Andrew: Hey, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy where I do interviews with entrepreneurs, mostly software entrepreneurs, about how they built their businesses. And I’m someone who is just in deep admiration of internet, software, mobile companies and entrepreneurs behind them.
But today’s guest is a little bit different. Here’s the thing. A little while ago, Amazon recommended this new type of soap to me, and I thought this is exactly me. Soap never speaks to me in the sense that it speaks to other people about like how it’s going to make my hair shine, essential oils. I don’t care about any of that. But it was this big bottle with a pump, so it was convenient that I could use, the soap I could use on my hair, on my body, the whole thing. I thought, “This is it.” I always thought it was just like this whole . . . I don’t know. The beauty industrial complex didn’t speak to me. They were trying to sell me too many things.
This was so perfect. I’ve been using this every single day since then. I went from using it on my hair only to then having one on my counter to wash my hands. Then when my three-year-old at the time ran out of his baby shampoo, I said, “What do we need that for? Let’s just use mine.” I started using it on him, and then I used it on my one-year-old and just worked out beautifully and I thought it was this quirky little thing that I found that I happen to see at Whole Foods one day and frankly, not the next. But I thought it was my thing.
And then my team said, “We’ve got this new interview for you. It’s not a tech entrepreneur. It’s with this woman who runs a company called EO Products. Her name is Susan Griffin-Black. And they create a collection of body and hair products made with active botanicals and pure essential oils.” My eyes rolled at all that. I’ll be honest with you. And then they told me the numbers behind the business, I said, “Oh, my goodness. This is the same company that makes that shampoo I use and the numbers are phenomenal.” Who knew? How fast can we get her on? And so here she is. We got her on right now.
This interview is sponsored . . . And we’re going to find out how she built up this company. And I’m going to try to calm down because, Susan, people tell me that when I admired the entrepreneur too much, when I liked the company too much, the interview becomes a little too saccharin and it loses the edge that they like. So I’m going to try not to have that deep admiration for you.
This interview is sponsored by two great companies. The first will help you find your next phenomenal design. It’s called DesignCrowd. And the second is the company that I turn to and my interviewees turn to when they want to hire developers. It’s called Toptal.
Susan, good to have you here.
Susan: Great to be here. Thank you so much. And you can admire me as much as you want.
Andrew: I do love admiring entrepreneurs.
Susan: It’s all good because it’s a mutual love fest here.
Andrew: Thank you.
Susan: I really admire what you’re doing as well, so thanks.
Andrew: You grew up also with this whole entrepreneurial spirit, right? Like, I see all these kids they care about superheroes. I didn’t care about superheroes. I cared about entrepreneurs growing up, but it sounds like you were like that too. I heard from an early age you even had literally a lemonade stand, right?
Susan: I had a lemonade stand when I was eight with a very specific idea, a goal. And that was to . . . I grew up in Pittsburgh and we had a very vibrant neighborhood, and I wanted to go to see the Beatles and my parents were sort of . . . They were kind of hip, actually, and they were keen on it in the beginning, and then . . . So I got my sister, [Sue and Michael Lateran 00:03:04] and the four of us took turns, stepped in and made enough money for Beatles tickets. And then my parents somehow persuaded us to go to see my cousins in a Gypsy performance of summer stock, and I still hold it against them.
Andrew: You missed the Beatles even though you raise the money for it.
Susan: I did. I spent my hard earned money on summer stock tickets to see my cousins.
Andrew: You know what? I had a similar experience. I had an opportunity to go see Frank Sinatra, and at the time I was a Frank Sinatra guy even though I was way too young to be into Frank Sinatra. I had an opportunity to see him. I missed it, and then I didn’t go, and then later on every time I saw how incredible he was, I said, “You had that opportunity. Don’t miss these big opportunities in your life.”
Andrew: You felt the same way?
Susan: Agreed, yes. So then I set out to doing sort of babysitting camps. I just had this sense and love the process of having my own money because I could already feel that there was something about accomplishing, bringing people together and being rewarded for it that felt very intuitive and good for a lot of people, actually. So it was a little bit about . . . The money was sort of a guiding post in a way because it showed me there was an equation between work and money, but then as . . . And also it gave me this a little bit of a magical relationship with money where I always felt comfortable with it. I can have it, not have it, and it just sort of loosened up my . . . I understood the flow.
Andrew: Wow. And not have it part still bothers me.
Susan: [inaudible 00:04:56].
Andrew: We both live in the Bay Area. I sometimes see homeless people here and I think, “I could be that. I better work harder.” I don’t have that, like comfort with or the security around money. I’m always worried that I’m going to run out. By the way, speaking of money, I read in the New York Times that you are a $50 million enterprise and I trust in New York Times analysis, but I don’t know what it means when they say a $50 million enterprise. That means it’s worth $50 million?
Susan: No. Valuation is something different.
Susan: So it means that our gross sales, we have a little bit above 50 million this year. And this is our 23rd year, so it’s certainly not an overnight success. But we’ve been growing at about 20% a year since the introduction of Everyone, which was in 2012. And that really was a very honest sort of authentic response to my son coming home with his band. They always stay with me and I walked into the bathroom to sort of straighten up and I saw all these really crappy products.
