Alex Kummerow: Co-Founder of Herbivore Botanicals

Episode 448

It was when Alex Kummerow, the Co-Founder of Herbivore Botanicals, was frustrated with the various options that he was using to clean up his eczema that he realized that it was time to create change. Herbivore Botanicals, a pioneering brand in the clean beauty category, focuses on giving consumers active botanicals and a sensorial experience through plant-based products that are truly amazing. Hear all about the early years with their Etsy store, launching in Sephora as well as other top retailers and so much more from this great entrepreneur, who has taken a problem he had and created a solution. This interview is inspiring, authentic and insightful and I know that you will be glad you listened. Now on #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down but just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, it’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I am so excited to have my next guest. Here we have Alex Kummerow, who is the co founder of herbivore botanicals. And I was just telling Alex that I had seen his product and was drawn to the beautiful, beautiful packaging of the product and, and have actually tried the products. We’ll get into all of the different wonderful runC wonderful things that he and his co founder have created. But they’re really pioneering a brand in the clean beauty category with the focus on active botanicals. And since Oriole experiences, and I just love, love, love everything about this brand. So I’m really excited to have Alex here to talk a little bit more about it, as I mentioned, active botanicals, plant based products. And they originally started on Etsy. So if Alex can start a business that is doing this well on Etsy, I think that can give us all a lot of motivation to go and start a product in an industry figure out a way to do it, as I always say, they quickly went into Sephora and other top retailers. And the rest is history. But I love the backstory, we’re going to ask Alex to share a lot more about it and how that really helped him to help his own skin condition just by coming up with these plant based products. So without further ado, welcome, Alex.

Alex Kummerow 2:24
Thank you, Kara. so stoked to be here. Yeah, super

Kara Goldin 2:26
excited to have you here. So before we get into hearing about herbivore botanicals, the product that you co founded and have created and grown and scaled and, and made it into the success that it is today. I’d love to hear what you were up to before this.

Alex Kummerow 2:44
Yeah, before before I was in video production. I had just gotten out of film school. I was 23 years old when I started herbivores. So I was just, you know, spent a couple years freelancing and doing video production. I really wanted to get into documentary filmmaking still have a passion for documentaries. I love storytelling. I love characters. I love developing stories. But our before just kind of came and swept me off my feet. The thing I love about herbivore it’s something new every single day. And that really captured me. And that’s the fun aspect of being an entrepreneur. I suppose every day is different.

Kara Goldin 3:17
So you started the company and 2011 but before starting it, you were struggling with some skin issues. I know a lot of people have different skin issues that they’re trying to fix. So what was kind of your journey?

Alex Kummerow 3:34
I had eczema, my journey was it was just starting to appear more and more my arms, my legs, the patches were growing patches were getting bigger. And there was a little local soap shop on my street at the end of the street. And they sold this charcoal Tea Tree soap bar. And I loved it. I used it. And it was starting to help clear my skin. But when I went in there to buy another bar, their doors had been closed and they had gone out of business. And I was like shit. I’m like, Oh, no. And you know, Julie and I were Julie co founder. We’re like, what, you know, why don’t we get a soap kit. So I got to the soap making kit. She just quit her job. And try like Let’s experiment. Like let’s just try to make something. Let’s see if we can kind of recreate, you know, by bringing these actives like we started with some tea tree we start with some charcoal but then we started really expanding and ingredients. And upon using these soaps and like this is working, this is good. And I realized that going completely natural in my skincare routine and cutting out of the prescriptions and cutting out everything that my friends were telling me to use and just going super simple and very gentle and natural. It’s really what helped my skin completely clear up and I’d haven’t had a flare up since.

Kara Goldin 4:45
Wow, that’s That’s amazing. So you had a solution for a problem. It’s one thing to actually think okay, I’m going to make some soap. It’s another thing to create an entire line I actually opened a store on Etsy, stop going in the direction that you were going in with creating documentary film. So what was the moment? Maybe it’s the aha moment where you thought, You know what, I’m really going to go do this. I’m going to start a company. And we’re going to open up shop on Etsy.

