Interviews

Carol Smillie and Annabel Croft take on the taboo period and incontinence market

8 min read

27 October 2015

Former editor

Having both had successful careers in entertainment and sport, Carol Smillie and Annabelle Croft used a chance conversation while on holiday together as the inspiration for a business that has proved to be equally successful and divisive.

Smillie and Croft both have recognisable names and faces, with the former presenting TV shows including Wheel of Fortune, Changing Rooms and The National Lottery Show and the latter having had a career high tennis ranking of 21st in the world.

As an entrepreneurial duo, they founded Diary Doll – a business which began by solving the problem of leaking during a woman’s monthly period and has now gone on to move into the stress incontinence space.

Now led primarily by Smillie, its products can be found in national retailers and its message finally seems to be resonating. Rather than producing underwear with a primary focus of protection, Diary Doll has not forgotten the importance of design and style as well.

“We have four teenage daughters and saw a gap in the market as they were concerned about changes to their bodies during puberty and were worried about accidents,” Smillie explained.

The problem went as far back as childhood for Croft who, as an up and coming teenage tennis player, was often on tour by herself and having to deal with playing in short white skirts.

“We couldn’t believe there was nothing out there to help with that seeing as other markets had developed. From pants to make you thinner to extra bulk at the back, everything was catered for apart form the one thing women have no choice over,” Smillie went on to say.

The beginning

Diary Doll began life as an online business, with a first order placed through a factory in China. Selling back then was a “wide-eyed and innocent” experience, Smillie remembered, with neither having run a business.

A problem with that first order, as they were only able to secure one size, saw the entrepreneurial pair link up with Entrepreneurial Spark. The initiative, which takes the form of a free business accelerator lasting between six and 18 months, providing early-stage companies with a collaborative office environment suitable for building teams, helped re-shore production to the UK.

“We could then develop without restrictions in language, distance and cost,” she added. “However, having done that and got into John Lewis, our manufacturer went bust. This is again where Entrepreneurial Spark came in and provided guidance.

“They have been incredible, becoming my accountability. When you run your business you aren’t accountable. You avoid things like financial or technical elements. It was like going back to school, but I was open to that – willing to learn and knowing I didn’t know it all.”

One development which has been key for Diary Doll is intellectual property. It now has a full GB patent, but it it was a very tricky process which Smillie described as a “minefield”. She began asking herself “is there any point”, “could someone copy me”, “could I afford to fight them”. However, she did come to the conclusion that it would be pivotal for any exit in the future, so persevered.

Now that the business has got to a position of scale, manufacturing is done back out in China again – but with much more control. The process is outsourced to a company that handles all matters in China, so that Smillie knows everything is in place and can have it off her hands.

“I was once at a stage of ordering elastic and dyes with no experience – so had no idea if I was getting the price right. In a weird way I learned business back to front,” she admitted.

Key to the success of the business, now the right infrastructure is in place, was doing something nobody else had done before, she emphasised. Declaring she would never have done a lingerie brand as they do not have the money or expertise that big brands already have, Smillie just saw something that wasn’t being done and had good timing.

One surprising thing that Smillie admitted to was that her face didn’t open as many doors as you’d expected. Not that it had anything to do with her face, or Croft’s, more the story behind the business and the issue it was addressing.

“We assumed we’d get loads of coverage, but people find it awkward – TV was the worst. If we’d had a book or film to plug we’d have had coverage – or sexy underwear,” she stated. At the end of the day, Smillie believes many regarded the topic of periods as “unsavoury”.

Tapping into current affairs

Rather than column inches dedicated to her business, marketing and product awareness has come from aligning the company with events in the news. Stories such as British tennis player Heather Watson being knocked out of the Australian Open and then being pressed into a corner on her performance and snapping back that it was a “girl thing”, have thrust the kind of problem Diary Doll is solving into the limelight.

Another example of where Diary Doll’s product has proved relevant was when well-known blogger Rupi Kaur had an image taken down by Instagram after it was deemed inappropriate because of a small spot of blood on her trousers. The backlash that ensued saw Instagram reinstate the picture, but the damage was down and once again the issue was proved too taboo for some.

The next step for Diary Doll is moving into the light stress incontinence market, catering to individuals who have urine leakage after a small stress on the body such as coughing or sneezing. Describing it as the “biggest growing market” right now, Smillie explained that big brands are throwing millions into it.

Looking back, Smillie credits much of the success of her business to being part of a collaborative environment at Entrepreneurial Spark. “No one had the same business as me, but they all had the same goals and struggles – creating customers, raising money, making sales and protecting IP.”

It seems that even a duo as previously successful as Smillie and Croft feel the need to get back to basics and learn from others while starting and running a business. With products now being stocked in John Lewis, Debenhams and most recently on shopping channel QVC, the two are a prime example of how simple human problems can be the inspiration for a very successful company.