A FORMER air stewardess has revealed how she gave up life in the skies to follow her dreams of launching her own tooth whitening brand – and it’s now worth £1million.
Debbie Sleeman, 38, from Peterborough, started her oral care company Polished London with just £500 and her products are now stocked in Harrods.
- Whitening strips, £24.99 for a set of 14 from Polished London – buy now
When she launched her company in 2015, Debbie was selling a handful of items a week but now sells hundreds a day, and counts the likes of Una Healy, Chloe Ferry and Kady McDermott as fans.
Polished London turned over £1.3million in 2021 and is on track for £2million this year.
Speaking exclusively to Fabulous for our #BOSSINGIT series, Debbie said getting pregnant changed the course of her life.
She explained: “I was working for Virgin Atlantic as an air hostess who specialised in beauty treatments, giving the rich and famous back massages in-the-air and manicures.
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“I had my daughter and went part-time flying and then set up a beauty business in the garden shed.
“I decided teeth whitening was a popular treatment back then, so I trained in Harley Street.
“I developed my knowledge of teeth whitening and realised a lot of clients would ask what products they could use at home for whitening.
“I realised there was a gap in the market to infuse my beauty background into a really good product.”
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Debbie decided to launch her own tooth whitening product – but only had £500 to use.
She said: “I was doing the beauty in the shed and I remember counting all the money that I'd saved during my beauty treatments.
“There was £500 and that went on designing the logo.”
Debbie admitted spending the cash seemed like a “risk” and was “scary”, but added: “When you've got a vision and a goal, you just have to fight fear and go for it.”
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She carried on saving up until she had £1,500 and could develop her first product.
She found a lab who could manufacture tooth whitening strips without any dangerous chemicals, such as hydrogen peroxide.
Currently laws state that UK customers can only buy products that contain 0.1 per cent or less of hydrogen peroxide.
Debbie said: “I knew all the good ingredients to use and all the bad ingredients to use from the experience that I had from working with Dr York on Harley Street.
“Obviously hydrogen peroxide is something that I would never include in my products.
“I found a lab who could manufacture teeth whitening products and tested them.
“I found some that I really liked that did actually stick to the teeth and didn't give me any sensitivity and tasted nice.”
After putting the strips through testing regulations, she was able to order her first batch of product.
How YOU can Boss It like Debbie and launch your own business:
- Network and build up your relationships with the influencers. Get them to try your products.
- Do competitions with local businesses to help get your brand out there on social media.
- Use LinkedIn to contact people who could stock your products. Get your foot in the door.
- Look after yourself. Drinking your water, going to the gym, taking a timeout, turning your phone off, it sounds really boring. I'm 24/7 on my phone, so it's good to have that kind of phone detox for a day a week.
- Just got for it. If I was to go back, I would have quit everything and gone straight into Polished London.
- There's always room for everybody. Just try and be different in what you're offering.
- Trademark as early as you can and pick the best website URL you can so you don't have pay more later.
She said: “We started off at 500 because that would have been the minimum order.”
They couldn’t afford swanky packaging from the lab at the time, so they used plain packaging that listed all the ingredients, and they added stickers with the logo.
Debbie said: “Back then we didn't have any labelling machines, so we'd have to sit and cut out people's addresses and stick them on the envelopes.”
The savvy mum enlisted the help of a friend to set up her website, and recalls the moment she received her first sale.
“I remember I was on holiday when we got a sale, it was really exciting," she said.
“I think we had about three that week, which was brilliant at the time.”
Her whitening strips are priced at £24.99 for a set of 14.
Over the following months, their main sales came from Instagram and social media, but working with one influencer in particular helped business to boom.
Debbie said: “Around two and a half years ago we worked with a girl called Louise Mcdonnell, she’s an influencer in Ireland and our business has grown massively from working with her.
“It opened loads of doors for us, loads of salons now stock Polished London.”
I'm excited because the best things haven't even happened yet.
As business boomed, Debbie started branching out into new products, such as whitening powder, and was still operating everything out of her home.
As with any new venture, there were some set-backs along the way.
She ended up having to fork out between £3,000 and £4,000 to buy the website domain Polished London, without a hyphen in between.
Debbie said: “At the time you don't know how big the brand is going to go.
“What's happened is we went to become a global brand and everything needs to be completely tied up now.”
They also made the mistake of not trademarking until a year and a half ago.
Debie said: “No one's there to go watch what you should do.
“You basically learn as you go along. You make mistakes, but actually I realised it's not mistakes, you're just learning all the time.”
As more and more sales flooded in, Debbie and her husband realised they may need to relocate the business out of their home.
She said: “It was ridiculous, products were piling up everywhere.
“It was getting me down a little bit because as soon as you wake up in the morning, you're doing 100 orders a day, and you're climbing over boxes in the house.”
Debbie managed to secure a premises that was five minutes from her house, and they moved in during September 2020.
She still packs her own parcels and is helped by her 17-year-old son Bradley, and husband Aaron, 41, who quit his job in security to work full-time for the business.
Thankfully Royal Mail comes each day to pick up the parcels for sending, and Parcel Force handles any orders for big suppliers.
You basically learn as you go along. You make mistakes, but actually I realised it's not mistakes, you're just learning all the time.
Most of the money they earn is reinvested back into Polished London, and has enabled them to bring out an entire range of tooth care products, including £74 electric toothbrushes.
Despite being careful with the earnings, Debbie said she had treated herself to a new Range Rover.
Debbie attributes Google ads, working with influencers and reaching out to key people on LinkedIn as great ways to grow a business.
The highlight came for her in 2020 when she managed to secure a meeting with Harrods, who later told her they wanted to stock Polished London.
Looking back at her journey, she said: “We went from making £6,000 in our first year to now turning over £1.3million and we are on track for £2million this year.
“It started as a side business for me but now we are running a full-time global business which we have achieved on our own as a family-run brand.”
So what’s next for Debbie and her goals for the business?
She hopes to take on their first employee, who can help boost their marketing, and also dreams of being stocked in Selfridges.
She added: “I've never changed as a person but I’ve done things I never thought I could do.
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“I'm so proud of it and it was always a dream of mine.
“To actually look back and think about everything and what we have achieved, I have faith in the future as well for everything that's about to come.
“I'm excited because the best things haven't even happened yet.”
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