Creating Eco-Friendly Air Fresheners With Natural Products

The Story of Lemongrass Trading Company

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

Hello, it’s lovely to have a chance to talk with other people in the same start up mode as myself.

The Lemongrass Trading Company is in the business of making chemical-free and effective natural insecticides & fresheners that are safe, green and eco-friendly.

You might think that "safe to breathe" was a basic necessity of sprays & fragrances but -amazingly- many household and insect products are actually toxic. We use only pure, natural Lemongrass, plus other plant extracts – incidentally, Lemongrass happens to smell wonderful too, so people love our Car, Bathroom and Air Fresheners! We target Clothes Moths, Mosquitoes, Midges, Wasps and for a safer horticulture, we make an Aphid spray. All these are made without a single added chemical, artificial fragrance or synthetic ingredient. For the Food & Drink market we make a Fly Spray out of edible ingredients, which no one seems to have thought of before. I now have best friends in pubs all over the country!

The hero product is the Lemongrass & Cedarwood Anti-Moth Spray. Since the rapid explosion of cashmere in all our lives, there has been a plague of Clothes Moths in the closets of Britain! Other existing Moth products are mostly full of harsh chemicals, and really toxic if your clothes are stored in your bedroom. I find there’s a new awareness and a real hunger for natural products, from a wide range of customers.

I was fortunate to get a grant from the European Union for Innovation in Agriculture, and began to work with the amazing Department of Parasitology at the University of Bristol. My commercial high point occured when the Fashion Editor of The London Times featured Lemongrass as her Weapon of Moth Destruction. We were inundated with orders, proving the demand for a more chemical-free environment.

Lemongrass Mini-sprays

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

It happened when I was in rural South India. I was doing some agricultural research in a chemically-saturated environment, which was both bankrupting and poisoning the poor farmers. I learned that traditionally Lemongrass was used as an insecticide and a food preservative for its general antibacterial and antifungal powers. (Did you know it’s an ingredient in Dettol?)

A Farmers’ Cooperative was wheeling past me with a bamboo cart piled with produce, and – more useful for a traveller – small bottles of their own essential oils. I loved the Lemongrass oil and thought I’d use it as a food ingredient, but realised that it was a brilliant natural insecticide, and started to use it against Mosquitoes and Flies.

I had no background in chemistry, in business, or in manufacturing. But I’ve always believed that if you can read, you can do anything.

So I began learning about Active Ingredients, Emulsifiers, High-Shear Mixers, the life-cycle of the Fruit Fly … honestly, if ever there was ever a problem, I would just look up the answer. That’s one of the most important tips I have for other entrepreneurs, just look it up!

I started reading - academic papers, books on ‘Green Chemistry’, on branding, on bar codes, on shelf-life, on SEO, on marketing.

image 7

At the same time I was finding out how to mix oil and water, what bottles and sprays and caps and boxes were available. Sometimes it seemed overwhelming, and of course there were expensive mistakes: for example, I started with glass bottles (recyclable) but they are expensive and heavy to mail, and they shatter. I try not to waste anything, so I use them still, not for products but for batch experiments in the lab.

The governmental ‘Innovation For Growth’ grant I mentioned was important not so much for the money as for it was in validating the product. This level of Laboratory testing gave us real gravitas which was vital (and helped me to have confidence).

As far as my financial situation at the time - I had a not-very-good pension but my husband was still working, so I was able to use the pension money for the business as it arrived.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

This was the most fun ever!

Somehow, almost miraculously, I found two brilliant designers who had just left Nottingham Trent Art School (prestigious in the UK for product design). I owe so much to their work that I’d like to name them here: Lun Yau and Claire Coulthard.

I wanted the bottles to look as though Lemongrass was growing all round them, and once that was established, they designed the logo and the labels for each individual product. I went to trade shows to source packaging, boxes, sprays, label printers etc.

The main problem is one of scale – for example, you can’t afford 10,000 boxes before you have made a sale. You just have to find the best price for a quantity you hope you can afford. That pretty much ruled out China, and anyway for green reasons I try to source locally.

I had no background in chemistry, in business, or in manufacturing. But I’ve always believed that if you can read, you can do anything.

The same problem applies to manufacturing. Naturally, factories want to deal in large quantities. By then I had a modest quantity of the Essential Oils I thought I’d be using, imported from India, and as I’d devised the formulae with the University of Bristol, I decided to mix the stuff on site. I sourced a really good second-hand mixer from a lab in Cambridge and just started. I was scared of it to start with but now I trust it absolutely.

