Thursday, 08 April 2021
From PR stunt to global brand, Oxford-based brand Collagin took the gin world by storm when it was launched in 2017 as the world’s first ‘anti-ageing' spirit. We talk to its founder Camilla Brown about how she made collagen the ultimate botanical, the power of working with your customers on price point and the benefits of making your accountant your emotional support person…
What in your routine is essential for success?
Pre-COVID my business partner Liz and I made sure we made time for the gym — it kept us feeling good about ourselves and gave us a spring in our step. Now, it’s a walk outside, but daily exercise is essential to clear the head. Variety in working spaces is also important — we didn't have an office and post-Covid I’m looking forward to returning to our favourite coffee shop. I’m currently moving to take over the business, as Liz is now stepping back, and it’ll be hard not to have someone to bounce ideas off. I’ll have to build regular meet ups with other entrepreneurs into my routine to compensate, as that energy is really important to me. The other thing that’s vital in my routine is balance in my hours and how they are spread out. I wouldn’t do a full 9-5 before an evening event, for example, and at the moment I'm doing a farmers' market every Saturday and Sunday, so I make sure I have Friday afternoon to chill out and on Monday I'll give myself fewer hours to do; it’s an important balance to keep my energy high.
What makes you feel out of your comfort zone and how do you handle that?
The edge of my comfort zone is talking about money and negotiating. There used to be a natural fall in the business between my skills and my partner’s: I was the face of the brand, doing the sales and she did more of the invoicing and reports. When I started to take over everything it was a big learning curve. I think a bit of it is imposter syndrome because I've never launched a business before. When I was in PR, I came up with ideas but always had someone to hide behind, and now it’s just all me. I'm getting better at it though, and recently negotiated a launch deal in Japan. I’ve found it helps when talking to someone to admit I’m not 100 per cent sure about something or ask them questions first. Most of the time they're honest with me: they need X mark-up and so on. But I've got some of my best deals and repeat customers by putting my hands up and saying, let's work on this together.
What is your tip for staying on top of finances practically, emotionally or strategically?
At the beginning of 2021, I was behind on invoices and overwhelmed emotionally. I told my accountants that I wasn’t managing to keep up with things — I put off what I am scared of — and they helped me through it. Some people talk to their partner or best friends for help. It turns out my accountants were my emotional support people, and they now check in on me all the time. Strategically, I'm in more of a routine now and do my invoicing every week, but moving forward, I’d like to make my accountant more hands-on. In a small business, especially at the beginning, you often try and do everything yourself. But then you end up spending hours on something you don't understand when you could be doing what you're really good at instead. My accountants can do things in ten minutes that take me hours to do — so from a time versus money perspective, it makes sense.
COVID – How did you fare? What changes did you make? How did you flex and pivot?
At the beginning of 2020, when there was uncertainty about lockdown, sales were awful. Then lockdown happened and online sales skyrocketed. We didn't even do much promotion around it; people were just buying it to drink at home or send it as a gift. It was heart-warming actually because I had to handwrite the notes in the gifts for people and they’d say things like “We’re not able to see you so here’s some gin to keep you happy”. I also offered a deal of gin and four free tonics locally and went out with my sanitised hands to drop boxes around the Oxford area. I had a brilliant time because I got to chat to people — I even did an impromptu street shoot with the gin for a photographer. Tasting and shows stopped as bars and restaurants closed, but farmers markets stayed open, so I signed up for a stall and we’re going to start to do refills there soon. Our bottles are so beautiful that people rarely throw them away, they usually put a candle or lights into them. Looking ahead to when things open up a bit and furlough stops — I think people will feel a bit more insecure and instead of buying a £35 bottle of gin, they might look to get a refill instead for a while.
What websites or apps can you not do without?
Instagram is perfect as we’re such a visual brand. We do a lot of giveaways and brand collaborations on there and get approached by big companies, such as Panasonic who we’ve just worked with for International Women's Day. I couldn’t live without XERO for keeping up with receipts, but the newest find for me is Clubhouse. It’s incredibly addictive — you go into different rooms where people are chatting and put your hand up to talk. Because no one is on their phones, they’re actually listening to you. Plus you can listen in to other people's conversations which is great, because everyone’s inherently nosy aren’t they? I’ve had five offers by US distributors on Clubhouse, as well as done last-minute interviews with journalists. I’ve also found it good for advice. People have told me that Collagin would do really well in the US, but I’d need a lot of money for marketing, which is good to know. Do I really spend all my time now trying to launch in America when cashflow probably wouldn't allow me to market it properly yet?
Who did you get your entrepreneurial spirit from, and what did they teach you?
I'm good at sales technique and I get that from my dad. He’s called Gavin, and people have always said I have the ‘gift of the Gav’. He’s not about setting up businesses so much as he just really likes to get a good deal and is cheeky as he does it. My background in PR has helped too; Collagin was actually originally a PR stunt I invented for a hotel client. We only made 50 bottles, but then it went viral and we were getting requests to buy it from places as far as Australia and America. Liz was my boss at the time, and we decided to look into doing it together as a business and we’d meet at 6am to work on it before going into the agency. We’d told them what we were doing, they replied with a, ‘whatever, it isn't going to work’. But then it started working…and they fired us. Which was actually the best thing to happen, otherwise I might never have left to set up a business.
What kinds of sacrifices have you had to make as an entrepreneur?
Moneywise, I had to take a hit, going from a well-paid PR job to being a founder, but I think the biggest sacrifice is not having a team and often not having a reason to get really nicely dressed up every single day. When you’re working from home, you do find yourself living in leggings and in a way, not having been able to go into an office and get dressed up every day means I've lost a little bit of confidence, although I’m sure that will come back. People have also asked if I mind sacrificing my weekends for the markets at the moment, but it’s what I look forward to the most — I'm the only bar open in Oxford at the moment!