Pauline Paterson talks to workingmums.co.uk about her pawpaw balm business which has gone from strength to strength despite the pandemic.
In eight years, Pauline Paterson has built her business, Dr PAWPAW, into a global brand with an annual turnover of over £5 million, something that has led to her winning an award at this year’s Natwest everywoman awards. And, like many of the best businesses, it all started from a personal problem that needed solving, namely, Pauline’s inability to find a treatment for her baby daughter’s eczema problems.
Pauline had spent over 13 years at Wella Professionals, working her way up from teaching other hairdressers to being assistant manager of the whole London studio and liaising with all the big hairdressing names.
Like many mums, she found the transition to parenthood stressful when her daughter Jasmine was born. She recalls doing 7.30am drop-offs at childcare and racing back at 6pm, having to ring her husband to pick up Jasmine when she was late. “It was not the life we wanted,” she says.
When Jasmine was around nine months old she developed eczema. None of the treatments the GP suggested worked and Pauline didn’t want to resort to steroid-based creams. So she started looking around for natural alternatives. Pauline had grown up in Australia and was aware of the pawpaw fruit’s soothing properties. She tried it and found it was the one thing that really worked. However, the Australian brands that used it were not available in the UK.
Pauline tried to persuade them to export to the UK for a few years, but could not convince them. A friend was making his own shampoo and conditioner and suggested that Pauline make her own pawpaw-based product. She contacted his manufacturer and started making some samples of a lip balm with the aim of making an even better product than the ones she had been using on Jasmine by ensuring it was vegan and significantly enhanced the soothing properties of the pawpaw fruit.
It took two years to get to the point of having samples that she could test on people. Once she had the right formula and design the company, which is co-directed by her husband Johnny, was ready to launch. It was late 2013 and Jasmine was three and Pauline was pregnant with her second child.
She sent samples out to several buyers and Harvey Nichols was the first to come back. They wanted to launch exclusively for the first three months and said they had been trying to bring the Australian brands over for years. When it launched Pauline had just one product and was on maternity leave, expecting to return to her job and sell the lip balm on the side.
In the year that followed, demand exceeded her expectations, however, and she was very busy. She sold a year’s stock in the first six months and had to order more. She was able to pay herself a small wage and became Dr PAWPAWs first employee, working around her children and trying to give the impression of being in an office with a support team. “Sometimes I was breastfeeding between emails. I tried to do everything on email because I was scared to take calls in case the children interrupted,” she says.
Fairly early on, the business started expanding its product range to make sure Pauline could sell enough to make a career out of her business. They investigated putting colour into the lip balm, trying to find those tones that would match any skin types – something that had not yet been done. However, by the time Dr PAWPAW brought out a peach pink and red lip balm, others had started promoting moisturising lipsticks and coloured lip balms.
Pauline and Johnny also took part in a big beauty expo in Bologna which kicked off global interest in her three products. As the business was growing Pauline was able to share some staff and office space from her husband’s company. Since then the company has continued to expand. By early 2020 it had eight members of staff.
Covid provided a major scare, however. Lip balms are often what Pauline describes as ‘a pick up and grab’ product. Only 30% of the company’s sales were online at the time. “It was really scary. It was the first time we thought we could lose everything,” she says. Fortunately, different parts of the world were more or less locked down at any given time, for instance, Korea and Hong Kong were emerging from the first lockdown as other parts of the globe were still in it.
Pauline had a lot of leftover stock, however. She saw news reports about NHS staff missing out on PPE and having very dry hands due to constant handwashing. She knew her original lip balm was as good for hands as it was for lips so Dr PAWPAW set up a ‘frontline’ campaigner offering two free balms to NHS workers which they later opened up to all key workers. They ended up giving away over 150,000 balms, mainly in the UK and US. Later on they launched a hand cream and gave that away too. As well as helping frontline workers, getting the product out so widely meant that word spread rapidly about Dr PAWPAW’s products.
The business, which hasn’t had to furlough anyone during Covid, now has 17 members of staff, with new customer services staff needed to deal with the rise in online sales where turnover has increased 10 fold. Partly that is due to the company’s launch in the US, originally scheduled for 2019, which happened in early 2020.
Pauline, who won the Natwest everywoman Aphrodite Award this week, thinks they have only just scratched the surface of demand and is keen to get out to more places and promote the benefits of the pawpaw fruit. They are also planning to market a hair balm and full body range for every age group and every skin type. Their products are now available in a range of chains, including Superdrug, New Look, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.
The biggest challenge lies in educating people about the benefits of the pawpaw fruit. For instance, when their products launched at H & M Pauline trained retail staff in its properties so that they could recommend it.
Pauline and Johnny’s children, who Pauline homeschooled during the pandemic, are now aged 10 and seven and are great advocates. Jasmine named one of the new balms [‘glitter balm’] and they have helped with picking the packaging. “They feel close to the brand and proud of it. It feels like a family brand,” says Pauline.
*Pauline was one of three businesswomen up for the Aphrodite Award in this year’s Natwest everywoman awards which was announced in a ceremony on Tuesday.