The Pure Emporia: Sharon Lowe
The first-time entrepreneur on staying true to her values and why confidence is as valuable as money
Tell us what your business does:
I sell natural skincare online – although there is a little bit more to it than that. To be listed legally as ‘natural’ a product only has to contain 3% natural ingredients – the rest could be fairly harsh chemicals.
I go beyond just selling natural. I created a database of about 4,000 ingredients, which each product gets compared to. If any are ‘nasty’ then I won’t stock the product.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
A few years ago a number of friends and family got poorly at the same time, some with serious diseases. I started to question what we were using in our daily skincare routines and I didn’t like what I found.
Now I wouldn’t claim that these people got ill because of their skincare routines, but why would you use something made of petroleum, or something that is known to cause serious reactions, when you don’t have to?
How did you know there was a market for it?
I started talking to people and there was genuine concern. Some people claimed that they knew about the issue and were avoiding ‘the nasties’, yet when I asked which brands they used I knew that there were still some ‘nasty’ ingredients in them.
There are a number of other sites on the market that do this but my unique selling point is that I research each and every product and don’t just take it for granted that if it says natural or organic on the label that it is all natural or organic inside.
What were you doing before starting up?
My last position was head of performance management, where I looked into the efficiencies of the business that I was in. I didn’t have any experience in my new business apart from what has been self-taught and a lot of research over the last three years. I have a degree in IT, which has helped, and some business acumen from my previous roles. I was made redundant from my last position but, after the initial shock, I thought that it was a good thing. It released me to do something I really wanted to do.
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Have you always wanted to run your own business?
I always wanted to be my own boss but never knew what to do. I started work on researching ingredients and products before I even knew I would do it as a business. It’s something I have a passion for.
The most appealing thing about running my own business is that it is now up to me to succeed. My future lies in my own hands. I think the saying is ‘I don’t have to dance to someone else’s beat’.
What planning did you do before you started up?
I did so much planning! I did market research. I created my database. I researched products and suppliers.
I put together a business plan and went on several Business Link courses on how to run a business. I spoke to other business people. I sought advice from banks. The list is endless.
How did you raise the money?
The money was raised by my husband and I – and by the fact that I had received a redundancy payout.
I did apply for a grant from Shropshire Council but got turned down. They said that my business wasn’t in the area that they were looking for – which was food enterprises. They also said that they were unsure how I would get market share. They had been overrun with applications.
How did you find suppliers?
Finding suppliers wasn’t as easy as you would think. All the ones I found were through the web but some had minimum order quantities, which would have taken more money than I had – even if they would have lasted me a very long time.
Some suppliers claimed to be natural yet, when compared to my ingredients database, failed my tests. I am extremely specific with what I buy so it wasn’t easy, but my supplier list is now increasing.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
It is still early days, but I imagine the biggest challenge ahead will be how to fit my business into my house and when to take the plunge and get a warehouse. Then, when I cannot manage the business myself, I’ll need to engage staff.
How have you promoted your business?
I have had some leaflets printed and I also joined natural skincare forums – one of which I sponsored so that they would promote me. My next line of attack will be local newspapers and magazines to see how I get on.
My present concern is how to engage customers on Facebook, Twitter and through other media. I want everyone to know about what I am doing – yet they seem to have other issues to think about!
What has your growth been like?
As it’s so early, it’s difficult to say. I am ahead of my business plan targets and hope to be profitable by the end of the first year. Turnover was £500 in the first two weeks.
What’s the impact on your home life been like?
I was in quite a well-paid job before, so the biggest difference has been to my income. We have had to cut down on some things but it will hopefully be worthwhile. As I am working at home, I can do more things around the home so that side is a bit easier.
What would you say the greatest difficulty has been in starting up?
It was money to begin with and then confidence – the confidence that I could do this and make it work.
It is fairly lonely working at home and continuing to be your own support system. I joined some networking groups to get the boost which I need occasionally.
What was your first big breakthrough?
The first breakthrough was receiving an order from someone that wasn’t a friend or family member. Also, the support I get from people in my field when I say that I research each product’s ingredients lets me know that I am doing the right thing.
Another huge breakthrough is that, after running the business for seven weeks, we’ve just won a national award – Outstanding Online Shop for 100% Natural Beauty & Skincare.
The award was given by Janey Lee Grace – an advocator of natural lifestyles who is listed as one of the top 10 in the field. She heard about us through online marketing and social media. I cannot stress enough how important online media is. Without it we wouldn’t be able to reach half as many people.
What would you do differently?
I don’t think I would do anything differently, as it all has its purpose. But if I did it again I would take the experience I’ve acquired and do it better and faster.
It’s a learning curve, but I now know about accounts, setting up websites, phone lines, supplier contracts, intellectual property, the list goes on. You can’t pay for that kind of knowledge.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Do it! You only live once. I’d rather fail than not have given it a go.
It is a rollercoaster though – so you need to buckle up!
Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
I’d still want to be CEO of The Pure Emporia but other people would manage the day-to-day running of the company. I want to see the business expand and become a household name.