SAHAR HASHEMI MEETS MARGO MARRONE
FOUNDER OF NATURAL BEAUTY BRAND ORGANIC PHARMACY
They discuss Chelsea Physic Garden, the importance of conviction and how to overcome hurdles
I had always heard great things about Margo Marrone, the founder of Organic Pharmacy, (which has six stores nationwide, as well as in New York, Beverly Hills, Seoul and Abu Dhabi), so I was very excited to discuss entrepreneurship with her. We met at a new cold pressed juice bar bang next to her first store on the Kings Road and immediately bonded over our love of this new juice craze and Tanya’s, a raw food café nearby that we both loved but that others had found a bit challenging.
What I was longing to find out was how she had the insight and courage to start Organic Pharmacy back when the word organic was, frankly, pretty left field. I discovered the same idiosyncratic spirit and uncompromising approach to health that attracted her to Tanya’s was instrumental in her entrepreneurial success (along with a lot of perseverance).
Tell me about your working life before Organic Pharmacy. When did your passion for natural products start?
I trained as a pharmacist, so I started in retail chemists but I just knew it wasn’t for me. I had specialized in herbs in my pharmacy degree and I found it frustrating that in chemists there was just a token area for herbal stuff, which no one really recommended or used. Then I read Dr. Edward Bachs‘ [of Rescue Remedies fame] HEAL THYSELF: an explanation of the real cause and cure of disease. It was transformational for me, learning how disease starts in the mind and how emotional upset causes physical manifestations. I started doing loads of research around how our symptoms are connected to our thoughts.
How did you turn all that information into action?
I did a homeopathy course, which is how I came across a word I had never heard before—‘organic’—that changed everything for me. I thought I had a pretty healthy lifestyle but was shocked to discover that, for example, a non-organic apple can have as many as 20 different pesticides or that tinned food cans are lined with lead and bpa. I started cleaning up my diet. I would meticulously read all the ingredients of everything in supermarkets looking for organic produce. I remember always filling in the suggestion boxes in my local supermarket with ‘more organic range please’. Then I moved to skincare knowing how chemicals can enter our system through our skin. I was using what I thought was a well-known ‘clean’ brand and was shocked — and a bit betrayed — to read the parabens and formaldehyde in the ingredients. At the time I was pregnant with my son, so I was even more conscious of the chemicals I was putting on my skin.
I think a lot of women will relate to those concerns, but you took things a step further and started a business based on your passion. Many people are afraid to take that step. When did you make the decision to strike out on your own – when was your “lightbulb moment”?
As a pharmacist, I had really got to the point where I felt I could never again stand there and sell products I didn’t believe in. I literally thought my soul would die if I carried on. My ethics had to match my work. I was sitting in the park one day and asked myself, ‘what do I want really?’ It wasn’t a wishy washy ask. I asked with real conviction. I believe if you ask with conviction the answer will come to you. You have to be ready to receive the information. And there it was — the answer. I wanted a shop where everything was organic — everything on the shelves is checked and endorsed by me — where people could feel safe and secure in that knowledge. And I wanted a dispensary and treatment rooms too.
Asking with conviction like that is such a great idea! I’m absolutely going to try that technique next time I need to make a big decision. However, it’s not all inspiration, is it? For me entrepreneurship is a big obstacle course. As you moved from that moment to the business you have today what were your biggest hurdles?
Money. I took it to my bank manager who said she needed three-year projections. Projections? I had no idea, but I thought, ‘ok, how do I do this?’ So I just added up figures- frankly numbers I had plucked out of the air hypothetically- and gave it to her. We had to put up our house for security as it was all we had and also personal guarantees, but for me that’s what entrepreneurship is about, putting everything behind what you believe in.
The second hurdle was finding premises. All we got from landlords was ‘no’ ‘no’ ‘no’ ‘no’ ‘no’. They were laughing at the idea of an organic pharmacy. We didn’t even know you can have agents that help you!
I spoke with Denise Leicester, the founder of ILA, and she talked about how her first products were actually custom made for her yoga students. Do you connect with that at all? How did you fill the shelves of the UK’s first organic pharmacy?
At the beginning we had no organic pharmacy products, so I bought in third party products I trusted. But what used to happen is people would come in with complaints. They would have tried everything, so we were a last resort. I would make customised cream especially for them — no [special] packaging, just in typical pharmacy amber packaging— and they would come back wanting more. Soon they would send their friends in, so I made batches of ten and put them on the shelf.
I don’t really believe in overnight successes. Were you the exception to the rule who found instant success?
No. It was slow. Even our accountant, looking at our numbers, was questioning why we were doing this when we could have earned good salaries doing our normal jobs. Then we hired a small PR company at £400 a month. The next thing we knew we had an article in The Sunday Times and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Then there was an article in YOU magazine talking about facials and we were suddenly booked solid for five weeks. So it finally happened! But it was hard graft. For the first ten years it’s been pretty much 24 hours 7 days a week.
You had young kids when you were starting, correct? How did you juggle starting a business with family life?
I am not going to lie, it is difficult, but I was lucky in that I could bring my son in to work and customers liked it. They had babies of their own so they related. Of course you work much harder than a 9-to-5, but it’s a choice at least and it doesn’t feel like work.
I think there is a bit of misconception out there that – when you make it – that you don’t need to be so hands-on, that you don’t need inspiration once you’re successful. Now with six stores nationwide and locations from Beverly Hills to Seoul, as well as a multi-award winning brand, are you still as obsessed with the details?
Absolutely. I am and have always been the customer, so I’m always asking what does the customer need? What do I need? What can we do better? I’m always searching what’s out there that needs an organic version? It’s the nitty gritty that I love, the scientific white papers, researching new ingredients. Also I get a lot of inspiration from the Chelsea Psychic Gardens, I’ve been going there for 20 years and adore the fact that it is over 400 years old and made specially to educate on herbal medicine, homeopathy and gardening in general.
Product images taken by Chloe Roberts (firstname.lastname@example.org)