Interview with Pippa Harman, founder of SkinLyst
Pippa, thanks so much for taking part in Bloom’s interview series in celebration of Global Entrepreneurship Week this year! As a female founder and a woman in tech, we are humbled - so thank you for joining us :)
Before launching your own company (which we’ll talk a bit more about later on), you worked for renowned serial entrepreneur, Marcia Kilgore - what a dream! Tell us what that was like.
It was an amazing experience - she is a true visionary and all-round inspirational human. Being able to share a startup journey with her was something I feel so privileged to have been able to experience, and learnt so much along the way. She had been a long-term industry hero of mine since the launch of Soap&Glory. I read an interview with her in the Boots magazine when I was 17 (which I proceeded to stick to my bedroom wall for inspo whilst at college!) I had also written on a bucket list to meet her at age 19, so to have the opportunity to work with her at 26 was incredible - particularly as it was in a startup that was doing something so badass that I truly believed in.
I didn’t actually get to meet her until after I had joined, and had the natural fear of that age-old ‘never meet your idols’, but honestly she far exceeded any (already very high) expectations I had of her. Not only is her list of accolades quite something, but her character as a human is even more impressive.
I actually had a really hard time leaving the role to commit to SkinLyst full time, as I loved it so much, but I had been working on both in parallel for over a year, and didn’t feel I was doing a good enough job of either.
Wow, that’s incredible Pip - and super enviable to have not only got to meet your idol but to have worked with her and in a startup environment too!
So, taking a step back even further, before your time at Beauty Pie you worked for bigger cosmetics firms - how did it compare working for a large conglomerate versus a founder-led startup?
I am definitely all about the small independent. I have worked at two FMCG companies, one had a slightly flatter structure where I felt valued as a very junior member of staff, but the other was the opposite. I think, in large companies, it is so hard to effect change, or to adapt to a changing market in an interesting way. Projects take seven years to implement, and I much prefer being in a fast-paced environment where taking risks is celebrated rather than avoided! I definitely see the appeal of both, but for me I love the buzz of the startup - problem solving new challenges, accelerated learning, improving business processes, etc. and working in a truly collaborative way where you know everyone in the business and what they do.
That definitely resonates Pip! Have you always been into beauty, too?
Yes. I’m actually not sure where it came from as my mum was really low-key with her beauty routine, and my older sister had no real interest in it, but I was always fascinated by beauty - skincare, in particular. My parents would buy me and my siblings a book of our choice each month as teens, and I remember choosing ‘The Beauty Bible’ one month, and reading it cover to cover, wondering what made these products the best. It’s where I first discovered Liz Earle Cleanse & Polish which I couldn’t get in the local town, so my sister used to bring it back from London for me to get my fix!
Wow, really interesting to go down memory lane and see how much your teenage influences have affected your career to this day! So how did you get into science? What was the path you pursued?
My dad worked as an electrical engineer (he was one of the earliest Computer Science graduates in the 70s!), and my mum was a doctor, so science and maths were actually the subjects I found the easiest at school. My siblings were much more creatively gifted (now a writer and a designer, respectively) and I was always trying to be more like them, but I am just not built that way and science came much easier to me!
I was lucky enough to find a prospectus for the London College of Fashion at the London Clothes Show when I was 15 or so, and found the Cosmetic Science degree in there. I knew then that it was an area of science that I would be really excited to learn more about, and that it had a creative angle alongside the technical side which appealed to me.
As a very male-dominated sector, did you ever come up against any friction or hardships as a women in science at all?
I actually don’t think I have. In the companies I have worked in, the workforce has been usually disproportionately weighted to women, and the consumer also female-centric. I feel like the men I have worked with (on the most part) have been feminists and I have always felt comfortable giving my opinion. There can be the odd external supplier, but I think as it’s so strange to me, I actually weirdly find those situations where someone is underestimating you quite empowering.
That’s good to hear. Ok, now on to a more fun topic: SkinLyst! Tell us about it.
