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Zaffrin O'Sullivan: Beekeeper & Beauty Entrepreneur & Lawyer

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A chat about beekeeping, collecting knick-knacks, being present in the moment, and owning your story.

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September 4, 2023

Zaffrin O'Sullivan

Why not just give it a try?

That’s how one might describe Zaffrin’s mantra. And from our hour-long conversation, you realise it’s not just fluff. She started a blog about honey simply because she loves honey. Never mind that only 2 people are going to read it: you and your mom (as Zaffrin astutely points out). We so often try to backfill the logic of why we want to do something, or need to do something, that we miss out on the ‘trying’ and the ‘liking’.

Five Dot Botanics, a minimalist plant-based skincare brand, sprung from ideas jotted down in a notebook, and from that very same mantra. Zaffrin launched Five Dot whilst she was on maternity leave from her day job as a media lawyer—coming into the beauty space as an ‘outsider’ and challenging the norms of the beauty industry. Each Five Dot product has only five natural ingredients.

Our chat brings us to what she’s learnt from beekeeping, parenting three children, and gardening. We talk about owning your story, about discipline and compromise, and about what matters the most. We contemplate how learnings from the Five Dot side hustle have cross-pollinated into the way she approaches her day job. And we also marvel (and laugh) about that one time in her 20s when she took multiple trains across China to turn up at Shaolin to learn kung-fu. True story! There was no kung-fu involved, but she did stay there for a bit, and slept on the equivalent of a plank in a guest house at the top of a hill. The bottomline: We may not be great gardeners, or successful gardeners. But each of us is a gardener of kinds. Keep trying stuff, even if they don’t work out. We may just enjoy the flowers along the way.

What were some of the things you wanted to be when you were growing up?

I grew up in London and my parents are from Bangladesh. Growing up, I was very creative, and spent a lot of time reading and writing. I knew I wanted to study English literature. I hadn't necessarily thought about a career in law but, coming from a first-generation immigrant family, pursuing a creative career was seen as ‘high risk’. I don't think that they were strict in saying, “Don't do it” but I didn't feel confident or inspired enough that I could make a success of it.

I did English literature at university and I loved it. Storytelling—the heart of everything, and what we learn about ourselves in the world through the stories we tell. I also knew that I was thinking, "What's a good job to do?" I'm quite cerebral and I thought law looked like a good thing. I studied hard and I got a great job in a law firm, but what I hadn't appreciated is, what does it mean to have a good cultural fit for yourself? I was very fortunate because I knew I wanted to be in media, so I then ended up on television. Being surrounded by lots of creative people seemed like the perfect fit for me.

"A cultural fit". What does that mean?

It's not a static thing. What cultural fit means for you is constantly evolving because you're not the same person year on year.

In my 20s, what I hadn't realised is that I really like to be around people that are kooky or different in their thinking or different. They maybe didn't all go to the best universities in the world and come up with the same degree and then end up on a graduate recruitment program—they were different people coming from different backgrounds, ages, races. I think the city has changed since I started out 20 years ago as a young lawyer, but I felt it was quite stifling for me as a person. I'm lucky to have left the city law firm environment and to have gone in-house. In-house suits me perfectly because it's full of people in a business from all walks of life doing different jobs.

Cultural fit is whether it's a space to be yourself and turn up to work and feel that you're you. Space to say what you think, maybe just even how an office is designed. In TV or in the media, we think a lot about what it looks like to have a collaborative working space. What does it mean to be open plan? What does it mean to have plants in the office? And sometimes older institutions don't think about that. And they're small things, they're luxuries and I'm aware of it.

You've mentioned that you are a very cerebral person. How is that manifested in your work and daily life?

I do enjoy being able to think things through, whether that's a legal contract, or it's reading a story, or it's a poem, or thinking about a problem someone's having. I'm not so much a passive consumer. I do read a lot. I consume a lot of media, but I like the practical application of using my knowledge or wisdom to solve something. I'm an in-house lawyer and it's not academic. We're constantly trying to answer a problem for how a business delivers something, and I like that. I much prefer to have a practical application for what I'm working on. I'm probably not cerebral in the sense of being an academic. My husband’s background is in theoretical physics, and it's probably nothing I could ever do. The grade of what it means to be cerebral is quite wide.

I saw on one of your Instagram posts that you wanted to be a textile artist at some point.

