Bubble and Balm: Sue Acton
The Bubble & Balm founder on why redundancy gave her the push she needed to start her own venture
Company name: Bubble & Balm
Founders: Sue Acton
Based: Leamington Spa, Warwickshire
Date started: June 2009
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Bubble & Balm is one of the few companies in the UK offering Fairtrade certified bodycare products – and we were the first 100% Fairtrade beauty company in the UK (the first to achieve Fairtrade certification across our entire range).
Where did the idea for your business come from? Following redundancy, I decided to take the plunge and fulfil a long-held ambition to run my own business. Having taken a career break to do voluntary work overseas, I wanted to create a business that was both ethical and profitable. I came up with the idea of Fairtrade soap and other bodycare products after thinking about things that people use every day that were not yet available as Fairtrade.
How did you know there was a market for it? I did lots of research before starting up – Fairtrade products and natural products are both growth markets. Our USP is about the combination of product features – Fairtrade and UK made, natural and effective, great packaging and green packaging, luxurious and affordable. I very much want Bubble & Balm to be in the mainstream, with people buying our products simply because they love them as well as because they’re Fairtrade.
Have you always wanted to run your own business? Perhaps not always, but over the last ten years or so I’ve had a growing desire to create my own business from scratch. As is the case for many people, being made redundant gave me that final push to take the plunge.
How did you raise the money? The business has been funded in several ways – redundancy money, a grant, support from family, and (after six months of trading) some bank support. We also won a £10,000 grant from BT Business and this has made a big difference to our finances, enabling us to launch our brand new liquid soap range. And it’s not just about the money – starting a business can be a lonely road and receiving the endorsement of a company like BT has been fantastic.
There have been lots of positives, but lots of rejections too. The banks almost never lend to start-ups, and in the majority of cases I couldn’t even get my proposal through the door – I was told to come back after I’d been trading for six months. I looked at the business angel route too, but this is also tough as a start-up. As part of the process I got lots of feedback – ranging from ‘this is one of the best business plans I’ve seen (but it’s still too risky for lending because you’re a start-up)’ through to ‘this will never work – and the company name is dreadful’.
We’re now seeking growth funding for the business, armed with an agreement from a major retailer to launch our products in their stores later this year, so it’ll be interesting to see whether things are different now we’re up and running and doing well.
How did you find suppliers? Finding suppliers ties with raising funds as the most challenging part of getting the business up and running. With absolutely no experience or contacts in the beauty or manufacturing industry, as well as a limited budget and my very specific requirements to use Fairtrade, natural and recycled materials, it took a long time to find the right partners. Some suppliers didn’t even call us back, and we got a lot of ‘sorry, which company are you calling from again’?
All our manufacturing is carried out in the UK, and I prefer to use UK made packaging as well. I do use one Far East supplier – after thoroughly checking out their ethical credentials. That said, I’m now working with a fantastic group of partners – manufacturers, packaging companies, and my Leamington based graphic designer, who has been working with me from the start and feels like part of the team.
What has your growth been like? When I look back at my original business plan, well over a year old now, it’s like reading about a different business – the fundamentals are the same but the operational and financial aspects are completely different in reality. And that’s why I believe that whilst planning is important, you’ll never really understand your business until you’re actually running it.
We’ve been trading for eight months now, and we will start turning a profit in Year Two – so from June onwards. Having enough cash in the business to keep going before you become profitable one of hardest things for any new business to manage – and that’s why winning the grant from BT Business, for example, has been so important for us.
What was your first big breakthrough?One of our products was chosen by Natural Collection / Ethical Superstore as their Christmas gift last year – their customers received one of our soaps free if they spent over a certain amount in the run-up to Christmas. Not only did this mean we sold a lot of soaps to our customer, it also introduced our brand to thousands of people.
And, a major retailer has just confirmed that they’d like to launch our products into their stores later this year.
What would you do differently? I was lucky enough to meet Peter Jones last year at the BT Business Small Business Week. It was only for five minutes, but he gave me some fantastic advice – focus on one killer product, get maximum distribution, and only then diversify and add new products. Looking back, launching a whole range created a lot of cost and lot of work, and was far harder to manage in terms of marketing messages. I’ve taken Peter’s advice and we’re now focusing on soap – which is proving to be a really good decision – I just wish I’d done it earlier!
I’d also say that the old saying that everything will always take twice as long and twice as much money as you thought is absolutely true!
Where do you want to be in five years’ time? I’d like to see Bubble & Balm become a household name as the ‘new’ Body Shop. As things stand at the moment, I can’t imagine ever wanting to exit the business, regardless of what that might mean in terms of financial gain. I love what I do and I’d like to develop and grow the business.