Sunday sit-down with…the founders of Soap Brows
Meet the mother-and-daughter team behind the Durham-based cosmetics company whose revolutionary eyebrow-care products are so incredible, even Beyoncé’s make-up artist stocks them.
How did Soap Brows start?
Kim: I was working as a professional makeup artist and I was doing a photo shoot at the end of 2016. I got chatting to the photographer about ‘Instabrows’ – the carved-out, really structured eyebrows that were popular. My background in make-up has always been to do with editorial magazines and fashion. I worked in TV as well – so not Instagram! I came back from this photoshoot so frustrated, thinking I need something that’s going to create a really fluffy, brushed-up brow that everybody wants in the industry, but we couldn’t seem to find a product that did it. Back then everything was just brow gels, that was all make-up artists had in their kit.
In make-up school, we were taught about the old Hollywood trick of using soap on eyebrows – we didn’t invent that, but we did decide that there wasn’t a cosmetic at the time that did something similar. It’s quite unsafe for people to just be bashing a bar of Imperial Leather on their brows! So I came home and spoke to Donna and said, can we make this?
Donna: I was making some face and moisturising creams at home because that’s what I love doing. So I just said, why not! We made five tins and labelled them A, B, C, D and E and came up with lots of different formulas. We handed them out to our family and friends and asked them to try them all out. The formulas varied with things like how soft or hard they were, how much hold it had, how easy it was to apply, setting time, etc. We made a questionnaire with each one for people to fill out. Almost everyone preferred tin ‘C’, so that was the formula we went with.
How did you get Soap Brows out into the industry?
Kim: I had it in my make-up artist kit and started giving it out to people I was working with: photographers and artists on set for TV and films. I just asked them to try it and see what they thought. There were also a few people that I’d worked with, and some others that we both looked up to in the industry that we wanted to try it, so we reached out to the make-up world and said: “This is what you’re missing from your kit”.
It’s not easy to become immediately successful. Have you had any struggles along the way?
Kim: We’ve had two or three businesses together in the past. I’d usually come to Donna with an idea and ask if she wanted to be my business partner. I’d get it registered and get really excited about it, and then it wouldn’t work out. When you put all your time, money and energy into something and it doesn’t work, it can be devastating.
Donna: Every moment of that has been a learning curve though, that’s brought us to where we are now. We sat and made a list of everything that we did and didn’t want our future business to do.
Kim: We wanted Soap Brows to have a really nice atmosphere, to be a place where people can feel safe at work and enjoy their job. That’s really been our focus since day one.
Donna: There’s a huge focus on wellness and wellbeing here, which is why we do a yoga and dance class every Friday night!
Kim: It’s just us prancing about really! But we have such a great team here, I always cry when I do a review because it’s so nice to hear how much they’re enjoying their work. We give them a lot of training and personal development, and if they’re having a tough time we like to have a chat with them about it. We want this to be a safe place to work and without those failures beforehand we wouldn’t have the knowledge to be able to run it this way.
How did you end up taking on so many staff?
Kim: It was when Soap Brows started to do really well, but we were still wrapping every single product in tissue by hand! We were picking and packing constantly, so we went to Sunderland University and took Rifah – who was a cosmetic science student at the time – on as an intern. She did a placement year with us and was really keen to learn and totally up for the challenge.
Donna: We had to say: it’s not a big factory you’re coming to, it’s my house! And most days there was just her and I at the kitchen table.
Kim: I was still working at the hospital as a nurse at the time, and some days I’d come in from nightshift and come straight to work here. Eventually I had to choose between the two, and I stopped nursing. That was hard, as I’d trained so long to do it – and I was giving up my pension! Giving up that security was tough, but it wasn’t too difficult a choice. I miss my team, but now we’ve created a new team here, which is nice.
How do you choose your team members?
Kim: We’re really proud of the North East, like everyone else who lives here. It’s so under-appreciated by everyone else. The North has a lot of massive talent, so we had a lot of options from the very beginning. We don’t have departments, so we had to figure out how to manage that. Instead of specifically looking for a job role, we hire based on the person. I spent a lot of time working out what made them tick, what their passion was and what they were good at, and we got them to try everything. So all of our main crew have been through every element of Soap Brows. I then chose roles for them that I felt they would excel in, so they could become someone in that department in their own right.
Our training isn’t training – it’s a talent book, which is more about people’s individual talents and ensures they get development in those areas. There’s nothing worse than sitting at a job and looking at somebody else thinking: ‘I could do that job, I want to try that’. Having people that know every aspect of each role means that everyone can be supportive and help out where needed.
What was the tipping point of you realising you’d really created something?
Kim: I think when we had to move! By November 2018, the house was so full of stuff that we decided it was time to find an office, and with that came commitments to leases and other big decisions. It was a serious investment. We did worry that we wouldn’t be able to fill the new space – it felt huge – so we set ourselves a goal of three years to fill the space. We’ve been here 12 months and have already managed to fill it! We actually need to double it!
