After ‘bunkering down’ when the coronavirus pandemic first took hold in Australia, the passionate duo being cult SPF brand Ultra Violette is ready to take the next, international, steps to grow their business.
Bec Jefferd and Ava Matthews spent more than two years developing their products, which look, and feel, much more like cosmetics than traditional sunscreens.
The first of the Ultra Violette products launched via an online pre-sale event in December 2018, with more following soon after at the end of January 2019.
There are now nine products in the Ultra Violette range, which is available from the brand’s own website and some boutique retailers in Sydney, as well as from leading beauty retailers Adore Beauty and Sephora, as well as The Iconic and Joyce and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong.
But despite its products only being available for fewer than two years, the business has developed a loyal following and has a revenue run rate for the 2020 calendar year of more than $2.5 million.
The Ultra Violette team has also grown. Jefferd and Matthews now have three employees, two of whom were hired right as national lockdowns came into effect in March.
Jefferd recalls that moment “when we started to take this seriously” and says survival mode kicked in.
“We took an approach of, ‘we’ve just got to survive this’,” she tells SmartCompany.
“We pulled back on expenses, bunkered down and tried to keep as lean as we can.”
The Ultra Violette team was already working remotely and the founders say they were fortunate not to have an office lease or other “big fixed costs”.
But despite the initial concerns, Jefferd says sales have grown, particularly in recent months.
“Surprisingly, skincare consumers, beauty consumers have been very resilient during 2020 and they continued to invest in products,” Jefferd says.
That’s because these products fall into the “self-care bucket”, say the founders.
“We represent a consistent part of someone’s day; they put sunscreen on and go for a walk.”
Ultra Violette recorded its biggest sales months ever in August and September, with the team doing “little things” to put a smile on their customers’ faces, from including personal messages and free samples in orders, to offering free shipping for Victorian shoppers when the state went back into lockdown.
“We kept things fun and light, hopefully bringing a little joy to someone’s day,” Jefferd says.
The brand saw growth in its own direct-to-consumer sales, as well as through Adore Beauty and Sephora, which means it’s now in a strong cash position heading into summer when more people think about wearing sun protection.
“Revenue has been incredibly strong. We’ve kept expenses tight, and we’re now looking at what are some smart ways to invest.”
And while the business did have “grand expansions” planned for the UK and some parts of Asia this year, Matthews says it now has international plans ready to go “as soon as the clock strikes for 2021”.
The goal is to be in the UK, Europe and Southeast Asia next year, with the founders having learnt a lot from their venture into Hong Kong.
“In hindsight, it has been a good thing we’ve had the extra year to get ready,” Jefferd says.
It’s been an opportunity to sharpen operating systems and implement an inventory management system, because “what else can you do when locked at home”, she adds.
From side-hustle to full-fledged business
Jefferd and Matthews were both working in the private label department of beauty retailer Mecca when the seed was planted for them to create their own brand.
But that meant finding jobs that would allow them to work on something of their own, in their own time.
“Obviously, we realised if we were to do this brand, we needed to get out of any potential conflict of interest,” Matthews explains.
Matthews moved to Rationale Skincare where she headed up the brand’s marketing, while Jefferd took on the role of general manager at Toms’ Organics.
The pair worked on their brand on the weekends until, a month out from launch, Matthews quit her job and focused on Ultra Violette, while also doing some consulting work. Meanwhile, Jefferd dropped back her days at Toms’.
“For me personally, I guess as soon as we launched, we kind of knew there was some magic there,” Matthews says.
“Obviously we weren’t paying ourselves a salary at that point, so I kind of needed to earn as much money as I could in as little hours, and spend the bulk of the time getting up and running.”
But after six months, the founders knew it was time to “give this a big solid crack” and go all in.
“We needed to really dedicate ourselves full-time to this, and not be distracted by growing other people’s brands for them,” Matthews says.
It was a “really terrifying moment”, Jefferd says, but once they made the switch from having a business on the side, to a full-time focus, it “felt completely different”.
“It was difficult to navigate that stage, to put everything into a business that wasn’t paying us,” she says.
Paying themselves a salary was, therefore, a way to justify the amount of work they were putting in.
“The more effort you put in, the better the business does, and it does return that salary,” Jefferd says.
Matthews and Jefferd spotted an opportunity to create a new kind of sunscreen product after seeing firsthand how common it was for people to be unable to find an SPF product that suited their skin, or that they could combine with other skincare and makeup products.
At the same time, they also understood how difficult it can be to develop such products, thanks to their experience working in product development for other beauty businesses.
“In a market such as Australia, we’re all told to wear sunscreen, but most can’t find a serum they like,” Jefferd says.
“We thought, why don’t we formulate it like a skincare product, so it isn’t coming from a ‘slip, slop, slap’ message, or something that you slather on your body before going to the beach.”
The goal was to create products that would be used every day and fit in with someone’s existing skin routine.
“We felt passionate about there being a gap in the market,” she says.
“No one was really nailing this.”
The result is Ultra Violette and a new category that the founders like to think of as “skin screen”.
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Building an audience online
When Jefferd and Matthews first released some of their products out to the world in December 2018 — at the behest of friends and family who were begging to buy some — they sold out within a day.
It was a sign of things to come, with social media and word-of-mouth recommendations playing a key role in the brand’s growth to date. Today, most of Ultra Violette’s sales come via Instagram, with the brand boasting more than 42,000 followers on the platform.
Early media coverage also helped, say Jefferd and Matthews, as did getting a “really important tick of approval” from Adore Beauty.
Getting shelf space in Sephora stores added another dimension to the brand’s growth strategy, as it allowed customers to test products before they bought them.
Ultra Violette’s approach to its customers hasn’t really changed since day one, Matthews says, with education and community-building remaining front-of-mind, even while it invests more in marketing through those channels.
“Obviously as you grow, your audience grows and the amount of people interested in you grows,” she says.
“We have a little club of people that really love and support us, and we want to keep that mentality as we grow.
“Keeping that kind of authentic brand voice, and education, and the pillars we care about, is going to be harder, but that’s something we will focus on; it’s always top of mind for me.”
‘Your time is your greatest asset’
Ultra Violette’s growth may have been swift to this point, but Matthews says entrepreneurs can’t underestimate the value of time.
“I would say to really invest your time wisely,” she says when asked about advice for other new business owners.
“Don’t bother learning how to code a website if you don’t know how to do it; hire experts in their fields that you’re not equipped in,” she says.
“You’re not going to be all things to everyone.
“Your time is basically your greatest asset. Invest in what your strengths are … you can only do so many things.”
Another important piece in the puzzle, Jefferd says, is to “have an eye on the profitability of your business from the beginning”.
This means having a plan for how, and when, you’re going to make a profit.
“The plan might be that you won’t make a profit for 12 months, but you need to understand what the bottom line of your business means,” she says.
“It’s going to enable a number of choices you can make and limit your abilities.
“If you don’t have that ability, find someone to help you with those types of things.”