Near Fatal Car Crash to $150k/month Selling Skincare Products

Published: June 11th, 2018
Andy Hnilo
Founder, Alitura Naturals
Alitura Naturals
from Los Angeles, California, USA
started June 2014
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Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

Hey! My name is Andy Hnilo. I am the Founder and CEO of Alitura Naturals, a Los Angeles based all natural skincare line.

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I can honestly say that I never had any intention to start a business. On March 20, 2011 I woke up in in a Cedars Sinai ICU bed after getting hit by a series of large vehicles. Seven broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and the worst compound fracture that the maxillofacial specialist at the hospital had ever seen...

That accident turned out to be an absolute blessing in disguise, as it was the catalyst that rocked me towards my purpose of helping others feel better about what they see in the mirror. Out of pure necessity, I started creating our flagship product, The Alitura Clay Mask, during my healing period.

Today, Alitura has a full line of products with a mission to provide the highest quality, most nutrient-dense skincare that we can. Through my most tragic experience, I was able to overcome despair and create a business out of pure passion. With well over 1000 reviews at an average 4.9/5.0 rating, our products are currently offered in 76 countries and counting.

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

Prior to my accident I had made a living based upon my appearance (modeling & acting) and the execution of demanding physical tasks as a Division 1 athlete (baseball). Essentially, I was 30 years old, broke, pursuing a career in the entertainment industry that flat out was unfulfilling to me and working night time jobs to help pay the bills. But I had this feeling that there was something more for me out there.

Everything changed when life rocked me right into my purpose in March of 2011: I was attempting to cross a busy street in Los Angeles, California, when I was blindsided by a westbound headed Land Rover that hit me into the eastbound lane where I consequently was run over another time by a Toyota Tundra. Unconscious, I lay in the middle of the street where first responders began cutting off all of my clothes in an effort to get me on the stretcher and to the emergency room at Cedars Sinai Hospital as soon as they could. Dazed on morphine, I woke up in an ICU bed completely unaware of what had happened. I had two friends of mine in the room with me that quickly explained the severity of the situation and words cannot describe that feeling. I had 7 broken ribs, a collapsed lung, chest tube inserted to drain fluid and one of the worst compound fractures that the resident maxillofacial surgeon at Cedars Sinai had ever seen.

BUT… I was alive. Driven and determined to get back on my feet quickly and in better shape than I was before the accident, I cannot describe the daily motivation that was ignited to accomplish just that. That accident rocked me right into my purpose. Period. Unimpressed with the products that my Doctor’s recommended me to use to heal my abrasions and scars, I began researching organic ingredients from nature to accelerate my scar healing. I truly believed my body was going to respond best to an all natural, holistic ‘meal’ of nutrient dense, mineral rich ingredients from the earth.

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

Because of my appearance after the accident, I didn't really want to be seen in public; so I was left with a lot of time to research, create and test.

Jaw wired shut, front teeth missing, I would then start driving around Los Angeles with a little backpack filled with a bamboo bowl, a blend of organic essential oils, a mineral-rich blend of four clays, organic superfoods, a bottle of apple cider vinegar, other nutrient dense ingredients and of course the clay mask. Just seeking feedback. The response was incredible! I knew I had something special when I picked up a friend of mine who had seen me in the hospital just weeks earlier and was completely blown away by my appearance and how quickly it improved.

No website, no price, no company name, I continued to give the product away for about a year or two. What that did was allow me to beta test and get feedback on how to improve the product.

I never had the intention to start a business. But the rising interest of people in something that I truly created with my own hands, out of necessity, lit a fire inside me to keep pursuing more.

After all this time cruising around LA and sampling the product on friends and friends of friends, word began to spread about this ‘Clay Mask’ that I had made out of a tiny apartment in North Hollywood, CA.

