‘Entrepreneurship Often Requires Adapting to Rapid Change’ – Q&A with Tajinder Banwait MBE, Founder of Urban Apothecary

Check out our latest interview featuring Tajinder Banwait, the mastermind behind Urban Apothecary and Palette London. From scent to beauty, Tajinder’s entrepreneurial journey is a fascinating tale of determination and triumph…

Hi Tajinder, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Could you tell us a little about your career before your successful entrepreneurial ventures? 

My first job at age 16, which I loved, was working for Calvin Klein in a department store; it whet my fragrance appetite! After that, I worked in the fine fragrance department at House of Fraser. It wasn’t long before I was given the opportunity to become the first account manager for Fashion Fair Cosmetics, an organisation that was then, the only make-up provision for women of colour. I came from a large entrepreneurial family and knew that, ultimately, I would have my own business. However, I also wanted to learn as much as possible before starting it. 

At around age 22, I was completing a degree while working full-time. It was at L’Occitane that I found my passion for bath and body products and I became a national account manager after six months. Next, I went on my own to become a distributor. Eventually, I married and moved to Yorkshire. At that time, I worked for a fashion lifestyle brand, commuting to London from where we lived and was about to have my first child. I knew I had to make a decision. 

It was a risk, but a calculated one, in 2012, I started Urban Apothecary from my kitchen table. Before I even had a product in hand, I presented my plan to John Lewis and they bought me in. The brand was an immediate hit and we’ve gone from strength to strength ever since. 

What inspired you to launch Urban Apothecary and how does the way the business operates today, differ from your original idea

I often think back to those early days at home, surrounded by an abundance of aromatic botanicals spilling from apothecary-style bottles that I collected. Plus, I was always scribbling in my scent notebook, recording my olfactory moods and memories that later became candles, diffusers, room sprays, perfumes and body fragrances. Thus, the inspiration for launching my business was constantly around me. 

It might seem counter-intuitive, but I decided to launch my fragrance brand shortly after the birth of my first child. I would create, plan and even hold supplier meetings with the baby carrier on the table. This way, I had the best of both worlds, being with my newborn and growing the business I loved. By the time my son was out of the cot, my products were in 40 John Lewis stores and Bergdorf Goodman in New York. 

We no longer operate from my kitchen table! There’s a Leicestershire candle factory that I grew from scratch, training the artisans in hand-pouring the natural vegan candles myself, and a small head office team. My first candle collection had a different aesthetic from the one you see today; gradually, the design became more minimalist and closer to my style and preference. While the look has been refined, the original idea of combining my passion for perfume and aromas that stir the senses with an appreciation of stylish interior accessories remains.

What were your main challenges when launching and how did you overcome them?

Building a business comes with challenges and entrepreneurship often requires adapting to rapid change. You must expect obstacles, which can all be overcome if you hold your nerve, think outside the box and brainstorm solutions.

Hailing from an entrepreneurial family, at 16, I knew I would one day become my own boss. A career in the beauty industry was certainly not ‘the norm’ for Asian girls, so I knew I would have to work extra hard to achieve my dreams. My biggest challenge came very early in my career and required breaking the stereotype of what a beauty industry entrepreneur should look like. During my business journey, I became more and more visible, with press features and social media helping to increase my profile. I took every opportunity to share my brand story and with it my Asian heritage, so those following in my footsteps, or wishing to, could see it and therefore be it. I was setting myself up as an example of what can be achieved if you set your mind to it.

When I first started Urban Apothecary, I didn’t set out to be in manufacturing. This happened only after our candle manufacturer let me down at the busiest time of year. Then, I sat down and discussed the situation with my dad. Being an entrepreneur himself and having met and overcome so many different challenges over the years, I knew he could help me find a solution. He said…you know what, we can do this ourselves, it’s just a process which we need to understand, so let’s start our own factory. Overnight, we purchased a wax melting tank and took on our first factory space. My dad was 63 at the time and retired, but he didn’t hesitate to step up to help me and in doing so, he became our production manager. To this day, ten years later, he’s still running the Leicestershire candle factory alongside my mum, and he loves it!

No matter how much you plan, there will always be a curve ball. Losing space with a significant retailer was disappointing, frustrating and concerning at the same time when it happened…but it forced a brand refresh, improving the business and increasing sales. Knowing I needed to stop and re-evaluate the business, plus, as I was running my brand alone, wanting to connect with other entrepreneurs, I applied for the Goldman Sachs 10KSB programme. After completing it, I decided to re-brand and put everything in place before we answered the growing international interest. We sold through the original stock and in 2016, I introduced the aesthetic you see today, with a universal appeal and price points guaranteed to provoke a positive response. The timing was also right to reach an international audience. What came next was the beginning of our export journey. 

