Brand Spotlight: How chemo drug advice changed everything for Hanna Sillitoe

The backstory – Hanna Sillitoe

The eponymous brand that never began as a brand at all.

Dragons’ Den entrepreneur and skincare expert Hanna Sillitoe decided to develop her own natural skincare range after battling severe skin conditions when she was in her teens.

Being on an endless cycle of steroid medication for the best part of 20 years, Hanna tried everything to improve her psoriasis and eczema. After a horrific flare-up seven years ago, she decided it was time to revisit her doctor who recommended a chemotherapy drug.

This was the wake-up call that eventually led Hanna to build her own successful business. Here on The Scale Up, she shares her entrepreneurial journey from that very moment.

The backstory – Hanna Sillitoe

The eponymous brand that never began as a brand at all.

Dragons’ Den entrepreneur and skincare expert Hanna Sillitoe decided to develop her own natural skincare range after battling severe skin conditions when she was in her teens. 

Being on an endless cycle of steroid medication for the best part of 20 years, Hanna tried everything to improve her psoriasis and eczema. After a horrific flare-up seven years ago, she decided it was time to revisit her doctor who recommended a chemotherapy drug. 

This was the wake-up call that eventually led Hanna to build her own successful business. Here on The Scale Up, she shares her entrepreneurial journey from that very moment.

Whilst my skin was irritating and impacting so much of my life, the thought of needing cancer medication to treat it was frightening.

I turned down the chemotherapy medication and made significant changes to my diet and lifestyle. I decided to share my progress in a blog, and that blog eventually became my best selling book Radiant

Since publishing the book, my brand has expanded into a range of cruelty-free skincare and haircare products, suitable for even the most sensitive skin. I’ve also published my second book Skin Healing Expert

In 2019, I pitched on the BBC television show Dragons’ Den, where all five Dragons offered investment. I’ve since completed a deal with Tej Lalvani and Peter Jones who are now shareholders in my business. We’ve continued to build the brand online and I’m now stocked in over 300 Holland and Barrett shops around the UK. 

It’s safe to say a lot has happened since that wake-up call.

A flat lay image of Hanna Sillitoe's book Radiant

An ever-present entrepreneurial mindset

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Aged 12, my sister and I went round leafleting all the luxury homes on a nearby housing estate offering to wash cars for cash! We asked them to pop a notice in their window if they didn’t want to be disturbed. Of course most people didn’t bother, so it gave us the perfect excuse to go knocking on doors with our buckets and sponges! Who could turn down two adorable young kids wanting to make a few quid? 

As a teenager I wanted to be a DJ. I was obsessed with radio stations, music and talking. It seemed brilliant that I could get paid for this. By the time I was 15 I was reading traffic news and had my own radio show by the time I went to college. I did that job for 15 years and have lots of happy memories from it!

10 years ago, with the media industry struggling, I decided to work on a back-up plan and began selling electric scooters. It was at a time when businesses were becoming seriously eco-conscious. The scooters sold well, but the build quality just wasn’t good enough. I could see the benefits in importing something and selling it on, but that thing needed less moving parts! From scooters I then moved on to furniture and ran a successful iconic furniture company for five years (from a campervan on the beach in Spain!)

I love working for myself, and despite the stress and pressures I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Products born out of necessity

My first skincare products were very basic. I worked with a lovely local naturopath and aromatherapist and together we created a little kitchen table range. I knew what I wanted, because they were products I wish had been available during my worst skin flares. My skin is so sensitive that I’m a fantastic guinea pig! If my skin reacts well to something, that’s a good indication it’s going to do well in testing.

Finding funds

I was very fortunate in that my furniture business had been really successful, so I was able to invest from that profit.  I’m also not somebody who is into buying heaps of ‘stuff’, which makes me good at saving! I put my own savings into developing the range, to grow slowly and steadily – then, the investment from the Dragons provided the cash flow to really begin expanding thereafter.