The process of designing and creating the brand itself was the hardest part. Everywhere I went I was getting advice from people and everyone had an opinion on what is going to work best. I heard about ‘going the conventional way’ with packaging, colors and fonts. Considering who the advice was coming from, I listened. But it didn’t feel right. Ever since I was a kid, I have been intrigued by sleek logos. Nike, Hugo Boss, Lexus, Montage… these are companies that I admire and they all have a level of prestige that follows their name. I knew that I wasn’t going to budge on my ingredients to make certain margins. I flat out DIDN’T KNOW enough to even think of that. What I DID know, was that the ingredients I’ve found were bar none the best I could have found and I backed that up with absolutely not compromising on quality during the search. I truly didn’t know my raw goods cost until I had to.

Margins and factoring in every single piece of the packaging of the product, were things that I had to learn on the go. However, with the vision of a Lexus meets Hugo Boss brand identity and the mission to bring the highest quality product to the store shelves, I felt that charging a premium price was something that we could back up. We sourced Miron Glass as our packaging for our liquid products and a sleek BPA free plastic.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

It wasn’t really a business until a woman named Mary Halls invited me down to San Diego to try out the product on some of her clients at the MedSpa she owned. She had been watching what I was doing via social media and was intrigued. Long story short, she loved the mask enough to put it on her list of treatments at her spa, charging A LOT for something that I had made. That was very fulfilling to me and to this day one of the coolest parts of the entrepreneurial journey that I have experienced, because it was the first time someone was paying serious money for something that I created.

From that point, I gained confidence and that led to building some serious momentum, which I believe is the most integral part to a successful startup. During that time, I became very passionate not only about skin care, but about what I was putting into my body as well. I fell in love with a brand, Bulletproof, as my go to for coffee, superfoods and supplementation through the passion and attention to detail exhibited by its founder Dave Asprey. I loved the brand so much that I actually found out their general mailbox email by putting two and two together and troubleshooting Asprey’s email address in hopes of landing a job with the company! I literally tried them all: D.Asprey@..., Asprey.David@..., Dave@... etc. etc. I also attached a pic of me before and after my accident, in an effort to show them and thank them for putting together such clean, kickass products that really spurred my recovery. One of those emails went through!

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We had a 45 minute conference call in the kitchen of the house that I grew up in, and ultimately was brought onboard as a Bulletproof Ambassador! Huge! That was enough for me, and a huge personal victory in a time where I needed it. Months down the road I got a call from his team that they wanted to have me as a guest on his top ranked podcast Bulletproof Radio. Dream come true. The podcast was an hour of dissecting resilience, nutrition and personal development but towards the end it led towards skincare. Unplanned. And that’s where it all began! Dave got a HUGE response from his fans after that podcast and I was getting bombarded with awesome emails from fans from all over the world who wanted to know where they purchase this ‘Mask’ that still didn’t have a name or website.

Within days of airing, I came up with a price ($35/Free International Shipping… whoops) and I started asking that people PayPal me in return for ‘The Mask’. With the help from a high school friend, I launched a Shopify ecommerce store. Shortly after that, we came up with the name, ‘Alitura,’ which I loved because it is everything that we stand for with the brand. Alitura is Latin for ‘feeding and nourishing,’ and with skin being our largest organ, I felt that we should treat it like another mouth with the purest ingredients. The rest is history: Months later we partnered up with Bulletproof, and in June 2014, Alitura Naturals was officially born.

Dave flew down to LA a week later, we agreed to terms shortly after and 3 months after that podcast, The Alitura Clay Mask was selling on the same site that I so frequently purchased from: Easily the best moment of my entrepreneurial career and maybe even my life. Not only partnering with an idol of mine, but now having purpose and running a business without ever writing up a business plan.

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At this point, I was back modeling and working more than ever before as an actor, two things that I felt had been taken away from me, so that was very cool to be back in the game. In the feedback that I received from friends and family, I noticed that people were really ‘needing’ this clay mask in their lives which was extremely encouraging to keep pursuing it.

Since launch, what has worked to attract new customers?

We have the best customers. With well over 1000 reviews at an average 4.9/5.0 rating, they are our biggest billboards when it comes to marketing. At the beginning stages of Alitura, I had a very passionate, small base of supportive customers who helped me build the foundation and have been part of the growth of Alitura from day one. To give back to them and show my appreciation, I would keep them very included through social media and this mentality has sticked.

