Balanced Hustler: Meet Amber Fawson, Co-Founder of Saalt
Being an entrepreneur can seem glamorous. We own our schedules, build our companies based on work we love—and sometimes we can even work beachside. But the glamour is second in command to the hustle.
The hustle is what really defines the ups and downs of the entrepreneurship journey. And to shed some light on the work it takes to build a business, I’m interviewing fellow entrepreneurs who are ready to get real about their journeys. I’ll ask them how they manage to balance the hustle with the passion of what they do, and they’ll share what they had to overcome to get where they are today. It’s all in service of inspiring, supporting and illuminating the path for you, and we’re calling it the #BalancedHustler.
I’ve been a big Amber Fawson fan since before her menstrual cup company Saalt popped up at WELL Summit in 2018. She’s got a fascinating business mind, and she used to own a chocolate shop (I mean, who doesn’t dream of owning your own chocolate shop?). When her good friend Cherie Hoeger learned that her aunt in Venezuela hadn’t had access to period care on store shelves in years, the duo began to brainstorm how they could create a sustainable, reusable period cup that could not only solve some accessibility issues, but could also ultimately lift women up, giving them more access to education and financial stability. Sounds like a tall order, right? It is and it isn’t. Here’s how they did it, according to Amber.
Fast Facts: Amber Fawson
When did you launch Saalt Co.?
In one sentence, tell us why you started Saalt Co.
Cherie and I saw the impact that period cups could have on the planet and women’s empowerment if more people used them, and we felt it was time for cups to go mainstream.
How much did you invest to get the business started?
One of the things that we liked about selling period cups is that there are some barriers to entry. The cost of R&D and making the molds for the cups, the costs and regulations of FDA compliance all require investment and a certain level of sophistication.
How did you get capital to start?
We used personal savings as well as an investment from my parents. My co-founder, Cherie, and I were working together editing wellness textbooks, and our husbands were in real estate together. We all made the decision to take capital from real estate and put it into Saalt. Most recently we’ve taken out an SBA loan, so we’ve been able to fund Saalt without raising equity financing.
What was your 2017 or 2018 revenue?
We launched Feb 5, 2018 and doubled what our initial projection was for 2018. Obviously now we’ve adjusted our estimates, but we hope to grow by a multiple of five or six this year.
How long did it take for the business to get profitable?
This is still a moving target for us. Because we’ve had a great reception from the marketplace, we keep re-investing everything we make back into the business. We expect to be profitable this year, but we’re also expecting to keep reinvesting everything into growth.
Are you growing your business to sell? Or this is your dream job and you want to be doing this in 10 years?
Nobody knows what the future holds, but right now we are driven by our mission and inspired by our customers, our employees and our charity partners. We see and hear that we are changing people’s lives every day. In fact, as I write this, our customer service manager is reading a Facebook comment out loud to our team: “To say that I’m obsessed is an understatement…” Hearing that never gets old. And we’ve been able to donate thousands of cups to girls who can’t afford period care supplies, and we’ve funded scholarships to keep them in school. We’ve been able to visit them in those schools and hear their stories. There are so many reasons why we could do this forever.
How many hours a week do you work when you started versus now?
When building my first company, a chocolate shop, I experienced true burnout by trying to do it all. I came into Saalt much more aware of my own needs. I started working in earnest only once we’d hired a friend to help, and once my co-founder and I recruited our husbands to donate a portion of their work week in order to be founders as well.
I never track my hours—I am always on to some extent. I probably started working 35 hours a week, which amplified to 45 and more, and now I’ve been able to scale back closer to probably 35 again as we’ve taken on more team members. It’s pretty good as far as start-up life goes. But it’s an effort to guard my time.
How many employees do you have?
We are a team of 16, and are currently in the process of interviewing for three more employees.
What two business goals do you have for 2019?
Product quality and engagement. We were so deliberate about every choice we made when developing our first Saalt cup, and we never want our R&D process to get watered down. As for engagement, we want to be the voice that our Saalt followers need. We just completed our first activation—we went to Venice Beach and had a local graffiti artist paint a giant period cup on a cement cone there in the middle of everything, and we also brought awareness to the number of plastic tampon applicators in our oceans.
It fuels us to have face-to-face conversations with the public about cups during opportunities like this. We will look for more ways to engage face to face and online with our followers, our retailers, our charities and the amazing people they serve, and other period prophetesses. And we’ll not only engage them, we’ll recruit them! We need more people spreading the message of period positivity.
How Amber Balances the Hustle
Organic Bath Co. literally started in our kitchen mixing raw, organic shea butter with argan oil. That was the beginning of the Drench Body Butter line. What was the process to create the Saalt menstrual cup? How do you come up with a prototype?
We were meticulous in developing the Saalt cup. It took two years. It was hard to be that patient because we were antsy to get a product out so that we could start receiving feedback. My cofounder Cherie and her husband, Jon, spearheaded our Saalt cup design. Cherie had ideas of what she wanted for a cup, but in addition, she and Jon listened to frustrations of experienced cup users.
The scary moment was the day we said ‘go’ for the manufacturing mold. Only then did we turn around and realize we had another mountain to climb in order to make our packaging portray what we wanted. We were all so involved in every detail of our packaging, and I started a closed group on Facebook of more than 1000 followers to help us think through every detail.
