Hands up all you girls who could bear the thought of a day in the office with your brother?
Well, whether you’d have reservations over combining business and a sibling status, it’s certainly not something which has stood in the way of the phenomenal early success of ethical beauty brand, UpCircle.
We’ve been chatting to the female founder behind the brand, Anna Brightman.
Children, parents, friends, sport pursuits, and the old arguments we once had over cereal and ‘top of the milk’.
These are the most creative and life-affirming (or not) topics that tend to sit at the centre of conversations between my own brother and myself. I imagine we’re relatively similar to most siblings. We chat. About the necessary, the normal and the nuances of our family world.
But what we don’t discuss?
Well, now you ask….
We’ll never be found chatting about Beauty. Nor Business. In fact, it would bring my brother out in hives to think we needed a conversation about face serums; and given he’s very much an ‘employee’ in this world, he’d be hard pressed to hold concentration for more than 90 seconds in a chat about anything remotely entrepreneurial.
Indeed, it’s exactly this context which makes me so keen to catch up with the incredibly friendly and conversational Anna Brightman.
She’s one half of a relatively new beauty brand in the UK, now going by the name of UpCircle Beauty (and originally launched back in 2015 as Optiat).
Anna, 25, is the more gregarious, and perhaps more ‘sales focused’ side of the unique enterprise she runs with… yes, her brother.
It’s actually 28-year-old William who conjured up the quirky skincare idea, having become ever more frustrated at the amount of waste coming from used coffee.
“My brother’s career world was in finance and hedge-funds, so he’d never exactly encountered the world of beauty or had a reason to think of creating anything in that sphere – but then he received a caffietiere as a Christmas gift,” Anna explains.
“He made coffee part of his daily routine, and then very quickly started pondering the fact that he – and many like him – were generating huge amounts of coffee waste as a result of their caffeine reliance.
“After a few months of starting to explore the habits of coffee-drinkers, cafes, coffee manufactures, and recycling schemes in more detail, he became really hooked on the idea of wanting to find some kind of ‘product use’ for used coffee grounds.”
It’s estimated that approximately 500,000 tonnes of coffee are sent to landfill per year in the UK alone, where it rots to produce methane. This greenhouse gas is said to be 20 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.
The sheer scale of the nation’s newfound love with coffee over recent years, together with the subsequent environmental impact, had made way for a business model which William was keen to pursue.
That’s when he turned to his sister.
“I was still working in my job on the south coast of England, serving as an area manager for a supermarket chain,” continues Anna.
“William wanted my thoughts on better uses for coffee grounds, and where we might really be able to develop a niche.
“It was me who began taking us in the skincare direction. I already knew that so many of my friends were becoming more and more conscious of the source of the ingredients in their beauty products, and also that they wanted to be more ethical consumers.
“To our surprise, no-one was doing it already. We knew we had an idea we could develop.”
Starting in the kitchen of their parents’ home, they began spending all the spare hours they could, testing and tweaking in mixing bowls and on any willing sampler who was keen to hear their idea.
It wasn’t long before word was spreading.
“We decided to launch our first basic product ideas at the London Coffee Festival in 2016,” she recalls.
“Everything was still very ‘home spun’ in many respects, and we’d just managed to produce a couple of types of face and body scrub, all stored in aluminium tins.
“But we knew the products were good and that we had to start getting out there and testing whether people would indeed buy into our idea around repurposing coffee grounds, or whether they’d just feel that putting perceived ‘waste’ on their body or face as part of a beauty regime was going to be too much.”
That first festival told them everything they needed to know. Within hours of the event, they had sold out of their first range. It was exactly the momentum the pair needed, and so followed an official resignation from her managerial job by Anna, plus a shift toward permanent business operations at their former family home.
“We started taking a place at every festival we felt had a remote synergy with what we were talking about and trying to achieve,” she goes on. “At every one, we seemed to make more contacts, and gain more attention around the brand. Then, about nine months into the journey, we found ourselves getting reaction from the likes of Urban Outfitters. They became our first retailers, followed by Wholefoods and a number of others.”
It was this pace of traction which on the one hand confirmed to Anna and William that they’d hit on a really believable and admired brand concept, but which also caused them to take stock.
Rather than keep running at break-neck speed, the sibling pairing took the chance just before Christmas last year, to redefine their range, consider new product prospects, and come out with a fresh vision and identity for their business to kickstart 2019.
It also followed an appearance on Dragon’s Den – filmed late summer of 2018 – in which they were captured on camera, discussing the merits and success to date of the beauty range.
The pair admit it wasn’t the greatest of timings in many ways, but that it gave them a great chance to have to be brutally honest about the weaknesses and requirements of their brand.
While they were offered investment on the show, Anna says the full ‘detail’ is still subject to diplomatic discussion and negotiation.
Today, however, they are now enjoying the early days of a newly encapsulated range, which includes a body scrub selection in three scents, soaps in two scents, a face serum, and a face scrub range in three scents.
They’re now hard at work on a series of creams too.
“This has been such an incredible journey for us, and we’ve learned so much so quickly,” explains Anna. “As you can imagine, creating anything for the face and body means no end of formal and legal testing, involvement with clinical specialists, a lot of work around brand and scents, and obviously also ensuring full traceability around our ethical and recycling messaging.
“Given all that demand on us so early on, I think we’ve absolutely done the right thing to have this period of reflection, and to really look at our next steps. It’s like it’s refreshed our excitement.”
So what can we expect of this ethical enterprise in the coming years?
Will this be a product on every high street, and will coffee ground recycling be something emulated by many beauty houses?
“We’d be honoured in many ways to think we were being copied,” Anna says. “Certainly our intention is to keep on innovating. We’re doing some new work with teas as well as coffees now, and are in exciting early development stages to look at how you make use of things like the stones from apricots, or even flowers left over from wedding venues.
“We believe consumers are already looking more at this kind of ‘sustainable activity’ from the companies they purchase from, and that will only continue.
“Our vision is to be the trusted skincare brand known for circular economy in the beauty industry.
“Naturally, the more you go forward, the bigger the investment requirement – and yes, the higher the stakes.
“But that said, no-one would go into launching a niche business or bringing a product idea to market if they didn’t have a little excitement and desire around the thought of risk for reward.
“I’m really looking forward to the future, and while some may look at my brother and I and think that as siblings we are chalk and cheese, to me, it’s exactly what makes our brand and business work.”
HOW DOES IT WORK? WHAT’S THE PROCESS OF COFFEE GROUNDS TO BEAUTY PRODUCTS?
Anna Explains: “We start out with the actual collection of the coffee. We are currently partnered with approximately 60 artisan coffee shops who we collect used grounds from. They’re all London-based for now, but we have hopes to branch further afield in the future. Next up we filter the coffee, and then add in the rest of our natural skin-loving ingredients – it’s like baking a giant cake. All of our products are made like this – by hand and in the UK.”