#78. PLANT Apothecary is a fully organic skincare brand that has a big focus on environmental friendliness and bold design. We talk with co-founder Holly McWhorter about her research-minded process and how she’s scaling a company that nurtures her customers as much as her planet. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below.

Richie: [00:00:07] Welcome to the 78th episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy. This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you actionable analysis, insights and events that drive growth, and Loose Threads Espresso, your energized and high-pressure filter for consumer news—in context. We also have a newsletter that features the latest open letters to CEOs, podcasts with industry leaders and news from Loose Threads. Check it all out at LooseThreads.com. Joining me today is Holly McWhorter, a co-founder of PLANT Apothecary, a fully organic skincare brand that has a big focus on environmental friendliness and bold design. Holly started the brand with her husband Bjarke Ballisager Nielsen after struggling to find the right products for their sensitive skin.

Holly: [00:00:48] I like discovering that a natural ingredient can do something that all other sources of information will tell you can only be done by a chemical compound. Other people are excited about that too.

Richie: [00:01:02] She went down a massive rabbit hole to learn about ingredients and formulations and started making her own products in her kitchen, well before many were thinking about clean beauty. Since then, the brand has turned into a force that puts your skin and the Earth at the forefront. Here’s my talk with Holly McWhorter.

Richie: [00:01:22] So why don’t we start. Just talk a bit about your background and then we can work our way up to this company existing.

Holly: [00:01:27] My background is a little all over the place. I studied classical violin performance and continental philosophy as a double major in undergrad. Then when I came out, I had realized I didn’t want to be a professional full-time violinist because there are 50 billion violinists and you have to play so much stuff you don’t want to play to make a living like that. And so I ended up working, actually, at an ancient art gallery for three years, learning about ancient Greco-Roman art and cataloguing it—and ancient Egyptian art—and ended up doing a lot of writing and editing for that company and realized that I actually liked editing and writing. I knew that I liked to write. But I segued into freelance copy editing and proofreading and did that for 15 years. During that time, I was also playing the violin professionally but just on a part time, as I liked it basis in bands and doing session work. And then I was kind of like, after about 15 years, I need to learn how to do something that’s going to make me a living here, a better living. And so I went back to school for interior architecture at Parsons and graduated just when the recession hit and there just wasn’t any work because, basically, architecture was one of the fields that was hit the hardest.

Richie: [00:02:51] Why was that? Because people weren’t spending to build anymore?

Holly: [00:02:53] People were spending to build when they needed to, but most of the work in New York is renovating. My area is not so much decorating, which pretty wealthy people often need—somebody to come in and come up with colors and fabrics and things—but supervising a gut renovation. People did pull back a lot from doing gut renovations during that time. So there wasn’t much work out there.

Holly: [00:03:20] I had, for a long time—maybe about five years before that—I had had a side project of making and selling these organic travel spice kits called the Mobile Foodie Survival Kit. The idea was just that you might take it on a plane or something if you were really particular about your food. It kind of took off especially around the holidays. So that was a side business that I’d gotten some press for and some good feedback for and just thought, “Okay, well let me see if I can turn this into more of a steady income.” And my husband, Bjarke, is also an architect and designer and we saw the opportunity to redesign that kit, because it had some structural issues, together. And we did actually manage to turn that into a business that stayed very much a side business for a few years. But that was the original PLANT company. It was PLANT Design Studio and that was our first joint product together. Then Bjarke designed some things and had them made locally. The idea was that they would all be contemporary design, environmentally friendly and socially responsible and that we were making them locally. So he designed some things and I had been making skincare, natural skincare, for a long time for myself and for him. And I came up with a concept for combining some of the formulas I had already been making with some packaging that was fresh for the organic skincare industry.

Holly: [00:04:51] The idea with so many design projects is to look for a hole in the market and just look for something that you would want. I wasn’t seeing any totally pure, totally simple, organic skincare products out there that weren’t very earthy, crunchy. They were all in the food co-ops and looked very hippy dippy. Like brown and green and flowers and women with long flowing hair and that’s just not my style. At the time, the idea of putting these kinds of products in that kind of packaging or contemporary, minimal, functional packaging just wasn’t—nobody was doing that. Now it’s become a thing but, at that time, it was new. So I decided to add that to our selection of products and that, eventually, grew into more products and that took over in terms of revenue. And also we had to pick what we were going to focus on and we let the spice kits go and the other design projects go and the architecture projects we had started doing together and rebranded it as PLANT Apothecary.

Richie: [00:05:54] And so you mentioned that you had been making skincare before ever considering this commercially. Why did you start doing that? What was it like? What was the learning curve like? How did that all happen and go?

