermining other people.

But there are quite a few people at Poppy’s who are quite senior who are new. So they will quite often use me to sense check, particularly when it comes to tone or when it comes to communications.

So I don’t know what you’d call that. I guess I feel like the sort of granny.

It’s like, we want to be aware of how we used to do things when we think about what we’re doing next, because otherwise we risk not bringing the team with us or losing or undermining what we’ve built.

So that’s a bit of the founder role.

Then the chair role is very much the governance piece, which is making sure that Claire is functioning as she should and delivering as she should, making sure that we are on track to be profitable and on track to grow, and that our commitment to our environmental and social goals remains just as core to us as our desire to be a profitable business.

I think that’s how my role sort of plays out. But it is, and again, just being realistic, we’re a growing business, so it is also changing all the time.

Becoming an accredited B Corp company

Kate Bassett:

I wanted to talk to you about some of those environmental goals. I know you’re on a journey to become an accredited B Corp.

How has that process changed the way you are doing business?

Poppy Mardall:

Probably like lots of businesses. I feel like social, environmental goals kind of run in our blood. And I think what’s been so great about the B Corp movement is on a good day, your commitment to your social and environmental goals will remain steadfast.

But when things get tight, when money gets tight, when investors come on board who maybe don’t have the same values, it’s very easy to lose that commitment.

So when we first heard about the B Corp accreditation scheme, it felt like an absolute natural fit. Like lots of small businesses, the stumbling block was just like, “Oh my word”, it is not a light undertaking, and nor should it be.

So what really got us going was a fabulous person in our team called Sarah Bax who said, “I want to be the champion and I want to drive this ahead.”

And she was on the frontline answering the phone. She was absolutely a frontline part of the team, not in a strategic role, which felt even better.

So a little while ago we gave her some time in the week to start pushing that forward. And it’s been such a great journey, because like lots of things, it’s all very exciting at the beginning, and then you start getting into the detail, it’s just really hard work.

We’re talking about weighing our waste, and we’re talking about thinking really carefully about, well every single tiny detail of how we run Poppy’s. So it’s a bit excellent. The bit that felt really powerful to me was the bit where we changed our articles’ association.

So a huge part of the B Corp process is you have to change your articles association so that your commitment to the environment and social good is actually in the mission statement of the business.

And there was something for me about doing that felt, I don’t know, again, it’s about safeguarding the future. It’s not saying, “Today I feel a bit saving the planet”, it’s actually saying “This is now who we are, this is who we want to become.”

How to prioritise your time between your business and family

Kate Bassett:

You’re still so passionate and ambitious for the business. I know you also have three children and your husband runs his own business.

How do you both prioritise your time?

Poppy Mardall:

It’s really, really hard. And again, I’ve read so many articles of people answering this question and, I mean a lot of people are honest, but you feel like there’s a good amount of conversation out there that maybe underplays how hard it is.

Our kids are almost eight, six, and three and a half, and it’s definitely a dealing with it one day at a time situation. It’s really, really, really hard.

I think the key for us has been just being honest with ourselves that the kids have to come first, which for the first two children, somehow, we got away with stuffing them in our back pockets and sort of carrying on as normal and pretending everything was fine.

But definitely with the arrival of our third child, that was like the bat across our backs, and we have had to reorganise things a lot to make it work.

Lots of, again, lots of privilege. My husband also self-employed, so that means we get to split the week up. So he collects the kids a couple of days a week, I collect the kids a couple of days a week. We try to be totally equal in our responsibility for them.

So we both get to do some work and also be with them.

Clearly, trying to keep your marriage on track is key. Always saying to myself, I mean, the joke I always sort of say to him is, “We could go out tonight and pay the babysitter, and we feel like we don’t have that money, or we could just save that money for the divorce.”

I’ve heard divorces are very expensive undertakings.

So just trying to be really, just thinking in a totally different way. We didn’t use to think like that, but just, what does our relationship need today? What do I need today in order to be in a good enough shape tomorrow to get these kids fed and off to school?

But I do want to do a shout-out to all the parents, and all the carers, because it’s so hard and overlooked.

We’re not the first generation of people to be facing this challenge of trying to be loving parents and committed workers and good friends, et cetera, et cetera.

And it’s a daily challenge.

Kate Bassett:

It’s so often the woman’s career though, isn’t it, that suffers in those situations. So it’s great you are trying to make it really equal at work and at home.

Keeping your relationship alive whilst juggling kids and careers

Kate Bassett:

How do you make the relationship work? You mentioned the weekly walks with your CEO, do you do those with your husbands as well?

Poppy Mardall:

We don’t do a weekly walk, we do lots of things. So we have a pretty strict rule about phones going in the cupboards in the early evening.

So we all stick our phones in a cupboard. It’s not that strict, and it’s not like the phones are always in the cupboard, but when our time together is so short, I don’t want to walk into a room, and he’s on his phone. I want to be like, “Hi.”

So we try and get out. I have these amazing parents that will take all three of my children for the weekend very occasionally. So we do get out the odd weekend off.

I think it’s about all the things we already know, isn’t it? Sometimes we’ll just do the school run together just so we can have that 10 minutes walking back together afterwards. But I think it is those tiny things. He sometimes will just be like, “Do you want to come for a coffee?”

I mean the date night thing, it’s never really floated my boat. I don’t really want to go and have lasagne, and I’m too tired. But just a cup of tea, just those little moments, I think.

And just remembering that, I think these are the hardest years. We’ve been together for 20 years and I think these are the hardest years we’ve faced, in terms of stretch.

And so I don’t know what the next 10 years will be like, but just fingers crossed it’ll ease up at some point.

Goals: To look after 5% of the people in Greater London

Kate Bassett:

And what are the next 10 years going to be like for Poppy’s? What’s next for you?

Poppy Mardall:

So our ambitions for Poppy’s are to triple the number of people we serve over the next three years. So that’s very ambitious.

So we look after about 350 families a year across Greater London, and we’re looking to triple that. And longer term, our ambition is to be the kind of logical independent choice for kind of people who were thinking consciously about who they’d want to use.

So we believe we could get to looking after 5% of people in Greater London, which be, that would be amazing.

And so the point of that is because, whilst we stay in this position, we’re in right now, which is like we have this amazing reputation, and we’re providing this beautiful service, but we’re very much used by people kind of in the know.

It’s horrifying that 10 years later you still look in the newspapers and there’s the same stories, the dead being cared for poorly, people being sold things they don’t want or need.

But also a growing sense as we understand more about our impact on the planet as well of a sector that doesn’t really show much interest in modernising in order to support people to make better choices for the planet.

So yeah, it’s very exciting. So the idea is to be serving a solid number of people in Greater London. And I guess beyond that, the question would be, where next, if we could get to that point.

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Want to know more about Poppy’s or Poppy Mardall?

You can check out Poppy’s on their website.

And you can find out more about Poppy Mardall on her LinkedIn.

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