In August 2014, 28-year-old Laura Way was spending up to 20 hours a day in a bathtub to try to gain relief from the excruciating pain she was experiencing due to her skin falling off.
She was suffering from a condition called Topical Steroid Withdrawal (TSW) after she stopped using the steroid creams doctors had prescribed since she was a young child to treat her eczema. “Nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared me for what lay ahead,” says Way. “Within a few weeks my skin became covered in red sores across my neck that gradually spread across my whole body. Within a month the skin from my entire body was falling off me continually. It shed, wept and oozed. I had to have the house vacuumed constantly. I was shivering all the time, even in late summer. The pain and burning right down to my bones was relentless. My body swelled so much with edema I was admitted to hospital. The only relief I could get was sitting in a bath tub for hours, which I did every day for months on end.”
While she didn’t know it at the time, her condition would be the catalyst to change her career in TV production and launch her own mission-driven business.
Way, now 32, grew up in a village in Southampton in the UK. After a dance teacher told her she looked like an “unfortunate duck” at an audition for a top performing arts school, she enrolled at university to study arts and event production. A few months after graduating she headed to London and landed a job as an assistant agent to a film crew. This led to a series of jobs at advertising agencies throughout her twenties, followed by a freelance TV producing career from 2012 for brands including Guinness, Timberland, TK Maxx and the BBC.
While it may sound glamorous, for Way it was unfulfilling. “It was fast-paced, hectic and largely unrewarding,” she says. “I fell into advertising at a time when I was pretty lost and didn’t really know what to do with my life. The hours were long and I found the whole industry full of undue stress. I’d sit in these meetings where we’d go round and round on the same point and in the back of my mind there was always this niggling voice saying, ‘Get out!’”
When her TSW first flared up, Way was forced to move in with her mother, as the home she shared with her husband had no bath tub, and she needed a carer. “It was the darkest time of my life,” she admits. “As a self-employed person, giving up work was something that was a huge struggle for me mentally and financially and I just wanted to get back to my life as soon as possible.”
After six months Way’s skin cleared up for several months, but in August 2015, it flared up again across her face and neck. “The second time was almost harder,” she says. “I never slept due to the pain but I had to return to work. I’d sit at my laptop and ooze would drip off the end of my hair onto my keyboard. On one particular day I seriously considered committing suicide because I couldn’t cope with the constant pain.”
During the long hours spent in the bath tub, Way, already a vegetarian since the age of nine, watched several animal welfare and environmental documentaries, including Cowspiracy, and adopted a vegan lifestyle. The idea for Votch, a vegan watch company, came about after one of her old watch straps broke. “When I went back to work I simply couldn’t work in advertising anymore,” she explains. “I’d lost so much of my life that I had to do something that was truly fulfilling for me, but most importantly, gave back to communities doing good in the world. I had a whole new perspective on skin, and having lost my own skin, I knew there was no way I’d ever wear the skin of another being again. I looked everywhere for a vegan replacement for my watch strap but couldn’t find any I liked, so I started Votch, which I knew would be the perfect vehicle to give back.”
Having worked in TV production, entering a completely different industry in which she had no experience was a major challenge for Way, but she recognized that production of any kind is all about problem-solving and realized she could utilize many transferable skills from her previous career. “There was never a case of ‘We can’t do that,’ it was always ‘Ok, how do we do that?’” says Way, who has grown the 18-month-old company organically, using social media, particularly Instagram, PR, and influencers. Pre-sales were launched in August 2016 to allow enough lead time for Votch to be included in features for Christmas gift ideas for various media such as HuffPost and Buzzfeed.
When the first pre-orders came in, Way was still working freelance at an advertising agency but soon realized she couldn’t juggle both jobs. “I was sitting behind my computer at this agency when the site went live at midday and sales poured in,” she says. “I wanted to jump up onto my seat and scream, but obviously I couldn’t tell anyone. I continued to work on and off as a producer for another three months, taking bits of holiday cover here and there to pay the bills. In the end, I knew I had to quit and give Votch everything. I told myself if I failed, I’d have to just jump back into a big production, but I knew that was something I’d never be able to do. Fear scares me more than anything else, so whether or not Votch was going to work wasn’t an idea I was willing to entertain – it had to.”
