I already knew I liked Jenni Retourné before we met in person.
From witnessing personally how she’s always on hand to recommend contacts; suggest various business tricks and tips when they’re needed most; to providing genuine support and words of encouragement to everyone online in the Southwood Social Hub – a networking group for female entrepreneurs of which we are both members – put simply, she’s my kind of woman.
It was no surprise therefore, that when the opportunity cropped up to sit down with the thirty-six year old Founder of Willowberry – an award winning natural skincare range that she has developed from scratch – I was there in a flash with the record button ‘on’!
It’s Tuesday 6th March and over coffees and teas in a country pub a few miles from home, the two of us sat down for a heart to heart over what I can honestly say is one impressive story so far…
Having decided she wanted to be a fashion designer after leaving school, Jenni studied Fashion Design at The London College of Fashion aged sixteen. After realising that journalism and marketing was better suited to her skill set however, she went on to gain a degree in Fashion Promotion at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design.
JR. I realised I’d only ever be average at fashion design and I don’t like being average at anything so I realised something had to change! I was looking to get into journalism as opposed to beauty in particular, but a job came up at a trade beauty magazine called Pure Beauty and the rest is history! I was meeting so many business owners – that totally fuelled wanting my own business. I don’t recall wanting my own business growing up!
SC.SD. It’s so inspiring being around founders though isn’t it?
JR. Definitely! You start to grill them on their ideas and it becomes infectious!
Given that she had never been afraid to aim high since she was a little girl, Jenni rose quickly through the ranks in her five years at the magazine gaining vital experience in the business world…
JR. I started as editorial assistant, very quickly became assistant editor and then by the time I was twenty-three, I became editor of the magazine!
SC.SD. Oh my gosh!
JR. I know! I then helped the MD sell the company. He basically came to me after a few years and said, “would you be interested in being Publisher and taking the magazine to the next level?” But I knew I didn’t want to stay there long-term and start something I couldn’t finish so he turned around and said, “ok, well will you help me sell it then?”
He always gave me lots of flexibility when running the business and had the confidence in me to let me just go and do what I wanted to do so I suppose I learnt a lot about running a business there. It involved everything from how to make more money and launch new products and events to going out and pitching and gaining that sales experience. I always end up in some kind of sales role – even in my job as an administrator after I left uni I ended up selling club nights as well!
SC.SD. That’s so funny because I’ve always done everything in my power to avoid the sales route before starting this!
JR. Yeh, people get afraid of sales! I’d never want a sales facing role but I think in general it’s about not being afraid and approaching it from a customer perspective as opposed to your own.
SC.SD. And I suppose it helps when you believe in what you’re selling?!
After receiving a bonus from the sale, Jenni decided to leave Pure Beauty with no job to walk in to. When her now-husband was offered a relocation package with work however, the two upped and relocated to Cheltenham together and Jenni joined his publishing company for a short while thereafter.
JR. That move shaped our lives in a big way because we haven’t left!
It was at this time that Jenni was approached by a contact she’d done work experience for as a teenager, enquiring whether she’d be interested in taking on a copywriting job for Boots.
JR. I ended up leaving my job because I wasn’t enjoying it and starting my own copywriting and marketing consultancy from this one £120 job! I was twenty-eight at the time and I remember sitting down in my spare room on my first day and just reaching out to all my old contacts from my magazine days offering copywriting work!
I didn’t really know what kind of work I would specialise in but it broadened organically and then I was asked to do a blogger campaign back in 2010 when the likes of Zoella was getting started. That’s when I switched my focus to blogging campaigns and social media so I was ringing people up offering to manage their Twitter accounts when no one really knew what that was…
SC.SD. I’m picturing someone calling me up now offering to manage my non-existent Vero account…
JR. Exactly! I got really good results though because it was catching on so fast and the bloggers I worked with had such influence because you could tell they were genuinely passionate about it.
Working with the likes of Zoella and Fleur de Force, I was intrigued to find out what led Jenni to walk away from that business and launch her own beauty range instead…
JR. At the time, I specialised in blogger campaigns but as time went on it became a totally different ball game as blogging evolved. Even though people kept asking me to do work for them, I distanced myself from it because I no longer felt I could offer that unique service and because I’d never wanted to start a PR agency, I didn’t change course with my offering. I had however always wanted to launch a beauty range since my Pure Beauty days and so I’d been spending a few years putting it into practice while I ran my consultancy…
SC.SD. Which is where Willowberry comes in! Given that you’d known for a number of years you’d wanted to go into beauty, what was it that made you realise it was finally time to go for it?
