William and Anna Brightman are the brother sister team behind Up Circle. Their high-quality skincare products are made of repurposed ground coffee. The Dragons Den favourite have plans to save up to 1000 tons of coffee ground from going to waste in the next 5 years.
Highlights of the episode:
[01:32] Why is what they are doing important?
[04:13] How did it start?
[05:53] Not having a background in cosmetics
[07:00] How to grow a new brand and differentiate?
[10:15] Natural, organic, vegan, handmade and cruelty free
[11:03] How to communicate the message? Rebranding from Optiat
[14:45] Taking on discarded ingredients
[16:56] Getting feedback and iterate
[20:24] Dragon's Den experience and crowdfunding
[26:58] Vision of the future
Up Circle -https://upcirclebeauty.com/
Up Circle Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/upcirclebeauty/
Listen to this episode now:
Read the transcription:
[0:31] Maiko: In today's episode, I talked to Anna and William Brightman, the brother and sister co-founders of UpCircle, they are on a mission to make skincare truly sustainable by using recycled materials. When they realized how much coffee ground went to waste in their home, they started thinking about possible solutions. UpCircle has since developed the process to recycle coffee grounds into high quality skincare products. Since starting, the company has saved 30 tons of coffee from going to landfill. Within the next five years, the siblings and business partners plan to save an additional 1000 tons of coffee grounds. UpCircle was featured on Dragons' Den last year and received investment offers by three of the dragons. It's great to have both of you on the show.
[01:16] Anna: Thank you for having us.
[01:17] William: Thank you very much.
[01:18] Maiko: The movement for more sustainable beauty products has been growing over the years, with brands like The Body Shop or Lush that are capitalizing on this. What's wrong with existing products? And why is it so important, what do you do?
[1:32] William: Sure, so I think for us, what we find perhaps unsustainable is that even within say, green beauty sphere and the world that we're in, it's still ultimately promoting a consumerism, which is predicated on the use of virgin or new materials. And in other words, this is a model of consumerism, where you have an input, and it creates an output, which is typically waste. And I suppose what we wanted to do differently was look at it from a viewpoint that, is there a way that rather than simply getting you ingredients and turning them into a skincare product, and then at the end that you know, it gets thrown away or whatever or it's finished, is there a way that we can take ingredients which already exist, and have already been used in one way or another and create new, innovative skincare products and beauty products, which actually still have a huge amount to offer to your skin. And I suppose for us that was our critical point of difference, is rather than perpetuating the create the take, make, waste model, which typically pervades in society, we wanted to promote a circular economy by taking ingredients which had already been used and rather than simply discarding them or throwing them away, elevating them into new, natural, organic skincare products, which still perform fantastically well for your skin.
[3:15] Anna: And it doesn't necessarily have to be so much that what's out there already has got something wrong with it. But we're trying to challenge people's perceptions of what they're considering as waste and actually hope to demonstrate that some of these ingredients are not only just as good but could actually perform even better for their skin and coffee is the perfect example of that. And studies have shown that the level of antioxidants and used coffee grounds are actually even higher than fresh coffee. So, we're really asking the question, why are we choosing to throw away these fantastic ingredients in the quantities that they are, when actually they have so much to offer us still? Why are we saying that they are at the end of their service life when actually they still can do so much for us? And that's what we're also trying to get people to question and to think about.
[4:04] Maiko: Amazing. How did it all start? Was it literally you realizing, oh, wow, there's a lot of coffee going to waste? Did you have a background in the field? How did you figure out that coffee could actually be used in that sense?
[4:16] Anna: Well, the initial idea came after we were bought a coffee maker and so just brewing our own coffee every day in the morning without a garden, so a lot of people just would put coffee grounds on to their plants, because it can help to grow them. And but we didn't have that possibility, so we were just throwing it all away. And that got us to thinking, well, if we are producing this much waste every single day, just by enjoying the morning coffee, then how big must the scale of this situation be on a much bigger scale, you know, from coffee shops or office buildings? Coffee is so hugely popular at the moment. And that only seems to be growing. So, we just started calling up coffee shops and asking them what they do with their waste. They informed us that they actually have to pay the council to have the coffee removed and disposed of. So, when we suggested that maybe we would just come and take it off their hands and would they be open minded to that, they were more than happy to to get on board and to let us do that.