Holly: [00:06:05] I have super crazy sensitive skin and I was getting eczema from everything. Everything would make me itch or make me break out. I knew that what was causing that were the synthetic fragrances and synthetic preservatives that were in the vast majority of products out there. Now there are synthetic preservatives out there that don’t have those risks but even those have some risks. I just wanted to get away from all that and use something that would not be harmful and also that would be plant derived and not hurt the environment when it washed down the drain after you used it and not have any toxic byproducts. But I just figured, “Okay, well let me find out how people made skincare products before these synthetic options were available because it can’t be that hard. I like to make things so let’s just see.” So I just nerded out because I just really like doing research and I just like to dive deep in whatever I’m interested in. Got books from the library, did some in-depth research online regarding basic formulation principles, like what goes with what and has what effect. Also dove deep into herbalism, what kinds of ingredients were used for skincare remedies in different cultures over the years, and also classical aromatherapy, which is actually a scientifically proven discipline. A lot of people have the idea that it’s like, “Oh, roses make me feel good because they smell nice.” That may be true but there are also clinical trials that show that certain fragrances have substantial notable effects on your state of mind and health. And so I really dug deep into what those were and started to make my own creams and oils and body washes not using anything synthetic or toxic.

Richie: [00:07:58] And the results were different?

Holly: [00:07:59] Oh, totally, yeah. I stopped breaking out immediately. Yeah. It was just a good experience. So I started giving these things to friends and family. People had been saying for years, long before we started PLANT, that I should start a line. I actually did start a very small line, a few years before we started PLANT, and it was called Light Organic. Kind of quickly realized that I wasn’t really ready to just start a business at that point. People were liking the products but I realized I just didn’t want to do what you need to do to establish a brand.

Richie: [00:08:35] Was that time or money or both?

Holly: [00:08:38] Both. I couldn’t see myself putting into it what’s required to really make it work. It had been profitable since the beginning but, of course, there’s so many companies out there that are just really going at it with full steam and lots of resources. I just wasn’t ready to even try to match that at that point.

Richie: [00:08:57] And what year was this?

Holly: [00:08:58] That was 2005.

Richie: [00:09:00] Okay.

Holly: [00:09:01] And it was about a year that I had that line and then I let it go. Actually, I let it go to go back to school when I went to Parsons. I was like. “Okay, I’m just not going to do this.” So, yeah, that’s how I learned how to create the products. When we had PLANT going and I wanted to bring out some new body washes I figured, “Okay, well let me take what I’ve learned here, because I know how things have been done traditionally, and see if I can create something that’s a little unusual. Using some unusual combinations of essential oils and different ingredients and combining things from different traditions and cultures but in ways that are going to be effective but also be fresh and in this new for the time packaging and just see what happens.”

Richie: [00:09:46] Given it sounds like it was more of this evolution from the spice kits to the architecture and so forth, when was a moment that you said, “Okay, this is actually going to be this apothecary brand?” And when was that?

Holly: [00:09:59] Two or three years ago we decided, “Okay, we need to focus on the apothecary line.” And that was around the same time that we both ended up doing it full-time. I had been doing it full-time for a while but, at that point, Bjarke left the full-time job he had been working at as an architect and we just said, “Okay, let’s just do this.”

Richie: [00:10:23] So, before this launch, you said the first product was body washes that was under the PLANT label.

Holly: [00:10:28] Yes.

Richie: [00:10:29] How do you decide where to start there or what’s the goal for them? How many do you make in the beginning? How did that all come to fruition and so forth?

Holly: [00:10:35] We started there because it had been a really popular product with the other line and because it was something that friends and family still really enjoyed receiving when I would make them. So it just seemed like a no-brainer. In terms of producing a lot, we didn’t really. We just put them up on the site and just started responding as people ordered them. So there was never any sort of, “Okay, we’re going to go in and we’re going to borrow this money and make $10,000.” It just wasn’t like that at all. We didn’t even know if it was going to work but it did.

Richie: [00:11:07] And you’re just making these at home at this point?

Holly: [00:11:09] Yeah. A lot of organic and natural brands start in the founder’s kitchen. And a lot of them still are there and then they might move to a commercial kitchen where they are now. So, yeah, that’s where we started too.

Richie: [00:11:23] What’s the process to make a body wash in a kitchen? What does that look like? How long does it take? How many different ingredients are involved? How does that happen?

Holly: [00:11:32] Well, all of our body washes have either eight or nine ingredients. I can’t go into how because it’s a trade secret.

Richie: [00:11:38] No, I don’t need you to reveal the secret. At a high level.

Holly: [00:11:41] At the high level, for one thing, if you’re producing skincare, you need to make sure you’re in a safe environment. The FDA has regulations for how many washable surfaces you have to have. You have to keep things clean and filtered and wear a hairnet and whatnot. So, basically, just turn the kitchen into a lab and just get the right equipment. We just went for it.

Richie: [00:12:06] So you put these body washes up on a website.

Holly: [00:12:09] Mhm.

Richie: [00:12:09] People just start showing up? How does the audience start going?

Holly: [00:12:12] People did just start showing up.

Richie: [00:12:15] No press? Nothing?

