Carol Smillie has used the skills she has developed as a television presenter to create underwear brand Diary Doll, which is helping to tackle not one but two taboos writes Peter Ranscombe.
Depending on when you started watching television, there are a whole range of reasons why you may know the name ‘Carol Smillie’. In the 1980s, she was a successful model, before her big break on the small screen as the hostess on Wheel of Fortune. In the 1990s, she conquered prime time, presenting The Travel Show, Holiday and Changing Rooms, which ran for 165 episodes and launched the careers of designers Linda Barker, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, Anna Ryder Richardson and ‘Handy’ Andy Kane.
If you were just meeting Smillie for the first time now though, there’s a whole new reason why you would remember her name. Smillie is the entrepreneur behind Diary Doll, a range of lightweight women’s briefs with a secret waterproof panel to help protect against “life’s little leaks”, whether it be heavy periods, pelvic floor weakness or post maternity.
The pretty clever pants have really captured the public’s attention. They’re already on sale through Alliance Healthcare, Boots, QVC and a host of independent lingerie shops, with the company winning a score of prizes, including a grant from the Scottish Edge Fund, and Smillie carrying off the ‘sports entrepreneur of the year’ title at this year’s [2016’s] Sports Business Innovation Awards, run by Sporting Chance Initiative.
It’s perhaps not the easiest subject to speak about – at a recent business lunch, it was interesting to watch men squirm after they asked Smillie what she did and she looked them straight in the eye and told them. “I don’t do that in a controversial way – I’m not out to make people uncomfortable,” she explains. “If you’re a man with sons then you’ve probably never talked about periods.
“It’s partly our fault as women for not discussing it more openly. It doesn’t need to be graphic – it’s just a fact of life, this is what happens. People see it as a dirty thing and that really irritates me because it’s not.”
The idea for the Diary Doll pants came while Smillie and former tennis star Annabel Croft were on holiday together. Smillie recently bought out Croft, leaving her in sole control of the business. “Television is very shallow and quite ageist for women particularly, so I was on the lookout for what could become the next step for me,” Smillie says. “A couple of ideas had come up, but they were other people’s businesses. As soon as we had that conversation on holiday I knew that this was the one. It grabbed me straight away.
“It’s simple, it’s obvious, and we thought it was incredible no one had done it before. I got on Google and found there were a couple of companies in America making similar products, but they weren’t doing a very good job.
“That’s changed now because there are slightly more sophisticated companies out there, but they still differ from us, in that they’re quite expensive, absorbent – which we’re not – and just downright ugly, exactly as you would imagine, big, ugly, nude-coloured Bridget Jones’ specials.
“In my boundless, open-eyed enthusiasm I thought I’d give it a go. ‘How hard can it be?’ was what I used to say – it makes me laugh now because the answer is ‘It’s bloody hard’. It’s been a steep learning curve. I knew nothing about manufacturing, about bringing a product to market, intellectual property (IP) protection, banking.
“To me, it was about making pretty knickers and breaking down taboos – but actually there’s everything else that has to go on in the background to make that possible.”
Smillie began by carrying out market research among 100 teenage girls at three schools. The results astounded her. She found 34% had accidents every month, which is what she expected, but a startling 91% said that they were so afraid of a leak happening that they
just avoided sports, wouldn’t stay at anyone’s house overnight and wouldn’t wear light-coloured clothing.
“For a huge number of these young girls, it will never be a physical issue, it’s an emotional issue,” says Smillie. “The peer pressure or the embarrassment of boys seeing a mark on the back of their skirts would be social suicide. Kids are brutal, they’re harsh. That was enough to convince me that we had to launch this product.
“I’m a great believer in doing market research. Just because you think it’s a good idea doesn’t mean anyone else does, and friends and family will only tell you what you want to hear. Everyone’s very supportive to begin with but then you’re left with the harsh reality that it’s just you and 7,000 pairs of knickers and a website.”
The next step was to speak to her friend Midge Whyte, the former British ski team member who set up Edinburgh-based Bawbags Underwear in 2007, which sells boxer shorts and raises money for charity. He put her in touch with an agent in Aberdeen, who had the first batch of pants produced at a factory in China.
