Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi there! I’m Leslie, the founder of Almond Clear, a line of skin care products that are formulated with mandelic (almond) acid (MA).
MA is an amazing remedy for a range of skin concerns, from clearing up acne and folliculitis, to decreasing fine lines and wrinkles, to fading hyperpigmentation and freeing ingrown hairs. The vast majority of customers use Almond Clear to treat acne and folliculitis on the back, butt and thighs, so it’s a very niche-type of product. Almond Clear currently has three products, including a couple of serums and a cleanser. I hope to expand the Almond Clear line to six products within the next three years.
Almond Clear launched on Amazon in December of 2017, and for the first nine months it grew like crazy, with an increase in revenue of about 20% each month! I was happily surprised by how much of a market there turned out to be for mandelic acid products, and Amazon was a great platform on which to launch our products.
I know that there are a lot of Amazon naysayers out there, but for my business Amazon was a Godsend, and I wouldn’t have a viable business without it. I’d really encourage any entrepreneur selling a physical product to include Amazon in their launch plan.
Yes, Amazon is far from perfect (you can’t contact your customers directly and Amazon frequently changes their seller rules and regulations), but where else can you increase sales by 20% per month without doing any marketing?
Though revenue dropped a bit at the end of 2018, Almond Clear still finished the first year or sales averaging around $15,000 per month in revenue, and all signs point towards a lot of growth in 2019.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I have no background in business, in fact when I came up with the idea for Almond Clear, I was ten years into my career as a middle school teacher!
I loved teaching language arts and social studies, but I was also one of those people who was constantly coming up with new business ideas.
For the rest of that school year, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. to work on my business plan, and once the school year was over I resigned from my teaching position.
My husband was always a little bemused by my latent entrepreneurial tendencies, but none of my ideas ever seemed quite compelling enough for me to pivot from my career path in education.
When I started thinking about Almond Clear, it felt totally different than my other business ideas and I knew almost immediately that I was going to pursue this idea.
My path to starting Almond Clear was very personal. For most of my life I’d suffered from unsightly and embarrassing red bumps on my upper thighs and buttocks. I tried everything and anything to get rid of them, including visiting no less than four dermatologists and trying every topical and oral prescription that they recommended, and I also used many drugstore and natural products.
Nothing worked, so for years I resigned myself to living with these unfortunate blemishes. Then, in my late 30s, I made one last ditch visit to an aesthetician, and she recommended mandelic acid (the active ingredient in Almond Clear).
Within 3 weeks the problem that I’d had for over 20 years was completely gone, and I was flabbergasted. I felt a huge sense of relief, freedom, and newfound confidence, and I knew that I wanted to share those feelings with as many people as possible. That’s why I created AlmondClear.
For the rest of that school year, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. to work on my business plan, and once the school year was over I resigned from my teaching position. It was a big risk because I didn’t yet have a well-developed business plan, but I think like most people with entrepreneurial tendencies, I have a higher than average risk tolerance.
In the first year of business, I was able to validate that there’s a huge need for my products and that mandelic acid works well for many, many people. Currently, about 30% of Almond Clear sales come from repeat buyers, so if that trend continues, the business should continue to grow steadily over time.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
If you want to start a line of unique skin care products, then you have two basic options: you can make them yourself, or you can find a manufacturer to work with that creates custom formulations for their clients.
I knew that I was trying to build a larger-scale business and that the home-made model wasn’t right for me, so I had to find the right manufacturing partner. It took a lot of research, phone calls, and emails before I found the laboratory that met my needs.
I wanted to create unique products (as opposed to private label), so I worked with the manufacturer’s chemist who specializes in skin care formulations. This process takes some time!
First, you have to tell the chemist what kind of product you’re looking for, the ingredients that you want to include or leave out, and what you want the final product to look like/feel like/smell like, etc.
Then, the manufacturer sends you the first sample, you try it out or give it to others to try, and then provide feedback for revisions. In my case, the first two products came together fairly easily because I only needed to make small changes to stock formulations.
There are many, many rules and regulations around cosmetics and skin care products. If you want to sell products that contain FDA regulated ingredients then you have to register and get a permit.
My products aren’t FDA regulated, so I didn’t have to go through this step, but I did have to be aware of the many guidelines and standards around labeling and safety warnings. Some people hire a lawyer to help them through this process, but my manufacturer was able to guide me through the regulatory process.
