From being mad about science to going global: Sorbet Cosmetics' Brianne West tackles beauty bars, tanning and shampooing

Sorbet Cosmetics founder Brianne West, making unique products and doing good
A shampoo but not in a bottle. Tanning lotion but not in a bottle. This concept has grabbed global attention. The ideas were ‘cooked’ in a homegrown lab in the antipodes by a girl who loves everything science, and wants to build not just any business, but one that has a positive impact for society.

Brianne West had to pretty much put her university education on the backburner to chase her entrepreneurial dream. No, wait, she is chasing more than that now - she has set her sights on growing her company Sorbet Cosmetics into a global enterprise with philanthropic roots.

Despite not having attended a lecture in two years, the University of Canterbury science student is six weeks away from completing her Bachelor’s degree (Biology). What she has missed out in class, she has more than make up for in life lessons - cooking up cosmetic recipes, making hair and beauty products, and lately, chasing capital to sustain growth.

Her medium-term goal is to try and hit $1 million in sales by 2017. By the way, Sorbet Cosmetics is only a little over two years old. Sales have been trekking well since the company started selling its products.

West and her three staff makes a line of over 100 cosmetic products including shampoos (not your regular shampoo, they come in a bar), conditioners, cleansers and scrubs; moisturisers, serums and household cleaning bars. Among the latest additions is a self-tanning bar, which West believes is a world first.

The bar combines two ingredients used to make tanning lotions, DHA (sugar in beets) and evrythrulose (sugar from raspberries) the latter works well as it doesn't streak easily. You swipe yourself with the bar, and within 24 hours, your skin’s colour transforms.

West's beauty products have caught the fancy of American fashion model Brooklyn Decker. US Women’s Weekly told West that Decker loves her products and the magazine asked to photograph Sorbet Cosmetics’ solid beauty bars. US blogger My Beauty Bunny also gave glowing reviews for the products it tried. And if negotiations go well, Sorbet Cosmetics hopes to get spots on Gwyneth Paltrow’s website Goop.

Not just any business but...

West set out wanting not just to build any business, but one that could have a positive environmental impact, and produce something different. Her bars are free from additives and harmful ingredients. By focusing on removing packaging,  Sorbet Cosmetics has stopped a lot of plastic packaging from hitting the rubbish chain.

Early struggles, success

Building a business from scratch takes hard work and a lot of long hours. She has has spent countless hours in her ‘lab’, often leaving after 10pm.

She confesses to not juggling school and business well. Business always took precedence, she says. “I haven't attended a university lecture in almost two years, which has made studying significantly harder, particularly around exams.”

Like all startups, her early days were a bit of trial and error.  “I started Sorbet Cosmetics with the attitude of ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’. About halfway through last year, I really started to feel the pressure as consumer demand began to outweigh my kitchen’s capabilities. Working long hours also put a lot of strain on my relationship with my fiancé.” (West got married three weeks ago.) She now makes her products in a commercial facility.

Growing

Sorbet Cosmetics is in the process of building a flagship store in Auckland, and hopes to reach 50 stockists in the country within the next two years.

She is selling to other countries online but will be looking at building a more solid presence in Europe, including Germany, Scandinavia, Spain and the UK. West will be meeting industry contacts in each of the destinations in a scouting trip in July.

Tips for young entrepreneurs

What’s her advice to startups seeking to carve some space in the marketplace?

“Surround yourself with people who know more than you do. I have a fantastic team around me from my business partner to our accountants, creative team and PR firm. They are all the best in the business and provide me with excellent advice, particularly as they all really believe in the Sorbet Cosmetics brand and want it to succeed.

Forecast is important, so is business plan 

Young entrepreneurs should also focus on creating a business forecast, looking two years ahead, at least, to help manage the company’s finances, she says.

“This allows you to easily identify when you can afford to take on additional expenses and ensures you have a solid plan. Many businesses skip this step and some don’t even take the time to create a business plan. I learnt this the hard way and believe both elements are equally important.”

It is all about the customer

Her tip for building customer engagement is to listen and involve customers in decision-making processes.

“We ask our fans on social media which scents they like, what products they want to see and request their feedback on every facet of the business. We send some select customers free samples of our new products so they can trial and review them before the range hits the market.”

Have a point of difference

Also, don’t enter a market unless you have a point of difference. “Why enter a market if you don’t have a clear point of difference or can’t offer a better product or service than your competitors? You have got to make yourself stand out and this is particularly important in the oversaturated cosmetics market.”

How to market without a big budget

How did she market her products without a big budget? West notes that initially she relied on family and friends as word of mouth is also a powerful marketing tool. But as the business took flight, and her confidence grew, she learnt how to network and tell the story of her products.

“Be unique. Before we ever really started marketing Sorbet Cosmetics, the brand received a lot of publicity simply because our products were unusual and had a well-defined unique selling proposition. You also have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone. Our existing customers really delight in telling their friends and professional networks too.”