[05:18] Anna: So, you know, we started with one or two coffee shops and then we've gradually built it up and up and up as our idea and our brand has grown. So, it did just start with us and that idea of wanting to tackle coffee waste. From that, we then built up our concept that we would become a skincare brand, a circular skincare brand, taking coffee and other natural ingredients and turning them into our products. But it just started without that initial light-bulb moment of that problem that we were facing every single day, and then broadening it out to a much wider issue. But neither of us had a specific back ground in cosmetics or the beauty industry as such. William was working in finance, and I was more of a manager, so I was working as an area manager for a well-known supermarket and so much more in kind of staffing, although it was helpful for things like logistics, warehouse management and stock management, that sort of thing. But I don't think that we feel necessarily that we need to have huge knowledge in these sorts of things because our entire concept is based around simplicity. And, you know, kind of returning to basics, and the value that you have in ingredients that you might just find in your kitchen. So, that's what we're all about, so yeah, no specific kind of cosmetology background but we learn every day.
[6:52] Maiko: Of course, if you look at the beauty market, it seems like there's a few big players that dominate like a large amount of it, for you as a kind of emerging brand, or like an unknown brand initially, how was the process of breaking through that noise? And then also convincing big retailers that, you actually already convinced like Waitrose, for example, to actually make space in their shops and stock your products? How did that work and how were you able to convince them?
[7:26] William: Sure, so I think the most important differentiator for a startup or a challenger brand, should we say, is really to do is, a matter of fact, breaking the status quo, and telling your story. So, why have you started it? Why are you making it? What are you making it? How are you making it? And it's really about telling the story and creating a deeper emotional connection to your customers than simply, you know, buying, going into a supermarket or your pharmacist or whatever, and buying the brand that you've known for the last 20 years. And I suppose for us, a critical thing is basically, emphasizing that story and telling the story and creating that, you know, that deeper emotional connection with the people who support us, because that is the difference, having a clear, very transparent, engaging mission, where people can readily access it and buy into it and understand what we're doing or why we're doing it.
[08:31] William: I think that is the point of difference. It's you know, there are real people behind this company who are making these things, they're doing it in a way which is sustainable, it's transparent, it's authentic. And I suppose, you know, as you can see, with organic skincare, natural skincare at the moment, which is obviously a very rapidly growing trend, is retailers, the supermarket, so whoever wants to tap into that, it's a rapidly growing market. And, of course, it's a risk for them, because obviously, we're smaller, you know, we don't have the enormous marketing budgets or the the supply chain in place. But for them, it represents an opportunity to kind of, either bring in a new customer who maybe perhaps hasn't shopped there previously, or to, you know, people who may be looking to kind of upgrade their skincare or look at different options for it. As well as for them, it's about bringing something fresh and new to their offering, which is innovative, different, but at the same time actually performs for their customers skin in a way, which is probably actually better than the incumbents. And so, I suppose that's how we've been able to, is by providing a genuinely sustainable alternative to what's already out there, which coincides with lots of the kind of consumer trends such as, you know, sustainability, plastic, waste, and so forth. And I suppose it's that proposition which makes us near an attractive, an enticing offer or proposition to a retailer.
[10:12] Anna: And also, I think, you know, there are so many brands at the moment who are going down the natural, organic, cruelty-free, vegan route, which is fantastic, you know, we would support that. However, it's no longer a point of difference. So, what we do at UpCircle is offer something beyond that, in terms of our circular skincare solutions. So, yes, not only are we natural, sustainable, vegan, cruelty-free, handmade, etc., we also offer that completely different thing than all of the other brands. So, I think that's what makes us memorable, I think is what makes us stand out and I think it's what makes us attracted to these big retailers. It's not something else that anyone else has been tackling, so we're more memorable in that sense.