JR. I didn’t want to just jump in because there are millions of brands out there and I felt I had nothing unique to offer but I’d started to get more interested in natural products from the stash I used to receive in my magazine days. I remember using rosehip oil for the first time and it transformed my skin so I went on a course in 2014 to learn how to make natural skincare. That’s when I thought, ‘right, I’m going to do start. Baby steps for now Jenni, but just start!’
For the next three years, Jenni juggled her consultancy business with the extensive groundwork that underpins Willowberry…
SC.SD. I’ve met with a few product-based business founders now but I can imagine the work that goes into launching a skincare range is more complex than most…!
JR. Massively! Because I’d run my own marketing business for seven years, I really felt like I knew how to run a business but this has been a completely different story!
As well as the skincare course, I went on a course that teaches you how to sell cosmetics legally because there’s tonnes of legal paperwork about testing and how to register your products and so on and then I created a massive ‘To do’ list! It was pages long and included everything from ‘register a domain’, ‘source a designer for the labels’, ‘formulate the product’… it was huge!
SC.SD. How did it feel seeing how much work you needed to do laid out in front of you!?
JR. Overwhelming and huge but it wasn’t a case of, ‘you need to achieve this in a week!’ It was just everything I need to do before I launch. It’s how I used to work at uni actually; I’d get a calendar and if I had a deadline in four months’ time I’d work backwards to plot out what needed doing. Anyway over the course of three and a half years, the list got smaller and smaller and then suddenly in July 2017 it was time to launch.
SC.SD. Given that you were juggling your other business alongside this, was it a case of finding pockets of time here and there to fit the groundwork in?
JR. I treated Willowberry as one of my clients actually, and dedicated a set amount of time each week to creating it. People always used to ask me if I struggled balancing all my clients but I didn’t because I just structured my time!
SC.SD. For anyone that wants to follow in your footsteps, were the courses expensive and were there any key takeaways from them that took you by surprise?
JR. Not ridiculously expensive… a few hundred pounds so reasonable! Nothing surprised me either but there’s just so much to do when you launch a beauty product so the value came in knowing that I now knew exactly what was required and there’s a checklist at the end that was really helpful.
Things like you have to do a stability test and make sure your products last the shelf life they say they will; you have to do challenge testing to make sure mould won’t grow; you have to legally register your product(s) on the cosmetic product notification portal; there’s certain things you have to write on your labels…I reckon there’s loads of cottage industry brands out there that don’t comply because they have no idea that’s what’s legally required of them!
SC.SD. What about when it came to making the products themselves…. How did you know where to start?!
JR. Because I’d helped beauty brands launch products before, I had the insight to know I didn’t want to just launch with one product because press will talk about it for a few weeks, people would buy it and then that’s it. You need momentum so it was important to me that I had three products to launch with that can be brought separately or together as a regime.
The Willowberry range currently consists of a cleansing balm, face oil and day cream (which by the way I’ve been using daily since this interview took place and oh my gosh, it’s an absolute dream!)
JR. After about a month or two after launching Willowberry, I had loads of people ask me for sample sizes too because with skincare, you often want to try it before spending £20-£30 on a product that might not work for your skin. Because it’s a new brand, there’s not that trust established yet…
SC.SD. And you’re competing with so many others…!
JR. Tonnes! I’ve had so many people say, “that’s brave” about launching a beauty brand! But I’m so glad I listened to customer feedback and made those trial sizes too because they sell really well as an intro to the brand!
I’m looking at expanding the range but every product takes a few months to test, a couple of grand to develop per product and then you have to have a certain amount of stock upfront ready to launch… It’s a few thousand pounds for one product alone! I thought my savings would be spent on the initial launch but actually there’s money that needs investing all the time…
SC.SD. And you weren’t expecting that?
JR. No, I was definitely naïve to that bit!
SC.SD. In terms of the baby steps, did you make the range at home?
