How I Started An All-Natural Skincare Line
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly, and I’m the founder of Heliotrope San Francisco. We’ve been making our all-natural skincare line here in the Bay Area for over ten years. Our line has expanded to include an extensive body care offering, face care, shaving & beard care, aromatherapy & massage, and hair care.
We add no synthetic perfumes or artificial colors - most items are either fragrance-free or scented with pure essential oils. What this creates is a line that’s completely gender neutral - did you know there’s really no difference between women’s and men’s skincare? The marketers & the big department store brands would like us to believe there is, and they scent each of their lines to differentiate them - but honestly, we have the same skin. By removing those perfumes & fragrances, we remove that false dichotomy that was created on Madison Ave.
We’ve chosen slow, sustainable growth - unlike many of our competitors, we started with one small shop, because we really wanted to have face-to-face conversations with our clients, and learn what their needs were. Retail may be the hardest of the sales channels and have the highest overhead, but we feel like it’s been its own reward. Adding online sales & now growing our wholesale business, our projected sales this year is approximately $250K.
Here I am, in our first store on Church St in SF, with my VP of Customer Service, Laika.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started working in retail operations right out of school, moving from NYC to SF (more years ago than I care to admit). I got a job right away as an assistant buyer at Pottery Barn, which at that point had just been purchased by Williams-Sonoma, and stayed there, holding various positions, for almost a decade. After learning all about skincare at Bare Escentuals (now known as Bare Minerals), I ran operations for Restoration Hardware - back when the web was a new frontier - and then was the head of merchandising at Good Vibrations, a very reputable, well-known sex toy company in SF.
I had a small table selling stuff at every event that would have me. The more people I could meet in person, the greater the name recognition.
After my last job, I took some time off to think & travel, and then one fateful day I was searching for a shower gel that had no artificial perfume. I had developed very sensitive skin, and knew that perfumes (AKA “fragrance” when listed in your ingredients) was a trigger. I couldn’t find anyplace in SF that could help me until I stumbled on a little shop in Berkeley. And then I thought “wait for a second, why was this so hard?”
I called a few chemists with whom I’d worked back in my Bare Escentuals days, and they were all happy to start a conversation on working together. This reinforced what my Dad has always told me about being kind to people - these friends I’d made over the years were so supportive to me in those early days (and continue to be).
All my friends & neighbors became product testers, and I put together a band of creatives who’d all worked with me over the years - my copywriter and my graphic designer (who helped create our new logo) both worked with me at Good Vibes. I still work with some of these folks to this day.
I was lucky enough to have savings, and to be eligible for 2009’s federal stimulus package which extended unemployment benefits for 99 weeks - I mean, the timing was amazing for me, and I made the most of the opportunity.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
After chatting with those chemists way back then, and agreeing to work together, we began the actual process of product development. This was - and continues to be - my favorite part of my job. I love coming up with an idea, writing a brief, figuring out what ingredients I’m looking for and what results I want, then meeting with one of my chemists to actually create a formula.
“I want cucumber!” I’ll say - “and throw in some aloe!” My colleague (who has a chemistry degree and knows what she’s talking about) will say “what are we doing this for?” and I’ll reply “after-sun healing, or aftershave antiseptic, or a healing serum.” Then the expert kicks into gear.
I am happy to be the one with the ideas and the vision, and not be in a lab mixing ingredients. You have to find the right people to help you succeed, and one person can’t possibly be the expert in every step of the process - but can lead the team to do the job.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I decided to team up with a friend to help me accomplish my vision. While the partnership didn’t work out in the end, I’m glad I had someone on my side during the difficult times in the beginning.
Because we chose the retail route, customers naturally found us just by strolling down the street. And, because I’d worked with so many folks over the years who’d started their own companies, it was easy to spread the word in my community(ies) and folks just came out of the woodwork to support us. They attended our in-store events, they purchased products, they wrote orders for their own stores.
I funded most of the start-up with my own savings and credit cards, which I used very conservatively - for fear of racking up debt early on. I was able to secure a low-interest, long-term loan from Working Solutions, a not-for-profit lender who services businesses that had been turned down by the big financial institutions.
We started on a website using an existing third-party platform, doing all the work ourselves in-house. A few years later, we upgraded to Shopify which made our lives much easier.
My takeaway from the start-up process was to find the right people to work with (both inside & outside the company), be willing to take risks, do what you believe in, and say Yes to all opportunities - well, at least the ones that make sense & fit your mission. You never know what something will lead to.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Being a part of the community here in the Bay Area was very helpful. I was a founding member of SFMade, a wonderful organization the promotes small business & manufacturing in SF. I later joined its offshoot, Bay Area Made, when I move my studio to Oakland (where I live). Working with other like-minded folks helps get the word out, brings you new opportunities, and reminds you that you’re not alone in this.
