Helen James started out making her own natural skincare products at home but soon realised that there was a gap in the market. Now Innocent Oils is going from strength to strength, as Rachel Miller discovers
Like many entrepreneurs, Helen James saw a gap in the market when she was struggling to find the products she wanted as a consumer. In Helen’s case, she was looking for skincare products that would be suitable for her sensitive skin. “Having experienced first hand the disappointment and frustration of purchasing countless skincare products, all intended to soothe, yet resulting in painful sensitive skin reactions. I was desperate to seek out a suitable alternative,” she says.
Helen found that the market for such products was very limited and that “most available products were prohibitively expensive for me as a sole wage earner with a young family.” She adds, “At the time I had swapped roles with my husband who was at home caring for our first child as a house husband, while he was retraining to become a plumbing and heating engineer.”
Helen began to make her own natural skincare products. “I was uncovering information about potentially toxic ingredients used in the manufacture of many commercial skin care products. It was like opening a can of worms and my interest deepened as I found that there was a huge gap in the market for truly natural skincare products at a more affordable price. Having spent a great deal of time learning how to make suitable skincare products for myself, it soon became clear that there was a niche market crying out for what I was producing.”
And so, in 2005, Helen set up Innocent Oils. The name, says Helen, “seemed perfect for a range of products which really are pure and natural, with no guilty secrets hidden within.”
The Innocent Oil product range includes Botanical Face and Body Oils, Multi purpose Balms and Saves, Clay Facial Masks and Scrubs, hand-made Hemp Soap, Himalayan Bath Salts and a gluten free and wheat free organic modelling clay.
Helen sells her products online and via a few selected retailers. “All the products are made by hand here at home, in a purpose-built cabin affectionately known as Mama’s skincare kitchen,” says Helen.
“I have a great deal of help from a small team of local mums, friends and family, who are willing to give up a little of their free time to help me with labeling, packaging, filling and product testing, as and when required. In return they are free to choose their favourite products and can chat and drink as much coffee or juice as they like. It’s a great atmosphere and I enjoy this rather unconventional working environment.”
“Word of mouth and recommendation has been vital to growing a strong customer base,” reveals Helen. “Often my customers have specific skincare issues not easily resolved with mainstream products. Many of them have spent near fortunes on other highly-marketed creams and lotions before finding my company. So they like to talk about it when they find something that really works for them.”
Social media has also been an important part of the marketing mix for Helen. “I use Twitter and Facebook to connect with a wider audience and stay abreast of new trends in the skincare industry. As with everything in business, I get out as much as I put in. Recently I have found new customers, suppliers, and contacts through my efforts.”
Networking can have long-terms benefits, as Helen is discovering. “One example that stands out for me was when I cheekily asked a local magazine on Facebook why they had not added me as a friend, as a local business. I quickly heard back and gained a new contact there and then. This new contact asked me to write an article to feature in their magazine the following month. Several months later a local radio producer who had read the article, contacted me and invited me into the studio to talk about my business on Suffolk Radio. I got quite a few new customers as a result.”
Over the years, Helen has learned a great deal about natural skin care and she is happy to share her knowledge. “I have been a forum moderator on an eco forum since 2006. I do this freely and honestly to connect with like-minded people, and get a feel for current trends. This approach has led me to offering workshops about how to use safe kitchen cupboard ingredients to make natural toiletries and household cleaners. Some of my attendees have since gone into business themselves, and others have become the most loyal customers I could wish for.”
“Running a business involves many more challenges than I could have imagined at the start,” says Helen. “Even now I still feel I am barely scratching the surface of what I could achieve. Looking back I can see that I have been on an incredible journey. I had a five-year plan in my head when I set out, to spend the first five years learning and gaining experience. I knew at the beginning it would be a slow process as I have very little experience as an entrepreneur. I am just a mum with a passion and the drive to make a difference for myself and my family. If I can share that with others then I am a very happy woman!”
“In the long term, I would like to set up my own spas where I can use my own products,” says Helen. “But I prefer to remain flexible about how the business will expand,” she adds. “I know I am in the early stages of what could turn out to be a hugely successful business, and if through good fortune and careful planning, I find myself in the right place at the right time. I hope I have learned enough to spot it, and grab the opportunity with both hands.”
Whatever happens, Helen is putting family first. In fact she hopes that in the future, her children will be able to become part of the team. “Seeing my business successfully grow and develop so that hopefully one day, when my children are old enough, they can join me if they wish, adding a new dimension to what I started, bringing with them new ideas. That would be the icing on the cake for me.”
Find out more on the Innocent Oils website.
This case study was first published in March 2011.
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