#106. True Botanicals is a direct-to-consumer, all-natural skincare brand that puts clinical trials at the forefront of its marketing. We talk with Hillary Peterson, who founded the company to create the cleanest skincare products possible after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below.

Hillary: [00:00:02] You can see an outfit and think, “I like that, I want to wear it.” But with skincare, you want to believe. And, to believe, word-of-mouth is better than anything else you can imagine.

Richie: [00:00:15] That’s Hilary Peterson, the founder of True Botanicals, a direct-to-consumer, all-natural skincare brand. Hillary founded the company after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which led her to seek out the cleanest skincare products, since they end up being absorbed into your skin and, therefore, your body. She left her career as a marketing executive at Levi’s to build what would become True Botanicals.

Richie: [00:00:35] I’m Richie Siegel, the founder of Loose Threads, which analyzes and advises next generation consumer companies, and FaceLift by Loose Threads, which provides a retail strategy and infrastructure for leading brands and retailers. For our latest analysis and insights, check out our free weekly newsletter at LooseThreads.com.

Richie: [00:55:00] I started the Loose Threads podcast to spark engaging discussions with leaders across the consumer economy. That’s why I was excited to talk with Hillary about how the brand is using celebrities like Olivia Wilde to grow, and how it’s putting clinical trials at the forefront to prove the potency of its products. Here’s how it all began.

Hillary: [00:01:12] I kept looking at my products and thinking, “Wow, these are endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” and I had thyroid cancer, which is, you know, your thyroid’s at the core of your endocrine system. So I kept thinking, “This doesn’t make sense at all.” And then I did have a moment—there was this perception that your skin was a barrier. I was listening to NPR, and a scientist was describing the results from a study called the cord blood study. What they found is that the chemicals that are in our everyday personal care products end up in babies’ cord blood. And that was really my “aha moment”: Nobody can tell me that this stuff is just staying on the surface of the skin. And if that’s the case, why would I want to use products with toxins in them?

Richie: [00:01:58] If you take the other perspective, what would those companies say about why they were doing it? Was there a benefit to it? Was it just a cheap way to deliver that benefit? What was the flip side?

Hillary: [00:02:10] I think there was a lack of consciousness around the potential impact. And I think it’s all about cost; looking at what it takes to make effective, clean, sustainable products. It’s expensive. I liken it to the organic food movement and at first it was expensive to grow foods organically, and as people learned more about why that would be important or beneficial, demand increased. So I would say it’s the same thing. In my industry the toxic ingredients are cheap, and it’s harder to make products without them, but it’s not impossible, and it’s a really exciting opportunity to innovate. And that’s how I got involved.

Richie: [00:02:48] So where are you still at Levi’s as this was all developing?

Hillary: [00:02:51] Yes. I was still at Levi’s when I was diagnosed. I stayed on and did consulting. I just wanted to take a little time—I had baby twins, had just had thyroid cancer—so I consulted for them for a couple of years, and that was the time when I started to really think, “Hmm. I’m a marketer. This is an opportunity. I come from a very entrepreneurial family.” And so I just decided, “I think it’s time for this to change and for the beauty industry to evolve.” And I just got really excited about taking it on.

Richie: [00:03:22] So where did you begin?

Hillary: [00:03:24] So I began by researching and learning about which ingredients impact skin in different ways. And I just started making products. I initially worked with another woman who had some products that were really making an impact on my skin, and I learned a lot working with her, and then ultimately decided to go out on my own. And then I involved leading scientists, the head of green chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, I’ve worked with the head of food science at Cornell. Learning from them about which whole ingredients from nature could have the biggest impact.

Richie: [00:04:01] What were some of the most interesting discoveries during that incubation/early period?

Hillary: [00:04:07] So one of my more interesting discoveries was about an ingredient that we use in our antioxidant booster: apple peel. It was very interesting for me to learn that apple peel is a more potent antioxidant than vitamin C, because I think we all have this perception that vitamin C’s so potent, but in so many ways you can see where an industry—we identify something as being beneficial and then isolate it and use it on its own. And what I’ve learned from these scientists is that the synergistic effect of using whole ingredients is very powerful. So, to see that apple peel is a more potent antioxidant, it’s a very good example of how nature has curated ingredients in a way that makes them as potent as possible. We haven’t figured all that out yet. And that’s why, typically, I try to use, in our products, whole ingredients. So, you know, you think about, “Well, what’s the longest lasting fruit?” Apples, right? And the antioxidants in [the] peel are what helped to preserve apples.

Richie: [00:05:05] So as you were going through the research period and you started to think, “Okay, these can turn into actual products,” how did you start to formulate what that initial assortment would be, and what they would do?

Hillary: [00:05:16] We really started by looking at the most common pain points that people want to address with their skin. We looked at hydration, moisturization. We looked at the main issues that people have as adults with their skin—dryness, wrinkles, acne, rosacea—and we developed a core line to address them, and really focus on the products we knew could make the biggest difference for people’s skin. At the core of that are our face oils which, if people use them for about a month, they really notice a significant difference, and then that has really fueled word-of-mouth. It was a great place for us to start and we’ve really expanded from there.