Alex Kummerow 5:20
Totally. So yeah, so I think Julia that in the beginning, especially, I was doing the video production, paying the bills, Julia was spending the time kind of building up the Etsy, creating a presence for ourselves there. But it was our first holiday season, we had this soak kit, it was actually the soap ends that we cut off the end of the bundle altogether, but that they grew up on Etsy, and all of a sudden, you know, Julia was up all hours of the day, kind of wrapping and packaging, so and, you know, I’ve been supporting on the weekends and after hours, but I had just gone through a couple of frustrating clients, you know, and I’m like, You know what, like, I’m going to jump off this, and we’re gonna, we’re just gonna tackle this, and we’re gonna get all these, you know, soaps made, we’re gonna get them out the door for the holidays. And after that, it never slowed down. I mean, it was just, we were caught in this whirlwind. And Etsy was awesome for us. I mean, it really was like, there was so much competition. There are so many people out there. So we’re like, what can we do that’s different. And we’re like, well, we love design. And we love that statics. And so we’re like, what if we take kind of this natural formulation, these natural soaps, but we make them like, we got a minimal aesthetic, we make them beautiful, we make them something that you’d want to really showcase and like put on here, the entity. And so after we kind of made that switch, that was like an extra booster for the brand. It really launched us off getting us wholesale accounts. And that’s just something that we wanted to do that was different.

Kara Goldin 6:43
So have you always been in glass since the beginning?

Alex Kummerow 6:48
Since the beginning? Yeah. So I mean, as soon as the sales start, you know, first, it was all about the natural ingredients, right? But when you realize that, that people are by herbivore, this weight of this responsibility kind of falls on your shoulders and entrepreneurially well, how can I do this? Right? I want to put out products that are not damaging to the environment that are not damaging to people. And so with that, you know, mindset, that’s where we started looking at what we had available. And it’s like, well, we have the local bottle supplier down the street. And they’ve had heaps of plastic and a couple of glass options. Well, we could add to the landfill, you know, and get all this plastic, or we can choose the glass option. We understood that glass is a much more sustainable option. So since day one we’ve always packaged in glass, nothing’s ever been in a plastic bottle.

Kara Goldin 7:35
And you have beautiful colors with them as well. Obviously, you’re plant based, but things like yellows and purples that are so beautiful. Plus, they really work we were just talking about the the eye product. I mean, just absolutely incredible. So did you when you thought about, you know, the first products? What was that first product? Was that the soap that you created?

Alex Kummerow 8:03
Yeah, we were certainly crisp, like the first maybe six months, I think. But we quickly reacted to the community, because community was like, We love yourself, we’d love for this deeper skin. Have you thought about making toners or moisturizers? Or, you know, just the list goes on. And we started listening to our customers very early on. And an exercise that we still do to this day, is we’ll blast something on Instagram and say what do you want to see next? And we’ll get 1000s of comments, and sit there and we’ll create a little list and we’ll start tallying them up one by one. And that’s why we did all dry cream. That’s why we developed our moisturizers. It’s always just getting feedback from the community that inspire us to branch out.

Kara Goldin 8:43
So how many skews do you have now? I don’t even know. Like 40 Wow, that’s amazing. That’s amazing. So

Alex Kummerow 8:54
that’s so many we probably have like 80 or 90 products like in the line at some point or another especially early on back in the Etsy days was so fun because we could develop something. We were our own formulators, our own designers we printed the packaging in house like the early days it was on a home printer, we have to fake it to make it look professional. And so it was but it was great because we could get a product to market like next day we’re like we were gonna make a bet so that’s you know, maybe like Pinocchio Cypress with like a green clay you know that they and we get it and make it and design it and photographic it formulate it and have it out that week. And so that was super fun. That was such a great way to get into it because we got to make so many mistakes. Learn from all those mistakes so quickly. And then after we’ve been in business for about a year or two we had a pretty dialed in on what we wanted to focus on.

