How we started an eco-friendly, plant-based cleaning product brand that sold out in only three months!

Annie and Tony McWilliam
Founded: November 2019
No of employees: 0
Location: UK

Brit Annie and Aussie Tony are the brains behind Colt and Willow, a plant-based, eco-friendly cleaning product brand. Concerned about the harsh chemicals and irritants in traditional cleaning products, they were inspired to create the range as a kinder, gentler alternative to conventional cleaning items. 

As Covid-19 caused consumers to stockpile cleaning products, traffic to the brand's website rapidly grew. The company is relatively new, but Instagram influencers and YouTube vloggers have already significantly impacted the brand's popularity. So much so, that they sold out of all products in the first three months! It's great to see this up-and-coming brand beginning to gain traction, so we chat to them to find out more.

Who are you and what brand did you start?

Hi there, we are a half-English, half-Aussie family. Annie is from Dorset in the UK, and Tony is from Melbourne, Australia. Together we are the co-founders of Colt and Willow - a plant-based, eco-friendly cleaning product brand that looks good, does good, and smells amazing! 

As a duo, we each bring different strengths to the business. Tony has a design background, and I used to be a personal chef, meaning I have spent many years washing up dishes and seeing my hands fall to pieces from all the irritants. 

We combined these attributes to create Colt and Willow to deliver a quality, conscious, plant-based eco-friendly cleaning brand to the market.

How did you come up with the idea, brand name and logo for Colt & Willow?

Having children changed the way we viewed everything – from our home to the world we live in. It became essential to make sure our house was safe for them to crawl, lick, and touch! We child-proofed the house and cooked them great food (which mainly ended up on the floor!), but there was one area that took us a while to sort – the cupboard under the sink. 

I remember clearing out the cupboard under the sink when my youngest had just learned she could open all the doors, and as I took everything out, I realized we didn't want or need all these harsh chemicals in our home. That is when I started tinkering with making my own cleaning products. Colt and Willow grew from there. 

When it comes to our brand name – well, it's a rather long story that started over breakfast in Shoreditch London almost seven years ago. My brother and I are very tall, and one morning over breakfast, we were speaking about how much we hated the traditional names given to tall clothing brands. 

At the time, I had the grand idea to start our own company targeting this niche. While the business itself never happened, the name we created lived on. Then, while brainstorming names for this new business, we decided to utilize that name - and so Colt & Willow was officially born.

Describe the process of launching Colt & Willow?

It took almost two years from the time we said, "ok, let's do this," which from memory was over a coffee sitting in the Melbourne sunshine, to the time we launched. 

The first hurdle we had was finding a manufacturer that was willing to work with or even talk to us. It took about six months of searching before we found the most brilliant family-run manufacturers who loved our idea and were on board straight away.

The second was finding packaging people who would work with our tiny order size. Most companies have massive minimums, but we just wanted to make a little bit to see if our idea worked. We got there in the end, although we are still always wanting to tweak things.

In the beginning, we mainly used Instagram to promote the brand. We also had the helpful support of a wonderful friend who worked in PR in the UK, who helped us land several magazine features. 

One memorable morning was when I woke up to A LOT of orders – more than we had ever had, and I had no idea why! It took me a while to find out what had happened, but we had been discovered by the lovely influencer 'Inthefrow,' and she had talked about us both on her Instagram and YouTube channel. Both combined to help us get noticed outside of our core network. If we had tried to orchestrate this type of promotion ourselves, I have no doubt it would have cost us thousands. This was an example moment of a "WOW... we just got very lucky" type of feeling!

The first lockdown in the UK had a positive impact on our traffic to the website. People were home, and cleaning was a hot topic, but the cleaning products on the supermarket shelves were all sold out, so people looked for alternatives. Luckily, many of them found us.

Since launch, what has worked best to attract and retain customers?

Without a doubt, having influencers talking about us on Instagram has had a huge impact. However, we would have to say that the most significant impact has come from YouTube vloggers talking, using, and profiling our products.

Initially, we did not know much about the impact of vloggers, but we have been impressed by the results from the exposure, and it is an area we now focus on.

With regards to business growth, how have things changed from a digital, revenue, customer and sales perspective?

