These three entrepreneurs turned their passion for ethical beauty—products that work with the world, rather than harm it—into successful businesses. This is how they did it.
Our Brand New Directions series takes a look at inspiring businesswomen and how they got started setting up their own companies. We delve into the costs involved in realizing their dreams, and the brilliant achievements won through their hard work.
SKINIRVANA founder Mary-Rose Lobo
Mary-Rose Lobo, 40, lives in Hove with their daughter Anaïs, six. She is the founder of SKINIRVANA, an ethical beauty oil designed to nourish, protect and hydrate skin.
As a teenager, I struggled with acne and rosacea. Working part-time in a cafe, I spent all my wages on skincare, convinced the more I spent, the clearer my skin might be.
In my 20s things got worse and for the first time, I read the ingredients on the products I was liberally applying to my face. I was shocked by the long list of toxic, chemical compounds so I started embracing ethical beauty by making my own blend of nourishing, natural oils which I massaged into my face twice daily. Within a month, my skin was unrecognizably nourished and radiant. I vowed never to use any products except my own ever again.
In January 2014 I opened a salon in London, offering bespoke oil blends and facial massage. But two years later, I moved to Hove in Sussex and closed the salon. While I was busy settling into our new life, clients from London were getting in touch and begging me to make them up a bottle of my mix of oils. I decided to work out what I believed to be the ultimate blend of seven pure plant and seed oils and, in July 2017, launched SKINIRVANA
Start up costs: £12,500
– Design: £2,000
– Ingredients and packaging: £5,000
– Marketing and PR: £5,000
– Admin: £500
What happened next
I borrowed £5,000 from my brother to buy the initial ingredients in bulk from an ethical wholesaler. My recipe includes geranium bourbon to balance and moisturize, neroli, which reduces inflammation and irritation, and juniper berry, a fantastic antiseptic with incredible healing properties. I chose not to outsource production or try to grow too quickly, making the oils in small batches myself, so there’s no wastage. The recyclable glass bottles go into handmade cotton pouches that decompose in compost within five months.
Big brands manufacture in bulk and stock is stored in warehouses, often reaching the consumer years later. If the product is not sold, it goes to a landfill. SKINIRVANA customers receive the freshest product within weeks, even days, of production. A retail consultant advised me to bring out a cleanser, moisturizer, and make-up remover but I refused, believing the beauty oil I had created was all anyone needs. Further lines may have increased profits but I don’t want to create unnecessary products.
When I closed my salon and left London for the south coast, I was so busy resettling I didn’t have time to think about what I was going to do next. But I was so inundated with requests from old clients, I couldn’t ignore the fact I had a product people really wanted. It was amazing to launch an ethical beauty business knowing there was already demand.
Steepest learning curve
I spent thousands on marketing in the first year and it proved an entirely futile and expensive lesson. The most rewarding way to reach new customers was to attend wellness festivals and give demonstrations and facial massage workshops while telling my own story. I don’t want to take over the world and sell thousands of bottles a week, I want to make each bottle myself and find customers who believe in my philosophy.
Where I am now
I’ve been shortlisted for the Natural Health Beauty Awards. I’m learning facial acupuncture and will keep demonstrating facial massage and reflexology in my online membership area. I sell on my own website, as well as Organa Beauty & Wellbeing, Amazon and Wellbeing Sisters. Customers tell me my oil blend has changed their complexion and their lives. I know how awful it feels to have bad skin and how much of a relief it is to heal. I’m delighted my experience might help others.
Start small and grow as demand grows.
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Ksoni co-founders Banasa Williams and Joti Sohi
Banasa Williams, 41, lives in north London with husband Sebastian, 43, and her step-children. Banasa co-founded the plastic-free haircare range Ksoni with Joti Sohi, 34.
A mutual friend suggested Joti and I meet, as I had experience in retail and Joti was running a gourmet samosa business. We met on my office rooftop one beautiful sunny day in June 2018, spent 15 minutes talking samosas before our shared enthusiasm for treating the planet kindly led us off on a tangent. Joti had recently been in South East Asia where she’d seen plastic waste floating in the ocean. She had taken to diving with a bag and attempting to collect litter but it felt futile.
Keen to address her own contribution to the problem, she’d made changes in the kitchen, but found bathroom product swaps more of a struggle. I already made my own ethical beauty products to counter the waste problem. We discussed the shocking fact that 90% of kitchen products are recycled but only 50% of bathroom products are. By 2050 it is estimated there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. For us, sustainability is about wanting to make changes where you can. One place where you easily can is the bathroom. The idea for a plastic-free haircare brand in the spirit of ethical beauty was born.
