Ayesha Muttucumaru talks to Nicola Elliott, co-founder of Neom Organics, to find out how she went from a journalist to a juggling business owner...
Counting the likes of Kate Moss, Sienna Miller and Gwyneth Paltrow as loyal fans, Neom has become the go-to brand for its range of luxury organic body products, sweet-smelling candles and decadent home fragrances since launching in 2005. Here, Ayesha Muttucumaru speaks with co-founder and Director Nicola Elliott on what it means for a product to be truly organic, her transition from journalism to aromatherapy and what it takes to become an award-winning entrepreneur…
GTG: What led you to start up Neom?
It was at the time when I was working at magazines and wanted to buy a beautiful pampering gift for my very green-minded yet glam sister. I found the task (something green yet very sophisticated and luxurious) near impossible, and I thought it was pretty mad I had to buy her a) a synthetic body lotion full of chemicals she wouldn't want to use or b) go to the health food shop and buy something that smelt foul in a brown paper bag. So the concept of Neom (merging luxury with organics) was born.
GTG: What motivated you to leave the world of journalism and enter the world of aromatherapy?
It was something I felt passionate about and was hugely influenced by my sister. At the time we launched Neom in 2005, there was a growing awareness of green and organic beauty which wasn’t necessarily in easy reach for consumers, so I knew there was a little gap where Neom would sit perfectly. I really wanted to buy my product and it didn’t exist! I met Oliver, my business partner and combined. We thought we had the skills to make this happen.
GTG: Where did the name Neom come from?
It is actually my initials with my business partner’s, Oliver Mennell.
On Your Brand…
GTG: What is the key, in your eyes to creating an organic product range that really works?
For Neom it’s not just about being organic; we pride ourselves on creating beautifully fragranced, organic products that really work as therapeutic treatments. The products have to be better than synthetic counterparts – not worse ‘but that’s okay because they are organic!’ It’s of course a lot harder to create the products to those standards, the fragrances we produce now are very special, the blends take years to produce but if they don’t pass our internal ‘wow’ test they don’t leave the building.
I never set out to do anything other than better what was already available in all areas – organic and non-organic. Our scents are exquisite and we are right at the forefront of pushing natural scents, distilling parts of plants that have never been used before to create beautiful scents. Our essential oil content is the highest it can possibly be – our candles for example, have more than three bottles of the essential oils you would find in a health food shop inside them!
GTG: What are your best-selling products? Why do you think that is?
Neom’s Candles , (from £15) are our best-selling product and probably what we are known most for. They were the first products which Neom launched back in 2005 and when Kylie Minogue said she loved them, things went nuts.
We often get such amazing feedback about our candles because they truly are the cleanest burning you can buy. Unlike many candles, which are made with paraffin wax and synthetic scents, Neom candles are hand-poured in the UK, made from 100% natural vegetable waxes (sourced from sustainable and renewable annual crops from long-established farms) and at least 10% pure essential oils content - that’s all. And furthermore Neom never use any chemical fertilizers, pesticides or artificial chemicals like binders or glue (and only ever use cotton wicks unlike some which use tin), so when the candles burn they do not release any pollutants, toxins or soot. And having three wicks with 380g of wax we get amazing feedback about how they really exceeded customers’ expectations.
GTG: Which products are you most proud of?
This differs month to month! At the moment I feel particularity proud of our new summer scent, Enchantment , (from £37). We managed to create a scent of bluebells (which normally is only achievable using synthetics i.e. lab-created scents) by only using natural scents. Making essential oils and 100% natural fragrance smell sophisticated and stand up to its synthetic counterparts is no mean feat. It really is an enchanting scent, beautifully presented, and we give money from the sale of each candle to the Woodland Trust.
