Meet Ireland's 10 Second Tan "genius"

Brendan McDowell is fresh from wowing with his BPerfect pitch on Dragons' Den...

Meet Ireland's 10 Second Tan "genius"

BPerfect's Brendan McDowell (centre) with Dragons Alison Cowzer and Barry O'Sullivan

Most budding business tycoons would be delighted to come out of the well-lit cauldron that is Dragons' Den with the promise of an investment in their product.

It would even, when you consider that infamous Gavin Duffy glare, likely be a relief just to escape the cameras with your dignity intact.

On the very first new episode of the latest Irish series, Brendan McDowell, a cosmetics entrepreneur from County Down, managed to go much further and make it all seem rather easy – it was, in fact, the Dragons sweating under the collar to strike a deal with his BPerfect Cosmetics.

It says it all that long after filming has wrapped, the longest-running Dragon is still rueing missing out.

Doing press in Dublin a few days before Sunday's premiere, Gavin Duffy will cast his gaze across the Residence Members Club room, over at the man whose business got away, and say conspiratorially:

"Your man there, Brendan, is just a fecking genius! And unfortunately I bid for it but got blown out...

"He's going to be very, very successful."

Successful in striking up a partnership with McDowell were Alison Cowzer, the East Coast Bakehouse co-founder who put in two years with L’Oréal in London, and "Silicon" Barry O'Sullivan, the Altocloud CEO who wants to bring his tech expertise to bear on the business.

RTÉ Player still

They're joining a venture that is already maturing very nicely in Ireland by itself, but which has real global potential.

Designed as a safe and natural alternative to non-invasive treatments, the BPerfect Cosmetics range includes a semi-permanent, smudge proof eyebrow stencil kit, volumising waterproof and lengthening fibre mascara and – perhaps most strikingly – an alcohol-free instant Ten Second Tan. McDowell says it is one of the only tanning products on the marketplace with a pleasant aroma, giving off coconut or watermelon scents.

It was actually BPerfect's rapid rise that convinced McDowell – a bit of a one-man show when it comes to running the business – to enter the Den for some outside help.

The notion came to him when one retail chain decided it would roll out his products in 50 of its stores.

"It was at that stage I was like, 'right, I'm getting above myself here, don't really know what I'm doing!'" he says with a smile.

"I'm okay with Ireland, North and South, but if I really want to scale this up and start looking into the likes of the UK...

"Take, for example, if Boots came along and said 'we want the exclusive', I wouldn't know what to do. What's the right answer and what's not?

"I'm fine in Ireland, I know what I'm doing, but I thought: 'we can really make this bigger if we go on to Dragons' Den and maybe have someone to guide me along the way'. I've got so far now I'm like 'oh, what do I do next?'"

He has indeed come a long way under his own steam. By way of inspiring others with a decent idea, a dream and not much else, he says:

"I started this off with £500. Our turnover last year was £350,000. So you don't have to have a big budget or anything behind you."

"The past year has just been mad," he admits. "You're starting to see your products in the shops. I had a vision but at the very start when I was selling other brands, I didn't think it would be my brand on the shelf."

A lot of people are blogging about it, he says, and the word-of-mouth has even circled back to him in real life:

"When you're in a bar in Belfast, it's 'have you heard of BPerfect?'"

Humble beginnings

The former Living Daily Social sales representative recalls how BPerfect became a reality nearly four years ago:

"I used to distribute for different brands, eyebrow makeup, different mascaras and different tans... I just thought, 'why am I building somebody's brand?'"

He'd spotted a gap in the market for eyebrow makeup and decided to develop his own semi-permanent kit. 

"It's semi-permanent eyebrow makeup: done by stencil to give perfect definition. It's waterproof, smudge-proof, sweat-proof, so it has a unique selling point to other eyebrow makeups."

Brush-on mascara, with the emphasis still very much on keeping things natural, followed:

"There's a little bit of gel in the mascara and what you do then is brush – there are little hairs made from green tea and you brush them onto the mascara and it builds it up like a false eyelash. So it takes away the hassle from falsies. It's made from beeswax as well..."

The 'wow' factor

Things really took off when he turned his attention to tanning.

"I wanted something different'," says McDowell, building on a theme. "Something instant that lasts 3-5 days and fades like a natural tan. Something that a guy could wear and you wouldn't know he was wearing fake tan.

"I wanted something simple and straightforward that did what it said on the bottle. And also – no nasty chemicals.

"That's what we've come up with."

Creating such a product naturally meant checking out the competition...

"I literally bought every single tan on the market and tried them all out," he laughs. Then it was over to the 10 factories in the UK and Ireland as he "narrowed it down until we got something that had the 'wow' factor."

With little in the way of cash to pump into promotion, the cosmetics had to speak for themselves.

"We started off mainly selling direct sales," Brendan explains. "So a lot of brands think it's all about the marketing. With us, we didn't have a marketing budget behind us, so we had to have a product that worked.

"We were in trade vent, shopping centres, lifestyle shows, so it had to be something that worked there and then.

"So we did demonstrations. That's how we built the brand – it was an instant tan that they could see dry straight away."

An appearance at the Cosmetic Association Trade Fair in the RDS resulted in close to 30 pharmacies signing up, and a realisation: "We're missing a trick here."

"We had kept it salon-exclusive at the beginning and then the pharmacies were selling a lot quicker. They were repeating their orders a lot faster."

Those who don't dare...

The move to open the business to retailers was a standard McDowell play: considered, based on concrete success and the accumulation of a lot of steady graft. Risk-taking can be important in business, but it's not the be-all and end-all for an entrepreneur.

"Everything I've done, from the beginning, has been small steps," McDowell says. "All calculated risks."

"First of all we went into one independent pharmacy on the Falls Road in Belfast. They repeated their order off us a few times and I thought 'we need to go into the chains'. Then we went into one chain and started off in eight [stores]. Then we went into 22...

"I never did anything that was ever going to floor me," he continues. "You do need to take calculated risks along the way so that if something goes wrong you're not totally screwed over, you can go back to what you were doing."

 

The Dragons' Den appearance, then, was less about TV promotion and a big injection of cash and more about finding experienced heads to help him with those ever-growing calculations.

Flying with Dragons

New investor Barry O'Sullivan admits:

"I would have never have thought I would have gotten get into cosmetics. The reason I did it was because, first of all, Alison has a lot of experience and background in that area... and I could help with the online.

"Even though I know nothing about the products, I know that I can help with that piece of it.

"He's doing 8,000 a month just online. He didn't even know how many visitors were coming to his website every month or how many were buying once they got there. That's the sort of thing I can help with. It's 8,000 – it could be 50,000 a month."

"Obviously with the Dragons it will be a bit of an investment, a bit of help, but I've no doubt in Ireland we could have achieved really, really great success," McDowell affirms, before his thoughts turn even bigger still.

"I'm hoping with the Dragons onboard, we can do that globally a lot quicker."