Using the power of the sun to squeeze into that market gap


How two colleagues went from whiteboard to 25 countries with their sunscreen beauty brand Ultra Violette

So what do you do when you’ve got an idea for a new business, but the one person in the world you’d want to start that business with is your boss?

Ava Matthews says she doesn’t have much of a filter, but she knew enough not just to blurt out the idea to Bec Jefferd, her supervisor at beauty products retailer Mecca Brands.

“Why don’t we go out for dinner?” she said instead. “I think I can see an opportunity.”

And so it was that, in 2016, they sat down for a meal and a nice wine before Matthews told her boss about the gap she saw in the market – a high-end sunscreen that was loaded with skincare products, as opposed to the more conventional beauty products with a bit of sunscreen thrown in.

The idea wasn’t well-formed, and if Jefferd had told Matthews that it sucked, she probably would have dropped it right there. But Jefferd didn’t think it sucked. They talked.

“We quickly realised we were actually on the same page,” recalls Jefferd. “Our vision, very loosely, was prestige skincare, beauty, beautiful formulations, a fun brand and fun education. That was as much of a concept as we agreed on that night. And we agreed to keep talking.”

Ultra Violette founders Ava Matthews and Bec Jefferd | Image: Supplied

Their first purchase was a whiteboard from OfficeWorks, which they erected in Jefferd’s living room, where they agreed they wouldn’t pay themselves. They worked out they’d need to make 10,000 units of each product. And that they’d need to put in $200,000 each to fund it all. They thrashed out a business plan over six months of weekends while Jefferd’s busy sons traipsed through the place.

Having worked for Mecca on all its private-label products, the two women knew something about the manufacturing process. They knew they needed to put together a clear brief for potential manufacturers. “You can waste a lot of time and money if you’re unclear about what you need,” says Jefferd.

And before they started shopping that brief around to manufacturers, they knew they had to resign from Mecca.

 “We found some interesting formulations owned by the manufacturers, and then we started tinkering with them,” says Matthews, “and by tinkering, I mean adding skincare ingredients, changing colours, textures, fragrances.”

Jefferd: “The plan was always to launch with those types of formulations and then, over time, evolve into formulations where we owned everything from the beginning. So literally working with a lab chemist on every ingredient.”

 As they took delivery of the prototypes, they tested them on themselves,” says Jefferd.

 “We were really particular about not just wearing it for a day, but wearing it for a week, wearing it under makeup, wearing it over skincare, getting people with different coloured skins to wear it … We really put a lot of effort into that testing, not just, ‘Oh, that’ll do. It looks like it fits the brief.’”

 They launched in 2019, and their Ultra Violette brand of sunscreens took off from the beginning. They’re now in 20 countries, soon to be 25. Turnover doubled to $12 million last financial year.

Bec Jefferd and Ava Matthews | Image: Supplied

 And it’s all down to the care they took getting the product right, says Matthews.

“Product is everything. Marketing can get you so far, and spending a whole bunch on influencer activity can get that first purchase, but then people aren’t going to come back to you. If you don’t have a good product, you don’t have a brand.”

 They’ve split the business, so Jefferd looks after finance, operations, legal and HR, and Matthews takes care of branding, marketing and education. Product development, however, is different.

 “It’s not only the most widely resourced department in our team. It’s the only department that we both overlap on. So, we both look after product development from different angles.

  “We know how important a product is to a brand, and you really have nothing without it. You know, it’s the epicentre of our brand. We invest a lot in product development. Our team, internally, is probably one of the most widely resourced in the business. We invest significantly in chemists.

“It’s so important to us that we have to pay our full attention to it. We’ll never take our eyes off that.”

Bec Jefferd and Ava Matthews will be speaking on the Power of Product at the inaugural Forbes Australia Women’s Summit on the 22nd of March, presented by NAB Private Wealth. They’ll be joined by other influential women, including Miranda Kerr, Christine Holgate, Natasha Oakley and more, discussing how to: break barriers in business, build wealth and make industry connections. You can see the full lineup and get your tickets at Women’s Summit 2023 – Forbes Australia.