BBC Dragons’ Den: The London brothers and sisters who began a sustainable skincare enterprise from their bed room

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William Brightman, a 25-year-old investment associate at a hedge fund, ordered a coffee on his way to work in 2016. As he watched the barista pat the old coffee grounds into the bin, he asked, “What happens to the used coffee? ?”

He learned the cafe had to pay the local council to send its used coffee grounds to landfill and that 500,000 tonnes of waste coffee grounds are produced in the UK every year. Here was a problem, Will thought, that needed an innovative solution.

He took the information to his sister, Anna, who was 22 and worked as an area manager for a supermarket chain. Anna had an idea. “At that point I said, ‘We should think about collecting coffee and turning it into skin care products, because I don’t know of a single other brand that does that.”

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Within a year, the siblings had done just that. Together they founded UpCircle, a skincare brand that, as the name suggests, recycles by-products (like coffee) from other industries. Each of their facial scrubs, for example, uses the equivalent of four espresso shots made from discarded coffee grounds from small chain and independent cafes.

“I would say that my brother is the true entrepreneur of the two of us, and I think that probably comes from the confidence of having a background in finance,” says Anna. “I’m definitely an idea woman, but the idea of ​​actually having a business is kind of scary.”

Will Brightman collects discarded coffee grounds for UpCircle’s skincare products

Will threw himself into the business almost immediately, quit his job, rented a “tiny little closet” in Hackney for his office, and began the research phase. Anna joined him a few months later, driven by an ongoing desire to start something of her own and wanting to “come home at the end of the day feeling like I’ve done something positive and made a difference”.

With two of them in the room, things got tight – and the rent, especially for a young company, was a liability. Anna and Will asked their parents if they could use one of their old bedrooms in their family home in Dulwich as an office while they settle in. “It was an absolute roller coaster for her to have her two oldest children in their mid and early 20s leave their high-paying, stable jobs to make it on their own. But they were never anything but absolutely supportive,” says Anna.

The research phase was followed by a period of non-stop consumer and trade fairs, which they used to get feedback on their idea and branding. This gave them their first trading partner, Urban Outfitters, who, as Anna puts it, “promoted us very, very quickly”.

Urban Outfitters was UpCircle’s first retail partner they met at the London Coffee Festival before they even had any packaging. “It was very unexpected and very cool,” says Anna.

At 22 and 25, says Anna, they had to prove themselves. “It’s definitely hard to start a business when you’re so young and I don’t think I would have had the confidence to do it on my own,” she explains.

They strived to say yes to every opportunity – and they had to get used to getting things wrong. As Anna puts it, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose; sometimes you embarrass yourself. But we have this approach of dusting you off and trying again. You can’t be embarrassed about starting your own business.”

In 2019, Anna and Will were invited to appear with their idea on Dragon’s Den and decided the prime-time TV commercial opportunity was too good to turn down. Despite comments about their branding (which they were already planning to change), their pitch was successful, earning them a joint investment from Tej Lalvani and Touker Suleyman after a bidding war with Peter Jones. At the end, Anna tells me that they turned down the offer: the dragons wanted too big a share of their business.

“What ends up on TV doesn’t correspond to reality at all,” says Anna. The tense ride up to the dragons in the lift – that is filmed again and again, for example. The tense elevator style is an illusion: the siblings had over three hours with the dragons. And, of course, the high-pressure two-minute decision-making process once they got their offers: they had three or four chances to renegotiate and plenty of time to think.

Anna and Will appeared in Dragon’s Den in 2019

Although Anna’s friends still make fun of her, the experience was a useful opportunity to get professional feedback. “Your friends and family will not pull [your idea] tearing it to pieces and tearing it apart the same way these dragons do,” she says, adding that it gave them confidence in their innovation. “A total of [I’m] definitely glad we did it…the fact that it was on national TV meant so many people were on our website when it aired and brought us customers who are following our journey to this day .

Today, UpCircle has come a long way. For one, it is no longer based at the Brightmans’ childhood home, with its headquarters in Westminster and premises in Camberwell. They now have 16 employees, sell 40 different products and release four to eight new products a year. They have warehouses in London, Birmingham, Ireland and America and sell their range all over the world.

It’s not just coffee that’s recycled these days. For example, Anna and Will process apricot kernels, argan peel and chamomile stalks (a by-product of tea) into cleansing balm, face cream and tonic.

The Brightmans celebrate UpCircle’s products being stocked at Sainsbury’s

“Our broader goal is that if we can prove that we can take a more circular approach in the beauty industry of all sectors, hopefully we can inspire beyond that and encourage people to take that approach in more areas of their lives,” she says Anna, summarizing UpCircle’s goals.

Of course, recycled waste isn’t an obvious combination for beauty products: you wouldn’t necessarily think of smearing used coffee grounds on your face. How do you deal with that? Mainly, says Anna, customers are encouraged by the fact that their products work. She points to her “endless stream of before and after pictures, incredible testimonials, and pretty flawless reviews.”

Communication is also important. She adds, “We try to keep our messages tangible and uplifting, with a sense that each of us as individuals – who aren’t perfect, just trying to get better – can really make a difference. I think that will encourage change.”

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Anna may credit her brother for being UpCircle’s business brains, but last year she won a 30 Under 30 award – Forbes annual celebration of young entrepreneurs. “To get something like Forbes, a financial publication, to give me an award in business is something I would never have thought of in a million years. It was a bit of a ‘pinch me’ moment.”

At 30, Will was no longer eligible for the award, “which made him angry because I got it,” laughs Anna.

In Dragon’s Den, Peter Jones asks when the siblings last fought. “This morning,” Will replies, to the chortle of the dragons. He adds, “I think that’s one of the beauties of working in a family: you’re down for five seconds and it’s all done very quickly.”

Anna agrees, mentioning that they’ve adjusted to their new business relationship, accommodating each other’s different needs (Anna, for example, will take on Will’s “dad duties,” but in return he won’t be able to bother her with working on Saturdays). “The most important thing that works for us is that we are the complete opposite. We both have a basic understanding that the business would only be half as good if we went it alone.”

Working with a sibling “really changes the nature of the relationship,” says Anna. “I think we have a pretty good momentum now.”

Running a business, Anna points out, means intervening where necessary, from manning the warehouse to picking up the coffee. “I would hate if people thought it was easy,” she says. It’s hard work – especially now that UpCircle is growing. “It’s full steam ahead and it’s a massive roller coaster ride that we’re always trying to keep up with.

“We’re thrilled that we’ve pulled through and that people love what we do – every day we have someone discovering us for the first time and that excitement is really the best part.”

Anna adds: “It really is the most exciting thing in the world.”

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