“I did it in between babies,” says Arabella Preston, of the oils that prompted Votary natural skincare...
“I had no training, I sat down at my kitchen table. In hindsight, it was a bit audacious but what I did have was an understanding of ingredients – I was ingredients-obsessed.”
After a decade working in marketing and PR, Arabella trained to become a makeup artist (she went on to work with the Duchess of Cambridge) before a chance meeting with her old boss and mentor, Charlotte Semler, led to the duo joining forces to create the cult range of delicately-balanced oils.
“It is incredibly hard to change career,” says Arabella. “Friends couldn’t understand why I would want to start at the bottom again. It actually took becoming a mum to make the leap.”
Arabella mentioned her love of oils at a lunch with Charlotte – and by happy coincidence, she was looking for a new opportunity. “I was in the industry, with a product pretty much fully-formed, and I had landed in her lap,” says Arabella. “I never intended for it to turn into a business and I certainly wouldn’t have done it on my own. But she had all of the expertise. She had set up multiple businesses and we pretty much decided to launch Votary on the spot.”
This was in October 2014, and the brand was stocked exclusively in Liberty less than a year later. Rather than share an office space, the duo works remotely from two opposite sides of the English countryside – Arabella lives in Kent with her husband and son, 11, and daughter, nine. Charlotte lives in Oxford with her 13-year-old twins.
We caught up with Arabella to find out just what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.
Go to www.votary.co.uk
When did your love of beauty begin?
As a child, my dad used to go on business trips to Germany. He would come back with toys you couldn’t find here, one of which was a ‘Girls’ World’. Mine was called ‘Miss Betsey’. My mum still has her but she has been put through the ringer a bit. She was absolutely my favourite thing to play with.
You worked in PR and marketing, as a beauty editor and then as a makeup artist - how do you think that helped to pave the way to build Votary?
Working in PR and marketing in my twenties is how I met my business partner Charlotte. She had set up a business called Myla and I did the PR and marketing. It was a fabulous place to work it was a very female-led business. Then private equity got involved and we all walked out, as is often the way. Charlotte and I were just friends. She has always been a mentor of mine and is godmother to my little girl.
Why did you decide to switch careers?
I had always wanted to do makeup and whenever there was a shoot at Myla I would stand around the makeup artist asking a million questions. I had my son and I was paying a nanny to come and take him for a day and I’d sit at home and work as a PR – I just couldn’t see the point. I took myself off to the London College of Fashion and did a makeup course and started in a very low-key way. I got friends to be kind and give me jobs on magazines and I started doing weddings and then I had my daughter. It took a year-or-two to crank it up and when my daughter was a year old, I met [makeup artist] Kay Montano. Her assistant had left the day before and it was one of those very fortuitous things. That is when I learnt the craft. My whole approach to beauty, womanhood and, from a basic level, thinking about the skin. I owe her everything.
And then how did Votary come about?
A gang of the Myla girls were having lunch. I was working as a beauty editor at the time everyone was like: ‘Come on, what should I be using on my skin?’. I said: ‘Well, to be honest, I use an oil to take my makeup off and I use an oil to moisturise and I kind of haven’t done anything else for the last couple of years. I’ve actually been mixing my own oils at home.’ Charlotte was sitting next to me and she went very quiet and I could see the cogs turning. I didn’t know she’d been thinking about doing something in the beauty industry for a while. I knew already what the product was, she knew who was going to make it because she was already working with an oils business for something else. She understood the process. All of the things that would have taken me a long time to figure out – she did in the space of a week.
What do you each bring to the business?
On a simplistic level, I do product development, PR and marketing and the slightly more creative side and Charlotte does the production and logistics and finance side of things. But, having said that, we are both intimately involved in every aspect of the business. We work in an unusual way in that we work remotely but we just sit on FaceTime for hours every day. Ten years ago there is no way we could have run our business like this – and pick our kids up most days.
Are you business partners first or friends first?
That’s so interesting because she was my boss and then she was my friend and now she’s my business partner. The thing that hasn’t changed is that she’s still my friend. We talk more about business now more than we talk about our lives.
Why do you complement each other?