I am also incredibly proud of our Organic Bath Foam , £20 which has become incredibly popular. Since we launched our body care range, I’ve been pestering the product development team about making organic bath foam… but it’s probably one of the trickiest products we have created at Neom and has taken us over two years. Our philosophy is to never use SLS (something which creates the foaming effect) because it can irritate the skin, so we had to take an alternative route to make sure our bath foam actually foamed and we eventually managed it! Everyone must try it out - I use it every night with the kids too. It really helps me sleep.
GTG: What do you look for when you start to develop a new product or fragrance?
I keep myself firmly in the position of our customer and think about what she would want. We are always in open dialogue with them too. In fact just last night we had eight women at our HQ to ask them all about what they would like to see from Neom - then we set this going!
GTG: Who are your celebrity fans? Which products are their favourites?
We have quite a few celebrity shoppers however we don’t like to say unless they do. Gwyneth Paltrow recently said on her lifestyle blog Goop.com that she was loving our Relax scent, (from £15). It’s probably our strongest sleep inducer with heaps of French lavender. Daisy Lowe told us she loves our Complete Bliss scent (Moroccan blush rose), (from £15), and Nicole Scherzinger also told us how much she loved our Christmas Wish scent which is a blend of mandarin, cinnamon and tonka bean (which we’re launching again this October). She described it (to quote her) as a “yummy Christmas Wish Candle, smells like the holidays”.
On Being Organic
GTG: What are your views on living an organic lifestyle?
Although I am a realist with a husband and two kids - I do try to live as organically as possible. All the hand washes we have around the house for all the family are Neom. I find switching products like this one of the easiest and cheapest way to go organic. I regularly buy from our local organic farms in North Yorkshire - Fodder is great in Harrogate. I also have deliveries from Abel & Cole and love Organic Burst for added supplements in my life and buy brands like Chinti & Parker too.
GTG: How hard is it creating all-natural products in today’s beauty industry?
The plain fact is that creating organic and natural products is actually quite tricky, not to mention more expensive - you can’t be sure if a particular plant or ingredient is going to have a good harvest or not. For example in Neom’s Body Lotion , £25 we use geranium oil - if this becomes in short supply, the price goes up. It’s not like working with chemical mixes where you just press a button and you can churn out as many as you like. And with organics you have to batch test all the time because the ingredients used are all slightly different. However, a side effect of this is that consumers really get products that are second-to-none. Because we blend then re-blend again and test all the time, each and every product is as close to perfect as we can possibly make it. Being made in the UK too, means we can jump on a train to our lab and do it ourselves.
GTG: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Personally, being awarded Entrepreneur of the Year last November at the Woman of the Future Awards was incredible. I got to have dinner with James Caan and Pinky Lilani as part of my win which was really inspirational.
GTG: What does a typical day comprise of for you?
I honestly don’t have a typical day. Every day is different which is actually what I love about my job. Our head office in based in Harrogate, however I often travel to London to meet with journalists or my business partner Oliver, or take part in sales and business meetings with our fab stockists such as Selfridges, John Lewis or Heals to name a few. If I am in Harrogate, I make sure I drop the kids off at school and then head to the office for 9am where, at the moment, I am living most of the time until 2014. Watch this space for lots of lovely new and exciting products.
GTG: How do you juggle work with children and the general madness of life? How do you stay sane?
I do simply that, juggle. There is never a dull moment, nor a second which is wasted. If I am not doing more than one thing at any one time, I feel like I am wasting time. Like driving to the office from school coincides with speaking through Bluetooth to my sales team in London. I always have my iPad with me which basically runs my life. I also rely on internet shopping which saves my life too. Abel & Cole, John Lewis and Amazon store my credit card - so I can make sure something is delivered for a kids party or fresh food for the fridge!
I also make sure I try and take a little ‘me-time’. Running your own business gets under your skin and there’s never a moment I am not thinking “ooh that’s a great new blog to work with”, “love that colour for our new packaging” or “what a great idea for a new fragrance blend or store window”. So I read to escape, or swim. This is the time where it’s just me - no husband, kids, business and I can take time to recharge and I suppose, keep relatively sane!
