Anne Whelton chats to Connacht rugby star turned entrepreneur Michael Swift, about his beauty subscription service start-up, Powder Pocket, and juggling a professional sports career with starting a new business.
Q. First of all, can you tell us a little about your background – specifically in relation to business; is Powder Pocket your first foray into the business world?
A. I’ve always been interested in starting my own business and I suppose being involved with rugby, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of influential people who have help to guide me in the right direction.
About four years ago I joined forces with a friend of mine to set up a sports summer camp in Galway city. It’s given me a great insight into the many different aspects involved with starting up a business in Ireland that can be transferred to any SME start-up.
Q. What is Powder Pocket? From a subscriber’s point of view how does it work?
A. Powder Pocket is an online e-commerce beauty subscription service. Each month we send out five travel-size cosmetic products delivered in a chic presentation box direct to a subscribers chosen location.
Customers sign up via our website and tell us their individual beauty requirements. We then personalise each box to try and cater for their beauty needs, e.g. skin type, hair type etc. The contents of box each month is a total surprise which our customers like – they love the anticipation each month.
Q. You’ve had a long and distinguished rugby career, particularly with Connacht, which I must congratulate you on! However, Powder Pocket is obviously a very different beast. I’m sure many people ask why a beauty subscription business instead of a coaching job or what might be considered the ‘norm’ for a sports star such as yourself. What do you tell them?
A. Thank you, I am just starting into my 15th season with Connacht!
To be honest with you only a small percentage of retiring rugby players go into coaching roles. To date, some of my friends have started up all sorts of businesses ranging from web solutions to vintage photo booth hiring.
Q. Subscription services like Powder Pocket are certainly growing in popularity in the US and to a lesser extent in the UK, however it’s a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland. Where did you get the idea of the business and how did you get it off the ground?
A. I subscribe to the US magazine Inc. that is geared towards start-ups/case studies. A couple of years ago I read an article about how ‘discovery commerce’ was taking the States by storm and in particular the beauty industry so I thought why not introduce the concept to the beauty loving community in Ireland.
We carried out a lot of research through focus groups to see if the idea would work in Ireland and we found there to be a definite interest from our target market. After that I just started contacting Irish beauty brands to explain the concept and to show them how being included in such a box could help to raise their profile significantly.
Q. You founded Powder Pocket in 2012, did you encounter any naysayers or criticism in the early days, and if so, how did you deal with this?
A. No, thankfully family and friends were really supportive. In terms of business, people think it’s a fantastic idea and customer feedback has been extremely positive. We are just about to distribute our seventh Powder Pocket box.
Q. How do you source products for the monthly boxes? Do you have partnerships with any Irish companies?
A. We pride ourselves on being an Irish company and are delighted to have worked with a number of Irish brands to date.
For our market research we found that subscribers want a mix of Irish and international brands so our aim is to capture this every month in the Powder Pocket experience. Developing partnerships usually arise from meeting with various beauty brands and explaining who we are and what we are about.
We also have a number of brands who approach us directly when they hear about Powder Pocket as its an ideal platform to give them access to their female target market. Powder Pocket is always interested to hear from new and established brands who want to reach the beauty-loving community of Ireland.
Q. How have you found balancing your rugby career and running your own business?
A. At times it can be a challenge to find enough hours in the day!
Starting up a business is hard enough but this is exacerbated when you are still in full-time employment. Because of this, it took longer than I had hoped to get Powder Pocket off the ground but I suppose this is an issue faced by most start-up entrepreneurs.
Thankfully I have a great team in Powder Pocket, supported by a strong network of family and friends who support and help me.
Q. How do the next five years look for the subscription industry as a whole and Powder Pocket in particular? Do you think more competitors will enter the market?
A. Mail ordering services seem to be real growth areas as consumers in Ireland continue to order what they want, when they want, directly to their doorstep. It’s still a relatively new concept in Ireland but with e-commerce growing unbelievably fast, it’s an exciting industry to be occupying right now.
Q. In the shorter term, what are your plans for 2014?
A. The feedback to date from subscribers has really been fantastic; they really seem to love the Powder Pocket experience so we’d love to keep growing the numbers of subscribers. Also, we want to expand the customer’s experience of Powder Pocket and to make it as attractive as possible for beauty brands to come onboard. In this day and age, society responds to all things visual so producing video tutorials is something that we will be looking to introduce in the not so distant future.
Q. Do you have a leadership style? How do you motivate yourself and your staff?
A. Not that I’m aware off. I’ve always been pretty laid back in my approach to life, which is also reflected in my attitude to business.
Yes there is a time and a place to raise the pace and obviously deadlines have to be met but to always operate at a frantic pace is simply not sustainable as burnout and inefficiency is inevitable. Because of this I try to create a relaxed environment where everyone reads off the same hymn sheet, keeping each other motivated – it works for us.
Q. What is the best business advice you have been given or indeed learned over the past two years?
A. Never be shy to ask for favors from contacts. I’ve found that people appreciate being asked and thought off.
If you are interested in subscribing to Powder Pocket, the beauty-box monthly service is three tiered:
- €12 (plus P&P) for a monthly plan
- €60 (plus P&P) for a six month subscription, which includes one free box
- €120 (plus P&P) for a 12 month subscription, which includes two free boxes.
Gift subscriptions are also available.
More information on the service is available at powderpocket.com.