Hello! Who are you, and what business did you start?
My name is Kyle LaFond, and I’m the founder of a natural products manufacturing company called American Provenance. Specifically, we make deodorants, body washes, and grooming products primarily intended for men. Unlike the vast majority of our competitors, we actually make our own products, in our own facility, with our own people. We’re proud to be part of the resurgence of American manufacturing.
We launched American Provenance from a renovated machine shed on my 4th generation family farm in mid-2015 and have now eclipsed $3M in lifetime revenue. Today, you can find our products on over 4,000 shelves nationwide, with more to come.
What's your backstory, and how did you come up with the idea?
The inspiration for American Provenance stems from my time as a middle school science teacher. Throughout my teacher education program, no one ever mentioned anything about the simple fact that pre-teens stink! I mean, they smell absolutely awful! It was tough to tell what was worse; shoes, backpacks, lunches, sporting equipment, or just BO in general. That’s a pretty interesting stage of human development, and admittedly, I wasn’t prepared for all that it entailed.
Once my students (or their parents) started realizing how badly they smelled, most would turn to well-marketed body sprays. Unfortunately, those products are filled with all kinds of harsh chemicals that no kids should be anywhere near during puberty. I remember reading through the back panel of one of those popular brand-name body spray canisters and being completely shocked. With multiple degrees and years in the classroom, I wasn’t able to recognize more than a handful of ingredients. This led to a class project where I taught my students how to make their own personal care products using minimal ingredients and simple formulations.
Every year, I would think about my own experiences growing up. I had never liked using those kinds of products, and I came to realize that there were probably millions of other guys out there just like me. Guys that had always wanted “better for you” products but either couldn’t find them or afford them. This inspired me to launch American Provenance with the simple aim of providing high-quality natural products at fair and reasonable prices.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Although the idea for American Provenance came together relatively quickly, I had actually been working on product formulations for years. Teaching in the middle school environment requires a lot of modeling. So every year, I would work alongside my students as they created their own products. Admittedly, some of the products that we created the very first year were just slightly better than terrible. However, we kept at it and every year the product quality improved with lessons learned from previous classes. Before I had even thought about starting a business, I had made roughly 30 different deodorant formulations before selecting one that I really liked to use and trial with my friends and family. The feedback I received was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. Everyone thought that I was onto something and encouraged me to start a small business.
Once I decided to launch what would become American Provenance, I went all in. I quit my job, recruited some of my most intelligent and talented friends, and started putting the pieces together. We launched in May of 2015 and never looked back.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Business launches never go quite as planned. We were no different. We had several delays but we were patient enough to appreciate the process. You learn a lot about what you can and can’t control when you launch a business.
After countless iterations and philosophical disagreements, we launched our website on May 21, 2015. The process of creating our first website was more mentally daunting than anything else. Of course, we wanted everything to be perfect, but we quickly learned that there is no such thing as a perfect website. Websites should be constantly updated and improved. Additionally, there are different platforms better suited to different kinds of businesses. As an example, Squarespace or Wix is great for Mainstreet businesses that don’t intend on having a strong eCom component to their model. Alternatively, Shopify is the only platform that I would ever recommend for a business with any intention of significantly growing eCom sales.
Following the launch of our website, we made our first brick-and-mortar sales in early June to a host of local grocery stores, pharmacies, and specialty shops. The support we received from our early customers gave us the confidence to expand knowing that we were onto something special.
Those first few months were actually a ton of fun. I was simply amazed by how supportive our friends, families, and larger communities were from the very beginning.
We were really helped out by several key characteristics:
- We had an authentic and compelling story
- We had a lot of local support
- We were making products that served a need and had a purpose
- We were open to learning every day
- We weren’t afraid to make mistakes
Our launch was entirely self-funded. That model gave importance to everything we did, knowing that we had to make smart financial decisions.
People will buy a well-marketed product once, but they’ll buy a well-made product time and time again.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We’re not like a lot of our competitors. We’re not funded by the venture capital crowd, and we’re not well connected to quick and readily available cash. We bootstrapped the first three years and learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way.
We’ve always been fortunate to have good investment partners. Our investments have come from public/private groups, angels, family offices, and syndicates. I’ve personally been able to connect and maintain relationships with every one of our investors to date. I’m always asking questions, seeking advice, and willing to learn from their experiences.