GTG: What is your beauty philosophy?
Invest in a handful of products which really work. I have never been one to have a bathroom cabinet full of the latest anti-wrinkle creams or scientific mascara. You can’t beat natural and organic products - my philosophy is to use what nature has to offer. Use grapeseed oil as a make-up remover (it’s really cheap and the gentlest way I have found to remove mascara), use lavender oil to help you sleep or beautiful, precious rose to help stress.
GTG: Which make-up products would you weep over if you lost them?
My Balance Me Radiance Face Oil , (from £15). If there’s one thing helping me keep looking young - that’s got to be it!
GTG: What are your favourite skincare and body products aside from your line?
Balance Me Radiance Facial Oil is at the top of my list and has been for months now; I am a fan of facial oils rather than moisturisers. I also really like James Read’s Tan and love Sarah Chapman ’s products too.
GTG: What are your favourite haircare products?
Would you shoot me if I said I actually loved trialling a new Neom formulation of body wash on my hair? It’s been amazing and has some brilliant ingredients! Aside from this as I have quite thick hair I love using Dr Hauschka Neem Hair Oil , £22.95 and Burt’s Bees shampoo , £9.99 - they have a mango one which smells gorgeous.
GTG: What do you do to stay healthy?
I do a mixture, but sleep probably comes last. Being a mum and business owner always comes first over sleep, but I eat really healthily and try not to eat sugar. I swim regularly and swear by Spirulina , £10.99 and Wheatgrass , £6.69 from Organic Burst which do superfood supplements - they really do help beat any sugar cravings and stop me from feeling tired.
GTG: What’s your favourite beauty treatment when you feel in need of a bit of pampering?
I love massages. I can sometimes suffer from anxiety and find that ensuring I have one, once a month keeps me on track along with eating healthily and a supplement of magnesium. I often go to No.1 Hair and Beauty Boutique in Ilkley West Yorkshire who do great massages.
GTG: How do you unwind/de-stress?
To switch off from the day I have to read. Even if it’s 2am. I read for 10 minutes and then I can sleep. I also use Neom’s Tranquillity every night. The Bath Foam, or for a more potent treatment, the Tranquillity Bath & Shower Oil , £32 (with 30% essential oils) along with a candle around the bedroom really helps my shoulders drop and gives you a truly relaxing treatment.
On Starting Up a Business…
GTG: I know you started your business at the same time as having children. How did you cope with this pressure?
I would not recommend this to anyone; it was a really trying time in my life. I felt pushed and pulled in every direction, trying to do everything at once and at some awful points, I felt I was failing at everything - not being a great mum OR a great business-owner because I was spreading myself too thin - unfortunately there is no way of being in two places at the same time, and I should know, because some days I actively tried.
Nowadays as the kids are growing up it has become easier. We moved from London back to Yorkshire where my parents help whenever we need them.
GTG: You won Entrepreneur of the Year in the Woman of the Future Awards, were named by Real Business as one of the 20 Female Entrepreneurs Energizing Britain and listed in Management Today’s 2013 35 Women Under 35. What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to start their own business?
If you are looking to start your own business I have three main tips. 1) Do something you enjoy - you will be spending a lot of time on it. 2) Research your market, but don’t take things personally – what other people actually like is what it’s all about and 3) make sure you can sum up your own USP in one sentence - it needs to be that strong.
GTG: On your friendship with Sus, Editor-in-Chief of GTG… you and Sus are very good friends - how did you guys meet?!
We met during my journalism years. Sus was Beauty Editor at Glamour and I was Entertainment Editor. We have both moved on but have been close friends ever since. We used to have a giggle in the Glamour offices and recently had a fab girls’ weekend away in Ibiza together. Sus puts the style into everything she touches and Get The Gloss is her personality on screen – it’s fab!