Interview with Sarah Muir, founder of Palm & Pine

Read our Interview with Sarah Muir, founder of Palm & Pine, a vegan, plastic-alternative sunscreen that was officially launched in June 2021 after navigating a challenging journey during the global pandemic. 

What’s your career background?

I have had a very ‘unconventional’ path. It’s a long winding story but the short version is I was destined and got into music school at 17 having studied piano and violin from the age of four.

Realising that this would result in a challenging lifestyle I went back to the drawing board and tried to find a career that was creative, enabled me to travel, and work with people. So I became a hair stylist.

I did this for 15 years, travelled to the french alps where I worked freelance and learnt to snowboard. It is this that also enabled me to go to university at 25 to study business and marketing. Following this I transitioned into agency and then consulting, working from the French Alps, Nice, Geneva, and then finally Lisbon. It was when I made the move to Portugal that my next big shift came: Palm & Pine.

Where did the idea for Palm & Pine come from?

Having moved to Portugal, our need for sunscreen increased (we are Scottish with fair skin). At the same time, relocating to the Atlantic coast increased our love for the ocean and our awareness and concern for plastic pollution. At the same time we became increasingly put off by the thought of smothering highly fragranced pharmacy sunscreens on our skin every day.

Growing up in a very natural/organic home, I was already familiar with cosmetic ‘nasties’ but my husband was learning about this and after a couple of Google searches, found a formulation for zinc oxide sunscreen and started concocting in the kitchen. Knowing what we know now, we do not recommend this!

During this time I had resigned from my position in Lisbon and moved to Ericeira. A beautiful surf town 30km north of Lisbon. I was looking for a new direction and knew I wanted it to create impact in some way. After some investigation I began to see an opportunity to launch a European sunscreen that ticked all of the sustainability boxes, but in a new style.

How did you move from idea to actual business?

After some high-level research (Google searches, asking friends what they use, checking out with the big online retailers sell, thinking about what I use, what I was missing), I started to filter the research to create my ‘hit list’ of what I wanted and what I could see was missing in the European sunscreen market. From this I defined the opportunity which then informed the specifications.

After this I set about finding a manufacturer. I spoke with approximately 10 (or more, it’s now a blur), throughout Europe. Vetting, testing (16 prototypes), emailing, talking, but we presented our own challenges; zinc oxide which is notoriously complex to formulate and our mission to be plastic free which immediately limited our options of who we could work with.

If I were to do it again, I would now know to employ a technical advisor to do this which would have fast tracked the process and removed most, if not all, the hurdles I encountered through trying to go it alone. The manufacturer we ended up with was not the partner we launched with but more about that later…

Side note – The process began in 2018. We launched in 2021. So I will take the opportunity here to say, there is no such thing as an overnight success but we look forward to the day we’re referred to as this!

What’s your brand’s USP?

Protection without pollution. 

Palm & Pine is protection for you and your world. Our sunscreens offer premium UVA/UVA mineral protection. 100% Vegan and truly ocean friendly with zero plastic waste. We wanted to redefine ocean friendly to incorporate the packaging, too.

With plastic pollution representing such a huge threat to the ocean and its wildlife, we’re always a little confused by brands referring to themselves as ocean friendly and yet packaged in plastic. So we decided to take it one step further to be TRULY ocean friendly from product to packaging.

We are also one of few fragrance-free sunscreens meaning we are suitable for sensitive skin and the product doesn’t sting the eyes. Subtle, natural, daily protection with minimal impact on our shared environment.

Who’s your target audience?

Anyone and everyone is welcome, but our audience are mostly women aged 25-44. We target conscious consumers, those who love the outdoors, healthy lifestyles, and those who appreciate a curated design aesthetic. We are 100% vegan and during our research discovered that this growing market is hugely underserved so we’re proud to represent a 100% vegan sunscreen brand for this community.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

We are bootstrapping and so being forever constrained by budget, I have to be very strategic and need to guarantee that we reach the maximum number of people from our investments.

We are very fortunate to have a couple of friends who have really helped to get our products into the right hands which we’re eternally grateful for. Particularly during what would typically be our off-season, helping us to break into the winter sports market (thank you Henry).

We are now also working with a wonderful PR expert Sally from Mercer Keeble PR. An absolute media powerhouse, helping us to connect with the new audiences via the best channels. We’re delighted to be working with her. We have also just partnered with a new agency to launch paid advertising to scale our direct to consumer, ecommerce model.

