How I Started a
Plant-Based Cleaning Product Brand
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! I’m Annie McWilliam, founder of Colt & Willow. Most people don’t realise that their homes are full of harmful toxins. The products we use to clean are damaging our health, our skin & our loved ones.
We’ve created a range of powerful plant-based cleaning products that look good, smell good & do good. They are transforming the cleaning experience for our customers, their families, their homes & the planet, so they can feel happy, confident & safe. Our product is created and owned by a young family and proudly made in the UK.
We’ve also tried to ensure that every aspect of the packaging is considered. We use beautiful frosted amber glass bottles which are refillable using our recycled/recyclable PET litre refills. Our boxes are all made from FSC-certified and recyclable card and filled with eco-chips which are water-soluble.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
We started looking into natural cleaning products when our first daughter was born. She gets bad eczema and we became quite conscious of what we were cleaning our house with. Having an interior design background also meant that we wanted products that helped our kitchen look beautiful. In contrast to the garish bright cleaning products you normally find in the supermarket.
We live in Switzerland but travel a lot. I (Annie) am from Dorset and Tony is from Melbourne Australia. We’d seen some great products in New Zealand and Australia but nothing similar in the UK, so we spent two years researching and working with a small UK producer to fine-tune the ingredients and fragrances before we were happy with the line.
Our focus is on making beautiful-looking, natural cleaning products that not only smell great, look stylish and actually work but are plant-based to be more gentle for you and the ones you love. We aim to be transparent about ingredients and processes so our customers can become informed and empowered to make better decisions. Everything is made in Britain using refillable, recyclable materials.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
It took a long time to find a manufacturer that would work with a start-up. Most said that “you can’t change a commodity” (but cleaning products haven’t changed since the 50s. They’re well overdue a makeover).
Probably one of the hardest challenges was having two small children at home. We were trying to balance getting this off the ground with a brand new baby. It took us about 18 months of sourcing and researching and finalising formulas and scents before we were happy.
We had massive problems with the labelling of our bottles and this is something we are still trying to address. However, we are lucky to work with some great suppliers who have helped us through all of our niggles. We believe it’s really important to have a strong relationship with the suppliers we work with so we know that we can trust each other.
Our final hurdle was our packaging. We thought we had come up with a design that would work well with glass bottles but had a lot of breakages during shipping. So far we are on our second round of trying to get this right and it isn’t quite there yet. But everything is a learning curve.
Who is your target market?
Selfishly it’s really for us – but we feel we share the same aspirations as many out there. We want the things in our lives to bring a little bit of joy, to look good, to smell good and to be better for us, our family and the environment.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
At the moment this is still very much a learning process, at times it feels like we are playing some crazy game! There is a lot to get our heads around and what works well for us as a brand.
We work with a small PR agency in London who have been fantastic at helping us refine our message and navigate digital and traditional marketing options. We do a little bit across the board – print media reach out, social media and influencers and are now getting up to speed with paid social. There is definitely huge respect for influencers now!
Surprisingly, vloggers who feature our product have the most immediate impact on sales.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
From the start we have focused on building a product that is lovely to use and to touch with our glass bottles, and offering refills for these. We also want to make sure that we are in touch with our customer, that we are proactive in handling any post-sale issues i.e. delays in shipping or breakages, and that we build a relationship with them.
Our next stage will be looking into subscriptions and loyalty programs.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
As it is just myself and my husband that run Colt & Willow, our culture tends to be: adapt, divide and conquer. We work from home and we juggle everything around children. Quite often, I’m cooking dinner whilst shouting ideas at Tony hoping that he can read my mind and implement everything I have said, or vice versa. The most important thing in our company culture is coffee!
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
Coconut is the bank we use and they have a really great service. They let us handle all of our banking in a very easy to use app which then we can export to our accounting software. It’s incredibly user friendly.
Dropbox and Google Drive make it so easy to work on multiple files at the same time between Tony and I.
I’m sure there will be more that we come to use, but at the moment these are all helping make running our company that little bit smoother.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
We are still quite young in our business life and in the thick of learning what works and what doesn’t. Maybe we need to revisit this question in a year when we are further down the line. At the moment, we are both enjoying working on C&W and exploring this new venture together. We are a good team and we both take time to consider everything, which helps. Tony is extremely detail-focused too, which really helps.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
I’m not sure I’m ready to be branded as an entrepreneur. I’m enjoying the new challenges that running your own business brings. Some days, I have my head in my hands worrying that we maybe shouldn’t have started this journey. But most days I enjoy what comes our way. I love it when people contact us to say how much they are enjoying using our products. I literally do a ‘happy dance’ when we get feedback like this. This is our main goal, customer satisfaction.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Bookkeeping! And then worrying!
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
I took a short course called the Lady Start Up and that was brilliant at helping me get my brain into the right headspace for thinking about running a business. I had just had a baby when we decided to give the idea a go. I had been thinking about it for over four years! I needed something to help me see the world outside ‘mum’ life. It definitely boosted my confidence and it had a wonderful support network, which I think is rare with many online courses.
I love listening to the How I Work podcast by Amantha Imber. She has two types of episodes: short bitesize episodes about how to be more productive, and then longer in-depth interviews with all sorts of interesting people about working and being productive.
Building A Story Brand by Donald Miller is a must read, it all makes such obvious sense about why people buy into brands and why they don’t.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
Hopefully, we will have developed our product range further. We have plenty of ideas for this, bubbling away. I also hope that we have gained peoples trust, that we are and that we are profitable!!