So I had to call a focus group right away, and there are six of them and I’m like, “Dude, have I taught you nothing?” And they’re like, “Mom, yeah. We need a soap that does everything. We needed this. EO is too expensive. There’s not enough product.” So then we sort of sat about at that point. We were making a product for Whole Foods that was similar, and it was a multi-purpose soap. And then we really sat down and thought through the fact that we have an infrastructure now that really could scale and what would be the benefit of doing that and let’s give it a go.
And so we came up with this name, Everyone. And the idea was really to make healthy, clean, essential, oil-based products just accessible to everyone. So price and competitive with other big guys. And we started out with three big soaps at 9.99, and it grew and it has grown very, very quickly over the last six years.
Andrew: So that is what helped take you off. You were doing well before but not nearly like this. So let’s go back and understand then how you got started. Speaking of your son, I heard one of the reasons why you decided that you were going to start a business was you were working so much and feeling like you weren’t getting to spend time with your son. Is that right?
Susan: Yes. Yes.
Andrew: And what was the thing you were doing? Do you have like a day in the life that you think back on and say, “This is an example of what I didn’t want to continue.”?
Susan: Yeah, I do.
Andrew: What was that?
Susan: I was . . . My last gig in the clothing business was working for Esprit, and I had the honor of working with Doug Tompkins and that was really compelling because his idea was to get into the environmental and sustainability issues surrounding apparel manufacturing and I had spent already 20 years in the merchandiser and designer. So, through that, it was a very natural segue to understand . . .
Andrew: By the way, he is the man behind the North Face, right?
Susan: He was, yes.
Andrew: Okay. Just to give us a sense of it, and he was an environmentalist, and so you got to see him and you said what?
Susan: And I said, what he’s doing is such important work and what I’m learning is accelerating and very interesting. And so through him, I met Yvon Chouinard and Anita Roddick and Paul Hawken and David Growler [SP] and all sorts of environmentalist, socially impact businesses, and it reframed how I thought about business, and meaning that it’s very possible that business can be a source for good. That when you find your calling that it’s bigger than the bottom line. And how would we create a company that we would want to work for?
And so when I was working at Esprit for that year, I worked for Doug and then he sold the company to his former partner, Susie. She came back in, in a very difficult situation with other investors. They had to make much more conventional decisions. And while I was on a buying trip for Esprit in London, I found this amazing apothecary, and I walked in and it smelled like vital and alive and it was so beautiful. I had herbs and tinctures and homeopathic remedies. And this was in ’91. And I smelled a lavender essential oil and I was taken, transported. It was like . . . That was my aha moment of . . . And I want to understand what this is, why it smells this way, why it feels this way in here. And . . .
Andrew: Is it because at that point you said, “Look, I found my possible business. I know that I can’t work myself ragged with a young kid. I see these entrepreneurs building something that’s meaningful. This smell is the path towards creating that new lemonade stand for the adult Susan.”
Susan: Yeah, actually.
Andrew: It was. So it was a combination of the love of the scent and the opportunity that spoke to the girl lemonade stand owner.
Susan: It just somehow it just arises at the same time. It’s hard to trace it back to that, but I always think about paying attention when circumstances, the world, where you are, how you are, how it feels sort of all arise at the same time. And slow down enough to sort of feel what that feels like so that you can take it with you and then that becomes sort of a thread to the next thing.
Andrew: But the thing is, Susan, that . . .
Susan: It’s much easier to see in hindsight.
Andrew: If I would have had that same experience, I would have immediately thought, “This is a mature market. There are tons of people making these things. I’m going to have to go and compete against all these big guys. It’s too hard,” versus when I think about the entrepreneurs who I interview here, it’s not at all unusual for them to say, “This product needed to exist. Nobody made it. We needed to have a way to keep quality assurance test software. No one had a way to do that fast. I created a company and boom, it was called RainforestQA.com.” I just feel like in your . . . Why weren’t you afraid of the fact that it was a mature market with a lot of competitors?
Susan: It never even dawned on me. Because I’ve never really been . . . That hasn’t been my orientation. My orientation is, how does it feel? I have an instinct about this. If I want it . . . I’m pretty average but a little bit ahead of the curve, and so if I wanted eventually most people will want it or want . . .
Andrew: So what did you see that was different? Again, I’m coming at this the reason that your product appeal to them . . .
Susan: Yeah. It’s a great question.
Andrew: Because they are unintimidating. I don’t have to understand the botanics. I understand that there’s like there’s a lavender with something else. There’s a coconut with lemon and something else. Right? I could understand that quickly. What is it . . . Help me, someone who doesn’t have this background, understand what you smelled there? What made you say, “This is so different. The world will want it”?
Susan: When you go into . . . And at the time, if you walked into the main floor, any department store, Bloomingdale’s in New York is probably the best example of what that smells like. And all those, all the activity, the hyperactivity and the zillions of dollars of [inaudible 00:12:32] and that smell which to me was always so overwhelming and a little bit toxic and a little bit . . . And then all those candles, stores and all those . . . And the way that all of that smells sort of always felt like laden with synthetic something.
