In the early 1990s Deborah Mitchell, she was selling beauty treatments from a converted downstairs toilet at the Holiday Inn, in Telford.
Today, she is the globe-trotting boss of a luxury beauty treatment and skincare company, best known for her trailblazing Bee Venom range.
Her client list is a who’s who of celebrity names, and but the former Miss Shropshire winner admits she still has many insecurities.
“I love what I do, but sometimes I will wake up one morning, look at my diary, and think – can I really do this? At heart, I’m a very shy person, and I am constantly doubting myself.”
She says: “The first thoughts I ever had about going into business were on my beauty course. I wasn’t interested in what the teacher was talking about, so I looked out the window and daydreamed about what the future was going to be. I planned my future.
“I wanted to go mobile first of all, then go into hotel leisure club facilities, and then from there I wanted to make products, supply them to all my leisure club contacts, and eventually supply others all over the world.
“I sit here and look at my products now, look at the business I’m doing all over the world, and think – yes, I’ve actually gone and done it!
“My business has grown organically. This might not sound particularly businessy, but I’ve tended to wait for some sort of sign that makes me go off in a direction. It’s an instinct really – every time I’ve tried researching and chasing or trying to force anything, it seems to fail.”
When Deborah left the Holiday Inn, she was pregnant with her son Chris.
“That was a tough time. We found this salon in Shifnal, and I got all my savings together. I had to find £30,000 to spend on just the floor of the shop, and the money ran out when I got to the first floor staircase.
“But I did really well. A lot of customers followed me, and we gained many new ones. I remember it being really hard, though – having to bring up two young children, while running a business, and trying to sell my products.”
By now, a new millennium was just around the corner. And Deborah had her first taste of international negotiation.
“I had a deal on offer from Hong Kong, and flew over when my son was born. But I was too frightened to take people up on it.
“My bottles were hand made, and as I flew over, the pressure of the cabin made a tiny hole in the side of them. Stupidly enough, I thought I must be the only person having problems like this, so I turned down all overseas offers and said no, I’m not selling them. And carried on in the UK.”
But even selling products to domestic department stores was sometimes tough. Deborah remembers one occasion when a buyer tore into her packaging and pricing structure – only to then offer to help rescue her business by buying in.
“At the time, I was ready to cry. I hadn’t realised that he was trashing me in such a negative way just to make me think I needed his help.
“Luckily for me, putting me down and trying to get control of half my business hadn’t worked. I walked away.”
When Beatties opened its new department store in Telford, Deborah took the plunge, and took her products into there.
Almost immediately, she was turning over £19,000 a week from that single store, and says she felt the ‘big boys’ looking on with worried expressions.
When Beatties was taken over by House of Fraser, Deborah was in 16 stores. But although sales were booming, her overdraft was growing, because the money she was forking out for products was taking, in her view, far too long to come back to her from the retailer.
Among the people who had been in contact with Deborah by this time was a certain Victoria Beckham. “We’d had a phone conversation when I was at Beatties when she wanted some of my Age Defiance Cream,” she recalled.
She had also been contacted by retail tycoon Theo Paphitis, in his pre-Dragons’ Den days, to talk about some form of partnership. Deborah wanted to change her packaging, and knew this could be a way to raise the finance.
But again, she just had the nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right.
“Everyone was congratulating me about the fact that Theo wanted to buy part of the company and to help me, but the day after we talked, I didn’t feel right about it.”
So she turned it down . . . how was she going to raise the cash for her new packaging now?
She recalls a phone call she made to husband Chris, while he was driving: “I said, ‘I’ve got something to tell you. I’ve bought something.’ He thought I was going to tell him about a new pair of shoes or expensive dress, but no – I’d bought a house with a bit of a deposit I managed to get together, then remortgaged it to raise the money for the new packaging.”
He managed to keep the car on the road…!
Changing the packaging gave Deborah the confidence she needed in her products, and released her nagging fears that she still wasn’t good enough. Again, it was an instinctive move which reaped rich rewards.
“After leaving Beatties and getting my debts down, I put my head down and worked hard, selling products to salons. Gradually more and more money was coming in.
“I was more business savvy by now, and realised that time really is money.
“To anyone new to business, I’d urge them to take that message. Don’t waste other people’s time if you are starting off, because they won’t be impressed if you work with them or need to ask their help later on.”
Celebrities were starting to talk about Deborah’s products. There was Tracey Taylor, wife of Duran Duran guitarist Andy, plus Kylie and Dannii Minogue. Endorsements were coming from the world of film, TV and politics, through clients and fans as diverse as Simon Cowell, Kate Hudson, Tess Daly, Jack Nicholson, and Michelle Obama.
“These celebrities were speaking about using my products, and it was a fabulous way of raising the company’s profile, and gaining publicity.”
And then, there was the royal family. The Duchess of Cornwall is known to be a long-time fan of Heaven, and it’s said that she introduced the range to Kate Middleton on the eve of her wedding.
Deborah, of course, is the soul of discretion.
Heaven is now truly a global success story. In addition to China, Taiwan and Dubai, it’s sold at spas and hotels in the Philippines, Japan, Australia, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Holland, Belgium, Mexico, Saudi Arabia . . . to name just a few.
“In the past, I’m well aware that fear has stopped me expanding. Fear has been my enemy to the business.
“But I’m not looking ahead to what I might achieve in five years now. I’m concerned about what I can achieve tomorrow, or the next day.
“I have a goal, and I’m not prepared to wait for it. What I want is for Heaven to be known as much as Estee Lauder, but still be a niche market brand.”
Deborah admits she’s not good at delegating; despite having well over 27,000 Twitter followers, and a huge rush of messages when she makes one of her regular TV appearances, she handles it all herself.
“I will admit that I need to be in control. But I do allow my staff the chance to grow in the business.
“I think I’m an amazing boss because I give everybody challenges to do so they can all improve. I’m very good at spoiling people, too. Sometimes, staff leave because they think life could be better, and then they want to come back.”