Una Tynan, founder of Blank Canvas and co-founder of UP Cosmetics shares her life and business lessons.
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
Having studied history at university, my career took a natural step into secondary school teaching. Over the course of seven years, I branched into language teaching and eventually became manager of the language college I was working in Dublin. I loved my time teaching, interacting with students and the learning environment, in general. During this time, my passion for makeup and makeup artistry was really coming to the forefront.
From here, I began to see the possibility of turning a passion into a passion project and potential self-employment opportunity. I have always been creative and after initially training to be a makeup artist, I worked freelance as well as combining my love of teaching and makeup by holding makeup lessons.
“I was offered a job locally, which I turned down because I knew if I got used to a salary again, I wouldn’t feel the pressure to make my own business work. It was here that the Blank Canvas journey really began”
When the recession hit in 2008 and I was potentially moving back to Donegal, I began thinking about what I wanted to do for the future. I knew I wanted to take the skills I had developed in my career to date and start something of my own. I suppose in hindsight, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I love the prospect of where an idea could take me. At this time, I had developed an interest in all things internet. I began researching the world of e-commerce and marketing. The beauty world was evolving also, and showing very early signs of influencer marketing via blogs and YouTube. I remember how exciting a time this was. I felt like I had stumbled upon something that was about to change my life.
Moving back to Donegal meant I was leaving my job but I knew the time was right to start something. I was offered a job locally, which I turned down because I knew if I got used to a salary again, I wouldn’t feel the pressure to make my own business work. It was here that the Blank Canvas journey really began as I saw the opportunity to bring high-quality affordable makeup tools to the Irish market and I guess you could say the rest is history!
What’s your USP?
I have always been creative and love teaching and educating. Blank Canvas gives me the opportunity to do both. Creating makeup tools to make life easier for the everyday woman and the professional working artist.
“The idea that an Irish brand could have the range of makeup brushes we had and the high quality just seemed hard to fathom for the everyday Irish woman”
I have been both, I know the pain points for both the makeup novice and professional artist which makes me unique. I don’t just create brushes that are aesthetically pleasing. Every tool has a function.
When I started Blank Canvas in 2011 everyone presumed we were an American brand. The idea that an Irish brand could have the range of makeup brushes we had and the high quality just seemed hard to fathom for the everyday Irish woman as we were so used to looking across the water to the likes of the USA for top quality products. It is great to see that is certainly not the case now but we were one of the first in the Irish market to do this.
How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?
The business was self-funded when I started. I started with a small budget and I ran lessons locally where Blank Canvas brushes were included in the course. This allowed me to demonstrate the brushes as well as sell them to professionals within the industry which most definitely cemented their credibility. The local support is something I’ll always be grateful for. I launched online with our website and also ran some Groupon offers to help market Blank Canvas.
In late 2012, we started receiving requests from pharmacies who wanted to stock. We have had steady growth since this time spanning across over 500 retailers in Ireland. Although not retailing abroad, we have strong international online sales thanks to our online presence across international makeup artists and influencers on both Instagram and YouTube. We are currently in talks to expand our retail footprint internationally which is exciting.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
I have a really strong work ethic but in the same breath, I have a good perspective. I love what I do but I am aware I am not saving lives. I am able to separate myself from my work, I wasn’t always able to do it, it was definitely a skill I had to learn.
“Some of the best times in the business I remember are my sisters and I packing orders from the upstairs of my house. We worked so hard but loved every minute of it”
I know this is something that most entrepreneurs struggle with at some point but it’s important to stop, reset and evaluate from time to time. Working for yourself, it can be hard to step away from it but it’s vital in order to be able to keep pushing forward.
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
The first that comes to mind is my husband and family. I have had so much support throughout the years and some of the best times in the business I remember are my sisters and I packing orders from the upstairs of my house. We worked so hard but loved every minute of it. They have been my constant supporters! Blank Canvas wouldn’t be what it is without my family’s support.
“I think keeping a level head and being positive are the two best qualities you can have. I try not to sweat the small things and I believe that most things can be worked out”
We did the beauty show in the RDS every year which was a big event for us so everyone would come together with my sisters, nephew, friends, and my husband! I’m inspired by so many people in and outside of the beauty industry.
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
Embrace change. Very early on someone told me to go with it – no matter what happened, go with it and embrace the change. I think I’ve stayed true to this and it’s helped me immensely along the way as every change, whether you perceive it to be good or bad, leads to something else that might be bigger or better or simply saving you from a bigger let down along the way.
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
I think keeping a level head and being positive are the two best qualities you can have. I try not to sweat the small things and I believe that most things can be worked out. My home life is very important to me and I make sure I have that balance. You definitely need a supportive family.
