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Renée Elliott had to face one of the worst nightmares any business owner could think of—your own co-founder trying to kick you out of the company you helped to create.
She risked losing everything, with a £560,000 legal bill stacking up and no way to pay. But after a painstaking 14-month litigation battle, she won the case and her business, Planet Organic.
In this episode, Renée reflects on the highs and lows of business life, the self-discoveries she made along the way and how important it is to listen to your instincts.
This is a story of true determination and the willingness to never give up—no matter what gets thrown your way.
Here’s what we cover:
Get your business idea out of your head and on to paper
So Renée, you started Planet Organic with this really strong mission to bring organic food into the mainstream and change the face of British retailing, but you had no sector experience whatsoever.
So where did that vision and determination come from?
Well, by that point I knew I wanted to start my own business. I’d worked in the UK for a while. Obviously now that you hear me, I’m American.
And so I had looked in America. I did research in America. I saw the concept on the East Coast on my family, or I grew up outside of Boston. So I was copying that and making it mine. And really the passion was to promote health in the community.
So I’d done the research and brought that concept over, but really had no idea how to run something, an operation that big. But I think my naivety helped me because I think if I’d known, I never would’ve started it.
So what kind of things did you do to get that sector experience and to learn and to really get the business off the ground?
Well, I did a couple of very practical things.
I worked in a health food store for a couple of years and learned everything about the business. I learned about organic, I learned about managing a team, the financials.
And then before, I worked in Wild Oats for two years and that really connected me with the producers, with the suppliers, and basically how the business ran. But I was running a shop, I wasn’t running a business.
So then I did a business plan writing course and that was absolutely pivotal for me because I didn’t know what a P&L [profit and loss] was. I didn’t know how to manage those costs, look at profitability. And that was really essential.
Even though I still made mistakes, it was the business plan. And it’s the business planning that I love today because it’s the strategic planning, and it’s the being thoughtful about business and thinking it through and also getting it out of your head.
I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs, and they say, oh yeah, no, I don’t have a business plan, but I have stuff in my head, and that doesn’t really work.
I always say, get it out of there. Write it down.
What to do when your co-founder tries to remove you from the business
So you really learnt those business fundamentals, the strategic planning, got the business off the ground.
You were up and running for two years when your toughest moment came, and your co-founder tried to remove you from the business.
Talk us through that experience.
Okay. Not funny at all. I mean, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
We had difficulties in business, everyone does, but I am of the belief that if you trust and respect each other and have good communication, you can get through anything.
But the problem was the communication had broken down.
So when he said I had to leave, and I’m a small-town girl, and he was from a very privileged family with really good connections, so it was kind of a David and Goliath story, and I think they thought I would go, but I saw Planet Organic as my baby.
So I was very attached and very determined.
I come from a family of fighters, so I was like, I’m not going anywhere. So I had to countersue, which was tricky because I didn’t really want to do that. And then, as you said, we were in litigation for 14 months, which was draining.
It was exhausting. I was in the amygdala, which is fight, flight, freeze for that whole time. And what I learned through that time really was the importance of taking care of self-first.
Now for a lot of people, that’s an uncomfortable or maybe even impossible thing to do or consider because I have some entrepreneurs, I know who say, I was told to never put myself first growing up as a girl.
But in order to truly show up and show up sustainably for everything and anyone in your life, you have to fill your own cup first.
So I learned that through the litigation because I had to close ranks and take really good care of myself, eat even better. I meditated twice a day for an hour, went to the gym, and surrounded myself with very positive, supportive people.
If I’d had anyone in my life, and I’ve always been quite brutal about this, but if there was anyone in my life at that point who was negative, “I told you this would happen”, that kind of thing, out, they were out.
And I spent a lot of time talking to my mom, my sister Lauren, and my girlfriend Julia, who saw me through it. And of course my husband, we did this as partners. We went through this together.
So the lesson was that, and then I nearly gave up. There was a point in the summer where I thought, I don’t know that I can do this anymore. I was exhausted.
But I decided that I couldn’t give up. That I trust in the process of the universe unfolding. I trust what happens, and that if I didn’t see it through and maybe win, I would never know and that would bother me for the rest of my life.