In the beauty industry, design and branding are very important, so label and logo design are worth investing in. I started out working with an individual graphic designer who was inexpensive, but her work was not hitting the mark, and I quickly realized that this was not a good area for saving money. I had to end our contact early, which was $700 down the drain. I ended up working with a very reputable creative agency here in Portland who usually designs for much bigger clients, but they agreed to take me on for a reduced cost because my product helps improve people's lives. I learned from this experience that it’s not worth it to save money or cut corners in very important areas like label design.
The entire process, from researching labs to work with to having the first finished products shipped out to me, took around six months.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I’ve heard that launching an e-commerce business is a more straightforward process than starting any other type of business, and while this may be true, it was still a huge process.
I know that some people would advise me to get investments or use more of my loan in order to grow the business more quickly, but I’ve chosen to pursue a more lean, build-as-you-go model for now.
Purchasing inventory and designing the brand identity and labels was by far the largest cost in launching the business. Manufacturers of physical products require a minimum purchase, often 1000 items, but sometimes you can find a manufacturer that will let you purchase 500 minimum.
I launched with two products and had to buy 1,000 of each of them, so that was a big investment.
Building the website
Getting a decent website up and running was the next biggest task. At first, I tried to create the site on my own, and I tried out templates on both Squarespace and Shopify. However, even with many hours of my own work put into resizing images, experimenting with different fonts and backgrounds, and sorting through tons of stock images, my website still looked unprofessional and it wouldn’t have convinced* anyone* to buy my products.
I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a website, but I knew that I needed help, so I reached out to an acquaintance who is a digital strategist, and he helped me to create an MVP-type website using a Shopify template. I think it cost around $3500 to get that MVP site up and running.
Funding the business
To fund the launch of the business, my husband and I put in about $10,000 of personal savings.
That initial infusion of cash was gobbled up surprisingly quickly, like in a matter of a couple of months, and that was well before any inventory was purchased.
We also took out a home equity line of credit for $100,000. So far I’ve only used $20,000 of the home equity credit, and I intend to never use more than $50,000.
I’m trying to follow the Lean Startup model and well as Profit First, so the goal is to grow the business incrementally as revenue allows, and build a profitable business model from the start.
I know that some people would advise me to get investments or use more of my loan in order to grow the business more quickly, but I’ve chosen to pursue a more lean, build-as-you-go model for now.
Getting into Amazon
The other big part of launching my business was getting my products approved to sell on Amazon. This used to be a quick and simple process, but Amazon now has “gated” categories in which you have to be approved to sell, and beauty is one of those gated categories.
In order to get approval, I had to submit lots of documentation, and I also needed to have a functional, professional-looking website up and running. Amazon is trying to discourage private label sellers from clogging up their platform with identical products, so they now look for unique products that already have established businesses outside of Amazon.
I got very lucky in getting approved; if you search through Amazon Seller Forums, you’ll read lots of stories of people who invested in large amounts of inventory and then were denied approval on Amazon. I highly recommend that if you’re thinking of selling on Amazon, that you secure approval before buying large amounts of inventory.
Once my products were listed on Amazon, it was easy to gain exposure through sponsored product advertisements, and a trickle of sales began to come in nearly immediately, and these sales grew steadily over time.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I am still learning how to attract customers outside of Amazon, because Amazon makes it very easy to attract new customers using pay-per-click (what Amazon calls “Sponsored Product Ads”), and once products get positive reviews, they start to market themselves.
Outside of Amazon, attracting customers has been more of an uphill battle. I had a lot of luck with content marketing (writing blog posts that link to Almond Clear’s website), and for a period of about six months, the blog did a great job of driving traffic and attracting new customers.
However, Google did an algorithm update last summer that took all of Almond Clear’s blog posts off of page one, and since then content marketing has not been as successful.
I’ve also sporadically tried Facebook and Instagram ads, as well as Google Adwords, but since I haven’t had a strong gameplan to follow in those areas, the ads haven’t gotten much of a response.
I am currently in the process of hiring a marketing strategist and PR consultant to help create a well-rounded marketing strategy for Almond Clear for 2019. As a person new to business, some things have come easily to me while others areas are still difficult and feel impenetrable. Marketing has not come easily, but I know that I need to learn in this area, so I’m hiring people to help me while I continue to educate myself and learn through experience.