And when you walked into this apothecary, it smelled fresh. It smelled like being outside with jasmine and honeysuckle, like being in Hawaii maybe or being in . . . Just the smell make everything beautiful in a very real and palpable way. And then it made me think about, “Why is this experience so different?” There’s just a bunch of products here and some dried herbs and some books and people seem happy. And it was beautiful and well done and simple. It had authenticity that I didn’t really see anywhere else.
Andrew: Okay. So you saw it and the first step was not, “I’m going to make something like it.” As I understand it, the first step was, “I’m just going to bring this to the U.S. We’ll resell this here.” Right?
Susan: Yes, because that seemed like a doable away but it seemed like a branch for me to be able to learn enough about it to see what was next. They were looking for distribution in the U.S. and I had all these connections from the clothing business that seemed really natural to pursue. And the Bendel’s, Barney’s, Fred Segal of the world who . . .
Andrew: And that’s what you did. You went into the Bendel’s, the Barney’s, the Fred’s. Is Fred Segal outside of Los Angeles or it’s just an LA thing?
Susan: It’s just in LA.
Andrew: LA thing. Okay. And so you went in there and you said, “I’ve got this product. Can I bring it to you?” And they got it also? They understood it?
Susan: They did.
Susan: And they were like, “Great. Yeah, we’ve always loved this product but there was never a U.S. distributor.” So, to make it viable, I charged everybody half up front and half on delivery. So, I got all these products in my garage. I boxed them up, processed everybody’s order and drove them down to Fred Segal. And it was a little store in Santa Barbara, so both Fred Segal’s, shipped an order to Barney’s and just had probably a few months of inventory and that’s really how it started.
Andrew: So instantly profitable. They wanted it. Why were you able to get it but they couldn’t get it before?
Susan: Because I met the woman that own the company. She was looking for distribution in the U.S. I was so interested in what she was doing and really wouldn’t talk to me for a few days. She made me work in the store in Covent Garden to see what kind of worker I was, I think. And it just was great. I was mixing medicines in the back. I was just enthralled with the whole thing.
Andrew: So I thought you were here in Northern California just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. No?
Susan: Oh, yes. We are there.
Andrew: So you drove all the way down to LA for five hours.
Susan: Oh, to deliver my first orders?
Susan: Oh, yes, because . . .
Andrew: You drove it.
Susan: I drove it because I needed the cash.
Andrew: Wow. That is murder, by the way, that drive because it’s full of congestion. Okay. So you’re going in there . . .
Susan: That was a long time ago.
Andrew: How did you get to the point . . . About 23 years ago, right?
Andrew: How’d you get to the point where you started making your own products?
Susan: Well, I could see that transporting blue gas funnels halfway around the world was not so interesting after a while. And so that as I learned, I took a crash course in cosmetic chemistry. I really immerse myself in studying aromatherapy. And as I did that, I could see that we were very capable and getting the skill set to do our own set of products. And so, I just kept building and building and experimenting and eventually we loosened up our agreement with this company. And in 1995, we launched four essential oil blends under the EO label into the Bloomingdale’s catalog, and it was like a little private label project.
Andrew: Yeah, I see the names, they keep coming up in articles that I read about you. Relax was one name, Refresh, Love and Calm.
Susan: Yes, exactly.
Andrew: You made it yourself in the garage.
Susan: Made it myself, yes, in the kitchen.
Andrew: In the kitchen.
Andrew: Bottled it and took it to the stores.
Susan: To Bloomingdale’s.
Andrew: Shifted to Bloomingdale’s. How did you get Bloomingdale’s as a client? I heard that was an important part of the transition.
Susan: Well, I knew the clothing buyer and then she had become the beauty buyer. And so I was trying to actually sell the other products into the store which they never took, but we had an idea because we knew each other that if you do just a few blends for Holiday Catalog, we can sort of start down the path that way. So I sat next to my graphic designer friend who was working at Apple at the time, and I really liked that typeface and we wanted to make it very simple and they were really small bottles. And I didn’t want it to be too like aromatherapy-ish. I wanted it to be more sort of type-driven. So we played around with all these different typefaces and we came up with the one that we like the best and it was just EO and it stood for Essential Oils and then made some four really beautiful blends and took them into Bloomingdale’s.
Andrew: And what were these four things? They were essential oil? I’m sorry.
Susan: They were essential oil blends.
Andrew: That you spray in your home?
Susan: You could, but they’re actually, they’re very, very concentrated, so, a drop of rose oil, for example, contains almost 1,000 petals. So, the little goes a very, very long way, so you have to either dilute them in water like you could put them in a bath or a diffuser or make your own home spray. So many uses, compresses.
Andrew: When we’re talking about this stage in the life of the business, what size of revenue were you up to?
Susan: Oh. In the very beginning?
Andrew: Yeah. When you were bringing in Relax, Refresh, Love and Calm to Bloomingdale’s.
Susan: Yes. Five hundred thousand.
Andrew: Five hundred thousand from Bloomingdale’s alone.
Susan: No. We had . . . We did private label projects for Birkenstock. We did a little gift with purchase. We did some special projects for Mervyns’ at the time. I really connected with everyone I knew and could possibly give us a project or business to get started. And we were making everything pretty much by hand, and then Brad, our co-founder, and co-CEO, was down the hall with his clothing company and I had this problem of trying to make 10,000 units in a very short amount of time. And he came down and assessed the situation and said, “We’re just going to have to do this and make it a gravity . . . ” jerry-rigged some sort of gravity feed so we can fill these bottles fast. And he hadn’t made gravity feed. So, that was it. We did that project together and then he was . . .
