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10 June 2014

Featured Business: VOYA Products

Posted By: AIB Business
VOYA-245-245

Name: Mark and Kira Walton, founders of VOYA Products Ltd, a luxury spa and skincare brand

Employees: 22

Since: 2006

Lifestage: Established

Company Background:
If you’ve spent time in luxury spas or hotels worldwide, you may be familiar with the spa and skincare brand VOYA.

This wholly Irish brand, derived from Sligo seaweed, came about when Mark Walton made a lifestyle choice to relocate to his native Sligo and set up a business with his wife, Kira, who has a project management and graphic design background.

Mark’s family’s business, the Seaweed Baths, was going well. While researching how to add value to that business, Mark realised there was a gap in the market for certified organic seaweed-based cosmetics. His father, Michael, was involved in the organic movement and one of the original board of directors of the Organic Trust in Ireland, and Mark grew up with that ethos.

Mark and Kira started dabbling in the area in 2003, and brought products to market in 2006. In 2008, they started developing a full range, including 40 consumer retail products and 100 products for spa treatments, hotel and airline amenities across 35 countries.

As soon as they launched their first premium, luxury skincare product, they were getting approaches from around the country.

While they spent their early days deconstructing and reverse-engineering shampoos and conditioners from leading brands, their latest experiment has been to create packaging consisting of recycled plastic and seaweed-based material with soy or vegetable-based ink.

On the export front, their focus is new business – not just reliable export markets like the UK – and the 35 countries they supply include Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Mauritius.

 

Interview with Mark Walton

 

 

What was the inspiration for setting up your business?

Opportunity. We looked for a product, we wanted it to be seaweed based. There were some products out there but they weren’t natural or organic as such.

 

How did you initially fund your business?

Credit card. My dad left myself and my brother Neil, who runs the Seaweed Baths side of the business, €30,000-€40,000 to start on day one. Myself and Kira didn’t take a wage for two years; we had part-time jobs elsewhere. All revenue went back into new product development. There was no cost to the business for two years to get it up and running. Once we got to a certain stage, we were able to get funding from AIB Bank; then we got a little bigger and got funding from Enterprise Ireland. We got grant aid from BIM [Bord Iascaigh Mhara] and the County Enterprise Board. The family funded it through BES schemes. We got further funding from the bank because of that, and from Enterprise Ireland. It was a domino effect. We’re in a happy position now where we have no debt – just small borrowings with the bank.

 

Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?

We’ve always been diversifying. It’s never been static. It’s constantly evolved. What we thought were going to be the top-selling products haven’t been, so we’ve modified. Also we’ve entered different markets geographically, and different industries as well. We’ve just broken into airline amenities; that’s something that was never really on our agenda.

 

What have been the highlights to date?

Kira won Female Entrepreneur of the Year last year (the Enterprise Ireland WMB Female Entrepreneur 2013 award) and that was a highlight for me and the team. It’s nice to get the recognition – we are punching way above our weight. We are a tiny family-run business in the West of Ireland that sells products to 35 countries and the most luxurious resorts in the world, competing with brands that are 200/300 times our size. Creating jobs in a high-value sector, in a novel space like this, is something we take great pride in. We have 20 jobs that wouldn’t have existed here before.

 

What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?

You have to be a little competitive or else you wouldn’t succeed, so it’s winning business against the odds against other people, with a small, motivated team behind you.

 

How do you achieve a work-life balance?

It’s not easy. It’s our business so, when we can take time off, we take time off. Because we work with people in the Far East and America, our working hours are very irregular. We don’t have a problem with that. If we have a window of opportunity, we’ll go at 3 o’clock –fishing or walking or surfing – because I know that at 9 o’clock I’ll be on a phone call with someone in California. You can’t allow yourself to get drawn into the attitude “I’ve a call at 9 o’clock, I’ll stay in the office.” You have to get out and get your mind space. You need to find something that gives you the mind space, or the business will drag you down and you’ll resent it.

 

Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?

There are lots of people who read all the business books; I’m not one of those people. I don’t think you can apply other people’s success to your business. It all comes down to your own particular circumstances and your best judgement.