Holly: [00:12:16] We did get press, actually, but it was because a green products, a green lifestyle store in Brooklyn found us online and made an order. The owner of that store got some press so the press knew who we were and it all snowballed from there. Once you get a press feature, then you have stores seeing you in the press and reaching out and then more people know about the brand and more people go to the site. So it all grew very organically.

Richie: [00:12:43] So you launch these body washes. You’re starting with the products.

Holly: [00:12:47] Yeah. I mean they were on the site with the spice kits and Bjarke’s letter openers and cheese boards and so we were just building up this selection of design-y, locally-sourced, handmade stuff.

Richie: [00:12:57] At what point do you start to see one of these is doing much better than the others?

Holly: [00:13:02] The body wash is generally our top seller so I think we got lucky in the sense that we started with something that really had legs. The demand for them kept growing and the demand for the spice kits also kept growing. We got into Restoration Hardware. A lot of other stores all around the country and a few around the world were ordering those as well. So we had some pretty successful products across the assortment the whole time. But we realized there was a branding issue. It’s kind of like, “Okay, so you are designers and you’re selling organic soap? And spices? And salt? And design services?”

Richie: [00:13:48] It’s a bundle.

Holly: [00:13:48] Yeah, it was a strange bundle and people had a hard time wrapping their heads around it. And also, at a certain point, we realized we needed to do some actual marketing and sales, which we hadn’t been doing for the first few years at all. We realized that we needed to be able to tell a cohesive story and there was no cohesive story in that, at least not that people could relate to. We could be like, “Well, it’s all about design and the environment,” but that just didn’t really work. We realized we needed to focus on something and so we just chose between things, the biggest two parts of the business at that point: the apothecary line and the spices. Said, “Okay, we could go either way, but let’s go with the apothecary.” Because, when we started, green beauty was definitely a trend. It was a niche thing, but it really started to take off as a trend, completely outside of anything that we were doing. So it was kind of like, “Well, this is where there’s some good opportunity and a lot of fast growth in the industry in general. So let’s pursue that.”

Holly: [00:14:48] I should say a part of it was that, from the beginning, we worked with a local nonprofit organization called Brooklyn Community Services that has a workshop called Brooklyn Unlimited, which is a workshop for disabled adults where they’re able to get paid for assembly and manufacturing work. I had been working with them before Bjarke and I joined forces to redesign the spice kit. So we were with them from the beginning. I’d say it was easier for them to make the apothecary products than the spice kits. That played into it a bit.

Richie: [00:15:30] That’s very cool. So You mentioned that the timing of this, with green beauty generally, was somewhat foresight, somewhat luck.

Holly: [00:15:36] Yeah.

Richie: [00:15:36] What were the factors, in your opinion, driving the larger market when you started to realize that it was growing out of this niche?

Holly: [00:15:43] I think it’s just been a long wave, since the beginning of the environmental movement in the 70s, of more and more people becoming aware that the FDA doesn’t keep toxic stuff out of our products. I think a lot of people start with the assumption that if it’s on the mass market, it’s got to be safe. But it started out as being really sort of a niche pocket of the press industry to talk about the things that weren’t safe in the day to day products we’re all using but it’s moved further and further out of the niche and into mainstream press and, therefore, consciousness. It, over time, as more and more people talked about it and still talk about it, it’s moving further and further out of the hippie sector into just people realizing, “Hey these are some ingredients. Parabens—I see parabens on this label. I don’t want that.” People started to demand it and then, of course, the press and the market noticed that people were demanding it. And, any time you’ve got a little trend that’s starting naturally, the market and then the media come together to grab on it because it’s something to write about, which makes it grow even faster.

Richie: [00:16:51] So what else was out there at this time in terms of—were there are a lot of other small indie, niche labels? Were there any big companies doing this? What was the landscape like when you were still in this body wash phase?

Holly: [00:17:04] There were a good number of big, old companies like Jason, Giovanni, a few brands that you really could only get at Whole Foods and health food co-ops. They were big and established, but you just didn’t see them in design shops or lifestyle shops or Urban Outfitters. They didn’t fit the look. And so I felt like a lot of people who might be interested in and see a value in safe, organic, environmentally friendly products weren’t even becoming aware of them because a relatively small percentage of shoppers go to these places like Whole Foods and co-ops.

Richie: [00:17:43] Right. It wasn’t even in their mind.

Holly: [00:17:45] Yeah. Bjarke and I wanted there to be products like that in packaging that appealed to us but, beyond that, we could see there was a benefit in growing awareness of the existence of these products and then seizing that opportunity to educate the consumer about why that’s a good thing if we could just get in front of them. Maybe they would grab it because they like the packaging, but then they read the label and say, “Oh, this is organic. What does that mean? Let me read more.” Spread the word that way. Obviously make money, which is the point of any business, but also educate people because it matters.

Richie: [00:18:26] A hundred percent. And so you have the body washes. Do you add any more products before you realize, “Okay, we have to rebrand,” or was that the driving product before?

Holly: [00:18:37] We added face oils next.

Richie: [00:18:39] How did you decide to do that? The development at a high level and so forth?

