Sonal Keay founded This Is Silk, specialising in silk solutions for sleep, skin and hair. She founded the company in 2017 when she found herself looking for more natural solutions to incorporate into life as a mother. Prior to that she was a criminal barrister. She now lives in the Cotswolds with her family, dog and parrot and can usually be found converting people to the myriad benefits of this ancient, lustrous fabric of silk. Here she shares her story and advice.
Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?
When I first graduated I had no idea what to do. I was a journalist for an obscure shipping magazine and then found my way to the Bar. I really enjoyed being a barrister but felt that the legal work had run its course after my second daughter was born. I felt life was short and I needed to focus on what I loved. I have always loved silk and used to use it for my very sensitive skin. I started researching it and was really blown away by the science behind it. That is how This Is Silk was born.
How did the idea come to you for the company?
I, like most people, prior to my conversion, mostly associated Silk with luxury and shirts and scarves. I had used it to sleep on as a teenager when I was first diagnosed with a rare skin condition but had forgotten about it until hormonal changes post-partum resurrected both skin and hair problems. I did not want to turn to chemicals, and discovered Silk. It is such a fascinating, beguiling substance. It has a huge history and in fact has shaped the world as we know it today.
How did you achieve awareness?
I took out a stall at a Country Living Fair and got to know my customers. It was brutal but very useful as I got to know what people were looking for. I used Facebook a lot and I was lucky – there were other mothers around who had amazing skills such as photography, modelling, and the local community really supported me and spread the word about the business and the products.
How have you been able to gain funding and grow?
As part of my research I had attended amazing seminars held by Alison Lewy at the British Library. We were living in London at the time. I applied for a start-up loan and that really helped me to buy stock and look at marketing for the first time, which in turn has helped the business to grow. I did not take any money out of the business – it was all reinvested.
What are the key successes?
The biggest pleasure by far is converting other people. I suspect I sound like a cult leader here… It is so nice to read emails from customers and they are always amazed at how a fabric can really make such a difference. You don’t really look at Silk and think it is such a powerhouse for health and beauty but it is, and people experience it. The other key success I think is being able to employ people. It took a while to find the right people because I am very fussy but the patience paid off and I am really lucky. I act as a mentor to them, in the same way I was taught and I hope that one day they will start their own businesses too.
What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?
I had never negotiated with suppliers before starting This Is Silk and that has been a steep learning curve. You cannot make any assumptions about anything at all, and every detail has to be nailed down. It involves hard-nosed negotiation but with a smile. And once you find the right supplier it actually feels like you have someone on your team.
For me personally the other challenge is tech. I am a very low tech person and still only really write with pen and paper. I read a lot but that is the only time I will really use a laptop. I really miss the 19th Century, actually. So things like social media are a nightmare for me, and I am sure I wind the staff up with constant requests to do simple things like uploading pictures. My solution is – outsource it!
What are your plans now/for the future?
Well, there are a lot of people on the planet and they all need converting…. ! The aim is to introduce Silk into more peoples’ lives. I would like people to appreciate this marvel of nature because it really can benefit them. Brexit has complicated matters somewhat but I would like to start selling silk into Europe.
What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?
I would advise people to really immerse themselves in their chosen area and learn as much as possible. This instils confidence in you but also in other people such as customers and suppliers. I think it is also critical to have a mentor of some sort to guide you along the way. The main thing really though is just to get started and not be afraid of failure.
Can you share you top 5-10 tips for entrepreneurial success?
- Hard work – I don’t think it is possible to succeed without it.
- It is totally fine to fail, and those failures will help you succeed the next time
- It is sensible to cultivate some resilience, because sometimes it is really tough
- Try and meet others in a similar situation / at a similar stage because it is important to feel like you are in company
- Trust your instincts. I think instincts are really underrated.
Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most?
1. Patti Smith, for her punk rock music, her anti-establishmentarianism, her soulful and angry music and her steadfast commitment to human rights. https://www.instagram.com/thisispattismith/
2. Meera Sodha (my sister) because she is my closest example of someone who has taken something they really love and shared it with the world https://www.instagram.com/meerasodha/
3. Anita Roddick – for standing firm on the social and environmental consequences of business when it was less known and appreciated
4. Bryony Gordon – for sharing very candidly her struggles with mental health and addiction, helping everyone else along the way https://www.instagram.com/bryonygordon/
5. Baroness Lawrence – for her courage and her love and her anger and her heavenly dignity in the aftermath of such loss
What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?
“Every journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”
“When the tough gets going, get it over and done with.”
What are your social handles and website links so our readers can connect with you?
About This Is Silk:
Cotswolds Based This Is Silk was founded by Sonal Keay, who wanted to recreate the old-fashioned, thick and lustrous silk she remembers from her childhood, not the thin and flimsy fabric we see on the High Street. This Is Silk uses 22 momme weight of silk. This is heavier than most silk on the market and the superior grade means it is more lustrous, more durable and machine-washable. This Is Silk’s award winning products soothe and nourish skin and hair, are sustainably produced and biodegradable. This Is Silk pillowcases, hair wraps and SILKBEBE cot sheets have featured in The Independent’s Indy Best review section.