[10:59] Maiko: How do you communicate that to customers, though, I can imagine if I stand in front of a shelf, maybe in a Waitrose, or in a store that stocks you, you know, my attention span is very short, there's a lot of other products that say they organic or vegan, etc., like how do you communicate that message very quickly, when I stand in front of a shelf that makes me choose your product?
[11:25] William: Sure, I think that you basically hit on one of the biggest challenges for particularly operating in a physical retail environment, over and above, say, a online setting, where online, you have more time and opportunity, people are browsing for longer, and they can look into the product more and can be, you know, look through a variety of sources for that information. In a physical retail, when you're practically bombarded with tens, if not hundreds of different options, we have to be very concise and very clever about how we communicate that. So, previously, we were called Optiat, and we rebranded in December. And one of the problems that we found is that Optiat, which is an acronym, which stands for, "one person's trash is another treasure", is a great kind of meaning but in fact, it's very difficult for us communicate that to the customer, in the very limited seconds, you have to capture their attention. So, when we rebranded, one of the things we wanted to do was bring to the forefront and the front of the packaging, the in effect, the USP. So, for example, we have our coffee scrubs, we have, you know, body scrub, and then the next kind of message is made with repurpose ground. And it really becomes a front and the forefront of the messaging when you have such limited time, and limited real estate as well on the packaging to go, okay, this is the point of difference in it. And if nothing else, at least make someone either look twice or at least pick it up. And then on the back, we have a little bit more information about you know, this is made from repurposed, real, coffee grounds sourced from artisan cafes in London. Yeah, it's been a learning step for us, in the kind of two and a half, three years that we've been around, is to try and think a bit more clearly about how we can communicate that to the customer in a relatively short space of time.
[13:25] Anna: We really used our, rebrand as an opportunity to streamline and unify our branding across all of our products. And for us as a brand, we launched our coffee scrubs quite quickly and you know, they performed very well, but we needed to then take a step back and have a pause, whilst we envisioned, not just being a one product range brand, but maybe having 10, 15, 20, 30 different products and ensuring that the communication and the messaging of our ethos, and what that actual product is, is very clear and concise on the front of pack. So, now no matter what the product is, as you read it from the top to the bottom of the packaging, it follows the exact same format. So, whether it's a coffee scrub, made from used coffee grounds, or a soap bar made from repurpose Chai, tea, spices, or a moisturizer made from, you know, discarded flower petals, or whatever else we might choose to bring out in the future, our customers, whether they are existing or new, will browse our products on the shelf, again, whether they are all sat in a block of UpCircle products, or whether they're interspersed between the different sections of the store. And as you read it top to bottom, it says very clearly and concisely, what it is, what it does for your skin, and what ingredient it really purposes.
[14:44] Maiko: So, your vision is really or you're already on it, I think I saw on your website to actually repurpose a wide range of different materials that go to waste right now, right, is that correct?
[14:56] Anna: Precisely, yeah, so we started with coffee and coffee has been absolutely brilliant. We've used it not only in our body and face scrub range, but also for our face serum, where we extracted the oil from the coffee grounds to create a completely different kind of product. So, not just using the coffee grounds as an exfoliator, but also using the benefits of coffee oil in a completely different style of product. And now that we've made a name for ourselves, as the brand who are creating circular skincare from discarded ingredients, we're in a position whereby we've started to have businesses coming to us saying, hey, you know, I own a tea company and, you know, brew three wonderful tea leaves and they still smell amazing, do you think you can do something with that?
[15:38] Anna: And then we say, yeah, you know, we'd love to or I'm a cherry farmer, I've got endless cherry pips, what do you think you can do with that? And that's amazing, it's so exciting for us that we can then begin to start creating these innovative, pioneering skincare products from these ingredients that other people in their businesses or their venues, you know, wedding venues with loads and loads of flower displays that then go to waste, well, flowers and petals are wonderful for your skin. So, if we can prevent that from going into the bin, and create wonderful skincare products from them, then that's our plan. And we are ready, and excited to take on as many of those ingredients as we can. Obviously, it's a slow process, and we have to not get too ahead of ourselves, but and coffee was just the beginning.