If you could return to the day you launched Urban Apothecary, what advice would you give yourself?

That’s easy to answer because it’s advice I often give to others, particularly to entrepreneurs starting from scratch and on their own. When you begin like this, you are the sales director, creative department, marketing manager and every other role in one, which has its positives as you learn and are involved in every aspect of your business. On the flip side, sometimes it feels like the world is on your shoulders, but it needn’t be so; there are many networks and experts willing to mentor that can help. So, the advice I would give myself is to reach out to fellow entrepreneurs and the business community from day one. 

In March 2023, you launched your second brand, Palette London. Could you tell us a little about the brand?

Just over a year ago, I launched my eco-beauty brand, Palette London, starting with nail paints that are vegan, halal accredited and formulated with up to 70% plant-based bio-sourced ingredients. The glass bottle is recyclable, the cap and brush stem are 100% post-industrial recycled plastic, and the soft nail brush is made entirely from castor bean oil. 

Palette London nail paints are one of the cleanest bio nail polishes. The collection features colours that give the effect of gel nails, without any damage and are easy to remove. Our planet-friendly approach is embedded in the formula to the bottle and beyond; it’s hard to beat. 

I wanted to create a collection for everyone, so Palette London is vegan and halal accredited, plus there are plenty of colours to choose from. With the act of creating more comes the need to be eco-responsible; that’s why we created plant-based formulas, chose recycled and recyclable packaging, and ensured as much circularity as possible. While it wasn’t easy, we delivered all of this within a strict budget, knowing many more could enjoy the products if we maintained an affordable price.

Just recently, as we celebrated Palette’s first birthday, we received not one but five accolades in this year’s Beauty Shortlist Awards that spotlights natural and sustainable brands. Our Pearl top coat was a winner in the category of Best Free-From Top Coat; all our top coats are exceptional products as they change the final effect of any colour you wear and customise your nails! In addition, Pixie Dust, Flamingo and Vermillion Poppy nail paints, plus our base coat, all won an Editor’s Choice award.

What differentiates Palette London varnishes and treatments from others on the market?

We are challenging the nail sector with colours that are also caring. Our innovative nail paint formulation contains our ‘Super 3’ natural ingredients, which are clinically proven to improve the nail’s health during wear. Arginine, an amino acid that helps prevent nail breakage, is blended with tea tree oil, known for its antioxidant and antiseptic properties and nurturing vitamin E.

The collection addresses the recent distrust arising from unhealthy, allergy-inducing gel colours. I’ve always struggled with nail health after gel manicures, so it was important that my formula, while having the glossy, long-lasting gel-effect finish, wasn’t damaging. In the end, we achieved more than that, because you can see that nails look better after colour than before!

We always go the extra mile. While others might be 5-free or 12-free, we make our nail paints without 21 ingredients typically used in nail polishes that are considered harmful to people and the environment. 

You have been awarded numerous accolades during your career, including an MBE for services to Business and the Beauty Industry in the 2024 New Year’s Honours List. How do you personally define success? Is it such accolades or is it money, freedom, influence, or perhaps, something else entirely?

I can define success as any day I’ve balanced my family life with running two businesses without a hitch! Success is about feeling energised and happy in life and business. I feel grateful that I am doing something I enjoy every day, surrounded by the people I love; it’s incredibly rewarding. 

That said, the accolades do play a part. When we were honoured with The Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the category of International Trade, it wasn’t just reflective of my work, but all the team’s efforts. We felt we had won it together and we celebrated together too. It’s really important, to take the time to enjoy these special moments that do feel like an extra reward for all the hard work. 

More recently, my MBE was a total shock. I had no idea I had been put forward, and I felt humbled to be recognised not only for building two brands but also for the work I do to encourage businesses to take their first steps to export, supporting women in business and championing ethnic minority businesses.

Your entrepreneurial journey is certainly inspiring. What advice would you give to a young person considering starting a business?

Hard work and resilience are some of the main ingredients required to run a successful business, plus the ability to adapt to change. You’ll always have challenges; while it may look rosy on the outside, a lot goes into building a business. You must be prepared to work hard until you can build a team. That legwork you do in the beginning – researching your market and working out a niche, will put you in good stead for the future. Additionally, networking is hugely important and don’t be afraid to take calculated risks.

You now own two successful brands. Are there any plans to launch a third?

Yes and no! I have so many plans for Urban Apothecary and Palette London that I’m committed to giving them my full attention right now. But this doesn’t mean there won’t be another brand in the future as I’m always thinking about new ideas.  

Finally, what book would you recommend all budding entrepreneurs read?

I recommend Who Moved My Cheese by Dr. Spencer Johnson. My manager gave this book to me 20 years ago, and I still remember the key message about how to deal with change in your work and life positively. It’s short, straightforward and thought-provoking.

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