The Story of TanOrganic
When she put personal and professional setbacks behind her to appear on ‘Dragons’ Den’, Noelle O’Connor found that there are second acts for an entrepreneur. Meet the woman who rode the dizzying highs of the Celtic Tiger, came back to earth with a bang and then picked herself back up to the point where she is now looking at a multimillion-euro pay day. And all from some fake tan.
It takes a certain type of honesty and self-knowledge to admit that your success was a matter of luck rather than talent, but Noelle O’Connor is cheerfully adamant that the chain of beauty salons she set up during the Celtic Tiger owed little to brilliance, and everything to good timing. And perhaps she’s right. But being able to pick yourself up from failure and find, somehow, the energy and conviction to start again, to go back to the creative source and find another idea, and to make that idea work through sheer graft and determination — well, that is quite definitely not merely luck, or timing.
From Kildare, Noelle finished school with an excellent Leaving Cert, but didn’t go to university, partly because she came from the kind of background where such expectations simply weren’t part of the deal. She studied beauty therapy and opened a chain of salons. She got married young, had two sons — juggling childcare and work, as so many do — and coped with the death of her beloved mother, her inspiration in so much of what she has done. Then, just as Noelle was ready to sell out, for a hefty sum, and finally begin to explore life a little more and spend unfettered time with her children, the country plunged into a vicious recession, slamming the door on all of her hopes. For many, that would have been the end. Indeed, for a while, she thought it was. And yet, somehow, Noelle has managed to bring herself back, turning a point of no return into the start of a whole new story.
There is a kind of in-built self-deprecation to Noelle that is very endearing. She tells me that when she agreed to go on Dragons’ Den in 2010, her ambitions were really quite simple: “Not make a fool of myself, and get out without being totally humiliated.” She says this between fits of giggles that make her seem suddenly younger than her 40 years, and far less the consummate professional she appears during the rest of our conversation. The only other time I see her so consumed by laughter is when I ask her to tell me about her days as a model.
“A model?” Yes, I say, I understood you were a model once upon a time? “God, no,” she hoots with laughter. “You must have been wondering, ‘What kind of a model was she?’”
Actually, I have no doubt she could quite easily have followed that path if she’d chosen, but it was never for her. Noelle is an entrepreneur and a driven businesswoman. And as anyone who saw her on Dragons’ Den will recall, unshakeable under the kind of pressure that the Dragons excel at applying. She neither wilted nor appeared flustered, despite a two-hour-plus grilling, and finally walked away with a €50,000 investment from Gavin Duffy, for her TanOrganic — a natural, odourless, certified-organic, paraben-free and sunless tan product.
It’s an idea that was born out of Noelle’s naturally sharp entrepreneurial instincts, and the dawning realisation that her financial situation was so precarious, as a separated mother of two boys, with a rapidly declining business, that only something quite drastic was going to halt the rot. It’s a story that starts in the heady days of the Celtic Tiger when, as Noelle frankly points out, “You didn’t have to be a brilliant business person to make money.
“I trained as a skin-care therapist and set up my own salon, Ealu Spa Therapy, on a €2,000 Credit Union loan, in a cubicle behind a hairdressers’ in Newbridge,” Noelle says. “We moved at exactly the right time, to a bigger
premises, and were very successful. So we opened a second, a third and a fourth salon.” The plan was to reach 10 salons, and then to franchise the idea nationwide. And there was no reason on earth not to expect that plan to run smoothly. Ealu won awards, and was popular with hotels busily branching out into the spa business. It was all going so well that, “somewhere between the third and fourth salons”, Noelle started a distribution company too, specialising in natural skin-care ranges and mineral make-up. “We were the first to bring mineral make-up to Ireland,” she says proudly.
The business was booming, money was rolling in, and Noelle’s instinctive interest in natural, allergen-free products chimed nicely with a growing market for all things organic.
I started to cry. I said, “I’m not a business person. I just got lucky.” You didn’t have to be brilliant at all to run a business here during the Celtic Tiger
Opportunities were presenting themselves thick and fast, and Noelle was readily seizing them, even though, of course, there was a downside. For working mothers, there is always a downside, and by now Noelle had two boys, Cian and Conor. “Because I worked for myself, I could juggle times to an extent,” she says, “but still I found myself running, in a panic to collect them some days, or working in the evenings while they said, ‘Mammy, you promised . . .’”
By 2008, she had a buyer lined up for the salons, willing to pay €1.5m for the business she started on a shoestring, in a single cubicle. And, really, the story should have ended there. Noelle was looking forward to spending more time with her sons, perhaps becoming a mature student, and finally fulfilling her considerable academic potential. She had been a bright student, who did “all honours subjects, including honours maths”, but it had never even occurred to her to fill out a CAO form.
