Rachael Dunseath only needed to look around her own home for the inspiration to start her new business, as she tells BQ Yorkshire editor Mike Hughes.
There can be few stronger emotions than seeing your own child struggling. Whether it is school work, personal life or growing pains, mum and dad’s instincts will kick in and they will want to help make things better. And that, in an allergy-free nutshell, is how Rachael Dunseath became an entrepreneur – because her kids needed her help.
She has gone from heading a team of marketing managers for the HBOS banking and insurance company to setting up Myroo (her husband’s nickname for her is Roo) in her kitchen, then expanding to her garage and now appearing on the shelves of John Lewis.
“I went off on maternity leave with Amelia (now aged nine) and was ‘displaced’ while I was away,” she tells me at the Entrepreneurial Spark business accelerator in Leeds. “They couldn’t make me redundant because I was on maternity so my role went instead and then the banking crash happened, but I became pregnant again quite quickly, so was actually out of the workplace on back-to-back leave.”
Her own entrepreneurial spark had started to ignite, and Rachael recalls her sister Sarah telling her that she had discussed around 50 ideas over the years, including running a nursery, jewellery and stained glass and had even made her own greetings cards for work colleagues at one stage.
“Being entrepreneurial is not really in the family - I think it’s just me,” she says. “I wouldn’t change my time in corporate land at all because it gave me the discipline that is serving me well, and the conversations about margins and forecasting and my marketing background all stand me in good stead.
“I am naturally a creative person and corporate land is often not the place to be for personal creativity and ideas. Financial services is so regulated, with risk and compliance being such a big part of it, that an entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t get much of a chance to manifest itself very often.
“My daughter Freya (now aged seven) then developed childhood eczema at the same time as I had sensitive skin and I just saw a gap in the market for truly natural, gentle skincare. I had been offered the chance of voluntary redundancy and had a business idea that - at last - seemed to have legs. Some ‘back of an envelope’ number crunching showed that it had some scope so I started planning.”
“I am a massive foodie and a very keen cook, so the idea of making natural products is very similar because you are learning about ingredients and how they work together. I was Googling, getting books out of the library and making some really basic products like a bath fizz that didn’t have any harsh chemicals in it.
“I went to a shop and got some coconut oil, essential oils, sea salts, Epsom salt and other bits and pieces and started mixing. It didn’t always work out – my children remember the infamous ‘bath porridge’ I managed to make one time with ground-up oats. They are a great ingredient, but needed to be used in a slightly different way!
“I was experimenting and playing and came up with a few products using plants butters and oils that my willing guineapigs said they would use. I then number-crunched the product prices, but discovered all the legislation required.
“But perhaps that was the making of me because otherwise I would have gone and done a few farmers’ markets and it might still have felt like a hobby, but instead I had to get all the recipes signed off by a cosmetic pharmacist and have safety assessments in place. I still did the farmers’ markets and craft fairs but with the feeling that I was doing it all properly and professionally right from the start and there was more to come.
“There were a lot of people out there doing the kitchen-table operation, but not many doing it as a 100% natural product, which is a market that is growing massively.”
For the uninitiated (your editor), the ‘natural’ line means it is all plant-based, not plant-derived which means it goes through a synthetic process in a lab to turn it into something the ingredient did not do on its own. So you can get emulsifiers which are coconut-derived, but Rachael uses only pure coconut oil where the function and chemical composition of the product stays the same.
There is an honesty and transparency here that the market appreciates and that customers with long-standing conditions are reassured by. “There are a lot of big brands that have gone through ‘greenwashing’ where you see Camomile extract on the label, but when you look closely it is the last on the list of ingredients,” says Rachael.
“There was an opportunity here, firstly selling to family and friends and then on those markets and fairs which were really important to me and I know I would have struggled to do what I do now without that early work.
“But it was still a lifestyle business, in that I had two very small children and my husband Phil was still working long hours in corporate land. The day I registered as self-employed Freya decided to give up her daytime nap so I did the work around her and Amelia and did the fairs at the weekend.”
That meant working in the family kitchen so she could be around for the children. Trading Standards came out and approved the set-up and as soon as Peppa Pig came on the TV there was half an hour to make something before one of the girls wandered in for some cheese on toast.
“It wasn’t without its challenges, but it grew slowly and steadily and at that time I just didn’t have the capacity for it to be anything more. After three or four years, I had a small customer base who kept coming back to me and grew the product range a little. Also, the pharmacist who had approved my recipes contacted me and asked me if I would do some freelance consultancy work for him around the process of getting products assessed.
“When I decided it was the right time to step it up, I stopped doing all the little craft fairs, did a rebrand with a local graphic designer and started doing bigger shows – with help from my Bank of Dad, who happens to be a PhD Chemist as well.
“As far as fitting in the extra work was concerned, I just did. It was hairy, but Sarah came down and helped me and we made the jump and converted the garage to a dedicated space, so I wasn’t taking up the kitchen where cheese on toast might still be needed!”