I'm quite a visual person, and I had spent all my childhood and as a young adult making things with my hands. I really wanted to do art, but at the time people were saying I should be a lawyer or doctor, or one of those things. I really wanted to do English and art, and I did art at A-level. I just found the mixed media of textiles and fabric and designs so utterly pleasing and absorbing. But I do think it was quite fleeting because the reality is, had I pursued it, I don't think I would have found enduring interest in it.

I enjoyed the hobby of it, and I enjoy doing something with my hands and the making and the pleasure of it. But actually, this is one of the things I've learned as I've got older: sometimes we mistake the pleasure we find in hobbies as a feeling that we need to either monetise or become a genius at it, instead of just saying, “Oh, wow, I just really liked this and this is great. That's all I need to do with it. It doesn't need to become something.” I think that's a little bit like where my love of art and textiles has come from. It didn't necessarily mean I have to go and be a textile artist. It was okay just to enjoy it.

Is beekeeping a hobby for you?

Is it a hobby? Is it a lifestyle?

Yes, so I took up beekeeping. Going back to talking about who are our friends and who are the people we hang out with, one thing that always freaked me out is the idea that I would have lots of people that are the same. They are all left-wing Guardian readers, it’s a digital echo chamber. Everyone earns a certain amount or lives in a certain way. Things like that worry me because how do you challenge who you are and your perceptions of things? I just had my second child, and I was feeling a little bit lost. I wanted to take up a hobby so I wasn't just worrying about things. I took up beekeeping because I had a honey blog where I wrote about honey. When you join a beekeeping association, you meet different people. I'd never met an 86 year old retired civil engineer, who maybe voted in a different way to me, but you can form friendships and mentorships and relationships with different types of people.

Beekeeping in London is very diverse. It's very exciting. You rely on a community to look at things together, whether it’s disease management, or what's happening with your hive or your queen. It’s a community-based activity. It gives me such pleasure, it's completely different to everything I do. Even though you need to read, you can't rely on the books. You have to just be in your bee suit and think, “Okay, what's going on here?” And I love it. The bees surprise me. They've taught me more than anything else. About trying to control things to get an outcome, but then nature can be a bigger force than you can ever imagine. They’ve taught me to stop and look at the flowers, to look at how something so precious can be built out of visiting nectar. They’ve taught me how to be still, how to hold this moment and be in a moment. Beekeeping’s had a profound impact on me, in a way that I didn't know before I took it up.

How did the honey blog come about in the first place?

It's a really random thing. After my second baby. I knew I wanted to have a side hustle of some kind, but I didn't know what it would be. That's always the thing: you always think of why you can’t do stuff. So I told myself: I need to just write about something and get it out. Everyone thinks the whole world's going to read your blog. But no one reads your blog. Two people read your blog: you and your mom! You need to get over the fear of just putting stuff out there, what does it look like, how do you write content, how do you get on social media, how do you build something. It doesn't cost anything to do all of those things, really. You just get WordPress and a domain name for £6.

I was making pancakes in 2015. And I was putting honey on the pancakes, and I thought, “Well, I love honey.” So I'm not going to obsess over what this blog should be about. I'm going to write about honey. I'm going to write everything there is about honey: types of honey, where it comes from, how bees make it, what it tastes like, how to cook with it, how to use it in beauty products. It's a totally basic blog but it doesn't matter. I guess it’s like getting your first novel out of your system. You just have to get it out of you. I love it. It was good. I've met lots of people and had a lot of fun along the way doing it.

How do you think you've cultivated that mindset of “just get on with it and see how it goes”?

When I was 20 to 30 years old, I was full of anxiety. Things had to be perfect. I know now that failing is a good thing—and what I mean by failing isn't really falling. It's just trying things and having them not work out. Most of my inhibitions have been about embarrassment—how will I look in the eyes of others—and that is so paralysing. Most of my stuff doesn't work out, and I'm now okay.

I obviously have a less gung-ho approach when I'm advising clients in a legal capacity, because they are relying on me to do all of the thinking! Another thing that weighs on my mind is that our life is very short and very fragile. The idea that we will live a long life is an illusion. What if this is the last five years of my life? What if this is the last year of my life? I never really feel that death is very far away from me. That sounds very morbid, but it isn't meant to be. It's meant to be a very uplifting statement. You don't have time to waste. I don't want to discover who I am when I'm 70. I want to discover who I am, every day, and not care so much.

