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Creating sustainable skincare from waste

We meet Anna Brightman who, along with co-founder and brother Will, used a Start Up Loan to launch their sustainable skincare range.

Anna Brightman

About UpCircle

From using discarded argan shells, recycling Arabica coffee grounds and recycling blueberry oil (who knew that was a thing?), UpCircle beauty is a brand with the circular economy at the heart of everything they do. Through innovation and fresh ideas, sibling co-founders Anna and Will Brightman have ensured their award-winning products are still competitively priced and high performing.

  • Founded in 2016

  • Received a £17,000 Start Up Loan


UpCircle Moisturiser

What would you tell yourself as a new founder just about to start on your journey?

I’ve come to believe that absorbing as much advice as possible at the start of my brand journey was in fact distracting, and only served to water down my ideas through fear of offending or minimising my audience. You risk being pulled in too many different directions at once if you take on too many opinions.

So, I would tell myself not to feel obliged to take onboard everyone’s advice. No one knows your business, your personality or your life like you do, so trust your instinct. There’s no harm in listening, but you don’t have to take everyone’s advice and run with it!

What was the biggest mistake you made as a founder?

I would probably say our original brand name. We were first called “Optiat.” It was an acronym for “One person’s trash is another’s treasure”. Was it relevant? Yes. Original? Yes. Hard to let go of for sentimental reasons? Yes. Easy to pronounce? No. Easy to spell? Apparently not. Some of our most common mispronunciations include Opitat, Opiat, Optate, Opiate, Optitat – there were lots!

It was also not so easy to communicate its hidden meaning. The name only became interesting once you’d learnt what it meant. It needed explaining, which made it too forgettable to anyone who didn’t understand it. We took our learnings from our original brand name and used them to come up with UpCircle. We felt UpCircle succinctly summed up our circular skincare mission – it requires no explanation AND it’s a lot easier to read. A play on upcycling, uplifting and circular. A significant improvement for sure!

What have been the biggest learnings on your startup journey?

That it’s important to continually refine your range. We look at the slowest sellers and either make improvements, or discontinue them in order to accommodate new launches. When we first started we had just one product in six scents, now, when we have over 45 core products, it does not make sense to have six scents of just one!

New product development is one of my favourite aspects of owning a beauty brand and it’s important that we have the budget and bandwidth to continue innovating with products we’ve not made before.

What's been the most exciting achievement for you as a founder?

It’s so hard to choose one! My most recent one would be that I’ve written a book which is launching in May – it’s a book full of DIY skin and home recipes inspired by the UpCircle concept and products from within our range.

Other honourable mentions include being listed in Forbes 30 Under 30, having three dragons fighting over us on Dragons’ Den or winning £250,000 for my idea for UpCircle’s first ever TV ad that will air on Sky channels this summer. These are all things that I can’t actually believe happened!

“You don’t have to take everyone’s advice and run with it!”

Anna Brightman ,co-founder of UpCircle

How has Virgin StartUp helped you to get your business to where it is today?

When we launched in April 2016 we were looking for some initial capital to help launch the business, so we applied and received a Virgin StartUp Loan. Around August 2017, Virgin contacted us to advise that they were running their inaugural CrowdBoost programme and asked if we were looking to raise capital via crowdfunding. CrowdBoost enabled us to raise capital via crowdfunding in an efficient and streamlined way that made the whole process a lot more pleasant than it might have been! This capital then enabled us to rebrand, implementing all the lessons that we learnt during our first 2 years, and relaunch the business. 

We have also featured on the Virgin Tribe App for Virgin employees, we’ve had an article written about us by Matt Needham regarding the CrowdBoost programme and Anna was featured in the Virgin Startup Female Founder Advent Calendar. More recently, Holly Branson interviewed us for her feature Business as Unusual with UpCircle Beauty and Richard Branson featured us on his Instagram story!

What has been the most valuable piece of advice you've got from Virgin StartUp?

To get going. Rather than spending months or years researching, it was only a couple of months before we had our products on shelves and we’re so glad it happened that way. In fact, a buyer from Urban Outfitters came across us at a trade show and wanted to launch our products before we even had proper branding! We sent them samples sealed up with super glue and paper tape – crazy! Often I think people spend so long researching and not actually “doing”. We’ve learnt the most from the mistakes we’ve made along the way. You can never be fully prepared, so just get going and make sure you constantly refine and improve your offering. We see our products as constantly evolving.

How do you get through tough times in your business?

My resilience is helped by my ability to find humour in any situation – when the world is crashing down what else can you do but laugh?! Then, just roll your sleeves up and get it sorted!

Has anything surprised you about running a startup? 

It’s the most varied job you could ever have. If I take a look back at the last 8 years I’ve done a bit of everything, from designing a task for an episode of The Apprentice, to writing a skincare recipe book, to hosting “make your own coffee scrub” workshops in cafes, to speaking at international business events. 

One of my mantras is to try to say yes to any opportunity that comes my way, and it’s for that reason that I’ve enjoyed such an eclectic career as a brand founder.

What's been your biggest business achievements to date?

50 seems to be a key figure for us at the moment – we’re currently selling in 50 countries, upcycling 50 by-product ingredients and have just over 50 awards.

In addition to that:

  • We remove more ocean-bound plastic than we create as a business

  • We rescue more than 100kg of by-product ingredients per day

  • In 2023, we launched into the hair care category with our Shampoo Crème and it was our most successful launch to date. This year we’ll be launching a deodorant, water-based peptide serum and colour cosmetics.

  • We became B Corp certified in 2022; UpCircle was awarded a score of 96.3, while most businesses achieve a median score of 50.9. This was an incredible achievement for us and gives weight to our words when we promise that UpCircle is a brand that puts the planet first.

Don’t just get inspired. Make it happen.

A Start Up Loan can help you get a new idea off the ground with funding, support and mentoring, or kickstart growth for an existing business. 5,000 started right here. Join them.

UpCircle and Virgin StartUp