Andrew: He built it?
Susan: He was closing down his clothing company over that year and then we came to work together.
Andrew: And did he built the original . . . When you say gravity feed, that’s where you take a big . . .
Susan: You take a big something and you put a little lever pump on it so that you can . . .
Andrew: More easily fill the bottles.
Susan: Yes, because we were . . .
Andrew: I think it was in the New York . . .
Susan: Pouring by beaker.
Andrew: That’s what you were doing before, pouring by beaker.
Andrew: And it’s just all you selling to all these people who you’ve gotten to know. I wonder why it is they bought from you. There’s so many people pitching them. Let me take a moment, though, just to talk quickly about my sponsor and then come back and understand what was it about you that they felt comfortable buying from even when you are getting going early on.
My first sponsor, though, is a company that you probably don’t even need because you got all your friends who are designers. You have a good sense of design. I don’t. People told me my podcast cover art just stunk. And I like friends who tell me that it stinks, but I also didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t even know how to communicate to designers what I needed. They offered to help. I didn’t even know what I wanted.
And then one day I went to DesignCrowd’s website and I say, “Let’s just try it. Let’s see what happens. I’m not going to continue with it. I’m not going to complete. I’m just going to see what happens.” And there were these two fields, I think it was just two asking me what I liked in a design and what I didn’t like. And I realized what I like is, I think I need to have my photo on it because all the top podcasters at the time had that. So let’s do that. But I like the color green because the number one business podcast, Planet Money, had green. Just copy that and minimize the name Mixergy because nobody says, “Oh, wow, Mixergy. I’ve got to go subscribe. And maximize the title which is startup stories because I think people do want to hear how startups started. They want to hear their stories.”
And so I go, “Wow, this is actually not that hard.” I hit Submit, there is a thing to pay, I realized it was just a few dozen dollar, maybe about 100. I don’t even remember. It was so insignificant. And then I forgot about it. The next Monday, I come into the office, my assistant like a babysitter has to sit next to me as I go through email. And she and I go, “What is all this?” because I totally forgot what I did. I realize, “Oh, yeah, I signed up for DesignCrowd and I guess all these are designs.” And boom, I get a flood of designs, all these different designers hear what I want and they each give me their own take on it.
I gave them feedback because it was kind of easy. And then they adjusted and then they got more feedback and adjusted until I finally ended up with my cover art. It costs very little. I don’t even remember. It was so insignificant to me. But this design, I am in love with. So anyone out there who wants a crowd of designers to each try different ideas, to see your vision through even if you’re not a designer, you owe it to yourself to go to designcrowd.com/mixergy, designcrowd.com/mixergy where they’re going to give you a big discount which for some reason I can’t see right now.
I don’t know why it’s not loading. Oh, there it is. Up to $100 discount. Don’t do it for the discount. Their price is so low. Frankly, guys, if you don’t like me, you could just go to their homepage and you won’t care about the price. But if you use my URL you’re going to get up $100 off, you’re going to get to see design that they created for me and you can get started with a design for yourself. Go to designcrowd.com/mixergy. All right.
Susan: So I’ll check them out too.
Andrew: You will? You? I feel like you’re just . . . [inaudible 00:23:21]
Susan: We have an amazing in-house design team and we’ve all been working together, but if you have those sort of random projects that come up and it might be useful to just have a place to go for those sort of things.
Andrew: I’ve seen some people go to them just for new perspectives, like, the same design team is thinking the same way. They submit something to DesignCrowd and they realize, “Oh, look at these lots of different ways we can do the same thing.”
Susan: Right. Sometimes we all get stuck because it gets so close to it. So I think that’s a great resource, so thanks.
Andrew: That’s very much like your soap. Very good, like well done and not expensive. So tell me what it was about you. Why did all these buyers beyond the fact that they work with you before, why did they decide to take your product on?
Susan: I think the quality of the product was exceptional. And I think it was exceptional because I had no experience in the traditional beauty realm and I’ve always been a product person. So it was sort of like a curate and discernment and editing process that got us to where we were in terms of what really defined that quality, what something could smell like, that was the real thing. I think I had sort of a beginner’s mind approach and that was really resonant and that sort of set us apart in it early on. And I think that that’s sort of carried the day for the past 23 years.
Andrew: Did you also, Susan, have a way of staying in touch with them, of speaking to them, of asking them that’s different that you think sets you apart that got the sale?
Susan: I think I’ve always also valued relationship above all else. So I was always coming at it from, “Will this work and how will this work?” And I think it’s really good what do you think. And so I’ve never considered myself a good salesperson, like, I’m not such a good closer, but I’m really good in a conversation when I believe in something, I’m passionate about something and use it myself. And I feel like if I’m advocating for it and in it at that level, then other people could be interested.
Andrew: So, at first, it was you bring in someone else’s product and selling it, and then it was you making custom product for clients like Birkenstock. What you made for Bloomingdale’s was under your own label. This was you finally putting your own label on it?
