How Mortar & Milk made a plan and launched a business

The dream of opening Mortar & Milk manifested years ago. From my time spent on America’s west coast, I grew an appreciation for those little moments of tranquility and the environment that surrounds them. I always knew I wanted to build something that was representative of this past, the only question was how to get there.

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The start of something

My journey started about 8 years ago. I was accepted for an MBA program in Global Business at Schiller International and my kids received scholarships to the American School in London. We were looking for a fresh start, so my family and I made the leap and moved from San Francisco to London. My friends back in California couldn’t believe it – leaving everything behind and moving to London was a huge change – but I knew it was what I wanted to do, and I could sense that it would lead to better things.

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When we got to London, I jumped right into my MBA program. If I wanted to start my own business I’d need the right skills, so I used this time to cultivate as much knowledge as I could. After working tirelessly for a year and a half, I received my degree.  Little did I know, this was just the beginning of the next chapter of my life. Almost immediately afterwards, I went to work for Tracy Woodward, former Commercial Director at Urban Retreat in Harrods. I temporarily put my dream of running my own business on hold, but I wouldn’t have traded the experience for the world. During my time there, I grew a keen sense for business and strengthened my retail knowledge. Eventually, Tracy convinced me to get into consulting, which gave me tremendous insight into the beauty industry. Working with the buying departments for Harrods, Fortnum and Selfridges, I started to understand what it took to keep a beauty business running smoothly.

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The work was interesting and I appreciated the learning experience, but the one thing I could never reconcile was how big companies would treat the customer. These people were making money at the customer’s expense, using hard sales tactics and impersonal service. As a former therapist, I had trouble accepting this, but the work was interesting and I figured I could survive. That is, until I witnessed one specific incident. One time when I was working on-site, a man with vitiligo – a skin disease that causes the loss of pigmentation – came in. The sales clerk piled on product after product and told him that he needed to stop using products that bleached his face – she clearly had no experience dealing with this type of customer. Watching the situation unfold was deeply upsetting and exhausting, so I asked the man to speak to me before making his purchase. I then spent an hour with him, telling him which treatments he should be using. I unloaded the product in his arms and sent him to a shop I knew, with a list of just three products (as opposed to the dozen or so the sales attendant recommended). He gave me a big hug and thanked me. I knew then and there that I didn’t want to just sell beauty products, I wanted provide personalized solutions and help people regain their confidence.

Get with the plan

Now that I knew what I wanted my business to be, I got to work on a business plan. The first thing I did was download Barclay’s resources on how to start a business, making sure to answer every question in their “how to” section. This resource helped me lay out a detailed plan and identify potential trouble areas that I would never have thought about on my own. After that, we spent a full three days with our accountant crunching numbers. Businesses commonly overlook the importance of planning your finances, but it’s critical that you take the time to get the numbers right.  The more realistic your financials, the easier it will be to follow your plan.

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Once I’d made the final touches to my business plan, I sent it to potential brands and investors. To my dismay, not a single person got back to me. It was incredibly disheartening. I had done the research and the numbers were sound … what could be the problem? After a quick glance, my amazing husband and graphic artist Nick had an idea. “Why don’t I try and improve the design?” he asked. Within 24 hours, he had completed the photography, branding and redesign of my plan. I then sent my new plan to some different brands and they all got back to us straightaway, asking if we wanted to carry their products.

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We also put it out to a new batch of investors and got some interest! I was so excited. After what seemed like an eternity planning my dream, it was finally coming to life. Of course, that’s when Murphy’s Law struck again. After nine months negotiating with the investor and agreeing on the details, he sent us documents to sign. But after combing through the contract and following up on some questionable terms, we realised we were dealing with a fraud. Nearly a year in, and our investor was trying to scam us.

The following two months were rough. We went and spoke with other investors, but all of them wanted more than 50% of the business to agree to invest. They all said the idea was great, but that the risk needed to be worth the reward. After a long reflection period, we decided that the only way that this business would get off the ground would be if we bootstrapped it and got things started ourselves.

Now I can confidently say that I’m happy things happened the way they did. During my earlier days, it was never me who benefited from my hard work, but  someone else. As my own boss, the only person I am accountable to myself.

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

Having a vision for your business is important. Even before we started building the store, I knew I wanted it to have the aesthetic of the Santa Cruz mountains – airy and spacious, with a calming cottage feel. I wanted it to feel like home, not like a yoga studio. That meant minimising selling space to make the environment more welcoming. We could have easily set up shelving throughout the store to maximise our sales space per square foot, but sometimes you need to stick with your vision, even if it seems counterintuitive.

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When it came to selecting which brands to carry, we kept our vision in mind and only chose what fit within it. I could’ve easily picked brands you’d find on any high street, but for my concept to succeed, we needed products that would help us stand out. We curated the brands to represent our customers and the treatments we provide, not just because they’re in fashion. Brands that are in here are brands that work. In fact, we’ve had many brands that have tried to get into the shop, but we’ve turned them all down. We aren’t going to jeopardise our reputation by selling a product that we wouldn’t use ourselves.

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Your team’s product knowledge is one of the most crucial aspects of our business. All our sales staff are trained in 172 brands.  If my staff or I recommend the wrong product, it’s my integrity on the line.

Finally, we needed a EPOS system that gave us flexibility and streamlined operations. We chose Lightspeed because we loved the features and felt that it could grow with our business. The system is intuitive and the reports are insightful. Plus, it lets me check in on my business from virtually anywhere which is always a plus.

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Treat yourself  

Offering skin consultations for those looking for more in depth treatments is one of the cornerstones of our business. Typically, we’ll spend 1.5 – 2 hours together to determine the root cause of their skin problems. During this stage, we go through medical history, what the customer eats, their lifestyle… essentially, we discuss everything that could affect their skin. From there, we take 18 photographs (six of the front, six of each side), that use a number of different imaging technologies from UV damage to levels of dehydration and inflammation. The camera technology we use is state of the art and allows us to see any skin issues. With this approach, we’re able to create a proper assessment and treatment plan. Our jobs are to help people, not just slap product on.

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For what it’s worth

At the end of the day, my customers pay me for results. You can’t look at each treatment as a one-time cash grab –  you’ve got to think about it as the beginning of a longterm relationship with a customer. If I don’t make a sale, I don’t beat myself up about it because I know that person will come back.

That also means thinking about their pocket book and how to help them for the best price. Your objective shouldn’t be about selling as much as possible, but about giving people a memorable experience. I strongly believe that if you want to achieve higher returns and grow your business, the best way is to actively help people and be honest with them every step of the way.

Pamela Marshall

Pamela Marshall

Pam is a Level 4 Clinical Aesthetician, trained in California and the UK, focussing solely on skin and the science of skin.
She’s worked both sides of the business, running clinics and consulting with brands. Pam formed Mortar & Milk to ensure customers get the help they need, bringing cosmeceuticals together with high street brands.