Rachael’s own health problems – “I seem to have made a habit of collecting allergies” – then prompted the next big change, which was another unforeseen driver for the business, but one she was in a good position to deal with.
“Two years ago I developed a nut allergy overnight – they apparently go and return on a seven-year cycle. I felt really quite dreadful and it was only the next day that a GP friend of mine said I should really have called an ambulance. But it gave me a lightbulb moment that no one was doing skincare products for people with allergies, so I went off to investigate whether there was any competition, and there was no one else doing it in its entirety so I came to the Entrepreneurial Spark offices with the idea.
“I found that there was a market, so I reformulated, repackaged and rebranded the entire range and felt like I was a start-up again, but with six years of knowledge and experience behind me.”
The whole Myroo range is now formulated for a series of allergies so a suffererer from any of them can buy any product. That ‘one-stop shop’ approach addresses the dilemma of so many mums and dads who have to scour the labels on supermarket shelves to make sure what they are buying won’t put their child at risk.
“It is a minefield, so I wanted people to know that if they have an allergy they can buy any
of my products and have peace of mind,” said Rachael. “There are so many allergies out there that I cannot say that the brand is suitable for every one, but to the best of our ability we have covered off the most common ones.
We are certainly nut-free, gluten-free and dairy-free, but are actually free from all 14 food allergens and there is a fragrance-free version of every product, which is free from all 26 cosmetic allergens. We are completely committed to this now. I went full-time two months ago for the first time and Phil is starting to get involved after getting a redundancy payout and his background is e-commerce, which is quite handy to have around – and he’s a 100% increase in our staff!”
The business is still based in what was the garage, and there is still plenty of room there although Rachael has had to be out with the tape measure to make sure her boxes are the right size to fit as many as possible on the shelves. There are investors interested and a business growth plan is already in place – possibly including a standalone unit somewhere close by to allow Myroo to scale up again, and new products like an eye balm with fennel, a post-exercise massage oil and some bath and body oils.
The £10,000 she won as ‘Entrepreneur of the Moment’ at Entrepreneurial Spark is a huge boost and Bank of Dad has returned to invest again to reinforce the foundations for growth. “We now have a little chunk of cash so the need for investment is not quite so urgent and we can focus on getting sales up. Our market is people with allergies, and problem or sensitive skin. There are no figures for that market, but the market for goods that are both natural and organic grew 20% last year, so it is the right space to be in.
“We are a small-batch manufacturer using bain maries and hobs and people like that idea of a light touch and that each product hasn’t been through a great big factory line.” Rachael knows that keeping that balance between homemade and scalability will be a big challenge, but she is now a ‘been there, done that’ entrepreneur who can make 50 to 100 facial serums in an hour, which sell for £30 each.
The price is high-end but competitive, reflecting the quality and percentage quantity of each ingredient, which she sources as locally as possible, including plant oils and unheard of (to your editor...) things like broccoli seeds, which are bright orange and are an emollient, helping the product glide over the skin.
The success and commitment she has shown has not gone unnoticed. Working with distributor Great British Exchange in Harrogate led to a surprise chance to get the Myroo range in front of retail giant John Lewis, which is launching a ‘Made Locally’ initiative at its new flagship store at Victoria Gate in Leeds.
“There was quite a lot of noise around our free-from launch, and I went to see Great British Exchange and the MD loved it and said to me ‘you’re going to need to bring stock in by Friday – I’m going to pitch you to John Lewis’.
“If I had walked into that room a week later, I would have missed the opportunity, so someone was watching out for me on that day.
“John Lewis has taken about 15 of each product, and they have already given me a ‘runway’ for their British Brands concept and are quite clear about how it might work with regards to scalability, so they will have a tiered build-up and won’t just turn round in a week and say they have sold out and need another thousand.
“The challenge will come if we get three or four large retailers and it does start to build quite quickly and we start to think about a unit and a team of staff doing the making to the Myroo recipe. I would love to build a flexible model where I could give the jobs to mums and dads or carers who really want to get back into the workplace but have a young family and responsibilities to work around.
“Our core brand value is kindness – so we are kind to our skin, kind to ourselves by taking time for your family and eating well and exercising and we are kind to each other and the planet. It is exciting and really feels like we are on the cusp of something.”
That excitement will soon be spreading to her own young start-ups, Freya and Amelia. “There is no set path, and I feel quite excited for my kids’ generation because the ‘job for life’ thing is gone and the empowerment comes from not being tied to a job just because the next bonus is due. Instead, I want them to understand that success is not just money, it is about fulfilment and balance.
“I have never worked harder in my life, but some days I feel I haven’t done any actual work because it has all been such fun. I would tell Amelia and Freya to go for it – if you have a great idea then follow it, get yourself a mentor and pick up the business skills as you go.
“The poor millennials seem to be caught in the middle of all this change and perhaps are a bit lost and don’t quite know what they are, but for my kids’ generation the waters are becoming a bit less muddy.”
Those girls are blessed with a future that is a little less muddy and a lot more mummy, providing the dream combination for any BQ entrepreneur – a happy family and a growing business.