Start up costs: £18,000
– Marketing: £1,000
– Materials and packaging: £11,000
– Formulations research and development: £5,000
– Printing and postage: £1,000
What happened next
We spent a year researching “product-market fit” to ensure there was an audience for a liquid shampoo in a plastic-free container. The bathroom should be a sanctuary, so we infused the range with essential oils to give customers a mood-enhancing aromatherapy experience. We opted to use aluminum cans because they are infinitely recyclable and can be back on the shelf just 60 days after recycling, but also because shampoo in a can is a fun and unusual experience. In October 2019, we launched Ksoni, which means “earth” in Sanskrit.
We’d been to a few trade shows but the Zero Waste Goods Market in London was special—and we seemed to have the right product at the right time, in the right place. We had our best sales day yet and it felt like the time and money we’d invested was worth it because we had made something people loved.
Steepest learning curve
Like many small businesses, we panicked when the UK went into the first lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. We were only a few months into trading and had been steadily gaining momentum at shows and markets, with many more events in the diary. But we pivoted online, figuring out how to recreate the experience of meeting customers and giving them a sense of discovery, digitally. I would not want to repeat the pandemic period but we knew people were at home, wondering what they could do to play their part in a more sustainable future and we worked hard to reach them and tell our story.
Where we are now
We wanted to infuse the ethos that nothing matters more than the planet from the start, so we applied to become a certified B Corporation, which means we meet a high standard of verified social and environmental performance. It’s important to balance profit and purpose and be part of a community-driven by the very best practices. We work in the spirit of continuous improvement, listening to customers to improve our range. We’re stocked on our own website as well as Wolf & Badger, Amazon, and independent retailers. Our favorite is Janet’s Life, a pop-up and internet marketplace for women of color. They champion us and we’re so grateful. Launching just months before the pandemic, I’m so proud of us for surviving and hopeful for what’s to come.
Research your market so you know there are enough people who will buy your product.
Awake Organics founder Melissa Kimbell
Melissa Kimbell, 42, is the founder of Awake Organics. Originally from Saskatchewan, Canada, Melissa lives with husband James, 46, and children Sophie, 15, and Ben, 14, in Northamptonshire.
When we settled in the UK five years ago, the landscape for natural skincare and ethical beauty was bleak. There were no basics, such as deodorant and shampoo, that were made with healthy, natural ingredients. Plus everything was sold in plastic bottles. I’d been making my own soap, body wash, and moisturizers for years so I knew how to make natural products that worked and I could see there was a need for everyday products that were good for you and easy on the planet.
What happened next
In October 2018, I launched Awake Organics with a face cream, serum, and an ethical beauty deodorant. I had worked as a graphic designer and studied web development so I had a knack for design and building a website, which saved money. I had no customers but learned how to set up as a seller with Amazon and that really helped, especially as there weren’t many independent sellers on Amazon back then. Slowly, I built a reputation and customers kept returning. As I made everything myself, I could test new ideas without having to order 10,000 units from a manufacturer, which kept risk and cost down.
Start up costs: £6,000
– Production and development: £4,250
– Marketing, website fees and software: £1,000
– Insurance and accountancy: £750
Current turnover: £130k
Last year, I invented the UK’s first plastic-free, water-activated shampoo concentrate. One tiny 55g bottle is equal to 350ml of regular shampoo, a blend of caffeine, guarana seed, and rosemary, it’s designed to boost volume and reduce hair thinning and loss. It was a problem I was dealing with myself, which is why I started tinkering with the idea. Once I’d cracked the formula, I could hardly keep up with demand. Customers came for the shampoo, couldn’t believe how good it was, then came back to try other ethical beauty products.
Steepest learning curve
I started at the kitchen table, making little pots of beautiful things. When we moved into a 1,500 sq ft barn conversion last year, scaling up was challenging as small and large batches don’t always behave the same way.
Where I am now
The quality and sustainability of ingredients is paramount but packaging matters too. Awake Organics is plastic-free and we are committed to a small supply chain, with almost 100% of our suppliers based in the UK. Our packaging and cartons are made seven miles away with biodegradable veggie ink. So much care goes into every step of production and every ingredient must meet at least one of five criteria. They must be Soil Association Certified Organic, Fair Trade, Wild-Crafted, Food Grade/Local Organic, and Biodegradable. It would be cheaper to buy lesser ingredients but I believe you pay in other ways, by burdening the planet or contributing to terrible working conditions in other countries. If we start with the best ingredients, it translates into the best final product. We’re certified Cruelty Free by Leaping Bunny, the best assurance a company has made a genuine commitment to ending animal testing.
We’re about to launch a hibiscus and peppermint scalp scrub that stimulates hair follicles. It’s a game-changer and probably my favorite product yet. We’re stocked in Selfridges and dozens of gorgeous independent businesses throughout the UK and online. Sometimes I have to pinch myself because I have my dream job. My confidence has grown with the brand, so where once I used to wonder what I might be able to achieve, now I ask myself what I want to achieve. Whatever I’m doing seems to be working so I just keep setting the bar higher in the ethical beauty stakes.
You don’t need to invent something new, but you do need an original spin and your product needs a reason for being.