University of York alumni and ethical skincare pioneer Anna Brightman tells Rebecca Pitcairn about her journey to becoming one of the UK’s top 100 entrepreneurs under 30
When Anna Brightman was a student living in York, making her own skincare because it was cheaper than buying expensive brands, little did she know that less than a decade later she’d be running a £1 million beauty business.
Anna was just 23 when she launched UpCircle, now the UK’s number one upcycled beauty brand, together with her brother, Will, after they discovered that more than 500,000 tonnes of coffee grounds consumed each year in the UK are sent to landfill.
“Will and I were both at the beginning of a fairly corporate career path and were quickly identifying that, despite the fact it could be an easy life with a regular pay check etc, we didn’t feel good when we came home at the end of the day. We began looking for inspiration for an ethical business we could start together, where we could try and make a positive impact on the world,” explains Anna, who at the time an area manager for Aldi, while her brother was working in finance in Canary Wharf. “Will used to visit a coffee shop on his way into work each day and became curious as to what happens to the contents of each of the metal pucks of coffee grounds once the coffee was made. He asked the barrister and the answer was that they’re thrown away.”
The pair were astonished that this seemingly innocent, organic natural ingredient could have such a negative environmental impact and also a financial cost to the coffee shops for refuse collection. Having been interested in beauty since childhood, Anna was aware of the skincare benefits of coffee and so they started collecting coffee from cafes across London and transforming them into skincare products.
“It was one of those penny-drop moments, which seemed like a win-win. We get an ingredient, we’re saving an ingredient from going to landfill and the business we’re taking the ingredient from is saving the cost of having it disposed,” says Anna.
The siblings both quit their jobs and launched their company, initially under the brand name Optiat, in September 2016, raising funds for their first product, a coffee face scrub, through the Virgin Start Up Scheme. However, 18 months in they successfully crowdfunded £200,000 for a rebrand. It was around this time that they were also given the opportunity to appear on BBC TV show Dragons’ Den.
“It’s very different to what you see on TV,” says Anna. “For starters, it was lengthy, we were in there for three hours, and it was a really in-depth interrogation. The main thing I took away from the experience was the brutal honesty that they give you, which is very difficult to get when you’re a family-run business because everyone just wants to support you and be nice. But it also brought us new ideas and a lot of inspiration for things we wanted to do with the brand.”
After receiving offers of investment from three of the dragons, they shook hands on a deal with Touker Suleyman and Tej Lalvani, however away from the cameras the pair decided not to go ahead with the deal. “It was a really interesting time to go on because, behind the scenes, we were about six months into the rebrand, but we weren’t allowed to talk about it and could only pitch the original brand,” Anna explains. “After a couple of months negotiating we decided the offer wasn’t right, but the experience itself was fantastic for showing us that the decisions we were making on the rebrand were the right ones.”
The show also gave them great exposure, but the real turning point for the company, now named UpCircle, came a couple of years later during lockdown when interest in at-home skincare sky-rocketed.
“Our orders started flying through the roof and we had to very quickly react to that,” says Anna. “And for a circular economy brand like ours, supply chain issues were even more complex. The coffee that we get for our products comes from businesses that ceased to function during Covid and 60% of the coffee shops we collected from closed permanently. So, we had to go straight back to that entrepreneurial mindset and think outside the box.”
While they were already looking at other throwaway ingredients to upcycle into beauty products, the challenges of the pandemic forced them to work harder and faster – they quickly put hand wash to the top of their product development pipeline and built charitable donations into every sale.
Their portfolio has since grown to over 20 different by-products, such as raspberry seeds, rose petals, hibiscus acids and oat powder all being rescued for their products. The company is currently working on replacing purified water in its products with fruit waters upcycled from the juicing industry and is launching a shampoo paste, which requires 50% less water.
It has also extended its circular approach to packaging, refilling 20,000 pieces of packaging via its “Return, Refill, Reuse” scheme.
“We’re averaging seven or eight new launches per year and we’re quite restlessly determined to stay ahead of the game,” explains Anna. “Yes, coffee is the story that grabbed everyone’s attention, but whilst that might be what we’re best known for, the bestsellers are the cleansing balm, which has powdered apricot stones, and the facemask made from powdered argan shells, which are a bi-product of making argan oil.”
Now stocked in over 40 countries and with annual sales of more than £1 million, UpCircle had to move office twice last year to accommodate its rapidly growing team. Anna and Will were also recently named on the Hurun UK Under 30s List, which recognises the top 100 British entrepreneurs under the age of 30 who are paving the way for the future of the UK economy.
There’s no doubt UpCircle is one of the true success stories of today’s circular economy, but I wonder if sibling rivalry or squabbles ever get in the way of business. “I would be absolutely lying if I said it hasn’t been difficult, but I think what makes it work for us is that we couldn’t be more different,” she laughs. “He is the one who is the nuts and bolts, is always behind a computer screen and entirely back of house. Whereas I manage all the front of house stuff and give the brand a more human feel. Therefore, we never step on each other’s toes. We have complete trust in one another plus we can ask a lot of each other and not feel bad about it, whereas if you were working alongside a friend you can imagine that could cause tension. I think that is what has helped us grow so quickly.
“Our story has also helped us too because it’s a good one, but I think our secret is that our products perform and that has to come first. You can have the best story in the world but that doesn’t mean a thing if the product doesn’t stack up.”
“Yorkshire is one of my favourite cities in the world. The Shambles, all of the cobbled streets, and The Minster is probably one of the most beautiful buildings in the country.”
“I studied history of art at the University of York and one of our modules was a field module where every Friday we’d go out to a different museum and we’d have to present a piece of art or the building itself so it was almost like doing a tour. I think that’s how I became quite good at public speaking.”
“I have fond memories of whenever any of my university friends had parents up to visit, they’d always take them to Betty’s Tearoom. Whenever you walked past you’d guarantee to see someone in there having tea with their folks, it’s such an institution.”
“On a night out in York I like going to Evil Eye on Stonegate, it does incredible cocktails, has these cool lounges on the first floor and is also renowned for being Johnny Depp’s favourite bar in the UK.”