From Redundant Oil Worker to £1M Business Owner
Posted 08/04/2022 10:16
When the oil downturn struck due to Covid-19, Marko Steiger, then a 30-year-old drilling fluids engineer at Halliburton, found himself on a redundancy list. Without a job and with the pandemic in full swing, not many would have thought of starting a business from scratch. But Steiger did.
The side project for a better hand sanitiser
“It started as a side project with my housemate,” he explains. “We both have some friends that work in healthcare, and they were struggling to get hand sanitiser. We bought some equipment and essentially turned our kitchen into a science lab and started researching and experimenting.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, many companies turned to manufacturing and selling hand sanitiser using the simple formula recommended by the WHO. Steiger explains that “it is easy to make and does the job, but the problem is that it can be pretty harsh on the skin when used on a regular basis.”
With the use of hand sanitisers skyrocketing, many have encountered the side effects of the basic product. Besides the strong smell of alcohol and sticky hands, some people also suffer from skin irritation and dry hands. That was and still is a real problem, especially for people working in healthcare and other sectors where frequent hand sanitisation is a must.
That is where Steiger’s idea came in. To create a hand sanitiser that would minimise the side effects and would be ideal for use on a regular basis. And that is how Palm Safe was born.
“As a drilling fluids engineer, mixing chemicals to create a product was part of my job. The process for hand sanitiser gel is not much different,” he explains. “To get the sanitiser to gel is a bit of a fine balance, and it took some experimenting to get it right, but we managed to perfect and optimise the process in a way no one else does as a result.”
“The alcohol concentration is also important. We have made our hand sanitiser 70% alcohol by volume, which is stronger than some of the other options available on the market,” Steiger continues. Unlike many other hand sanitisers on the market that rely on ethanol as the alcohol of choice, Palm Safe products use isopropyl instead.
While more expensive, medical grade isopropyl alcohol proved to be less harsh on the skin as it does not attack living skin tissue while still retaining the same disinfectant properties as seen in ethanal based hand sanitisers. For that reason, isopropyl alcohol is often used as an antiseptic in hospitals.
“Unlike other hand sanitisers that use glycerine, a cheap vegetable bi-product, as a moisturising agent that leaves your hands sticky, we use aloe vera, which helps moisturise the skin and counter the effect of the alcohol,” Steiger explains. “Overall, we were able to develop and offer a superior product that does not dry and crack the skin.”
Path to success
But a superior product alone is often not enough to succeed in a rapidly growing market. “We knew we had a great product that is much better than most of the alternatives on the market,” says Steiger. “The question was how to get it to customers and how to let customers know that it is available.”
Palm Safe is based in Aberdeen, and the company decided to start locally first. “We partnered up with a local packaging company and we use labels produced by Aberdeen-based Smith & Wilson,” explains Steiger. “We were mixing the gels ourselves initially, but with the quantities scaling up, we have employed the services of a nearby mixing plant in Arbroath.”
The initial customer base started out local as well. “With the first products ready to go, we were initially relying on word of mouth as Facebook was blocking advertisements of Covid-related products,” says Steiger. Luckily, at the time, Scotland’s Towns Partnership, in association with the Scottish Government, launched a campaign urging Scots to shop locally to help fuel the economic recovery.
But Palm Safe did not stay local for long. The company, now online, soon became a viral sensation, attracting tens of thousands of customers all over the UK. “We have enjoyed great success on Facebook and in our online store,” explains Steiger. Customers can now also find Palm Safe Kiosks in Aberdeen and Livingston, in addition to over a hundred stockists and resellers all over the UK.
The latest milestone on the company’s path to success is its launch on Amazon. “We are extremely proud to launch our product range on Amazon,” confesses Steiger. “Our customers were already searching for our products there before we started selling them. And that is part of the reason why Amazon decided to buy our products directly from us.”
The triumph with customers, in turn, transformed into financial success as well. “In eighteen months, Palm Safe has achieved a turnover of well over £1 million. To us, that is a sign that we are doing things right and that our products are something people want and like,” explains Steiger.
Palm Safe started with the idea of coming up with a better product that would change the way people look at hand sanitisers. And by trial and error, listening to feedback and hard work, that idea turned into reality and was rewarded by the success among its customers.
But at Palm Safe, they also wanted to use the success to give back. “As we are growing, there are more and more opportunities to work with us. But we also wanted to support those who are struggling to find their calling or work,” explains Steiger. After all, he himself was made redundant and knows how it feels to be suddenly without a job or to struggle to find one.
“That is why we decided to take part in the government’s Kickstart scheme,” Steiger explains. Palm Safe used the Kickstart scheme to create 30 new job opportunities. “We were happy to get these talented young people on board and provide them with the opportunity to learn new skills and get the experience they need,” he adds.
The Kickstart scheme is a government-funded programme aimed at creating hundreds of thousands of high-quality 6-month job placements for young people. Employers participating in the scheme are asked to create new jobs for 16-to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit who are at risk of long-term unemployment, to provide them with valuable experience and skills to “kickstart” their future careers.
“In their six months with us, they have the opportunity to try working across our production and packaging, sales, marketing, and social media management departments at our headquarters in Aberdeen, and at our mall kiosks throughout Scotland, finding their talents and passion for a plethora of activities,” Steiger explains.
“We provide them with onsite training as well as constant guidance throughout the whole scheme,” Steiger adds. “We also help with writing CVs and seeking future job opportunities. Thanks to the experience they get and the skills they learn here, many of them are then able to find full-time jobs either with us or other companies.”
To the future and beyond
So, what lies in the future for this Aberdeen-based business? Despite his success, Steiger keeps his feet firmly planted on the ground. “We owe our initial success to the overwhelming support of the local communities and a gap in the market that we have successfully plugged. To keep things going, we need to keep doing the same things that got us here: hard work, listening to feedback, and a little bit of trial and error.”
But he believes that people want a high-quality hand sanitiser, and it is only a question of time and effort to let them know about it. “We are firmly established in the UK market. We are now looking to continue to expand our customer base and supply it with the best product available.”