Holly: [00:18:43] It was kind of inspired by something that had happened to me a few years before that, and I wasn’t even fully aware of this at the time, but I had been in a men’s clothing store and I saw little tiny, tiny bottle of this moisturizer and it was the only facial care product they had there for anyone because it was a men’s store and grooming sections weren’t a big thing in men’s stores at that time. And it was something like “the best moisturizer ever.” That was how they were talking about it. I was like, “Oh, let me check this out. What is it?” And it was just an oil and hardly anybody was using just oils on their skin, at least that were packaged in a commercial way at that point. I figured, “Oh, let me try this” and I was like, “Oh my god, this is amazing. It’s so simple. It’s just oil. Why do I need all this other stuff?”

Richie: [00:19:32] What does it do? Or what did it do that gave you that realization?

Holly: [00:19:35] It was a moisturizer and so it worked just like a moisturising cream in that it softened and got rid of any dryness, but didn’t leave my skin greasy at all. At that point, I wasn’t interested in starting a brand but I was like, “Huh, whole new concept”, kind of like a light bulb over my head. And so, once we had started PLANT and we had the body washes and they were doing well, I started thinking, first of all, if you’re going to have something for people to wash with, you want to have something for them to moisturize with because even a good, gentle cleanser, unless it’s an oil cleanser, is going to leave you a little bit dry if you have skin that’s at all dry. So it just seemed like a good compliment to the body washes to have something that can wash moisturize your face. I wanted to introduce people to this concept that had blindsided me so many years before that you don’t need your moisturizer to be a cream. It can be an oil. But, over the years of doing all my research about ingredients and how they work, I had learned that there are all these incredible, different oils that have different effects like sun protection and collagen regeneration and antioxidants. I just knew there were some incredible ingredients out there that could be combined into a really, really, really nice product that would be so simple and really show people you really don’t need all the toxic junk out there. You just don’t. You can have it if you want it, but you don’t need it. And so we came out with the face oils and the idea, again, was to catch people’s attention with our packaging which, at that point, was still pretty unusual in terms of being on a white background, having bold sans serif font, just very direct and in your face.

Holly: [00:21:22] Because Bjarke is Danish, we wanted to work in some of the Scandinavian heritage of our brand and one of the ingredients that we’ve always included in as many of our products as possible is sea buckthorn oil. It’s the oil of a berry that grows on the coast of Nordic regions. It’s all over Scandinavia. It’s also in China and Russia, but it’s this incredible oil that is just loaded with vitamin C and all kinds of incredible anti-irritant healing compounds. It had been a traditional healing remedy in Scandinavia for hundreds of years but, around that time, people had just completely forgotten about it. I had done some research into some old books that I found in Denmark and also here about, “Okay, what is this stuff? What’s it good for?” And so we included that. And so we built that into the names of the face oils. We named them after three letters of the Danish alphabet that we don’t have in English. Basically the Ø with a slash through it, Å with a circle over it and the combination of the letters Æ, and it worked. People liked the oil. People were intrigued by the packaging and the weird names. They also, unfortunately, couldn’t pronounce the names and that became an issue that we’ve since addressed by discontinuing those. But that was the idea behind the face oils and why we chose to launch face oils next.

Richie: [00:22:47] Yeah. So you’ve mentioned your research process a few times. I’m curious. What drives you in it? What do you enjoy about going down those rabbit holes and do you set out with a goal or do you just envelop yourself and, at some point, you surface with something or nothing?

Holly: [00:23:04] When I first started researching natural skincare, basically I was presented with, “These are some oils that are good for skincare” and there was information about them and about what their chemical components are—natural components not synthetics—but just what’s in them that does what. The more I read about that, the more I was inspired to just look up what other oils are good for your skin and what different traditions—like Indian, Ayurvedic skincare and North American skincare. If you just do the research, it’s just like websurfing, when you just end up clicking on something that’s like, “Oh, that looks interesting” and it just takes you down a whole different path. You can do the same with library books and research abstracts.

Holly: [00:23:51] What drives my passion for it is I like discovering that a natural ingredient can do something that all other sources of information will tell you can only be done by a chemical compound. I find that other people are excited about that too. Maybe not as excited about it as I am so they don’t go and do the research but, when I just give them the fruits of my research and say, “Hey, there’s this amazing oil that you can use for that”, they’re like, “Oh my god, that’s amazing. Cool!” I’m excited about it. I find other people get excited about it and, more to the point, in terms of doing good in the world, these can all be alternatives to the really toxic stuff out there. Both toxic for us and for the environment. It just seems so unnecessary that we’re polluting the water stream with all these ingredients and that people are developing cancer because they’re using a moisturizer that contains parabens when it doesn’t have to.

Holly: [00:24:48] It just seems so tragic that all this stuff is happening because people don’t know how much plant-based ingredients can do for us and that that is clinically proven. Because a lot of people have the idea that it will work, but they’re like, “Oh, it doesn’t have a shelf life. Oh, it’s not really gonna battle my wrinkles.” They don’t really believe that there’s solid evidence behind it, but there is. I’m a little bit driven by the idea of just getting the word out about that.