I had a small table selling stuff at every event that would have me - nightclubs, fashion shows, art events, as well as all the outdoor markets & crafts fairs. The more people I could meet in person, the greater the name recognition. I can’t even count the number of folks who’ve walked into my store & said “hey, didn’t I meet you at that show?”
Stay true to your vision. Do business with only those folks you actually want to do business with.
When the opportunity arose to move to a great commercial corridor in the Mission District, we teamed up with two other companies to make it happen. A few years later, when things evolved, I collaborated with a friend how has a home decor business, and we created a sort-of collective on Valencia St called Acacia, which we run together as co-tenants (not business partners). It’s a lovely way to share expenses (and rent!) and still be part of a community, which has complete autonomy in running my own business.
Other ways we sought to expand were on the wholesale front - reaching out to other local retailers who had a similar vibe, or who sold our category. We started putting our products on other websites, trying out a new model that brings other small businesses together online as a ‘shopping destination.’
This leads to the topic of Amazon, which we do not sell on. My former business partner thought it was a great idea, and for a while, we sold a limited number of products on their site. But I’ve never appreciated their history of undercutting competitors & creating hardships for small businesses, so I removed our line. So much of my success comes from customers who want to support local business - keeping our online sales high when we were forced to shutter our store during the shutdown last year - that I felt it was disingenuous to sell on Amazon.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We continue to develop new products but have been spending more time engaging with customers (both current & potential new ones) on social media. I’ve worked with a number of photographers who were all willing to work for barter, taking payment in the product rather than cash. We’re still saying Yes too many opportunities, including working with other websites/apps to feature our products, as well as videos/live streams with me participating.
This reminds me: I’m much more likely to include myself in the marketing materials now since I’ve come to understand that people really want to connect with the maker. When folks at the shop learn that it’s my line, they ooh and aah and love that they’ve met “the man behind the brand” - and this is true online, too.
There are such love and support for “the makers’ community” right now, it just makes sense to be more upfront about it, and make myself part of the story, rather than hiding behind the brand.
We’ve recently doubled our space at our studio in Oakland, where we do all our bottling & labeling, as well as our order fulfillment. And, we’re about to take on a big new project - we’ll be distributing some of our products in much greater quantities to a much larger client base. I can’t really discuss details yet, but it has the potential to double our business. And it came to fruition purely because someone we do business with likes me, and when they were thinking of who the right collaborator would be, they thought of us because of the great relationship we’ve always had (Dad was right again).
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Customers want to support you - not just friends & family, but strangers & folks on the street. When they know your story, they’ll get behind it. Of course, your product has to be great, and your customer service has to be stellar - but everyone knows that part already. Spreading the word about who you are, and what you do, and what role you play in your community - that all counts - and folks love to hear the stories.
Try new stuff, you never know if something will work, so why not try it out?
Take a risk (within reason), a new product, or an interesting new opportunity, or a collaborator with great ideas.
Be smart. Make sure your business model will actually work first.
Seek out help. Talk to people, including the SBA or your CPA brother-in-law.
Tell your story.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
In our store (and when I do off-site events), we use Square, which has been great. Over the years, they’ve added a million features, responding to pretty much every request I’ve ever made. We were one of the first non-coffee shop retailers to use them back in 2010 & have been with them ever since (they’ve even featured both me and my dog in their marketing).
Our website is on Shopify, which has been great 99% of the time. They make it very easy, and the price is reasonable. Interestingly, Shopify makes selling CBD products very difficult, which is why we have a 2nd website dedicated to our CBD line (which is run by Square).
For accounting, after doing much research, I recently re-upped with Quickbooks because I really do like the way it works. Intuit is a pain in the neck to deal with, but they have a good product. I like doing my own bookkeeping, but I’m a control freak - this is easily something you can hire a bookkeeper to do.
I use various third-party apps for email (MailerLite), customer follow-up (Consistent Cart), reviews (Growave), social media posts (Preview, Tailwind), and wholesale (Carro, Wholster, Spocket, Faire).
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Honestly, with my 30+ years in the retail business, I have to say I’ve never read or book, or listened to a podcast about the business. I spend all my spare time (and time in the car) listening to audiobooks, which I borrow from my local libraries.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Talk to as many people as you can, and get as much information/knowledge as you can. If you don’t know about finances, take an online class at your local community college, or get in touch with your local merchants’ association or chamber of commerce.
Stay true to your vision. Even though I’ve espoused “just saying Yes” in previous paragraphs, remember that it has to make sense for you. I’m saying yes to collaborations that are right for Heliotrope (and for me). Do business with only those folks you actually want to do business with.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
With our new studio space in Oakland, we recently hired staff to help with production & shipping, though more growth is expected!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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