Richie: [00:05:57] Can you just outline what that core assortment was?

Hillary: [00:06:00] Absolutely. We broke the product lines down into three lines: Renew for aging, Clear for blemishes and Calm for rosacea. And each product line has cleanser, toner, face oil, serums, and then we have a very innovative delivery system for vitamin C, a booster, which keeps it fresh for as long as possible. And you just shake it into your serum right when you need it, because the big issue with vitamin C is that it degrades over time in a liquid.

Hillary: [00:06:30] So, really, our whole product line has been focused on how can we innovate and do things in the most effective way possible.

Richie: [00:06:38] Did you launch with all those products?

Hillary: [00:06:40] Yes.

Richie: [00:06:40] That’s a large assortment to start with.

Hillary: [00:06:42] Yes, we started with about 20 SKUs.

Richie: [00:06:44] Did that seem ambitious at the time?

Hillary: [00:06:46] Well, it’s so interesting ’cause it didn’t seem ambitious at the time. And I’ve learned since then I’m much more conservative about SKU counts. And you know, we tend to look on a monthly basis at which products are performing best, which products are lagging, and we’re not afraid to drop products—as painful as it is.

Richie: [00:07:05] I’m curious to talk a bit about face oils. They don’t seem like one of the core products in an assortment, so to speak. There seems to be a lot more around moisturizers and cleansers, and they’re like—call them like, the big three. But it seems to be almost like a second level of delivery, if that makes sense.

Hillary: [00:07:23] Right.

Richie: [00:07:23] Why did you start there, and what were some of the benefits or qualities of them that you wanted to elevate to the core of what you did?

Hillary: [00:07:31] What I learned from my personal experience is using the right kind of face oil for your skin can be completely transformative. I had never used one before. I had friends and family say, “Wow, your skin looks amazing, it’s glowing.” And then, I have three sisters, and at that point my mom was alive, and they all used the face oils, and they had the exact same experience. Literally everybody had people stopping them. I thought, “Wow, that’s so interesting.”

Hillary: [00:07:55] So I’ve learned over time why that is. It’s because the ingredients in face oils absorb deeper into the skin and they replenish the lipid barrier that diminishes every year as we age. And so it’s putting oils back that we’re losing over time. And they enhance barrier function, and if your skin’s barrier is working the way it does when you’re a baby, you regain that glow that you lose over time. And so, because of the significant visible impact that they have, and the true support they provide skin in terms of the way it’s meant to function, it was important to start at that core to really give people the best possible results.

Hillary: [00:08:36] So, it’s different. It’s not how people are used to taking care of their skin. And yet, my guess is, within ten years it absolutely will be. It’s already changed so much. You know, what’s interesting about creams and lotions is that those were developed due to the cost benefit for manufacturers because they’re made with oil, wax, and water. The most expensive ingredient is the oil; Our face oils are very expensive to make. And so, if you can bring in the wax and the water and still provide a moisturizing perception, that was very beneficial, and a big part of what happened during the industrial revolution. Whereas, if you look back over time, Cleopatra was using oils on her skin, not lotions.

Richie: [00:09:17] For the launch itself, did you have a goal of what you wanted it to be? Was it, let’s just put this out there? Is it, let’s make this a big thing? How did that get conceptualized, and then how did it go?

Hillary: [00:09:29] It’s interesting. Having had successful entrepreneurial grandparents, I had a pretty big goal in mind from the start, which was: This industry needs to change and I want to help change it. So I want to develop what will become one of the top beauty brands in the country, and start small and build it.

Hillary: [00:09:45] So that was the idea. I knew within the first year it was really important for me to reach a million dollars if I could—we did, which was really exciting. And the other thing that became clear very early on is that in order to spend what we wanted to on our ingredients, it was gonna make the most sense if we could be primarily a direct brand. And so, while we did have some wholesale accounts to start, the emphasis has always been on direct.

Richie: [00:10:13] So how did the launch actually go, or happen?

Hillary: [00:10:17] For me it’s been all about getting the products in the right hands, spending a lot of time talking to beauty editors and having them try them, telling them the story, educating. And so, it was really a mix of word-of-mouth and getting a lot of great press straight on.

Hillary: [00:10:31] Something that we did that was really important is that we did a clinical trial against Crème de la Mer. That has made a huge difference for the brand. That’s what got beauty editors to actually try the products.

Richie: [00:10:43] Because that is known as the top of the top, traditionally.

Hillary: [00:10:47] Yeah. It’s definitely one of the top department store brand moisturizers. Yeah. It made a huge difference. Once people understood that products made with whole nutritive ingredients can actually outperform an iconic brand like that.

Richie: [00:11:00] Hmm. I assume that’s not a cheap thing to fund, is it?

Hillary: [00:11:03] It’s not, but it’s not crazy. It’s one of those things that was a little nerve-wracking because you don’t know what’s gonna happen.

Richie: [00:11:10] Right. What if it goes the other way?

Hillary: [00:11:12] Right. So it turned out to really be worth it.

