We caught up with the respected journalist and co-founder of BeautyMART to find out about the ins and outs of her job and her top career advice
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.
GTG: What motivates you and what would you say are the most exciting aspects of your jobs?
AMS: I'm at my happiest when I'm discussing ideas - how to do something creatively. I could do that all day. I can also talk endlessly about all aspects of beauty and connected ideas, so I love panel discussions where you get to meet other interesting people and debate ideas. It's just the way my mind works. I enjoy being part of the conversation and moving it along, in terms of beauty, from researching and writing analytical features to where retail needs to be heading to being relevant to a modern consumer. I love discovering new products, bringing them to market and seeing that other people can get as excited about them as we can.
GTG: How do you organise yourself?
AMS: With good intentions but then other things and people always cut into that and it all falls apart. I keep a paper diary - Smythson's Mayfair diary with a week to view. I prefer writing things down to a digital diary - I can remember what my week looks like in my diary but I cannot remember a digital image of dates and things - it's a visual memory thing, I guess.
I have a notebook to the right of my laptop for notes and to-do lists. I use a separate hard-backed A5 Moleskine lined notebook for backstage interviews, features interviews and notes. I like drawers, filing and general tidiness. I always use a Papermate propelling pencil and Pilot Hi-Tecpoint pen - it's a control thing...I can only concentrate properly on one thing at a time and I prefer to work undisturbed, but that never happens in the BeautyMART office so I wear earplugs and pretend not to hear.
GTG: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to do what you do or make a career change?
AMS: It's not easy as it's a culmination of 25 years in the industry coupled with my particular skills. I think anyone wanting to do what I do will already have a certain amount of experience that has led them to want to move on. For anyone who fancies a career change, I say do it - you'll only regret it if you don't and you can always go back to what you were doing before if things don't work out.
GTG: How do you achieve a work-life balance?
AMS: Badly! Having your own business means you are constantly on it - you have to be, it's a plate-spinning job, especially if you're small and in the early stages as BeautyMART is. I have one phone, one email address and everything blurs together - work tips into my social life, my social life is sometimes with work colleagues. But it's ok and probably how I like it.
My one concession to reality is that I spend a week a month in Cornwall where my boyfriend lives and we try to have a so-called normal existence together. He is very, very, very understanding and supportive. Most men would have chucked me by now!
GTG: What 3 things do you do to maintain energy, focus and motivation throughout the day?
AMS: It's so obvious but sleep - I can't manage on less than 8 hours and being in bed by 10.30/11pm is a priority. I read every night in bed until I get drowsy to make a division between work and sleep. I always have several books on-the-go and love reading as an escape from reality. I'm currently reading Ian McKeown's latest The Children Act - at his discomforting best; The Collected Works of Ivan Turgenev - hilarious characterisations; and a favourite re-read Gaudy Night, a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers, the brilliant detective novelist.
For exercise, I do high intensity training with a personal trainer twice a week and that mindless physical exhaustion really helps. I used to walk the dog mornings, lunchtimes and evenings but she died a few weeks ago and I am struggling to deal with the change of routine and the gap that is left. I don't want to sit at my desk all day, yet I don't fancy walking without her, but I know that will change. I realise that she kept me energised and just the simple fact of her needing looking after was an important motivation that is no longer there. I'm not ready for another dog yet, but I will be. I've found myself going out much more in the evenings and staying out later and that's definitely because I don't need to get home to the dog. Perhaps her departure has encouraged me to be more sociable?
Re food, I'm a terrible chocaholic. I eat well and healthily generally, but I know that occasionally I have to rein things in, not least for the waistline, especially when we're really busy and stressed so I'll sign up to a food delivery from Pure Package so that I don't have to think about shopping or cooking for a week. I'm not big on diets, per se, but I am big on applying some self-control. I don't drink alcohol or coffee and have herbal of decaffeinated tea, so I figure my vices are fairly manageable.