This interview series features inspiring female entrepreneurs who have launched and run successful businesses. Through our peers’ experiences, we can learn practical lessons and insights to empower us on our entrepreneurial paths. Crucially, storytelling de-risks entrepreneurship so we believe it is an essential pillar in closing the opportunity gap for female founders. 

Firstly, tell us a bit about you.

I am the co-founder of UpCircle Beauty! At UpCircle, we elevate leftover natural ingredients, bringing them back to life as beauty products your skin will love.

Our products are natural, organic, vegan, cruelty-free, palm oil-free, sustainable, handmade in the UK and housed in 100% recyclable packaging. But the key point of difference between us and other brands is that each of our product is made with a core repurposed ingredient. “Natural” is the new “normal” – we go a step further with our waste-fighting formulations.


Tell us about your business, how did you come up with the idea?

It all started about three years ago now. My brother William (my co-founder) used to make his own coffee each morning using a cafetière. Living in central London he didn’t have a garden and so didn’t have enough plants he could use the coffee grounds on, so instead he was simply throwing them away. He asked his local coffee shop what they did with their waste coffee and was shocked to hear that they were producing so much that they had to pay the council to have it removed and disposed of on landfill sites.

He decided it was a great starting point for a business idea, but wasn’t sure what that idea was – that’s where I came in. Throughout my teenage years I wanted to be a makeup artist so always had a keen interest in beauty and skincare. I knew that coffee had loads of great skincare benefits, so… lightbulb moment! Why not repurpose the coffee into sustainable circular skincare products?

We began our journey collecting coffee grounds from one coffee shop, we now collect from over 100 coffee houses across London – our list is always growing!


What was the moment that everything changed for you? Describe that moment when you decided to fully commit to your idea and the first few steps you took to make it possible.

While we were still working in our current jobs, we booked a stand in the “Innovation Zone” at The London Coffee Festival. It’s a five-day show, but our coffee-based exfoliators sold out before the end of the first day! That showed us two things, firstly that the products worked, and secondly that people weren’t turning their noses up at the idea of recycled ingredients in skincare. So it was that experience that made us then quit our jobs and go full steam ahead with the brand.


What were the initial challenges you came up against and how did you overcome them?

We are a disruptor brand – trying to tackle issues of waste in the beauty industry is no easy task! There’s a reason that we’re the only brand recycling coffee grounds into skincare at scale, because the process presents many challenges. We have to intercept our recycled ingredients at exactly the right time for them to be appropriate for use in our products. We spent years refining our process to get it right, having a manufacturing team who are completely behind our circular economy mission is so important for this very reason.

It was also a challenge persuading major retailers that our business model was scalable. We needed to show them that there is no shortage of ingredients that need to be rescued. For example, the UK produced 23,000 tonnes of fruit stone waste in 2012 alone, so we knew something had to be done there too. So… we released our “fruit stone range”, within which each product is made with the powder of a different discarded fruit stone!

In 2019 alone we launched into Australia and America as well as the likes of Boots, Sainsbury’s, Holland & Barrett, Ocado, Urban Outfitters, Beauty Bay, Whole Foods, As Nature Intended, House of Fraser, Feel Unique, Farmdrop, Revital and many more in the UK, so I like to think we’ve proven ourselves now!


What was the first win that made you feel you were onto something? 

Having 3 Dragons fighting for us on Dragons’ Den!!


Did you take the investment route for your business or are you self-funded? Can you share some insights on your decision and the process?

A bit of both. We have put a lot of our personal savings into the business to get our feet off the ground, but crowdfunding has also played a pivotal role for us. It provided us a platform for growth and gave us access to a wide range of investors. We maintain a regular dialogue with our investors and meet with our larger investors on a regular basis to discuss everything from strategy to supply chain.


What has been your best investment?

We worked with copywriters to refine our messaging and tone of voice. It’s arguably quite an abstract thing to spend money on, so it was nerve-wracking at the time, but now that we can look back, the value of it is so clear. Creating a positive environmental impact is at the heart of our product and business, we want to leave the world better than we found it. When it comes to the environment we are constantly bombarded with intimidating doom and gloom headlines. The scale of the problem can feel so daunting that it’s all too easy to give up before you’ve even begun. So, at UpCircle, we try to focus on positive change and keep an “every little helps” mentality.

We learned how to communicate our message, values and story much more effectively by working with copywriters – money well spent.


Have you made any mistakes or faux pas? If so, can you share with us?

For those of you who aren’t aware, “UpCircle” started life as “Optiat”. However, two years into our journey we took the decision to undergo a fairly dramatic rebrand – something that we worked on tirelessly behind the scenes for more than half a year. When we first had our idea to repurpose coffee grounds into scrubs we went from idea to launching a product very quickly.

As our product ranges expanded we realised that the branding that worked for the scrubs, didn’t work for other products and our visual identity became muddled. So.. we rebranded in order to unify the brand, unveiling a fresh new look and name. We took our learnings from Optiat and built on them to create UpCircle. The main challenge was keeping the existing brand running smoothly whilst all of this was also going on! The cost of it was also a challenge, but our growth has really catapulted since so we know it was the right choice to make!


What’s your experience of being a woman in the start-up ecosystem and what in your mind needs to change?

I am a part of several female founder networks, which I enjoy being involved in. It’s great to see women supporting women. I would love it if more men got involved with supporting women in business too! For example, every single International Women’s Day event I’ve ever been involved in has been run and attended by women…


What’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learned since starting your own business?

Ironically, to not feel obliged to take onboard everyone’s advice. No one knows your business, your personality or your life like you do, so trust your instinct. There’s no harm in listening, but you don’t have to take everyone’s advice and run with it!


With the future in mind, where would you like to be/where do you see yourself in the next five years?

I’m eager for us to be able to offer a full skincare offering, to cater to whatever skincare concern you may have. I’m also highly motivated to continue sourcing varied ingredients that are ending up being thrown away prematurely. I’d also like to have grown a much bigger team!


Can you tell us one of your goals for 2020?

To begin saving and transforming flower petals from florists and wedding venues. Our love of flowers is not likely to wane any time soon, so we have an abundance of ingredients to work with – an endless supply. The only limit to by-product beauty is a lack of imagination! In fact, we have 6 products set to launch in 2020!


What can our readers do to support your business?

With the spread of Covid-19 now a pandemic, this is a very scary time for small businesses. With most physical shops closed – particularly overseas, pretty much all of our wholesale orders have dried up already. We are relying solely on our website sales… so, if you’d like to support us, then please have a browse of our range at Up Circle Beauty – we are shipping as normal for as long as we possibly can!


What advice would you give anyone about to start a business?

Stay in your existing job for as long as possible and save, save, save. Do as much of your research and resourcing whilst still employed, you need your ducks in a row as much as you feasibly can before taking the big leap!

About the Author

Leah Williams is the Blog Editor for Found & Flourish, working with Founder Lara Sheldrake to ensure every piece of published content is empowering, inspiring and well presented, just like the women we work with.

Discover More

Like what you read?

Sign up to out newsletter for regular updates!

Sign up to the Found & Flourish monthly newsletter to receive curated resources, insights and events!