Early on, a friend advised me to save $1 for every item that’s purchased to put towards marketing. Because of that excellent advice, I’ve been saving money towards marketing for about a year, and I have a sizeable chunk of money set aside at this point to help pay for strategy and marketing campaigns. I would encourage everyone to find a way to save towards marketing each month.
Almond Clear has an excellent re-order rate- nearly 30% of sales come from repeat customers- and that’s a huge part of our business model. Many customers have re-ordered our products 5, 6, or 7 times!
This is because it’s a product that works for people and gets results. Make sure that if you’re selling a physical product, that it’s high quality, useful, and that you feel proud of it. No one will buy junk more than once, and without repeat customers, you don’t have a long-term business.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Almond Clear has very good margins on its products, so this has allowed me to fund most of the expenses of growing and scaling the business from revenue versus loans. There’s a general rule-of-thumb with businesses that are largely based on Amazon which says that you should make at least $10 in profit off of each product in your catalog, and I’ve tried to find products that follow this rule-of-thumb.
In the first year of sales, I reinvested all profits back into the business, but by the second half of next business year, I anticipate beginning to draw a monthly salary.
All signs point to a bright future for Almond Clear, from the number of repeat customers, which make up 30% of sales, to the number of 5-star reviews (70% of our reviews are 5-star reviews, and 12% are 4-stars), to all of the foundational work that has now been done to build a strong and lasting brand.
At the moment, it’s winter here in Oregon, and the plants outside my window appear dormant, when in fact beneath the surface their roots are growing and strengthening. This is the metaphor that I currently envision for my business.
Sales are steady but not dramatically increasing the way they did for the first nine months of business. However, beneath the surface, AlmondClear’s roots are growing and strengthening, and everything is in place for a big year of growth. I’m incredibly excited about the future!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One important lesson that I’ve learned is to take my time with making decisions. I can be a very impulsive person and I’m prone to making quick decisions that aren’t well thought out.
These kind of snap decisions have cost me time and money, so now I’ve learned to take my time for decisions both big and small. When drafting an important email, I now wait before hitting “send” until I’ve had time to re-read and re-think.
When hiring someone, I make sure to consider all possible angles and make sure that there’s a solid match. Taking my time like this has taught me to be more strategic and calculated, and ironically, taking my time in the short term is now saving me time in the longer term because I no longer make silly mistakes that set me back.
I’ve also learned a lot about hiring the right people to help me to grow my business. When Almond Clear was first launching, I made some bad hires, but luckily I was able to learn from my mistakes.
Now I check references, I prefer to hire people who cost more and have more experience instead of the vendor with the lowest price tag, and I keep looking until I find the right match instead of settling on someone who doesn’t seem quite right.
I really believe that knowing how to HIRE FOR YOUR DEFICITS is one of the most important qualities of a successful entrepreneur. I’ve heard many well-known business owners state that they didn’t build their business on their own; instead, they found the right team of people to help them and they built their success together, so that’s what I’m trying to do.
One final thing I’ve learned is that anyone can start a business. I had no background in business, but I had a great idea and a strong work ethic. If I can do it, then you can do it! Just be brave, bold, and gritty, and you can succeed.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I started building my first website on Squarespace, but I quickly learned that most of the major tools and apps for ecommerce are designed for Shopify, so I had to switch over.
That mistake only cost me about $200, but that’s still money wasted. I wish I’d started on Shopify from day one.
I’m definitely not where I want to be with email marketing and getting automated flows in place, but I’ve gotten an okay start.
It’s so important to build rapport with your customers via email and then to use that rapport to help drive additional sales. I started out using the free version of Mailchimp, but recently switched over to the $25/month version of Klaviyo.
Klaviyo’s templates are incredibly easy to set up for a non-tech-savvy person like me, and it’s also really easy to understand how their flows and campaigns work. I find Klaviyo way more user-friendly than Mailchimp, but it’s not free.
If I don’t see a return on investment within six months of using Klaviyo, then I’ll likely return to Mailchimp.
Salesbacker is a tool that automatically emails your Amazon customers and asks them to leave reviews. Getting reviews is crucial for any Amazon seller, so I consider a tool like Salesbacker to be an absolute must for anyone selling on Amazon.
Yotpo is an app that allows your website customers to leave reviews. Building social proof is very important for sales, so you’ll need to have some sort of review app in place for your website.
