Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Linda Trenkner and I am one of the principal founders and the CEO of a cosmetics manufacturing business called Volcanic Earth. We operate from our headquarters in Port Vila, Vanuatu and specialize in formulating natural skin care products for a wide variety of problem skin issues ranging from aging, acne, scar removal, skin blemishes, age spots, fine lines and wrinkles, skin pigmentation, etc through to very serious skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis and more.
While we have an extensive range of skin care products, our flagship ingredients are anti-aging Virgin Coconut Oil, the unique skin healing agent known as Tamanu Oil, along with Volcanic Ash and Pumice for their brilliant cleansing, purifying and exfoliating properties.
Our most popular products are those found in our stand-a-lone, Tamanu Oil Range, our Facial Care Range For Women, and our Volcanic Man Facial Care Range.
While our products work for consumers of all ages, race, and skin color, we mainly target two separate groups - those consumers with common skin problems and women aged 30 - 65 years who are conscious of aging. These women also tend to have elderly parents with issues such as skin bruising. Some have teenage children who are worried about their acne and the risk of permanent acne scarring. In addition, around 80% of all purchasing decisions are made by women, even when it comes to men’s cosmetic products. Consequently, by targeting women in this age bracket we reach a much wider audience in the long run anyway.
Volcanic Earth has and continues to make a positive contribution to the alleviation of poverty here in Vanuatu, especially for indigenous families and villages disadvantaged by remoteness and hardship. Paying for the collection of Tamanu Nuts, coconuts, and volcanic ash helps deliver much-needed cash income to these communities. This is a very important part of the measure of our success and it is thanks largely to our wonderful customers around the world who also believe in this philosophy.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I am an ex-pat Australian fashion designer and former nurse who came over to live in Vanuatu with my husband in January 2003 following his retirement as a lawyer. My cousin Pam Ryan and her husband, also ex-pat Aussies, were already living in Vanuatu and had been for about 12 years.
My husband and I soon discovered that Vanuatu sat on what is known as the “Pacific Ring Of Fire” because of the nine active volcanoes in Vanuatu including Mount Yasur, the most accessible, active volcano in the world. It also became obvious to us just how destructive Volcanic Ash can be on nearby villages and their gardens on which they rely heavily on food. This got us all thinking about ways we could turn this destructive force into a positive one.
So together we came up with the idea of starting a Volcanic Ash Resort Clothing Line whereby we would dye t-shirts and sarongs in volcanic ash. However, we quickly discovered that this wouldn’t work because of the non-absorbent properties of volcanic ash.
As a result, we decided to find a unique, natural dye for the clothing and we then screen printed these dyed sarongs and t-shirts with an image and story of Mount Yasur. We even worked out how to attach real volcanic ash to the plumes of the volcano image on the screen printed clothing such that it would last many washes. We settled on the name “Volcanic Earth” and soon our Ash Clothing Line was in various resorts and retail outlets in Vanuatu.
In early 2004, at the suggestion of a former cosmetics buyer for a large Australian company who had also relocated to Vanuatu, we moved into the manufacture of natural skincare cosmetics. This took off and so we put all of our efforts into this endeavor rather than the Ash Clothing Line.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
When it came to creating skin care products, we looked towards what the local Ni Vanuatu refer to as “Custom Medicine”. This is largely plant-based medicine which of course, is where most modern-day medicines have their origins. We learnt of the incredible, skin healing Tamanu Oil (known scientifically as Calophyllum Inophyllum Nut Seed Oil), cold-pressed from the nuts of the Tamanu Tree. We also discovered how some villages and families use volcanic ash as a skin purifying and exfoliating agent. The use of Virgin Coconut Oil for skin care was also widespread.
The very first product we made was a perfume but my real interest was in manufacturing products that fixed troublesome and persistent skin issues rather than just make a product that smells nice. So, we didn’t stop there and worked on four separate ranges at once. Pam and I sourced what we could locally but some ingredients we had to import from overseas. There were no bottling manufacturers in Vanuatu and there still aren't. This also meant sourcing and importing bottles, jars, and packaging which we still have to do.