“We got two things wrong immediately,” Smillie confesses. “The first was sizing. We ordered more medium and large knickers and fewer small knickers, because everyone kept telling us that British women are bigger – and then we immediately sold out of ‘small’.
“The second was labelling them ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘large’ at all. We immediately had a Twitter backlash from mothers telling us that their daughters weren’t ‘large’ and they couldn’t give them pants with ‘large’ or ‘extra-large’ on the labels.
“Social media is a wonderful thing, but it can also be a terrifying thing, so I’m a great believer in dealing with it right away and be seen to deal with it. So I went on Twitter and said ‘You’re absolutely right, we’re just learning as we go. This is invaluable information and we will immediately change it on the website. Unfortunately, we can’t change it on the packaging, but just pull the tag off and she won’t know any differently. Let us know how you get on.’ They loved it and said it was so nice we’d dealt with it right away.”
That interaction with customers on social media has become a cornerstone of Diary Doll. Customers told Smillie that they wanted size 24 and 26 pants; when she explained the cost would be higher, they said they would be prepared to pay extra because that was the normal situation when it came to other garments.
One of the few situations in which celebrity status has come into play was getting Smillie a meeting with Mumsnet, the all-conquering website. Smillie hosted an event for Mumsnet at the British Academy of Film & Television Arts (BAFTA) on Piccadilly in London’s West End, during which she met Kate Hardcastle, a retail analyst best known for her work on Sky News.
“Kate suffers from endometriosis, which is an illness where your internal organs fuse together and it causes horrifically painful and heavy periods,” explains Smillie. “She understood Diary Doll immediately. She took me to a private dinner organised by The Twenty Club, an exclusive meeting of retailers, and introduced me to John Lewis managing director Andy Street.
“We’d been trying to meet with John Lewis’ head lingerie buyer but they hadn’t returned our calls – Andy Street arranged a meeting for the next day,” Smillie remembers. “So I went into this meeting totally unprepared – all I had with me were a couple of pairs of pants. “The buyer wasn’t really interested to begin with, but then her assistant explained that she suffered from endometriosis too. I came away with an order for 1,500 pairs.”
Yet fulfilling the order for one of the biggest names on the high street came with difficulties. Having had issues with the quality of the original pants from China, Diary Doll had switched production to Headen & Quarmby, the Manchester-based factory that was made famous in the Channel 4 documentary series Mary’s Bottom Line when it produced Mary Portas’ Kinky Knickers brand.
But Headen & Quarmby fell into administration in January 2014, only partway through making the 500 knickers for the first tranche of John Lewis’ order. Smillie and her husband – former restauranteur Alex Knight – climbed into the car immediately, and drove from their home in Glasgow down to Manchester to rescue their stock.
“That’s when you start to go ‘This is not fun anymore, I’ve got to grow a pair now, what the hell do I do?’,” says Smillie. “So we drove down, ten o’clock at night, and they opened up for us. They were quite embarrassed about the whole thing, and we got it all out. We drove all the way back up to Glasgow with my face jammed against the window by a box of leg elastics and my husband asking ‘What next?’ and I told him ‘No idea, keep driving’.”
Smillie was able to fulfil the first part of the John Lewis order using the remainder of the website stock from the Diary Doll Scottish warehouse – but was then faced with the headache of finding a new manufacturer to meet the second and third tranches. She turned for help to Entrepreneurial Spark, the business incubator network.
“I’d watched the BBC Scotland documentary about Entrepreneurial Spark and to be honest I was a bit sceptical,” Smillie admits. “It all sounded very evangelical – and that’s not me. “But I recognised they were trying to do something really good and I thought, what have I got to lose? I mean, I never assumed they would take me in. I went to see them, explained the situation, and they said, okay, you can come in.”
Diary Doll became a ‘chiclet’ in Entrepreneurial Spark’s ‘hatchery’ in Glasgow. One of its fellow chiclets, a boxer short company called Dick Winters, introduced Smillie to Haven Products, a social enterprise based in Stirling that provides work for disabled people and which grew out of the former Remploy factory.
