The founders of Herbivore Botanicals, Alexander Kummerow and Julia Wils, share their story of taking their beauty brand from their Seattle apartment to the shelves of Sephora and Space NK.
In the summer of 2011, Alexander Kummerow bought his girlfriend Julia Wils a soap-making kit as a gift. Having just quit her job as a counsellor she had time on her hands, so she put it to good use straight away, making soaps in their Seattle apartment. At the beginning, she gifted the soaps to friends and family, until the supply exceeded the demands of her loved ones.
“I’d really given away as much as I could, so we started selling at farmers’ markets at the weekend. We were called 12th Avenue Soaps at the time as we lived on 12th Avenue,” Wils tells us. “We got a lot of feedback from people, which was really helpful, and then in the fall I decided to start an Etsy store. That’s when we brainstormed names and came up with Herbivore.”
A decision that, of course, turned out to be a good one. Herbivore Botanicals is now stocked everywhere from Sephora to Space NK, pops up frequently in the shelfies of Instagram influencers and offers a line-up of masks, body oils, cleansers and more alongside the soaps that started it all. After the Etsy store took off, Kummerow stopped working as a freelance videographer and joined Wils at home, where they worked together before eventually recruiting some friends as staff and renting a workspace. “It was like three metres by three metres; we had four people on the team but had to work different shifts as it was so small,” he laughs.
The two, now married and co-CEOs of the business, currently have a staff of around 100, and around 30,000 feet of manufacturing space in Seattle, though they work hard to maintain the family vibe that they started out with. In fact, Wils’s dad still makes the brand’s soaps in his own home; “This year he’s doing 100,000 bars,” Kummerow says. Here, the duo share their advice for starting your own beauty brand from scratch.
“Make sure you’re dong something you feel passionately about. Don’t start a brand just to start a brand. That will make it more successful in the long run,” says Wils. Kummerow adds: “We were kind of unfamiliar with the beauty space. We weren’t looking at having a competitive edge, or watching what was happening. We were just doing what we wanted to do. We knew we wanted natural products and for them to be beautiful, and so we carved our own path.”
Just do it
“Don’t overthink it. You won’t get everything perfect, so put something out there and see what happens. You can change it and adapt from there,” says Wils. “We started with soap and then grew the business form there – we only actually got projections and stuff like that like a year ago,” adds Kummerow. “It’s a more holistic business approach but it has worked really well for us. Make product, sell it, and then make more.”
Know your strengths
Be humble and realise you’re not an expert in every area. Surrounding yourself with the right people is also really important, and where you have weaknesses, looking for people who can support you and fill in those blanks,” says Kummerow. “I did the accounting at the beginning but the second we could afford an accountant, we got one!”
Know when to switch off
“It’s all about navigating the boundaries in our relationship; it can be tough to switch off sometimes. It’s a beautiful thing to work together but it has to be done right,” says Kummerow. Wils adds: “You have to know when to clock out, and we tell our employees the same. Everyone that works for us is so passionate, but you need to switch off and have balance.”