Neve's BeesJulie Macken is ‘Deputy Queen Bee’ at Neve’s Bees, a 100% natural skincare brand made from their bees’ beeswax.

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I worked in healthcare and over-the-counter marketing for a long time. I joined the Unilever management graduate scheme after gaining a Chemistry degree. It was definitely fun to start with – by the age of 26, I was working with a million-pound advertising budget with a whole host of fab London agencies to call upon. From there, I moved into marketing training and consultancy. I lived in Japan for a bit, where there’s less emphasis on growth and more emphasis on stability, which made me re-evaluate things.

I had my “ah-ha” moment when I was running a workshop in São Paulo for the McCain marketing leads across South America. We were writing marketing plans to encourage South Americans to stop eating fresh potatoes and to start eating frozen potatoes packed in plastic – and I just realised that I didn’t believe in it anymore. In big industry, the main objective seemed to make money for the key shareholders, but I don’t think profits shouldn’t be the be all and end all.

At the same time, I was searching long and hard on the high street for natural skincare. Most skincare products, even those that state ‘all natural’ or whatever on the pack, are simply a mixture of water and oil. To mix these two substances, they need to pack contain them with emulsifiers and preservatives – neither of which are there for your skin’s benefit! I wanted a truly natural product, containing no water and therefore needing neither of these classes of additives but I just couldn’t find them anywhere on the high street but then I realised that I could make this stuff! I’ve worked in a lab and we already kept bees. We could create a company that actually did products that are good and give back.

Neve’s Bees is named after my daughter, Neve, who had the original idea. We use local beeswax in our products, blended with pure natural oils and butters and essential oils, we give money back to BBOWT (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust) and educate about bees on our social media. It’s about encouraging people to be themselves naturally. Nature can help you feel good about yourself and positive about the world.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Having the guts (or the stupidity) to just do it.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I don’t think you ever do know. The first time we sold our products was at the Whitney Festival of Food and Drink, where I was teaching beekeeping. We had a little basket of products and they sold out. We just thought: “Hey this is really cool – what have we got to lose?”

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
One, having a thick skin. Two, tenacity and the ability to just keep going when it gets tough. Three, just doing it. The products have to be excellent, but it doesn’t matter if the plan isn’t perfect – don’t let perfection be the enemy of ‘good enough’.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
It’s the thrill of when someone orders something, not because of the money but because someone is saying ‘I really like what you’re doing.’ It’s that validation.

I believe there are three things that you should look for in a job: companionship and community; day-to-day liking what you do; and aiming towards something that you believe is a good thing to do. For me, entrepreneurship fulfills this.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I’m part of a network of women entrepreneurs in Oxford who are all doing similar things. Everyone’s juggling many things but we’re all running purposeful businesses – businesses that we believe in, not just to make money, but to make a difference.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
It’s a community of people who are genuinely happy to admit that they did something wrong and who are generous with their support. They’ve helped me with both practical advice – grants and press groups et cetera – and with companionship.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Know who your audience is and listen to what they want. You can’t please everyone all the time, and there’s no point in flogging a dead horse. If something isn’t working, then you need to either rethink completely or tweak the product or the price point or your proposition.

How have you funded your ideas?
We haven’t gone down the ‘normal route’ of taking out a loan and following a business plan. Once we had our idea and done our market research (and checked the cosmetic safety assessments and packaging rules and taken out public liability insurance), we started going to fairs and putting our products in front of customers. We’ve been growing steadily and organically for about three years now.

People value skincare, so the margins we make on the products are good and enable us to pay our suppliers and partners well, donate to BBOWT and invest in our business. This ethos is from my background in corporate marketing: work out the customer need, work out what they will pay for that need, and work out how much it will cost – if there’s a positive difference, then you’re onto something.

We also got one of the COVID grants to buy some machinery which was a well needed boost in the ‘Covid Summer’.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
We entered and won the Blenheim Startup Competition in 2018. The prize was a listing in their shop and a stall at their Christmas market. It definitely took us to the next level; it taught us how to run a high profile stall and put us in front of a more critical audience.

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
I probably haven’t made enough of the resources available in Oxfordshire, but I really value the women’s network that I’m part of. I’m also a trustee of BBOWT, which is really motivating. Getting in a community of like-minded people is a good thing.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Yes and no. I have found that I have more of a disadvantage when I mention my background in marketing. There’s an assumption that I must be good at designs and choosing wallpaper colours… I did an MBA and made it very prominent on my business card to overcome some of these initial negative perceptions and expectations!

Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Be proud of what you do, and have a way of introducing yourself that clearly conveys how you want people to perceive you.

Any last words of advice?
You’re only on the planet once. What you had a passion for doing when you were younger is maybe what you should be doing now. I grew up in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere in Somerset and used to spend my days outside, climbing trees, playing in the stream and making perfumes out of petals. Now it’s come full circle and I’m making beautiful smelling, natural lotions and potions again.

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