J.J. Walsh has always been a bit of a calculated risk taker. The London-born entrepreneur dropped out of her geography and economics program at King’s College when she was 19 to work under the iconic fashion editor Isabella Blow (who is credited for putting Alexander McQueen on the map) at British Vogue.
“I was interning at Condé Nast and I remember seeing her in the building and thinking, ‘What am I doing at university? I want to work for her’,” Walsh recalls. “So I left school. I didn’t tell my parents.”
Instead, she made ends meet by working at night clubs in London, managing guest lists. She elbowed her way into a full-time job as an assistant, and over the next four years worked her way up to a senior role at Tatler. “It was a massive education. I was 21 and managing budgets and producing these huge fashion shoots and travelling all over the world.”
After a decade, and seismic shifts in magazine publishing, Walsh no longer saw a place for herself in an industry that’s fate was increasingly determined by the whims of advertisers. So she took another leap of faith and began a luxury branding consultancy, helping retailers like Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges build out their e-commerce platforms, produce pop-up shops and conceptualize campaign photoshoots. “It paid much better than working in magazines,” Walsh says. “Plus, I loved being an independent consultant and bringing together all kinds of people with different skill sets to help me on these various projects. When you can bring in the right people, it makes a big difference.”
Three years into running her small business, Walsh and her husband, whom she’d met during her time at Condé Nast, welcomed their first child. “I thought I could be this fabulous working mum but the reality was different,” says Walsh, who gave birth to their second child a year later. “I struggled, and I lost my identity a bit.” When the opportunity came up to move the family to Vancouver in 2014 through her husband’s work (he was offered a CMO position at Aritzia), she decided it was the clean slate she needed to write her next chapter. “If I had stayed in London, I would have always been trying to find my way back to my old life,” she says. “And that wasn’t accessible anymore. Moving was scary, but it was even scarier to think about staying stagnant.”
Still, going from bustling London and its vibrant fashion industry to laidback, Lululemon-clad Vancouver created a bit of a culture shock. “I really embraced our new life in Canada, but I missed the arts and culture of London,” Walsh says. “And I was desperately lonely, I didn’t have a social life in Vancouver like I did in London. So I thought, ‘I’ll create it.’” She began meeting people through fitness classes and through her children’s social activities. At one point she thought about launching a business in the childcare space. Ultimately, the insurance required was a major deterrent, but it jump-started her entrepreneurial battery again and got her revved up about finding her next big idea.
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That idea—a seed that eventually grew into Formula Fig, Walsh’s empire of skincare boutiques across North America—came after her visit to a medispa recommended to her by one of her new friends in Vancouver. “I left the experience feeling kind of ick,” Walsh says. “It was sterile and so expensive and had this focus on discretion, like there was all this shame around women getting Botox. I wanted to create an environment where there was absolutely no shame, because that’s one thing I won’t stand—people’s judgements.” Her idea was a membership-based, technology-led treatment “bar” where women and men could go for an express lunchtime facial or injectable treatment in an upscale but welcoming space that doubled as a retail outpost for a curated selection of beauty products—and, of course, included a selfie-friendly washroom.
So, in March of 2018, she put together a detailed presentation and started inviting friends and other mothers from her kids’ preschool over for coffee. “I made a deck and I put it on my TV screen. Some of these friends invested, and a lot of them connected me with other people who wanted to invest. The word of mouth spread. And that’s where my friends-and-family fundraising round came from.”
Next up, Walsh needed a CFO. “I know my skill set,” she says. “I’m creative and I’m good at design and at bringing people together, but I needed someone who was an expert at financial modelling and risk assessment.” She began asking around her network for recommendations of exceptional women CFOs in Vancouver that she could approach. Eventually, she found Anita Chan, a consultant and former investment banker at TD Securities, on LinkedIn. When she learned that Chan’s daughter went to the same preschool as her kids, she asked their teacher to make an introduction.
Three months later, Chan was on board, and in 2019 the pair opened the first Formula Fig outpost, in Kitsilano. Through word of mouth and community outreach—they had no marketing budget at the time—they grew a loyal clientele, and quickly set their sites on expansion, with a second Vancouver location in 2020. After re-finding their footing post pandemic lockdowns, they brought on a PR agency in July 2022 and expanded to Toronto, with an outpost on trendy Ossington Avenue. Today, there are six Formula Figs in operation, including additional locations in Vancouver and Toronto, and a West Hollywood location in Los Angeles.
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“We’re in this interesting stage now, where we are no longer a start-up,” Walsh says. Formula Fig now has a team of 150, they’ve partnered with global brands like Goop and Canadian retail giants Aritzia and Lululemon, and they’re about to open their seventh location, in Culver City, Los Angeles. “The strategy is to get into up-and-coming neighbourhoods before they explode in popularity. Community is very important to us and important to our success. You have to care about your neighbour, and care about the impact your business will have.”
Next up, Walsh wants to develop a house line of skincare products. But after such rapid expansion of the business thus far, she’s taking her time. “There’s a bit of a check you need to do. It’s easy to get excited about growing and moving on to the next thing, but you have to ask yourself, ‘Why are you doing this?’ You have to go slow to go fast.”