And I thought if I lose, I will accept that with grace and dignity because I do trust in the process of life.
But I thought I have to stay and fight and see if I can make it, and I did, thank goodness because that’s why I’m sitting here.
Finding and funding legal advice
In terms of, I want to come back to that initial decision you made to stand up and fight.
Who did you turn to for professional advice, and how did you decide on which legal professional to go with?
Because a lot of people choose not to fight because of the extortion of fees, the time, the exhaustion.
How did you make those decisions?
Well, I had, my lawyer at the time for me personally within the business was Nicholson Graham & Jones. And I loved my corporate lawyer.
So I went to Owen Waft, and I said, “What do I do?” And he said, “I’ll introduce you to a litigator.”
And we went and talked to him, and he said, “You have to countersue.” And I said, “What does that mean?”
And he talked us through that.
And my first question was, “What is this going to cost?” And my litigator was Paul Howcroft. He was amazing, and I owe everything to him to this day.
But he said £50,000-£60,000. Now bearing in mind we started Planet with, we put in £50,000 each, which was, I didn’t even have all of that. I had to borrow money from my parents. I took it as early inheritance. I think I put in half, they put in half.
So when he said £50,000-£60,000, I thought, geez, I don’t have that. But we did end up taking a second mortgage on our house to pay the legal fees.
In the end it was so expensive because this trial turned on the evidence and there were so many lever arch files filled with documents, with detail and paper. And I’m really good at that. I was a straight-A student, so I was going to do my homework.
My legal bill was £560,000, which would’ve bankrupted me. And I knew that, I knew it was make or break for me, but in England, loser pays. So he picked up my legal bill and his legal bill.
Then I had to find investment to replace his shareholding in the business. But I also really studied, that sort of I wanted to be the good girl at school, really saw me through this. And I read the most interesting book. I read The Bhagavad Gita through this, but I also read Sun Tzu’s Art of War.
And although there’s a lot of controversy about what he’s actually saying, what I took from the book was know your enemy.
So I did, and then I prepared, and I’m really good at that.
Risking everything to win everything
But I mean, no matter how much you prepared, you did stand to lose everything. Did you consider the worst-case scenario?
What would you have done if you had lost?
Yes, I did. I thought, worst-case scenario, I take a break and I would start again. I thought I’d start again. I’d do, I’d try and get my husband to work with me.
He had already left his job because he had a three-month notice in the hope that I would win, and he would work with me because I, at that point, didn’t trust finding another partner.
So Brian had quit and was ready to start. And I said, if not, maybe we start something together.
But this was my life. I set Planet up to have meaningful work to do for the rest of my life, so this wasn’t going to stop me.
It may have changed the direction.
One painful litigation journey led to a beautiful business and new self-discoveries
And you were in litigation for 14 months, and you hid the dispute from your team.
So how did you keep the business up and running during that period when you were taken away, you were prepping, you were exhausted?
Yeah, well, Planet had a life of its own. It was like a galloping horse at that point. So we did £1.2 million our first year, it doubled to £2.4 million the second year, and in that third year it went up to £3.6 million.
So it didn’t suffer. We managed to keep things going. I’m sure I know people felt a bad energetic, and at some point, we had to start talking to the team about witness statements for the trial.
But it was a tight group, and we tried to keep it together.
Of course, afterwards there was fallout and finding new people, but it was alright. It was alright. We managed to carry on.
Renée, describe the moment that you won. What was that like? What do you remember?
Well, you have to remember it was 1999, so although I had a mobile phone, which I’d had for not that long, for a few years, this big clunky thing, I wasn’t going to make a long-distance phone call to my parents.
And I think the judgment came just before lunchtime on the last day. I knew that my parents would be not quite waking up but knowing that it was the day of the judgment.
So I had a handful of pound coins, and I stepped outside the courtroom and filled the phone with pound coins, dialled my parents and my dad answered the phone. And my partner’s family, he and his family were exiting the courtroom, and I didn’t want to be disrespectful. I didn’t want to be rubbing it in their face.
So I was very quietly going, “I won, I won.” And I was crying, and my mum and dad were so happy. And I remember that moment so clearly. I remember the relief and joy in their voices, which was amazing.
