Anyone can turn a genius idea into a mega brand… you just need perseverance and lots of passion, says Trinny Woodall. She shares the hard-won wisdom that turned her own start-up dream into a multimillion-pound business.
To launch a business and grow it into a multimillion-pound empire in less than four years takes some serious determination. But anyone who follows Trinny Woodall (and there are a lot: she’s amassed one million followers on Instagram, 1.9 million on Facebook) knows from her daily videos that she has the kind of boundless energy that practically fizzes out of your screen.
The former What Not To Wear presenter, 57, launched her beauty brand Trinny London – a range of make-up and skincare housed in space-saving stackable pots – in 2017. She’d spent the previous four years perfecting the products and developing the brand’s signature Match2Me technology, an online tool that solves the Russian roulette of ordering make-up on the internet by helping customers to find the right shades for their complexion.
Thanks to the clever stack concept and game-changing tech, Trinny London has been a phenomenal success. The company now employs 194 people, sells 187 different products and has customers in 167 countries. A pot of Trinny London Miracle Blur – an ingenious line-filling primer for your skin – is sold every 60 seconds. Despite the pandemic, the company made £45 million in revenue in the last financial year.
‘I went to a networking event recently and six people who’d said no to investing in the company when I was fundraising pre-launch came up to me and said, “I wish I’d made that investment,”’ says Trinny. ‘It was such a good feeling.’
Starting a new venture in midlife may be daunting but Trinny insists, ‘We shouldn’t define ourselves by age. We have to keep challenging ourselves and think: “What do I really want from life?”’
Here she shares what she’s learnt from launching a business in her 50s – and her advice for how you can get started, too…
Know your skills
My career has been about evolution, rather than reinvention. How can I take the skills I already have and do something new with them?
I spent years doing TV makeovers all around the world. I ran myself into the ground and by 2013 I knew I wanted to change direction. I didn’t want to be on a plane 64 times a year any more, but I still wanted to work with women and make them feel inspired.
I had 5,000 voices in my head from all the women we’d met. So many conversations were about make-up: women were confused by all the products out there and didn’t know what suited them. At the same time, I’d started making my own DIY stack, decanting my make-up into little pots. It simplified and streamlined everything; people kept asking where they could buy them. That was the spark that became Trinny London.
If you’re in midlife and would like to change lanes – whether you’re a stay-at-home mum who wants to launch a business or you’ve had enough of the corporate world – start by identifying your existing skill set. What do you excel at or know lots about? Are you phenomenally organised? Super creative? Brilliant at running school events? Ask a friend if you’re not sure.
Now, how can you take those qualities and spin them into a business? Is there a service or product that you wish existed in your life?
You know you’ve landed on a great idea if it’s something you get really passionate about. I was telling a friend about the idea for Trinny London and he said, ‘When you talk about it, your whole face lights up. This idea is your passion. Do it.’
Knock on every door
To get my idea off the ground I needed to find venture capitalists, manufacturers and packaging companies. So I thought: ‘Who do I know who might have a friend in those fields?’ I created a spreadsheet for each area I needed help with and every week I wrote down five people I was going to email. If I didn’t get a response I’d follow up, saying: ‘Just in case you missed this – I’d love your help. Is there anyone you know who can help me?’
Everyone knows somebody who knows somebody. Sometimes it took me three ‘jumps’ to get to the person I needed. You’ve got nothing to lose by asking for a favour – they might want one from you in the future. The worst thing they can do is say ‘no’ or ignore you. My motto is you never know what’s behind a closed door.
Assistants are very important. They are the gatekeepers to most busy people. I’m not saying send flowers and chocolates, but when you email and call, be friendly, have a chat. The next time there’s a gap in their boss’s diary, they might think of you.
Perseverance is key
I spent a year on research and development, but by 2014 I realised I needed more money if I was going to continue. It happened at a very tough time in my life. My daughter Lyla was 11 years old and her father, my ex-husband, had just died. At his funeral, a friend said, ‘Maybe the last thing you need right now is to be taking a big risk. Perhaps you should get a job and have some security.’ I remember thinking, ‘I just can’t give up on this idea.’
Perseverance is as important as passion. As an entrepreneur you often have to ask yourself, what am I prepared to do? So I looked at every single one of my expenditures – what was a necessity, what was an indulgence. I had a huge mortgage so I rented out my home and found a smaller place to live. I sold my 20-year collection of designer clothes and raised £60,000. The money kept the business alive for another nine months, enough time to prepare for a proper round of fundraising with investors.
Don’t dilute your vision
I went to lots of investors and they all gave me different advice. They’d pull apart my idea and say, ‘Why aren’t you doing it like this?’ From having total faith in my concept, I started to question it.
One investor said the only people worth selling to online were millennials. But I knew that with the right personalisation I could give older women the confidence to buy make-up online too. I knew these women. I had spent decades working with them. That knowledge supported me. I realised that if I listened to every piece of advice, it would dilute what I felt most passionate about.
Part of my journey has been learning what advice to take on board and what to regard as simply one person’s opinion. I used visualisation exercises to stay focused. So I imagined the Trinny London products being made in the factory. I imagined them being packed up and shipped. I imagined a woman using the make-up for the first time and it giving her confidence.