As a brand, we are still very much in the early stages, given we only launched in November 2019. We still have work to do to learn about our audience, their buying habits, the market, and in turn, fine-tune our range. For example, it came as a surprise when we sold out of all products in the first three months! As a result, we had about six weeks when we didn’t have any stock to sell while new batches of products were being made. However, like everything, that was a lesson for us and one we will learn and grow from.

Regarding COVID19 and the experience through the pandemic, that impacted our supply chains for parts (bottles, pumps, triggers), which was tough, but also educational from a process standpoint.

Today, we’re still very much focused on selling directly to the customer and refining that process. We have a long term strategy mapped out in terms of when we’ll start approaching retailers, other countries, etc, as well as new products. Still, the key right now is to focus on establishing ourselves, build our reputation, make sure we can handle where we are at, and break-even. At that point, we can consider the next steps.

With regards to managing change through crises, such as Covid-19, can you talk us through your experience as a business owner and what you’ve learnt.

As the Covid19 pandemic hit, we had only really just begun and didn't have much experience running the business without it. This could prove an advantage when life returns to normal.

Throughout Covid, we have been lucky as we have a great PR company that is always pushing us, especially when lockdowns have been announced. This focus worked out well for us as we sold out, which was both brilliant and daunting as it took some time to get back up and running again with new stock. For example, triggers and pumps were like gold dust as every shop,
restaurant, and business suddenly needed hand sanitizers. The lead times for them were months and still is. We sold out in May, and it was not until September that we could get our products back in stock.

While these periods have been stressful as momentum was lost, they were also massive learning curves for us as business owners, which is important to remember.

How is the business doing today and what does the future look like?

We are doing well and growing. The future at the moment feels unknown for so many reasons, but we are remaining focused. We are currently developing new products and have plans to change some major things with our product range so that we can be more even more environmentally friendly and planet conscious.

What’s been the biggest learning experience since starting your own brand?

It is all-consuming! Even when you are trying to sleep, ideas seem to come up! And the highs are really high, and the lows are super low.  The devil is in the details!

What are your top 3 tips on how to setup an Ecom store for success?

1) I would ask if the product you are making really solves a problem or not - if it does, make sure that you can communicate that to your target customer – and make sure you know as much as possible as to whom your target customer is. It will change as you sell and learn about your market, but you need to know who your product is aimed at, how it benefits them, and work out a strategy to communicate and sell to them first and foremost. Digital is just one option.

2) Get everything behind the scenes working smoothly first – a 3PL partner for the fulfillment, an accountant, a good web developer, and a strong content and paid social (digital advertising) professional. They can be freelancers; it doesn’t need to be an agency – but you need all this to be working properly to focus on the day to day issues of growing a business and working to your strengths. A founder has to learn little bits of everything, but let that be an asset, not a roadblock. 

3) There is a great saying that “A business always works in Excel.” - everything you think you know and budget for will go wrong, change, be delayed, get redirected. Make sure you have someone there (and a bit of reserve cash beyond what you have budgeted for), so you can step back, deal with the issues that arise, and keep going. Business success is about perseverance more than anything.

What are some of your favorite online business tools you use to run Colt & Willow?

Later, for Instagram and Facebook planning. Dropbox makes life so easy for Tony and I to work together.

We use an excellent online bank account, which is fantastic. It’s in the UK called Coconut, and it makes everything very simple.

TypeTool Name
Email MarketingMailchimp
AnalyticsGoogle Analytics
PaymentsPaypal, Apple Pay, Stripe
AdvertisingFacebook, Google Ads
Social Media ToolsLater
SalesPayPal, Stripe
DesignLuckily, Tony is a design genius and can do everything we need !

See what tools and platforms other founders are using.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts or other educational resources?

I’ll be honest; I am a huge Mia Freedman fan (she is like my guru ever since I did the Lady Startup course!), and I love listening to her podcasts. However, I try not to listen to work-related podcasts that often as I usually listen to them when I go for a walk, and it is my brain break!

Who have been the most influential people for you during this business journey?

Each other. As co-founders, you lean on each other, so we are each other's biggest support.

Any other advice you’d like to share with other aspiring entrepreneurs?

I think the biggest thing would be to make sure you take time for yourself, go for a walk and step away from the computer! Good ideas come when your brain has time to process, and it can’t do that in front of a screen.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now or open to new investors?

We’re not looking to hire at the moment, but we will potentially be open to new investment in the coming year.

Where can we go to learn more about your current offers/promotions/programs?

Please check out our website for our latest promotions and offers

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