Work That Works: Kate Porter, Founder of Harbour Elements

It’s always been a dream of mine to start my own skincare company, which is a shame because my product chemistry knowledge is limited to “ooh, that smells nice”. I always feel that self-care is such an important part of keeping sane as a mum, business owner and all-round busy person and looking after my skin plays a huge role in that – even if I’ll never be a skincare entrepreneur.

One of my favourite skincare discoveries of late has been the company Harbour Elements. With an ethos firmly rooted in plant-based ingredients and a self-proclaimed purist approach to skincare (as well as being British-born and Hertfordshire-made), their flagship Truly Gentle Cleansing Balm really is one of the best cleansers I’ve used in a long time.

This amazing gelled oil melts on contact and gives a really tactile and thorough cleanse – I use it for the second cleanse of the day as it leaves me feeling clean and free of residue, unlike some other balms – and has proved with use on my sensitive skin to be completely un-reactive.

Harbour Elements is the brainchild of Kate Porter, a former VFX artist and mum of two. I spoke to Kate about how she launched a skincare business, as well as her tricks to balancing a busy start-up with family life.

Harbour Elements cleanser

“It’s a cliche to say a business is like your baby but that’s how it feels – you just want to make it all nice and send it out into the world with a warm coat and clean hair”

What was the trigger that led to you starting Harbour Elements? Have you always wanted to launch your own business? 

When our youngest was a baby, she’d often have these pink cheeks that looked so sweet, but were actually a rash. Things like bolognese sauce would be a particular problem to remove. Either a cleanser was too harsh, and her cheeks would glow a deeper red afterwards, or it wouldn’t be awfully effective. I wanted to use one of my own balm cleansers to do the job, but didn’t want the essential oils and extracts on her reactive, allergy prone skin. So I started experimenting with making a simple emulsifying balm to use on her.

I started thinking how this would be the perfect cleanser for my mums’ hyper sensitive skin, as well as a friend whose skin was reacting to her usual natural skincare during pregnancy.  I’d always had issues with acne but after my own pregnancies sensitivity had started to creep in, and I didn’t want it to escalate.

I realised I wanted skincare as gentle as I’d wanted for my daughter, yet even finding natural products without essential oils was a challenge. So I set out to make the products I couldn’t find, starting with a balm cleanser.

I went back to work as a VFX artist on Star Trek and spent the next year saving for our first formulation, tests and production run, before taking a career break to concentrate on the launch.

I imagine it takes a lot of knowledge as well as passion to launch a skincare brand. How does one go about incepting formulations and testing product before launching to market? Did you have the input of scientists?
It was important to me that the formulation was scientifically sound. When you develop sensitivity you often don’t know why. So it had to be unlikely to trigger an allergy, using ingredients unlikely to cause irritation, and it had to use the gentlest cleansing method possible. I found Amanda Foxon-Hill of Realize Beauty –  she’s a brilliant cosmetic scientist and her passion for the natural world really shines through. She also has highly reactive skin, so its something she understands in depth.

Though Amanda confirmed my concept to be sound, many of the oils I thought would be good for this skin type actually wouldn’t have been. It turns out months of internet searching can’t beat having real experience and access to all the research.

Once we’d nailed our potential ingredients, Amanda got to work in her lab in the Blue Mountains, experimenting with different oil blends, and conducting tests to get the feel and function exactly right. Receiving a batch of the samples she’d been working on was always ridiculously exciting – and there were a lot of them.

At the same time stability testing begins. Stability is a big part of our formulation as the more stable it is, the more gentle it is to skin. If our formula doesn’t perform as we’d like, it’s back to the drawing board. Luckily three months later our chosen formula passed all tests with flying colours, making it good to go – a huge relief.

What does a typical day look like for you?
Because I’m taking care of our 3 and 4 year old during the day, family and work life are all mixed up. My husband will often take our 4 year old to school before he goes to work when that’s possible – though he’s occasionally abroad for weeks at a time working on film sets. The rest of the day is spent in a mix of child centred activities, post office trips and squeezing in emails until school pick up time.

After the children are asleep I open the laptop and get on with all the things that require proper concentration. At the moment because we’re starting to do some events, I’m designing banners and cards, and there are always ongoing things like VAT returns and contacting suppliers. I then print off and pack all orders, ready to go the next day.

Our youngest starts preschool this year so I fully plan on dividing work and family life more effectively then – I’m much happier as a mono-tasker. For now I feel lucky that I can just about do both things.

Harbour Elements

“I think if you’ve got an idea for doing something you love, don’t be put off by the process. Lots of things seem daunting until you start chipping away, and all of a sudden it’s done”

Who else inspires you in the world of business?
I’m a member of the Southwood Social Hub which is a group for women who run their own business. Seeing what everyone else is doing and has achieved is amazing, particularly as you’re more aware of what’s going on behind the scenes.

Then on a grander scale I love hearing about what Elon Musk is getting on with. Surely it’s what any billionaire should be doing – trying to solve the worlds energy problems and sending people to Mars. If all the wealthiest people in the world thought like that perhaps we could worry about the future less.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone thinking of starting their own business?
I think if you’ve got an idea for doing something you love, don’t be put off by the process. Lots of things seem daunting until you start chipping away, and all of a sudden it’s done.

What’s been the biggest surprise to you in the process of starting Harbour Elements?
That I like the whole thing. I knew I’d like the formulating stage and the design, but I even get excited about buying accounting software, or trying to source more environmentally friendly packaging. It’s a cliche to say it’s like your baby but that’s how it feels – you just want to make it all nice and send it out into the world with a warm coat and clean hair.

What’s your favourite part of running your own business?
My ultimate favourite is incorporating other peoples skills and talents into my business. A few years ago If I had a few thousand pounds I had to spend on myself (I would love that real life scenario), it’d have gone on something for my house or some clothes, or a break in a fancy hotel. Now I’d much rather spend it on some creative design or a formula.

And the least favourite?
Honestly I think the guilt about not posting enough on social media channels! I just don’t have an awful lot of time to take relevant pictures in good light without interruptions, and much of the stuff I’m doing involves me doing things on a computer – it’s not naturally instagrammable. I really only want to post things I like. Others in the same situation appear to manage this better though!

What’s next in 2017 for Harbour Elements?
Our cleansing balm is almost like a soft launch. Our ethos and the cleansing balm formula are set in stone, with the the design and packaging open to refinement. There’s going to be some heavyweight creative involvement in pulling our branding together and I’m massively excited about that.

The big plan that’s underway is to expand the range with new products –  that’s a long process.  So there’s lots of stuff going on behind the scenes!


Thanks, Kate! Do pick up a cleanser here, and you can follow Kate on Instagram, too.

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  1. Alison wrote:

    Loved reading this Alice – how fascinating to find out how Kate launched a skincare brand. Great advice about not being put off by the enormity of something too. Thanks for this!

    Posted 6.6.17 Reply
    • alice wrote:

      Thanks, Alison! Not sure it’s something I could ever do, but so inspiring.

      Posted 6.6.17 Reply