I’ve used both Upwork and Fiverr multiple times to hire people for small projects, like doing product photography, helping with Amazon listing problems, small website coding issues, etc.
It’s very easy to hire people from all over the world using these platforms, and the cost per hour can be quite inexpensive.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I was hugely influenced by the podcast How I Built This - I started listening to that podcast while I was still working as a teacher, and it helped me to recognize that I’m an entrepreneur at heart.
I can relate with many of the personal characteristics that the interviewees express. I love hearing about how successful entrepreneurs have dealt with adversity and about the steps that they took to grow their businesses. I still listen to every new “How I Built This” episode.
Because my background is in education and not in business, I’ve had to do a ton of self-learning and I’ve read countless books.
I highly recommend reading every book by Mike Michalowicz (especially The Pumpkin Plan and Profit First), but by far the most useful and influential book that I’ve read is The Compass and the Nail by Craig Wilson, a former Patagonia executive.
This book helped me to dial in my brand’s core values and mission statement, and because Almond Clear is a very mission-driven company, it’s imperative that I have a clear understanding of mission and values and that they’re featured prominently on my website.
If you are looking for help with finding the heart and soul of your brand, then I really can’t recommend “The Compass and the Nail” highly enough.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Ask for help.
Not only did I have no business background before I started Almond Clear, but my only career experience had been in the public sector as a middle school teacher, so I needed a lot of guidance.
I have been humbled by the amount of help that people in the business community have provided me. The entrepreneurs who I know and to whom I’ve been introduced have been so generous with their time and help. It seems like there’s an understanding amongst people trying to run at business that it’s hard, that there’s a steep learning curve, and that nobody has the answers all of the time, so people help each other out: they meet for coffee, share connections, disclose their mistakes, and share their most precious gems of advice with acquaintances or even strangers.
I’ve learned to dig deep within myself to try to solve a problem, but then if I don’t have the answers, I ask for help. I think it’s very important to seek outside council from time to time.
But… don’t listen to just anyone’s advice!
One of my most trusted business mentors gave me an ironic piece of advice: “Don’t listen to most people’s advice!” He told me that everyone and anyone will be willing to share their opinions about your business, tell you what to do, tell you that your business is crazy, or doomed, or going to make you millions, but these people don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about and shouldn’t be trusted.
Well-meaning parents, friends, and colleagues fall into this category. He taught me that I should ignore all advice unless it comes from two different types of people. Person #1 who can offer worthwhile council is a fellow entrepreneur because they know first-hand what it’s like to run a business. Person #2 who is worth listening to is someone who works in the exact field in which you need help.
For example, if you need help with contacting influencers, then, by all means, ask your friend who is in PR how to take the first steps. Anyone else should be politely ignored because there’s already enough noise and confusion obscuring your next business decision- the last thing that you need is more non-trustworthy input.
“Niche” is a good thing!
My business was able to generate almost $200,000 in revenue in one year with nearly no marketing for one simple reason- because it is a very niche type of business without a lot of competition.
Every year countless skin care companies come and go, selling the same line of products like moisturizers, face wash, and wrinkle reducers. It’s extremely difficult to compete in these overcrowded spaces, and unless you have a HUGE budget for advertising or you’re a guerilla marketing genius, you’re not going to be able to compete. So niche-down.
Try not to ride the emotional roller coaster.
Starting a business is stressful. Some days things go well: you get a lot of sales, you find the perfect vendor for your needs, you make an exciting decision about the future direction of your business, etc. However, there are also many days when you feel like starting a business was the stupidest thing that you could have done.
You feel panicky, sick, worried, you feel like a phony… really your emotions can run the gamut from elated to tears, and that can even be within one day. My advice is to try to temper your highs and lows a bit, especially at first. Know that there will be ups and downs, crises and resolutions, and lots of doldrums as well.
Try to stay focused and confident, and remember that all entrepreneurs experience lots of successes and failures. It’s not win or lose, it’s win or learn, so keep calm and keep on learning.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
For now Almond Clear is not big enough to hire any full time employees, but I have contracted with two amazing people who are helping me to grow my business. One is an ecommerce consultant and SEO expert, and the other is a strategist for branding and marketing.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Website: www.almondclear.com
- Email: [email protected]
- Instagram: @almondclearskin
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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