Kelli Aspland is up for a big award this week in recognition of her role in setting up suncream applicator business Solar Buddies with her best friend Laura.
Kelli Aspland and her best friend Laura Griffin came up with their business idea almost by chance, but it has gone on to win their firm, Solar Buddies, several awards.
This week Kelli won the Aphrodite Award at the NatWest everywoman awards ceremony – her first award in her own right. The Award celebrates a woman who founded her business whilst raising a child/children aged 12 or under.
Kelli and Laura met through their children who were in the same nursery class. Their children’s school had a ‘No Touch Policy’ in place when it came to applying sunscreen, which meant the teachers were unable to help children put the cream on. One of Kelli’s sons had been called in to help his younger sibling and had got half the bottle on his uniform. Laura’s son had been burnt in the playground as a result of sun cream not being properly applied.
The two women were chatting about the problem and thought something needed to be done to make it easier for sun cream to be applied at school. They checked if there was anything available that could help. There wasn’t anything on the market so they decided to investigate further.
At the time – nearly nine years ago, Kelli had been looking to go to university to start a nursing course after being at home with her children, then aged 11, nine, five and 11 months. “I wanted to do something other than being a mum at home. We both wanted something to engage our brains and thought it would be fun to take it a step further,” says Kelli.
Things snowballed from there. The two women had to look at all sorts of different possibilities, including pumps, before they hit on pre-filled roll-ons which could be topped up. “The important thing was having a parent’s perspective,” says Kelli. “It needed to work in a controlled way and to be simple.”
They stumbled on Cardiff Metropolitan University’s free service for budding entrepreneurs and worked with students on the design prototypes for solar buddies. “They mocked up the drawings for us. It was a good experience working alongside them. Universities should shout out more about this kind of service,” says Kelli. Not only did the collaboration help Laura and Kelli but it gave the students experience of working on a product that has made it to the market – and their contribution has also been externally recognised and won them publicity.
Kelli says she and Laura have had to learn about all aspects of running a business over the last few years – from manufacturing and product design to advertising and marketing. “It was all completely new, but I have loved every part of it,” says Kelli. “It has been extremely exciting and really scary at the same time. We had no idea if we were doing it right and whether we were competent enough to do it.”
She says the biggest challenge was self belief and believing they could do it and be taken seriously as entrepreneurs. “There was so much we didn’t know. For instance, we didn’t know the right questions to ask manufacturers, but we had to show that we knew what we were talking about,” she states. Some of the people they had to deal with were sexist or just plain rude, talking over them, which didn’t help their confidence. One manager told someone to give her and Kelli some information and “send them on their way”.
Kelli says having Laura with her has helped a lot. “She’s my wing man,” she states.
In the early days they would go to each other’s houses with their youngest children and get babysitters when they had to go to the university and the patent office. Kelli worked into the evening many times and her husband also helped out.
When the first Solar Buddies roll-on sun cream was launched in 2015, there were boxes of it all over Kelli’s house. Her children helped put them in bags. Her youngest son, Harry, was the ‘poster boy’ for the applicator and Laura’s children also featured in posters and videos.
Kelli and Laura tried the product out at their children’s primary school and have donated solar buddies to every class. They now have sun stations and wheel out trolleys full of solar buddies in the summer with the children’s names on them. “It’s as much about educating them about sun safety as applying sun cream safely and making their parents’ lives easier,” says Kelli. “That’s where the passion comes from. We want to keep that ethos as we grow.”
After initial investment from GoCompare founder Hayley Parsons, who lives locally and who Kelli and Laura had links with, and from Laura’s father, the two pitched the product successfully to JoJo Maman Bébé’s buyer after tweeting the company. Kelli says getting in front of retailers is one of the biggest challenges the two have faced.
They’ve gone from strength to strength since, though. Solar buddies are now being distributed in the US, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa and sales revenue has risen by over 200% in the last two years.
Kelli says the business, which now employs three other people and has an office, has lots of ideas in the pipeline, including growing their distribution levels in the US, particularly in areas where sun cream applicators are needed all year round rather than seasonally as in the UK.
This year has been particularly difficult for Kelli. Her eldest son has had a heart condition since he was a baby and the family have always known he would need a major operation at some point. They were told two years ago that he needed to have a valve replaced and in April he had an operation to replace his aortic valve.
Before she started Solar Buddies, Kelli’s oldest daughter Olivia had had leukaemia. She says that was really hard, but at the time Olivia was very young and didn’t know what was happening. Her son was 17 and was well aware of the riskiness of the operation and needed support. The operation came at a busy time for the business, but once again having Laura as her wing man helped Kelli through.
She says that she is able to keep her business relationship separate from their friendship. “We have a great partnership, but I would never let that jeopardise our friendship,” she says. “We can talk about the business and put our friendship to one side. We have a really good working relationship.”