Just two years after launching Sorbet, 27-year-old Christchurch entrepreneur Brianne West is on course to building a significant, sustainable, global brand of natural beauty products.
Brianne West is not sure if it was her lack of respect for authority, her non-conformist attitude or simply her creative streak that got her started as a business entrepreneur. She says the entrepreneurial streak does not run in the family.
Whatever it was, at just 19 she was running her own “hobby business”, selling natural bodycare products that she admits had no point of difference in what was an over-saturated market. She sold the business, after four years, in 2014.
Meantime, she had also launched a confectionary business. TUB was another outlet for her manufacturing prowess, but she quickly realised that her beloved ‘spoonable fudge’ idea, while novel, had no benefits for any stakeholders. That one sold in 2012.
Fortunately a range of shampoo bars Brianne had marketed through her first business proved to be the foundation for launching Sorbet in 2012. She went on to successfully marry science with nature to formulate New Zealand’s first 100 percent solid beauty bars, made from naturally-derived, ethically-sourced, sustainable ingredients.
The solid bar concept is the basis for her long-term goal of creating “the most sustainable cosmetic company on the planet”.
2015 is proving to be a watershed year for Brianne, and not just because she got married in April.
While she had a plan for Sorbet, there were no concrete steps in place. She met her two business mentors through the University of Canterbury’s Entré programme (Brianne is in the process of completing a science degree at the University) while she was still manufacturing in her home kitchen. Today, with three staff, she is operating from a specialist laboratory and manufacturing facility in Christchurch – complete with office and factory store – which she will have up to GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) standard by the end of June. There are now a number of informal advisors she can call on, and one of her mentors liked the business so much he became her first investor and director.
Brianne admits to no longer flying by the seat of her pants, as she did in her earlier ventures, and is enjoying the luxury of having advisors and mentors to answer her questions and assist with planning. Financial reporting has been one particular challenge she’s had to come to grips with over the past 12 months too.
So what, apart from the ‘solid’ concept, makes a successful cosmetic brand?
“Scent is important,” says Brianne. “That’s the first impression. It doesn’t matter how great a product is, people will rate it on average two stars lower (out of five) if they don’t like the smell.”
Sorbet is currently undergoing a massive rebranding. “We’re really upping our game on packaging,” says Brianne, “but keeping the sustainable, water soluble aspects of our offering.”
Looking ahead, she says she’s now approaching high-end stockists around the country.
“Over 2015 we want to significantly increase our market share in New Zealand. And while we’ve already made passive inroads into Australia through a few stockists, we’ll be targeting that market more aggressively in 2016.”
The goal is to reach $1 million in revenue by 2017, and key to that is an ambitious international growth plan. “We’ve had quite a bit of interest from three international distributors. We’ll be evaluating those opportunities in upcoming months, as well as doing some market reconnaissance.
“The key is to go slowly, which doesn’t come naturally to me, because you’ve got to watch your cashflow,” she says. “But the idea is to retain a head office in Christchurch and eventually have additional manufacturing capability in the US or Europe – because New Zealand is isolated from world markets and it’s somewhat bizarre to ship ingredients all the way here, then ship final product back.”
There’ll be new products along the way too – the most recent addition being a solid self-tanning bar, which Brianne believes is the first of its kind in the world.
Packaging, or rather the lack of it, is the big advantage Sorbet will have in world markets, she believes. It’s an advantage made possible by the solid formulation of the beauty products, and driven by Brianne’s disgust for today’s ‘throwaway plastic society’. Most Sorbet packaging is dissolvable, depending on the product, either water soluble or compostable – a concept that appeals to discerning buyers (25 to 35 year old females is Sorbet’s target market).
Already the company has stopped more than 32,000 bottles and plastic containers being made and sent to landfill.
While the world is her oyster, Brianne understands there is a lot of planning and research still to do, and she’s hoping CDC (Canterbury Development Corporation) and NZTE will provide some assistance “when I’ve got all my ducks in a row”.
Meanwhile closer to home Brianne is planning a flagship store in Auckland which should be fully operational by the end of the year. Get ready for a standout launch party, she tells NZBusiness. She is also seeking to distribute Sorbet Cosmetics through at least 35 high-end department stores, while still maintaining an e-commerce business model which drives the majority of sales.
“The plan with any stores going forward is that customers will be able to come in and have their own shampoo tailor made in front of them. It’s a cool concept – people love the idea of having stuff made just for them. It takes things full circle from mass manufacturing.”
Sorbet may be a case of ‘third time lucky’ for Brianne, but while it’s lucky that the right people have come along at the right time, she knows it’s only through hard work that the Sorbet brand will grow. She’s optimistic. “I’ve had massive customer support.” Sorbet has even caught the attention of actress Gwyneth Paltrow and US fashion model Brooklyn Decker.
She also knows that this time she has powerful points of difference on her side – which should take the brand right around the world. And she has huge dreams. The ultimate aim is for Sorbet to become a multinational with philanthropic roots, by establishing a foundation that supports environmental welfare. Brianne wants to work directly with producers in developing nations, providing jobs and business investment for locals.
In a long list of personal goals – that’s the one that excites her the most.