Noelle O’Connor may have started off her beauty business in a one-room outlet, but since then has grown her company to four salons and most recently walked away with €50,000 investment on hit Irish show ‘Dragons’ Den’.
There’s quite a contrast between Noelle O’Connor’s early days in a one-room salon in Newbridge, Co Kildare to where she is now as the woman behind Tan Organics, a trailblazing tanning product, which has achieved the biggest-ever opening order
following an Irish Dragons’ Den appearance.
An ITEC-qualified beauty therapist and lecturer, O’Connor worked as a barmaid before deciding to set up that first salon 14 years ago, operating from what was little more than a cubicle behind her friend’s hairdressing business.
“Things were very quiet back then – I used to jump up and down if someone came in for a facial. My family thought I was crazy. After four years I wanted to move, and once I got my own front window, business trebled overnight from the Friday to the Monday,” she says.
It was the start of the boom and her salon was doing so well that she opened a second and was then approached by the Heritage Hotel and the Glenroyal Hotel (both in Kildare) to open salons on their premises.
“I grew to six salons in total but had to scale back to four when the descent in the economy started. It was as if someone switched the lights off and I had to batten down the hatches.”
A gap in the market
As she was growing the salon chain, however, O’Connor found a gap in the market for mineral-based make-up, which led to her setting up a separate distribution company, Skinlogic, in 2004.
“I was the first to bring the product in – nobody knew what it was, but I felt it was going to be huge in five years. I started with a pay-as-you-go phone and computer and scaled up to having around 400 accounts around the country.
“All of my customers are beauty salons and they’re struggling now. My own salon business is challenging, and nowhere near what it was in the boom with repayments to make on fancy kit-outs. I asked myself, what am I going to work at?”
Having always used fake tan with her fair skin, O’Connor felt there was a gap for a unique product that was 100pc natural and organic and packaged in a recyclable glass bottle. Frustrated by many of the skin-drying, chemically loaded tans on the market she decided to do some research of her own, working with a specialist lab in the US.
“Ireland is the largest user of fake tan per capita. Other tanning products are organic based but still have some synthetic ingredients. For a year there were little bottles going back and forth until I was happy with the end product. The breakthrough was an organic extract of sugar beet that naturally tans your skin over a period of seven hours,” she says.
Lasting for five to seven days, the product will appeal to women because of the lack of chemicals and to men because it doesn’t smell, she adds.
For the past year or so, Tan Organics has been selling well as a spray-on in salons in Ireland with interest in it in the UK, Europe, the US and Australia. It’s going to have a major launch in May when it will go on sale in pharmacies nationwide.
A second bite of the cherry
When O’Connor filled out the Dragons’ Den application she didn’t really take it seriously. “I said I would rather stick pins in my eyes than go on TV, but months later when the phone rang and they asked me to do the programme, the businessperson took over and I thought about what I would have to pay for exposure like that.
“I didn’t want to be one of those people on the show who didn’t have answers to things, so when I said I ate, breathed and slept Tan Organics, that was true!”
O’Connor had asked for €50,000 for a 10pc stake in her company, but Gavin Duffy offered her the full amount for a 45pc stake, and she said yes.
“Gavin was my No 1 choice. I do as much as I can myself, but if there is anything major to deal with, such as putting production in line for the big order we got after the show, I can run it by him. He opens doors for me, while I get on with the development of the business.
“I’m very grateful for a second bite of the cherry, and Skinlogic has got a great boost as a result. The recession is less of a shock to people who have been here before. I used to ask myself ‘what if I lose everything, what’s the worse that can happen?’ and I realised I could always go back to working behind the bar, which was the only job I enjoyed as much as this.
“When it came to the crunch though, I didn’t really mean that. When the reality stared me in the face, I wanted to come up with a better idea.”
This article first appeared in Owner Manager magazine