And then we went out to dinner with our legal team and celebrated, we had a wonderful celebratory meal. And then I thought, “Wow, okay, phase two, here we go. Hold on.”
Phase two about to begin.
And in terms of phase two, do you think that battle changed you as an entrepreneur?
It did. I mean, for a while what was sad is that I was so idealistic and Planet was built on such beautiful values and still is, it still adheres to those values to this day. And that kind of tarnished that, I was like, why did that happen?
But what I didn’t do through the litigation is I never felt sorry for myself because I think that’s really wasted emotion. And then afterwards, I really believed that in time I would understand why it had happened, because I always think, they say with hindsight’s 20/20 vision you can see the clear path running through your life to the moment you are standing in.
And the truth is, I wanted my own company and I really wanted to work with my husband, and we couldn’t have afforded that at the beginning. Although it was a very painful journey, I got exactly what I wanted in the end, even though it was tough.
I learned a lot. I grew, I think life throws at you what you can handle. And I learned a lot about myself and my determination.
I grew up, and I learned to have grace and dignity as well in a really difficult time, which was an important lesson.
Both in business and in life, always trust your first instinct
And in terms of some of those learnings, can you share some things you wish you’d known when you started the business and brought your business partner in?
Well, I wouldn’t have done anything differently, oddly enough. A lot of people say, if you’d known that, I had reservations, which I, well, here’s one, I had reservations that I overcame by checking things out with him.
But the thing that I didn’t do, and this is one of the lessons I teach over and over, and I’m very good at this now, although I occasionally have to remind myself, is trust yourself.
Trust that small still voice.
And I don’t mean your head, I mean your heart, I mean your intuition.
Because when I first met him, I thought, no way, I am not working with him. Then there were things that changed my mind. But if I’d followed my instinct. It’s when my head says it’s going to be okay, that it isn’t. And that’s happened to me a couple of times in my professional career, both to a disaster, to a point of disaster.
So the lesson I would’ve learned is trust yourself, follow your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, run. And for a lot of entrepreneurs who are perhaps looking for investment, I always say make sure they share your values, make sure they get you, and they’re on the same page.
Make sure the honeymoon, the lead up to the agreement, is lovely because if it isn’t, the marriage is going to stink. I’ve heard so many awful stories about people saying, well, it was a bit tricky, but I thought it would be okay.
No, follow, trust yourself. It’s the most important thing. You know what’s best for you, for your business, for yourself, for your family, if and when you have one.
Listen to the experts. Take advice, canvas advice, but don’t think, oh, that person knows better than I do. That marketing person or that finance person.
No, you have your best answers. You have all of them inside you.
Choosing between raising your children or nurturing your business
So phase two for Planet Organic, you then brought in your husband, Brian, and you ran the business together for 10 years before stepping away to raise your children.
How hard was that decision to let go and did you struggle with your identity during that time?
Oh, good question. It was so hard.
And it is really hard for women if you are the primary caretaker, which often we are. It’s so conflicting because you have this urge to be someone in the world and to make an impact, and then you have these beautiful children who you want to take care of because you had them.
I reached a point at Planet where I had a seven-year-old, four-year-old, and a one-year-old, and the business needed to grow and expand, and I had these beautiful children, and I didn’t know what to do. I was trying to do both.
I was conflicted and exhausted, and I thought I’m probably heading for a nervous breakdown.
So I didn’t see that choice coming. I felt a bit, “Are you dumb?” I didn’t see that choice coming where I’d have to choose between work and my family.
But it did come. I guess, I knew that life would roll forward, and I would figure things out. I didn’t think that would mean leaving Planet. But I did step aside because I thought having had my kids, I wanted to raise them.
And women make other decisions, people have to do what’s right for themselves.
But for me, the only choice really was to be with my kids. So I stepped aside, I was still a couple of days a month in the business, and I was involved with the Soil Association, and we went to Italy, because I thought, I just need to get away.
And the identity crisis didn’t happen then. I think I was finishing a book, and then I wrote another book out there.
It was when we came back to England and I realised Planet was very much under the control of the new CEO, who we had helped put in place and that it wasn’t right for me to think I was going to step back in.