Kara Goldin 9:45
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Alex Kummerow 12:30
Yeah, it still comes from just inspiration that we find in nature or in our lives, we just released the Milky Way serum and Milky Way’s a 10% Ha exfoliating serum. So it’s really great. It kind of excludes off the dead skin, it makes you glow, it gives you a really renewed look. But we really wanted to add like a gentle component because our before is all about being available for sensitive skin. Probably because I have sensitive skin and I was always the texture. You know if it worked on me it works on people’s sensitive skin. And what inspired us in that like our little twist to that because there’s plenty of HVAC errors, but we wanted to build that moisture barrier back we wanted to be gentle. So we added oat milk to it. And we added oat milk because we were drinking so many oat milk matches and so many oat milk lattes and the old like remedy trick that grandma would give you with inflammation was an oak bath. And so the inspiration kind of came from like just what we come in contact with every day. So it always starts the products always start with one ingredient that we’re just really inspired by, or property that an ingredient has and then we build around that. But it has to be like exploration and it has to get us excited.

Kara Goldin 13:39
So if you have a hero product, you know sort of a runaway best seller. Today, obviously you started in 2011. But over the years what has been that one product that you think most people talk about will really love. You’ve had a lot of new products that have come out. But what is that one kind of runaway product?

Alex Kummerow 14:06
I would say most people know us for one of our products that are blue. We have a handful of them, but it’s our blue tansy lied, and we kicked off by blue tansy oil. It must have been eight years ago now, but nothing like that was on the market, right. And we don’t use synthetic colors. We don’t need to do that. So, but we love to make things beautiful, right. And so when we discovered this ingredient, we had gotten a sample from this obscure little supplier, we tend to have yet to hit the market. And I remember sitting there I had this clear transparent carrier oil that I wanted to experiment in and I took one drop of the blue tansy. I dropped it in, I shook it up in this this beautiful, like inky blue color. And I knew that blue tansy, it’s in the Kevin Neil family chemicals, great soothing, it’s very anti inflammatory, it’s very calming. And so like this could be an awesome facial oil for calming redness for acne flare ups for soothing inflammation. And since then, that’s been one of our most trends formative products. We have a blue tansy mask or lapis facial oil or Aquarius, cream and aircrews cleanser, they all contain blue tansy oil. And those are definitely a runaway success case, I’d say.

Kara Goldin 15:12
That’s awesome. So you have multiple eye creams too. And I’ve, I’ve tried them all, they are amazing, amazing. How, how do you do it? I mean, what is it that that allows you to create such a great eye cream? Because I think so many people, obviously, you have tons of competition. On the market, at least nothing is as quite like yours. But obviously, other things that are calling themselves eye creams. But how do you do a great product like you do and, and really differentiate yourself?

Alex Kummerow 15:50
I think it’s a little blend of be pretty OCD and having a background in formulating suppose to kind of coming together when we did our own formulations. And we still do if the product is you know, like essential oil or something along the lines that don’t involve so much chemistry, right. But I think it’s that background where you know, our emerald facial oil, for instance, which is our CBD fish oil that probably holds the record for the most iterations that we formulated ourselves. And we did I think 137 versions of emerald before we took it to market. So now when we’re working with our, you know, our chemist in our team, we go through so many submissions, we try it so many times that we do not put it to market until we’re like yes, it is perfect. And that’s texture, that’s ingredients that’s sent, packaging, that’s everything that goes into it. So just a huge love for the products. And that’s what herbivore was founded on, you know, it’s just this passion for the products, passion for the plants, passion for the packaging. And when that all comes together, that’s what we’re trying to achieve is to just execute that just perfectly.

Kara Goldin 16:57
I love it. So you have a co founder or you talked a little bit about her a few minutes ago. How do you guys divide things up? I know, lots of people who are founding companies talk about, you know, do I need a co founder? How is that work for you guys?