Andrew: Okay. And so that’s the evolution. It seems like it’s easy, easy, easy, easy, and still, my producer says there was a period there where cash flow was so tough that you had stomach pains. You couldn’t breathe. Can you tell me about that?
Susan: Like what? So, when I started this distribution company, I raised $130,000 from family and friends, and then, as we say now, pivoted to various themes of what you just mentioned. And so we didn’t have really . . . I mean, we bootstrapped beyond bootstrap and we were very lean and mean and as we grew, payroll, I sweated so many payrolls, never missed one and never bounced a check, but sweated payrolls like crazy. I maxed out my credit cards many times over. And then when things got going, we were at about three or $4 million, which was about 10 years ago, 11 years ago, I raised from angel investors about $1 million. And that really carried the day along with bank financing, which, you never get until you don’t really need it, but you really do need it, of course.
Andrew: If you were at the stage we were talking earlier where Bloomingdale’s is a client, you’re about half a million dollars in sales. How do you not get 20% to the bottom line after that? Where does the money go?
Susan: Well, the way we were manufacturing wasn’t efficient. It was just, we could make the product. There was no scale, there was no efficiency, there was no equipment. There was sort of a building a knowledge base and without wanting somebody else to do it and have to invest in all of those minimums that a contract manufacturer would want.
Andrew: And why didn’t you invest in minimums? I know eventually you got, excuse me, HFI Labs to do it.
Susan: Yeah, because they were our neighbor. They were sort of a rundown private label manufacturer and we eventually bought them for $200,000 in 1999 and that gave us equipment, thousand gallon tanks, a way to scale what it was that we were doing, and manufacturer more kinds of products because we had to make very simple products at first that you could co-mix or that didn’t need sophisticated pumps or mixers or [inaudible 00:28:41]
Andrew: I heard it was like an I Love Lucy type of production line in the beginning. Describe that to me.
Susan: Yeah. Because Brad and I, we work with production crew. He would . . . One of us would . . . There’s a simplex filler which . . . Sorry, I don’t know. Simplex filler, which is sort of a bomber filler that they’ve made all times. It’s cone-shaped.
Andrew: A giant cone-shaped container. Uh-huh?
Susan: Right. You pour a potion in and then you have like a sewing machine pedal and then it fills until you take your foot off the pedal. So [inaudible 00:29:21] automatic about it. It’s just more automated than this, right?
Susan: So I’d be the filler for a while and Brad would be the capper and put in the box, and then we changed. But if the bottles are sort of coming and you’re not feeling . . . you sort of run into that bottleneck of these little conveyor belts bottles, and it was. I just thought about I Love Lucy and her eating all of that chocolate.
Andrew: Yeah, I can imagine. And it was because you wanted to save costs. You didn’t want to take big risks that . . .
Susan: Well, we didn’t have the money. We didn’t want to get the money for that because we wanted to . . . Really, we were makers. That was what we were involved in into and like doing really more than anything. And so we really immersed ourselves in making things and making products and making high-quality products. And so everything sort of rippled out from there.
Andrew: There was a period there where you were close to bankruptcy.
Andrew: Your accountant even said, “That’s a good idea. Go for it.” Why didn’t you do it?
Susan: I was . . .
Andrew: Actually, before we go to why didn’t you. Get me up to speed. Where were you at the time that you were almost bankrupt?
Susan: It was in 1997. [inaudible 00:30:40] was a year old and Mervyns’ which had been a big account that we were doing a lot of business with and that was sort of maybe 50% of our business. The old buyer that we loved and knew thought we were such a cute couple with a new baby and all that. She was always very . . . It was very relationship based and according to me, of course, but was replaced by this new young buyer.
And I remember taking Lucy, my daughter, to meet the new buyer with storyboards and everything. And Lucy was a little bit cranky and I was trying not to breastfeed while in a meeting and sort of juggling things, and I could just tell like this woman had no interest, no idea. There was no love there. And so then I just knew when we got back in the car that, “Where, how are we going to replace this business and just keep it all going?” And this was before we bought HFI but we still had five employees.
And so there was a point there where it was like, “Do we get jobs? Do we just figure out something else? And then the buyer from TJ Maxx called us from out of the blue, came over with like one of the GMs from Boston. They were in San Francisco looking for new cool products and gave us the $65,000 order. And we just took that as a sign that that’s what we’re supposed to do and just kept going.
Andrew: And then you took out a loan just so you could make that product, made it, sold it, kept going. It’s a good thing you did a couple of years later. Things really were much bigger.
Andrew: But I’m wondering how you stay in touch with someone like TJ Maxx. How do you do that? Like I, for example, I have guests here at Mixergy who I reach out to, they say it’s not a good time. I could always come back a couple of years later, and we do have a system for coming back. If you would have said no to us for an interview, we would have put you on this special system and come back a year later. But I’m intrigued by people have ways of staying in touch before they have another sale, before they want to promote again, or even frankly, even afterwards. What’s your process for doing that, for staying top of mind with TJ Maxx?
Susan: I think it’s just, it’s really been about relationship. When . . .
Andrew: So what is your relationship process?
Susan: So I think we start with the value of really caring about the person more than the outcome.
