Updated: Sep 14, 2021
“We had a global view for this brand from day one. We believed we could be the number one selling self-tanning brand in the world from day one,” says Blair.
“And I think we used to talk about that before we even sold one product. I don't mean to come across arrogant. We knew our product was great. We knew it was good value.”
Blair, who is one of the crop of young disruptive Australian entrepreneurs who have turned their business ideas into a multi-million dollar empire, spoke to me on my new #Perspectives podcast ‘Midas Touch’.
The episode happened after Blair and I were introduced by a mutual friend and got talking about how to build a brand which is a world leader. How to do business at a time when social media has overtaken old-school marketing and consumers have more choice than ever before thanks to e-commerce.
Right off the bat, I was fascinated by the Melburnian’s strategies and insights but also his remarkable back story. I love drawing from inspirational sources and finding people who have created something out of what seems to be nothing.
Take a bow, Blair, who with is business partner Shaun Wilson has spun a single idea into Bondi Sands, the world’s top selling self-tanning brand. In 2019 it turned over more than $100 million in 2019, sells into around 30,000 stores around the globe and is taking a new direction with a “world first” range launching in early 2021.
While that proves Blair’s drive and business nous, the other part of his personal story is his resilience and determination.
As a child, Blair—whose first entrepreneurial gambit came when he was seven and sold jars of Vegemite and peanut butter in the UK— endured periods of poverty that saw his family lose their home before the deaths of his mother Irene and father Raymond by the time he was 23.
“I’m still thinking about it on a daily basis,” says Blair, who puts his vision down something his late father often told him: “You can do anything you want.”
His mother’s death was the impetus for Blair to move from Melbourne’s suburbs to beachside Port Melbourne where he opened a tanning salon. It went gangbusters, and during spring racing season “the girls were there spraying until 11 at night,” he says.
The business was so successful that Blair reached client capacity and found himself recommending home tanning products that could be bought off the shelf.
“So you're getting all this feedback of, ‘It doesn't last long enough, it stinks or the color is bad’. I still look back at that those seven years as you know, some of the best market research you can ever do,” he says.
“I think [at Bondi Sands] we know tanning consumers better than anyone in the world. And it does come back to those seven years of talking to customers every single day.”
When the Victorian government outlawed commercial tanning salons from January 1, 2015, a lot of those businesses went to the wall. Blair was ready with his next move, having done his initial brand presentation for Bondi Sands back in 2011.
There were hurdles—some early products turned green or were unstable—but Blair and Sean were focused on delivering a “great” product at a good price point.
They were both hands-on, with Blair doing everything from product development to packing orders and dropping them off at the post office.
Now they have a global market that includes the US and Canada. “We're always thinking what's next, what's next? The amount of products we bring to bring to market and the speed that we do that that makes us an incredibly tough brand to compete with because we're constantly pushing out something new and in today's modern age where people are just on social media, they're wanting to see something new,” says Blair.
On ‘Golden Boy’, we talked Bondi Sands’ marketing strategies that in the early day saw one of their former salon spray tanners as their social media expert before influencer Steph Claire Smith was signed as the first face of the brand.
A major coup came when they were breaking into the US market and paid Kylie Jenner $270,000 for a single Instagram post raving about the self tanner to her 201 million followers.
Then model and actress Emily Ratajkowski showed up to a Bondi Sands party at a private Palm Springs estate during Coachella. “We actually got more PR out of, out of her, turning up to our event. Um, and it was close to a billion reach off the back of people just resharing the fact she was at our event,” says Blair.
The glamorous celebrity stuff is fun but the work that goes into creating and constantly innovating at the business’ frontline is incredible.
Blair shared with me the vision for the brand, its upcoming new direction and how he feels anyone can find creativity within them to rocket their own business.
“The most under-utilised superpower the human race has is creativity,” he says. “And it’s not to be confused with talent.”
People always ask him, he says how to become creative. “I'm not a creative person. I feel like anybody can be a creative person. It's just a different mindset.
“And I think it's, it's as simple as asking questions.”
I loved this conversation about the genesis and brilliant trajectory of an iconic Aussie brand and the drive of its co-founder. I love meeting people who know how to think about how to solve problems and to think outside the box. And that’s Blair James.
I trust you find inspiration!