Richie: [00:11:14] It’s an interesting tactic of—I’ve seen that only for one other brand that actually launched recently, where they would do that at the beginning. But most of the launch is just like, “Hey, here’s a new thing. No one’s used it really. Good luck, please buy this.” Versus launching with a fact set, almost.

Hillary: [00:11:30] Right.

Richie: [00:11:30] Did you know you wanted to do that or did that come—I guess you need to plan that.

Hillary: [00:11:35] Yes. Well, it happened over time. I had developed some of my products with a prior partner, and she and I did the clinical trial against Crème de la Mer, and then I kept that product. And so I had that under my belt, and it gave me the confidence to then, for instance, do a clinical trial against Proactiv. So it was sort of a step-by-step, like, “try one.”

Richie: [00:11:57] And you kept doing it.

Hillary: [00:11:57] Yes. And it’s been really exciting. We didn’t do a comparative trial, but we just did a trial on a recent product that we launched and, yeah, the results have been really exciting.

Richie: [00:12:07] As a marketing executive going into it, did you think that the brand would be led by the marketing? Was it, we’re just going to put the product in front of people and know that it’s good enough that it’s gonna do its own thing? Because there are brands on all edges of that spectrum today. Where did you want to land on that?

Hillary: [00:12:27] When I think of the best marketing, it’s based on genuine connection, and a true desire to build something that you would want yourself and that you feel your consumers would be really excited about. And when I think about the connection we share with our customers, around wanting real results without toxins, there was really something to connect on. And so, for me, yes, it’s been about sharing a discovery community and then figuring out all of the different levers that we can pull to make that happen.

Richie: [00:12:59] Okay. So the product and the company’s out in the wild now, primarily direct. What are you doing from a marketing perspective, I guess, more tactically early on? It sounds like press was a big booster in the beginning. What’s making it work at that point?

Hillary: [00:13:12] In year one, it was really about emphasizing press, sharing the clinical trial results, building social. And it was at a time—which is lucky, you can’t always count on this—it was at a time where interest in products that delivered results without toxins was high. And so that really helped us, we rode that wave. And it was interesting ’cause I was noticing at that time that celebrities and beauty editors were all loving and using the products, and yet they couldn’t really talk about it, because several of the celebrities are models, had contracts. Beauty editors can’t say, “Oh, I use and love True Botanicals,” but we can certainly end up in their publications.

Hillary: [00:13:52] It was after that first year that I saw an opportunity to figure out how to harness that passion for the brand. And in year two we moved from this model of relying exclusively on PR and social and word-of-mouth, and we engaged Olivia Wilde—having raised a seed round, we were able to do that—and she really helped to build awareness of the brand and, you know, shared a really genuine passion that people connected with.

Richie: [00:14:26] I want to talk more about that. So, in the first year when you see under-the-radar [that] this is all happening—is that exciting, or is it also frustrating? I guess it’s the same as, I think there were stories of—I don’t know if it was Tiger Woods or golfers who would use other company’s clubs, but they’d have to put the logo of their sponsor on them, even though they weren’t—

Hillary: [00:14:44] Right.

Richie: [00:14:44] How did you feel about that at the time?

Hillary: [00:14:46] Well, I think it’s really funny cause you hit on both emotions: I felt excited and frustrated. I just thought, this ridiculous, especially since the products that were getting so much airtime were made with toxins. And especially since there’s always been this perception that you either need to choose results-driven products or, you know, products made with really beautiful, luxurious ingredients, and safe. And I knew the trade off wasn’t necessary. So it really felt like this incredible challenge of, “Okay, how do I help educate more people about this?”

Richie: [00:15:18] So, as that’s happening, talk about the genesis of moving to—call it like, a key ambassadorship, ’cause she’s not a spokesperson. How did that get formulated? ’Cause you have the traditional, all the people you talked about before who are locked up in the contracts, and the blah blah blah, where they go do, you know, five events and whatever.

Hillary: [00:15:37] Right.

Richie: [00:15:37] How did you come up with what you wanted that to be? And also, the focus, ’cause it’s her, right? It’s not a hundred people.

Hillary: [00:15:44] The word “spokesperson” is really interesting, because I think more and more consumers are understanding somebody can be a spokesperson and not genuinely passionate about that product. And so, you know, the first thing was, it was really important to us that we find somebody who genuinely used and loved the products. That was step one. And then, somebody who could very eloquently speak to what makes them different, and she was just such a great fit on both fronts. I do think this is a time where, more than ever, consumers are responding to authenticity. So we did that with her. We’ve also done that with a really great group of influencers who had a genuine passion for the brand. You know, one of our influencers who had a really significant impact from several posts that she did, she uses the products, her mom uses the products, and she did the post about herself and her mom, and it felt a lot like how the brand was at that time for me and my mom. And there was a realness to it that I think people really responded to.

Richie: [00:16:45] So as that’s coming together, I assume that takes time and financial commitment from both sides to make that happen. How do you figure out what your own goals are for it, how [do] you measure that? It kind of feels like brand advertising, but there’s a bit of a trackable nature to it, if it is turning into posts and stuff like that.

