The Natural Choice

ThinkNatural founder Carol Dukes talks to David Bicknell about building an online and mail order market for health products

ThinkNatural founder Carol Dukes talks to David Bicknell about building an online and mail order market for health products

You gained a reputation for delivering on online projects at EMAP before you joined Carlton and ThinkNatural. What did you learn most at EMAP?

Don't mess with the brand was the overriding message. It's too risky. Brands have usually been built up over years and everyone is very cautious. The way around it is to launch new businesses with new brand names and for the organisation to do its learning on them. It is a lot easier to put a small amount of money into a skunkworks project, than a brand that people have slaved over and nurtured for years.

What was your approach in setting up ThinkNatural?

We have combined content and commerce in a sector that we deliberately selected because of people's need for information. The health products sector lent itself perfectly to having a website behind it. Lots of people want to use health products, but if you go into a store, you will find little information there, because of legal restrictions on what can be said on health product packaging.

Although you were regarded as a dotcom, is it fair to say you haven't acted like one?

We are as much a mail order company as an online retailer. We set up our own warehouse, which services sales taken via the website as well as those taken by phone and fax. We are already on the third edition of our mail order catalogue, and more are in production.

More bricks-and-mortar companies are forming relationships with dotcoms. You have a relationship with Kingfisher and the Superdrug brand. How did that happen, and does it work?

Kingfisher called us when we were in our second round of funding. It came in with around £4.5m of funding alongside existing investors and other new backers, which eventually raised around £10m in all. The investment from Kingfisher opened the door to a relationship with Superdrug, which is owned by Kingfisher but is currently being demerged.

Having made ThinkNatural a successful name, what are you doing now to maintain the site's success?

We recently launched a series of products based on traditional Chinese Herbal and Indian (Ayurveda) remedies, which we're very excited about. And we continue to refine and improve our offerings, both online and through mail order. As anyone who has ever looked after a website knows, it's never finished - there is always more content to add and new ways to improve the user experience.

What advice would you give people responsible for e-commerce in bricks-and-mortar companies?

First, I would say do something for that organisation that doesn't affect the main brand. Second, I would look for something in the organisational processes that would clearly benefit from being Web-based, either something on the supply side or in the back office. Look for some low-hanging fruit and go and pick it. Third, in the current climate, I'd start looking around for a dotcom or two 'in distress'. You can pick up some good skills and people who have been through it all, just like John Lewis and Great Universal Stores have done.

CV: Carol Dukes

  • 1983 First class honours, Oxford.
  • 1984-90 Joined IVS Enterprises. Director of IVS cable services in 1987.
  • 1990 Completed MBA at London Business School, joined Gemini Consulting.
  • 1993 Joined EMAP as Corporate Planner.
  • 1995 Director of new media within EMAP Computing.
  • 1997 Set up and co-managed EMAP Online.
  • 1998 Established Carlton Online.
  • July 1999 Co-founded ThinkNatural with Emma Crowe remedies and aromatherapy.
  • 2000 Named 'Entrepreneur of the Year' and 'AltaVista digital business person of the year'.


  • BBC News - I always use the BBC site to check out what's happening
  • Netimperative - This keeps me in touch with the online world
  • ThinkNatural - Obviously, this is one of my top five
  • Unmissable TV - I liked the way this TV guide has been put together
  • Firebox - This is a great 'toys for grown up boys' site. If Loaded was a shop, it would be like this

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