Engaging on social media, hosting informative Q&A session on Facebook Lives, and meeting our customers at events are embedded into our marketing. Customer service is one of the most important aspects of the business and I go above and beyond to make sure that customers have a personal feel with the brand. This is a very organic and natural part of the Alitura culture. My advice is be to be authentic, transparent, and include customers as a part of the brand. Share your knowledge with them, make it a priority to help them with their concerns and questions, and engage with them as you would with your friends and family. Without them, you ultimately wouldn’t have a business.

I take a sincere level of pride in impacting everyone in some way by striving to help them feel better, not only by the way my products make them look and feel, but also as a human being. We are all people just looking to find our way. Nothing is more relatable than that, and maintaining our mission at Alitura Naturals of helping people feel better about themselves is visible in both our sales and marketing.

I’ve appeared on several podcasts, which has been absolutely huge for attracting new customers. Some of the podcasts include Bulletproof Radio (4 times), Ben Greenfield, HVMN, Self Made Man, Entrepreneur on Fire,Tony Jeffries, and Wellness Mama. Sharing my story and talking about the benefits of green beauty on podcasts has allowed me to attract new customers within our health and wellness niche, while at the same time being able to educate them and provide information on living a healthier life.

We like to collaborate with like-minded brands and we've even partnered with Smile Train to donate a percentage of each website sale to provide 100%-free cleft repair surgery to children in need. We've been featured in magazines Life & Style, Reader's Digest, Ask Men, Paleo Magazine, and many more.

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

Alitura started in my studio apartment and is now sold in 76 countries. It has been a quick 4 years since the start, and I don’t regret a moment of it. Most recently, we are very excited for our upcoming fragrance release, which we have been working on since 2016. We also spend our days maintaining our pristine customer service while naturally introducing new products to our line. Actively reaching out, collaborating with, and aligning ourselves with people, customers, and brands who share our mission are what normal days for us look like.

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

I emphasize these 3 points as the recipe to success:

1) Cut absolutely NO corners in creating the best possible product that you can.

Be able to tell a story of what separates yourself and why your product stands out. (Ultimately why it will benefit the user and why they should purchase, but without pressuring a sale)

2) PERFECT your customer experience

Treat them like gold. They will have questions, answer them timely and with courtesy. Keep in mind that you only have a business because of your customer, so treat them as a reflection of yourself and show them unmatched quality of a product, AND unmatched customer service. Putting passion, kindness, and respect into your customer interactions will give you customers for life, and as a bonus they will be your biggest marketing tool as well.

3) Take action daily, seeking to optimize every part of your business; especially employee relationships.

There is always something to do. Treat your employees like gold and they will walk to the ends of the earth for you.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

WooCommerce, Wordpress, Stampd for Reviews, Shipping Easy, Klaviyo, are all platforms that I would recommend.

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

Joe Rogan, Bulletproof Radio, and Ben Greenfield are the most influential podcasts that inspire me. Dave Asprey from Bulletproof and Ben Greenfield both have a focus on health and wellbeing and being value to our lives through information on optimal nutrition. They give way to not only improve the quality of our lives, but also touch on the longevity aspect.

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

Once we've found our purpose, the rest relies on application and execution. One way to follow through on that passion would be to follow others that have successfully built a business similar to yours - success leaves clues. Those that respond to that early entrepreneurial fire are often happy to give advice.

With social media and easy-to-use, e-commerce templates to build your business, you can begin by documenting your grassroots progress and creating valuable content through dynamic, cutting-edge information via blogging, ultimately increasing your SEO presence.

As far as mistakes, signing up for a shipping company and getting a printer and scale is the biggest advice I have.

It may seem like obvious advice, but for the first 2 years, I would actually hand-write thank you notes and to-and-from slips, and wait in line at the local post office every single day to get the piles of orders out.

Where can we go to learn more?

We actually created a discount code for the Starter Story community. 15% off when you use "starter" in the discount field. Besides that you can find us on:

[email protected]