Susan: So there’s a very sort of honest discussion and relatedness process in it that’s just not transactional. And then there’s . . . And through that, I think trust is established. And I think that really trust is . . .
Andrew: So, when you stay in touch . . .
Susan: A very important quality in relationships. So it’s not a matter of just call so and so and just check in. It’s really sort of purposeful communication or haven’t heard from that person in a while and it would be a check-in.
Andrew: And if you’re checking in. And do you . . . One of the things that I’ve been trying to stay disciplined about is whenever I get on a call with someone, I open up my contact book and I make a note about what they told me. So, if they’re going to Spain, I write down, “Going to Spain.” If they tell me that they went backpacking through Europe when they were younger, I do that and I put a little asterisk so that I always noticed that. And then the next call I tried to check in on them about their trip to Spain or touchback from time to time and something they’ve said in the past. That’s helped me. Do you have any tricks like that, any techniques like that?
Susan: I don’t really.
Andrew: You don’t. It’s just natural. You just pick up the phone and go.
Susan: I remember the key relationships that I have that I’ve had for years or just starting or whatever, I sort of remember the basic, the feeling of the connection and then that sort of carries the day, and then it’s pretty intuitive. But I think it’s a good idea if you don’t remember . . .
Andrew: I don’t?
Susan: . . . to make whatever helpfulness you need so that you can pick up where you left off and there’s no sort of awkward pause or that . . . It’s much more relaxing for you which is where the initiation comes from.
Andrew: And it’s okay for you, you’re talking to a buyer to check in once every six months or so whenever it feels right and say, “Hey, here’s what we’ve been working on. We think you might find it to be a good fit.” That’s just it. There’s no more than that?
Susan: I think that it’s . . . We’ve always had a list of buyers that we send new products to, send information to, catalogs, and then we’ve had various forms of customer service and sales in-house that have called on a regular basis. And I would say that’s probably monthly or every three weeks.
Andrew: Every three weeks they call in to check in on . . .
Andrew: Even if they’re not a client.
Susan: If they’re not a client it’s probably every six. If they are clients, it’s every probably two to three.
Susan: But there is a mechanism because you never know when the opening is and when that timing is. And so, just by showing up consistently and having the intention that you really want to do business and why, not just in a transactional way, just because you really believe there’s a fit, it does come eventually. We have a joke about Wegmans which is a fantastic grocery chain that we felt like we should have been in years ago. And for some reason, we were everywhere and they just wouldn’t not buy our products. It took us like 10 years to get there. And now we’re rocking, but it was sort of an internal joke, like, “What is it? What aren’t we doing for Wegmans?”
Andrew: But then what do you do when you call them up? Do you create mockups to show them what your product would look like on their shelves? Do you have new numbers to share with them?
Susan: Well, it’s gotten more sort of sophisticated and expanded over the years. Now [inaudible 00:37:06] and Nielsen and we do present a pretty extensive reason to do business. But early on it was much more casual, intuitive and whatever show and tell and sampling and product-based thing that we could do to get their attention.
Andrew: I do see it. And right now I’m in Wegmans’ website and I typed in “Everyone” and you guys have the soap for kids, the adults and lotion. It’s all in there. All right. Let me take a moment and talk quickly about my second sponsor and then come back because this Everyone thing is important for us to cover.
The second sponsor is a company called Toptal. By the way, I had a similar situation to you with cash flow except mine was the reverse at Mixergy. I was being too much of a wuss that I held on to every dollar internally and then I’d say, “Why aren’t we growing?” And the answer was like we weren’t spending enough, but I never wanted to take a risk because this business is more of my legacy.
Anyway, I went to Toptal and I said, “You guys are known as the place to hire great developers, but I also know you guys also have top finance people. Can I hire a finance person? Help me.” And they said yes. They got me on a call with four different people. One of them was an entrepreneur who’s founded four different companies. He’s at a stage in his life where he just wants to help other people. One was a new fresh graduate from Stanford, very academic in her analysis. I forget the third one.
But the fourth one was a guy who used to work at McKinsey, very analytical, couldn’t help as I was doing a screen share with him and showing my finances, couldn’t help but say, “Scroll over here,” and gave me feedback. At the end of the call, he gave me this big document showing what I should do.
Anyway, I hired him, of course, and he created a budget for me. I never thought that in my business you could create a budget because, frankly, some of the revenues are just unpredictable. So he talked to everyone on the team. He said, “Tell me what you’re charging, Andrew. Tell me what these expenses are. How do you predict these profits and these revenues and so on?” Everyone answered him without me at all being involved. He put together a spreadsheet, now he got a budget. And then he said, “Look, here’s where you should be spending. It’s not where you thought it we should be. It’s here.” And then he pointed out a couple of other spots.
Anyway, the reason I’m saying this is, anyone who’s looking to hire developer, already knows at this point, go to Toptal. But if you’re looking to hire a finance person someone with like McKinsey-level experience or someone who’s new, Stanford-level experience, fresh out of school knows how things are supposed to be done and very eager to do well, whatever it is you’re looking for, go to Toptal. Not whatever in general, but whatever finance hires you have, take them to Toptal.