How does that attitude translate to learning new things?

I tend to approach life with “Why not?", "Why not have a go?" The more you do that, the more you're trying stuff. I've done loads of stuff like acting classes or music classes or sculpture classes. Some people say they don't understand the logic of it, but it doesn't need to make sense. It's only when you're trying to backfill the logic of why you've done anything that you get stressed out. If I did that, I would never have started a skincare brand.

I think we just need to enjoy learning stuff. Some of the things I try out are not for the end result, It’s not a case of: if I do this, and this, and this, this will happen. It’s just: if I do this, maybe I'll enjoy it. Sometimes people will say I should just relax. Some people associate relaxing with putting your pyjamas on and watching 20 hours of Netflix. They think that my ‘hobby’ looks very active and can't be restful. But weirdly enough, it's for me more restful than just being a passive recipient of entertainment. Neither approach is the ‘right’ one. But sometimes maybe they don't understand how relaxing having a hobby can be.

You’ve got a few things going on. Do you ever feel overwhelmed?

I only have three projects that matter. Everything else is ancillary; everything else can come and go. Family comes first, whether it’s my kids, my family, my well-being. To be honest, I'm squeezed for time, for sure. But there is no doubt in my mind the hierarchy of what's important. My kids first, my family first, my mom and dad and my husband or me. I will take the time to go for a walk on a Saturday morning, even if I'm stressed, because that's important for our kids

Next up is the day job or the night job. They're like two kids I love. It’s not like I love Five Dot and I don't love law, or I love law and not Five Dot. They coexist. And I put tons of energy into both of them. I work very hard. I don't think I could ever confess to not working hard. It does ebb and flow. I do have days where I'm thinking, “Oh, why have I put a side hustle on top of three kids?”

What do you do for self care?

Beekeeping. You're forced to really be in the moment. Also, my kids are a great distraction. There's nothing like children who want to play. They’re 1, 5 and 7 years old. My 5-year-old, in particular, is not interested in you not being present. To him, why would you want to be anywhere else other than in our imaginary game?

There was a really great TED Talk by Shonda Rhimes. She was getting burnt out, but the thing that resonated with me was that she had a year of saying yes to her kids. It’s funny how you get a snippet of wisdom from somebody else that sticks in your mind. I think that was one of the things. I also think skincare has become self care. It's part of taking time out to be yourself. I'm not a big beauty ritualist so it's not like I spend two hours doing it, but it’s just about being mindful when you put on your face mask or take your makeup off.

You describe your position with Five Dot as being a "beauty outsider". What’s it like being a beauty outsider?

It took me a long time to accept being a beauty outsider is where I'm comfortable. I was on Sephora Accelerate this year. One feedback I got was that it’s okay that you're a beauty outsider—that's part of your story. A part of me had been really shy about it. A lot of it is about how you own your story. Some parts of my life I think I know how to own my story, others I'm still trying to work it out. Like what does my cultural heritage mean? How do I own that story and what that means now?

With Five Dot, I want to grow a sustainable business. It's about challenging the norms about how many ingredients we've got in our products. I think it is okay to be an outsider. When I grew up, fashion and beauty wasn't for people like me, no one looked like me in any magazine. And that's okay. I don't want to sell to everybody, I only want to sell to a tribe of people who get what we're about. They're super interested in the idea of minimalism, the luxury of less. They're not always beauty junkies but they want healthy skin, they care about their health. People like the fact that we’re saying something different in beauty. We write about stuff that's not about how to have the perfect glassy skin. We talk about what it means to over-consume, or what it means to have a product that can be used by a 25-year-old and a 55-year-old woman? We ask different questions.

What's been the scariest bit of this journey so far?

I think, as we scale at the pace we’re doing, the scariest bit is running out of cash before you get that cycle ready. I used to hear about people saying that before I had my own business and I didn’t get it. I get it now. It's a very crowded marketplace. Can we get cut-through quick enough to own a space in it before someone gazumps your house?

I’d rather we either be a great success or be a failure. I don't think, in the long-term, limping along is where I want to be. I don’t want to be sitting on this, half-hearted, for 10 years. We want to have grown a community, we want to be doing change, we need to be excited by it always. We need to innovate and have a conversation and be real people. We can't just exist and not excite anyone.