JR. Yes, so I tried formulating them all myself! I make the balm and oil myself but the cream is much more difficult as it has water in it… When a product has water in, it requires preservatives to stop mould from growing; it has to have emulsifiers to combine the oil and water to a cream consistency; and because I wanted it to be as natural as possible, I wanted to use natural preservatives and natural emulsifiers where possible. That’s so tough so I basically became a scientist! It would blow my old science teacher’s mind as I used to go to sleep in her lessons! I spent days researching all these different emulsifiers at specific measurements but it would always split or curdle!
SC.SD. I’m literally picturing you in the middle of the night just stirring away in your kitchen with all these potions around you!
JR. It was honestly like that! Then when I finally got a cream consistency, I would send it off for its stability testing which cost a few hundred at a time and it would always fail; every time after four weeks! This went on for about a year… The oil would always split from the water because the natural emulsifiers weren’t strong enough so it was a lot of money and a lot of time and ended up going round in circles three or four times!
I look back now and I’m so proud of my tenacity to stick it out! In the end I thought this is madness so I sourced a cosmetic chemist, I gave him my formula and I said, “I want it as natural as possible but make it stable” and so that’s what he did and it was totally worth it.
SC.SD. Were you just twiddling your thumbs as the four week mark approached?!
JR. Totally! And then the stability test takes a further three months and it could fail at any time!
I look back now and at the time I felt like I was stuck in a rut and was constantly like, ‘why is this happening to me!?’ I always feel like everything happens for a reason so I couldn’t work it out but because I’d made the other products myself and had gained that chemistry insight, I knew what I was talking about and could stick to my guns on certain points.
SC.SD. And does that come naturally to you?
JR. Sometimes I’d take feedback on! I remember initially when I was creating the oil and getting people to test it, they said it was too thick so then I made this ultralight formula which is what everyone raves about now but there were other things where I felt so strongly about it that I didn’t follow advice… At the time you think, ‘oh god! Am I an idiot for sticking to my guns here?’ but now I look back and think, ‘thank god I did!’
SC.SD. Absolutely! How long do you spend making each product?
JR. In a full day I can make between three and four hundred oils if I go hardcore!
SC.SD. Lots of coffee that day then!?
JR. Definitely! And the balm is more labour intensive so maybe between one hundred and fifty and two hundred in a day. I really want to outsource because it’s so time consuming and it’s a constant balancing act making enough stock so that if a peak order happens you’ve got it ready to go but if the orders don’t come in, you don’t want it sitting around but finding a manufacturer has been so difficult.
All the oils and butters I use are unrefined which was so important to me from the outset because the minute they’re refined, they lose a lot of those natural nutrients. So many products out there use refined materials so it’s so rare that we don’t…
SC.SD. Which I suppose gives you your niche in the market?
JR. Absolutely! It also means that it’s slightly more expensive but it’s so much better quality! Anyway, when I spoke to the manufacturer about using unrefined oils, they questioned why and said I could just use refined oils.
This was just before the launch and I remember thinking, ‘maybe I shouldn’t launch with this story’ but then I thought, ‘no! That is the backbone of the products and the business’ and to this day it’s the story I tell people so I’m so glad I stuck to that.
SC.SD. So the products are finally made and have passed all of their tests..! Talk to me about the launch…
JR. Well there ended up being a few hiccups which delayed it so there was a bit of, “this is the day I’m going to launch… oh wait, actually…” and in the end I just thought, ‘there’s always going to be something that could get in the way of delaying this, it doesn’t matter!’ So it ended up being July 3rd last year!
I made the website go live, I reached out to all my blogger contacts, put it out across my social channels and then the whole day was spent reaching out to press and telling everyone! I just remember being so excited!
SC.SD. And what was the reaction? Did it pay off?
JR. Well I had immediate sales on that day which I’m so grateful for! I look back now and think how naïve I was because I could have done all that work and had absolutely no sales or the odd sale every few months. I still feel so incredibly lucky that I do get sales every month!
Facebook was key at the beginning though… I hadn’t been on Facebook in ages but went back on it to create the Willowberry page and I ended up getting such support actually – not just from current friends but also old school friends. It really surprised me and felt so amazing.
SC.SD. I always respect people when they pop up on Facebook and take me by surprise with what they’ve been up to!
JR. Definitely – it really was mind blowing support. For the first few years when I was creating Willowberry I didn’t tell anyone but then when I knew I was going to commit I started to tell people. Once they saw the physical side of it and realised it was real, it was then that I had a few, ‘actually that looks pretty good!’