Hillary: [00:17:03] Right.

Richie: [00:17:03] What’s the goal for that, early on, or before it had happened?

Hillary: [00:17:07] The goal early on was to come up with a mutually-agreed upon number of services that she would provide to support the brand, and to really think about ways in which we could involve her that would drive growth. And so we looked at, “Okay, what drives the most growth for us?” A lot of it is about deeper coverage versus more surface, “I like this cleanser, I like this face oil,” but rather, “This is what I use, this is what it’s done for me, this is how I feel about it.” And interestingly, the agreed upon services have absolutely supported the growth of the business. Going and doing interviews and, really, just telling her story.

Hillary: [00:17:47] That’s what I’ve loved about it. We’re not giving her a script, we’re saying, “Use these products. How do you feel about them?” And then she sends back how she feels, and then we market based on her true experience. And so the same was true for press. And then we said, “When you’re out there and doing interviews, if you have an opportunity to mention us, obviously, please do.”

Hillary: [00:18:06] And it’s been the times then [when] we didn’t even know she was going to be talking about the brand, there have been so many insane surprises.

Richie: [00:18:13] What were some of those surprises?

Hillary: [00:18:15] Oh Wow. She was on “Watch What Happens Live [with Andy Cohen],” and somebody asked her how she could work so hard and look so great, you know, “Your skin’s amazing. What do you do?” And she told them about the products and what they’ve done for her skin, and it’s just crazy what happens when it feels that genuine and, you know, she was on TV and… Wow. So that was a big one. Also just the interviews that she’s done that have been deeper coverage and she’s been able to get into the challenges of taking good care of yourself when you’re as busy as she is—people just have really connected with that.

Hillary: [00:18:51] And so we’ve had a lot of spikes with the business based on what she said about the brand, and other influencers. So it’s very interesting, ’cause there’s the quantitative and the qualitative analysis relative to what drives the business, and I think, in the end, I always see a real combination of the two.

Richie: [00:19:07] If you look at something like Glossier where their whole thing is, like, “There is no spokesperson, you are all the spokesperson,” versus some of the older brands that are like, “Here are the three people that say everything”—you’re kind of in the middle of that, it seems. Does that make sense? Or, what do you think of the other perspectives as well, or the other ends of the spectrum?

Hillary: [00:19:24] I think there’s so many different ways you can do this and, from my perspective, we want to go as far as we can, as fast as we can. Because I feel that everybody deserves to have highly effective products that deliver results in their hands, that don’t have toxins in them. From our perspective, it’s made a lot of sense to focus on, first and foremost, our customers, and they’re sharing their experience all the time, and we love that. But then, also, to blend in this information of, yes, beauty editors use and love our products, celebrities use and love our products.

Hillary: [00:19:56] You know, we’re basically for all women with the millennial mindset, and let’s go after all of it. And I think because of the amount of passion behind what we’re doing, that’s been easier than it might be for some brands. Because of the fact that, you know, we’re not only impacting the lives of our consumers, but we’re also impacting the lives of the farmers who are farming these beautiful sustainable ingredients, and all of our packaging is glass and that’s the most easily-recycled material. So we’re really trying to do something that people feel very passionate about, and that’s allowed us to tap into a very broad group.

Richie: [00:20:32] You mentioned you started direct with a little bit of wholesale. How did you think about wholesale in the first few years, and what purpose it would play?

Hillary: [00:20:41] In the first few years, wholesale really helped us build awareness. In our first year we went into Barneys, which was very exciting for us. That was a substantiator of the quality of the products. It was a great way to connect with new consumers. We were in some specialty stores that we really respect, like Follain; They’ve done an amazing job of curating beautiful, clean products. While we were always over 80% direct, it was just a great way for us to get out there and reach more consumers.

Hillary: [00:21:12] What we realized over time is that to do wholesale in the way that we wanted to, it took a lot of time and focus and energy, so we were basically spending what we were making on our wholesale business. And we just reached a point where we realized we had enough momentum behind the direct business that it made a lot more sense just to double down on that and be a direct brand.

Richie: [00:21:36] So did you pull out of—

Hillary: [00:21:37] We did.

Richie: [00:21:38] Most, or everything?

Hillary: [00:21:39] Everything. Which was a really hard decision. But, in the end, I feel like it was a really smart one.

Richie: [00:21:46] When did that happen?

Hillary: [00:21:47] We did that in late 2018.

Richie: [00:21:50] Late 2018. Is there still stuff on Goop?

Hillary: [00:21:52] There is still stuff on Goop. So we still have our products with Goop and, you know, that’s really largely because of their heavy editorial focus. That’s been a great partnership.

Richie: [00:22:02] Gotcha. So they’re kind of the exception.

Hillary: [00:22:04] Yes.

Richie: [00:22:04] It’s interesting just from a channel perspective, a lot of brands, to grow their business, are moving back into wholesale today, or some are starting with it. But it seems that if they can, as you did, get the right amount of traction going, it does make sense to pull that back eventually as well, versus go further into it.

