What winning The Start-Up Series meant for me – Zaffrin O’Sullivan, Five Dot Botanics

Zaffrin O’Sullivan wondered why so many makeup brands listed impenetrable artificial ingredients. Her answer was to create sustainable eco brand Five Dot Botanics.

Zaffrin O’Sullivan, 41, first had the idea for Five Dot Botanics back in 2017. She wondered why the packaging for skincare products listed impenetrable ingredients at a time when consumers were demanding ingredient transparency in food and cleaning products.

It was not as if O’Sullivan did not have enough to do in her day job as a senior lawyer at the BBC. Plus O’Sullivan had no beauty industry background, so she partnered with a cosmetic scientist and spent two years designing the brand and a website.

The idea was to create a range of skincare products with only five easily understandable ingredients each. Five Dot Botanics had its first manufacturing run in the spring of 2019 and launched direct to consumer last July. The brand is already stocked in health food chain Holland & Barrett.

O’Sullivan says: “We created it in response to the growing complexity and lack of transparency when it came to skincare. We could see a market opportunity for us to offer a British skincare line that used only minimal plant-based ingredients, tying in with the growing vegan movement. We also knew that beauty was not super inclusive, so wanted the brand to be non-binary … it’s consciously gender neutral.”

O’Sullivan and her husband Brian used up their savings and then took out a sizeable personal loan to launch the brand, putting every penny they had into the business. They were putting in 50-hour weeks on top of her day job working in television.

O’Sullivan says: “If you don’t have that passion for it, you might as well give up because it means not seeing friends, turning down invitations, not watching that boxset. It’s talking about it 24/7. You can’t do it unless you’re focused that your business exists for a reason.”

In many ways, Five Dot Botanics could be not more on trend, chiming with the whole eco movement, veganism, being a gender-neutral beauty range suitable for men and women, and also sourcing cartons and labels from within the UK, as opposed to China, which would have been the cheapest option. O’Sullivan says: “It sits as a beauty outsider. We’re always challenging the industry about why there are so many ingredients in products. We think fewer ingredients are better for your skin and better for the environment and we need to be more mindful about the products we consume.We only have one mission, “do more with less””

Like several other Start-up Series winners, Worth Capital initially turned them down when Five Dot Botanics was at the concept as opposed to product stage. O’Sullivan says: “We approached Worth Capital in February 2019, but they rejected us. What they did which was helpful was share their feedback. At the time it smarted, but we absorbed that feedback and eight months later we applied again, this time we were successful.”

Five Dot Botanics reapplied to The Start-Up Series last October and the £150,000 investment came through in January this year.

How important was winning The Start-Up Series funding and what has Worth Capital done for your business?

The investment has done three things. First, it’s given us confidence that somebody has invested and we have capital to scale. Second, the level of accountability when you take on outside money is huge. We’re accountable for growth in a way that would have been harder on your own. You have an investor-director asking difficult questions, holding our feet to the fire. Third, the money enables you to think bigger, to scale a brand and not limp along as a lifestyle business. Now we can hire in expertise as opposed to doing everything ourselves.

Apart from the equity investment, how has winning the competition affected Five Dot Botanics?

I went into to pitch to Worth Capital as a pregnant ethnic Bangladeshi woman, days away from having my baby. The statistics for investment in businesses run by female founders of colour are dire, I was prepared to face unconscious bias. However I am so proud of Worth Capital didn’t pigeon hole me. Other female beauty founders see Worth Capital as the glimmering diamond in the rubble. It’s not old-fashioned stuffy money, they are normal people searching for talent.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business?

The pandemic forced people to think about everything quite philosophically. Skincare was one of the beneficiaries of the pandemic. Between April, May and June we turned over month-on-month growth. People are wearing less make-up and focusing on their skincare.

In terms of our social media during the peak of the crisis, we moved away from selling to talking about our brand values, inclusivity, diversity, kindness and gratitude. Small business can speak like humans and be kind in a way that large brands find it difficult to do. We stand for something much bigger than the products we make. We also launched a hand sanitiser, distributed for free around worthwhile social projects throughout South London, manufactured in a gin factory in Kent.

What is the outlook for Five Dot Botanics now?

In March, Five Dot Botanics was taken up by the Sephora Accelerate 2020 programme. The US makeup giant picks a dozen female-lend businesses from around the world. Our mission to reduce the number of ingredients in skincare and to do more with less is quite radical. We want to contribute to a new conversation around what skincare means and contribute to a more positive beauty industry. Sephora are spending a lot of time with us on how to make the brand bigger and better, so it can scale globally. Minimalist skincare is going to go mainstream and we want to the leaders in this space. We have the ambition.

This October I will be virtually pitching to 120 investors interested in ‘clean beauty’ at a Sephora pitch event online. We want to take the business up to the next level, to distribute globally you need access to working capital. Of course, we still have to weather this terrible macroeconomic storm that we are all in. It’s still a long journey for us.

What would you say to somebody thinking about entering The Start-Up Series competition?

People should apply, even if they don’t believe themselves, they are ready. This process is one of the most accessible, fair things you can go through. Even if we hadn’t won the Worth Capital investment, the fact of applying changed how rigorously we planned our business and our ambitions got a lot bigger.

For those businesses interested in taking part in the Start-Up Series competition, beginning again from September 1st 2020, please register your interest on our pre-registration page.

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