We felt a responsibility to avoid chemicals still found in many skin care products today. Our products needed to be safe, effective, and work for all skin types. Money was tight and we wanted Volcanic Earth to grow organically rather than have an overdraft. It was tough but we got there eventually. As the business grew it took over our lounge/dining room and two bedrooms. We had an apartment attached to our house and so when the tenants vacated, we moved our growing operation into it. By this stage, we actually had two full-time staff members!
These days we operate from our own commercial premises and have done so since 2010. We didn’t worry about patents or trademarks back then as we really had nothing to protect. Even if we did, we didn’t have the time, money, or resources to waste on legally enforcing such patents or trademarks. Just because one of your business partners is an experienced litigation lawyer does not change this. Starting a business from scratch means running a tight ship financially and not wasting money on things you don’t need when you are first starting out - not unless you really have some unique design or invention that is likely to set the world on fire in a particular industry or industries.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Vanuatu was and still is classified as an LDC (Least Developed Country) with a small population estimated to be around 290,000 people. Its main industry is tourism but this is spasmodic and a very small market by world standards. Consequently, we knew from the very beginning that Volcanic Earth would need to reach larger markets outside Vanuatu for the venture to be worthwhile.
As a start-up business, we didn’t have the financial resources or margins (due to small volumes) required to go through the traditional channels for export. We realized that our best chance and perhaps only chance was to try and reach out to these overseas markets online with the target being B2C sales to end consumers primarily in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. As it turned out, we ended up selling our products online to consumers all around the world and still do.
There are a lot of companies and individuals selling on Amazon but unless it is done right, you can be at the mercy of Amazon who can change the rules any time they like.
Unlike many start-ups, we were fortunate in that the skills and knowledge required to implement the eCommerce strategy we had in-house. Had we had to pay for these services out of our own pocket, we would never have gotten off the ground so far as exports go as we had no money to do this.
My husband Barry built our websites, did the search engine optimization himself, set up the back end, took out various domain names to help protect us, wrote and submitted articles, both online and offline, and he also dealt with any legal aspects. Pam and I looked after the book work using MYOB, chased up debtors, did the VAT returns, and the like.
The biggest lesson I have learned from the get-go is to stay true to who you are and what you believe in. I don’t believe in outer packaging as a general rule as it is designed to lure the consumer by its pretty packaging and design. The problem here is that once the customer takes the product home, the outer box is usually discarded to the rubbish bin. Volcanic Earth seeks to avoid this sort of waste and strives to be a socially and environmentally conscious brand.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Social media was not around when we first started out 17 years ago and neither were other platforms such as eBay, Shopify, Amazon, and so on. So,in the early stages of Volcanic Earth, we attracted customers primarily through our websites, article writing, and press releases. We also set up a worldwide Wholesale Drop Ship Reseller Program which effectively expanded our sales force expotentially. Setting up such a program is not for the faint-hearted as it requires an extensive array of skills that a lot of people simply don’t have. These days we now have over 1,400 such resellers scattered around the globe
We were also one of the first to market and promote the skin health benefits of Tamanu Oil as most consumers had never heard of it. In this way, we elevated ourselves as experts on this topic. These days we ship very large, bulk quantities of Tamanu Oil to other cosmetic formulators and manufacturers in other parts of the world.
In 2008, Volcanic Earth successfully applied for a grant of $190,000 AUD ($125,000 USD) over a three year period to 2011 through an AusAid Enterprise Challenge Fund. This was a tremendous boost to our business. We met the grant objective of being self-sustaining at the end of the three years. We also met the other core grant objective of delivering much-needed employment and livelihood opportunities for many disadvantaged Ni Vanuatu individuals (especially women), as well as for whole families and villages.
These direct benefits also had a ripple effect leading to a range of indirect benefits from micro-financing opportunities for disadvantaged locals to better access to education, diet, and medical services. These contributions all form part of the Volcanic Earth story and are part of who we are and what we stand for.
Retaining customers has never been a problem for us. Offering a high level of customer service is paramount in our view and of course, our products do deliver on their intended result. These two factors alone have led to countless word of mouth referrals which cost nothing.