If you start doubting yourself, it helps to think of all the benefits your business will deliver to your future customers. Have a really clear vision of what you want to achieve. It’s that little shift in mindset that will help you convince other people that it can work.
Setbacks get less scary
The first prototype of the Trinny London stack was appalling. It looked cheap and clunky. It was a horrible moment and I actually cried. But I kept going. Eleven prototypes later we got it right.
The setbacks don’t stop, even when things are going well. Last year we had an early version of our mascara ready to launch. We were very busy and a couple of things fell through the cracks. The outside of the mascara tube hadn’t been sealed properly, so all the decoration and branding rubbed off.
We had to dump £50,000 worth of stock. It was a financial blow but I knew it was the right decision; bringing out a product that wasn’t high quality would damage the brand in the long run.
For the first few years you’re in business, you worry over every decision. It was only recently that I felt confident the business wouldn’t disappear overnight because of one wrong move. When I started Trinny London it felt like I was walking a tightrope 20 feet off the ground; today it’s more like two feet – I don’t have so far to fall. Now I have a strong foundation to keep growing the business.
Got a bright idea?
Here’s how to get it out of your head and ‘on to the kitchen table’.
STEP 1: FIND OUT IF IT EXISTS Check it out on Google. Do a minimum of seven searches. If it’s already out there, don’t panic. How are you going to do it differently?
STEP 2: CHECK YOUR CONCEPT Ask a couple of friends: ‘Would you use this? Tell me truthfully.’ Then ask someone you’re not as close to, such as a neighbour or acquaintance: ‘Can I pitch you something and you tell me what you think?’ If a few people say, ‘I would use that’, it gives you a bit of momentum.
STEP 3: CONSIDER FUNDING Where might you start? Do you want to put in your own savings? Can you take a bank loan? If you have friends or work contacts willing to invest, look into the government’s Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS). It allows individuals to claim 50 per cent tax relief if they invest in your start-up.
The secrets of social media success
HAVE A CONVERSATION
Social media is an essential part of any business launch. Although the algorithms that power them are complicated, they tend to promote channels where there is strong engagement with followers. If anyone leaves a comment on my channels, I ‘like’ it and respond. The more you can create a two-way interaction, the better.
BE YOUR TRUE SELF
What’s your true self? It’s when you feel most passionate and emotive. That’s what cuts through when someone speaks from the heart. My social channels started gaining traction when I switched from posting posed photos to making videos where I chatted about something that I loved and felt excited about.
CREATE A COMMUNITY
When starting out lots of small brands post things like, ‘The first 20 people to share this can get a free product.’ It’s quite a commercial approach to gaining followers but it can become a race to the bottom. Instead, consider what feelings you want people to associate with your brand. Rather than chasing numbers, build a community that people want to be part of and that reflects the ethos of your business.
How to nail a pitch
When meeting investors I’d take an old make-up bag full of bulky products and slam it down, saying ‘I want to take women from this… to this’ and then I’d present my streamlined Trinny London stack. It got my idea across fast.
- Keep it simple. What is your product or service? And how is it different?
- If you can’t summarise your business proposition in three sentences, refine it.
- Don’t read your pitch from a script – you lose your passion and enthusiasm.
Tycoon Trinny’s timeline
1980: TEEN MOGUL Aged 16, Trinny (below) launches Bow Unlimited. ‘My friend and I sold velvet hair bows decorated with brooches. We were stocked in Harvey Nichols but it fizzled out.’
1982: SOCKS ON THE SIDE At 18, she gets a job as a PA in the city. She launches a short-lived side hustle, Sock It To You, selling socks on the trading floors – ‘but the socks dyed people’s feet and the elastic went’.
1986: CITY SLICKER After dabbling in financial PR, Trinny eventually becomes a commodities trader in a bid to impress her father. ‘I hated it. It was me and 60 men.’
1996: STYLE JOURNALIST ‘For the first time I asked myself: what do I really love? Fashion.’ Trinny gets a break writing a newspaper column, ‘Ready To Wear’, with Susannah Constantine (far right, with Liz Hurley, below).
1999: DOT-COM PIONEER ‘Susannah and I created a fashion site, Ready2Shop.com (below), but it was way too early.’ The site stops trading the following year.
2001: TV STARDOM The pair’s hit BBC show What Not To Wear (below) runs for five series, winning them a Royal Television Society Award. They also land a seven-figure book deal.
2007: DESIGNER DABBLINGS The duo’s range for Littlewoods includes their bestselling Magic Knickers (below).
2010: GLOBETROTTERS Trinny and Susannah travel the world giving TV makeovers to women in America, Australia (below) Belgium, Sweden, Israel, Poland, Holland, India and Norway.
2017: THE BIG LAUNCH ‘The day we launched Trinny London we took £20,000. Now we have half a million customers all over the world.’
2022: COMING SOON A new project – currently under wraps – will be launching.
As told to Hanna Woodside
Stylist: Annie Swain. Make-up: Olivia Davis. Hair: Adam Embleton Perea.