“Grabbing the attention of your audience and keeping it is a real challenge. Keeping your audience engaged and growing your customer base is an ever-evolving process and it can be a struggle at times to keep up”
There are ups and downs, every day is different and you need to be okay with the chaos and lack of stability sometimes. Celebrating your wins and seeing perceived failures as learning curves are some of the ways that I approach keeping a positive mindset and staying resilient – it’s all part of the process!
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
The changing landscape especially when it comes to marketing and the changeover to digital marketing. When we originally started there was Facebook, where a static post made an impact organically and that was the height of it! People still relied on traditional forms of media to consume information. Where now there are so many different places one can consume information. Grabbing the attention of your audience and keeping it is a real challenge. Keeping your audience engaged and growing your customer base is an ever-evolving process and it can be a struggle at times to keep up.
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
It really was entering the unknown for us. Although our retail partners were not closed (pharmacies) the restrictions in stores definitely impacted our traditional business. We did see an influx in online orders which was positive. It proved the demand for the brand was still there and our customers were willing to change their shopping habits.
“As digital grew, so did we. Digital marketing allowed us to grow our brand and business nationwide as well as internationally”
It allowed us to try new things and interact directly with the customers as opposed to via a pharmacy which was positive for us and allowed us to gain direct feedback. I think it taught everyone that you need to be adaptable and in a position to pivot. Nothing in business is guaranteed.
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
Blank Canvas was born just as the digital transformation was really beginning. Social media was mainly just Facebook with no fancy selling or advertising strategies. Now there are so many different platforms – Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok. As digital grew, so did we. Digital marketing allowed us to grow our brand and business nationwide as well as internationally.
As a brand based out of Donegal this was a huge plus for us. I think we scaled at a time when social media and advertising were organic and not the minefield it is today. With algorithms, minimum spends and pay per clicks it can be hard to get your brand in front of your audience in a cost-friendly way vs maybe ten years ago. So as a business I’m thankful we grew alongside this as opposed to coming into it now.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Honesty, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I am so proud of what we have accomplished and the reputation we have. I try not to look at the “shoulda, woulda, coulda” aspect of business [or in life in general] because it’s all part of the journey. A mistake is only that, if you don’t learn from it. I feel I’ve learned and developed a lot in the past 10 years.
Who inspires you in business today?
There are so many inspiring entrepreneurs, especially in Ireland and I say that because I know what it takes to just start. Never mind starting and being successful. I work with so many inspirational people in business. I definitely admire Jennifer Rock of The Skin Nerd and Skingredients.
“I am always looking to learn and grow so providing an environment for not only myself but for others to do this is important to me”
Jennifer is an absolute expert in her field. She knows her business, what her customer wants and needs and delivers that to a T! I admire her as a businesswoman as her work ethic is obvious. She has a real down-to-earth attitude and lets the quality of her brand do the talking. Jennifer has also openly shared things that have gone wrong for her and is always honest and open about the realities of running your own business and I relate to that and admire her for it.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
Always ask the question! I am really hands-on and involved in all aspects of the business so it’s important that the lines of communication are open and that everyone feels comfortable. There definitely is no hierarchy . I love what I do and I love Blank Canvas and I want to instil that passion in anyone that works with the brand.
“Stay true to yourself and trust your gut. My gut has never let me down”
I’ve found the best way for me to do this is to create a positive working environment where everyone can be themselves and ask questions and not be afraid to speak up. I am always looking to learn and grow so providing an environment for not only myself but for others to do this is important to me.
What business books do you read or would recommend?
I have a lot! I love reading business/life experience books. These days I use Audible and listen while I’m traveling or on the go. Duncan Bannatyne Anyone Can Do It! and How to Be Smart with Your Money, The Warren Buffet Way by Warren Buffet and Business Adventures by John Brooks to name a few.
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
I use Google Calendar for scheduling and Monday.com (internal communication tool, similar to Slack) to communicate with the team. It is great for keeping on track when juggling lots of different projects.
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
Facebook and Instagram have to be mentioned as they have helped grow my business to what it is today. Creatively, they are great platforms for self-expression and inspiration too. I love home interiors and can spend hours on Instagram scrolling different pages getting inspiration. We’re new to TikTok but so far it’s great.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
It is constantly evolving and I think keeping up with it is a job in itself. I never would have thought when Blank Canvas started originally that the online element would be the most dominant vs traditional bricks and mortar. With changes in technology and consumer habits things are definitely becoming more fast-paced and instant. We see that now with the demand for video content; short and snappy in order to grab the attention of the viewer. I feel we’re headed in a direction where the demand for virtual services will become more widespread down the line so that is something very much to the forefront of our minds.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
Stay true to yourself and trust your gut. My gut has never let me down. There have been a lot of ups and downs and risks taken but I know my gut will never lead me too far wrong.
Main image: UP Cosmetics co-founders Una Tynan and Pippa O’Connor Ormond