SkinLyst is an online recommendation platform which creates bespoke skincare regimes for our customers based on their skin goals, budget, and lifestyle.
Fantastic. Did you have a classic lightbulb moment?
Sort of. I used to recommend products here and there for years, friends messaging me INCI lists and asking if they were any good, or asking for specific products to treat X skin concern. It was a comment from a friend who said, “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have you to ask these things”, and that made me wonder what people actually did. I had been so involved in the world of skincare that I hadn’t even considered what the everyday consumer was doing to get advice, and that’s when I started to realise there was a gap in the market for unbiased, professionally-led, accessible advice.
So true! What made you take the leap, quit your job, and dedicate all of your time to SkinLyst? (Especially after working with your idol!)
I actually played it pretty safe. I started with an honest conversation with my manager at the time, and asked to reduce my work week to four days. She was incredibly supportive and really encouraged the entrepreneurial spirit. I did this for almost a year, then cut down to three days a week for almost another year, slowly building up SkinLyst on the alternate days until we launched the site in May 2019. I felt pretty stretched for a few months, and like I wasn’t doing a good job of either, so I handed in my notice on launch day and took the plunge! I was really fortunate to be so supported by the company I was working for, and aim to instill that type of culture for SkinLyst as well.
That sounds brilliant Pip, I definitely admire that. As a business owner myself, as well as working with so many incredible entrepreneurs, I know it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. Entrepreneurship can be tough. What have you found to be the hardest part of building Skin Lyst?
I think the hardest thing is being bad at things again, and having to learn from scratch. When you’ve been in a career for several years, you get quite good at it, and most days you are in flow. Then you try to run a business and suddenly you need to know all these other skills you have no idea about, so the process of not knowing what you need to know is quite overwhelming, and that really affected my psyche in the beginning. Having a support network of founders is so valuable and definitely made me all the self doubt is totally normal, so I have learnt to be comfortable with not really knowing what I’m doing!
We’re all in the same boat!! And what do you think are the most important character traits in order to be a successful entrepreneur today?
I honestly think resilience is number 1. Learning to enjoy the hustle and not letting the “no”s, the negative feedback, or the bad days get the better of you. Building a business is hard and full of challenges for everyone, so being comfortable with that and accepting it as part of the process is key, rather than letting your inner critic convince you the problem is you or your idea.
So true. Top 3 pieces of advice to any new or budding entrepreneurs out there:
Ask for help. You’d be amazed how many people will give you an hour over coffee if you just ask. In the beginning I didn’t think people would give me the time of day, but it’s not true - it is natural human behaviour to want to help others.
No-one knows what they are doing. We are all just using our experiences to make the best judgement, so don’t be intimidated by someone who appears to have it together, as I assure you they are full of as much self doubt as you.
Be kind to yourself. Some days you might feel less confident/productive/motivated than others, don’t beat yourself up for that. If you’re having a day where your brain is fuzzy and you can’t seem to concentrate, choose a task that is more creative, or just take a nap! We are human and that means we are not physically able to work at 100% efficiency all day every day, so don’t try to.
Fantastic Pip, great advice, thank you. Ending on our entrepreneurial crystal ball now 🔮: what are your predictions for 2020 and the decade to follow?
For me personally, I hope 2020 allows SkinLyst to build our base of happy customers. I am excited about how the technology will evolve, and how we can move closer to some of our longer-term plans. I am looking forward to growing the team too and learning from that team.
The decade to follow? Who knows! I hope we humans as a collective can create more products that connect instead of divide us, and that all business owners commit to acting responsibly and considering the long-term implications of the change they are contributing to their industries. We need to think long-term and make sure we are creating products and businesses that aren’t creating bigger problems than they solve.
Love it Pip, very true. Thank you for sharing your story and wonderful advice with us today, and wishing you all the very best with SkinLyst!
You can fill out your quick, easy (and totally free!) skincare form on SkinLyst to receive a totally unique, tailored skincare regime and product recommendations for you - built by Pip’s incredible algorithm as well as sense-checked by herself personally.
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