 

What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?

We have various devices from a business point of view, and management and accountancy software in the background. We were very early adopters in the social media space. When we’re developing new products, we ask our Facebook and Twitter followers, “What would you like?”

 

Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?

We do engage with them, and we do ask them “What do you think of this product?” We have two groups – end consumers and B2B customers. We regularly engage with them personally. We ask them the simplest questions: “What can I do to make your life easier? What product do you need that’s going to solve a problem for you?” We develop products that solve problems. You’re not just selling product, you’re making their life easier.

 

What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?

For myself and Kira, it was probably changing from being start-up entrepreneurs to scaling the business. They are different personalities.

 

What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?

I think Irish businesses, ironically, are a bit anxious about exporting, which I find remarkable. When they do go to export, they all go to the same places: England, America. They are the most competitive markets in the world where you are automatically at a disadvantage commercially. I don’t understand why they’re not looking at the newer emerging economies, which have more money, more discretionary spend, and are not brand washed.

 

What part of running a business comes to you naturally? 

Kira: Mark is a very good communicator, he has the gift of the gab, he could sell sand to the Arabs. Irish people are very hospitable and work around their clients’ needs. That’s what Mark does. He’s a very amicable guy. He likes relating to people and talking passionately about VOYA.

 

What has been the best reward in running your own business?

It’s the little things. We were in Malaysia a year ago in a beautiful five-star resort, walking down the hall, and we saw our products in a trolley – the in-room amenities being changed. We just cracked up about it. We’ve won numerous awards and we’re very grateful for that, but it’s the little things.

 

What was the main catalyst for growth?

Many years ago we had the opportunity to start supplying the Jumeirah group, and particularly the Burj Al Arab [iconic luxury Dubai hotel]. Now, their plans didn’t come to fruition, but we were talking to about 30 hotels in the space of one year and it opened our eyes to the potential of hotel groups.

 

How did you scale/grow your business?

We were driven by demand. For the first five years, we doubled turnover every year. Now we are at a rate of 30-40% growth. We are strategically slowing the growth down, as you can’t continue to double turnover every year. You could find yourself, from a cashflow point of view, with no cash. We’ve decided to focus on business that is more profitable and larger in turnover.

 

What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?

Recruiting is very difficult for us. We’re based in the West of Ireland so finding people who have experience selling cosmetics internationally is practically impossible. I know I’m biased, but Sligo is an amazing place to live.

 

How do you get ideas to further your business?

We probably only sample about 5% of the ideas we have. Because we have footprint all around the world we do see things happening in other parts of the world.

 

What motivates you to stay running a business?

It’s creation. Ultimately it comes down to being creative and bringing new, interesting products to market. Making beautiful things, which are internationally recognised as being the best of their type in the market, drives us more than making profits, turnover or revenue.

 

What’s your vision for the future?

We want to continue to grow the brand, to become a pre-eminent company in its sphere. We have a long way to go because most of our competitors are very well funded, they would be smaller divisions of a much larger company.

 

Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?

We surround ourselves with brilliant people and we’re asking questions the whole time. Kira’s father was heavily involved in the airline industry for a long time so he has some business/corporate skills relating to tax, regulation, HR and legal, which were really useful. We’ve been fortunate that over the years some of the state agencies, particularly Enterprise Ireland, had some great mentors.

 

What would be your advice to businesses starting out?

Kira: On the final call on something, always trust your gut instinct.

Mark: Just do it. Don’t procrastinate, don’t hide, just do it.

 

What’s your favourite motivational business quote?

Kira: “If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to meet it.” Jonathan Winters.

 

What, if anything, would you do differently?

We should have raised more money to start off with. While it’s nice to say it’s a bootstrapped company, it was very hard for a very long time and it took a personal toll on Kira and me, which is unreasonable. I would try and get more cash into the business, pay yourself a salary, don’t live off the dole, try and get some money into your own pocket. Sometimes when you have your own business you’re not the first person who gets looked after; you may be the last person, and that’s bad.

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