Anyway I had loads of sales that day from friends and family and people were spreading the word for me but then an old school friend messaged me on the day saying, ‘call me sharpish!’ He worked for a big interior design company in London and they have a huge Christmas party for their employees each year where normally everyone gets given Jo Malone products or something. Anyway, he said “I can’t promise you’ll get it but I can get you in to pitch for the corporate gifting contract?” so I went in, pitched and got it! That was for a hundred gift sets so three hundred products sold to this one company in the first two weeks of launching! I remember going to a meeting with someone afterwards and about half hour in I mentioned that I got it and she was like, “how did you not do cartwheels in here?!” but I hadn’t time to stop and think about it!
It was such crucial cash flow for the business, I don’t know what I would’ve done without it!
SC.SD. Let’s talk about money more! Given the nature of the product, I trust that Christmas made a big difference to cash flow?
JR. A huge difference, especially in November! You need the money in your business just to be able to do the little things. Initially I tried to pay the bills with what was coming in because my savings had gone into the launch and every single penny left over just went straight back in to the business…
SC.SD. Is that not the case now then?
JR. Initially, I was freaking out every month about how I was going to afford to pay my bills. I spend zero nowadays anyway except bills so I didn’t mind not having the material things…
SC.SD. I hear you on that! I don’t even window shop nowadays because I don’t want to be tempted!
JR. I know! I’ve always been good at saving though so I was fine with that falling by the wayside but the prospect of not being able to pay the bills scared me. Every month, all I could think was, ‘ok, I’ve got to make that much money before I even think about making profit’ and you just can’t expect that to happen overnight. I ended up setting a chunk of money aside to pay my bills for the year, so that I could focus on growing the business without worrying about paying the bills.
SC.SD. And I take it that because of all of the various tests the products have to go through, it’s not the type of business that can be launched on a shoestring?
JR. You can do if you’re thinking of launching a cottage industry, your ambition is to sell at markets and you have a part time job on the side but I’m very much all or nothing and my ambition has always been bigger than that!
SC.SD. Can you recall and days along the way where you’ve just thought, ‘this isn’t what I signed up for’?!
JR. For a fleeting second, I once thought, ‘hmm… what can I do instead?!’ but I’ve never seriously considered walking away. Even though it’d be quite a public fail, I’d rather try and fail than to have never tried at all.
At the beginning, there were obviously nights where I’d lie awake worrying about how I was going to pay the bills but if you are worrying, you’ve got to just do something about it and approach it head on; otherwise it eats you up.
I hit another low in January because December was so busy and then it went quiet so I suddenly thought, ‘what if that’s it and no one buys from me again?!’ But then February turned out better than December…
Again it comes back to, ‘when you have a tough time, what are you going to do about it?’ I literally got a target board up on my desk for no one but me and I look at it and just thought, ‘how am I going to get these sales in, what marketing activity can I do next instead of just answering emails because that won’t help drive anything.’ You’ve got to be so proactive to create that awareness and customer retention…
SC.SD. Let’s talk about the moments that make all the effort worth it! I saw that you recently attended the CEW Beauty event…
CEW Beauty is the leading beauty industry body in the UK that is recognised by beauty insiders worldwide.
JR. That was major! I refuse to get nervous over most thing s but I was nervous about that!
SC.SD. Why so?
JR. I entered the beauty oil into ‘best wellbeing product’ category at their awards. There’s a product demo evening where you have a stand, all the big names are there and you have seven hundred people from the industry come over, you tell them about your products, demo them and they go away and vote.
I was so nervous because everyone knows their stuff and I just hoped that I could answer their questions but actually on the day, I loved it! There were so many old faces from my magazine days so there was so much, “what the bloody hell are you doing here?!” and I got so much amazing feedback! Because I’m the Founder presenting it, people really buy into that! It was such amazing exposure!
SC.SD. It sounds it! Any other stand out moments that you’re proud of?
JR. I entered The Beauty Shortlist awards just after I launched and found out the other day that the cleansing balm won the ‘Editor’s choice’ award! That’s our first award against thousands of entries and they make such a difference in terms of credibility, trust and helping to build momentum! The Willowberry face oil has also just been highly rated by the Good Housekeeping Institute – no mean feat – and our products have been raved about by the likes of British Beauty Blogger, Caroline Barnes – the top celeb make-up artist – and crucially, our customers love our products! We have a high customer retention rate and without customers we’d be nothing!
