How a perfect storm helped fuel the growth of million-dollar sunscreen brand Solar D

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The team at sunscreen manufacturer Solar D chose just the right time to start chasing the licensing for a sunblock formula that still allows Vitamin D absorption. 

Chief executive Matthew Collett says the company secured the global license for the formula right as customers were starting to appreciate the importance of sun protection as well the effects of vitamin D deficiency. After more than 25 years working in banking, finance and business development, Collett says he’s come to appreciate the value of good timing in business—and has gone back to the basics of planning, trust and persistence in order to grow Solar D.

At the end of 2016 the company announced a $30 million, two-year deal with KW International to distribute its products across a range of international markets, including the US, China and South Korea. The business is now looking to amp up its $1.2 million turnover over the next few years through new partnerships and a bigger product reach.

SmartCompany spoke to Collett about how his 30 years in business have shaped his approach to Solar D. 

I spent 25 years working in the financial markets. I ran dealing rooms and areas for banks and financial institutions, and I guess that was my background and where I learned my business acumen.

I ended up starting up my own corporate advisory business in about 2007, which was basically where I helped companies launch—anywhere from early to mid-stage businesses. It was about how to take things to the next level.

I learned a lot doing that; you get right inside a business. The most [valuable] thing I learned out of all the businesses I helped start is that capital expenditure is the make or break for a lot of companies.

Whether you’re starting up a café of a tech business, it’s about sticking within your means. Everyone gets very excited about the future—they get the best computers, all that. Income doesn’t normally kick in for a couple of years no matter which way you look at it.

With Solar D, the whole world was just engaging with the idea of Vitamin D deficiency, and also the idea that you must stay out of the sun.

Whenever you get in a position with the perfect storm … well, I’ve learned through my 30 years in business that these opportunities don’t come around very often.

We licence the technology. We started off with the Australian licence, and the inventor in California was talking to another group about the American licence. We were making so much progress and the group he was dealing with in the US was going backwards. He spoke to us and said: “why don’t you think about asking for the world licence?”

This was about trust—and if you can’t build a relationship on trust and where both parties are happy, it’s always going to be a disaster.

We’d had the licence and had been working on Solar D for four years, and I’d been building up the business to partner with groups [before the partnership with KW International]. 

We’re both happy with the deal—I wouldn’t have signed it if I wasn’t happy with the terms. Now we focus on the design manufacturing, and they take over the marketing. They have 42 offices in North America and north Asia, and they know how to move product.

Because most countries view sunscreen as a therapeutic product, there’s regulation in about 90% of product ranges. A lot of countries follow the TGA/FDA approval system.  We’re about to go into Europe and Brazil—they go separately, but at the moment we’re probably doing 90-95% of the regulatory approval for all those countries in one go.

It’s a headache, but it’s part of the business. 

The idea is to build up the business up in two ways: we have the Solar D range, and the other side of the business is the licensing. For example, talking to businesses like Banana Boat, about licensing. We’ve got some pretty successful conversations going on.

My job is to protect the shareholders (we have 25 investors) and that’s really important. A fault I think you can have is getting too close to the business. You can be prone to make a silly decision or a hasty one.

I look at the business from a shareholders’ perspective instead of my own.

I think I’m very much about the idea that you have to go for experience when hiring. I don’t look at people that are looking for a new opportunity as much. At this stage, we can afford to do that.

The idea that the more people you employee the less you have to work couldn’t be further from the truth.

If I changed our business model and had to hire a 10-man sales team and 10-man marketing team, you lose that passion.

I think one of my greatest philosophies is that you only fail when you give up. I’ve run my business and everything I’ve done by that. You can only fail if you walk away from something, and that fact motivates you.

In small business you face some [tough] times, and if you don’t have the belly to handle the failure, it’s very difficult. The reality is it’s a 50/50 up and down game. It’s always a three to five-year turnaround—as I like calling it, the “five-year overnight success”.

It does get easier—you learn each time you do it. It’s nice to think that you can keep replicating this model.

By saying that, we may hold onto Solar D. The ambition isn’t to jump from one thing to the other, it’s more about making this a success.

I think a lot of people go into business with the view of counting the coins. If you focus on building the business rather than the money, I think you do a lot better.

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Emma Koehn is SmartCompany’s senior journalist.

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