The world of is swarming with products, companies and plenty of aggressive marketing campaigns that promise to help you achieve eternal youth and enviable radiance.
So when Dominika Minarovic and Elsie Rutterford set up their own venture, they knew they would need a rock-solid unique selling point to stand out from the expanding crowd.
With , they appear to have just that. And the clue’s in the name. But as the market for naturally-produced cosmetics swells, they’re learning that a strong brand is only half the secret to being a successful startup.
Minarovic and Rutterford met in 2013 while working in similar roles at a marketing company in London. During lunch breaks and between meetings, the two women struck up a friendship initially based on their shared love of healthy eating, home cooking and baking.
They started exchanging recipes for sweet potato brownies just, before entrepreneurs like Ella Woodward, of Deliciously Ella fame, crashed onto the mainstream food scene – enchanting millions of mostly millennial women.
Later, inspired by their growing scepticism of pre-packaged processed foods, they both experimented with veganism. Neither could get comfortable with the lifestyle, so instead – drawing on the changing trends in the food industry – they started experimenting with plant-based beauty.
The original intention, they explain, wasn’t to create a disruptive company or industry-challenging brand. They didn’t plan to launch a startup. And neither woman saw herself as an entrepreneur back then. They were just doing it for themselves.
“We were experimenting in our kitchens, applying the same principles that we had been using for cooking and baking with no additives, to making beauty products,” Rutterford explains.
“We realised quickly that the products that we were creating – face masks, hair serums and body scrubs – were working really well because they were completely natural and tailored to our own needs,” she adds.
In the true spirit of entrepreneurial millennials, they then started a blog.
At the time they were both eagerly testing existing natural beauty products on the market, but the idea of the blog was to share the secret of their own concoctions with a gradually growing community.
“We thought of it as an alternative to a cooking blog,” explains Minarovic, who hails from Slovakia but has lived in Hong Kong and Australia.
“So many food blogs in the clean-eating space are incredibly successful.” Clean “skin-food” seemed like a natural progression.
It may look as if it happened accidentally, but the two women had stumbled upon what emerged to be a deeply under-explored market. Their social media following thrived.
A community of mainly females, equally passionate about detoxifying their beauty regimes, started to grow.
The blog had cost them virtually nothing – aside from energy and time – and had given them the opportunity to “test the waters”, as they say, with limited risk. Within months, and while both were still holding down an office job, they had secured a book deal.
In an industry so focused on ingredients and products, the story of Clean Beauty could seem back-to-front.
Before even trying to sell anything at all, Minarovic and Rutterford were publishing detailed instructions online for how to make those very products at home.
It wasn’t a conscious decision, but Rutterford says that rather than encouraging copycats, this approach actually helped them build a name and following – both things that proved fundamental when they actually hit the market.
“The blog gave our business an air of transparency and made us relatable,” she says. “We’ve always been very down-to-earth and personal on our social media, and that’s one of the things that helped people take a shine to us. People liked that philosophy.”
The publication of the book was a turning point for the two women. It served as a litmus test for their concept. They say that the fact that they were authors gave the brand added “legitimacy” and gravitas.
It also gave them the courage to commit exclusively. Last summer, they quit their day jobs.
The first few weeks as fully-fledged entrepreneurs were spent compiling a detailed business plan. They analysed the market exhaustively and projected where demand would be.
They traipsed around manufacturers, spoke to logistics professionals and thought – for the first time – about hard-hitting financing: balance sheets, investors, venture capitalists and real risk.
Spurred on by each other, they pitched for a loan through a programme offered by Richard Branson’s not-for-profit Virgin StartUp, and were selected as one of the businesses that received £50,000 in funding.
It proved a springboard, and they’ve recently secured £150,000 from a group of private investors betting on the potential of Clean Beauty to take on the established players.
Today they have three products on the market, and are taking pre-order for two more. Their ‘Detox Dust’ face mask is made with oat kernel flour, charcoal powder, coconut shell powder, Siberian ginseng, lotus and black currants.
Their toner contains ingredients like bitter orange, lemon balm and algae, and a serum they sell has watermelon, prickly pear, rose geranium and lemongrass in it.
The products range in price from £22 to £32, and are still made in small batches completely in the UK – about a thousand of each item are sold every month – but the aim is to scale up rapidly.
They’ve hired two members of staff, mostly to look after the company’s marketing and publicity, and are looking to hire several more. They’re also hunting for new office space, having rapidly outgrown a small studio in Hackney.
Their first line, called BYBI – which stands for “By beauty insiders”, is available for purchase online and in Planet Organic stores across London. Not naming the brand after the company was a strategic decision, they say.
“We decided that we didn’t want people exploring our brand to jump to any quick conclusions,” Minarovic says. Clean, natural beauty products have for years been the domain of self-proclaimed eco-warriors and hippies.
Visually, their products are far from the green scrappily labelled bottles of grapeseed oil you used to only be able to get from homeopathic specialist retailers.
“We want people to come to our brands with an open mind,” Rutterford adds.
The book has since been translated into three languages, and is available on ASOS and in shops like Urban Outfitters. Other “clean” beauty brands are sprouting everywhere, and the big corporations are catching on to the appeal of “back to nature” too.
Competition is relentless, and success also comes down to luck, but the two women are optimistic. They say that investors have taken a shine to their philosophy.
They’ll soon start thinking about a next funding round, and they’re talking to major retailers and department stores about possible distribution deals.
And there’s one crucial factor as to why they think they could have an edge over some of the global beauty companies.
“Most of the big multinationals that make beauty products are run by men,” Rutterford says.
Knowing your customer is famously a key to success. Perhaps being your customer, though, is the real secret ingredient.