Left feeling frustrated at trying to hunt down a good quality Omega 3 supplement in the UK and subsequently, having to buy products from America, mum of three, Melanie Lawson embarked on a journey to start her own fish oil business. After a year of researching, she finally found her manufacturing source in a tiny fishing town in Norway which would guarantee a product that was strong enough to work, fresh enough to taste good and 100% pure.
Here, she talks about the trials and tribulations of being a mum to her three young children and running her business, Bare Biology, a leading luxury Omega 3 health supplement brand, which has seen average monthly order volumes double in just 18 months.
What prompted you to start your own business?
After having my children and spending seven years looking after them at home, the thought of going back into the corporate world and working for someone else didn’t appeal. I always had these thoughts of starting my own business, but I had no clear idea of what I would sell.
I’m very open about the fact that I’ve had OCD most of my life and that I suffer from anxiety and sometimes depression. After the birth of my second child, postnatal depression kicked in and this was the turning point for getting help. It was a combination of lifestyle and dietary changes, talking therapy and broadening my mummy friends’ network that really helped me pull through. Having gone through this difficult experience, I also focused a lot of my attention on better understanding the benefits of Omega 3 and the negative impact Omega 3 deficiencies can have on women’s mental health. It was only then I realised the health benefits of these fatty acids were far reaching but, surprisingly, it was extremely difficult to buy a highly concentrated and pure fish oil supplement in the UK.
And, so Bare Biology was born?
Yes, we launched in August 2013 with one product, our Lion Heart liquid. If you want your fish oil supplement to benefit you, it must contain enough EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are the two most important Omegas. One 5ml teaspoon of our Lion Heart Fish Oil has 3500mg of Omega 3, including 2000mg of EPA, 1000mg of DHA plus 500mg of other Omega 3s, making it one of the strongest concentrated fish oils you can buy.
I never had a desire to have a factory or warehouse of my own. After a lot of research, I found a manufacturer in Norway and it took around a year to get my supply chain in place. This was challenging as I had no previous experience of dealing with different elements of supply chains. I’m also not great at asking for help so I couldn’t short-cut any learning. Instead, patience and learning from my mistakes was how I developed new skills.
How did you go-to-market?
I used Shopify from the beginning and was one of the first UK businesses to use the platform. At the time, there weren’t many web designers who knew it and I attempted to design it myself. I eventually found a freelancer who helped me put together our first site. For the first year I did all my own PR, sending samples out to key journalists and influencers. I was slow to use social media because I wasn’t comfortable with it. Getting Lion Heart stocked in Liberty and then Space NK gave us a good PR boost and credibility. I still view our retail distribution as a key part of our marketing mix.
How challenging did you find running your own business?
For the first year our order volumes were manageable which meant I could do everything myself but, as word spread, the orders increased which started to place more pressure on me. We also got stocked in Liberty London and Space NK which was incredibly exciting but put ever greater stress on me to ensure the packing and distribution were done quickly and professionally. My husband was helping me at this point as he was on gardening leave; fulfilling the orders had become this all-consuming task which meant I had no time to focus on marketing or growing the business. Something had to give so we made the decision that outsourcing the fulfilment would free me up and allow me to grow the business.
What was particularly appealing about James and James Fulfilment?
A major selling point was the fact that James and James had an integration set up with Shopify. Even though they hadn’t been around very long at that point, they ticked a lot of boxes. The Co-founders had an interesting back story and the technology they had designed was impressive. Although I had nothing to compare them to, I had confidence they would do a better job than me. As well as individual customer orders, the team were able to deal with the retail orders which was another important incentive for me as I was looking to increase retail distribution in the future.
Did you find it hard to let go?
In some respect, yes. I knew it was right for my business but you’re placing huge amounts of trust in a fulfilment partner looking after your brand as if it’s their own. My main concern was that orders wouldn’t be distributed quickly enough. Also, our products are high end and a high proportion of our customers are environmentally conscious. It was important for James and James to be mindful of this and not use too much packaging or boxes that were too big.
Looking back over the last six years of working with James and James, we have had the odd moment where things have gone wrong, but any disruption has been minimal and more often than not, this has been down to postal or courier errors.
What value would you place on the partnership with James and James?
They are crucial. We couldn’t function as a business without them. It’s only when you’re faced with situations like the current international health crisis that the importance of this type of partnership comes into sharp focus. If they’d had to close, we wouldn’t have a business.
I can genuinely say that I’ve never felt concerned about our fulfilment. It just happens and I don’t give any headspace to worrying about it. We have recently started selling on Fulfilled by Amazon. It was quite challenging due to the stringent delivery and packaging processes Amazon place on businesses. James and James removed this burden and created a process that works and allows us to get stock to their warehouses in way that complies with all their rules. The team are responsive, always willing to help and prepared to solve any issues.
I am sometimes amazed at the fact that I know people who are years into their online business and are still doing all the fulfilment themselves. I keep telling them they shouldn’t be down in the weeds and they’re stifling their growth. It seems such an obvious choice to me but equally I can understand that it can be hard for people to let go.
How is your business faring given the difficult times we face?
Last month was actually our best month ever. It was mainly due to panic buying from both customers and retailers, but we’re obviously a health product so demand has increased. Our retail sales have since gone down which is to be expected as many have been forced to close. Our online sales are still strong. Given that we’re a business focused on mental health and wellbeing, which have become front and centre for people now, we are still fortunate enough to be operational and our team remains fully employed.
What does the future hold?
We’ve been developing some new products but have placed new product development on hold for the time being. We also want to develop more environmentally friendly packaging and I’ll be working closely with James and James and their packaging partners on this in the near future.