[16:26] Maiko: Amazing. For founders that are looking to launch products in the beauty space, maybe considering, okay, I want to be part of that revolution and kind of bring more sustainable beauty products to shops and maybe online, do you have any advice for them? Is there any? What's the biggest learning that you had that you would say, oh, if we just knew this would, I have saved a lot of time and effort and hassle and headaches?
[16:57] William: Good question. I mean, it's difficult, these kinds of question, because you always feel like, in order to get to where you are now, you need to kind of go through a journey, and make those mistakes that you make, because it is by making the mistakes that you learn. You know, for example, if we look at how we started out, so you know, we had this idea in January and we launched a fully-fledged product in April at London Coffee Festival, you know, to go from idea to you know, is with I guess you call it, you know, the minimum viable product. And it was very rudimentary, and it was very basic. But it was a product that we were able to sell to consumers and get live real time feedback at this at this festival. And along the way, obviously, you know, we've developed and evolved, and we've taken the learnings that we've picked up along the way and we've implemented them in whatever form it is, whether it's branding, packaging, messaging, formulations, and so forth. So, it's always one of those ones where, for me anyway, the advice would always be just keeping your costs as low as possible, and just start and start selling where possible as well and get that feedback and continuously iterate and evolve and improve. And don't stand still, in terms of kind of things that we've both learned along the way, or things that we wish we had done differently.
[18:32] Anna: I mean, it's been quite a unique journey for us, because this whole particularly with the coffee collection process is not really something-- Other people do collect coffee and lots of people are coming up with imaginative, ingenious ways of using coffee waste, but no one was doing in beauty industry and so that had all of its own challenges. You know, it's all well good turning it into a charcoal Bearcat but asking someone to use it on their face has got a quite a high criterion. So, we've made loads of mistakes and we've learned the hard way, I would say, from the off. And I think, I mean, in terms of character building, you just got to have a lot of grit and don't be afraid of making the mistakes and just keep going once you have. And also, not to take on board everyone's advice because there have been countless times where me or William have met with people who've said, you're trying too hard to do something different, like play it safe and there's a reason that no one's done this, etc. And if we'd have gone with that, then we would have given up or just become very ordinary. And so, I think not being afraid to obviously appreciate but then, kind of, ignore people's advice is something that you've got to be willing to do and you have to be willing to take those risks, if you want to stand out and push forward to somewhere different.
[20:00] Maiko: Just last year, you featured on Dragons' Den, the TV show, it's probably a very exciting and interesting process. So, and also, earlier this year, you actually launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise investment. How was that experience for you? How was it different? And are there any insights you can share with founders looking to fundraise for their companies?
[20:22] William: Yeah, sure. So, I'll talk about the crowdfunding thing. So, what happened was, when we started out, we got a Virgin Startup Loan, which was enough, this relatively small amount, but enough to get us to finance the first mass run of packaging. And so, with that relationship already with Virgin, a year later, they contact us and say we're running our very first, called a Crowdboost Program, where basically, they would take six companies who've receive funding, and they would, basically a series of quite intensive workshops to get to the ultimate aim of raising money on Crowdcube. And so, this process was probably six months of pre-work before we even went live at the campaign. Because there is an awful lot of work that has to be done behind the scenes in order to prepare your company for crowdfunding. And this involves things like putting together a presentation or pitch deck, you have to shoot a video, you have to get your financials together, you need to try and source lead investment, you need to plan your campaign, you need to prepare PR for it, and so forth. So, there was lots of elements to a campaign, which, the most successful ones typically, for example, raise north of 20% of their funding before going live.
[21:54] William: And so, that was a very powerful experience for us, we needed to capitalize on SEIS, Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme, that which was running out and obviously that makes it more attractive investment for anyone who's looking to invest, who's eligible. So yeah, so it was a very, it was a wonderful experience, we got 377 investors on board, who now become basically, our brand advocates, who are spreading the message about what we're doing, they're obviously financially invested, they're emotionally invested. And you know, it's a great way to access a pool of capital, but also to have to access it to a crowd, and it can be your customers, it can be your family or friends, it can be people you've never met before. But it's just a great way to open up your investment, and also bring together a whole host of different investors with different skill sets on board.