We’ve also benefited from our participation in two accelerator programs. We were part of Gener8tor’s gBeta Madison program in the Spring of 2018. This program taught us how to put together a pitch deck and communicate with investors. We also participated in the SKU accelerator program in Spring 2021. This opportunity allowed us to connect with other emerging companies in the CPG space and learn from one another as we all worked to grow our businesses.
We built the business by doing things differently. Rather than simply launching a website and putting vast amounts of money behind digital marketing campaigns, we took the novel approach of building our reputation and customer base one store at a time.
At the beginning of most weeks, I would load up my old SUV with a bunch of samples, promotional materials, and sell sheets. Then, I would go to every grocery store, pharmacy, and an independent market I could find and simply walk in and try to talk to buyers, department managers, and owners. I think we earned a lot of credibility by shaking hands, doing in-store demonstrations, and taking the time to really get to know our retail partners and customers. I probably gave away just as many products as we sold the first few years, but it was well worth it just to get people to give us a chance. I knew that our products were better, we just needed an opportunity to prove it. People will buy a well-marketed product once, but they’ll buy a well-made product time and time again.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
You can now find our products on over 4,000 shelves nationwide. Our most recognized retail partners include Whole Foods, Hy-Vee, Giant Eagle, and Natural Grocers Vitamin Cottage. In addition, we’ve gained distribution through some of the biggest wholesalers in the US and we’re always adding to our list of brick and mortar partners.
Scaling companies simply burn money. We’re still operating in the red but have plans to reach profitability by the end of 2021. That’s actually one of my main goals. We have competitors that easily outspend us, but I’ve always been adamant about respecting our investors and their contributions to the company. I owe it to them to be responsible and make good decisions. I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve been capital efficient and have charted steady, organic growth over fast and expensive online sales.
Most of our competitors resemble glorified marketing firms more than anything else. These companies buy their products from contractor manufacturers, apply their own labels and pour money into digital marketing campaigns to drive sales. We’ve never operated that way. There was a time that social media sites provided significant sales, but those are now distant days. Compared to our competitors, we spend very little time, money, or resources on Facebook and Instagram.
We do all of our own manufacturing in-house, which has helped us keep our overhead costs down. We’ve also been able to manage our inventory and have never missed a ship date because we control our entire process from start to finish.
Before 2020, we were growing 20% quarter over quarter. Unfortunately, 2020 brought unforeseen challenges to many businesses as we all dealt with the COVID pandemic. As a result, our sales in 2020 were down slightly compared to 2019. Most folks don’t think about it, but overall, deodorant sales were down more than 30% in 2020, and daily deodorant usage among men was down almost 50%. We made it through a tough time, and that will make us a stronger, more viable business as we get back on our growth trajectory.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve learned a few simple lessons that I really like to pass along to other entrepreneurs:
- Everything takes 3x as long as you anticipate
- Everything costs 3x as much as you think
- If you’re not embarrassed by the first iteration of your product, you haven’t evolved enough
Running a small business is very demanding. I’ve learned the importance of being able to make a decision, standing by that decision, and being responsible for the outcomes of that decision.
I’ve also learned that my primary job is to hire people who are more intelligent and talented than I am and to let them do their jobs.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I don’t get paid for endorsements, but I tell every business owner I know to use Shopify as their eCommerce platform. The tools and analytics provided by Shopify are best in class, and it’s not even close.
We use all kinds of tools and plugins, and most have very easy integrations. Our favorites include coop, recharge, smile, refersion, and govx.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
My team firmly believes in the concepts in the book Rocket Fuel. This book identifies key characteristics and roles within a small business, and it has helped all of us understand where we belong and how we can successfully work together.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
- Starting a business isn’t for everyone.
- Never take criticism from someone you wouldn’t take advice from.
- It’s never going to be the right time. Quit making excuses and just do it.
- No company launches with a perfect product. Plan to make improvements.
- Smooth seas don’t make great sailors. Expect challenges and don’t back down.
- Pick your battles carefully and know what really matters.
- There is no substitute for hard work.
- There’s an element of luck in every success.
- Never underestimate grit and tenacity.
- Mind your own business. Drown out the noise.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I’m always looking to meet good, bright people. So if I’m introduced to someone that can help our business grow, I always take the time to get to know them and explore possibilities.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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