My Business Journey with… Tricia Cusden

My Business Journey with… Tricia Cusden

At 73, make-up queen Tricia Cusden is not your average septuagenarian. Eight years ago, struggling to find products that worked well for her skin, she started her own beauty line for older women – with no industry experience. Today, Look Fabulous Forever and its founder have 7.5m YouTube views, 50,000 loyal customers and an annual turnover of £2.5m. Here, Tricia tells us how this all came about and why she loves working alongside her two daughters.

I started my working life relatively late. I was in my late 30s and had had two children when I started as a management training consultant, first for a large consultancy then I set up my own company in 1996. Originally, I had qualified as a primary school teacher, but I didn’t enjoy teaching that much, so when I got pregnant with my eldest daughter Anna in 1974, I gave up and decided I wouldn’t go back to it. Three years later, I had my second daughter, Suzy, and pretty much had 12 years at home looking after the girls during which time I did a four-year humanities degree course. This gave me a lot of confidence and a desire to go back to work and find something really interesting to do.
My fourth grandchild was born in January 2012. I was really looking forward to India being born and when Suzy, who lived near me, had an emergency caesarean I looked after her two-and-a-half-year-old, Freya. Everything seemed to be fine but, within two or three weeks, India was back in hospital with what they thought was bronchiolitis, which we thought she’d get over fast and be alright. But it wasn’t bronchiolitis, and it was the start of a nightmare. She couldn’t breathe properly, doctors thought it was her heart and she had open heart surgery, but when she was three months old they finally diagnosed her with a rare chromosomal abnormality. She was never going to be better. Basically, we went from her being a sick baby who we thought would be fixed to confronting the possibility that she could be very physically and mentally impaired. Meanwhile, I was looking after Freya a lot of the time, trying to support Suzy who was very distraught and for the first time in a long while, I felt I was very much needed to step in, help and be supportive. It was a very difficult time. To be honest, as I was 64 coming up to 65, I wasn’t that unhappy to wind down my business interests and thought, okay, if this is going to be the next stage of my life then that’s fine, that is what it will be.
India came home from hospital when she was nearly one. Suzy hired a special needs nanny and they all seemed to resume their lives. It was as if the rest of the family, who had been quite disturbed by the situation, started to get back on an even keel. Whereas I felt I had no life to go back to. It was January, I felt very down, and it was a very difficult time for me. I think the year I’d spent a lot of the time in hospital with India and helping with Freya was quite a low point for me. I felt a bit like a beached whale. I didn’t know what I should do, whether I should get back in the sea or try to find a different beach to be on. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that my business entrepreneurial skills and the things I really loved were still focused around seeing if I could create something and make money out of it. I knew that was something I still loved and enjoyed – taking a new idea and making it work. 
I had loved make-up my entire life and had probably put it on every day of my life for 50 years. I was very exercised – and had been for some time – by the way the beauty industry had stopped trying to sell me make-up and would only sell me skincare with an anti-ageing label on it. I felt they were saying, you don’t need make-up anymore, you’re not going to buy it because you’re old and past it. I really resented this. If I went into a beauty hall with my daughter, they wouldn’t speak to me, they’d speak to her. It was as if I was there to support her beauty needs, not my own; I didn’t seem to matter or exist. So, I put all these things together – my desire to start something and see if I could make money out of it, my love of make-up, and my hatred of the beauty industry – and came up with the idea that I would launch a range of make-up specifically formulated, made for and attractive to older women. So that was my business idea which I had in the January and February of 2013 when I had just turned 65.

I had about £40,000 which I thought I could play with – that was my stake money. I decided I’d risk it all to see if I could do it. That budget had to cover everything from sourcing the products, packaging and design, to building the website and making videos for YouTube. I obviously did everything on a shoestring and pulled in a few favours from friends who appeared in my videos and photos. I trained as a make-up artist before launching – I was the oldest person on the course, but I really enjoyed it and it was great fun. It was an amazing year. The contrast with the year before, when I was helping with India, gave me something really new and exciting to do, and it also got me out of the house. I felt I had a life again. 
There’s always an element of luck when you start a business. I was very naive and knew nothing about the beauty industry or about the internet and online shopping. Looking back, naivety can be incredibly helpful because when you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t worry about it! I didn’t do any market research at all, I trusted my gut instinct and thought that if I liked my idea so would other people like me.
There is also a zeitgeisty element to starting a business. If you hit a moment where the world is opening towards your idea, it helps enormously. I do think that 2013 was the beginning of an awareness that we were an ageing population, that there was money there, and that there were needs within that group that weren’t being met. So I was fortunate in choosing my moment. I also ensured that every person we used, every image, everything we did had to be for age, not anti age. It would be all about celebrating age, enjoying it, having fun and saying it’s fine to be older, to have an older face, to have wrinkles, and you don’t have to look younger. Everything I did was focused on that and it chimed with how a lot of older women were feeling.
Look Fabulous Forever started very differently from how it developed after six months. My initial idea was quite simple: it revolved around me going out and doing makeovers on my friends, and in turn getting their friends to hold makeover parties for me. One of the first things I did was to visit my closest friend who lives in Wetherby. I went up there and stayed with her and, in two days, I did six parties – morning, afternoon and evening – to which she invited all her golfing buddies. They just loved it and this proved the concept. I drove home from Yorkshire knowing it was going to work, that this wasn’t some fantasy of my imagination. I got a lot of confidence from that, which was quite early on, and that is really how I started to develop the business which started going really well. However, it was my daughter Anna, who was an arts PR consultant and had nothing to do with beauty, who saw that this business was quite remarkable and had huge potential. My YouTube videos were generating online sales and this was growing really fast compared to what I could sell face to face. She knew I had a good business and a good story, and she wanted to PR it.