[22:52] Anna: Yeah, I mean, in terms of in terms of Dragons' Den, I think what made that such a unique experience for us is we do, you know, panels and talks, events, festivals, all the time as often as we possibly can, so we do get instant reactions and feedback to our products. But often, that is people who are looking at you, and they're always going to be very polite and nice, even if they don't necessarily love it. And whereas, going on Dragons' Den, I think the most valuable part of that experience for us is that we then had five people, critiquing our business and our products, you know, in such detail, with no concern from whether it was hurting our feelings, it was probably the most honest, and in depth feedback that we've ever received about what we were doing. So, it really made us come away and think about, I would say, we probably focused more on the constructive criticisms, negative points that they've than the positives, because those are the things that you don't get told very often. So, it was a fantastic opportunity for us to take a step back and work on those and see how we can better improve what we're doing. One thing that me and William always try to ensure is that we never see our business as a finished product, it is constantly evolving. And we welcome that, and we enjoy that, always being a continual evolution, always trying to be better. And we encourage that dialogue with our customers as well. You know, if there's something that they don't like about our product, whether it's the packaging, or, you know, a scent or whatever, then we want to take that feedback. But the Dragons' Den experience was phenomenal, in terms of getting five, very different, honest critiques of our products in such depth, that we could then go away and see how we could make it better.
[24:48] Maiko: It's really great to hear about your journey from first starting out to you, raising investment to actually closing all these retailers as well and kind of being present in all these shops. My last question for you is, how does the world look that you're trying to help create? If UpCircle succeeds in the next 10 years, how does the world look like in 10 years? What are you trying to be part of here?
[25:12] William: I think ultimately, we are trying to be part of a company, of a world which is really to do with promoting a much more sustainable ecosystem. So, for us, the key term is circular economy. And what does that mean? It means basically regenerating old or new resources, rather than continuously developing and mining and creating new ones, you know, we looked at some of the interesting kind of industries where that's happening. For example, you've got IKEA, which recently announced you can rent their furniture rather than buying outright, you've got, you know, some of the more well-known ones, you know, your Airbnb’s, the Uber's of the world where it's more towards shared or renting economy, rather than outright consumption and outright purchase. And so, for us, it's really about promoting a more sustainable, economy, environment, ecosystem, which is premised around rather, buying something, using it and throwing away but going, here is something which has already been used, I'm going to find a new way to use it and when it's finished, after that, I'm not going to throw it away, but I'm either going to recycle it, or I'm going to find another way to use it again.
[26:27] William: And I think that is the way that the world has to move. You know, there's a circular economy conference in January, and they were talking about how much, so about 90% of emissions are caused by the mining, the creation of new materials, new goods and services. And in fact, we could do a huge amount to mitigate for that, if we do look for ways of reusing old ingredients or ingredients which still have a huge amount to give, rather than continuously, you know, mining for oil or digging resources out of mines, and so forth. So, that i think that's for us, well, for me anyway, where I would see the world going is to more circular in its design, and in its function.
[27:15] Anna: I mean, as a brand, we're determined to make products that leave the world better than we found it, products that don't deplete our world's finite resources in any way, but actually use what we've already got, and improve them. And so, now we're using our platform to share our ideas with our community, not just our ideas, but the idea is of our customers as well. So, that not just in the skincare industry but across all areas of our lives, we can share ideas and experiences for how we can do things better. And we use our blog to do that, we use our social channels to do that and it's really a constant communication, for ways in which we can all come together to create a better world.
[28:00] Maiko: That's an amazing mission. And I wish you all the best on your journey. It's great to hear about your company, and I wish you all the best for the next 10 or even 100 years, thank you.
[28:13] Anna: Thank you so much.
[28:14] William: Thank you so much for the time, we really appreciate it.
[28:17] Maiko: Thanks for joining.