There are a lot of companies and individuals selling on Amazon but unless it is done right, you can be at the mercy of Amazon who can change the rules any time they like. This can be a trap as you may build up a highly profitable business via Amazon and it can disappear overnight. Something all budding entrepreneurs should be acutely aware of and guard against.
You can have the greatest product or service but unless you have a marketing plan to reach potential customers, the venture is likely to fail.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
This year (2020) is going to be a tough year as the current COVID-19 restrictions both here in Vanuatu and around the world have seriously interrupted the supply chain because of the suspension of international plane flights. All passenger flights in or out of Vanuatu have been temporarily banned so there are no tourists here to speak of. This has caused many resorts and other businesses to shut down until the situation changes for the better.
The reason this affects us is two-fold. Firstly, we normally supply a lot of products at wholesale to a wide range of resorts, hotels, and spas here. Without any guests, these orders have dried up for the time being. Secondly, we also set up the Volcanic Earth Day Spa here in the Capital of Port Vila. This award-winning spa is mainly targeted at the tourist market but there are no tourists here because of the COVID-19 restrictions. As a result, our gross turnover is likely to be well down on the last two years.
Thankfully, planes are now flying into Vanuatu on a weekly basis repatriating citizens and residents from overseas. This has re-opened in-bound and out-bound freight options. Consequently, we are back shipping Internet orders, reseller orders, distributor orders and wholesale orders worldwide. We have also been shipping some large, orders in bulk by sea freight to countries such as the USA.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Well, I’ve been in business before in that I had my own fashion label in Australia for seven years so I had already learned some fundamental mistakes. However, doing business in an archipelago in the South Pacific is not without its challenges. Apart from active volcanoes, Vanuatu is also prone to cyclones. On Friday the 13th March 2015 Vanuatu was hit with a massive cyclone (Cyclone Pam) and on the 5th April 2020, Vanuatu got hit again. This time by Cyclone Howard.
These sorts of events can cause a lot of devastation and serious interruptions to supply chains when it comes to sourcing local ingredients. I realized very quickly that having a good stockpile of these ingredients is essential. If you embark on an export program as we have and you get your brand out there, then you better make sure that you can supply.
Avoid damaging your brand at all costs. Your brand is your reputation in the eyes of others and if it gets damaged, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to recover from.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I like to have my own core platform as I can control it rather than be a victim of someone else’s. This means that we like to drive visitors to our own websites and landing pages. We’re not fancy nor do we try to be with this app or that app. We try to keep things simple. It’s a bit like skin care products. A lot of manufacturers add every new, beaut ingredient into a product but in such minuscule quantities as to render the product largely ineffective.
We leave it to our resellers to list our products on different platforms rather than compete with them. However, my husband is also a writer and a marketer so he produces eBooks, eReports, articles, ads, banners and so on to help drive targeted traffic to us and our resellers..
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I can’t say that I relied on any specific books or podcasts or other resources other than my own knowledge, what I learned through the web generally and what I have discovered works or doesn’t work through trial and error.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
One common mistake I see new startups making is over-capitalizing from the very beginning and not really appreciating what’s involved. This includes what business structure is best suited to their circumstances. Some people form verbal partnerships rather than have a written partnership agreement and this invariably seems to lead to big problems. Another common mistake is thinking that they have their own brand when really all they have is a business name when they start out. A "brand" is not a business name.
A lot of would-be online entrepreneurs are people trying to either supplement their day job or replace it altogether. They often lack the sort of in-house resources we had from the very beginning. Out-sourcing websites, SEO and marketing can get very expensive if you don’t know what you’re doing. For example, using Google Adwords to market and promote your wares requires some expertise and it is not an area where trial and error pays off as you can very rapidly run up hundreds of dollars in ad spend with zero return on this investment.
You can have the greatest product or service but unless you have a way to reach potential customers, you won't make sales and the business venture will fail. One of the best ways to market these days is via Facebook advertising and YouTube but you still need to learn how to do this the right way. Master this and you’re halfway there.
Where can we go to learn more?
For anyone looking to learn more about becoming a Volcanic Earth Reseller via our Wholesale Drop Shipping Program, they are encouraged to email us direct at [email protected]
Volcanic Earth has provided an update on their business!
Over 1 year ago, we followed up with Volcanic Earth to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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