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

Crowdfunding. There is SO much to say on this subject. It goes far beyond raising money. It is the best opportunity to establish your message, gather your first group of customers and most importantly, test the concept before too much money is invested.

Before launched we started to grow our community (about one year prior to launch I think), on Instagram and our email list. This gave us an audience to launch to and to ensure we reached our crowdfunding target.

At the same time I created a Facebook group and invited contacts from inside and outside of my network. This enabled me to bring people into the decision making, test my messaging, ask questions, and understand preferences during the product development phase. It proved invaluable and at the same time created an engaged group of ambassadors who felt that they had had their say in Palm & Pine.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Easy one: firing a manufacturer on the eve of going to production for our launch… in the month of March 2020. Yes, the same month the pandemic took hold. It was a bit of an out of body experience to be honest. We were forced to do it due to some eleventh hour concerns over the formulation and as hard as the decision was to make, it was necessary and in hindsight a very good idea.

The pandemic was undoubtedly a traumatic time for everyone but if I could gleam one positive from it was that it gave me the time and opportunity to go back to the drawing board and find a new manufacturer because let’s be honest, who was thinking about sunscreen?

We kept our 380 crowdfunders updated and thanks to the good nature of our backers, three magic words from a dear friend (‘you’ve got this’), I was able to regroup and 12 months behind schedule, deliver the products and then launch to the public in June 2021.

And your proudest moment so far?

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ve reached it yet. I always take time to celebrate the milestones big and small but there are still things I would live to achieve before I feel truly proud. Maybe this is the perfectionist talking so if I had to say something there are two moments.

The first is launching the crowdfunder to our local community in Ericeira, October 2019. Back then the town had a definite quiet period after the summer rush. I arranged with my dear friend and manager of the local Quicksilver concept store to hold the even there. I told myself that if our closest friends showed us, I’d be happy but the door kept on opening and more and more people poured in. It was in that moment that s**t got real.

The second milestone was when the first shipment of product arrived at my home (we still manage our fulfilment from home). There’s a funny clip of me lying on the ground saying ‘I can’t breathe’ holding the very first Palm & Pine sunscreen in my hands. That was pretty huge.

Why is work so important to you?

Such a good question. Wow. This is making me dig deep! Sense of purpose, mission, direction. I guess all of those things. When you’re the founder you also get complete creative freedom so it’s not all numbers and spreadsheets.

I get an immense amount of pleasure from the creative side and take a leading role in the creative direction alongside my designer Lois and creator of the ‘trees’ (the Palm & Pine brand). I think it’s also the opportunities the work creates and the people you meet along the way. The team of contractors that I’ve built, the models, the ambassadors.

Meeting people who share your values and believe the mission gives a level of fulfilment to the work that has so far been unmatched elsewhere in my career.

Who inspires you?

Anyone who makes it look easy which, if you believe the internet, is anyone with a brand and this is just not true… If I think about inspirational stories of women in business it’s for sure the founder of Drunk Elephant, Tiffany Masterson. She went from stay-at-home mom to having her company acquired by Shiseido in one of the most valuable beauty brand acquisitions of all time. Now, even if money isn’t the goal this is a real zero to something story driven by passion, vision, and commitment to it.

How do you balance your business with your family?

I’ll rephrase that. What’s the number one thing you need to improve? This. For right or wrong I think I do identify myself with what I do and feel very at home when I’m working.

I think it’s a shared trait amongst entrepreneurs. We just can’t stop. There’s always something to be done and when it’s us navigating the ship as we build it, the boundaries between work and free time can become extremely blurred.

This, teamed with the fact that my husband has a hands-on role in the business managing partnerships and operations, it’s tough. That said, I have burnt out previously so I do try to set and defend my boundaries pretty ferociously so that quality time with friends and family is exactly that. Sacred time to recharge and gain perspective. My best ideas come after a conversation and glass of wine with friends.

What are your top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

Take care not to fall in love with the idea of owning a business. The idea is very different from the reality. It is not a smooth path.

It will require more money than you think, take more time, and the gaps between effort and return are huge and (sorry to be a harsh realist), may never come. Do, however, fall in love with your idea but most importantly have a mission. It is this that will keep you going and give you purpose.

Finally I discovered, during this process, that the number one trait the founder needs to have is stamina. Question if you have it because it is this that you will need to Keep. On. Going.

Find out more about Palm & Pine.