Hillary: [00:22:22] Yes. One of my main lessons has been [that] focused can be so valuable. And by focusing on the core drivers of our business, we’ve really been able to fuel growth.

Richie: [00:22:34] So, as that evolved, what have those core drivers been that gave you the confidence to say, “We don’t need this other thing anymore?”

Hillary: [00:22:41] We have a brand team that also manages PR [and] we have a growth team. And the brand team is responsible for driving interest in the brand and all the PR work that we do, and then the growth team has been focused on everything surrounding digital acquisition, emails, digital ads, social. And this complementary combination has really had a big impact.

Hillary: [00:23:05] And, you know, certainly Olivia is a big part of the PR efforts, I do a lot of interviewing as well. And then, on the digital side, we’ve also been leveraging Olivia and other influencers with our digital advertising and, you know, through social, and building community. I mean, between those two, at the heart of the brand is building a community of like-minded women who all care about the same things.

Richie: [00:23:31] You keep saying “women.” Do other people who are not women use this stuff, or is it pretty much mostly women?

Hillary: [00:23:37] Ten percent of our customers are men, and we care about those customers and we take really good care of them. But, in the end, our target’s women.

Richie: [00:23:44] And is that a target thing from a marketing perspective, or is it also from a product-formulation perspective, that they’re more optimized or built for them?

Hillary: [00:23:53] You know, really, it’s a target from a marketing perspective. The products—I again would go back to the food analogy. You know, the same foods that are nourishing for women are great for men. Same with your skin. So, you know, while we’re targeting women, the product’s formula definitely works equally well for men.

Richie: [00:24:11] Do you find that women tend to have one or two of your products? Is it a lot of what they have? Where does it fall, I guess in the routine and in the repertoire of stuff?

Hillary: [00:24:25] What we’ve found is that women tend to gravitate to us through one or two products, and we’re really [excited] to see that they tend to go deeper into the line as they get to know us better. So it’s a real mix. Some people, it’s a full routine, some people have one or two core products that they can’t live without. But as our efforts become more sophisticated, we’re able to tell our story better, and then they’re really excited to get more involved with the brand over time.

Richie: [00:24:51] So giving you launched with 20 SKUs, how did the product assortment evolve over the following years? Cause you already had a somewhat significant amount of stuff to sell.

Hillary: [00:25:01] Yes. So, if anything, we focused. As a brand you just realize how expensive it is to have a SKU. So we wanted to do everything we could for our customers. So when they said, “We’d really like to have your products in travel-size,” we made them. And now we’ve realized [that] maybe we need to be a certain size in order to do that. And we’ve focused a lot on efficiency, because that’s how we can ultimately do the best job for our customers.

Hillary: [00:25:24] We’ve narrowed our efforts around things like travel-size products, and as we grow we’ll certainly reintroduce them. We’ve really focused on our top sellers, and we always want to keep innovating, so sometimes we let products go. Recently we found that it was impossible to make our sunscreen without having talc in the iron oxides, and there’s been a lot of new learning about talc and the potential exposure to asbestos. And so we’re dropping that product. You know, as much as I love that product, and it’s not of concern for our customers because it’s in a liquid form, what’s happening when manufacturers are working with that powder, talc? That’s not safe.

Hillary: [00:26:04] And so, you know, staying true to our values makes it easier to let go of some of these products, too. Sometimes it has to do with that. A lot of times it just has to do with focusing on, you know, the best-selling products, and continuing to innovate and add new products. This year we’ve been focused on starting product launches with small-batch introductions, and that’s been really exciting. It’s a great way to respond to our customers’ needs.

Hillary: [00:26:30] A product that we launched this fall was 100% in response to customers saying, “Sometimes in the winter I just need more moisturization than I get from all the products that I’m using.” And so we developed a mask that you could use overnight and it was a huge hit. So, you know, we’ll continue to grow the line, and we’ll drop some products here and there when it makes sense.

Richie: [00:26:54] Do you advertise a small batch as that, as in, people know it will run out? How did that get conceptualized and how is that communicated?

Hillary: [00:27:01] Yes, we do advertise it as a small batch and people know it will run out. And their response to the product—both in terms of how quickly it sells out as well as what we hear in terms of feedback—is such a great way to learn and grow the business. It’s a great R&D tool for us.

Richie: [00:27:17] What’s it like to explain [that] you’re going to discontinue something that people, I assume, very much like and rely on. How do you do that well?

Hillary: [00:27:24] It’s so hard, I have to say. ’Cause we’ve never launched a product that customers didn’t love. So it’s not about that. It’s just about the number of customers who feel they must have that product. We’re considering discontinuing a product that’s just fabulous and, you know, I have several friends who say, “You’ll never discontinue that product, right?” And it’s just about velocity.

Richie: [00:27:45] Is there a way that, if you do it correctly, it actually reinforces a brand, but if you don’t do it correctly, you become known as a brand that just cancels stuff?