“Haven make very manly items like lifejackets and boiler suits for oil rig workers – so it ruffled a few feathers when I turned up and asked them if they could make pretty pants,” Smillie laughs. “But they had a few seamstresses working for them who had worked on underwear before and they knew what to do – and I will be forever grateful to them.”
Teaming up with Haven sadly wasn’t the end of Smillie’s sourcing problems though. While she was filming a series of adverts for Finish dishwasher tablets, she had to sit in the back of the brand’s big blue Transit van on the phone to the French company that supplied her with waterproofing for the pants.
“The waterproofing was really expensive, so I begged this woman in French to please supply me with a smaller amount,” she laughs. “I begged her woman-to-woman but she turned around and said ‘But my boss is a man’.”
When department store chain Debenhams saw the pants on John Lewis’ website, the company got in touch with Smillie so it could stock the garments too. But a lack of customer education meant Diary Doll sold too slowly for Debenhams, which then cut the price after six weeks. John Lewis also pulled out, squeezed by slow sales and lingerie brands with far bigger budgets.
“God, it was awful,” Smillie admits. “It felt like it was all crumbling around me. But being part of Entrepreneurial Spark was brilliant. Having so many like-minded businesses around me, who were all going through similar challenges.”
Diary Doll has gone on to be one of the poster children for the incubator network and arguably one of its most-famous chiclets. The company moved out of the hatchery over the summer into offices in Charing Cross in Glasgow. After parting company with Debenhams and John Lewis, the duo spoke at Entrepreneurial Scotland’s conference at The Gleneagles Hotel, prompting an approach from a potential investor, who went on to conduct intense due diligence and market research. This highlighted a pivotal change in direction for the brand, addressing women over 40 with weak pelvic floors – or the “running, jumping, coughing, sneezing brigade” as Smillie gently puts it.
“The overwhelming information that came back was that periods were great but we were missing a massive, massive market, which is pelvic floor weakness,” Smillie explains. “Women over 40 have got the money, but they don’t talk about it, it’s even more taboo than periods, but it’s a silent epidemic and it is huge.
“I went to see Boots and they loved it. They said, there’s nothing like this out there. ‘It’s really pretty – glamorous in a deeply unglamorous world’ was the quote. “The other piece of fascinating information that Boots gave us is that the period market is a declining one. Everyone laughs when I say that, but young girls today will not put up with it, the way their mothers did before. If it’s bad then they go on the pill, they have an implant, they have a patch or whatever.”
Pivoting the business to address the needs of women as well as teenagers and the loss of the contracts with Debenhams and John Lewis has had an initial impact on sales – taking them down from around £180,000 to £120,000 – but Smillie is confident that the switch is the right move. With increased orders, manufacturing has now switched to a new, quality-assured company in China. The company has partnered with the Association of Continence Advisors, along with charity Endometriosis UK. Some of the original Chinese stock was recently donated to one of Lord Willie Haughey’s charities and sent to Malawi.
Knight has also come on board running the logistics, financial and administration side, leaving Smillie very much at the forefront. “Alex brings calmness to the business,” Smillie grins. “He has a very good analytical brain and will question if things are taking up too much time or costing too much money. After 25 years of marriage, we work well as a team.”
Rather than sell the company to a larger player, Smillie wants to develop it hand-in-hand with the right financial backer, and explore potential licensing options. “It’s the expertise I want – it needs to be ‘smart’ money, not just money,” she explains. “You can get money from a bank, I suppose, if you wanted to go down that route, but smart money means someone with the right contacts, and more importantly, experience.
“I do think I’m quite entrepreneurial. I’ve always been that way – when you’re the youngest of four children, you’ve got to shout to be heard and you’ve got to get attention.
“I had a life of red carpets and getting bunches of flowers for doing the job that I was paid to do. It’s very sobering to be back down in the mosh pit of business, with people telling me that they don’t care who I am or what I’m shouting about. But whatever happens I’ll be pleased I gave it a go – I’m definitely not a lady that can just go and ‘do lunch’.”
With thanks to House For An Art Lover for hosting the photo shoot. Find out more at