So then I thought, “Oh no, now what?” And that was, I was like, “Wow, who am I? If I’m not Planet, well, I am Planet, but if I’m doing something outside of Planet, what is that and what do I want to do?”
And that took a lot of soul-searching and introspection at that time.
Deciding where to take your career next after leaving your first business
Talk us through some of that soul-searching and introspection. How did you decide what to do next?
So I was turning 50 or around 50, and I thought having worked at Planet, which was a rollercoaster, it was highs, and it was lows, and it was really hard, it was very challenging even though incredibly exciting and enjoyable, I didn’t want that again.
I wanted ease and joy and a lot of fun where I didn’t have that kind of rollercoaster ride again.
So I didn’t know what to do. So I started doing things that I loved. I started teaching baking in my kitchen to see if I wanted to do that.
Then I was teaching at a naturopathic college, teaching healthy baking. I started doing public speaking, which I loved. I wrote another book which I don’t love.
But then from speaking, a lot of female entrepreneurs started to ask me to mentor them. And I didn’t really know what that would look like or what that meant, but when the water is flowing, when the people are knocking on the door, I don’t think you say no.
So I said, “Okay, I’m not sure what that is.”
And then started working, loved it, loved supporting them on their entrepreneurial journey with all the things I have learned over the years that can be so beneficial. I wish I’d had mentoring when I started Planet.
Then I developed a course called BOSS, which is Business Owner Support and Strategy, which is the business planning, which is not what you think. People say business plan, they think mainly of numbers. And I’m like, that’s not my business plan. Mine is a lot of fun.
It’s a joy writing it because what you’re doing is you’re reaching inside yourself, and you’re pulling out the vision of the business, including your financial goals, but everything else as well, the brand, the tone of voice, the marketing ideas.
But it’s part business planning, and it’s part, what I call, personal discovery or the self-awareness work, because you will bump up against your biggest fears, your imposter syndrome, low self-esteem, or confidence, perhaps.
And this addresses and unpicks all of those so that you are empowered, and you have agency and self-awareness in your life. And then you can be the entrepreneur that you were meant to be.
Use the sacred triangle of relationships to find a co-founder you can trust
And that then led you to setting up your second business, Beluga Bean, in 2017 with Sam Wigan.
I’m curious to know why you went into the business with a co-founder, having had that terrifying experience with Planet Organic. Did you find it difficult to trust him?
No, and I went into it because I realised when I was starting the mentoring and doing that, I love partnership and I like the dynamic of a man and a woman working together.
And when Sam and I met, he was looking to grow his coaching business, and it felt right. I trusted him. He comes from a background of personal discovery, so I knew he had self-awareness and was thoughtful in that regard.
We got to know each other and there was nothing for me to distrust.
I think the trust question is interesting because I talk about in my work what I call the sacred triangle of relationships, and that is trust and respect with a foundation of good communication.
You start with trust and respect, but it’s a fragile thing. And then you build it over time, or you don’t. And Sam and I have built trust, respect over time, and we have excellent communication.
And that’s, good communication means all kinds of things, but one of them being, take responsibility, tell the truth quickly, be a neutral enquiry, don’t make assumptions, which are fundamental in not only your personal relationships but your business relationships.
I was going to say there are some great marriage tips there as well.
Yeah. 37 years with Brian.
As an entrepreneur, you should check in with your six spheres of wellbeing
You talked about, particularly, with Planet Organic, it being a real rollercoaster ride, and you’ve had some very low lows.
What are your tips to other entrepreneurs on prioritising their wellbeing during those difficult moments?
Well, I think, the thing is, wellbeing isn’t just mental and physical, which is what people tend to think of it as. It is actually, well, we talk about six spheres of wellbeing. So it is physical.
And really, when you’re in a difficult time, you need to look after your physicality, which is moving, fuelling, resting. It’s three components and make sure that you’re doing those essential things to take care of yourself.
But then there’s also occupational wellbeing, psychological wellbeing, economic, social, and spiritual.
I think to be truly in balance, able to handle everything that’s coming at you, to have agency within that and to know where to put your attention and focus at any one time, you need to be looking across all six of those spheres.
And if you could go back to that small-town girl, just before you started Planet Organic, what would be your advice to her?
Trust yourself, go for it. You have one life to live, what are you going to do with it?
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