Wooing and working with dragons

The Dragons really are fantastic to work with and are always there when I need extra advice and support. Their ability to fast track and open doors is incredible! 

Before I would have to send off lots of emails and make endless phone calls to reach the right buyer. The Dragons simply send an introductory email! They’re wonderfully inspiring and an amazing example of how brilliantly hard work can pay off.

 

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The challenges of scaling a business

Cashflow is something I never really thought about until I began expanding. Of course it’s super exciting having a big store tell you they want 10,000 units, but they never want to pay for that stock up front. So working out how to fund manufacturing was an interesting learning curve. Up until then, I was buying quantities of maybe 20 shampoos at a time. Suddenly scaling up to 500 and then 5,000 was a real challenge. 

I needed to create a viable business plan and ask the bank to lend me the money. That was the big first step. I’d already proven there was a demand for the products and that they sold well. Fortunately, that track record combined with a serious business plan put me in a strong position.

Building a welcoming community and regaining control

My main goal is to help people struggling with sensitive skin.

I spent so many years going to doctors and dermatologists, and the one thing they often lacked was real empathy and the ability to understand the emotional aspects of fighting a skin condition. It’s such an all-consuming battle at times. I wanted to build an online community where people could talk, share and feel confident.

My books speak to people from the perspective of somebody who has been there, and my skincare and haircare are all the products I wish had been available to me whilst my skin was at its worst. 

My brand is empowering customers to take back control of conditions which have quite often controlled them. If somebody trusts me to help them right at the beginning of their journey I feel as though I have made a connection forever. There are lots of strong brands out there, but for me having a relatable person and story at the center of that brand (me!) adds something extra special. 

A combination of dietary and lifestyle advice, plus the natural skincare range is designed to put people back in control. Skin conditions can leave you feeling quite helpless and out of control, so to give somebody that is huge for me.

Skin-type, not sex-type

My audience is predominantly female, although not by design. I often wonder if it’s because I’m female, or whether it’s down to the fact women are more self-conscious when it comes to skin – or perhaps it’s simply that men don’t speak up as much about skin conditions.

People come to me at various stages in their skincare journey. Sometimes they’ve tried medicated creams and even strong suppressant drugs but find they’re not effective, other times they come to me before embarking down the medical route. Often they are simply looking for support and somebody to tell them their skin can and will get better.

Embracing customer reviews

Tej’s team tried to push me for ages to showcase reviews on my website. I was incredibly hesitant. Not because I don’t believe in my range, but I know from personal experience I only review something when I’m not happy with it!

I absolutely wish I’d done it sooner. The feedback I get on my products is amazing. I read every single review that gets posted to the website and I’m so proud of everything we’ve managed to achieve. I’ll often screenshot a review as it comes in and send it to my little team of scientists to thank them for helping me to formulate such an amazing range.

Then there’s the C word…

Covid has impacted my business in so many unexpected ways. In one sense I am massively fortunate that I have been relatively unscathed compared to many. I have friends who work in travel, tourism and hospitality and they’re fighting a constant battle. I’ve had little hurdles to overcome, such as delays in raw ingredients and even something as simple as not being able to source shampoo bottle pumps because they’ve all been bought up for hand sanitizer.

While these are frustrating and time-consuming issues, thankfully they’re not unresolvable. My second book was delayed because it was due for publication at the start of the crisis and Amazon asked us not to overload their warehouse with non-essential items.

More than anything I just miss in-person meetings and showcasing my brand in real life!

An exciting future ahead

I have seven new products launching in December. That in itself feels huge because to have persevered with new product development through a chaotic year has been a challenge. That said – I can’t wait to add to my existing range and to hopefully be able to do some in-store promotions too.

I’d love to write another book because I find the process really cathartic. I wrote a lot on my blog through lockdown – but I don’t want to create a book simply for the sake of it, so it’s important that the timing and subject are right.

Follow Hanna Sillitoe on Instagram and Twitter.