Ex-lawyer now running a skincare company
George Gordon was a corporate assistant at a US firm before leaving the law at 4yrs PQE to set up a skincare company with his wife. Oskia Skincare was recently launched in Liberty and has already been very well received in the beauty press.
mtl: Hi George, please can you start by telling us about your legal career.
George: I studied history at Bristol, did the conversion course at City and the LPC at BPP. I started my training contract at Ashurst in 2002 and then moved to the US firm Fried Frank in 2005, where I did private equity and M&A up until 2008.
A family member was a criminal barrister, so I had grown up with an interest in the law and enjoyed hearing tales from the courtroom. However, I also had an interest in “business”, by which I probably mean money-making transactions. I had the idea that I’d concentrate on corporate law as a way of marrying the twin interests in law and commerce. I studied history in order to leave my options open for later on, but once I had a training contract arranged I didn’t consider any other direction.
I was very lucky with the people and the environment at both firms I worked for. I worked hard but really enjoyed the camaraderie and team ethos - working under pressure but towards common goals.
1997 – 2000
2000 – 2002
CPE and LPC
2002 – 2005
Training Contract and corporate assistant, Ashurst
2005 – 2008
Corporate assistant, Fried Frank
Setting up and launching Oskia skincare
Looking back now though, I disguised my concerns about the substance of the work for a few years. I didn’t have time to stand back and think about my career and as I said, I enjoyed the team work. However I became increasingly aware that the work itself wasn’t fundamentally that interesting to me, and I felt I had other skills that I wasn’t making the most of.
If I carried on I risked looking back in ten years time and, even if I’d become a really successful lawyer, wondering what else I might have been able to achieve. At times I undoubtedly found it exciting to work on cutting edge deals but at the end of the day I spent the vast majority of my time wrapped up in very detailed documents. Working in private equity I came across some very successful owner-managers and I admired their entrepreneurial spirit – I decided that I wanted to do more than effectively document other people’s transactions.
mtl: How did you go from thinking about changing career to actually leaving law?
George: Deciding to leave was a long process. I discussed ideas with friends and brain-stormed lots of different options outside of law, most of which were never going to work. At times the process was quite frustrating but it did make me really think about what transferable skills I had and what I wanted to get out of a move. I did think about working in-house in a sector that appealed and then moving within a business, but realised that what was really important to me was being involved in a start-up with the opportunity to see something hopefully grow.
I was very lucky that my wife had, in her career as a journalist specialising in food, come across an idea that she thought could be very exciting in skincare. About 18 months ago we were out for dinner and were discussing my future when we jokingly raised the idea of working together on a skincare project that she had already been developing for a year or two.
About six months later, so a year before I left law, we began to talk more seriously about it. We could think of lots of reasons to do it as we have very different and complementary skills. However we thought that a husband and wife team could be a problem, though we wouldn’t know until we had tried it. From a business sense it looked good, so it came down to whether we could work well together.
While investigating the option, we looked at the different issues pre-launch, at the time of a launch and in the future. I had to overcome the minor issue of knowing nothing about skincare and to decide whether I actively wanted to be involved in it, rather than just seeing it as the only readily available alternative to law. I wanted to be passionate about my work and contribute enthusiastically to the business. Part of my interest in the idea was obviously the business side but I had to learn about the science behind the products from a standing start. I therefore researched the area, the market and who was doing what and I have become fascinated by it, having never thought about or understood the technology behind it before.
I spent my last six months as a lawyer using whatever time I had to research the market, and I felt that the idea my wife had been developing would stand out in the market and that Oskia could develop into a really exciting venture. At the end of 2008 we decided to go ahead and persuaded family and friends to invest on the back of a very detailed business plan.
All of the research I had done while still a lawyer went into the business plan and the number crunching told us that it was at least a potentially viable business. I had seen lots of business plans but it was the first time I had written one from scratch myself. I found it an extremely interesting and challenging process, including crunching and modeling the numbers, an area which as a lawyer I’d been more than happy to avoid!
mtl: How is the business going and what have you learnt so far?
George: We are still in the early stages but we launched Oskia in mid-October 2009 in Liberty and so far things have gone incredibly well. We waited until we had finalised the product before organising meetings with all of the top department stores, which was a great experience. We wanted an exclusive arrangement with one retailer to start with and felt Liberty was the perfect fit with our brand. By the time we went to the buyers we had already had our press launch and we knew we were going to receive positive coverage in the glossy magazines.
Although I started with my eyes open, I’ve definitely been surprised at quite what a wide variety of skills you need on a daily basis when running a business. We are definitely both learning as we go. I have to be a jack of all trades, whether it is holding a press meeting, discussing new ingredients with our formulator, agreeing design work or something much more mundane, of which there’s a vast amount! There are a million and one things that we need to focus on, so we have to make quick decisions on what we need to prioritise. It’s a challenge but so far a hugely rewarding one.
mtl: What is Oskia’s USP?
George: Oskia takes an unusual “nutritional” approach to skincare. Our products rebuild skin health by feeding it with a comprehensive diet of nutrients, and we then use cutting edge active ingredients to target specific anti-ageing concerns. So we’re building skin health for the medium to long term and targeting particular concerns in a more immediate fashion.
The science behind what we’re doing is fascinating and we marry the best of science and nature. There is a perception with “natural” products that they don’t work as well as their synthetic rivals, but in recent years there have been technical advances that allow our products to be genuinely effective as well as natural. And although we’re quite expensive, if you look at the type of really cutting-edge ingredients we use, such as Swiss Apple Stem Cells, and compare our prices to other brands using similar ones, we’re actually extremely reasonable.
mtl: How have you found your career change so far and do you have any advice?
George: I miss my fabulous secretary, the IT help and the salary that you get in a law firm! But I’ve learnt to live without all three, and I’m so pleased I made the decision to go. It definitely took a little while to adapt and process the change, even though it had been planned for months. It’s frightening but your work is very much tied-in with your character and the way you think you’re perceived, so it’s bound to take a bit of time to settle into a wholly new work pattern.
Work is exhausting but I am totally involved in what I do and I love the challenge. Wherever this company takes me, I will never regret it and will be glad I made the move when I did. If the worst happens and things don’t work out, I’ll have learnt so much that I can take forward into different opportunities. And it has been fantastic working with my wife. We spend all our time together, usually about 3 feet apart, and so far it’s been wonderful – long may it continue!
My advice would be that you tend to know if the law is something you don’t want to remain in. The thought niggles away. It’s often in the background but it’s easy to push away, either because of work pressure, worries about financial security or giving up a hard-earned expertise, or any number of other personal reasons. But I think if the itch is there it needs to be satisfied. Part of me wishes I’d moved earlier. It suits many people perfectly, but if you know it isn’t for you, start saving as much money as possible and go ahead and make the (well-researched!) leap into whatever it is you know you’ll be more passionate about.
mtl: Thank you George and good luck to you both.
Click here to see the Oskia website.
If you fancy trying it, click here.
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.
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