SC.SD. Given that you’ve experience running both a service-based business and now product-based business, how would you compare your experiences running the two?
JR. With both, I had no worries managing my own time and no worries working from home on my own all day; in fact I love it!
SC.SD. Same and I know so many people struggle with that…
JR. You’re the only other person I know that has said that! I don’t even have the radio on because I get distracted! But anyway, I totally thought I had it down but running a service compared to running a brand is just so different.
I was always so lucky running my service because I had contractual work so I always knew how much money was coming in each month whereas I know a lot of contractors work in peaks and troughs. With Willowberry, I thought once the brand was launched and you start selling it would be plain sailing but I quickly learnt you also need to build a foundation for the business. You can so easily work on the business for two or three years, think money is coming in because you can see money coming in but you don’t realise that you’re not necessarily making profit so there’s been huge planning from a financial perspective and from a brand perspective to ensure this doesn’t happen. It can take months and months to launch one new product alone.
It’s been a huge learning curve and I’ve really had to hone down my planning skills; I have to laser focus my days and because I have a three year old girl so I only work three and a half days a week, every single moment is so precious! If a meeting comes up, I really think about whether it’s worth it!
SC.SD. Well I’m honoured I made the cut!
Given that I met Jenni through the Southwood Social Hub – a private membership club for female entrepreneurs to network and share advice – I had a good idea about where she looks for support but for the sake of the interview asked away anyway!
JR. Massively the Hub!
SC.SD. You really stand out as one of the more active members!
JR. Really!? Oh that’s good to know! I think if you’re going to be part of a networking group, you should dedicate time to really commit to it. That’s why I always try and help others because when I ask questions I really value the answers. It’s just been incredible for the most simple or complex questions.
SC.SD. For me, the value is in that reassurance that everyone’s going through this journey. Yes we’re all at different stages but it’s good to know that everyone has their ups and downs…
JR. Definitely! I love that we’re all at different stages! If we were all starting up…
SC.SD. We’d all be sat there crying together!?
JR. Exactly! You need that experience and wisdom from the women that have already been there and done it.
SC.SD. Do you have a favourite quote?
JR. I love a quote! I totally live by them and remind myself of them all the time! On my desk I have, ‘if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get where you’ve always got’ which reminds me that if you want something you haven’t got yet, you need to do things differently to get there! On a personal level, I also like, ‘be kind because everyone’s fighting their own battles.’ If anyone’s rude or stand-off ish, you don’t know what’s going on in their life so kindness is crucial and then lastly, the poem by Erin Hanson:
There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask “What if I fall?”
Oh but my darling, What if you fly?
JR. I love that and it goes back to that public failure if this goes wrong… So what? At least I tried!
SC.SD. Absolutely! Very final question then… what’s next for Willowberry and can you see yourself working on this for the rest of your life?
JR. For me it’s an overall thing… I want Willowberry to be a big, recognised brand and I always want to work in it! I love going to work every day so I’m not interested in selling it at this stage. I just want to create something that can be of substance to so many women so that I always love it as much as I do now.
When anyone works hard to achieve something I can’t help but respect them; but the effort Jenni has put into launching the Willowberry range, takes that admiration to a whole new level…
Launching a beauty brand is no mean feat – especially when you consider how many multi-million pound brands you’re up against and the labour and time intensive groundwork that must be laid first – but if ever there was a woman fit for the job, it would be Jenni Retourné without a doubt.
From dealing with the financial realities of launching a brand and quiet spells that are common in retail head on; scheduling her time methodically to fit Willowberry around her previous business and for the past three years, motherhood too; to having the courage to listen to her gut instincts in the face of conflicting advice to ensure that there’s synergy across her products and her brand’s integrity is upheld; as Jenni said, this experience has challenged her previous notion of what running a business means but she’s risen to that challenge like any of the best trailblazers would.
Her persistence during the formulating stage where she experienced setback after setback will no doubt be something I remember if and when I face challenges with my own brand going forward; and having trialled her products since the day we met, I couldn’t sing her nor Willowberry’s praises more.