From sunscreen spills to sustainable success

Caroline Farrer and Kelly Riley


The Business

The Founders

Caroline Farrer and Kelly Riley
The Concept

A convenient, refillable sunscreen applicator that is sustainably made and beautifully designed.

The Passion
“It wasn’t enough for us to create a reusable product. We needed to create a reusable product that was also sustainable in all elements of our business.”
The Pain
“We’ve had a couple of really big setbacks, and we’ve only been able to survive because we’ve been careful around our finances.”

The Mission

“We, of course, want to have the success of building a business that can survive well long term with strong financial success. But we only want to achieve that if it is aligned with our values.” — Caroline Farrer

Kelly Riley was standing in the terminal at Gold Coast Airport with a screaming toddler and a bag full of exploded sunscreen when the idea for Solmates first took shape.

Wiping up and wrangling kids, she thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could have something small and convenient that you could just tether to your bag and make it easier to put on the kids?” But the idea sat with the former corporate change manager for years before she would finally decide to press go.

“I always wanted to start my own business of some description.” Riley remembers.
“I’ve started a few businesses in the past that haven’t really gone anywhere and then I just decided one day: ‘I’m going to go to a design agency. I’m going to see if I can make this idea into a real thing.’”

She took “a scribble of my idea on a piece of paper” to a Sydney-based design company who “took it from a scribble and made it into something really cool.

Solmates Australia Lifestyle 1

The Perfect Partner

It was when Riley was tackling the question of manufacturing that she went to close friend and branding and marketing expert Caroline Farrer for advice. Farrer, who says she hadn’t previously considered working for herself, believes it was “the right person” and “the right product” that ignited her passion for entrepreneurship. “As soon as I saw this product, I thought: ‘Oh I’m really jealous, I wish I’d thought of that’,” Farrer says.

“And in the course of our conversations, we just realised that it would be pretty amazing if we did it together.” Despite warnings that going into business with a friend might not be a good idea, the pair say it works well. “I think Kel and I knew each other for long enough to have that level of trust and respect to know that would work,” Farrer says. “We just realised we had really different skill sets and that by combining that we could actually make a really good go of it.” But partnering with the right people extends past a business partner to who you work with too.

The pair describe the challenging process to source fully sustainable materials so that they can “fully live and breathe” their values. But they say the demand for sustainable materials, products and packaging from businesses like theirs is starting to change things in the supply chain.“I think we’ve been exceptionally lucky with our big partners like our design agency and our manufacturer, but also the suppliers we’ve used,” Farrer says.

“We’ve thought very carefully about how we want to work with them.”

Beautiful Design

The pair say their product has been received so well because it fits a growing demand from consumers who value sustainability and reusable items, from coffee cups and shopping bags to water bottles and, now, sunscreen applicators.

The product is made from certified ocean-bound plastic. It is packaged in recycled packaging and shipped in recycled boxes. All of the rejects are melted down and directed back into the production process. And if a customer loses a part of their applicator, like the lid, they can purchase a replacement part rather than a whole new product.

“For me, I think my passion for sustainability was just building for a really long time,” Farrer says. “I think it was this sense of despair and sort of hopelessness when I thought about what was happening to the planet and I think once I had my children that accelerated because I just felt a huge responsibility for them and their future.”

“When I thought about what I wanted to do next, it could only be something that I thought was leading towards a better solution for something and leading towards good. The women both believe in the importance of seeking feedback when innovating. Not only do others have solid business advice because they’ve walked the path before you, but people have different experiences that will help you innovate.”

“We’ve changed direction on certain things so many times, in a good way, just from talking to people,” Riley says. “Because you think you’re doing the right thing and then you talk to someone about something and they’ve experienced something different and you think: ‘Oh my God! That’s brilliant!’”

It was both thrilling and an honour to see their beautiful applicators featured in the New Australian Design exhibit at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, which ran between September 2022 and April 2023.

“We went to the Powerhouse Museum to see the showcase and we took Kel’s daughter,” Farrer recalls.

“Mia would have been nine at the time and, for me, that moment was just the most magic, of seeing Mia see her Mum’s product in a museum … that’s the high point of our success so far.”

Words of Wisdom

Keep on talking: “Talk to as many different people as possible and get as much advice as possible. There’s only so much you can know.”

Market research: “Are you truly creating something that people want? Test, Test, Test.”

Focus on your financials: “We’ve made a really concerted effort to know exactly where we’re at financially on a week-to-week basis in revenue and profit. It’s really easy to trip up if you aren’t completely across that.”

4. Look after yourself: “There are so many women like us who are trying to balance a family and a new business. Just keeping yourself sane can be a very hard thing to do and I feel like we should always acknowledge that.”

Be confident: “I wish we’d been more confident from the beginning. Kel and I started very softly, softly and we weren’t too sure we could do this. But we have now become very ambitious and we’re talking about really big plans for the future. I wish we could go back and tell ourselves that we should aim big from the beginning and that we’ve got this.”

“I think, for me, any day that I get to manage my family, get my work done and squeeze in the gym would be considered success!” - Kelly Riley

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