Absolute Collagen was founded in 2015 by Maxine Laceby and her eldest daughter Darcy, after she experienced for herself the positive skin and wellbeing benefits attributed to the collagen contained in homemade bone broths. From her kitchen, aged 50 and with no prior experience of starting a business, she set out to create a pure collagen product. 

Her ADHD helped. “It’s my superpower, as I’ll always find a way. When I took my product to an experienced blender, they thought it wouldn’t work – but I had found a way in my kitchen to overcome this.” By 2017, Absolute Collagen’s ready-mixed sachets of hydrolysed marine collagen were on the market.

From there, crediting her daughter Darcy as the professionaliser of the business, Maxine rapidly created a highly successful direct-to-consumer wellness brand. The kitchen table startup recorded turnover in 2020 of £17m; this year Absolute Collagen is on track to doubling this figure this year.

From the outset, it has been a direct-to-consumer brand. “I was told that we needed to be stocked in Holland & Barrett and Boots but I knew that consumers needed to be educated and I wanted to stay close to them, giving them the best possible service,” she says.

At the start of 2020, eight people were working out of her home, packing 3,000 parcels every day in the garage. Now, with a warehouse in Telford and an office in Birmingham, there are 41 on the payroll. 

In December 2020, the middle-market private equity firm Livingbridge invested £15m, valuing Absolute Collagen at almost £43m. There had been four offers on the table

It’s been a remarkable journey, with a valuable role played by her participation in the NatWest Entrepreneur Accelerator and Next Level programmes – which she had joined in 2018.

“It helped me massively,” she says. “It was good to be with like-minded people from different businesses. It enabled me to look at my business and myself from a different viewpoint and I could learn and validate what I was doing.”  And the programmes gave her the understanding and confidence to go forward with the transaction with Livingbridge.

“The process of preparing for PE investment was so educational,” she says. “It is in itself a brilliant process; business owners should go through it, whether or not they take the investment.”

The growth plans for Absolute Collagen are both in new markets and new products. In their due diligence process Livingbridge’s data team had identified further potential areas in the UK market, so those are being keenly scooped up.

International growth will be taken slowly and steadily. Absolute Collagen is launching in France. “We must have a presence on Amazon but I do not want Amazon to own my business and my customers. For me, Amazon is a tool for market testing countries and for new product development.”

“The direct to consumer model means that we have a very good relationship with our customers. They champion the brand and they talk to us.”

Next year will see Absolute Collagen launch into a new product area. “Our new product development is based around talking to consumers and we’ll be investing heavily in consumer education and marketing. 

And the company will mature. Although Laceby remains the majority shareholder, she will not remain the CEO. (Her daughters are remaining in the business: Darcy as Chief Brand Officer while 21-year-old Margot is in the creative team.) “When we talked to investors, I was clear that I was not the right person to be CEO for the business going forward. It needed someone with a proven track record. And the private equity houses liked hearing that, as it meant I knew myself and my business.” A new CEO is expected to be appointed soon.

Laceby recognises what she has achieved but places her emphasis on the team around her. Where she has been excellent, she says, is “knowing where I’m not excellent. I could barely switch on a laptop when I started yet this is a successful online business.”

Perhaps, she reflects, it stems from her 25 years as a mother. “There’s no difference between being a mum and an entrepreneur,” she says. “You lead; you ensure everyone is OK; you work bloody hard.” 

“The direct to consumer model means that we have a very good relationship with our customers. They champion the brand and they talk to us.”

Maxine Laceby, CEO, Absolute Collagen