Alex Kummerow 17:15
Totally, we’re very unique, which has been awesome. It allows us to cover everything. I think in business. And creatively, we just think about things different than one another. So it’s awesome. It’s like sometimes it can be, you know, a little challenge. But we always come together with like an awesome final product. And so I think what Julie kind of focuses on a lot is she fills journals with ideas, and she feels journals, sections. And she’s a real Ideator a real thinker. And then I’m kind of a doer, right. So initially, I would just like, you know, she would show me a sketch, and I’d go to the computer. And I would start mocking out because I have a background. You know, I mentioned I went to film school, but it’s design school, right? So to get straight into Photoshop, start backing it up, bring in my bottles and labels and start, you know, experimenting with different colors. And we kind of we work collaboratively on all these pieces. We’re super collaborative with one another, from the way that we run the business and the way that we conduct meetings and the way that we you know, give creative direction and photo shoots and product development. But I mean, we’ll just say dreamer, Julia Dewar, Alex, and when we come together to mighty force, well, we’ve

Kara Goldin 18:28
heard that before that, you know, really having the ying and yang I think is really, really critical if you are going to have a co founder for for sure. So, being an entrepreneur is brutal, though, as you know, there’s there’s moments where I’m sure it’s, you know, you get a call from a manufacturer that they don’t actually have, the containers that you want to use or the line is broken. Something happens along the way. We’ve all had those moments as entrepreneurs, can you sort of share a story around that where you thought oh my gosh, like it just can’t get any worse but then you were able to pick yourself back up again and figure it out?

Alex Kummerow 19:20
Yeah, I think if entrepreneurs hadn’t official outset there would be a firefighters you know, for me, I feel like that little fire cap would just be so appropriate, because we’re just constantly there with that but who’s just trying to put out fires but I mean, like you said earlier it’s just a lot of it is out of your control when you’re working with manufacturers and supply chain I think a massive challenge for us was coke. And that was one of those minutes we had just done kind of a fundraiser our first like our Series A our first fundraise right before COVID And that I’m super thankful for right because I was able to kind of carry us through this really difficult spell but when COVID hit it was kind of fun. You know, we started, there’s just a lot of fear, right. And there’s a lot of concern from our retailers and our retailers, we’re closing all their doors, and we’re like, Oh, my God, like these are, the projections are cut in half. And if we’re not, you know, making the money, then all of a sudden, our staff is at risk. And our people are like, the most important thing to me, like when I feel like, our people are at risk, like, that’s where the fire becomes personal. You know, it’s, there’s a responsibility to all the people who work with you, and when there’s any risk around that, that’s what just keeps me up at night. And fortunately, the Health and Beauty you know, sector though, during COVID, was able to stay afloat. And we saw an increase in online sales, sales. But obviously, we had a lot of supply chain issues as well, and just sourcing ingredients and packaging. But, yeah, fortunately, through that, we were able to come out unscathed. In the end, well, a bit beat up a little bit bruised, but still afloat. Yeah.

Kara Goldin 21:03
How did your business change? Like, did you add a component to your business that you didn’t have prior to that time? I did. Yeah, I’d love to hear that.

Alex Kummerow 21:16
We’re no remote. That happened from COVID. Right. So we were based in Seattle before COVID in Seattle is kind of unique place for a beauty company, right? It’s not LA, it’s not New York, it’s not ticket, Cisco. And, you know, it was very, I love herbivore iteration one, the Seattle days, because we were a company built up completely, from hardworking, extremely talented people with zero experience and beauty. You know, to, to get where we got to today. It just it really showed me that like, if someone’s passionate, if they care if they’re about the mission, if they believe in what they’re doing, it doesn’t really matter what their background like, because they’re able to critically think and work through problems and just be excited. What you can do is amazing, I think it was that lack of beauty experience that allowed us to be so different. You know, there’s I see now, on the daily, I kind of fight back playbooks. Now that we have kind of, you know, a broader team with more experience and beauty. And there’s a lot of luck with this friend, you know, what if we did something like this? And it’s like, that’s not the way I like to think about it, I like to think, what hasn’t anybody done yet? You know, how can we do this super differently. So when I added a team completely, you know, zero PT experience, that’s how we thought, because that’s the only way we knew how to do that we weren’t, we didn’t have access to playbooks or access to experience. So it was almost like building the brand, with such fresh minds, is what allowed us to be so different right out the gate?