I’ve learnt not to sweat the small stuff – if something happens, I always think of what is the worst thing that could happen and usually think I can cope with that.

Anna left her job, joined me and she really brought something completely new to the company – a fresh pair of eyes and the whole idea of free publicity. She did so many things like getting us shortlisted for the Guardian’s best start-up awards (we made it to the top three and got a half page in the paper). She then contacted the Daily Mail and we had a piece in the paper; she put me in for competitions like entrepreneur of the year and I started winning a lot of awards. It was brilliant to watch. Meanwhile, Suzy was finding her job as a senior manager at Barclays really hard, having to care for India at home, and she asked to join us too. We needed her as she is very good with spreadsheets and all the finance and operational stuff like supply – basically everything that needs to be organised and made efficient. Anna and I are the creative ones and Suzy is the nuts and bolts person – I’m lucky to have two daughters with the perfect skill sets for my business!
The biggest breakthrough came at the end of 2015. We’d developed a very good relationship with Google, mainly because of our presence on YouTube, and they suggested to BBC Breakfast that they should include me in a piece about entrepreneurs. The segment in which I appeared went out twice on the morning of New Year’s Eve and the response was just phenomenal – we were selling four products a minute! It was exciting and terrifying in equal measures because the demand was so huge. I was worried we’d run out of stock, but it convinced me utterly that this was very significant and an important business. It kick-started us getting an office, building a team and getting external investment, and put us in a position where we could grow into what we are today.
When it comes to competitors, I reckon every beauty business is one and, at the same time, none of them are. I say that because most people in the beauty business do not believe our make-up is any different to theirs. But it is and we would not have the repeat customers if they didn’t think our make-up was better than what they had been using previously. We formulate our products differently to suit older, dryer, bumpier, less than perfect skin in a way that flatters it rather than draws attention to it. Most beauty companies pay lip service to older women, but they are very cynical about it – they don’t believe it’s a big market and their real target is 30 to 40 year olds, not 70 year olds. No beauty business can really address the market they want to address and incorporate the older woman into it because ageing is such a negative thing. They don’t want to use the same language as us – we just don’t use the term anti-ageing. Since we launched, I have to admit the market has changed and is a bit more inclusive, and some beauty companies have started to have a bit of a conversation with older women about our make-up needs and not just our skincare. But they’ve inevitably fallen into the tropes of having to have a model with grey hair, who has to be thin and has to look a particular way that is the acceptable face of ‘older’. We’re not talking about happy granny here!
The main business lesson I’ve learned was probably at my mother’s knee. My parents ran their own business and I learnt from them that business is not that difficult. It’s simply a question of being able to sell something that people want, make a profit, be able to pay the overheads, and not run out of money and go bust. I too love running my own business – mainly because I’ve always been an absolutely hopeless employee. I hate being managed, so what I love more than anything else is that nobody tells me what to do and I am 100% my own agent. I’m not autocratic or, I hope, too demanding. We are a team of ten and I try to be a good team member, but those ten are all people I really rate, which is really important to me. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t do their job well. I delegate a huge amount now, mainly to my two daughters, and I cherry pick what I like doing – I write a lot, I speak a lot, I test new products, do a lot of photo shoots and have a lovely life.