And I’ve got a special URL where Mixergy listeners including you, Susan, are going to get 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when they pay for their first 80 hours in addition to a no-risk trial period of up to two weeks to emphasize that. If at the end of this trial period, you are not 100% satisfied, you will not be billed. They are that confident that the people they help you hire are going to be phenomenal for you. Part-time, full-time, whatever it is, go to toptal.com/mixergy, T-O-P-T-A-L.com/mixergy. I probably work with Jack like four hours a month, that’s all I need. All right. I see how things are starting to grow for you. The next big thing then was Everyone, right?
Andrew: Where your son said, “Here’s the thing that we need.” I wonder why you didn’t say, “That’s too low buck for us. We’re not going to be in the rock band business. We are in the high-end beauty business.”
Susan: Because the high-end beauty business was never really our thing. I mean, EO is a very high quality, underpriced, high value, premium product. And we always wanted it to be packaged and presented in a way that the value of the product was actually inside and it was pretty quiet on the shelf. And we built a cult following in a way over the years and it just was word of mouth or rippled out from where we showed up whether it was at Esalen [SP], or Tassajara [SP], or Kripalu [SP], or your yoga studio or at Whole Foods.
And that was a very straightforward time to grow that way. And then with the general market meeting, the wellness market, which is . . . and then that momentum happening, it seemed like we were very well positioned with capacity to do something bigger if we could engineer it in a way that fit in with the other things that we were doing. So, we did, at that time, some business with TJ Maxx and Marshals, some special projects, so we knew that we could do the volume and the pricing. So, it was a pretty deliberate and intentional segue. When we launched Everyone, we didn’t know what would happen, we just knew that if it did happen and if it did grow, that we could . . . We have a capacity and infrastructure in place to meet it. And we have.
Andrew: And the idea there was, “We’re going to go lower price but still high quality, still this, no GMO.” On the back of the package when I stand there in the shower I see all the things you guys don’t do. No testing on animals, I think, no this, no that. None of that really . . . Like, I feel like, “Okay, I’m good. I’m going to live a little bit longer with this soap.” At least I imagine I will. But that’s not what drew me in. It is what draws you in. Is what draws the clients in? Like, you know that the end-users are not like me, they’re more of the people who want this healthier soap?
Susan: No. I actually think Everyone it’s different. It looks good, it’s accessible, it’s easy, it’s convenient, it’s like practical natural. And when you look at the mainstream products that are like it or similarly priced, they’re very mainstream. You wouldn’t be attracted to that package or what they’re saying and the ingredients are just not according to our charter. So, it’s a very different philosophy in terms of making it. And we realized that we could use less expensive essential oils and maybe not as sophisticated ingredients and botanical extracts that were using an EO and still make a beautiful, clean, accessible product. So, the architecture was a little bit different and then harder for design. And we were just so happy with the way that the products came out and it was received that way in the marketplace so that it grew very quickly over . . .
Andrew: What about the . . . Do you test the labels? Do you test . . . The big message on the bottle from what I remember was, “Three in one.” You could use it for shampoo, soap, and I think bubble bath. One time I think I saw a shampoo, soap and shaving cream. Is this testing that’s telling you this is the right label design? Is it testing that’s telling you people want this basic three-in-one type of thing? No, it’s just you.
Susan: Well, it’s us. It’s the creative team and I would say that we just hired at consumer insight person maybe 14 months ago. He’s amazing, amazing and brings incredible information. It’s been a transition to consider making decisions according to data when we’ve operated from such a gut level before, but it’s not like a gut, “I like this. Do you like this?” It’s sort of like that, but it’s like,” I like this. Do you like this?” to the 38 people that we’re working with or the 50 people or the 50 people and everyone’s sister and brother-in-law.
Andrew: That’s as informal as it is. And then you go to the buyer and you say, “We have this idea. Here’s what it looks like. It’s going to be this kind of quality and it’s going to be a three-in-one. Do you think this will sell?” And it’s their job to be the voice of their end client and tell you yes or no.
Susan: Right. Yes.
Andrew: And at that point with Everyone, did they immediately . . . Who did you . . . Who’s the first person who sold it to?
Susan: Whole Foods.
Andrew: Whole Foods. And then Whole Foods immediately tell you, “Yes, this is a winner.”
Susan: Immediately. We submitted it to Whole Foods six products, they’re like, “Yes, globally, when can we have it?” And so I was like, “Wow. Let’s see if it sells the same way,” and it did. And then we just kind of kept going. And, yeah.
Andrew: Whole Foods actually, at first I heard didn’t want you. What did you pitch to them and why didn’t they want you?
Susan: It was a sad day. We got up for the meeting. We sorted knew the buyers because we shopped there. And we went in with EO and it was like lavender body oil and a little clear soap that somebody else made for us and lavender essential oil and a little collection of products. And they were like, “No. It’s okay. We don’t . . . ” And we were in blue glass in the beginning. “We don’t really want glass bottles. Just keep in touch.”
Andrew: Because glass bottles can break in the bath and shower and someone could step on it.
Andrew: Okay. So they said keep in touch.
Susan: Keep in touch.
