Business as Unusual with Virgin StartUp and UpCircle Beauty

Virgin StartUp's Business as Unusual logo
Image from Virgin StartUp
Holly Branson
Holly Branson's writing
Published on 13 May 2020

Entrepreneurs are such a vital part of the economy and the wider world we live in – inspiring us to think differently, shake up the status quo, create solutions and use bold innovation to improve people’s lives.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit start-ups across the world with a great and devastating force. In a new series, ‘Business as Unusual’, we’re exploring how British start-ups have had to pivot what they’re doing during these unprecedented times. We'll be shining a light on Virgin StartUp supported companies who are already changing their business models and responding to the new normal.

To launch the series, I reached out to Anna Brightman who co-founded UpCircle Beauty with her brother, to discuss their experience with business as unusual. Here’s what she had to say...

Anna Brightman - co-founder of Upcircle Beauty smiles with hand on hip
Anna Brightman, co-founder of Upcircle Beauty | Upcircle Beauty

Can you tell us a little bit about your business and how you came up with the idea? 

Every UpCircle product is made from a core ingredient that would otherwise have been discarded. It all started three years ago when my brother and co-founder William asked his local coffee shop what happened to their waste coffee. He was shocked to hear they produced so much waste they had to pay the council to have it removed and disposed at on landfill sites. William decided it was a great starting point for a business idea, but he wasn’t sure what that idea was – that’s where I came in. Throughout my teenage years I wanted to be a makeup artist so I always had a keen interest in beauty and skincare. I knew that coffee had loads of great skincare benefits, which cued my light bulb moment! I thought, ‘why not repurpose the coffee into sustainable and circular skincare products?’

We began our journey collecting coffee grounds from one coffee shop and we now collect from 100 coffee houses across London. Our list is always growing too! We made a name for ourselves as ‘the skincare brand that collect coffee’ and soon enough we had businesses coming to us asking if we could create a circular skincare solution for their company’s waste by-products.

Upcircle Beauty team member carries a bag of coffee ground waste to be upcycled
Upcircle Beauty

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business and how have you responded?

The vast majority of our bricks-and-mortar retail partners have had to close their doors, so we have had a big decrease in wholesale business from hotels, spas, boutiques and more. However, the digital space is the complete opposite and our online store is busier than ever.

We’re also focusing our marketing on the importance of self-care during times of uncertainty and we’ve been sharing our favourite DIY skincare recipes via our blog. For many people, weekends spent at home mean less makeup, less alcohol and less late-night fast food feasts – so it’s a good opportunity for a skin detox! #SkinCareIsSelfCare.

How did you manage to create a whole new product in such a short space of time?

We've all been doing a LOT of hand-washing recently, and if you're using a product many times a day, you had better make it a good one! We decided to reprioritise our new product development in order to release a new hand wash. This meant that other products that we were working on have been pushed back slightly, but we were getting so many requests for a hand wash that re-strategising was the right decision. The hand wash we created is made from a 100% natural formula with gentle and nourishing ingredients. We’re also donating £1 to the domestic abuse charity Refuge with every bottle sold. We chose this charity because of the troubling news regarding the increase in domestic violence during lockdown. 

What has been the response from your customers and your community?

We’ve had wonderful feedback from our community on the initiatives that we’ve launched since the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s been very moving and reassuring to see people so passionate about supporting small businesses during these difficult times. We’re also using our stories on Instagram to give shout-outs to other small businesses we work with - such as independent boutiques, coffee shops, and subscription boxes - as a way of showing our support and encouraging people to ‘shop small’.

We also wanted to do our bit to support the heroes working on the frontline, so we created pamper parcels as a token of our gratitude. We announced the initiative in our newsletter and had more than 1,000 requests within the first hour. The gesture was mentioned in the media through the likes of The Independent, Hello! and Refinery 29 – just to name a few. We were also interviewed about it live on BBC Radio London. So it’s safe to say the word got out quickly!

As an entrepreneur what has been the biggest challenges of COVID-19?

We’ve had to completely re-think our roles. Our entire team is now working from home except for William and I. However, some of our team’s roles are not at all suited to working from home, so we’ve had to get creative...

For example, our logistics and warehouse manager is now in charge of creating new and exciting blog content! Barbs has been drawing on her own interests to create relevant posts such as home workouts, links to live Instagram yoga sessions, recipes from staple ingredients – that sort of thing! She is also contacting new businesses to enquire about certain by-products which we would like to start including in our 2021 product launches. 

It’s safe to say we’re all figuring it out day-by-day, staying open-minded, adapting quickly and - most importantly - staying positive!

Upcircle Beauty team photo in front of black brick wall
Image from Upcircle Beauty

What do you think entrepreneurship will look like in a post-coronavirus world?

To be a successful entrepreneur (pre and post coronavirus), you have to be able to think on your feet and adapt. To see the opportunity in any given situation and think outside the box is key. We’ve found that coronavirus has tested and re-instilled our entrepreneurial instincts. We have all had our sense of security shaken through this unnerving experience, so perhaps there will be a new wave of entrepreneurs wanting to go it alone and forge their own path!

What’s next for UpCircle Beauty?

Our intention is to keep on innovating. Our most recent range was made from upcycled powdered fruit stones, and at the moment we’re working with surplus fruit waters from the juicing industry and rescuing flower petals from local florists.

Consumers are already looking more closely at the sustainable activities of the companies they purchase from, and this will only continue to grow. We still have another four new products due to launch in 2020, so it’s onwards and upwards for UpCircle!

Thank you to Anna and Will for sharing your journey!

By featuring these resourceful start-ups, we hope that other entrepreneurs will find useful tips and ideas to help them weather this storm and come out stronger the other side. I’ve always believed in the power of mentorship, networking and sharing ideas, learnings and skills. After all, the more that start-ups and small businesses help each other to succeed, the more robust the economy will become for everyone.

For more COVID-19 entrepreneurship resources including webinars, funding options and business templates – visit Virgin StartUp and stay tuned with more ‘Business As Unusual’ content to come.