The growth and the amount of people that have been interested in the brand has been phenomenal. Photographers, models, brand ambassadors, some major film and TV make-up artists have all wanted to work with us. We have a PR list but we don’t approach it in the same way that most cosmetics companies do. We don’t use influencers and don’t require people to have a certain amount of followers before sending them freebies. We work exclusively with professionals that work in the industry, and more often than not they don’t necessarily have that many followers but it doesn’t mean those people don’t have the experience. They just don’t get the recognition that people in PR or influencers get. Influencers have cupboards full of products that they don’t need to use, whereas those professionals working on sets are the ones that really need the products.
How do you keep ahead of trends?
Kim: I’ve always had a bit of an eye for make-up trends, usually 6-12 months before they happen. There are also ways you can set trends by giving it to the right people, and I think that’s what this has been for us. With people like [professional make-up artist] Nikki Wolff getting on board and thinking this a really cool look, you can set that trend and make it something bigger.
The next one we’re working on at the moment is the no-make-up make-up look, which has always been a trend, but we’re taking it a step further with all of our products – the mists, the cleansers, the moisturisers, it’s all about skin prep and those stages before you wear make-up. We’re working with two or three teams who are working at London, Paris and Milan fashion weeks, and they’re all using our skin prep products. They aren’t using anything else: there’s no make-up, it’s just our skin prep and brows. The next trend is going to be very, very natural, so we’re trying to set that now.
Is it nerve-wracking, working with such big names and events?
Kim: For me, I’m quite used to it having worked in TV and film before. But I think one of the scariest things is talking about it! I’m so used to working on adverts or films and then not being able to talk about anything afterwards, so I found it really hard to talk about things like Beyoncé’s make-up artist using our products. It feels quite awkward. We did an interview with BBC Radio Newcastle, but otherwise, Donna and I are the shyest business owners you’ve ever met. We’ve been really pushed into having to do these things!
I think we make a good team though. We’re quite opposite in the way we deal with things; Donna’s very realistic and has to pull me down from my pie-in-the-sky ideas, while I’m the one that pushes things to the N’th degree. I always want to get higher. I was the same when I worked as a make-up artist – I didn’t want to stick at just doing bridal, I wanted to do magazines and fashion weeks. I think it’s just a case of having that belief and saying we can do something. Sometimes I don’t even believe it, but I’ll say it anyway! I very much believe in the laws of attraction, and I think if you put it out there then it’s more likely to happen.
How do you react to competition within the industry?
Kim: There’s a lot of people now bringing out the ‘Hollywood-inspired’ brows. Luckily, we have the trademarks for both Soap Brows and Brow Soap, which we did very early. We could pick some battles, but we’re choosing to focus our energy on keeping the company a positive place. We knew it was going to happen – you become a bit of an enemy of your own success, but imitation is the highest form of flattery!
Soap Brows has become almost like a mascara – it’s a thing now – so we know that the big brands will be soon to follow. It’s the same if you look at products like Beauty Blender: there’s thousands of imitations, but only one original Beauty Blender. We have to stay true to the fact that we’re the originals who came up with the idea of cosmeticising the soap brows concept, and we’re proud to say that.
What are your plans for the future?
We have a brush coming out which has been 12 months in the making, but it’s a game-changer! It puts the exact amount of product on the brush so that you can apply in one swoop. The difference between brow gel and Soap Brows is that Soap Brows allows you to style your brows after the product has been applied. You leave it on for a minute, then make them fluffier or flatter. It’s malleable, so if you’re halfway through a photo shoot and want to change the style, then you can.
Our next plan is to change the packaging. Our cleanser has been really popular – there are a lot of actors and actresses who are using it now – but we haven’t pushed it as much yet as there’s some new packaging coming for it. We’re also doing refillable tubs which look really nice too, and everything’s going eco-friendly. We wanted to do that from day one but it just wasn’t possible at the start due to the quantities we were ordering.
Donna: We have a new way of moisturising that differs depending on no make-up and make-up days, but we can’t talk too much about it yet – coming soon!
Where did the name West Barn Co come from?
Kim: West Barn is actually the name of Donna’s house, and I used to ring her and say: ‘I’m heading to West Barn today!’ The name just stuck. It started in her kitchen, so it seemed fitting to keep the original name too!
A lot of people think we’re American and can’t believe we’re based in Durham! We always get people asking why we don’t move the distribution to London, but we don’t want to. We always try and work with local talent; if we can, we use photographers and models from the North East. There’s a misconception that if you want to succeed you have to go to London, or that all the best people are in London. We want to put the North East on the map in the beauty industry. The talent here is incredible and we want to make sure we stay true to that. The North East needs companies that commit to staying here.
Where are some of your North East favourites?
Kim: My husband and I love the National Trust side of things – Belsay is lovely to go to, there are some really nice walks. Getting a family walk in has been on my list of things to do for when I get a full day off.
Donna: I love the coast. Seaburn in Sunderland is where I grew up.
Kim: Flat White in Durham is also amazing, it’s a really nice place. And Zen is another place in Durham that we love going to for family meals!
Donna: South Causey does an amazing Sunday Lunch too!
N.B: This interview was conducted before the Coronavirus pandemic.