Kara Goldin 22:50
Yeah, well, and also your experiences storytelling, I would imagine really has from the how do you actually share with consumers how this product is really going to be the one for them? Right. I think that this is is so so key. And obviously you’re passionate about the product, you started it because of your own issues. And I think that that is such a powerful, powerful position. Absolutely. For sure. So I’m building a board. Have you have you built a board? In your company?

Alex Kummerow 23:29
We should have gotten Yes. Yeah.

Kara Goldin 23:30
So building a board is always a bit of a mystery for for founders. Any suggestions on building out a board? You know, what, what you have to be careful about what you should do. I mean, I’d love to hear your perspective.

Alex Kummerow 23:47
Yeah. So I feel like a lot of starting entrepreneurs, really look forward to that first step of raising capital and building a board. And I see a lot of people rush to it. And I would say, never raised buddy, unless you really need it, or you know exactly how to spend all of it. You know, because it’s just, we held out for a long time, we held that eight years. And as an entrepreneur, I am stoked that, you know, because it allowed us to really grow a brand. It started with a $50 investment or before. And we you know, that’s that was the nice thing about starting slow on Etsy, right. So it’s like, we were making the products at home. We are so our orders, you know, when we were ordering materials were 250 to $500. We were selling, you know, our first goal was to sell 11 bars of soap in a day or a week. It’s been a while so they told us right anyways, either one of those is a crazy thing, like such an achievable goal when I look back on it, right? But back then it’s like if we sell live in bars of soap, good day, things like that. Then we can pay our rent, we can play our cell phone bills we can pay for the internet, and that was Goldmember. But as herbivore grew, you know, we’d always set our goals higher. But yeah, to get back to building a board, hold out as long as you can. And really, really, that people don’t, don’t get a slice of your business. So the first person who wants to come around and throw money, they’re gonna come around, you need to make sure that they’re aligned with your values, you need to make sure they believe in your mission, you need to make sure that they believe in the way that you’re running your company. You know, it’s like, if somebody comes in immediately says, You’re doing this wrong, you know, then they’re not the right partner for you. If somebody comes in and says, I love what you’re doing, I’m obsessed with your mission. Here’s some ways that I can help you. That’s a better partner option.

Kara Goldin 25:42
Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. How big is your board? How many people,

Alex Kummerow 25:46
there’s five of us, but we just did another race. So now it’s just being scrambled up a little bit. But very excited for new partners. We have a lot of entrepreneurial experience coming in from our new partners. So I’m super excited on that. It’s just gonna be great to have fellow entrepreneurs on the board.

Kara Goldin 26:04
Yeah, definitely. I think having other entrepreneurs, other founders on the board, who have actually started companies and scaled companies is really, really nice to have. I’ve been a part of boards where you’re the only founder on it. And I think it’s, it’s just really challenging because I think it’s, it’s there, it creates kind of a us versus them dynamic that doesn’t necessarily need to be there and isn’t in the best interests of the company, frankly. So I think having other founders there who have really seen it and done it can be really, really useful, useful for sure. So last question, what is the best advice that you’ve ever received along the way that it’s really helped you during times of thinking about not only launching the business, but also scaling the business and getting through maybe those challenging days?

