Jo Riley of CancerPal talks to us about her business and why she decided to make care boxes for those suffering with cancer.
Tell us about CancerPal?
My name is Jo Riley and I’m the founding Director of CancerPal. CancerPal is an online platform curating and retailing a range of non-medical products to bring relief from the symptoms and side effects of cancer. We sell a range of Care Boxes which contain products and treats which can help to ease some of the common side effects of the different cancer treatments and these make a really practical gift for loved ones who have cancer. We also have an online Marketplace where we sell specific products which may be needed by a patient going through treatment.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
CancerPal was founded from the personal experience of becoming a carer for my amazing Mum who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2015. When Mum was ill, I literally spent hundreds of hours googling and trying to find people who had been through the same experience. I soon realised that sadly lots of people experience cancer and that actually there’s a wealth of knowledge and experience out there and lots of ways I could help Mum, whether that was tips and ideas on how to ease the side effects of cancer treatment or simply advice and support on how to deal with the emotional side of things. I felt comforted knowing I was doing my best to care for and support Mum but even though the knowledge and experience is out there, it’s not always that easy to find.
When Mum died in January 2018, everything felt so meaningless, including my job in the corporate world, and I knew I wanted to do something different. With many years of sales and business experience under my belt, I decided to set up CancerPal. After losing Mum it gave me a sense of purpose to do something so worthwhile and important.
What I wanted was a one-stop shop that contained this information and good quality products all in one place, so that’s what I created. We are creating the world’s first Marketplace for cancer products. All the products featured in CancerPal have been recommended by the cancer community (patients, doctors, nurses, carers and charities) enabling users to review and buy products specifically for their symptoms – products which they might otherwise have never heard about. We are completely reinventing the shopping experience – our customers don’t purely come to our platform to purchase products – they come to us for advice and information.
The first few cancer Care Boxes that I created for CancerPal were based on the very boxes that I lovingly researched and prepared for Mum and I’ll never forget how much those little boxes meant to Mum.
How do you spread the word about your business?
We mainly rely on word of mouth and social media to spread the word about CancerPal. I originally thought that we might be able to leave cards and leaflets in the hospitals and cancer treatment centres. I spent so much time in the waiting room of our local hospital waiting for Mum and I can remember reading every single poster on the little notice board to pass the time. But Coronavirus has meant that family and friends are no longer able to accompany loved ones into appointments so we’ve had to be a bit more creative in our approach.
BBC Radio Kent invited me for an interview last year which was both exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measures. I’ve never done a live radio interview before and it turns out that I say ‘umm’ a lot! I also frequently record blog interviews for some of my long-term associates such as ‘See No Bounds’ which is a good way to keep in touch with the cancer community.
CancerPal has also been entered for some awards which helped to get our name out into the public domain. It was a real boost that we were finalists in the Wales Start-Up Awards in 2020 and the Welsh Women’s Award 2020. The icing on the cake however was when I was announced as the 2020 Winner of the ‘Entrepreneur for Good’ Award in Wales as part of the Great British Entrepreneur Awards!
What’s the hardest thing about running a business?
The plate spinning! Because I wear so many ‘hats’ throughout the day, juggling everything can be challenging and I often find myself dropping plates! Trying to structure a ‘to do’ list each day isn’t always viable as there are so many things that can change. Most things are usually urgent and I’m always working in the evenings and on weekends to try and catch up. But I LOVE my job and I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.
Have you received any financial support for your business?
I was very grateful to receive a start-up grant from Caerphilly Council and UK Steel Enterprise which enabled me to buy a new laptop which has been so helpful because I was using my daughter’s old laptop and it was really slow and didn’t like the number of product photos that I had. But apart from that, CancerPal is entirely self-funded. I invested a small amount into the initial stock for the Care Boxes and then re-invested the profit back into the business, buying more stock and expanding the product range and slowly but surely, that’s how we’ve grown.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Covid and Brexit have certainly made starting a new business incredibly challenging. Due to Covid some of the projects that were on the brink of coming to fruition disappeared overnight and with them went the revenue streams for the business.
We also have to be very careful when it comes to cancer patients and Covid, we need to avoid any kind of contact, printed material and stay away from cancer hospitals entirely so our marketing has had to switch to purely digital which doesn’t always reach all of the people we want to help.
There has also been the Global cardboard shortage which impacted on being able to obtain packaging materials and the issue of the Suez Canal being blocked which delayed shipment of some of our most popular products which we import from overseas.
All in all, I think it’s fair to say that I think we have had more than our share of challenges so far, but we’re still here to tell the tale!
What’s the best decision you’ve made so far? Any regrets?
The best decision I’ve made was to believe in my vision of CancerPal – it would have been so easy for it to have just remained a dream.
I have invested so much time, effort, energy, money and passion into the company and I just want to make it as successful as possible. In turn, it’s a great feeling knowing that I’m helping as many people as possible to deal with the effects of cancer treatment. The company is so close to my heart due to my personal experience with Mum and therefore I can empathise with every single one of my customers and I’d like to think that I put this care and empathy into every Care Box and package I send.
No, I don’t have any regrets… yet! People told me that setting up a new business would be hard, but I really didn’t appreciate quite how difficult and time-consuming it would actually be. I’ve made loads of mistakes and there are certainly things I’d do differently with the benefit of hindsight, but no regrets. I love every minute of working in CancerPal but even more than that, I feel like I’m creating a legacy for my amazing Mum.
What is one thing that would make running your business a lot easier?
Well, some more hours in the day would help! Because we’re a small business a lot of our systems and processes are manual, and as we grow these manual processes become more difficult to manage. At the moment, the one thing that would really help would be an automated stock management system to help monitor stock levels and ordering, but that’s a project for the future.
What’s next for your business?
In the immediate future, our aim is to grow and build greater awareness of what CancerPal does and what we can offer – we need people to know about us so that we can help friends, family, loved ones and cancer patients as much as possible.
We also want to continue expanding our product range. We currently provide products to help ease a range of side effects, but there are so many side effects that people may experience so there are lots more products that we want to research and introduce. At the moment we don’t have any resources specifically relating to children’s cancer and we are also looking to at palliative Care Boxes. Plenty to keep us busy…