Wednesday 12 December 2018

Noelle shows 'tan do' spirit in organic beauty business

Sean Gallagher and Noelle O’Connor, of Tan Organic outside Boots on Grafton Street. Photo: Frank McGrath
Sean Gallagher and Noelle O’Connor, of Tan Organic outside Boots on Grafton Street. Photo: Frank McGrath
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Set up in 2010 by beauty therapist and salon owner Noelle O'Connor, TanOrganic manufactures the only eco-certified organic self-tanning brand in the world. Based in Newbridge, Co Kildare, the company employs 12 staff and this year is on target to reach sales of €2m. "Our suite of products includes a self-tanning oil, mousse and lotion as well as a facial serum and dry oil moisturiser.

We are also developing the world's first organic sunblock ingredient which we plan to sell to cosmetic manufacturing companies around the world," says Noelle.

In Ireland, her customers include pharmacies such as Boots, beauty salons, department stores, health food outlets and online sites who specialise in selling health and beauty products.

"Some 70pc of our sales now come from exports," says Noelle. "For example, we recently launched in Costco in France, and are in talks with Costco UK, Iceland and the USA. This is a big step for us because they are the largest retailer of organic products in the world. And we are also in Wholefoods in the UK, which we hope to use as a launch pad into Wholefoods in the USA. From there, we see Germany and Scandinavia being our next target markets."

What an interesting journey it has been for the Kildare native. From Newbridge, Noelle O'Connor recalls her father being involved in everything from running market stalls and selling coal door-to-door to operating pool and snooker halls. It was a work ethic that Noelle inherited. Deciding to attend a beauty college in Dublin, she paid for her course by working night shifts in Dunnes Stores. At the time the beauty industry was in its infancy, so there were few jobs available and those that were, paid so poorly that Noelle ended up working in bars to make a living. In 1996, with a loan of £2,000 from her local credit union, she set up a beauty salon in Newbridge.

Over the next 10 years, she grew that business to include six medi-spas in Newbridge, Naas, Kildare, Maynooth, Portlaoise, Limerick and Carlow - with a combined annual turnover of more than €3m. Business was doing great until the downturn changed everything. Having fought hard to survive, she had to wind down the business. To help focus on the future, she enrolled on a Masters programme in Entrepreneurship in MIT, Boston. With 60 other entrepreneurs from around the world - all under 40 - it was challenging and stimulating.

During one lecture, a guest speaker, Simon Sinek, posed an interesting question to Noelle. He asked: "When in your business were you at your happiest?" She reflected and decided she was happiest when developing new ideas and products. Knowing the beauty sector as she did, she began researching the organic side of the business and saw was a gap in the market.

"That's when I came up with the idea for a new organic self-tan," says Noelle. "For the next two years, I worked with cosmetic scientists both in Ireland and the US to develop the first and only ECO-certified organic self-tan brand in the world."

Noelle, like most entrepreneurs, is not afraid to admit she has made mistakes. One of these was not patenting her self-tanning oil.

"That was definitely a massive and costly mistake because it started a whole new trend in self-tanning oils," she says.

Her appearance on Dragons' Den saw her secure investment from Gavin Duffy and this, together with the publicity generated by the show, brought significant interest from the market. The following few years were exciting but challenging. She invested whatever savings she had left and bootstrapped the business from there. While sales began to flood in, she struggled to keep up with demand. Stock management, deliveries and logistics all needed improvement. She needed to build a strong team, but couldn't afford the investment.

"If I were doing it again, I would have raised more capital in the beginning to invest in putting in place the structures we now have - but earlier. This would really have helped fast-track the business," says Noelle. "Similarly, we should have spent less on marketing initially and more on design and packaging. People buy off the shelf with their eyes, so presentation of products is critical."

While she may have lacked capital, she didn't lack persistence or determination and these characteristics enabled her to push ahead.

Frustratingly, she had to turn away business, particularly from large global retail chains.

"While enticing, I realised that I would only get one opportunity to impress these giants and at the time I simply was not in a position to fund the huge costs of stocking these thousands of stores," she says.

One of her biggest breaks came when she secured her first contact with Aer Lingus to sell her products as part of their in-flight offerings. This led to further contacts with leading airlines such as BA, Virgin Atlantic, KLM, Thomas Cook, Monarch, Air Iceland and many more.

"I really owe a big thank-you to Aer Lingus, who helped kick-start this part of the business. The travel retail business has really been huge for our global growth and brand exposure and has led to a 50pc growth in sales over the past 12 months," says Noelle. "We are in final discussions with Ryanair which will see us stocked on as many as 2,000 Ryanair flights every day."

TanOrganic products could soon be carried by the HSN shopping channel in the USA. Noelle is also aiming to launch on Shopping Channel Russia in 2018.

With support of Enterprise Ireland, TanOrganic has partnered research with Limerick Institute of Technology to create the world's first organic sunblock. Made from micro algae extracted from Irish waters, this compound can be integrated into all types of cosmetics and sold to manufacturers around the world. Noelle believes her newest product offers even more exciting prospects than even her existing product range. To take it to market, she is setting up a biotech company and this time she is patenting her new creation. "The sky is the limit and the opportunities are endless for us," says Noelle.

Noelle O'Connor showed great initiative when she started her own salon and grew to a chain of six spas. Tested by the recession, she showed entrepreneurial grit when she had to shut that business down and start again. While not naturally patient, she has had to learn that growing a global business takes time. Lesson learned, she looks set to reap the rewards for all her hard work.

tanorganic.com

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