Richie: [00:25:16] As this is all happening, I’m curious to talk about the transition from products to actually building a brand. When did you realize you wanted to or needed to do that? I’m curious how the rebrand of the packaging itself played into that. How conscious or unconscious was it to make this transition?

Holly: [00:25:34] The packaging didn’t change that much. Basically, we just stopped calling it PLANT Design Studio. We went from calling it PLANT Design Studio to just calling it PLANT and then we realized there’s a Google search issue with that because obviously “plant” turns up all kinds of things.

Richie: [00:25:49] It’s like a John Smith as a brand.

Holly: [00:25:49] Exactly. So then we started calling it, specifically, PLANT Apothecary, but that was only about two years ago. We only first started working with a PR agency about two years ago. We only just started working with a digital branding agency. There’s a lot that we didn’t do earlier on partly because the business was growing on its own.

Richie: [00:26:14] Did that surprise you that it got as far as it did?

Holly: [00:26:17] Honestly, yeah. We didn’t plan to end up in this place at all. It really started as a side project and we kind of thought it would remain a side project. But we got very fortunate in that all these different retailers around the world and media outlets reached out to us. The brand was able to grow into a brand with a brand identity without us ever having really said, “Okay, let’s build a brand identity and boil down what our ‘story’ is and make sure that we’re communicating that specific story to all the necessary parties that need to hear it.” We have been a little bit late in the game with that and so it’s been interesting because, of course, even while we weren’t thinking, “Okay, this is what we have to do to build a brand,” we could see that other brands that had been inspired by the growth of the natural beauty industry and, also, I’ll venture to say inspired by our brand because we were—I hate to like sound like I’m tooting our own horn but we were one of the first to present this kind of packaging—and I think people saw that and they were like, “Oh my God, we can do that.” Seeing them grow so much faster than we did because they had started out saying, “Okay, we’re gonna need this much money to produce product and we’re gonna need this much money for a PR agency and this much for a branding agency.” And they would just come out of the gate with all their ducks in a row which we didn’t do at all until two and a half years ago.

Holly: [00:27:50] So it was at that point that we were like, “Okay, we have a whole business here and everybody’s telling us we can totally kill it. It’s great that it’s supporting us but what do we need to do to actually start to catch up with some of our peer brands?” The obvious thing to do was to hire a PR agency and work with a digital branding agency and start using social media. We just started having an Instagram profile three years ago and it’s been great, but we were a little bit late to that.

Richie: [00:28:20] It’s interesting that you were first and then let things grow organically and let them happen and then this whole other crop came in with a lot more money and formulaic approaches and then you realized, “Oh, we have to actually move.”

Holly: [00:28:33] Yeah, exactly.

Richie: [00:28:34] So, as you’re scaling this, you’re obviously making more products as time goes on. How long did it stay in your kitchen? And then at what point did you say, “Okay, we have to go figure out something else?” And how do you maintain the purity of it as you start to scale it from the product and the creation perspective?

Holly: [00:28:51] It moved out of the kitchen pretty quickly. As soon as we started having to make more than 10 or 20 items at a time, we moved production to Brooklyn Unlimited, the workshop for disabled adults. We had that facility certified as a USDA organic processing facility, which was a whole ‘nother ball of wax. We moved production there. Basically turned it into commercial-grade production facility. We’ve always been determined to keep our formulas intact. I know it would have been against the point of the whole business to allow harmful synthetics into the formulas even for the sake of making them cheaper and so they’re still not in there. Basically with the workshop and with any factory, you tell them, “Okay, this is the formula and this is how you make the product.” And then you do quality checking at various points and you just make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. But we were able to scale up production quite a lot with Brooklyn Unlimited.

Holly: [00:29:57] And then we got into Target and that’s a whole different scale of production. There’s no way any “workshop,” can make Target quantities. So, at that point, we started having a contract manufacturer in the area make the products. Again, oversaw production with them and made sure they were sticking to our formulas.

Holly: [00:30:23] One thing that I think is a bit different about us than with a lot of other brands is, often, a brand will go to a contract manufacturer and say, “This is the type of product we’ve been making. Please replicate that using whatever you would normally use to do it.” We came in and said, “Okay, we just want you to make it. These are the ingredients. We’re going to get them. You’re going to do it the way we do it just on a bigger scale.” That’s expensive. We don’t have the kind of profit margins that a lot of other brands have because of that. But, again, in our minds, why do it if it’s not going to be producing the products that are as pure and as well made as we initially meant them to be? We both come from backgrounds that were heavily focused on doing good, being of service and not just making a living but trying to make the world a better place. This sounds so Kumbaya, it’s killing me right now. But that is how we both grew up and so we’ve never wanted to do something just for the money. Of course, we want to make money and, of course, we have to make a living but it never even occurred to either of us to dumb down and cheapen the formulas with synthetics.

