5 Jan 2021 | Student Life

Following an appearance on BBC show Dragons’ Den in 2018, siblings William and Anna Brightman received a £50,000 investment and relaunched their sustainable skincare brand as UpCircle. The brand are committed to repurposing coffee grounds that would otherwise be thrown away, thereby creating a positive environmental impact. In this Q&A we asked Anna what the driving force was behind them starting UpCircle, and what their biggest success to date has been. Here’s what she had to say…

Tell us about your business.

We make sustainable skincare products from ingredients which would otherwise be discarded. Our brand name encapsulates our core purpose: sustainability and promoting the power of the circular economy. UpCircle also hints at ‘upcycling’, the process of making something better from things that already exist. Each product is unique and has its own story. It’s what makes our range so special.

“Natural” is the new “normal” – we go a step further with our waste-fighting formulations. What other beauty brand can claim that their products have saved literally hundreds of tonnes of valuable ingredients from ending up in landfill?

What was the driving force behind your business?

UpCircle was founded by myself and my brother William. William and I came from fairly corporate backgrounds but were left feeling ultimately unfulfilled. We wanted to start a business with a purpose beyond profit, a business that leaves the world better than we found it.

It all started about four years ago now. William asked his local coffee shop what they did with their used coffee grounds at the end of the day and was shocked to hear that they were producing so much that they had to pay the council to have it removed and disposed of on landfill sites.

He decided it was a great starting point for a business idea, but wasn’t sure what that idea was – that’s where I came in. Throughout my teenage years I wanted to be a makeup artist so always had a keen interest in beauty and skincare. I knew that coffee had loads of great skincare benefits, so… lightbulb moment! Why not repurpose the coffee into sustainable circular skincare products?

We began our journey collecting coffee grounds from one coffee shop, we now collect from 100 coffee houses across London – our list is always growing!

What are your core business values?

We transform by-products from other industries into our products. We started out making face and body scrubs from the coffee that we collected. We then extracted the oil from the coffee for our best-selling certified organic face serum and eye cream.

We are the only brand who recycle coffee grounds into skincare products at scale, so the range is the definition of innovative! We’ve now saved over 320 tonnes of coffee. We also rescue and reuse ingredients from the argan, tea, juice, date, olive and wood industries. The only limit to by-product beauty is a lack of imagination!

Our products are natural, organic, vegan, cruelty-free, palm oil-free, sustainable, handmade in the UK and housed in 100% recyclable packaging. But the key point of difference between us and other brands is that each of our products is made with a core repurposed ingredient. No other beauty brand is doing what we do, we are pioneering the by-product beauty movement.

As someone whose brand operates within the “beauty” industry it is extremely important to me that we promote inclusive skincare. The beauty industry that we DON’T want to be a part of can make women feel insecure, intimidated or like they are not good enough. Exclusivity is a social sustainability issue in the industry, and people need to see themselves represented to feel engaged and empowered. As a female-led business, with a predominantly female team, we want our brand to represent skincare for all. We’re body positive, gender neutral, represent all ages, and encourage diversity in all forms. Our products are modelled by real customers, family and friends and we are passionate about using authentic visuals that are never photoshopped. We stand for authentic, real beauty in its many forms.

How do you overcome setbacks?

Think outside the box and be prepared to try, fail, and try again until you manage It. Don’t take things personally and try to develop a thick skin!

2020 was a year of constant obstacles… to survive a year like that you have to be willing to pivot your offering and come up with new Ideas.

In March, for obvious reasons, we decided to release a Hand Wash. We all did a LOT of handwashing in 2020, so you might as well make sure you’re using a good one! We decided that with every bottle sold we would donate £1 to charity, and we would rotate the charity each month. Month 1 we donated to Refuge, a domestic abuse charity, following the deeply concerning increase in domestic violence since lockdown began.

Our circular economy ethos relies on the functioning of other industries for the creation of the by-products that we use in our products. Our signature coffee scrub range for example is made up of coffee grounds that we collect from cafes all over London. With almost all of those coffee shops closed for the majority of the year, paired with the increase in demand for our products, we face a huge challenge keeping our products in stock.

We donned our entrepreneurial caps, continued to think outside the box, and just about managed it… through varied and imaginative means.

If you had one piece of advice for students setting out their own business what would it be? 

Ironically, to not feel obliged to take onboard everyone’s advice. No one knows your business idea, your personality or your life like you do, so trust your instinct. There’s no harm in listening, but you don’t have to take everyone’s advice and run with it!

Also, on a practical level, stay in your existing job for as long as possible and save, save, save. Do as much of your research and resourcing whilst still employed, you need your ducks in a row as much as you feasibly can before taking the big leap!

And finally, make sure your products are unique. The beauty industry is very saturated, so you need to stand out from the crowd. Creating natural, vegan or handmade products is no longer enough to set you apart.

Are there any other brands within your sector that you are following at the moment?

Of course, we keep our eyes open wide! It’s always good to look at what other brands are doing and what they’re prioritising. That said, we try not to analyse trends because they are fleeting. By the time you’ve identified a trend it’s usually too late, as trends are backward-facing. As a brand you must be ahead of trends or setting them yourself.

However, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are keeping ourselves informed of the latest innovations so that our products are the best that they can be! The key element of this is seeing your brand, product or business as constantly evolving – that’s very important to us here at UpCircle.

What has been your biggest achievement so far?

It’s so hard to choose one! Having 3 dragons fighting over us on Dragons’ Den was certainly a high! Last year I won a live pitching event to Sainsbury’s buyers which led to our range being launched in their stores nationwide, that was obviously pretty amazing too. In 2020 we launched our range into over 800 stores with one retail partner in America – that was a pretty big deal!

But if I’m completely honest I cherish the little things even more. When customers take the time to email or even send letters, showing before and afters of their skin and letting us know how much they love UpCircle – those sorts of things are what I value more than anything.

Growing our team is also something that excites me greatly. With each new member we have a new wave of excitement, passion and personality. We hired our first ever staff member in 2019, we’ve welcomed five since, and have four more on the way!



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