British Bajans: Entrepreneur Debbie Spink
If ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, then businesswoman Deborah Spink is a prime example of this saying in action, after she decided to start her own natural skincare company following years of growing frustration at not being able to find the right products to treat her eczema.
Debbie, who is a former Barbadian athlete, established Kokomelt in 2014 and since then it’s won a prestigious ‘FreeFrom’ skincare award, while becoming a trusted brand, with a growing customer base.
Debbie, who is based in the UK, spoke to Yello about her success, her plans for the future, and what she misses about her island home.
What was the motivation behind ‘Kokomelt’?
I started it due to the fact that I was having constant problems with my skin especially eczema on my hands. I found it so frustrating, constantly buying different products to try and not having any success, so I decided to make my own stuff.
I wanted to use the bare minimum of ingredients, and keep it simple, because when I read up on a lot of the stuff in skin care I realised we don’t need half of the ingredients in them.
In the UK, a cosmetic chemist certifies everything which makes starting a business a viable option, because you just work on your recipes and they let you know whether the ingredients and the quantities are safe, and whether it can be manufactured.
I kept it plant based, which worked for me, and I thought ‘if it works for me it’ll probably work for other people’.
Was there a lot of initial trial and error?
Yes, in fact there’s still trial and error when I’m looking to invent new products. But in the initial stages, I spent about seven or eight months trying different ingredients and recipes and testing the products long enough to see if it kept working.
What was the hardest part of starting the business?
I think in the beginning you are kind of lost because you have this idea but you don’t know how to focus and realise it. I was investing my own money and I didn’t want to waste it but you have to go through that at the start. I work a lot better now rather than when I was trying to force some things.
Who are your typical clients?
Most of my clients are men in their late 20s to mid 40s, or women who are buying for men, so I focus on the men’s range partially because they have less to choose from, and in most shops their cosmetic section is usually quite small.
I also have a lot of women who do strong women competitions and athletes who use it and it’s spreading amongst the fitness world.
I’m trying to bring more women in, but Kokomelt is not supposed to be a pretty or fussy brand. The idea is that you train, you love sport, and afterwards you have this great tin of stuff that works and that’s what it’s about.
I’m only stocked in the UK but it’s available online so I have customers in the United States and Europe. I was in talks on an off with a distributor in Barbados, but there are issues with the testing for imports and that’s the only reason it’s not available there at the moment.
How is your line different from other natural brands?
I’m going for more of a commercial look rather than just placing Kokomelt in the natural product market.
I want people to understand that it’s natural but to choose it because it’s nicely designed, looks different, and stands out from the usual products so it’s earthy and a balance between the commercial and natural look.
The sport and fitness element is also key and my biggest line is the post-gym kit. People who train and go to the gym just love the whole concept of using a hearty tin of scrub, rather than carrying around a fussy glass jar.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to keep the brand growing so at the moment I’m trying to get more stockists in the UK and spread more into Europe. I love small boutiques as opposed to big stores where the product gets lost, and the customer doesn’t get the chance to spend time on what they want because they’re overwhelmed by the variety.
The brand is vegan and I want to enter awards for being environmentally friendly because that’s also an aspect I’m keen on.
I’d like to offer a full consultancy service so clients can get more advice on their skin issues and get custom made products.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
Give it your all, maybe not all of your pennies, but all of your heart. Do lots of research and reading and make sure you’re getting the best deals and prices.
Definitely try to be around and speak to other people who have a business. Get a mentor! I have a mentor who throw questions at me that I haven’t thought of, and don’t always want to answer, who ruffles my feathers, but is very supportive.
Make sure you have an overall vision and every step you take keeps you moving forward in that direction.
You moved to the UK when you were 18 to study, what was that like?
It was a bit of a culture shock after 18 years of pure sunshine but being at university was a good experience. I have dual citizenship so I stayed after studying and worked and then I got a Masters and spent years freelancing in film and theatre as a set builder.
I was still having skin problems though, so I went to war on that, and it’s an ongoing process which I’m still working on.
What do you miss about Barbados?
I love the warmth of the people back home and it’s a completely different culture to the UK, especially in London, which is such a rushed, fast paced city where you’re part of the rat race.
I miss the outdoor culture and lifestyle.
I try to get back as much as possible to see family but obviously it’s kind of difficult to travel because of the business.
What is your approach to life?
Live dangerously! I live pretty much on the edge because to be an entrepreneur you have to be brave, and a risk taker, especially if you want to see progress.
Be kind to others, because it’ll always come back around, and we always benefit from helping each other.
Visit the Kokomelt website for products and more information.