Annabel Palmer talks to Simon Duffy, founder of male beauty range Bulldog, who is trying to take on the big brands
SALES of men’s skincare products in South Korea reached $565m (£374m) in 2012. Small wonder, therefore, that Simon Duffy – co-founder of men’s skincare brand Bulldog – decided to take his business into the market last year.
With 90 per cent of women using moisturiser three times a week, but only 20 per cent of men doing the same, the big beauty brands – like Gillette, Nivea and Vaseline – have struggled to gain traction with a male audience.
But six years ago, Duffy and co-founder Rhodri Ferrier thought they had found the solution. They were certain that a natural skincare range, exclusively for men rather than stretched across from a well-known female brand like L’Oreal, would penetrate the market. Bulldog, named after a “man’s best friend,” now has products listed in over 10,000 stores across 13 countries.
Even in the era of the metrosexual male, however, men have yet to adopt skincare in swathes. “But we are seeing many more younger shoppers who are comfortable with multi-product daily regimes buying our range, and we’re confident the industry will explode in the next few years,” Duffy says.
The duo were living in New York when the idea struck them in 2006. Duffy had worked for Saatchi & Saatchi before becoming a founding member of innovation consultancy Fahrenheit 212 in 2005. While that business counted the likes of Coca-Cola and Diageo on its books, the experience didn’t prepare Duffy for the next stage in his career. “Having started up before, I had some idea of the things to think about. But in an entirely new industry, it was a steep learning curve.” Ferrier, meanwhile, was an investment banker at UBS: well-equipped to manage the books, but by no means a beauty expert.
Duffy identifies three key challenges his company has faced in its first two years. The first was formulating the product – a big obstacle if you have no prior experience. He explains that the skincare industry has been commoditised, with big brands creating “virtually identical products, simply by using a standard formula, adding some fragrance, colour, and maybe one ingredient for a claim”.
But he and Ferrier wanted a natural formula, avoiding ingredients, like parabens, that had been shrouded in controversy in the past. This was a far lengthier, and more costly, process – and one that involved hiring a fragrance expert and self-professed “nose”.
The second challenge was getting his product onto shelves across the country. “It is very difficult to make a consumer product startup work,” he says. “It is an industry littered with people who have tried and failed. And it is a very expensive process, because it relies on marketing to get it off the ground.” But it was online comedy TV show Soapbox, fronted by Peep Show’s David Mitchell, that helped the business take on the industry. Soapbox (a series of short monologues) is a partnership between Bulldog, the comedian, and a production company – Channel Flip. It’s a thoroughly modern approach to attracting a modern audience. And it was a clever move that saw Bulldog’s profile skyrocket and its product appeal to British men, hitherto catered to by uninspiring 90ft billboards featuring sports stars or scantily-clad male models.
Sainsbury’s was Bulldog’s first partner, launching the product nationwide in July 2007. It was the first supermarket that agreed the idea could work. Which is lucky, considering an idea was all Duffy and Ferrier had. “At that point, we were working from Rhodri’s spare bedroom, we didn’t have any product, and we were still just the conceptual stage.” Bulldog now also counts Tesco, Waitrose and Boots as partners.
The third challenge Duffy mentions is raising money. Duffy and Ferrier combined their life savings of £37,000, and initially relied on credit card debt and the good nature of friends. But within its first year, the duo raised £1.2m from 18 different investors. Duffy puts their success down to a “good concept and lucky timing”. It was just months before the Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the “easy money” disappeared.
I ask Duffy what advice he would give to future entrepreneurs. “When I created Bulldog, I was 29. I wish I had started earlier.” It’s a sentiment shared by many, a resounding message that if you have a good idea, don’t sit on it. “Get out there and get doing it,” he says.
CV SIMON DUFFY
Company name: Bulldog Skincare for Men
Number of staff: 5
Company turnover: £6m
Job title: Co-Founder
Born: Harrow, London
Lives: Maida Vale, London
Studied: History at Oxford University
Drinking: Several coffees every morning
Reading: Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin
Favourite business book: Eating the Big Fish, by Adam Morgan
First ambition: To play striker for Tottenham Hotspurs
Heroes: Ole Kirk Christiansen, the inventor of Lego. He first inspired me to be creative.
Talents: Bad karaoke
Awards: HSBC Start Up Star Award 2008, Marketing Week Engage Award 2011