For our first small business spotlight, we reached out to Seattle's Herbivore Botanicals and found out how owners Julia & Alex created their spot in the skincare and beauty world. What we learned from them: a good product made by even better people is the perfect formula for a great business.
Tell us a little about yourself!
J: We are a married couple who started Herbivore from our kitchen 5 years ago. At the time we started we had just moved in together. Neither of us had the intention of starting a business. We just realized that we had a lot of fun making things together and Herbivore was born. We are both really interested in design and have always had just as much fun designing packaging and styling photographs as formulating products so I think that gave us a strong brand identity from the start.
Before starting Herbivore Botanicals, what did you do? Did you have any experience or education in running a business?
J: Before starting Alex was a videographer and always had a strong interest in art and creating. I was a counselor and was very un-tapped into my own creativity. Alex helped me to tap in - it was actually a really magical time for me. Neither of us had any experience in running a business.
Your packaging is so iconic and high end – what was the inspiriation behind that? Do you have any “first draft” packaging lurking behind the scenes? (I know we do!)
J: Our inspiration was definitely minimalism, we wanted to keep the packaging and labels as basic as possible so that the products could really shine through. We noticed right away with natural ingredients that the colors and textures were really naturally beautiful and we wanted to make that the focus. So, we kept everything else as minimal as possible. It sounds a little cheesy but our motto when designing a label has always been “when in doubt cut it out”.
What would you say is your market differentiator?
J: I think our biggest differentiator is authenticity - not that we invented minimalism by any means but we have always stayed very true to our vision, we try not to mimic other brands and to really do our own thing. Its hard with so many images flooding Instagram and so much competition in the beauty industry, but our most successful products are always the ones that come from a very personal place. We consider our products to be our little works of art, so they are very personal to us and come from our hearts.
What’s your best selling item? Do you find that item cannibalizes other products, and if so, does it affect the way you introduce other items so that they compete?
A: Our best selling item is still our charcoal soap. It was one of our first products and I can’t imagine the line without it. We totally freaked out our friends and family at first with our “black soap” but they also seemed intrigued. It’s such a simple effective product and I think people find it interesting. It really sets the tone for our entire line. We try our best to keep our line diverse so cannibalism is at a minimum.
What systems or software could your business not survive without?
A: Julia and I have stepped away from the systems side of our business and left in the hands of people far better at it than we are but I will give a piece of advice that I wish didn’t take me two years to learn from the early days of Herbivore. If you are shipping merchandise, get a scale and a shipping label printer (DYMO) and print your labels at home. You can schedule pickups with USPS and they will just come to your door and pick up your shipment. I used to spend so much time loading our van with packages and driving them to the post office and unloading them.
When it comes to creating body care items, my biggest fear would be skin sensitivities. How do you account or test for that when you’re developing a product?
A: I have super sensitive skin so I test everything on myself, each and every ingredient we use. I will rub it in my eyes, taste it, you name it! Yes, my face has turned red before and no we did not release that product. We really have not had any major issues with the products irritating people’s skin. We formulate with super gentle natural ingredients so it should never be a problem.
What’s the most difficult part about running your business?
A: When you start a business you are everything. You are production, shipping, R&D, IT, accounting, customer service, art director, photographer, designer, web developer, you get where I am going. The most difficult part is to know when to delegate each one of those rolls to somebody else. You will burn yourself out if you try to do everything. Finding the right person is important and training your new department leads to be self sufficient and self managed is also important. Julia and I are now the creative directors / formulators because that is where our hearts are.
What’s it like working with your significant other? What advice do you have for others who are in the same position? Do you each have your own specialty?
A: I love working with Julia. There is definitely a learning curve to working together in bliss and harmony but it can be done. We definitely each have our strong points and those were especially important to keep the business running in the early days of Herbivore. We are both passionate about the brand and naturally talk about it all the time. It’s great. There is no business formality that needs to exist between us and no judgement with even the craziest ideas. We can just be hanging out in a park chatting and we may come up with our next big idea. That to us is a successful day at work.
How many people currently work at Herbivore? What’s your tip for hiring key staff?
A/J: We have around 50 wonderful employees. I am so thankful for every one of them - we work as a strong collective. Most people are promoted internally. Many people have created the job or department they run on their own. We try to give everybody the freedom to make Herbivore a better place to work. Our tip for hiring key staff is to pay attention to them, take notice of their strengths and interests and put them where they excel and are happiest. Happy people make the best employees.
How do you deal with competition in an increasingly saturated marketplace?
J: Again, I think just staying true to yourself and your vision is important. As far as competition goes we really try to look at other natural skin care companies as our allies - we all have the same goal of spreading natural skin care into the mainstream so it helps to look at ourselves as part of the collective rather than competition.
Lastly, if someone was starting a business, what advice would you have for them?
J: Do something you love, don’t just do it for the money.
A: Aim for the stars but set realistic goals to get yourself there. Write down your first goal and then write down every step you need to take to achieve your goal. There is your first checklist. Get used to them haha. But seriously though, make lots of checklists. Oh and plan your day. With checklists and plans you get the organization you need to keep your brain open to creative ideas instead of it stressing out trying to remember everything you need to do.