Award-winning journalist, entrepreneur and co-founder of BeautyMART , Anna-Marie Solowij’s 25 year career in the beauty industry has seen her conquer the worlds of editorial and retail in equal measure.
Having lent her expertise to the pages of Marie Claire, ELLE and Vogue to name but a few, we caught up with the beauty and business tycoon to talk start-ups, her top tips for making a career change, the glamourous and not-so-glamorous sides of the industry and searching for the elusive work-life balance...
GTG: Could you tell us about what your roles entail?
AMS: Pretty much anything and everything to do with running a business from the big decisions such as fundraising to making sure there's enough loo roll.
I'm a Director of the company which involves making sure that everything is done properly and legally, from board meeting minutes to following employment legislation and accounting. I'm also Editorial Director so I’m responsible for every word we produce from the blog to product copy online, point of sale materials, all communications, I oversee all press releases that our PR division produces and I'm chief grammar controller as I can't bear a misused apostrophe!
Additionally, I'm in charge of online which encompasses the website, blog, product uploads and affiliate programmes and I'm the one that freaks out at our hosting company if the site goes down, which always happens on a weekend - our busiest time online. On top of that a key part of my job is choosing and editing our product mix, along with Millie, my business partner and Sarirah our buyer. I also spend a lot of time talking to brands and people in the business. When you have a business you become very visible and everyone wants to know what you think. This has led us to launching a new BeautyMART service called BrandStand which is an advisory/consultancy division for anyone who wants to tap into our expertise.
On a more mundane but still important level, I have painted shops, hauled boxes, cleaned the loo, hosted press launches, done the banking, acted as van driver, made the tea and barcoded thousands of products. This is the less glamorous side of the job that any start-up will be familiar with.
In my spare time, (of which there is very little), I still write as a beauty journalist for publications including the FT Weekend, Town and Country and The Daily - LFW's official newspaper. This involves interviews, attending launches, general research and attending the LFW shows backstage every season. I also act as a consultant for two brands which I have been involved in for several years.
GTG: What does a typical day look like for you?
AMS: My alarm goes off at 8 and I'm at my desk by 9.30ish as I live a 7 minute walk from our office in Highgate. I check emails while I'm walking - I'm one of those people I hate, who walk around with their heads down staring at their screens.
I always have an impossible-to-complete list of things to do: currently it includes arranging to meet a retailer who is interested in our concept, interviewing someone for a feature I'm working on, updating our brand presentation, learning about Prop 65 for a blog post I'm writing, writing up minutes of our last board meeting and co-ordinating the next one with our investors and NEDs, replying to launch invitations, liaising with our buyer on new brands, writing new product copy for online, dealing with hundreds of emails from brands who want us to stock them, researching images for online, managing the affiliates, liaising with the accounts team and just being on hand to help with anything that needs my attention. I try to spend whole days in the office to get the most focus and arrange groups of meetings in the West End to save travel time. I'm usually at home by about 6.30pm and I do try to take a break at lunchtime, but it doesn't always happen.
GTG: Could you tell us about your background - your degree, past jobs and career journey so far, and what it was like to move from the magazine world to a beauty start-up and then to balancing the two?
AMS: No degree, just A-levels and I started work at 18 in the civil service - DHSS as it was then - and stayed for 6 years. I was on the Fraud Squad. I left to go to work for Hammersmith and Fulham Council where I was in charge of admin for a local housing office. I spent a year doing that and in that time a friend of my brother, Glenda Bailey, got the job as launch editor of Marie Claire. She knew I was organised, professional, and desperate to work in fashion so she gave me a typing test and offered me the job of assistant to the Fashion and Beauty Directors. I totally lucked out as I went from a job that was incredibly boring to a career where I've never been bored.
I stayed at Marie Claire for two years, ending up as the sole person in the beauty department. Then in 1990, ELLE came calling and I worked there for six years. I left to go freelance which I did for a year and then I edited Harvey Nichols magazine for three years. I decided to go back to freelancing and instead ended up working on two magazines at the same time: Bare, edited by Ilse Crawford where I was Fashion and Beauty Director, and The Fashion edited by Sarah Mower where I was deputy. Then I did a month at InStyle as Features Editor, covering maternity leave and then Vogue called... I stayed there for 6 years and left to do more consultancy work.
Working on a magazine is brilliant but you end up giving away all your best ideas for free. I'd reached a point where I wanted to capitalise on my knowledge. Looking back, I've always taken chances and apart from the civil service job, done the opposite of what my parents have advised: with Marie Claire, I halved my salary and doubled my hours overnight, and the move to ELLE was a bit of a backward step in terms of responsibility but I needed to work on a magazine where I could learn from someone and be supervised in order to develop. It's weird because I never thought I'd work at Vogue - I felt as though I'd had the most brilliant time at ELLE in the early 90s and I'd sort of thought that was my big magazine job, so it was a surprise to be asked for a Vogue interview. Of course I said yes - who wouldn't? In a way, what I'm doing now with BeautyMART is putting my experience and knowledge into practice. As a journalist you get to discuss what's going on in the industry in terms of trends and products but as a retailer you're putting your money where your mouth is, so all that knowledge gets played out in the ultimate way for the consumer - you rate it, you write about it, you sell it, but that is oversimplifying it massively as every single factor is incredibly faceted and nuanced.