Sue Acton worked in banking for 10 years before starting Bubble & Balm. While most people were horrified at the thought of redundancies, Sue saw it as an opportunity to start working for herself – something she had always wanted to do. Now, Bubble & Balm has been trading for just under two years and has distribution deals with both Waitrose and Oxfam.
When Sue started her company, she had no knowledge of the beauty product industry and spent a year learning how to make the products and developing them. She opted to go Fair Trade because her products were coming to market at around the same time that the certificate for beauty products was launched, making Bubble & Balm one of the earliest producers of Fair Trade beauty products in the UK.
From corporate to entrepreneur
Sue’s career started in banking, where she worked in corporate social responsibility (CSR). Working in a corporate environment helped her to learn about business fundamentals such as cash flow and planning, as well as knowing the language used in corporate environments. Sue says: “Many people start a business doing something they love and have to learn the business side of things. I came at it from the opposite way – I had to learn the industry-specific stuff and how to make the products and about the beauty world.”
Getting into stores
Since starting, the company has gone from strength to strength. Whereas Sue originally made the products by hand in her kitchen, she has since struck a deal for 57 Waitrose
stores to stock her products and has taken on a manufacturing partner to deal with the demand. Bubble & Balm will also be sold in over 200 Oxfam
stores from summer 2011.
After she had started working with a manufacturer Sue started looking for distributors. Waitrose was the obvious choice to her as the chain’s products are sold within a similar price range to those of Bubble & Balm and the company has a strong CSR ethic.
When asked how she arranged her deal with Waitrose, Sue laughs and says “Relentless stalking”. The hardest part of getting the deal, she says, was finding out the details of the buyer “as companies tend to keep them well-hidden”.
Although Sue did go to banks to seek finance, she found it very difficult to acquire funding as a new business. She says: “Most banks require businesses to have at least two years’ profitable trading – most businesses don’t make a profit in their first year or two... Out of all the small businesses I’ve spoken to only one who got their bank to say yes and that was with a lot of personal guarantees and security.”
Instead Sue has turned to Crowdcube
, a crowd funding site that she describes as “like Dragons’ Den but you’re pitching to the whole country”. Crowdcube allows business owners to offer equity in return for investment, with a minimum investment of £10 required. Sue is aiming to raise £75,000 to grow Bubble & Balm and has raised 30 percent of the amount (as of June 2011), seeing investments of between £10 and £5,000.
When asked about the current Government drive to fund small businesses, Sue says: “The Government is trying to drive growth in small start ups through banks and it’s never going to work as banks are trying to reduce their risks. They’re [the Government] trying to encourage growth through the wrong channels. One bank told me the Government had introduced this guarantee scheme to encourage them to lend but I was told they don’t use it as it’s a lot more complex and difficult than the Government says. They’re going to have to do it in a different way and cut the banks out.”
She adds “I’m not sure finance will ever change – it is always going to be a struggle for a small business that hasn’t got assets and cash behind it. I hope crowd funding gets bigger, I love it. Crowdcube spreads risks – people only lose what they put in, which could be just £10.”
Bubble & Balm offers vegan, natural products that are Fair Trade certified – something Sue wanted to do as it is something she believes in. Sue argues that CSR is something that will become much more intrinsic to business values in the future. When working in her CSR role for a bank she noticed that many companies were starting to shift from philanthropy (eg donating money to charities) to building CSR into their business strategies.
While she believes that there is still a long way to go with CSR, Sue believes that the internet has been a great help in increasing the pressure on companies to act ethically, citing examples such as the boycotts of Nestle and Barclays for using unethical or unsustainable business practices. “Consumer pressure is starting to drive companies, and there’s been a big shift in attitudes – it’s becoming a consideration in business strategy.”