As far as startup costs, the mixer was the most expensive item. Oh, and the shipping costs of all my ingredients. Don’t think of taking short cuts over forming a company, establishing copyrights, trademarks, logo etc - they aren’t hugely expensive, and offer a degree of protection you may well need.

Patents on the other hand cost serious money. I consulted lawyers who said I could probably establish rights, but the general advice is that it would cost far too much to be worth it. Whoever has the deepest pockets wins. Regulations are quite a bug bear - very strict in Europe. But you’ve probably heard of Brexit (Britain leaving the EU) so it’s all up in the air.

As William Goldman famously said of Hollywood, ‘No one knows anything’, so I’m just carrying on!

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

Fairs were a good place to start for the business. I’ve almost always made quite a bit of profit at fairs, mainly in London, though they are hard work.

It’s really useful to get to talk to your customers, and see what sells though that definitely differs from the online sales. I have very loyal customers, who’ve ordered steadily from me since we met at a charity fair in Chelsea. So I have always had both a website and a ‘real’ presence. One Christmas I shared a pop-up shop in Piccadilly - that was terrific fun, but I think a permanent shop would be very difficult, as the High Street dies away.

My website has undergone several changes. To start, I used a local firm, but when I got national press coverage, the site collapsed under the pressure. I switched to Shopify, which worked well, but has become too expensive. So now I have a great designer in Australia (not sure how that happened).

It’s surprising how quickly sites date, though. What looks cutting edge very quickly gets tired, and I find SEO a constant nightmare. Eternal vigilance – but life can get in the way.

Since launch, what has worked to attract new customers?

Marketing... honestly, I have come to hate the word. Especially in connection to social media.

I know, I know, it’s essential. But perhaps my clients are not very media savvy. It’s hard to make waves on Twitter about Clothes Moths!

But the two huge boosts I have had have resulted from mentions in good old-fashioned print. Here is a summary of some of the marketing I’ve done:

  1. National Newspapers:

The Times of London: The Times is now subject to a paywall, so past articles in the archives aren’t available. But there’s a summary of the piece, by The Times’s award-winning Fashion Director, Anna Murphy, on the Lemongrass Trading PRESS page.

The Observer (a UK prestigious Sunday broadsheet, sister paper of The Guardian): they ran a series titled "Green Crush of the Week", and my Moth products caught their eye. Give it a read (scroll down the page one paragraph).

  1. Magazines and Local Papers

There have been other mentions of products in glossy magazines, local papers etc, though results were nothing like the perfect storm after The Times piece.

Because of the sales resulting from press endorsements, I now concentrate my energies on trying to get mentions in print, preferably national. In the US, there doesn’t seem to be equivalent to national coverage, but then I think your state and local papers have much more clout, and would be particularly effective if you have bricks-and-mortar stores, or if you can make a local Special Offer.

But as the circulations of these magazines and papers are almost all diminishing, it is hard to get attention. I study them carefully, and try to chose one editor or contributor who seems most likely to be on my green wavelength, then send them a sample, beautifully wrapped, with a nicely printed explanation of the product.

I make the most I can of my USP – what differentiates natural Lemongrass from other chemical-based products. I lay constant emphasis on "safe-to-breathe, safe-to-consume, friend-to-the-environment" etc.

I think it’s really important to believe in your unique qualities. Otherwise, why do it?

  1. Advertising

I’ve tried advertising in magazines, or appearing in paid catalogues etc, always in a minor (I.e. non-extravagant) way, but I’ve never had the impression I’ve even recuperated the costs. I certainly don’t do Facebook ads.

Also, because my clientele is pretty well ‘grown up’, (men and women, by the way), I don’t try internet Influencers or celebrities. I tweet, though not regularly enough. They say it’s good for your SEO, but who knows?

  1. Word of Mouth

The other thing I benefit from is word of mouth.

For instance, the surprise rush on Wasp Sprays from Disney: I never did find out how exactly they found me, the answer was a vague "Oh, when we had a wasp problem, someone mentioned you…". So thank you, Ms/Mr Anonymous, if you are reading this!

One thing I attribute this to is taking great care with each order. I enclose copy of the order and usually write a personal note on it. This takes 30 seconds, and I feel is worth that little bit of trouble.

Just now, I’m getting a lot of trade from Gastro Pubs and Micro-Breweries, for my ‘edible’ Fly Spray. Because most fly sprays are so harsh, and maybe even toxic, it used to be impossible to use a spray once the glasses had been put out, even if the fly problem continued. But now bar managers can use Lemongrass at any time of day, and it doesn’t matter if it splashes onto food or drink.