What has building this beauty business taught you about yourself and your identity?

That the outsider is really the insider. Who is outside of what? We create a sense of what something is. I say I'm a beauty outsider, but I am the beauty industry. In the same way that someone would say, “Your parents are from Bangladesh. Are you really British?” Yes I am British. It’s about owning that space.

I also think that there's a new conversation to be had around things becoming much more holistic. Everything's become interconnected. We now live in a world where beauty is health. What does health mean? Health is wellness and wellbeing. What does wellness mean? You can't be a brand now without asking. And every brand has to be sustainable because the earth is on fire. And so then what does it mean to be a good business? Because people don't want to just trade cash for a commodity. The conversation has become bigger, and it's really exciting because we're really close to that. As we scale, we have to keep that personality and feeling of connectedness to those issues.

How do you find the time to work on Five Dot?

I launched a year ago when I was pregnant. Everyone laughs because there's a five-year age gap between my last baby and this one. They were like, did you have a baby so you could work on your business? When I had the ideas for Five Dot, I was doing my day job. Launching a business, and getting stuff together, doesn't all happen at once. I spent like 90% of my time waiting.

I was speaking to someone yesterday and she introduced me to the term, "Hurry up and wait."

Hurry up and wait. I love it. It was totally “hurry up and wait.” But I'm glad I wasn't impatient with it.

I know I work in TV but the biggest joke is that I don't watch TV and I don’t do much passive entertainment. Everyone says to me, “How do you make the time?” I don’t spend more time on Five Dot than anyone else spends on watching television. I just traded out doing something else. I probably wish I had more time to go to the gym. But I think anyone who's watching TV or scrolling the internet for two hours a night—half the population probably—are addicted to it. There is no magic to it. I'm very disciplined. There's always a list. I know what the three things I need to do are. I don't always get them done but I'm very clear about what we need to do. I think it's about being prepared to make a compromise. If you're not prepared to let go of something in the pursuit of something else, you’re not ready for business, or having a side hustle isn't necessarily for you. Because you need to be relentless. It's different if it's a hobby because you can just fit it in. I think we've got a lot of capacity to do stuff if we're just being disciplined with our time.

How did you cultivate that discipline?

It's hard to say how people get discipline. I suppose my background as a lawyer makes me very disciplined. I think it would be hard to divorce my day job from all this, because you bring all your day job to your side hustle. Sometimes that's really good. I've got discipline, I’ve got focus. Sometimes it's bad, because my background is what holds us back. I can occasionally be risk-averse with Five Dot. For instance, we may have some braver things we want to say, and I can be a bit hesitant and prefer sticking to what works—I would say that's where the interference of the different skill set isn't good. But I'm aware of it. I'm aware that I can hold things back by not having the clarity to look at it with a slightly different hat on.

Does the hat-switching ever get too tricky?

Not really, no. Because they're enriching each other. At work, they know I have this other affair with my side hustle. My side hustle knows I'm a lawyer. And they each enrich the other.

If anything, Five Dot probably made me stronger in my day job. There were things that held me back: confidence, making decisions or talking up. I've had to exercise these skills constantly in my own business, because I'm the business owner. I think at the start it was harder, because I was shy to say I had this business, but it's so out there now. When you're hiding something, the energy you waste is more about hiding it from other people, rather than because you find the switching difficult.

When did you stop feeling shy about showing the world Five Dot?

Five Dot was just an idea on a notebook. And I was like “Oh my God, I've got this thing...”. But no one cares. But in your head, you're thinking you’ve built Nike.

Four months before I was going to launch the brand, I knew we would want to get press out there and I wanted to be associated with it. I've always wanted to be transparent and honest with everyone I deal with. When I told people at work about the side hustle, it's not that they didn't care, but it's so obscure. It’s like "They’ve got a dog, so what? I've got this side business and I do amateur dramatics in my spare time." It's no different, they just see it as a hobby, I guess.

What have your kids taught you?

To be in the moment and have fun.

