Luke Sherriff, the co-founder of Proverb Skin and the first to market refillable deodorant in the UK, details his journey and what motivated him to start his own business after a career as a professional rugby player. A first-person account of entering the beauty industry, the challenges faced and what every entrepreneur should know.
How It All Started
The question I get asked most often is ‘how did you go from Professional Rugby to making Beauty Products?’. The answer to which is human health & performance. This has been the centre of all my journey from when I was young.
I was always very active, loved being outside and engaging with nature. I was then lucky enough to study Human Sciences at Oxford University for 4 years which gave me the chance to study humans and how their interaction with their environment affects their health. It also allowed me to play rugby for the university leading to the chance to play professional rugby for Harlequins and Nottingham for 11 years. During that time I became more focused on my health but never lost the passion for human health and, more importantly, how we impact the environment.
Rugby and Beauty collided in 2006, when Kirstie, my partner that was then running a beauty training school, became intrigued by the improved performance I saw by changing my diet to be far cleaner and more organic. She instantly recognised that this could be applied to skincare products and launched the UK’s first complete range of organic spa products and treatments Pinks Boutique. The toxins we were trying to avoid were found in synthetic cosmetics. It was clear that quickly other people were also keen to avoid this in cosmetic products.
Fast forward to 2017 we launched a retail-focused range of natural skincare products under Proverb, Lifefuelled Skincare, to help people choose products that work better for their health and the health of the planet. My initial interest in human health has led me to realise that it is intertwined with the health of those around us and the planet. So in 2019, we began crowdfunding for the UK’s first refillable plant-powered deodorant. By 2020, we launched our first refillable product, natural vegan deodorant and are excited about how we can bring more sustainable, natural products to have a positive impact on everyone’s health.
One of the biggest challenges the cosmetic industry faces is authenticity and greenwashing. For the last decade, the desire for ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ hygiene and skincare products has been intensifying with the growth of veganism, concern for the environment and people taking their health & wellbeing more seriously.
This has resulted in a lot of brands and large corporations jumping on the bandwagon and marketing their products as ‘green’, leading to the phenomenon of greenwashing. The problem is complex but a lot of the issues stem from poor regulation around what you can say about cosmetics.
Take for example the food industry in the UK – if you wanted to call your product organic you would have to meet strict regulations about how the whole product was created from the way it was grown, the soil that was used, the process it was harvested and ultimately how it ended up on your plate. There is no compromise, either it meets the recognised standards or it doesn’t.
But in the cosmetic industry with only 1% of your product certified as organic you can title, market and ultimately sell your product as organic, meaning as a consumer, you could be buying into a ‘better/greener’ choice that might be 99% non-organic but that lead you to leave it was 100% organic!
We recognised long ago that it shouldn’t be down to the consumer to have to work out whether a product is authentically what it claims to be. We also realised that it was unlikely we would have the budget to fight the marketing of larger brands, leaving us with only one choice: tell the truth to whoever will listen, find consumers who are truly invested in their health and the choices they make and create products they would be proud to use. It is slower, harder and less effective but it is the only way we know, and it is ultimately more rewarding.
This also leads to a challenge that is more specific to brands like Proverb, of which we are proud to say there is a growing number. The commitment to be transparent about what goes into the products, making the difficult choice to opt for certified natural and organic ingredients and willingly pay the price that comes with it, ultimately reduces profit margins.
Running a business is hard at the best of times and margin (they say) is king, so deciding to make your product more expensive to manufacture may seem like madness, but for those of us that truly believe in giving the customer the best choice for their health and the planet’s, there is no other way.
So where larger, supermarket skincare brands might be creating products that cost them 10% of the price tag to make, genuinely green and sustainable brands will be making products that cost 3 to 4 times more. In a market where the consumer isn’t willing to pay 3 to 4 times more for a product, the maths don’t look great.
Loyalty however is, and that is what we are focused on. Never has it been more important for a brand or a business to be trusted by its customers if they expect them to keep coming back and spreading the word far and wide. It may not be big budgets and huge returns, but in a world where the coming generations are more focused on the values of the brands they purchase from than their marketing budgets, we might be just 1 TikTok away from blowing this industry-wide open!
They say that one’s greatest strength is also one’s greatest weakness, and so it might be the case with the challenges Proverb faces.
While bigger, corporate-run brands have bigger budgets, bigger reach and bigger profits they also have bigger responsibilities to their shareholders. With profits being the driving force in decision making, while they may very well want to change things faster in the way they produce products or market them, these are slow-moving things, constrained by a fear of opening themselves up to the world.
It will come as no surprise that this is exactly where the opportunity for a smaller, founder-led brand exists, to say it how it is. I can’t tell you how excited we were when we were presented with the idea of making Proverb’s tagline ‘a statement of truth or advice’. Not only did we love the name, but it also perfectly represented what drives Kirstie and me: to help people find the truth about what is in their product, what the real impact on their health might be and not shying away from the difficult questions.
I can tell you we don’t do everything perfectly, we strive every day to make our packaging more sustainable but know we aren’t there yet. If there is truly a better product than ours for your specific needs we will be the first to tell you.
It’s not that it’s comfortable living with such openness, and lots of people find it difficult to understand, but ultimately it is who we are and I can’t imagine a world in which we hope to make the positive impact we set out to achieve where you can’t do it by being yourself.
Advice to New Entrepreneurs
For young entrepreneurs, my advice might not be what you would expect. It is similar to an answer I gave to a question that someone once asked Kirstie and me: ‘Would you recommend working with your significant other?’. When I answered ‘no’ it raised a few eyebrows but the truth (and Proverb stands for a statement of truth or advice after all) is that, like entrepreneurship, I don’t think working with your partner is for everyone, and I would ask anyone considering it to think very carefully about whether it is for them
Many people think they want to work for themselves and imagine the freedoms that come with this but the reality can be very different and many of my friends who have career jobs with great companies have the perfect work-life balance for them. The uncertainties that come from starting something can be also very rewarding but the journey is unique.
Don’t simply take my word for it, the E-Myth by Michael Geber, for example, does a great job of helping budding entrepreneurs to weigh up whether or not it is the life for them.
For general business, I would say: employ the person, not the skill. Teamwork is everything and it starts with finding the right people. I have played in many rugby teams over the years and it is never the one with the most individual talent that produce the best results, it is always the ones that work together, recognise the contribution of every individual and bring the best out in everyone.
I appreciate that there are some skills in a business such as legal and finance functions that might require a certain level of qualification for people to be considered for a role, but in most other areas of the business, in my opinion, some candidates attitudes, ability to blend with the team, have their beliefs and motivations aligned with the goals of the business, are far more important.
It is amazing how much people will give if they believe in something, are cared for by everyone around them and are allowed to shine at whatever they bring to the business. I dream of the day when our business is big enough that I can extricate myself from the daily running and spend all my time being there for our team #teamiseverything