How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

You might not think it, but my Lemongrass stuff is quite seasonal and erratic.

In the winter, I still sell Fly Spray to pubs (Fruit Flies) ed all the year round) and Yoga Sprays to people into Mindfulness. But come spring, the Moth season will start again - clothes moths hatch from April onwards. In the summer, I sell loads of Midge Sprays to people going to Scotland, and Mozzie sprays for travelers aware of the problems with Deet.

Last summer, I unexpectedly sold over £600 worth of Wasp Spray to the Disney Corporation, who were shooting near London and had an attack of wasps on set.

As far as revenue, it is incredibly erratic. Insects hibernate, damn them!

With national newspaper coverage (The Times) it can suddenly trigger £5000 worth of orders. At a one day fair in London, I maybe make £3-4000.

But there are slack periods, with just Yoga and Fresheners to tide me over. Around Easter there's a surge of demand for Anti-Moth products, as people store away their winter clothes, and see the first moths fluttering out of their closets. Then in May-June, aphids start ruining people's roses and tender crops – I’m hoping they’ll go for my new safe-to-breathe safe-to-eat Aphid spray.

Go out of your way for the customer: add something extra to the order. Let them know if there’s a delay. Tie it with ribbons when you can!

Overall, the annual figure is humble by contrast to to some of the other businesses featured on Starter Story, but I'd say the average is £1500-2000 per month, and rising.

2017 was the first year I made any sort of profit – not huge, but OK.

Of course I want to expand - I’d be so happy to have a full-time Marketing dude, and someone to take on all the business side of it. They’d need to share the same ethical viewpoint though.

You have probably gathered, I believe passionately in Lemongrass and my products, for safer households, better food, greener horticulture. I want to improve the environment, and in a small way make the world a safer, better place. But it would be great to bring in a sympathetic business partner, and concentrate on the amazing potential products we could develop.

More and more people are now into green issues, seeking for non-chemical solutions for the world, that I think this might be natch for Crowdfunding, and that way I’d find that a sympathetic way to expand.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

  • Belief (first in the product, secondly in yourself)

  • Be in it for the long haul. I don’t want to depress or put any one off, but it will take longer than you think.

  • Never waste anything. You’ve bought the wrong bottles? Think of another use for them. One product doesn’t seem to sell? Give it away as a sample when you want to do something extra.

  • Go out of your way for the customer: add something extra to the order. Let them know if there’s a delay. Tie it with ribbons when you can!

  • What would I do differently? Start sooner.

  • What would I tell a friend? Just start, right now.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I used to use Shopify, which is a great format and works beautifully, but as the pound sterling lost value, the charge per month became too expensive.

I now have a WooCommerce site, which has no monthly charge. My present website was built for me by Byron Design, which I’m very happy with. But I realise – and it still takes me by surprise– how constantly the website needs watching over. Things date, or cease to function, or react oddly, and who knows what customers you have lost in the meantime. I am rather too careless about that, and suddenly realise corrections are needed.

As far as finances, I have just started with QuickBooks. It seems excellent, but like all of those programs, you have to remember to make the entries, and I find it so boring! I’m amazed at how much I have forgotten at the end of the day.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Books:

As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe that if you can read, you can do anything. But I confess, reading about business stuff did not come easy.

Finance:

All accounts of Double-entry Bookkeeping have utterly defeated me, so I’m not a good example, but for Accounting, I’d recommend Anthony Rice’s Accounts Demystified as clear and understandable.

Startups:

The Financial Times produces an annual Guide to Business Start Ups. Even if your copy is a couple of years out of date, it’s still very useful.

Also: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.

Inspiration:

Inspirational rather than helpful: Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs – I found all 600 pages absolutely compelling reading. I love it that Jobs hated the term branding because he felt that it should be about informing customers, not convincing them.

Anita Roddick’s autobiography (she founded Body Shop, and was an early eco-warrior). This was useful because I needed to be told: do not fret about offices etc, just simply start at the kitchen table.

2. Film:

My favourite film of all time is The Commitments, directed by Alan Parker. It’s about an Irish band getting together. It’s a great film for any one starting up, funny, inspiring, and the music is great!

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Advice is rarely heeded, but may I dish out my few words?

  1. If you can read, you can do anything (except Double-Entry Accounting)

  2. Just do it

  3. Keep on doing it. You do have to be persistent.

  4. Good luck to young entrepreneurs, wherever you are!

Where can we go to learn more?

Check out the website at lemongrasstrading.com.

Want to start your own business?

Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.

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