Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! My name is Koko and I’m a Japanese female serial entrepreneur. I started my eCommerce business of deodorizing body, hair, and home care products over a decade ago. We offer purifying and deodorizing secrets to help you feel fresh and clean at any age. It is clinically proven that body odor changes with age despite your hygiene (Nonenal body odor). The key ingredient to eliminating this body odor associated with aging is Persimmon from Japan.
Our star product among 15 products is our Persimmon soap. Each bar is hand-crafted by soap artisans in a family-owned soap mill located in Osaka, Japan.
Our monthly sales are $100,000 mostly from Shopify eCommerce and Amazon. We focus highly on baby boomers, so everything we do has to be senior-friendly. In addition to the fact that we are the only brand that offers solutions for body odor associated with aging in the USA, our customer outreach is aimed at creating an easy and enjoyable experience. We prioritize human customer service over chatbots; optimize our website for senior eyes; and, ensure our products are designed for safer, easier usage, etc.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
When my grandmother was living with me after my grandfather passed away, I became very close with her as she took care of me a lot. When my friends came to visit me at our house, they made fun of her smell saying it was different. She was embarrassed and tried taking baths more often, but the situation did not change much. After I became an adult, I learned that the smell the kids referred to was called nonenal (no-nay-nal), a body odor associated with aging.
It’s very important to have multiple income sources. You never know what happens in life or the world.
A clinical study has shown that nonenal production can begin in our early 40’s. When I was younger though, nonenal had not been discovered yet, so there was no solution for it.
Later, when I visited the United States and learned that Americans don’t know much about it, I thought introducing solutions to help eliminate nonenal would be a great idea. I visited nursing homes and asked around, but no one knew about nonenal and few realized that body odor changes with age.
As I was still working for a corporation in Japan, I introduced Japanese Persimmon soap to test the market. At that time, I didn’t know how to market the idea, so the sales were very slow, but as I had a steady income from the corporate job, the business kept running.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We started the business with a soap bar, and then slowly increased to include other products. We keep introducing new products to test the market and if it sells, it stays, otherwise it gets discontinued.
- We come up with ideas for new products from market research and then survey our existing customers.
- After we decide which products to launch, we start researching how/who to develop the product with.
- We develop product samples to test within the company and with interested brand ambassadors.
- If the sample is accepted by the testers, we start production. We coordinate the production with the selected factory, ingredient supplier, packaging supplier, and logistics company.
- We try pre-launch marketing before the actual launch.
As our products do not use existing formulas, but custom formulas made specifically with our Japanese Persimmon, high minimum order quantities are required and the entire process can take about 1 year from conception to launch. It can also cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 or more depending on the products.
Describe the process of launching the business.
My friend helped me launch the business financially, but for the first 5 years, the sales were very slow - enough for me to almost quit. I simply imported the products targeted to eliminate the body odor associated with aging from Japan to the USA, even though I did not have any marketing plan or money. I was told that if you are not making $1M or more annually within a couple of years of starting this kind of retail business, you should give up. I didn’t give up though.
The biggest lesson I learned from one of my many mistakes is that I should not have just simply imported foreign business from Japan to the USA. The idea was very good, but there was no marketing plan. That’s why it took more than 5 years to become a real business.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The first successful marketing we had was thanks to a Yahoo article by a freelance publicist back in 2014. At that time, the publicist was only $350 per month, and the article generated 3,000 orders over 3 days ($60,000 in total!). At that time, we believed that good sales would continue, but we misunderstood this and it turned out to be wrong.
Even if you get a great article that generates sales, it doesn’t mean that it continues. We immediately tried to outsource fulfillment services to an expensive UPS service, but we couldn’t because the increase in sales had ended. We wasted $15,000 to integrate our system into the UPS system.
Finally, in 2020, we started working with a marketing company who were able to turn things around. It was a mistake that we were trying to do marketing internally for such a long time.
Another mistake was inaccurate inventory count. Our old count system was very poor and because of that, we had to refund more than 600 orders manually. This gave our customers a very negative experience and so we’ve implemented ways to correct this to ensure a more positive customer experience.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, our operation has become more stable with the help of great team members. We can now focus on growth such as new product development, optimizing ongoing operations, and more, instead of fixing immediate issues, which we used to do all the time.
Example breakdown of an order of 1 soap:
- $3 cost to produce
- $16 retail price
- $13 profit
- $1 ad cost
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Until I moved to the States, I didn’t know that many successful people are willing to teach you how to grow a business for free. It is called an ecosystem, where experienced entrepreneurs teach young entrepreneurs to give back. I love learning from them as they teach you potential future mistakes and how to avoid them. For this, I recommend searching for an entrepreneur/startup community, meetup, ecosystem, etc.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We moved our business over to Shopify a year ago from WooCommerce. It’s been a great experience thus far and we will begin to work with ShipMonk as a third-party fulfillment service. Our top tools include Klaviyo for email marketing, Trello and Asana for team communication, and AgoraPulse for social media management.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Learning in English is still difficult for me so I still learn from my Japanese mentor’s emails and via YouTube.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
It’s very important to have multiple income sources. You never know what happens in life or the world. Our sales increased due to the pandemic, but we were just lucky. Regardless of the type of business, I believe it is important to produce income from different channels. We sell on Shopify and Amazon mainly, but I also offer an online Face Yoga business that includes a mobile app, sessions, learning content, etc.
This applies to marketing platforms too. As we depend on Facebook ads, when they are paused due to their policy changes, or for whatever reasons (which occurs too often), we are severely limited in customer outreach. We are in the process of launching other marketing ads campaigns though.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are constantly hiring new members for marketing, operations, and administration. It will be remote work, paid and part-time as an Independent Contractor. We would be interested in hiring someone for:
- Operation assistant
- Administration assistant including simple accounting
- Tax advice
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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