“For such an intelligent person, I’m sometimes so stupid,” Noelle says now. “Why didn’t I go to university? I don’t know. Except that no one else in my family had even done their Leaving Cert. It wasn’t expected of me. I don’t think my mother even knew the difference between pass and honours maths. None of us realised what a big deal that was.”
However, by 2008, Noelle’s world began slowly crumbling, both inside and out. She and her husband separated, in a mature and civilised fashion, sharing custody of their boys. “I was married at 24. Maybe I was too young, but I’ve no regrets,” she says. “I have two beautiful kids, and their dad is a good dad.” But even a civilised end to marriage is painful, and often costly. “I did spend a lot of money, but I wasn’t in the least worried. I thought, ‘I’ll make it back.’” Barely 10 days later, the banking system collapsed, and life as we had known it in this country came to an abrupt end. For Noelle, the impact happened slowly. First, the buyer for the salons “simply disappeared”, then she realised that the business was steadily eating into the considerable reserves of cash she had put away for a rainy day that turned out to be a hurricane.
“I thought, ‘Arghhh, I’m on my own, I have the kids, I’m mortgaged up to the hilt.’ There was a stage when I realised I didn’t have any time left,” she says. “I figured I had maybe two months. I was burning through cash, even though I wasn’t paying myself, so I was going through my own savings as well as the business cash reserves. Everything was becoming a stark reality and I started to think, ‘What kind of a job am I going to
look for? Who will employ me?’ Until then, failure wasn’t in my vocabulary, but it did start to enter it,” she laughs now, clearly glad to be out of that awful, anxious time.
With the unrelenting anxiety about where to turn to next, how much more to cut back, how many more staff to let go, came crippling self-doubt. “I found myself in New York,” Noelle explains. “I’m part of an international network of young entrepreneurs who did an entrepreneurial masters programme at Boston MIT together, and we still meet every year. Because I didn’t have a college degree or education, this organisation was massive for me. Even when
I couldn’t afford it, I kept those dues up. Well, we were in New York in 2009, and I just started to cry. I said, ‘I’m not a business person. I just got lucky.’ You didn’t have to be brilliant at all to run a business here during the Celtic Tiger. All you had to do was decide on an idea, and that was it. So there I was, weeping, saying, ‘Entrepreneurs can make something out of nothing. I’m not an entrepreneur, I just moved premises at the right time.’ I was having a huge crisis of confidence.”
‘My mother always said, “Never let lack of money stop you from doing anything in this world.” And she didn’t. She never had much, but she did everything’
It’s almost funny now, as she retells the tale, because an entrepreneur is exactly what Noelle is, but at the time, clearly, she believed that she was nothing of the sort.
Noelle’s choice was a stark one — give up, as so many others were doing? Try to land herself a half-way decent job somewhere? Or carry on along the path she had chosen? In the end, it was a catchphrase of her mother’s that kept her focused. “My mother was a great lady,” says Noelle, “and she knew how to enjoy life. She used to say, ‘Never let lack of money stop you from doing anything in this world.’ And she didn’t. She never had much, but she did everything she wanted. My father always worked for himself; he had a fuel business, pool tables, market stalls, whatever seemed fashionable. He was good at making money, and she managed it. Sometimes she would have it in abundance, and then other times she’d have nothing, but she always did the things she wanted.”
Her mother was clearly a huge influence on Noelle. “Because I had no sisters, she was my sister, my mother and my best friend. She was so positive, so popular, and really good with people. She didn’t worry about money. She wanted to live life. And yet she always seemed to manage, even though she might help others, or pay for a holiday, rather than put it by.”
Noelle was 28 when her mother died from a clot following a knee-replacement operation; a procedure that should have been routine. “I was devastated,” Noelle says now, quietly. “I had always worked hard, but I never worked as hard as I did after she died. I had to keep busy, so I threw myself into the business. That’s probably how I came to open so many salons and expand so quickly.”
She wouldn’t be the first to find in gruelling hard work, if not a cure for heartbreak, at least a way of keeping misery temporarily at bay. With her mother’s words to sustain her, Noelle determined to keep fighting. After all, as she says, “You can either decide to give up, or you can keep trying. They say most people give up just before they would have made it. That if you take that one extra step, it might be the last one.”
Ulimately, she began working on creating a sunless tan that would be fully, certifiably organic. In 2010, and even she is unsure how or why, she decided to give Dragons’ Den a go. “I was just happy that I had found something I could get excited about,” says Noelle. “But when they rang me back I got scared, I said, ‘Oh no, I don’t think I can do it. I’d rather stick my head in hot oil.’” She’s joking, but only half. “I don’t like having my photograph taken. I don’t like being on TV. I don’t like being the centre of attention at all. Although I’ve had to learn to like it with Gavin Duffy,” she laughs.