Noah, my middle child, is like “There's no time to waste”. You’ve just gotta have the fun now—if it doesn't work out, we simply forget about it or be done with it. My oldest has taught me a lot about being careful with words. She's very thoughtful. Do you say what you mean, or are you not saying what you mean? What is your tone? She’s interested in understanding what we really mean to say to each other. Sometimes as a parent you can be passive-aggressive, and she's taught me about what it means to be careful with words and do and say what you mean. My youngest is a baby, and he's just reminded me that nothing of any value can be bought. I've been holding a baby and stroking a baby. It's not about having children, because you can get it from dogs or friends or your partner. But it's this sense of needing each other physically. If your life is not full of relationships or love, really, there’s no point. The youngest has taught me the need for real connection.

You mentioned earlier that you used to worry about having friends that all look the same or have the same leanings. Fast forward to today, is that still on your mind?

It's always on my mind, and it comes up in my day job as well. Are we recruiting diversely, broadly, differently? Are we challenging our unconscious bias? We've never been more aware of the prejudices or things that we might hold unwittingly, and that's one thing.

The other is that now as a business owner, I really get what they mean by having different types of people, rather than having lots of the same types of people. Brian (my husband), our designer, our investor, or our cosmetic formulator—we’re the most crazy, different bunch of people, though we share the same values and vision. That used to stress me out before [everyone being different]. I’d just want everyone to be nodding in agreement, but I can have much better discussions where we don't agree. And that's great. I’d have taken things much more personally, a few years ago.

On the Feed

I collect lots of stuff. I'm getting rid of a lot of stuff because I'm trying to live a minimal life. This is a collection of letterpress letters, and it weighs about two ton. I want to put it under a coffee table. I've owned that for 15 years. For 15 years I've been wanting to make it into a coffee table.

My kids are obsessed with labelling stuff. I think this comes from them seeing me with notebooks and Five Dot when I’m packaging parcels. We've got quite a vivid imagination in our house so everything has a name. They became obsessed with sticking labels on stuff. So they’ve named these plants. Everything is variations of Frederick or Fred. I don’t know why. I was like, "Look can you give them an Asian name?"

My baby’s four weeks old, and I realised I need more behind-the-scenes photos from Five Dot. I was massively breastfeeding and he's tiny because he's just born. I was so exhausted in that photo. This is my bathroom at home. I was doing a product demonstration in my bathroom. The baby just cried and cried and cried. My husband is in Ireland, and my two other kids are downstairs watching TV. I said, "Look, I have to put the baby in the sling, or this photoshoot is not going to happen."

This is me in China. I lived in Hong Kong in my early 20s during SARS. I was very lost because I was about to finish my job as a lawyer. The dotcom bubble had burst and I thought I was going to end up at an insolvency department in the City. I strangely decided that I was going to go to Shaolin and train with the monks in Kung Fu. But obviously Shaolin is a male monastery. What was a woman doing learning Kung Fu there? I hadn't really thought about it.

This is my little son who in lockdown learned to ride a bike. Every Saturday, we do walks as a family in nature. My husband's from Ireland so he's more obsessed with walking than I am. This is Nunhead Cemetery in south-east London. I had never been in a cemetery. Bangladeshis don't really hang out in cemeteries!

Off the Cuff

On collecting things

Pleasurable. You can find all kinds of curiosity in things that you've collected, whether it's plants or pine cones on a walk, or buttons discovered in a market. The repetition of the same thing is really pleasing to me

On urban gardening

Being in the moment. My gardening is terrible, but I'm a really enthusiastic gardener, and I never have enough time to really do it properly. I throw myself in with gusto at the start and then forget to nurture on a daily basis which is what you need to do, and then have great successes and then massive failures, but it's fine.

On parenting

Chaos and joy. None of us have a book about how to do it. I think it's super important that we understand ourselves before we parent kids. We can pass down a lot of things we don't mean to if we don't reflect. Also, we have to be selfless. There's no space for putting yourself first when you have children. And love them—love them and let them know they're loved. There's no point in hiding it. There are times in our lives where we want to be coy. With kids it's just "I love you." You say it all the time, you say it every day and it's so liberating.

On the beauty industry

Complex. The beauty industry is for everyone, and you will find your space in it, even if it's not obvious at the start. I think that about everything really now—there's a space for everyone. And there's a space to prove, there hasn't always been but there is now. Also, don't be permissive. Don't wait for people to accept you and include you to own it.

On beekeeping

The most unexpected, so nothing will ever happen according to the book.

Follow Zaffrin on Instagram, and visit Five Dot Botanics' website here and Instagram here.

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