Richie: [00:31:38] Given that the work you’re doing is very much pulling everything from the Earth and natural and so forth and a lot of the lab-based alternatives, in some vein, would be considered innovative, right? They figure out a way to replicate, lower the price. In some formulaic R&D sense, that would be pushing something forward. Not necessarily that it’s good, but it would be. What do you see as a balance between heritage and history and tradition and how things were, which is where a lot of the research sounds like it goes—it goes back into to how it used to be—versus being innovative and pushing stuff forward? How do you think about that tension between all the answers are already out there, we just have to go find them versus we actually need to go create whatever this next thing might be?

Holly: [00:32:26] I think it’s really just a matter of what the consumer wants. There are people who are always going to be excited about the fact that somebody figured out in a lab how to make, for example, Retinol-A. It’s a really popular wrinkle-fighting ingredient that is, unfortunately, really irritating to a lot of people’s skin but a lot of people who aren’t irritated by it don’t mind it. They like it and they look for it. As it happens, that same compound is found in natural form in carrot seed oil. So it’s really just a matter of whether a particular consumer likes the idea of having something with carrot seed oil in it because that’s more the original form or if somebody who’s like, “Yeah, better living through technology. Give me the Retinol-A.” That’s fine. As the formulator for our brand, I don’t have any problem with somebody saying, “Okay, give me the chemicals.” If that appeals to them and if it works for them and, God willing, it’s not hurting them—cool. I think there are a lot of other people who want something simpler and straight out of the Earth and we’re here to give it to them.

Richie: [00:33:31] What have you seen around the meaning of these words? How has that changed? How do you keep them so they mean something? Because you go to the grocery store, “organic” is on everything and, from my understanding, there’s no actual, legal definition of what organic is. It’s kind of just thrown around now. Given it’s so integral to the business and it actually does mean something to you and the company, how do you keep meaning in those words and how do you make sure customers and shoppers understand and still see that?

Holly: [00:33:57] There is a perception that there is no regulation regarding the use of the term organic. There actually is. It’s just that there isn’t nearly enough regulation to keep it under control. Technically, according to USDA standards, you’re not allowed to call something organic unless it’s at least 70% made of organic ingredients and, at that level, you can’t use the USDA Organic logo on it and you can’t call it organic but you can just say it’s made with specific organic ingredients. If it’s 95% or more made of organic ingredients, you can use the logo and you can actually say, “This is organic,” [or] whatever it is on the front of the label. But so many brands break those rules and people just slap the word “organic” in all kinds of places even if they are following the rules and it can be misleading. That’s just unfortunate because I think a lot of people are just like, “If it says it’s organic, it probably isn’t anyway so I’m just going to filter that out.” We just try to educate people. We’re a very small company and we’re starting to grow our website traffic using PPC [pay-per-click] marketing which is very new to us. Ooh la la. But we have a blog where we talk about what organic means and what it doesn’t mean and what to look for and how to navigate that landscape to understand what you’re getting and to get what you’re looking for if you’re looking for organic things.

Holly: [00:35:28] One thing I’ve seen change since we started is that it used to be that, if a product was touting itself as organic or natural, it tended to not really have a lot of synthetic ingredients, but a lot of brands are now saying, “Hey, we’re an organic brand.” They’re not certified organic so maybe they’re following the rules by not saying, “This is organic whatever it is on the front” but they’re like, “We’re an organic brand” and they’ve got some organic ingredients and then they’ve got a whole lot of other stuff that is actually, usually, not terribly awful, but harmful in there too. That’s part of the trend that’s called greenwashing; making things look greener than they are. I think that’s something that consumers are going to have to deal with for a while, but awareness of why it’s good to stick with more natural ingredients has grown over a decade since the ’70s. I think awareness of greenwashing is growing as well.

Richie: [00:36:27] Talk through the last two years of growth in terms of how has the product line expanded, the business and where does it sit today?

Holly: [00:36:35] We’ve started adding more products as we saw a combination of seeing certain trends. Masks became hot a few years ago so it was like, “Okay, we should have some masks.” Also I like formulating different kinds of products so it’s sort of a puzzle. How can we create something that’s going to have the same shelf life as stuff that’s loaded with parabens without having to use anything synthetic? What kinds of ingredients can we put in there that are going to be super-powered but really simple but unexpected? That kind of thing. So we’ve actually added a lot of products. Most of them have been in response to trends. There was a masking trend that started a few years ago. Then there’s the mist, face mist trend that started a couple years ago. Basically, as a brand, you have to respond to those things or else you’re just going to lose out. So a lot of our line expansion has been in response to that. Some of it has also just been, basically, me just being like, “Okay, people should have this kind of product and so we’re going to make it and try to get them to understand why they should use it and see what happens.” We’ve been fortunate that that’s worked.

