A couple of months ago, we put out a request for nominations of New Zealand's outstanding entrepreneurs under 30.
We got a great response with almost 40 nominations, and have selected five to profile this week to celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week. They are the New Faces of Entrepreneurship; millennial change-makers who are transforming the face of business.
Brianne West is the the founder of Ethique - a range of solid shampoo, conditioner and skincare bars made with sustainable, naturally derived ingredients. Ethique is the first skin and hair-care company in the world to create an entirely solid product range, and to date they have saved over 40,000 plastic bottles from going to landfill or recycling. The company recently raised $200,000 in equity through Kiwi crowdfunding platform PledgeMe.
In our first of five interviews, we sat down with Brianne to talk about the triumphs and challenges of forging a brave, new path in the crowded beauty industry.
Tell us about how you started your entrepreneurial journey
I have always been quite entrepreneurial minded. I started a pet detective agency when I was eight years old, which lasted probably three or four days. I also started an art gallery at home at that age, and was quite disappointed when no one came to see my pictures.
At university, I thought I would use some of the science I was studying to start a natural body care company, which I ran for a couple of years. I treated it more like a part time hobby while studying, and it gained a bit of a following through word of mouth. While I was at university I also had a cake decorating company, which lasted about ten minutes as I couldn’t actually decorate cakes, and a confectionary company.
Have you ever worked for a company before?
No, I don't really know how “normal” companies work. People say, “oh you do things quite differently” and I’m thinking, do I? The advantages of being my own boss with no experience working in large companies are immense. I often find different ways of doing things, which possibly works out in the long run to be more efficient and more fun.
Did you start Ethique from an interest in the beauty industry?
I'm not particularly interested in the beauty industry as a whole, but I have an interest in the science behind it.
In my earlier years, I guess I was trying to be successful for the sake of being successful, whereas with Ethique I'm trying to do something that genuinely has a positive impact. I wanted to do something different, and I wanted it to have a positive social or environmental impact. I wanted to get rid of the obscene over-packaging that goes on in the cosmetic industry and by taking solid products further than anyone else has, I could do that. The beauty industry produces massive volumes of waste that is so unnecessary. That seems ridiculous to me, it always has, and this just seemed a small area in which I could make an impact.
I mean that is what an entrepreneur is, it's someone with a different idea who follows it through, isn't it? Aside from the environmental benefits of paper packaging we avoid a few ingredients that perhaps more conventional companies have to use.
How is the market reacting to your products?
Moving people onto a completely new product can be hard. The number one question we get is, “why would you use a solid shampoo?” (or conditioner or whatever). It is such an unusual product that people don't understand it, and yet to me and my team it makes perfect sense. Up to 75% of shampoo can be water, so why do we need to be bottling and shipping hundreds of thousands of tonnes of water as part of your shampoo, when it’s already there in your shower? It doesn't make any sense.
Despite the initial switch being tough, we have some of the most devoted followers and fans. When people try our products and see how easy they are to use and the results they produce, they love them. Most of the comments we hear start with "I was skeptical but….", "I didn't think this would work, but…" or "my friend made me try this, I wasn't sure…” It just works, and people love it.
Why are you motivated to incorporate the social and environmental aspects into your business?
I don't know how to answer that question. I care because I do and I always have. I was brought up to care. Part of the reason I studied science is because I find the natural world genuinely amazing. I mean, the intricacies of a cell are mind blowing. The fact that more and more people care about these issues is another factor too - businesses are expected to do good. Business has more power than anything else to elicit change on a large scale, and consumers are driving that.
I’m certainly more idealistic as time goes on. I’ve been told people lose their idealism over time; I have gained it.
Was there ever a time when you lost your idealism?
I lost a lot of idealism when I was in my early 20's. I went through some mental health troubles and I guess I did the 18-year-old drinking thing a bit later than most people, to the detriment of the rest of my life. I really didn't care about much back then. But I gained it all back and more.
Mental health is a big issue for a lot of entrepreneurs, and we don’t often hear those stories. What advice would you have for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling with similar issues?
It isn't talked about very much. There is an element of concern that if you talk about it too much, people will lose faith in your abilities. But being an entrepreneur is extremely stressful, particularly if you have staff and you’re responsible for their livelihood. Not to mention the fact that you so desperately want your brand to succeed that it becomes an obsession. Then you add in ridiculous working hours, like most entrepreneurs do, and it’s a recipe for disaster. An entrepreneur who is depressed, and doesn't work on making it better, will only bring their company down at the end of the day. You need to be firing on all four cylinders.
All you can really do is look out for yourself and have support systems in place. John Kirwan goes on about the virtues of exercise, and he’s right - it really made a massive difference for me. And every day you have to make sure you do something that makes the day worthwhile. If you don't do at least one productive thing every day - and it can be really small - then the next day will be worse.
This is something that was four years ago, and something that I have learnt how to deal with. I am now certainly a lot more resilient, I take things a lot less to heart. I’ve got a bit more grit. If someone says no to me I'll go away. But I will come back with the same question framed differently. Previously I would have run away with my tail between my legs.
Ethique is one of only four certified B Corporations in New Zealand. Tell us about the process of gaining accreditation.
Gaining B Corp certification is really quite hard, but something I considered really important. There are a lot of certification systems out there, and B Corp certification is the gold standard. It proves to the consumer and your competitors that you mean what you say, and that there are things just as important as profit to your enterprise. You go through an impact assessment which is a long process of in-depth questions focusing on everything from the way you treat all your stakeholders, to your environmental impact, your governance and much more. After that you are interviewed and must provide evidence of your claims. Then if you manage to achieve 80 points (out of a possible 200), you are certified. I was pretty stoked with our result of 106!
What does the next five years look like for Ethique?
Massive expansion, developing a really good brand name, and being known as a company that does good. We'd like to establish a greater foothold in New Zealand and good export growth to Australia, and to our third international market - possibly the US or Singapore.
I don't want to take a scatter-gun approach, being in eight or nine countries but doing it badly. We’d like to be in four countries over the next five years, and be doing them properly.
What advice would you have for other young people who are troubled by what they're seeing in the world, and are looking to be part of the solution?
Just do it. Start small if you're afraid. Perhaps people are thinking “my idea isn't good enough”, but it’s important to have faith in yourself, your ability and your idea.
Approach people who can help you figure out whether your idea has legs. They are out there, they just might be difficult to find. Go to some networking evenings or entrepreneurs clubs. I entered the Entré Competition at the University of Canterbury on a whim, the second to last day before it closed. I was thinking “this is ridiculous, this isn't for me”, but it turned out really well and I wouldn’t be where I was now without it.
And lastly, don't keep talking about what you want; do something towards it. If you have passion and dedication towards your idea, nothing will stop you.