Andrew: And this was before we migrated over to plastic and so forth. And so then, we called everyone we knew and sent an email to all the schools, people at schools and community and said, “Please, please, please. Just put a note in the community bulletin board to bring in EO lavender body oil or EO soap or EO lavender hand soap.” And so that’s really how it started, and then the buyers called us back and were like, “Okay. We’ve had a lot of requests and we’ll test it.” But we used to call and be like, “Can I speak to Whole Body? Hello? Do you have EO in your home?” And then turn in like, “Oh, bummer.” So, anyway, so we did everything . . .
Andrew: But this was on the school bulletin board?
Susan: No. They have . . . Whole Foods used to have a community bulletin board where . . .
Andrew: Oh, like an actual bulletin board.
Susan: Yes. You could leave there recommendations or suggestions for . . .
Andrew: And you would have people go to that actual bulletin board, write it down with a pen or pencil, tack it in or put it in a box.
Andrew: That’s it. And that’s what got them. And they said, “Okay, fine.” They let you in. You started out with a small number of stores, I think, at first.
Susan: Yes. Well, there were 50 stores at the time. That was ’97. And it was a pretty much go one by one or maybe there was sometimes there was a regional buy. But after we got into Whole Foods, then we would say to the next natural retailers, “Oh, yeah, we’re in Whole Foods.” And then at that time, they had a lot of credibility. And so, they would say, “Oh, wow. It’s in Whole Foods, and so I will try it.” And so then we did the natural products Expo in ’96, I think, was the first time. And we just built our customer base over the years from that trade show and really focusing on the natural products industry.
Andrew: I’ve got my notes here from my producer that you felt at the time you weren’t thinking big. What does that mean and how did you start thinking big?
Susan: The big was . . . For us, bigger wasn’t better. Better is better. And so the idea was to create a company that we would want to work for and attract like-minded people with similar values and so that . . . We didn’t know what that number was. It wasn’t a matter of . . . And we’ve never taken private equity money or venture money, so we weren’t governed by somebody else’s business model for what we had to do. So it was a very sort of organic unfolding of, “Do we grow this much? How do we grow this much?” And in fits and starts. Sometimes sales is a problem, sometimes . . . And sales and cash flow problems are really, you know . . .
Andrew: Especially when you’ve got a physical product that is so expensive.
Andrew: But at some point, It seems like you decided, “We’re going to go bigger. We’re going to think bigger.” You’re on Amazon now. There are tons of sales on Amazon, right?
Susan: Yeah. And I think what clicked in with Everyone was we have an infrastructure, we’ve been doing it, we trust ourselves, we have capacity, and we’re meeting the market where it is and giving customers what they want. We were really listening in a different way. I think before being a more artist than maker, we talk amongst ourselves a lot, and even in the industry. These are core customers and that’s a much closer in sort of community, this way in listening and expanding. We also had that idea that, “Wow, we could do some really good things. We could buy 10 times as many bottles. We could have our bottle manufacturer put in 25% more post-consumer resin because all of the sudden the scale of things makes it worthwhile. We could sign a two-year contract with our alcohol, non-GMO alcohol, organic alcohol, producer from sugarcane in Brazil.”
And so the economics and supply chain side, things really started to make more sense and we could have better impact and make our products even more sustainable and move things that way. So that was really appealing. That’s been really appealing. And then have money to reinvest to better equipment, more efficient equipment and effective.
Andrew: I thought . . . I’ve been telling you, the first time I saw it on . . . And when did you guys get on Amazon?
Susan: I think 2014.
Andrew: Yeah. I think that’s roughly when I saw it, maybe a little after that and I thought, I just discovered this one little company. I might be the only quirky guy who needs this three-in-one and now I’m looking at it. I have the coconut plus lemon, I’ll be honest with you, it’s because it’s the cheapest one. You get two bottles for $19, they smell great. They look good in my shower. So I care about that. And I’m looking at the ratings, 1,000 plus reviews on that one, four and a half stars on that. Everything is just well received. Congratulations. It’s exciting to meet the woman behind the business.
Susan: Thank you. Thank you so much. And without customers like you, we wouldn’t have a business, so we’re eternally grateful and have the honor, really. So, thanks.
Andrew: Thanks for being on here. All right. It turns out there is an opportunity to get into mature markets and actually make an impact. And look at the size of business that, Everyone, that EO is building. I feel like Everyone brand is overcoming EO, huh?
Andrew: Because EO now is starting to produce bigger bottles, even the main brand, right?
Susan: No. Not really. We might have a few bigger sizes because customers who’ve been using the products for a long time really want bigger sizes and also they want refill. They’re like really to refill which we’re working on our subscription endeavor to address that. And we’re working on perfume and bath care products and so forth for Whole Foods.
Andrew: Okay. So the big company name is EO Products. The brand that I guess identify with is Everyone. Anyone can go check you guys out at eoproducts.com or Amazon or wherever else you guys are shopping for stuff. I want to thank my two sponsors who made this interview happen. The first is the company that even made me a beautiful design. It’s called designcrowd.com/mixergy where you can see the design they created for me. If you want to hire a finance person or developer, go check out toptal.com/mixergy. Susan, thanks so much for doing this.
Susan: Thank you. Pleasure to meet you.
Andrew: Same here.
Susan: Thank you. Bye-bye.
Andrew: Thanks. Bye, everyone.