The Brains behind a Brand; this week we hear from the founder of The Organic Pharmacy Margo Marrone...

One of our favourite books here in The GWG office is Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office; 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make at Work by professional coach Lois P Frankel, it’s the first thing that springs to mind when I meet Margo Marrone, esteemed founder of one of the web’s most successful online enterprises The Organic Pharmacy – why? Because boy is Marrone nice. Nice and then some; chatting away animatedly, confiding in me like a trusted friend or colleague, yes laughter is infectious with Margo around and it makes the interview flow like a doddle. So what is there to glean from half an hour in her esteemed company? A lot it turns out, because her insights on the organic movement are just fascinating to say the least, so much so that we’ve decided to publish the interview verbatim. Yes dear readers; sometimes it seems nice girls really do get the corner office...

So Margo - how did it all start?

I’ve often thought about that. It was a long process. I was 15 and I got my first job as a Saturday girl in my local chemist. It was such an old fashioned place, full of these amber bottles full of these tinctures and linctus’s and pills and I remember watching the pharmacist with fascination, how he’d be mixing everything and people would come in and say ‘What do you recommend?’ and he’d go and make them something specially for them. 

I loved all that and I went on to study pharmacy and I came out, it was only four years but it seemed like everything had changed. Pharmacy had gone from being a service; you never came in and browsed, you came in and someone would always advise you and help you, so that was the background that I was used to, and I thought, this isn’t what I had in mind. It was just so impersonal and people were always in a hurry and that community aspect had gone.

I’d always been interested in herbs; at university I specialised in herbal medicine. I sort of knew there was a different type of medicine out there I just hadn’t found the right one. So, I looked at aromatherapy, at herbs... It wasn’t until I came across Dr Bach’s book, from the Bach flower remedies, (before that he was actually a homeopath) - the idea of disease starting with the emotions. I became a homeopath and that just changed my whole life.

It was during that time that I came across the word organic and I’d never heard of that before. How can I have not known any of this information? How can I have not known that an apple is sprayed 16 times with pesticides? You think it’s healthy, you think you’re eating well...

Is there a sense with organic food and cosmetics that it’s all or nothing; that you must only eat organically to get the benefits? 

Obviously all is better but in the real world it isn’t always possible. If you think about everything you put on your body or in your body- as much of it as you can control or reduce is beneficial. 

When I talk to smokers who don’t want to give up smoking they always say, ‘Well if I crossed the road and was hit by a bus I could be dead tomorrow’ and I say ‘Yes that’s true, you have no control over that. But whatever you can control and reduce, you’ll be much healthier.’ It’s prevention. Whatever you can do, do it.

Why do you think there are so many pesticides being used?

Profit. It’s all about that; to grow food as quickly as possible and make as much money out of it as possible. The fact the food doesn’t have the nutrients that our body needs to be healthy is irrelevant, it is how big can we make the onion? How quickly can we get it out? How quickly can we get these chickens looking fat?

I bought some courgettes the other day and they were huge! I thought this can’t be normal.

And perfect. There’s no deformed fruit... Once you start looking into it that’s when you realise what’s going on. Even if you buy a salad off the shelf, if it’s in bag they’ve washed it with Chlorine water.

My objective is not to preach. I think people should know, and then decide, is it for them or it is not for them? I’ve had customers who’ve said, ‘I don’t really care,’ and that’s also O.K. as long as you know. It’s like smoking, it says on the packet ‘smoking will kill you’ and if you know that  and still decide to smoke then that’s your choice. It‘s freedom, but it’s when you don’t know and assume that whatever is being made for you is really healthy, that’s my objection.

On a business level what’s been the biggest challenge?

To grow in a way that always maintains the quality, standard and service. We manufacture everything ourselves so I'm not worried about the quality of the products, it’s the delivery to the end user; always making sure that that‘s part of the experience. 

On a personal level – have you ever felt challenged by being a woman in business?

I’m lucky; this industry is very woman friendly. Having said that it wasn’t long ago in Europe that in the cosmetic industry all the top tier positions were men. That’s changed a lot now and you find women in all positions. You can really do whatever you want if you really want to do it. That’s great.

How do you feel about being an employer?

It’s amazing we started with two employees and now we have sixty. It’s a huge responsibility and a huge challenge. I always say ‘any decision we make, doesn’t just affect us it affects everybody else.’ We’ve got to be really careful and responsible about everything we do because it’s sixty other lives that we’re now responsible for. 

Managing people is probably the hardest part of the job, to make sure that you hear everyone, listen to them, meet their expectations and their dreams because everyone’s got their dreams.
We’re very lucky in that all the people that work for us are very passionate and if someone’s not passionate they stick out like a sore thumb. We sort of sell more than products; it’s a whole lifestyle, so somebody who doesn’t share that passion won’t last long.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of having set up your business?

Meeting my customers. I was moved to tears, (which doesn’t happen very often) but a woman said ‘I just want to let you know that The Organic Pharmacy was instrumental in my recovery from breast cancer.’

