It takes guts to leave a well-paid job in the corporate world to start up your own business while everyone around you tells you you’re throwing your career and life away.
But that’s exactly what 29-year-old Elinor Davies-Farn did and now, after investing just £100 into her own hair care business which she started at her kitchen table, she’s earning as much as she was before, if not more.
Even more importantly Elinor is her own boss and has just flown to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to expand Olew, which is the Welsh word for oil, further.
Olew was born out of a frustration at the lack of natural hair care products available for Elinor’s own curly hair which she had always tried to tame since she was a schoolgirl in Aberystwyth where she was brought up.
“I used to straighten my hair twice a day,” said Elinor over a video link from the UAE.
“I used to hate my natural curls. Looking back, I had no confidence growing up because I was so obsessed with my hair being straight. I never thought it looked pretty.”
Then one day during a month-long tour of Spain during the university summer holidays in 2012, she ditched the straighteners. It was a revelation. She said: “I thought to myself what have I been doing all my life? I’m never doing this again.”
But her hair was damaged from years of treatments and so she started mixing up her own oil and treatments, using coconut oil, in her own kitchen.
Elinor followed a typical path from school to university, where she studied public relations, before landing a job with BMW Mini in London. She was living a life every graduate dreamed of; selling cars in London to Premiership footballers and working her way up the corporate ladder.
Yet Elinor wasn’t really truly happy.
“I had this realisation and asked: ‘What am I doing with my life?’,” she said.
“I was hardly ever seeing my friends because I was working constantly, even the weekends, and I looked at how much I was earning against the hours I was doing and I thought it’s not really that good. I was breaking my back for another business whereas I knew if I did this for myself, it would be different.”
The seed of an idea was planted in her mind but it wasn’t until a few months further down the line that she jumped ship.
“A colleague saw me with my hair scraped back into a plait one day and said: ‘Oh that looks so much more professional, you should do that more often’,” Elinor said.
“And I thought how dare you, how dare you judge my professionalism based on my hair.”
Friends had already been asking what she used on her hair and she had been handing out bottles of her homemade products for a few years. In 2018 she decided to see if she could make a business out of it.
“When I handed in my notice, everyone thought I was mad,” Elinor said.
“They said I was giving up a good career, a nice car and that I knew nothing about hair.” But having read a manual called The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau, Elinor, who had just turned 27, was convinced.
“The theory was just to use £100 to start a business, which I used to buy ingredients, some bottles and to build a rubbish website,” she said.
“The logo was something I painted myself using material I had around the house and just took a picture of it and sent it to be printed.”
She printed the list of ingredients out on her own printer and stuck the labels on by hand. It was all a bit rudimentary she admitted and is incredulous that people sent her orders over a very basic Paypal link. But they did so, slowly at first and then in their droves.
“It was like an adventure,” she added. Her tiny flat in London was rammed with boxes which Elinor and her partner would eat supper off.
“They served as my motivation to work harder as they were a reminder of my dreams and what I have always wanted to do, which is run my own business.”
Things have changed massively since those early days. She has a slick new website, she has gained a business partner – a certified chemist with over 25 years of experience in the cosmetic industry – to help make and bottle the products and now she’s setting up a hub in the Middle East to cope with demand.
But one thing hasn’t changed: the original recipe, which uses fractionated coconut as its base, is identical to the first attempts in her kitchen. Elinor ensures that each ingredient has been carefully selected to be naturally hydrating for curly hair but also environmentally friendly too. The Olew range now includes hair gel, hair cream, shampoo and conditioner as well as the original oil.
Two years since Olew came into being and just as the UK entered lockdown, the business took off.
“I’m all about no fuss hair, imperfectly perfect curls, a quick routine and low maintenance,” said Elinor.
“I wanted to push that because there’s so much more to life than caring about your hair. That really resonated once Covid hit as people changed how they thought about everything, including their hair, and their priorities changed.
“Sales tripled every month which was crazy and I just couldn’t keep up. I was getting up at 5am and not getting to bed until 1am just packing and keeping up with demand.”
Over the past year, turnover has tripled month on month earning her a place in the 35 Under 35 top young business women in Wales. Her original £100 has grown to a £160,000 turnover this year and by next year she’s hoping to hit nearly a quarter of a million pounds.
“It was only my partner who was there when I was having self-doubts and thinking what have I done,” said Elinor.
“The first two years, you don’t make anything to take home. I hardly had enough money and I had to be really disciplined not to take money out. It was really hard because you’re working so incredibly hard and you can’t even go out for food with your friends.
“It was only June last year that I started taking a wage. I can now give myself a wage which is similar to what I was earning before in London. Every pay day I have to pay myself and it still feels strange.”
But it’s less about the money and more about having the freedom to do what she wants: “You’re in control of your own agenda, because I hate being told what to do,” she said.
You can now get all of the need-to-know news sent straight to your inbox by signing up for our free Gist Vile newsletter.
It takes just seconds to subscribe – simply click here, enter your email address and follow the instructions.
Ironically, it is the Welsh heritage behind Olew’s products that is behind her success abroad, she says.
“I think its success goes back to representation of Welshness,” she said.
“I think we’re quite marginalised as a culture really. Outside of Wales no one really knows that much about Wales so to have the Welsh name makes me so happy that loads of people who’ve heard about Olew know a Welsh name.
“But also, I find representation is massive, so I represent the hijab on my feed saying you still have amazing hair. So understanding representation and how it works, whether that be your heritage or your hair type, has helped as well.
“Not many hair brands represent people with headscarves on. Since being here I’ve noticed it’s mainly Western ideals of beauty being advertised. That was one thing I wanted to counter even when I was growing up, what the expectation of beauty was.
“I really want to represent ever single woman.”
For the next six months, Elinor will be based mainly in the Middle East and developing her market in Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Her next big challenge is to learn to delegate.
“I’ve come to the realisation that you can’t do everything on your own,” she said
“At the end of last year, I realised I needed help. Setting up was easier than the stage where I am now, which is expanding. You need other people and I’m still getting to grips with that.”
But it’s an exciting stage for the fledgling business too and Elinor certainly doesn’t miss the outrageous demands from footballers in her former career. And she relishes proving the naysayers and the doubters wrong.
“It’s determination,” she said about what drives her. “When someone says things – and I’ve had a lot of people say some silly things like what are you doing throwing your life away – I always want to prove them wrong.
“It’s just having faith. I always have that confidence inside. If you know you can work hard, anything’s possible.”