Hillary: [00:27:54] Yes, definitely. I feel like it’s really important for customers to know that they’re always at the center of our decision making, 100%, and that we’re really sad to see this product go to. With the sunscreen, for instance, we’ll definitely focus on the fact that we think there’s a real opportunity to innovate around sunscreen, and that we’ve already started thinking about it. So I think they’re understanding. They’re always at the center of our decision-making, [which] makes it easier.

Richie: [00:28:21] From your previous experience at Levi’s, I assume you weren’t part of product development.

Hillary: [00:28:25] I wasn’t.

Richie: [00:28:26] You very much are now.

Hillary: [00:28:28] Yes.

Richie: [00:28:29] What have been the most interesting learnings or lessons about having to take something from A to Z, versus being handed something at letter R and being like, “Now let’s bring this to the end of the alphabet.”

Hillary: [00:28:41] Having that consumer-focused perspective is incredibly beneficial. I’m really thinking about them as we’re developing these products, and I’m also thinking about how easy of a story will this be to tell, and how easily can I get consumers excited about this new product. And if it doesn’t sound easy then it’s probably not the right product to develop.

Hillary: [00:29:03] So that’s one thing. And on the other hand, a big part of what I enjoyed about marketing was research and market research. So being able to have fun with my compulsion to learn about ingredients and what they could do for the skin has been really exciting, and having the access to the scientists that we do? Fascinating. And so, I would say that that process, while it is in and of itself different, you follow a lot of the same paths, and I use a lot of the same skills.

Richie: [00:29:39] Given you’re working with ingredients that are rooted in science and bring a lot of complexity with them, how have you gone about assessing the level of understanding that customers will pick up on, and they want, versus a level of like, accessibility where [you’re] trying to explain a concept that just can’t be done in a tweet. How does that get navigated as a brand that kind of straddles both worlds?

Hillary: [00:30:04] What I have learned is [that] it’s really important to take a very sophisticated approach, clearly to product development, and get deep into the science and to rely on the experts. So, for instance, we have one of the top aromatherapists in the world help us to formulate all of our products to make sure we’re using the right essential oils in the right quantities as we develop the products.

Hillary: [00:30:24] We had the head of green chemistry at Carnegie Mellon help to inform the preservation system that we use so that it would be highly effective, but also extremely safe for people and the planet. So this sophistication around the development is really important, but I’ve learned consumers aren’t really all that interested in that. They want to trust that you’re doing what you need to. And while we have the information available at deeper levels on the site, overall, they just want proof. They want to know that this product is likely going to solve whatever it is that I would like to solve. And that really is offered up more in the form of testimonials, clinical trials.

Hillary: [00:31:02] So, yes, we don’t get into the level of detail that we used to. It’s a busy life. It’s a crazy world. I think, top line, people just want to know what’s it going to do and how confident can I be that it’s going to do it.

Richie: [00:31:13] More show than tell.

Hillary: [00:31:15] Yes.

Richie: [00:31:15] But it sounds like that was almost counter-intuitive, ’cause in the beginning, you want to tell more.

Hillary: [00:31:20] One hundred percent. And we were much more focused on explaining the science and even when I would be in press interviews, I would just see people’s eyes glaze over, and I thought, “Okay, I don’t think this is what people are interested in.” Whereas, for instance, people are extremely interested in the quality of our ingredients and the farmers that we’re sourcing from. I love, personally, to imagine the farms that have contributed to my face oil when I’m putting it on at night, because it’s just such a beautiful thing to be bathed in nature in that way. That’s the kind of information consumers really care about and are excited about.

Richie: [00:31:53] So as more of these brands focusing on natural ingredients enter the market and the space just becomes—I feel like it’s hard to imagine the space will ever become less competitive.

Hillary: [00:32:02] I agree 100%. It’s crazy.

Richie: [00:32:05] Given that, how do you continue to stand out, then, among that, if there’s not a huge appetite for getting really deep into the why?

Hillary: [00:32:16] That is the question. That is the question that we think about every day. I think we stand out through providing an experience on our site that is credible and compelling. Through offering proof that these products work. That’s the number one way. And then, ultimately, I think we stand out by the actual results that the customers get. And, by nature, we want to share with friends and acquaintances, that I found something really amazing that’s giving me results and it’s good for people and the planet. Like, that’s just a feel-good, “I want to share.”

Hillary: [00:32:51] And so I think, ultimately, that’s gonna be a huge driver of our business, that community that will continue to grow, of people who want to share. I feel like so much of what we’ve done is taken what I experienced on my front porch with my friends and family and exporting that to the world, sharing information around results, and around toxins, and around beautiful ingredients, and also just around how consuming consciously can really have a big impact on the world.

Richie: [00:33:19] So, coming into the present: Last year, what were the main focuses for you in terms of priorities, now being, I guess, the third year into it being public? Being launched is all I mean, not publicly traded.

Hillary: [00:33:32] Yeah. So, in this third year, a lot of our focus has just been around thoughtful growth. You know, how do we build a team that is as connected to the mission as the original team was? That’s been really exciting. We’ve brought on some amazing people. We’ve moved our offices from Mill Valley to San Francisco, and we have a store downstairs that’s heavily focused on the experience of using and interacting with our products. We offer facials there, we have an aromatherapy bar. So we’re doing a lot of testing there around products and building community.

