The Story Of My Former Business...
What did I do?
The first time I met Kim, I was strolling through the Oakland Lake Merritt Farmer’s Market, it was a Saturday morning and I walked coffee in hand–extra whipped cream, when a short man behind a booth asked,
“Would you like to get your hands nice and soft?”
I did. I really did.
Kim, my former business partner, had been selling his hand-made skincare products at various farmer’s markets around the bay area for five years, in business for almost ten; and at 58 his body was tired. Eight hours on your feet with a smile plastered on your face is no joke, and he was looking for someone friendly to take over for him.
When he hired me, a few weeks later, to temporarily relieve him of the weekend markets, he had no idea I would become his business partner and grow the business to support 7 full-time employees. According to him, “it just felt right at the time.”
Before me, Kim’s life was consumed by the demands of the business:
- Making small batches of his 90 different formulations
- Filling & labeling bottles
- Cutting & wrapping hundreds of bars of soap every week
- Fulfilling various micro wholesale orders and personally delivering them to avoid shipping costs
- Selling the products at 3 farmer’s markets a week
In his “free” time he created labels for aestheticians who wanted to white label the products under their own brand.
It was a lot. But it’s worse when you know that the one thing Kim really hated was repetition.
He is not the type of person to do anything the same way twice. So creating a business that depended upon his consistency to survive was his own personal hell.
Money can’t buy you joy if you’ve built yourself a business that grinds you down everyday. And Kim knew this. He had tried hiring various people to help him over the years. At one point, he had multiple people selling his products at 5 different farmer’s markets every week, but as he said, “everyone was getting paid but me!”
He had also hired an engineer to help him make the products but felt that
“the young man missed the sensual cues that one has to pick up on to make great soap.”
Before Kim began his “tinkering” in skincare he was an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley working on lithium ion batteries. But to say he brought a scientific rigor to soapmaking would be to ignore the child-like joy he felt when developing new formulations– for any new product.
Product development was his favorite part of the business. He loved every step of it, from talking with customers and hearing about the issues they were facing, to researching how the problems were traditionally addressed in the skincare industry, and of course, his favorite step was thinking up creative new formulations that were more effective and more natural than what was already being done.
I specifically remember him running out of the studio to get an unlabeled jar of his baby eczema cream in the mail before the post office closed so that the mother he had spoken with on the phone wouldn’t spend an extra day watching her baby suffer.
When I found Kim he was stuck in the rat wheel of the farmer’s market. His products were selling, his customers loved his product (I loved the products), but he didn’t know how to sell more products in a profitable way without exhausting himself at the farmer’s markets every week.
Four months after meeting Kim at the farmer’s market I joined him full-time in the business.
Early on I saw that his gifts lay in developing new formulations and being the face of the business; it was what he truly loved and what only he could do. So I began removing everything that wasn’t either of those things from his plate.
The most urgent thing was to get him out of the farmer’s markets. And me too. It was exhausting and unsustainable, and most importantly we couldn’t make more money than we already were making in those markets. We had maxxed out. But we also couldn’t leave them because that’s where the majority of our income was coming from.
So I began to explore online sales. In the early days (pre-me) Kim had coded a website that we affectionately referred to as the “Spanish Inquisition” because it was so dark and awful. But it allowed the farmer’s market customers to purchase from us when they couldn’t make it in person and it generated anywhere from $20 to $250 in a given month.
My first, and most satisfying achievement was to redo the website. I did this four times over the course of 5 years. But after having done this for the first time I went on to create an Instagram account and began posting about our different products.
My photography skills were truly awful. I don’t say this to be unkind to myself. I was unskilled, but also unbothered by it which ironically, really helped me become more skilled over time. And initially it didn’t matter. Within two weeks I had generated our first sale from Instagram!!
Over the next two years I learned how to sell consistently and increased our online sales to over $250k/year. I redefined our ideal customer, grew our instagram audience to over 25k followers, improved my photography skills–styling, shooting, editing, and learned to recreate the sales experience that was so successful for us at the Farmer’s Market, online.
But Instagram was a hungry hungry hippo, always gobbling up all the creative energy I had to give. The more time I spent on the platform the more sales we got and I found myself unable to disconnect at night or take real vacations without my phone. I was approaching burnout.
To relieve myself of the enormous pressure to spend every ounce of energy I had increasing our sales on Instagram, I began experimenting with email marketing and implemented our first email automation. I was shocked and thrilled with the results. It was so much easier to make money, so much less work, so much more fun. Email took our income to over $500k a year.
As our income allowed I hired help to get both Kim out of production, manufacturing and the farmer’s markets. Turns out hiring is one of my hidden talents. Despite having never hired before I was really good at finding skilled people who were excited to work for us, responsible, didn’t need oversight and had a great sense of humor.
With hiring came a lot of responsibility and professional growth for both of us. In order to be a good employer I had to quickly get up to speed with basic HR practices, create training documents, and make sure that we could continue to generate enough income to support our team!
I overhauled our accounting system so that we could actually understand our profitability. I went from creating all of our marketing content, to directing our marketing, hiring a facebook ads manager to co-create our ads with, and team members to help with content creation and implementation.
All the time, the goal was to increase the income enough to hire people to do the things that Kim could do, was doing, but didn’t enjoy doing. The repetitive work. The work that took him away from his zone of genius.
After five years,
we were 7 full-time employees, two part timers, a handful of contractors, and generating over a million dollars of revenue a year! Both Kim and I were long out of the farmer’s markets. Kim was now spending a majority of his time in front of the camera for marketing content, putting the finishing touches on our new inventory system, talking on the phone with clients (he really liked that) and developing new formulations. For the first time he began going home early and even went on a 2 week vacation!
And because of the marketing systems and automations I put in place, we were able to generate our highest non-holiday monthly sales of $130k in January while I was out of the country, off of my phone, celebrating my 30th birthday!