So many people come to us saying ‘We’ve been to the doctor; the specialist and they’ve said they can’t help us so we’re trying you as a last resort.’ As a homeopath I’ve always thought what an honour it is for people to come and share their inner most thoughts and pain with us and I always try and instil that in our homeopaths.

So when that lady said that to me ‘You really helped’ that’s what it’s all about, it’s those moments that you think 'gosh we are making a difference'.

Can you run me through your average day when you get to the office?

I start first thing in the morning, as soon as I wake up I’m downloading my emails... When I get into the office it depends on the day. For example this morning I had a meeting with a charity who wants to work with us so we can see how we can support them.

Marketing meetings, planning things, approving artworks, creating artworks, writing for the blog, it’s just so many different things. What I love is that no day is the same, it’s always different with new challenges, new subjects, new people to meet it’s so varied.

What’s been your relationship with the Internet?

It’s such a hard area. First of all you need to have a really great website for also you need to have a really good relationship with your developers and at one point our developers went bankrupt and so we had to start all over again!

Your site’s incredibly slick...

Thank you; we do all of the design in-house but it’s the back end, the functionality that’s so important. So we had to rebuild it, which we did. It’s such a fast moving area that you’re constantly having to look at what you’re doing and improve it. We’re rebuilding it, redesigning it so hopefully in three months time we’ll have a completely new site. It’s also a really exciting area because you are able to do so much and communicate so much which you weren’t able to before as brand or as a person. Anyone can write a blog, you can write your thoughts and people will follow you - it’s incredible. The greatest creation ever.

Can you remember before the Internet? I sort of can (laughter)

I can remember being fifteen and the only method of communication was in person or the landline! Now I see my daughter, she’s got Instagram, she’s got Tumblr, she’s got Facebook, she’s got texting, she’s got email, she’s got her personal mobile and I said to her ‘Do you know you are so lucky that you have all these methods of communication?’ and she looked at me like ‘Oh mummy do I have to listen to this again?’ In my day you had to go to the library, get a book, look it up... The transformation has been incredible.

You mentioned the blog. Social media now is so important isn’t it?

Vital. It took me absolutely ages to understand Twitter. Less time to understand Facebook because that’s visual, at the beginning I thought, ‘What am I supposed to say?’ I know I don’t tweet anywhere near enough. For my daughter it’s normal she says, ‘I can’t talk now I’m tweeting.’ For the new generation is comes naturally.

Did you have an entrepreneurial spirit growing up?

I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. I always wanted to do my own thing even when I was fifteen; I remember thinking ‘I‘d really like to do this or that’ I always had that ‘get up and go’... I couldn’t understand why people didn’t share my enthusiasm. Even if I worked in a store I’ve always been saying ‘If you did this then that would happen or if you did that then that would happen’ or ‘Why don’t we do this to improve that?’ It came naturally, it’s what I wanted to do...

Were your parents entrepreneurial?

No my mum was a housewife, my dad was an accountant so in-fact the opposite. I guess I was born with that spirit.

Did they encourage you?

My dad died a long time ago so he didn’t have any input, my mum really didn’t understand what I was doing. She’s always been supportive of whatever I wanted to do...

With your education do you think that had an impact on what you did?

Yes a huge impact. I studied pharmacy and then homeopathy but I sort of felt that that was really limiting so I then went on and did a Masters in something completely unrelated to my degree which was the geography, economics and politics of the Middle East and I have to say that it just opened my mind up in a much broader way, whereas I think if I’d only stuck to pharmacy I’d only see the world in one way...

I don’t think education ever stops. Part of my job is to read all the research papers, see what’s new, how the latest herb works. It’s my favourite part, I love doing that.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

I’d say you have to be really determined. You can’t give up easily, you’ll hear ‘No’ much more often than you’ll hear ‘Yes’ and you have to look beyond that and think, ‘OK that person can’t help me, let’s find someone who can’, or ‘That way doesn’t work, but let’s find a way that will’ and it’s looking at how you overcome things because nothing comes easily. So ‘I can’t go through that source of finance but what other options do I have?’ 

At the beginning when you’re setting up you never stop working, you never stop thinking about it. Hopefully later on it gets easier but at the beginning it is very much everything you do. It helps so much if you love what you do because then it doesn’t become work, it’s a pleasure. Even if you are doing it seven days a week, X hours day. Whatever business you’re planning make sure you love it and are completely passionate about it. The word ‘passion’ is so overused it’s almost a cliché but you how are you going to do something 15-16 hours day that you are not really committed to?

What’s next? What ambitions do you have left to fulfil?

For the business I’d love to see The Organic Pharmacy grow more around the world and we have taken a lot of steps to see that happen and certainly in the next year we will see more visibility outside of the UK. On a personal level, maybe a bit more time to do some of my hobbies like painting. Nothing inspirational I’m afraid! I would love to create an organic fast food chain. Like an organic Pret. Really nutritious food.

When you look back over your life what would you want to be remembered for? Is it mainly The Organic Pharmacy?

Yes, that really is the culmination of my life. Something that Apple said in one of their adverts was, ‘People who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do’; so many people thought I was crazy eleven or twelve years ago. I guess you have to be a little bit crazy to think you can change things - but those are the ones who do.

June 2012.