Like so many women, Noelle’s preference is to do the things she excels at quietly, without huge fuss. However, this time, she recognised the opportunities and allowed herself to be persuaded. And, in fact, her appearance on the show was measured, competent and relaxed. She delivered her presentation in clear tones, answering questions fluently and concisely.
“Let’s face it,” Noelle says, “Dragons’ Den is totally intimidating. It can go horribly wrong. People forget their figures, their numbers, and I can understand why. The grilling they give you is incredible.” Noelle prepared for her appearance as though she were taking a major exam. “I fell asleep at night reading research reports,” she says. “I never studied anything the way I did this. I learned everything — every market, every number, every figure. Luckily, I’m very good at numbers. I can remember a telephone number for 20 years.”
She also studied the Dragons, their different techniques, the little tell-tale signs that they’re interested, and so, early on in the marathon cross-examination — the longest session ever on the show, two hours and 40
minutes, edited down to just eight minutes — she spotted that Gavin Duffy was hooked. In fact, he offered her €50,000 for 45 per cent of the company. “I said to him afterwards, ‘As long as I have 45 per cent of you and your
input, I’m happy,’” she laughs. “And he has given that. Without him, I would have 100 per cent of something that wouldn’t be as big as the 55 per cent I have now. He’s been brilliant. He really believes in me and is more passionate about this than even I am.”
Once Gavin was on board, with his investment and expertise, it was all systems go for Noelle. “I didn’t take a salary for the first year and a half. Every penny went back into the business,” she says. “But I still had some savings, and the distribution business was paying me a small salary, so I was better off than other people. At least I was able to survive and cover my debts.”
Even so, there were days — many — when she didn’t know where to look to find enough belief to keep going. “There were times where I was so close to throwing in the towel. Where I would go to sleep, after crying, and think, ‘It’s all over. We can’t do this,’” Noelle admits. “Then I would get up in the morning and think, ‘I’m going to give it one more day.’ And, within a couple of days, we’d somehow turn it around.”
The first real high point came when TanOrganic became the first, and so far the only, fake tan to get its Ecocert, following a rigorous 18-month process, which means that it is now ready to hit the market in a big way. The interest across the world — Europe, the US, Scandinavia — is predictably huge, and Noelle is ready for the big time.
‘Without Gavin Duffy, I would have 100 per cent of something that wouldn’t be as big as the 55 per cent I have now. He’s been brilliant.’
“I think the thing Gavin liked about me is that I was all about the exit,” she says. “Some creators can be so passionate about their company that it’s like a baby. With my first beauty salon, I was like that. Then someone told me, ‘You’re taking it too personally. You build a business, and you sell it on, and do something else.’ When I realised, in September 2008, that I couldn’t give my salon business away, despite having had someone interested in buying it for €1.5m, I said to myself, ‘If I ever get the chance again, I’m not hanging around for any babies!’”
And she means it. Currently two years into what was conceived as a three-year plan, Noelle is contemplating her exit strategy. “We have companies looking already,” she tells me proudly. “Small, organic companies are fashionable at the moment, and three-to-five times revenue is what they are being bought for. If I get our revenue up to €5m, which is realistic, the company becomes worth €15-25m. And I’d get 55 per cent of that.”
It’s a dizzying prospect. Yet Noelle isn’t really dizzy at all, because she has always known exactly what she’s doing this for, and that, of course, is very grounding. “My boys’ future,” she says, “my belief in something I love, and something inside that never gives up, no matter what. Tomorrow is always another day. No matter how bad things get, there is always an opportunity to start afresh.” She sounds like a Kildare-born Scarlett O’Hara, all grit and feisty determination.
TanOrganic is the most successful Dragons Den company so far, notching up €1 Million in sales in the first 3 months of trading and growing from strength to strength ever since. It is now available both nationally and internationally and has a huge base of loyal customers who absolutely love the product. The line has since expanded with the introduction of OilArganic, and Argan based oil which moisturises the skin and facilitates a perfect fade to compliment the core product, TanOrganic.
Recently, Noelle launched the unique Tanning Oil, which like the other line up products is completely natural but is applied like any body oil, without the use of a mitt. The line up is completed with the TanErase exfoliating Mitt and Luxurious Tanning Glove complete with thumb, demonstrating once again Noelle’s innovative thinking.
Being the perfectionist she is, Noelle is determined to bring only 100% natural products to market. Her aim is to keep the entire product sentimentally friendly as well as natural and organic.