Anna Brightman, co-founder of UpCircle, on creating a sustainable skincare company

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Describe UpCircle in a few words?

We make sustainable skincare products from ingredients which would otherwise be discarded.

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

It all started five years ago. My brother William (co-founder) asked his local coffee shop what they did with their used coffee grounds at the end of the day and was shocked to hear that they were producing so much that they had to pay the council to have it removed and disposed of on landfill sites. 

He decided it was a great starting point for a business idea, but wasn’t sure what that idea was – that’s where I came in. Throughout my teenage years I wanted to be a makeup artist so always had a keen interest in beauty and skincare. I knew that coffee had loads of great skincare benefits, so… lightbulb moment! Why not repurpose the coffee into sustainable circular skincare products?

We began our journey collecting coffee grounds from one coffee shop, we now collect from over 100 coffee houses across London – our list is always growing!

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

William and I came from fairly corporate backgrounds, but were left feeling ultimately unfulfilled. We wanted to start a business with a purpose beyond profit, a business that leaves the world better than we found it. Prior to launching UpCircle, I worked as an area manager of several supermarket stores. Despite the huge responsibility this role afforded me, I was keen to forge a new path in an industry closer to my heart.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

No. I always knew that I was a creative and that I wanted to work in a job where I was independent and had autonomy, but if I’m honest I was always quite afraid of dreaming of having my own business. It almost seemed fanciful or unrealistic. I couldn’t be happier that I decided to join forces with my brother and give it a go starting a business from scratch. We’ve never looked back.

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

In the very early days, whilst still working our previous jobs, we booked ourselves into as many trade and consumer shows as we possibly could. Most were related to the beauty industry but we also visited and exhibited at wellness shows, fitness shows, vegan shows – anywhere we thought the audience would be interested in us. It was a great way to test the market and gauge people’s responses to our products and concept. At our very first show we actually met our first retail partner, Urban Outfitters. So, it’s safe to say things moved quickly for us.

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

Absolutely. I think it is SO important to show that it is not always a smooth road and that we all have failures along the way. It’s so easy to look at a brand or person’s Instagram feed and assume that everything is perfect, but that is not reality! Things go wrong all the time and that’s not something to feel bad about, it’s inevitable – it’s all about how you deal with it and move forwards.

For example – we were told that a product of ours was going to be on national TV and all got extremely excited. It was a morning talk show and the journalist pitched our best-selling product to the presenters. Both presenters absolutely hated the smell and that was that. They literally said  “I don’t like it” and “I am not into that.” I would be lying if I said that we weren’t initially gutted by the fairly brutal (and incredibly public) dismissal of the brand we’ve built from scratch, but we know that these setbacks are all part of life’s lessons – so we dust ourselves off and keep on keeping on!

Rather than trying to pretend it hadn’t happened I posted the clip on our Instagram just to demonstrate that things can and will go wrong, and that’s okay! It remains our most shared, most liked post of all time.

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

It’s so hard to choose one! Having 3 dragons fighting over us on Dragons’ Den was certainly a high! When I won a live pitching event to Sainsbury’s buyers which led to our range being launched in their stores nationwide…that was pretty amazing too. Growing our team is also something that excites me greatly and I take great pride in overseeing the growth of each member of Team UpCircle. With each new hire we have a new wave of excitement, passion and personality. I believe being a good manager is one of my greatest strengths in my working life.

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

We are still a small team, but one that is growing quickly. In our team it’s particularly important that each person is self-motivated and shares our passion for seeing UpCircle grow. We aren’t going to hold your hand every step of the way. For that reason, it’s vital not only that we find people with relevant experience, but also that the individuals we bring into our team have the right personality traits to fit our brand. Those qualities include grit, determination, the ability to see humour in any situation, a problem solving attitude and ability to dust off your shoulders and start again. And how do I find them? I ask about examples of when things have gone wrong, you can find out a lot in interviews not just by asking about the things that people want to show off, but also by delving into the circumstances surrounding times when things didn’t quite go to plan!