Talk us through the giving portion of your mission. Why was that an important foundation of Saalt Co.?
A portion of all Saalt sales goes to donating period cups in the U.S. and abroad, innovating new ways to turn cup users into cup mentors in their home country, teaching basic reproductive health, and funding school scholarships for girls and work initiatives for women. We allocate two percent of revenue. (Several of our B-corp brand crushes donate one percent of revenue, and we wanted to go further—this is the heart of our business.) And the amazing thing is, we don’t see our mission as a charity, but as a way we form a worldwide sisterhood.
I helped teach about cups in Kenya last year, and Cherie just returned from teaching in Nepal. It is mind blowing to see how entirely similar women around the world see their purpose and mission. As one example, women everywhere, even many women who struggle to feed their families, become excited when they hear that the cup is so eco-friendly. Imagine it! It makes me weepy!
A lot of people are unaware of the worldwide period products crisis and how it impacts women’s access to education, autonomy and financial stability. How did you find out about it and can you share a few statistics with us?
This mission is really what gets us up every morning. In India, one out of four girls do not attend school while on their period. These girls are missing up to a fifth of a school year on completely unpredictable days, as periods can take a few years to regulate. Numbers are similar for places like Sierra Leone (20 percent) and Nepal and Afghanistan (30 percent), according to UNICEF. Many girls drop out completely. When a girl drops out of school, it massively impacts every aspect of her future, from the number of her children who will survive childhood, to their chances of earning a living.
This is something we we knew we wanted to address even before we launched the Saalt Cup—part of our pre-launch process was building a relationship with three of our charity partners. The problem is complex, and we knew when started Saalt that we wanted to address it from several angles.
One of the problems is the lack of access to sanitary menstrual supplies. In some countries the problem is especially dire, and girls use transactional sex to obtain menstrual pads. But beyond that, there are so many other hurdles. Girls, female teachers and women working may be shamed if they stain their clothes, or girls may feel uncomfortable expressing needs to male teachers. Some girls have never been taught about menstrual hygiene or reproductive health. Many schools lack basic sanitation supplies.
According to UNICEF, in 2016, more than a third of schools worldwide had no hygiene service, with that number being closer to half in the least developed countries. Our Saalt team has been tackling the problem as creatively as we can with our charity partners, and we have begun plans for building latrines, hiring local nurses, creating long-term support programs, funding educational scholarships, and of course, donating cups.
What, if any, issues have you run into with building a business that primarily serves women?
We have actually been surprised and amazed that our audience isn’t quite as women-centric as we would have imagined. Of course, we focus on serving anyone who has a period. But beyond that, any time we go to a live event, we find ourselves talking to brothers, boyfriends, fathers, husbands who have been working on convincing a woman in their life to try the cup. Should we start targeting a male audience in our ads? We haven’t yet, but maybe we should!
What issues have you run into that you couldn’t have predicted?
We really hadn’t predicted how deliberate we would need to be in choosing retail partners. Because we are trying to break a stigma around periods and another around period cups, we have had long conversations about which retail partners we can target in which order. We want cups to go mainstream, but what is the best retail strategy for achieving that? It’s a fascinating challenge.
What are you working on now?
We are currently applying to be a Benefit Corporation and have found the process so fulfilling. My co-founder, Cherie, and I are both in love with the concept of doing business for good, and we love workshopping with other business owners doing the same thing. It’s a great opportunity to meet some dedicated, purpose-driven people.
Amber’s Advice to Entrepreneurs
What do you want to leave our readers with?
Remember that beyond your product, you also are an important product. You need to come out of this venture whole and better for the ride, and you need to think about how you can take care of yourself in that way.
One thing I like to do lately is ask myself, when going into a meeting or even going home from work, “How do I want to feel?” That guiding question can be amazing for helping me think big picture.
What failure have you learned most from?
Supply chain problems. Unforeseen problems come up, and I’ve had these to some degree in both my businesses. And I’ve learned that these types of emergencies are not a death sentence for the company, that a good business owner can get past almost anything.
How did you overcome it?
A dedicated, amazing team and partners who are all willing to roll up their sleeves to solve an emergency make all the difference.
What is your number one piece of advice for fellow entrepreneurs?
Honestly, choose a product or business with a good markup, and choose a business that holds purpose for you. One of the pieces of advice I was given after starting my chocolate shop was to reach for a six-times markup. In some businesses, that is not possible, but the closer you can get to that, the more freedom you’ll have to work with talented partners and bring on talented team members. And if those people love your purpose as much as you do, they will take incredible care of your customers, and the momentum can be awesome.
What does being a #BalancedHustler mean to you?
I am a believer in binge balancing. I try not to look at balance within a single day, but rather over weeks, months or years. I’ve had calm-ish years followed by years of intense hustle. I like to have a few non-negotiable priorities in place—like down time with my husband and four wonderful kids, time to be a good friend, and time to get to the gym or go running at least four times a week.
But I also have some things I see as strong needs, like getting to ballet class a couple times a month, or journaling, or going out alone to skateboard and listen to a podcast. I find I am happy to put these desires aside for times of intense hustle, even for several months or a year, but then I absolutely need to get back to them and allow myself recovery.
Want to try out Saalt for yourself?
Grab Saalt Products Below.
Want more inspiro and tactical advice from female entrepreneurs? Check out our full #BalancedHustler series.