Still very much in start-up phase with no outside investment, Votch’s sales have just hit £250,000 ($350,000). Going into 2018, sales are set to be up 150% more than the previous year. The majority of products (80%) are sold direct to consumer from the company’s website, with the rest via a small number of independent retail outlets across the globe. “Because it was a new idea and business I wanted to grow it organically and really understand it myself as a whole new venture before I pushed sales too hard,” says Way. “Now I’m comfortable with where we’re at, I’m looking to push and grow Votch far more in 2018 including seeking distribution to make our products more available to our international customer base.”
The market for vegan watches is a varied one, although Votch is positioned at the higher end, with all products over £100 ($200). “There are people who have been vegan for more than 20 years and have been waiting for a product like this, and there are the 20-somethings who are just beginning to embark on a cruelty-free life,” says Way. “We kept our designs simple, classic and unisex so we could cater for as many people as possible in this niche market. Also, people are still wearing watches as accessories, like they would jewelry, so I knew I had to design them with that in mind so they were a desirable addition to just checking the time on your phone. And what’s great is our customers talk to us and tell us what they want.”
One of the ways Way has responded to feedback is the forthcoming range of interchangeable straps with quick-release pins to allow customers to update their look with ease, as well as new strap materials, so instead of having to buy a whole new watch, customers can have flexibility on the style they want to achieve. Votch’s straps are made from materials including woven cotton, polyester, environmentally-friendly TPE (thermoplastic rubber) and PU, and Pinatex (pineapple leather). They proudly proclaim the word ‘vegan’ on them, although Way is considering changing this to ‘animal-free’ to appeal to a broader market of ethical consumers.
The company is also proud of the fact the watches are made in China, despite the negative connotations often associated with products made there. “When I first, albeit naively, went into this, I thought it made sense to make our watches in the UK, until I learned there are no facilities to make them here,” says Way. “Market research told me, based on price points, I’d have to get them made in Asia, but I’d only do this if I was happy with the factory I was working with. My compassion doesn’t extend just to animals, but people too.”
To this end, Way hired a third-party team to join her to visit a shortlist of factories she’d selected based on her requirements and to avoid being forced into partnering with any one particular factory. “We work with a great factory and have forged a good, strong relationship with them,” says Way. “We don’t claim to be perfect, but our intentions are there and we do the best we can with the resources we have on offer to us at this stage.”
From the start, Way has stayed true to her desire for Votch to serve as a philanthropic, as well as for-profit, venture. Every three months, in line with the seasons of fashion, the company donates 10% of its profits to an animal charity or an organization that promotes kinder living. Way makes a point of visiting each charity, unless it’s overseas, to document as much as possible to be able to inform customers of who they’re helping to support. “Giving back is definitely my highlight of the job and makes everything I do worthwhile,” she says.
Going into 2018 Way, who is currently due to give birth to her first child in April, is keen to delegate more tasks – something she advises other entrepreneurs to do as soon as they have the resources. “I’m incredibly guilty of believing I can do everything, but Votch is growing at such a pace it’s no longer possible, so make sure you have back-up ready and waiting,” she says. “If there’s anything I regret, it’s probably not having a business partner from the offset, someone to be able to bounce ideas off and to share the highs and lows with.”
As for her skin, she’s not quite out of the woods, but is well on the way. “I’m just coming out of another five-month flare, and it doesn’t get any easier, however long you’ve suffered with it,” says Way. “What’s brilliant is my eczema has gone! And I know in a way, my skin was a drug addict – it simply didn’t know how to function without the meds, and having been prescribed them for almost 30 years it’s going to take a long time to recover. The skin on the rest of my body is like it’s never been before though – it’s healthy and at times I think it glows. So I know the end is in sight for me from TSW and I just have to stay strong.”
First published on Forbes