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Yes, absolutely. We saw a sharp increase in online sales at the start of lockdown 1 and this has continued to rise ever since. However, our circular economy ethos relies on the functioning of other industries for the creation of the by-products that we use in our products. Our signature coffee scrub range for example is made up of coffee grounds that we collect from hundreds of cafes all over London. With almost all of those coffee shops closed for the majority of the year, paired with the increase in demand for our products, we faced a huge challenge keeping our products in stock. We donned our entrepreneurial caps, continued to think outside the box, and just about managed it… through varied and imaginative means. In March 2020 we had to quickly relocate to a bigger office and begin hiring in order to keep up with demand. 

It has been a time of constant obstacles. To not only survive but thrive in a time like this you have to be willing to pivot your offering and come up with new Ideas. In March, for obvious reasons, we decided to release a Hand Wash. If you’re going to be doing a lot of hand washing you might as well make sure you’re using a good one! We decided that with every bottle sold we would donate £1 to charity, and we would rotate the charity each month. We also sent out pamper parcels to show our gratitude to those working on the frontline. We announced the initiative and had 1000+ requests within the first hour. Our gesture was mentioned by press giants like The Independent, Hello and R29 – with a live interview on BBC Radio.

Other challenges brought about by the pandemic include very long lead times and increased ingredient, equipment and shipping costs, but positives have also come out of it, including a preference for shopping small and shopping locally. People want to support young, ethical businesses more than ever.

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

Our product launches this year include an ocean-friendly SPF, a Hand Wash, Hand Lotion and Hand Sanitiser Trio which we plan to launch widely into restaurants and hotels. We’re also developing a Night Cream and Lip Balm – all set to launch in 2021. The repurposed ingredients for those include seaweed extract and kiwi water! 

We are growing so rapidly at the moment that recruitment is a huge focus. Later this year we intend to set up an entire new team based in the US. It’s a challenge to grow the team so quickly whilst not dropping the ball on my own role and responsibilities!

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

I’ve had my faith in community restored.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

That those already in the industry don’t necessarily know better than me. The very existence of my brand, given the brand mission and model, is a demonstration of taking the lead with regards to sustainability within our industry. We’re the only brand to scale up repurposing ingredients into skincare formulations. The pioneering nature of what we do is illustrated by the extent of the opposition to our idea at the start, mentors and investors alike told us that the industry was not ready, that tackling issues of waste in the “shallow” beauty industry would not work. Our rapid growth has proven that not only is it possible, it’s in fact extremely popular.

How have you managed to stay grounded this year?

Regular virtual catch ups with friends and family.

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

Of course I believe in work/life balance, but I must admit that during the pandemic I’ve had no excuse not to work pretty constantly. 

UpCircle gets me out of bed in the morning, bright and early, seven days a week! It has been an absolute whirlwind, both exciting and exhausting, but it’s certainly fair to say that the business has taken over my life since the start – and shows no signs of letting up! I stay motivated because I am passionate about what we do at UpCircle. My resilience is helped by my ability to find humour in any situation – when the world is crashing down what else can you do but laugh?! Then, just roll your sleeves up and get it sorted!

That said, I look forward to the world returning to “normal” and getting my work/life balance back. I am a very sociable person, so I can’t wait to fill my weekends back up with quality time with friends and family.

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

Given that I am the “story-teller” of our brand, I think people would be surprised to learn that I used to have a crippling fear of public speaking. Now I get flown to different countries so that people can hear what I have to say – who would have imagined?! It feels very surreal. I wish I could tell my younger self that the way to overcome the fear is to find what you’re passionate about. Once you’ve done that it becomes second nature, and a whole lot less terrifying.

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

Exercise, eat well, sleep well.

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

It means having the strength of character to be bold and unafraid of being the first to do something.

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