My mother was probably the biggest inspiration in my life. She’d be 100 now but she died at 67, way before her time, from skin cancer. She was a feminist when the word hadn’t been invented, as she really believed in women being ambitious and successful. She pushed me very firmly from the nest and the small Suffolk town we lived in when I was 17 and I went to college in London. She really loved me and would have loved to have me at home, but she wanted me to have a bigger life and I do think that I am the person I am now as a result of her being so supportive. She worked, of course, which was unusual in those days, and she would never have retired. I was lucky to have her.
When I’m asked for advice on starting a business later in life, I always say that the difference between an entrepreneur and someone who would like to be an entrepreneur is actually doing something about it. I use the analogy of hanging onto an acrobat’s swing and being able to see another swing coming. There’s a moment when you have to let go of the first swing, turn in the air and catch the second one, and when you might be in free fall. To mitigate the danger, you need to put in some safety nets. However, when you are older you have to be much more aware of that moment if the swing does not come or does not come in the right way. If things go wrong, you haven’t got the time to make the money back. If I had been 40 when I started the company, I probably would have mortgaged the house and raised my own capital and taken the risk. But I didn’t want to do that in my late 60s so needed to look for investment and other people’s money. So, my main piece of advice is to be aware of the risk because you don’t want to end up with nothing. I have never been in that situation which means that over the last eight years I have always been able to sleep at night.
My investors do sometimes give us a bit of grief. But of late – especially during Covid – we’ve been doing well so they leave us alone. I don’t really enjoy having to answer to people who I see as outside of my business but, at the same time, it’s fair enough. They’ve put their money there, they want to protect it and that’s fine.
If I could tell my younger self one thing, I’d say it will all be fine, don’t fret, you’ve got time. When I was younger, I desperately hoped to have a certain kind of life. I got married when I was 22 in 1970 and, in many ways, I’m glad I did because I had my children. But I very much doubt I would have got married if I’d been born 20 or 30 years later. I didn’t really like being married very much, not that I didn’t like my husband, but I just didn’t like the state of marriage and I’m way happier now that I live alone. But I have my two daughters and I am eternally grateful for that because they and the grandchildren are such an important part of my life. But I did worry when I was at home looking after the girls – I used to think that I was in my mid 30s, that I was wasting my time and I needed to get on with things.  

When I’m asked for advice on starting a business later in life, I always say that the difference between an entrepreneur and someone who would like to be an entrepreneur is actually doing something about it.

Now that I’m in my 70s, I no longer want to do a nine to five. I don’t want to work in an office and I don’t want to have ridiculous amounts of pressure either. However, over the last 18 months during the lockdowns, I have worked extremely hard, keeping our customers happy mainly. I put out content every single day and started doing Zoom events five days a week. I knew that a lot of our customers were, like me, confined to home and very vulnerable. I also made videos which we called ‘Tea Time at the Ritz with Tricia’ and went out at 4pm every day. They became moments in people’s day when they could sit down with a cup of tea while I warbled on about something or other! I got such positive feedback and it saved the business in as much as it kept our customers very engaged. I have to admit, though, that it wasn’t totally altruistic as I live alone and it gave me something to do, a reason to put on my make-up and something nice.
Being older is enormously helpful. I’ve learnt not to sweat the small stuff – if something happens, I always think of what is the worst thing that could happen and usually think I can cope with that. When you’ve had a baby as sick as India was, and you’ve been in a children’s intensive care unit for six months surrounded by babies attached to machines beeping away, babies who die and having a baby who might die, you get a totally different perspective on life. There’s no point in getting agitated about something that really doesn’t matter much.
I’m lucky to be extremely healthy. Since I turned 69, I’ve been working with a personal trainer twice a week and I also use my exercise bike four or five times a week. I hadn’t exercised at all until then and it’s made a huge difference to my life – I’m fitter than I have ever been. I also cut out sugar, plus I’ve never smoked or drunk alcohol, and I sleep and feel really well.
Finally, yes, I always wear make-up, even at home, and have done every single day of my life. It’s part of my morning routine for me, like brushing my teeth. I don’t feel my self or ready to face the day until I have my make-up on. I’m also crazy about whacky statement earrings – that is my signature look, with a good lipstick.

Tricia’s 5 Make-Up Dos

*Do moisturise night and day – older skins are thirsty.
*Do wear make-up – many older women don't bother!
*Do get your eyebrows shaped and then use subtle definition.
*Do wear a pinky/peachy blusher. It lights up the whole face.
*Do decide whether the undertone of your skin is cool or warm and choose lipsticks accordingly.

Tricia’s 5 Make Don'ts

*Don’t forget to use a face primer under your foundation so that it looks good all day.
*Don’t be afraid of make-up. Watch some videos for helpful tips and techniques.
*Don’t get stuck in a rut. Experiment and you might be surprised!
*Don’t think it’s wrinkles that make you look older. It’s the fading of skin and features that are the main culprits, all of which is easily and quickly restored with make-up.
*Don’t believe that ‘less is more’ as you age. This annoying little phrase was dreamt up by 20-something beauty editors to make you feel bad about wanting to wear some lovely slap!

Tricia’s 5 Must-Have Products

*A really good face primer to smooth the skin and hold make-up for hours.
*A creamy concealer to cover blemishes, age spots and uneven skin tone.
*An ultra-light translucent powder to create a flawlessly smooth effect.
*A lip primer to stop lipstick from feathering into the lines around your mouth.
*A really vibrant creamy long-lasting lipstick to pack a punch all day long.
Visit Look Fabulous Forever

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