ThinkBusiness talks to the perfumer Sadie Chowen of Burren Perfumery about when to evolve and when to stay rooted.

Following her heart and having courage to stick to her ideals is what saw Sadie Chowen through some big changes in the business landscape.

Sadie started working at the Burren Perfumery in 1998, buying the place in 2001, the same year 9/11 hit and a foot and mouth crisis threatened to end her dream before it had even begun.

We have never compromised on our values. We do things a little bit differently to other businesses

What makes your business stand out? 

Sadie Chowen, founder, Burren Perfumery

Our quality and ethos. Everything continues to be handmade here, even as we continue to scale year by year. When I took over we had two staff, we now have over 30. We have never compromised on our values. We do things a little bit differently to other businesses, allowing us to maintain quality and detail and stay in touch with our location in the heart of the Burren. 

Has the business evolved over the years and if so, in what ways?

We recognised in the early 2000s the power of the internet, that it could enable small and rural businesses to tell their story directly to the customers. When I took over we were manufacturing on site and distributing through the normal channels. We were in a lot of outlets, wholesaling.

Quite early on I decided to withdraw from the wholesale market. Our products are made from extremely high quality ingredients, often organic and natural. When they went to the wholesalers, I lost the control. I didn’t know how long they would be kept on the shelf, what condition they would be in when they were sold and what story was being sold with them, so I stopped competing in that arena. At the time, it was unusual to withdraw from wholesaling. It was a gut feeling and it really made a difference to our business.

When we rebranded a few years ago, we didn’t use any outer packaging for the body lotions and soaps because I find the waste from packaging in the sector very distressing. We make batches of about 60 products at a time so they’re incredibly fresh and we don’t have warehouses full of stock. This has allowed us to evolve a slightly different business model and that makes us different.

“We recognised in the early 2000s the power of the internet, that it could enable small and rural businesses to tell their story directly to the customers”

How did you adapt to those changes?

Woman smelling perfume using a strip.

Sadie Chowen at work.

We built up our website and opened a visitor’s centre. Last year we had up to 60,000 visitors. It’s a working factory people visit. We give workshops on how to make our products. We took a chance that meant we could retain control over the quality and freshness of the product itself and we have never looked back.

We were lucky that when we stopped wholesaling, the wave of direct to consumer followed us and that we had the skills for it, because we invested a lot in our website, photography and mail order. It gave us a reach from being in the Irish market to being global.

Our mail order sales took the place of wholesaling almost immediately. Previously we spent a lot of time chasing up accounts, looking after them and going to trade shows. I calculated that my time could be better spent making products and staying in touch with our customers.

“I’ve learned to be confident in my decision-making, and to learn that saying no is as important as saying yes”

What kind of things affected your business that you couldn’t have envisaged and how did you handle them?

My vision for the business was for it to be everyday body and beauty care for Irish people as well as tourists. But when I took over in 2001, we really relied on tourists. Then 9/11 happened, it killed the tourist industry. Then foot and mouth happened and that stopped a lot of people, particularly English people coming over but we adapted, survived and grew.

What are the biggest things you have learned and how has the experience shaped you?

Woman with dark blonde hair and glasses smiling beside window.

Sadie Chowen, founder, Burren Perfumery

I’m now extremely confident. I’m really good at saying no and not worrying about it but obviously over the years I have agonised over decisions. We’ve been offered opportunities, sometimes money or investment, which you think must always be a good thing and so we often spent time struggling with those decisions. It’s a learning curve. There have been times over the last 19 years when we questioned ourselves and thought maybe we were wrong, but we work a lot at it and we believe in it. The best thing for us is to stick to our values and not to compromise. I want to be able to say I created this and I’m proud of it and I didn’t compromise. What I’m most proud of is that I can stand by everything we do.

I’ve learned to be confident in my decision-making, and to learn that saying no is as important as saying yes. Having pride in what I do rather than focusing on making money and the significance of interacting with the wider community.

“When we rebranded, we didn’t use any outer packaging for the body lotions and soaps because I find the waste from packaging in the sector very distressing”

Have you always been in business or is it something you learned on your feet?

I didn’t come from business background. When I was asked to come and work at the perfumery, I questioned whether that was something I wanted. Once I worked there, I realised it was all about people and the quality of the products, the natural ingredients and design. It turned out to be a perfect fit for me.

Not coming from a business background allowed us to do things differently and to think for ourselves. There wasn’t a pre-set agenda of how things had to be done. It made us much more creative. Obviously, we have to make money and the business is now extremely successful but it was never my prime concern.

Is it hard to stick to the ideals you started out with in business?

It can be difficult but we’ve become very good at saying no. People had approached us over the years to stock our products and we always put it off. I thought recently that we needed a flagship platform in the Irish market. We chose Avoca as a partner, which works really well for us because it is just one partner. They’re a fantastic platform, they tell a story and it allows customers who can’t get to us here to have that offering. 

Recently we went into partnership with Dromoland Castle, to do their VIP suites. We worked with hotels before but the amount of plastic and disposable items involved in amenity products really bothered me. With Dromoland Castle we said we weren’t interested in amenity products. We do a gift box of full size, organic, homemade products made from recycled plastic, that the customer takes with them rather than discarding. It fits, we both have the same values. It’s a fantastic departure for a hotel of that size to take a risk like that.

We are looking at sustainability in everything we do, where our containers come from, what we use and how we can do better. We explain to people the choices they can make, that most of what they use isn’t being recycled and why we use recycled plastic. People listen to us. We have a thousand followers on Facebook and people have a lot of trust in us. We have an opportunity here as role models. It’s important to open up discussions about sustainability. I’m uncomfortable about sending more containers into the world. We started using 100pc recycled plastic recently, it’s a tan colour. It’s a big step for a small company but our role as a business is more than money. If high-end cosmetic company used it as a feature, then other companies would start using it as well and it would become a trend.

We’ve grown organically and we’re successful. We have enough money to think about sustainability for example. For me the pleasure now is that we can put resources and money into thinking about things like that. That’s some of the fun in it for me now, the reward for sticking to my ideals.

Written by Liv McGill

Published: 21 October 2019

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