Hillary: [00:34:09] The focus will just be continuing to do what’s worked well on a broader scale. We’ve brought along a really interesting group of influencers who feel very passionate about the brand, and we’ve connected with more celebrities who feel really excited about what we’re doing. And so I expect to see more of that going forward.

Hillary: [00:34:28] You know, we’ve tried to more clearly, each year, define who we are as a brand for ourselves, and make sure that that shows up in everything that we do. And then also, what kind of culture we want to build as a team and making sure that we stay consistent to that as well, which always requires change. You know, it’s meant that we’ve let some people go that didn’t feel like a right fit for the culture, but I think the more clear we’ve become, the easier it’s been to grow in the way that really honors who we are.

Richie: [00:34:59] You mentioned in the beginning the vision was quite big, to change the industry and so forth. How do you think about what you have to have happen from a scale perspective of, how big does it mean you have to get, how big do you want to get? And then, financially, and all of that, How do you make that happen?

Hillary: [00:35:19] That’s another question we think about every day.

Richie: [00:35:21] What is the current thinking on it?

Hillary: [00:35:24] Basically, when I look at the top 100 beauty brands in the U.S. today, which every year they announced the list—

Richie: [00:35:31] Top means “revenue?” Biggest?

Hillary: [00:35:33] Revenue.

Richie: [00:35:33] Okay.

Hillary: [00:35:34] Yes.

Richie: [00:35:34] But I assume they’re guessing revenues for a lot of companies, because they’re not all public.

Hillary: [00:35:37] Exactly, exactly. Most of them are, actually, but yes, where they need to, I think they’re guessing revenues—although, maybe once you’re that size then you don’t mind sharing. When you look at those top 100 beauty brands, not one of them would qualify for the MADE SAFE certification that we put every one of our products through, which means every ingredient all the way through supply chain is proven safe for people and the planet. And our goal is to be one of those top 100 beauty brands. I feel like then we will have shown that you can build a very thoughtful beauty brand that delivers results, that’s profitable and that’s good for people and the planet, and that’s been the goal from the start. I feel like that will really inspire more brands to do the same. We’re really zeroing in on it and we’re thinking about what it’s gonna take to get there and it feels very attainable.

Richie: [00:36:27] How far are you from that?

Hillary: [00:36:29] I would say we’re about a third of the way there, with a lot of momentum. It’s looking within reach.

Richie: [00:36:37] What has to go right for that to happen soon-ish?

Hillary: [00:36:41] I think it’s getting the right people to talk about us in the right places. That includes more celebrities, it includes our customers and figuring out ways to really inspire them to share their passion for the brand and what we’re doing, because it’s real. And so, we just need to figure out how we can make that as interesting and authentic for them as possible.

Hillary: [00:37:03] From a manufacturing perspective, we’re doing really great. We’ve done a good job of figuring out how to scale what we’re doing. It’s always hard to sort of keep up with the surges, but we’re doing well. So, in the end, it’s really gonna be about continuing to build awareness and helping people to understand that we have what they’re looking for. What’s exciting is all of the consumer trends show that what we have is what they’re looking for, and so it’s about connection and building community and inspiring sharing.

Richie: [00:37:29] It’s interesting as you get bigger that you’ve talked about and seem to continue to rely on a primarily like, just [a] people-based marketing strategy, I would say. I assume at your previous employer and a lot of other big companies, there’s an inclination just to plaster the brand everywhere—whether it’s Casper taking over subways and billboards, or whatever big brand—it seems you’ve stayed very focused on the people part. Has there been an inclination or an itch to start getting billboards, and wheatpastes, and doing direct mail and doing all those things, or has it been very obvious that [you] just have to keep focusing on the people part of this?

Hillary: [00:38:04] I look at it as people always being at the core. And then we’re testing a lot of these tactics to see which really make the most sense. One thing we always ask ourselves before we’ll test something is: Can the authenticity behind what we’re doing shine through? And if it can, then we do it. So we’ll continue to do a lot of testing on that front.

Hillary: [00:38:27] We’ve had a lot of success coming up with particularly digital advertising strategies that are working for us. We actually did do a test with outdoor, for instance, with a campaign launch that we did with Inez and Vinoodh, very well known, incredible photographers. That did a lot for us in terms of buzz. It’s hard to be a brand our size and not be able to do the kind of testing that you would want to do at Levi’s; We did outdoor all the time, for instance. So we’re really focusing on the tactics that best suit a digital brand right now, but over time as we grow we’ll continue to test others.

Richie: [00:39:02] Is there something you did at Levi’s that you feel like you’ll never do, here?

Hillary: [00:39:05] In terms of marketing tactics, I can’t think of one thing we did at Levi’s that we would “never” do. I think maybe partially because we were very focused on guerrilla marketing at that time as the core of our efforts, I feel like, ultimately, a lot of what I learned there is influencing what we’re doing now. And I could see as the brand grows we might even want to do things like TV advertising, you know? I mean, that would probably be the most likely target that I would eliminate, given the cost but, as a bigger brand, sharing this story more broadly could really make a lot of sense.

