Making scents: Donegal Bog Cotton Company

Life-long friends Marian McNally and Patricia Gallagher were inspired by Donegal’s natural beauty to create organic cosmetic brand Donegal Bog Cotton Company.

From Dublin but with connections in Donegal, Marian McNally and Patricia Gallagher holidayed with their families there for more than 20 years.

Inspired by Donegal’s natural beauty, it was an easy choice for a business location. Marian tells ThinkBusiness about their scenic journey to setting up shop.

Donegal bog cotton candle.

“When we set up the company we wanted Donegal to feature in the branding. That’s been a massive selling point for us”

Why did you set up Donegal Bog Cotton?

We always liked making things and thought it’d be interesting to try and make soap. When we gave it to friends, they really liked it. We started selling at markets and that’s where we began. We’ve been operating for eight years, but it’s only in the last year, since we got a website designed that the business has really taken off. Our web designer at ‘Creative Content’ is also a marketing expert, so she helped us make the leap.

My husband has worked for Donegal County Council for a long time and we have a house there. We were very friendly with Patricia and her husband and used to holiday with them in Falcarragh, where they have family. We have always loved the area so it made sense to base the business there.  Since we set up, we have broadened our range of products from handmade soaps to moisturiser, lip balm and scented candles, all inspired by the scents and colour of local flora.

Donegal bog cotton soap in a field.

“We do our best to use the highest quality organic oils in the products and that makes the company stand out”

As an independent Irish business, what makes your company different and how do you stand out from the crowd?

When we set up the company we wanted Donegal to feature in the branding. That’s been a massive selling point for us. We just couldn’t have believed how big. Our branding was done by a graphic designer, niamhmc.design and she just got it right. We took a stand in the RDS in 2018 and noticed that most of our sales were to people from Donegal who had moved away and wanted to send a present to their relations in Donegal.

We do our best to use the highest quality organic oils in the products and that makes the company stand out. Our scents and oils are sourced from Irish suppliers where possible, and we always prioritise eco-friendly raw materials and zero plastic.

“The business has grown organically, outlets contact us now, rather than the other way around”

What challenges have you met and how did you overcome them?

One of our biggest challenges at the beginning was finding outlets to sell our products. It’s hard for people to stock something they know nothing about. When Olivia boutique in Dunfanaghy in Donegal started stocking our products three years ago, our business went to the next level. The Irish Design Shop in Dublin stocks our products, that was another big step for us. The business has grown organically, outlets contact us now, rather than the other way around.

Another challenge was learning about oils, essential oils and butters and getting products safety assessed. We couldn’t find anywhere in Ireland to do the safety assessment, so had to send products to England. It was very time consuming finding out where to go. All that was a huge learning curve. We tackle these challenges on a day by day basis and keep working on them.

Donegal bog cotton soap on shelves.

“The pandemic has worked in our favour. We launched our website last April, at the height of the first lockdown when people couldn’t go to shops, instead they went online”

Did the pandemic impact your business and how did you adapt?

The pandemic has worked in our favour. We launched our website last April, at the height of the first lockdown when people couldn’t go to shops, instead they went online. We noticed when the first lockdown ended, we weren’t as busy and it picked up again in the next lockdown. The negative was that most of the shops that stock our products had to close.

“When we developed our website, we were entitled to apply for the Trading Online Voucher through Údarás na Gaeltachta, and that was a great help”

What supports did you receive to set up your business and how could the support for entrepreneurs be improved?

When we developed our website, we were entitled to apply for the Trading Online Voucher through Údarás na Gaeltachta, and that was a great help. That way we were able to keep creative content on the website until we saw how busy we were online. There is a lot of support out there. The Local Enterprise Office is always offering courses. I don’t think people know about them as much as they should. If you look for help, mostly you’ll get it. We found setting up and growing the business a very positive experience.

What was the most important thing you learnt and what would you like to teach other businesses?

The most important piece of advice I have is to be prepared to work hard. If you want the business to be a success, you have to put in the work. Open your mind and listen to any advice you get, that’s really important. For example, we were advised to sell Donegal wildflower seeds and it’s one of our best sellers. We would never have thought of it on our own. We accept advice and work hard.

What are your plans for the future?

We want to scale the business but it’s difficult at the moment. Due to Covid-19 we don’t know where we’re going to be in another few weeks or months even.

We feel that our products would sell well in the US. We are only at the start of this journey and there is a lot to learn about exporting but we have it in our sights and would like to follow it through and see what happens.

We both love learning new things and running the business means we are learning all the time. We’ll keep promoting the company to get the products better known in Europe and the US. We have ideas for new products we want to work on and most of all keep enjoying what we do.

Interview by Olivia McGill

Published: 1 March 2021