Alex Kummerow 27:03
Yeah, that’s piece of advice. It’s kind of funny. I mean, I didn’t get much advice. I didn’t sell advice. I feel like I, you know, I kind of I think the first time I kind of brought in an advisor type is when we weren’t doing that fundraise, and I kind of met with a couple, you know, potential investors and wasn’t super interested on, you know, excited about them. And I just wanted to be an advisor, but like doing the right thing by saying no to everybody. And he’s like, yeah, like, if it’s not the right fit, it’s not the right fit. But I’m trying to think of that. Just really back in the day, it’s just, it’s, we figured out everything on it, maybe my advice, here’s my advice, seek advice to do. My thing I would, you know, six years and I reinvented the wheel, it’s so many areas, you know, and there’s so many, you know, especially in like manufacturing, we haven’t really owned manufacturing for those for the first eight years, right. And I was the one who came up with the process and procedures. My background is in video, I like to make things that are pretty, you know, I think, like maybe factory wizard, so it’s like our first floor order was like, you know, there was no machines, like we had pastry bags, because that’s how like, we were putting goop in pastry bags, and squeezing them into every like little thing. And like, we’d have five gallon buckets hanging from the ceilings with tubes coming out that I rigged up with little like beer taps at the end that you would just tap into each container. And I just made it up as I went. So fake it till you make it right.

Kara Goldin 28:38
Yeah, definitely well, but I think what you’re saying too, is that you have to just start, right, and you’re just gonna start things, and you’re gonna make mistakes along the way. Yeah, but you have to start somewhere and then realize, I’m not going to be able to scale. If I’m putting all of the ingredients in a pastry bag and trying to fulfill an order, you’ve got to figure out a way along the way. So I think that that’s, that’s a big piece. The other thing that I heard you say too, is that, you know, seek people’s advice, but you know, then formulate your your own way. Because I think that not everybody’s advice. Not everybody’s path is going to be your path either. For sure.

Alex Kummerow 29:25
And if I could add to that just a little bit, because I do think after the fundraise, I was feeling all of a sudden had access to this massive beauty community, right? And I’m like, fine. Here’s another piece of that this is super important. When they finally have access to all this information. Finally, I’m talking to people who know what they’re doing, right. And I had everybody kind of telling me what to do at that point. And I felt kind of like, kind of like a kid, you know, like, you know, like I kind of stripped myself of my knowledge and didn’t give myself credit for it. And I was kind of just looking with my big doe eyes that everybody liked Wow, you all know so much. And when I took all of that stuff out of context, I started plugging into my business. I started seeing things suffer. And I said, Why is the business hurting what I just took all of these experts advice, and I started plugging it in. And I realized, because I wasn’t plugging myself, and I took that credit away from myself, and I realized in that moment that nobody noticed her before, like myself, and like Julia, and nobody should run it, you know, and tell us how to do everything. And oh, you shouldn’t listen to everything. Just it take it exactly how they say it and plug it in. We need to be critically thinking about everything we do, make sure it feels authentic to us, make sure it feels right to us. And it was super empowering to have that moment. It because it was kind of like all of a sudden it kind of stripped myself as power. And then I saw the business hurt. And when I stepped back, and we started really getting engaged again, and we had some advice and some, you know, partnerships of these talented, intelligent people. But we were driving the brand got right back on the tracks, and started cruising against.

Kara Goldin 31:10
That is great wisdom for sure. So Alex, co founder of herbivore botanicals, thank you so much. This has been such a delight. Everybody needs to try the products. We’re going to actually have all the info in the show notes, but definitely available and in wonderful retail establishments as well as Sephora. So definitely not that Sephora is not a wonderful establishment, but you know what I mean? So anyway, thank you again, Alex. Really appreciate it and have a great rest of the week.

Alex Kummerow 31:46
Thank you, Kara. Thank you so much for having me. It’s such a pleasure.

Kara Goldin 31:49
Thanks again for listening to the Kara Goldin show. If you would, please give us a review. And feel free to share this podcast with others who would benefit and of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of our podcast. Just a reminder that it can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen. Or pick up a copy of my book on daunted which I share my journey, including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And thanks everyone for listening. Have a great rest of the week, and 2023 and goodbye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening