Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Marge Clark, and I started Nature’s Gift Aromatherapy back in the early ’90s, rather by accident. A hobby developed into a passion and somehow became a business.
We import and sell the finest quality essential oils that we can source from distillers and producers around the world. We blend them to create synergies and other products for emotional and physical healing. And we try to educate visitors to our website on their safe and appropriate use.
Somehow this has grown to bring us, some years, over a million and a half dollars, although between Covid and the current economy, sales have dropped this year. But we keep doing what we do because we know we make a difference in people’s lives.
In the past I had considered retiring and just “divesting myself of the assets”, but then we will get emails from clients saying how this product eased a stubborn case of shingles, or that product helped with someone’s PTSD, and how can I just walk away? Some of our clients have been with us for over 25 years. They trust us and count on us. You can not put a price tag on that kind of loyalty.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Nature’s Gift truly started by accident. I had been told that I was disabled, in my early 50’s and that I would never work again. This blow contained, on the backside, my greatest gift, because the disability gave me time to study my two passions, the healing power of the oils I love, and how to design these new-fangled things called websites. And as I was learning to code web pages on NotePad, in HTML code, what was I going to write about? The oils that I loved, of course. At the same time that this was happening, I was making blends and products and giving them to friends. “I like this, could I have some more?” “Well, I’ll need money to buy more raw materials.” and that is how it all started. At some point I started selling the oils and blends I was writing about. Ecommerce in the ’90s, you would email me what you wanted, send me a check, and then I would send you what you had ordered.
Our first recorded website, and an example of how the process worked. I thought it was amazing! Aromatherapy Healing and how to place an order: Wayback Machine. Mind you, this was in 1998, I have spared you the years of rainbow backgrounds, etc. But some of these early products are still in our catalog today.
I read every book I could find on the subject (precious few at the time). At the start, I would say I was self-educated, but I have gone on to study under most of the leading lights in our industry. Early on, I was blessed to come in contact with an Email group, still legendary among us, filled with thirsty little sponges, like me, and Industry leaders and teachers, who were generous enough to share their knowledge. I thank many of them in the forward to my book, Essential Oils and Aromatics.
I never planned to start a business. I was living on disability and studying and learning to fill the days…and making blends and giving them to my friends, who liked them, and wanted more. That was when I had to start charging. I guess that might be when Nature’s Gift started, but there was no name, and no formal business back then. It was just me, and my passion for the oils.
Someone told me of a great source for Frankincense on the West Coast. I called them. They wouldn’t sell to me without a business license. Oh, dear! To get a business license, one must have a business name. So, one sunny Sunday afternoon I sat with a friend on a park bench and we brainstormed names until one of us suggested Nature’s Gift. I knew it was just right because I truly believe that these amazing oils are Nature’s gift to us. And so Nature’s Gift was born, all so that I could buy Frankincense from a supplier.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
This question has so little to do with our “process” honestly. Someone wants a blend that will do THAT… and I know that these three or four oils all will contribute to doing “that”, and we try to blend them in a combination that smells good because if you don’t like the aroma you won’t use it, and there we have a new product.
This is how a blend starts, we scent strip oils that we think might work well together, and gradually add another strip, and decide if it is a “yes” or a “no”.
My first blends came about that way, and some of our most successful new products (within the past year or two) have started the same way.
We blend all our products ourselves, nothing is outsourced. Some of my very first blends are still in our catalog today. FogCutter, the energizer, Reunite’, the anti-anxiety blend that helped me deal with my own paralyzing anxiety, Comfort in the Storm, designed to give just what the name says.
Our products aren’t tested on animals, they are tested on us, and sometimes our children.
Describe the process of launching the business.
There was truly no real “launch” because I had never heard of such a thing. Who knew? Not me, that’s for sure.
For two or three years, I ran Nature’s Gift on credit cards. I tried for SBA loans but we were too small.
Our real break came in 1998 or 2000, when an industry leader and teacher, Gabriel Mojay, author of “Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit” had signed up for a booth at the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapists (NAHA) and for various reasons was unable to man the booth. Would I like to run the booth and give him a corner to sell a new poster he had created? I was terrified! I had planned to attend the conference but as a spectator. I had never made a face-to-face sale in my life and had no clue how to set up a tradeshow booth. But I couldn’t say no, because association with Gabriel would give us a stamp of authenticity, would tell our little niche that Nature’s Gift was a good company, with good products. I’ve searched and searched for a photo of that first booth, but it’s on the hard drive of an outdated computer somewhere.
We got a merchant account, and an industry friend loaned me the machine to slide the cards and give the customer, and us, a copy. At the end of the day, we would manually enter the credit card numbers and customer information online. Ecommerce at the turn of the century!
At that trade show, and in the months thereafter, our sales escalated. At one point we had, I think, 6 employees, working in my little house, pouring oils, blending products, and packing orders.
In 2002 we finally moved out of my house and into a charming building nearby. We even had room for a tiny shop. By the time our lease had expired, we had so totally outgrown that, and we moved into a larger, but much less charming, space that we currently occupy.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I have to laugh at the word “Launch” because it truly doesn’t seem to apply. I started out seeking out extraordinary oils and making them available to my friends. Selling what I had, to buy more, or to buy better. And now, close to 30 years later, I am still doing that.
What have I learned? All the fancy marketing in the world can not replace your passion and your knowledge about your product.
I would not start a small business unless you can’t NOT start it, unless it is driven by your passion. If you are just starting a business to get in on the newest trend? Go get a 9 to 5 job, it’s lots easier and in the short run is bound to pay better.
“Under promise and over-deliver”, surprise your customers by delivering more than they expect. After bubble wrapping, to avoid breakage, we wrap your order in pretty tissue paper and include a small package of samples. People say opening a Nature’s Gift order “feels like Christmas morning.”
For at least the first two years, expect the business to be "a hole the money goes down”. Do not expect your fledgling business to pay a salary or even, necessarily, to cover its initial expenses.
How do we market? Our best tool is our newsletter . At one time we had close to 14,000 subscribers, but with the rise of social media, the numbers had shrunk to close to 10,000. Many of the subscribers have been clients since the start, some signed up last week. In Mid June we announced a limited edition “solstice blend” which we first announced to our Newsletter readers, on Friday the 19th of June, planning to post on Social Media on Monday. By Monday there were too few bottles left to post on Social Media, and on Wednesday morning, the last bottle sold. That is the power, first of a newsletter, and second of people’s trust in us as a supplier.
We supply several professional courses in our industry, and of course, their teachers recommend our oils. Our Facebook and Instagram page had been going in a direction I wasn’t happy with, but a few months ago our new Creative Director, Candice Forte, took over and is bringing the soul and the heart back into both. We are in the process of launching a new website which has not gone smoothly, so Candice has not done nearly the marketing that she will, once she gets the site to where she wants it and redesigns our labels to bring us into the 21st century.
One thing that we did on Facebook a few years ago that was very successful was our “Monday’s with Marge”. People would send in questions during the week, and on Monday afternoons, I’d answer them. I love doing Q&As and people respond really well. And it gave us terrific material for blog posts. Now, this was all text, all done on the keyboard. Candice is ever so gently suggesting that perhaps we should re-institute this, but have it be done via Facebook Live, or Zoom, or some other almost face-to-face venue. I am dragging my feet because that is SO beyond my comfort level, but I think it is going to happen.
We were asked about Amazon. We don’t sell there and have no plans to. In our industry, the words Amazon and quality don’t really go together, and for close to 30 years now the name Nature’s Gift has been synonymous with the highest quality.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
This is a difficult question because this last year has been difficult for us, and many small businesses. As we try to move into the 21st century (20 years late) we are reaching out to new and younger clients, while also maintaining our loyal, but older, customer base. I have mentioned the difficulties with the new website which are finally mostly resolved. New labels are in our future. We are adding new products as our staff is inspired to create them. We are designing an easy to follow age-appropriate safety guide for your children’s use. So stay tuned, after 30 years of my running Nature’s Gift, my daughter-in-law Candice is bringing her creativity and skills to rejuvenate us.
The challenge, of course, is to reach out to a newer, younger audience, and still be in close contact with the clients who have been with us for decades, not to change too quickly. And to make sure that people know that our standards of quality are not changing, that our products are still created and poured by human hands, not by machines or robots.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
For years I let fear hold me back, fear of failure, fear of not being “enough”. I was blessed that in the years since Nature’s Gift started, I have been surrounded by people and circumstances that encouraged (or forced!) me to move through the fear. And I have learned that we live in a universe of abundance, not of shortage. This means that if a friend/colleague/competitor gets a gift… is praised by an authority, wins a big contract, is given an award, I do not have to be jealous. I can rejoice for her because there is enough to go around. At one time I felt that if you got some success, it took away from me. I was so very wrong.
Do you ask about being blindsided? The two times that I was severely and hurtfully blindsided both had to do with “exit plans”. Perhaps 20 years or so ago, I had signed an agreement with an employee to buy Nature’s Gift in the future. She, apparently, did not realize that she did not own it yet, and during a time that I suffered an extended illness, she worked to isolate me from my staff and my clients. That was very painful. Since then, I have learned the hard way that, although my word is my bond, not everyone feels that way, and verbal agreements, no matter how much trust you have in the other person, need to be backed up by a legally drawn up contract.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
First, of course, WooCommerce and WordPress for our website; MailChimp for our mailing list; Quickbooks for bookkeeping. I personally couldn’t live without my Excel spreadsheets because they are how we cost and price out our products, scale-up proportions for larger-sized batches, etc. Candice reminds me we use the whole Microsoft Office 365. TEAMS plus Outlook make it possible for me to mostly work from home these days.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I could give a long list of books and speakers but they are all industry-specific. A course that I took years ago in internet marketing had one phrase that remains a mantra, long after I have forgotten who taught it: “Under Promise, Over Deliver” that is, I think, the secret to happy customers. And, when you are wrong, make it right, immediately. If you ordered a bottle of A, and, despite the order being checked three times, we sent you B instead, our response is always the same, “keep and enjoy it with our compliments, and we will ship the correct item either later today or tomorrow.”
And a business organization that I can’t praise highly enough, The Indie Business Network, founded by DonnaMaria Coles Johnson. I think I was one of the first 20 or so members and have been a member for more years than I can count. Donna Maria is an amazing mentor and coach to young “makers”. If you are just starting your entrepreneurial journey, I urge you to contact her and join. Tell her Marge sent you, she’ll be tickled.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
I think I’ve already shared everything I know. Do not expect your business to be self-supporting, or to support you for a long time. (In other words, don’t quit your day job unless you have a sugar daddy!) Make friends in your industry. You can learn from each other! Treat your client better than you want to be treated.
By the same token, the customer is NOT always right, and don’t be afraid to “fire” a customer who is too demanding and does not treat you, your product, or your staff with the respect due them.
And, when things are going beautifully, make sure you have an exit strategy.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Our website
- Our Blog has been sadly neglected for the past two years, but you may find it interesting.
- You may reach me at [email protected] or our amazing customer service manager at [email protected].
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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