Holly: [00:37:49] We have a really good PR agency. They’ve been great at getting us some press in both print and online in some prominent places and it’s really helped with growing brand awareness. The products tend to sell themselves a bit so we’ve been fortunate in that regard. The last couple of years have been about staffing up, actually getting more focus and strategic in our use of digital marketing. So it’s been about figuring out, of all the different ways you can grow a brand, what are the ones that we’re going to focus on? Because we are still actually only a team of four people. People tend to assume that we have at least 10 if not 20 employees, but we really don’t. So we have to be a little bit essentialist about it and just say, “Okay, of all the different things we can do, what are the things that we think are going to be the most effective? And what’s the best use of our energy?”

Richie: [00:38:44] How big do you think this brand can get? And then how big do you actually want it to get?

Holly: [00:38:49] It would be amazing if we could get to $20 million in sales for our website within the next few years. I think, with the right kind of digital marketing initiatives, that’s doable. Right now, we are mostly in higher-end retail outlets and then we have Target which is a bit of an outlier because they came to us. It would be great to be in, somehow, even more mass outlets because it’s a part of our mission to just get organic, natural products into the hands of as many people as possible. That can be tricky because we have to figure out how to make the products affordable enough and we know we’re never going to be as cheap as Burt’s Bees. We’re not going to have the $3 lip balm. It’s just not going to happen. But the affordable indulgence level—if we can be at that level for the majority of people, rather than just the top 5% or 10% percent of consumers, that would be great, as well as being able to reach the higher end consumers. Because we do have really high quality products and they’re gonna find what they’re looking for if they try our stuff. So it would be great to expand both on the mass and the higher-end markets and expand more internationally. Right now, about a third of our retailers are in the EU and we’d love to grow that sector of the market and also expand into Asia and wherever else there is a demand for organic skincare and just see what happens.

Richie: [00:40:21] Does wholesale drive the business right now?

Holly: [00:40:25] At the moment, it does. We’re working hard to change that.

Richie: [00:40:28] Interesting. Why?

Holly: [00:40:29] Because there’s a higher profit margin on the ecommerce level, direct-to-consumer level. It’s just better for the business. Also, since so much of what we’re doing is about educating the consumer, we have a much bigger opportunity to educate the consumer if they’re part of our own online community, if they’re getting our emails and reading our blog and looking at our Instagram posts.

Richie: [00:40:54] As you look to expand your distribution, you said you’re going to sell more online, you also have wholesale expanding internationally, are there any other pieces that are part of that plan to keep growing the business over time?

Holly: [00:41:06] Actually, we are about to launch on Amazon, hopefully within the next week or so.

Richie: [00:41:12] Interesting.

Holly: [00:41:13] Yeah, we’re excited. It’s a whole new ball game for us. We’re fortunate we have some advisors in place to help us navigate the Amazon landscape. It’s been an interesting journey to get there because Amazon has approached us from different angles saying, “Hey, sell to us. We’re interested in buying your brand.” But it’s a very different thing, of course, to sell to Amazon versus selling on Amazon as yourself. We’ve ended up choosing the latter.

Richie: [00:41:45] Good.

Holly: [00:41:45] Yeah. We’ve heard so many horror stories about selling to Amazon and the crazy pricing thing. We figured it’s going to be better to be able to control our pricing and our presence on there. But that also means that there are a lot of questions. If we were selling to Amazon, they could be like, “Okay, well this is what’s going to happen. This is how it’s going to happen and when.” But this is like we’re just going to do our best and keep our fingers crossed.

Richie: [00:42:11] Yeah. What led to this decision? Was it just there are so many damn people on there that we have to? There’s an audience to garner there. How did the thought process evolve that we should actually go to this?

Holly: [00:42:21] It was a thought process. It took some time because you read about how Amazon has some issues with how it treats its employees. As an ethical company, we thought long and hard about whether we really wanted to be on it because you hear horror stories about the warehouse workers. It’s like, “Okay, wow.” But, at the same time, it’s just a cold hard fact. When people learn about a new brand, they go on Amazon and if we’re not there, a lot of people are just going to turn away. They’re not necessarily going to want to go straight to our website because just the fact of being on Amazon is a stamp of legitimacy for so many people. And so we figured, “Okay, this is one of those things where maybe we have to do a little bit of bad to do a lot of good.” We just figured, “Let’s just do it.” Especially because there have been a lot of articles in the last couple of years about how green beauty is a booming sector on Amazon, just like everywhere.

Richie: [00:43:22] Yeah. I believe Amazon controls—10% of the beauty market is online today and Amazon has almost 5% of that which is crazy.

Holly: [00:43:32] Yeah. So it was kind of like, unless we’re not really trying to make money in this business and we are, we need to get on Amazon.

Richie: [00:43:39] Gotcha. In your mind, what’s the best case scenario of what happens and what’s the worst case?

