Businesswoman of the Month – February 2016

Bernie Mulligan – The Potionshop

When Bernie Mulligan (on the right in the photo) got knocked down by a car in 2001 it started a journey that would lead to her training in reflexology and starting a business producing handmade products for the beauty industry.

Would you mind giving us a brief explanation of what your business is and when you launched it?

Potionshop make handmade organic face, body, hair, manicure and pedicure products for professional salons. You will find lots of handmade beauty products on the market, but I am not aware of any that are specifically for professional use.

I started the business in 2011 but couldn’t actually sell anything for the first 18 months! Every product we make is scientifically challenge-tested by independent cosmetic chemists and requires safety certificates before we can market to the public.

What made you want to start this particular business?

A car knocked me down in 2001 and caused 5 fractures in my spine and internal organ injuries. On top of conventional medical treatment I had reflexology from my friend Beverley Higham and found that really helped me. As she blended aromatherapy oils to use on me, I would ask her what ‘potion’ she had for me each time.

I was unable to work for a long time and, not used to being idle, I took a course in 2003 in reflexology and aromatherapy – and absolutely loved it. At the time though I was in a destructive and controlling marriage and, with 3 daughters to look after, I didn’t have the confidence to change careers. In 2007 I hit 40 and my husband went into rehab (on my birthday!) for the second time. I decided enough was enough and we separated the following year.

I decided to do a degree and got a first class in business management and a distinction in my masters (MBA). During that time my friend Beverley was still teaching beauty and complementary therapies and formulating products for a couple of cosmetic companies. She is passionate about the beauty industry and was fed up with therapists having to use professional products full of parabens and other harmful chemicals. I suggested we start a business together making good quality, safe products – and we did!

Potionshop seemed a natural name as we make Beverley’s ‘Potions’

What do you think it takes to succeed in business?

You have to work hard and love and believe in what you do. There are lots of obstacles in business and, if you are not passionate about what you do, it is easy to give up.

Also you have to be prepared to be available 24/7. If a salon wants advice or a shop needs something urgently, we are there for them.

I also think having a business partner has helped us succeed. Overcoming problems is much easier when there’s two of you. Beverley and I have very different personalities and that works for our business.

What is the most important lesson you have learnt so far?

Don’t give up – no problem lasts forever. And if there is a problem working through it can actually be great for your business.

Our hair conditioner was our most challenging product to get right. To make something natural that is great for your hair and makes it shiny, without being greasy, is difficult. That’s why companies add chemicals to emulsify, bind and blend. But the problems we encountered formulating our handmade conditioner led to us doing so much more research. We are entering it in Beauty awards this year – so watch this space!

What do you think it is about you that enabled you to turn an idea into a business?  

Passion and sheer hard work. Beverley and I have a great combination of skills and starting the business in our forties meant that we knew lots of people with the extra skills that we needed, like web design and graphics.

If you were starting all over again tomorrow, what are the top 3 rules you would follow?

  1. Go to people in the industry and ask for help and advice early on. We struggled with labeling and wasted money on some of the things we tried. Knowing what I know now would have saved a lot of time, sweat and money.
  2. Set yourself reasonable timescales to do tasks. I can still underestimate timings and leave myself rushing around, especially if travelling is involved.
  3. Don’t see everyone in your market as competition; there are 7 billion customers in the world. Being friendly with competitors has helped us get some great suppliers of raw ingredients.

What difficulties did you experience setting up your business and what has got you through the tough times ?

The most difficult time was getting our first sales. No-one had used our products professionally so we had no recommendations or testimonials. So we gave free products and treatments away to people who would write about them or endorse them.

Looking back now, would you have done anything differently?

No, I could have made some things easier but I only know that now in retrospect.

What have been the ups and downs of creating a business with a friend, and what advice would you give to someone who is going into business with someone else?

You have to trust and respect each other. Beverley and I trust each other and our skills are very varied. We respect each other’s areas of strength.

Do you have any tips for dealing with the struggles of balancing work and family life?

Try and get your children to understand and get involved with what you do. They have to understand what you do to appreciate how hard you have to work. You don’t ‘clock off’ when you start a business and thoughts come into your head during the night or in the shower and sometimes you need to take action on an idea as you think of it.

Do you have a mentor and when you need advice, who do you talk to?

My husband is a great organizer and planner, so I often speak to him about implementing plans. Our levels of production increased quite rapidly so we soon realized that processes needed to change.

What are your plans for the future?

I am working on exporting extending aromatherapy products for use in the medical workplace.

Do you have any specific tips for anyone wanting to start a similar business?

Sales in any market are hard. People often have preferred brands and it can take time to change brands, so be patient. Also be prepared to work on demand, even if you are shattered.

Visit the The Potionshop's website here

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