We are very different so we bring different things. We had to film ourselves asking each other questions recently and talk about each other’s strengths and weaknesses and she said I was very strategic. I would never have put myself down as strategic – that was really interesting. I said I felt like nothing with Votary was ever forced, we never launched a product that we haven’t wanted for ourselves, we have never approached a retailer they have always come to us – it’s been this very organic process and that makes it sound like we haven’t worked hard, we have. What I said was ‘If that’s strategic, then I guess I am,’ but all I’m doing is something I love. Charlotte is a real ‘doer’ she is constantly actioning things whereas I’m slower and I mull on things. That’s where the complementing comes in.
Does being a mum make you more focused?
Definitely, and we have other mums on the team and they tend to be incredibly efficient. Just on a bigger level, I want my kids to be proud of what I am doing so that really focuses you. We do say ‘no’ to things, we have to ring-fence time at our desk. Yesterday we were in London and every minute of the day was accounted for and that’s our favourite sort of day – and a lot of that is down to being a mum. And we both made it home for the school run.
How do you find balancing your business with motherhood?
It just depends on the day of the week. My children are nine and 11, Charlotte has 13-year-old twins so we are really entering that stage where there’s lots of things that are easier but I feel they need me more than ever. I definitely am the one to see them at the start and the end of the day. The problems get bigger and more emotional – and the homework is quite epic these days – so yes the challenges just shift.
What motivates you?
We get amazing emails from our customers out of the blue and that really gives you tingles every time – that never gets old. And my kids motivate me. For different reasons, it’s great for them to see, or have, a mum who is working.
Do you think skin is emotional?
Absolutely. If things aren’t going right with your skin it can really niggle and build up and when something goes right it’s the most brilliant feeling. In our mid-life, skin can change. We get so many women having hormonal issues, you can have 20 years of your skin behaving nicely and all of a sudden the rug is pulled out from under you.
What qualities do you need to be a good entrepreneur?
There is a really funny balance of not over-analysing things – that’s a good side of Charlotte’s personality, just cracking on. We created Votary without analysing too much – was it the right thing to be doing in our lives at the time and would it work? There is something to be said for that because there is never a right time.
How did you come up with the name?
We found it incredibly difficult to find something to trademark in the beauty industry, everything you can think of has been taken. My nickname with my friends is ‘Ari’. I never wanted to call it ‘Arabella Preston Facial Oils’ but Charlotte was looking for names that ended in ‘Ari’. Obviously, votary was linked to votive candles and something that had a ritual aspect to it. I always believed Votary would be a unisex brand, (I don’t believe that men and women’s skin are particularly different), so we wanted a name that worked for both and it’s short enough for the mini bottle. The minute we found it we knew. And we trademarked it, which, ultimately is the thing that decides for you.
What is next for Votary?
We are where we want to be in the UK, and we are now looking internationally. We are already in Space NK in the US, and around 40 per cent of our orders go to America, it is a huge place and a very different market. We have also got a lovely business in Hong Kong. In today’s world, you are a global business if you have an Instagram account. Now we are thinking about how to harness what we have internationally.
And finally, what is your life motto?
It would have to be Sheryl Sandberg’s quote: “Done is better than perfect”.
How do you find time for yourself?
Ooh, have a hot bath every day, regardless of the weather. Nothing else calms, soothes and prepares me for sleep like wallowing in a fragrant bath. I add a few drops of Votary Antidote night oil and massage it into my skin when I get out too.
Which apps do you rely on?
Personally, I rely on Flo period tracking for understanding my hormonal fluctuations.
What’s the best beauty advice you have received?
Never dry your skin out. If I can hand someone only one Votary product it is always our Rose Geranium Cleansing Oil.
And do you have any beauty tips for busy mums?
Cleanse morning and evening with a cleansing oil. It’s the best way to achieve healthy, clear skin.
Arabella’s little list of loves:
The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown: my favourite childhood book.
Anenome September Charm: currently brightening my garden.
My washing line: I didn’t have one in London and it gives me inordinate pleasure.
Eau de Citron Noir by Hermes: the perfect unisex blend for my tastes.
My WhatsApp group with my school friends: my lifeline.
Cipriani Hotel in Venice: far-and-away the best place to stay in the city.
Votary Darlings gift box: Votary becoming travel-friendly has been a real highlight of the last year.
Great Dixter House & Gardens: five minutes from my house and known as the ‘gardener’s garden’.