Holly: [00:43:44] Maybe it’s to our advantage that we haven’t really imagined the worst case scenario yet. We haven’t actually heard so many horror stories about people selling on Amazon just using it as a platform. Fortunately, we don’t have anything that we have in mind that we’re like, “Oh my god, hope that doesn’t happen.” It’s more like a big question mark. But the dream scenario would be, when people hear about the brand, if they’re going to go to Amazon first, they see us and see lots of good reviews and think, “Okay, that looks great. This is something I want.” Maybe they do buy us on Amazon but maybe they also say, “Hey, let me go to their website.” Because a lot of people do understand that that’s better for the brand, ultimately, in most cases. We actually find that people who’ve bought us in other stores will come to our website and then shoot us an email and say, “Hey, I wanted to give the business directly to you.”

Richie: [00:44:38] Yeah.

Holly: [00:44:38] If we can use it, not only to obviously sell things, but also grow brand awareness and also bring people to our website where we can teach them more about why we’re doing what we’re doing, that would be great.

Richie: [00:44:49] Totally. What’s been the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned building this business?

Holly: [00:44:56] One of the most expensive is not having a plan in place for where to source capital can mean that you pay some nasty interest rates on the capital you get. I think that’s just Business 101 but not having taken Business 101, we didn’t know that.

Richie: [00:45:38] And you didn’t raise any venture capital or any institutional?

Holly: [00:45:40] No, we’ve never had any investment.

Richie: [00:45:44] Right. So it’s been mostly debt then to help finance inventory and so forth?

Holly: [00:45:47] Yeah. Now we know that we need to plan ahead for that. I would never have guessed this beforehand but, obviously, there’s people around every corner willing to lend you money at 50% interest but that’s not necessarily a smart way to go.

Holly: [00:45:59] Yeah, and then the cheapest lesson? A brand can grow on its own steam. Everybody tells you that things don’t sell themselves, but we’ve been really fortunate. I guess it’s a combination of luck and also just figuring if we want something, we’re probably not the only people who want it.

Richie: [00:46:16] And timing.

Holly: [00:46:17] And timing. We’ve been fortunate to find that some of our products, in fact, do sell themselves. And that’s been a really nice surprise and it saved us a lot of money at least initially and maybe on an ongoing basis because that’s marketing that we don’t have to do. Even though, obviously, there’s a lot of marketing that we do have to do and pay for.

Richie: [00:46:33] And then what do you think is the most misunderstood thing about the brand?

Holly: [00:46:37] I wouldn’t say this is necessarily a misunderstanding, but it’s something that we want to clarify more as we develop our marketing tools. We want to communicate that we see ourselves as a brand for all kinds of people. One of the things that is not unique to the green beauty industry but very noticeable, is that the vast majority of marketing is aimed at a very specific type and age of Caucasian woman. The assumption is that she’s the only consumer out there looking for green beauty and skincare products or grooming products and that’s just not true. It’s starting to change. It has become, unfortunately, a bit of a trend and I’m not always sure how much heart is behind some bigger brands efforts to include more ethnic diversity in their marketing. I think sometimes they’re just seeing other brands doing it and they’re like, “Oh we should do that too.” Maybe it’s all for the right reasons and maybe it isn’t. Who knows? But we want to communicate to people, hey, whether you’re Asian or black or overweight or underweight or whatever, male, female, something in between, there’s value in you using organic, non-harmful, eco-friendly skincare, just like there is for that 20-something white woman with shoulder-length brown hair who’s in all the ads for so many other brands. So that’s something that we’re trying to communicate and push that message across more effectively as we grow.

Richie: [00:47:58] Very cool. And then, as you look forward one, two, three years, what is on the horizon and that are you most excited about?

Holly: [00:48:06] One of the things that we’re most excited about is our upcoming haircare line. At the risk of sounding like an ad, which is not my intention, I’ve been working on formulas for some haircare products for a long time.

Richie: [00:48:20] How long?

Holly: [00:48:22] Probably about three years.

Richie: [00:48:24] Wow.

Holly: [00:48:24] The thing is, I’ve been trying to come up with something that can work for a lot of different hair types and that’s tricky because different hair types have different needs. But my dream has been to come up with something that is at least 70% organic ingredients that actually works on my hair—more kinky and curly hair—and straight hair for detangling, conditioning, styling all of that and just doesn’t have the harmful stuff that most products that serve curly and coily hair audience have. Specifically silicones. Silicones are just ubiquitous in curly hair products and they happen to not be harmful to people, but they never biodegrade. So they just accumulate in the environment and pollute the waterways and so I’ve been trying to come up with something that doesn’t have to include them. And, finally, I did it.

Richie: [00:49:21] Very cool. And when will that be out?

Holly: [00:49:22] Within the next three months.

Richie: [00:49:24] Awesome. Thanks so much for talking.

Holly: [00:49:26] Sure. Thank you.

Richie: [00:49:31] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads podcast. You can read full transcripts of the podcast and join the newsletter at LooseThreads.com. Feel free to leave a review on iTunes. We always appreciate it. And thanks to George Drake Jr. For editing this episode. We have a great roster of upcoming guests including Ariane Goldman of Hatch, Jackie De Jesu of Shhhowercap and Melissa Mash of Dagne Dover. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.