Richie: [00:39:37] So you have the store in your office. Have you done other things there, and/or do you have plans to? Or, along with kind of pulling back the wholesale, you expect that to not change much?

Hillary: [00:39:48] Yeah, we’re definitely planning to expand the experiences that we’ve offered at our store downstairs to new markets, and we’re doing a lot of pop-ins right now. Working with partner brands, the next step would be pop-ups and key markets. And then, eventually, I could see having stores in key markets going forward. People really love to have the opportunity to come in and interact with us in person, and so we’ll look for more ways to do that, for sure.

Richie: [00:40:14] What has been the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned, building the business?

Hillary: [00:40:18] So the cheapest lesson probably was just understanding over time the power of word-of-mouth and seeing how that was driving our business.

Richie: [00:40:30] When did you realize that?

Hillary: [00:40:34] Within the first year we realized that a genuine sharing of passion, particularly with skincare—I think that was the aha moment for me. You can see an outfit and think, “I like that, I want to wear it.” But with skincare, you want to believe. And, to believe, word-of-mouth is better than anything else you can imagine. So I think understanding that power was very valuable for us, and then leveraging it into relationships, like our relationship with Olivia, it had a huge influence on who we worked with, knowing that her sharing her genuine true story would have much more impact.

Hillary: [00:41:12] And then the most expensive lesson was, we sandblast our packaging, and we were growing so fast that we had to try a new resource.

Richie: [00:41:21] What does that do?

Hillary: [00:41:22] It makes the bottles.

Richie: [00:41:24] Oh, the glass.

Hillary: [00:41:25] Yes, the glass. Yes. The idea was that we’re a Californian brand and we use these beautiful natural ingredients, and we wanted our packaging to feel like sea glass. And so we rough it up a little bit. And as we were growing, we had a packaging issue where we decided to outsource to another resource because we were just needing more and more packaging so quickly. And it was just one time that we didn’t do the kind of testing on the packaging that we wish we had. It was only an aesthetic issue. We’ve actually, thankfully, never had a product problem, but we did have this issue with the packaging that forced us to redo tens of thousands of bottles and it just really taught me, even when we’re growing fast, we always have to go slow and make sure everything is meeting our standards. So it was a good lesson.

Richie: [00:42:17] What are you excited for that’s on the horizon in the next year or so, into the future?

Hillary: [00:42:22] We’ve got some really exciting products coming out this spring and in the fall that are just going to continue to respond to what we’re hearing from our customers in terms of what they’re interested in. It’s such a fun way to develop products and I think one of my favorite things about being a direct brand is we have that direct conversation.

Hillary: [00:42:41] I’m also really excited about having some more celebrities join Olivia in sharing their passion for the brand. We just keep finding really amazing people who are using and loving the products, and so I am excited to continue to have consumers hear from more of each other, as well as more of the people that they admire.

Richie: [00:43:04] How do you think that will work? Cause there’s an interesting simplicity in having to be a person at the top of that pyramid, so to speak. As you add more to it, what are you expecting to happen? Have there been any concerns of what is it going to be like to have more voices at that level, versus having one that kind of unifies everything?

Hillary: [00:43:24] Well, I think what’s so important is women of all ages with a millennial mindset. It’s a very broad group of women and I think it’s really important that our influencers, whether it be celebrities or brand partners, that they represent that broad group of women. And so I’m really excited to diversify that group. If anything, I think it probably makes a lot more sense, because it makes this group so relatable and connectable. And so I’m really excited to see it grow and diversify.

Richie: [00:43:57] Where’s the name from? And then, how much was the domain?

Hillary: [00:44:00] Oh, wow. Okay. The name—I do remember how much the domain was. We started as True Nature Botanicals and that cost $49, I think. And what I found is that consumers were naturally shortening it to either “true nature” or “true botanicals,” because it was just one too many words for them. And so we quickly just decided, let’s deal with this. And so I bought True Botanicals for $4,000, which I’m so glad, in retrospect, that I did.

Richie: [00:44:30] It’s not that bad.

Hillary: [00:44:31] No, it’s not that bad at all. And it’s such a memorable name and it so speaks to who we are, which I love. And in terms of where the name came from. You know, I talked about my wellness quest and, as part of that, studied Buddhism. And I was thinking, wouldn’t it be great if the name could somehow speak to the mindfulness that also supported my growth and well-being? And so I was thinking about your true nature, that we want this to be a brand that people feel is true to them. And then, plants and botanicals, and True Botanicals—that’s where it came from.

Hillary: [00:45:06] And then our logo is based on the Fibonacci sequence, which speaks to the extreme intelligence that you can find everywhere you look in nature. Yeah, I think it’s about truth and innovation and nature and well-being.

Richie: [00:45:24] Awesome. Thanks so much for talking.

Hillary: [00:45:25] It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Richie: [00:45:31] 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 and we hope you tune in next week.