How do you go from fitness and nutrition consultant to clean skincare founder with your products launching in Target nationwide? Hard work and lots of second-guessing yourself, says Adina Grigore, founder of S.W. Basics, and author of two books. In a little over five years, she took her small-batch, handmade line from Etsy and pop-up shops in NYC to every Target store in the United States. What started in 2008 as Sprout Wellness and an idea to consult with clients on eating habits as they relate to skin health has now launched a miniature revolution in the green beauty world.
The skincare line’s concept is not about using clean ingredients you can eat, but it’s also centered on the idea that simple formulations with few ingredients are gentler on skin and can therefore be used effectively on all skin types. “It was about two years of experimenting before we launched anything,” says Adina. “And then about one to two years of doing Etsy sales and locals markets before I quit my job.”
At that point, Adina was working at Pure Food and Wine, a now defunct raw food restaurant, to gain business insight. “I couldn’t afford school,” she says, “so I got training on the job.” She needed to learn, and she got incredible hands-on experience with all sides of the business. “It was like a crash course,” she says.
How to Get Traction
Then, in 2011, after two years at Pure Food and Wine, Adina took Sprout Skincare to the Natural Products Expo East, a trade show that helps brands get familiar with vendors and test out their products. With the traction Adina felt they had post-Expo, she quit her job and started working on Sprout full-time—from her kitchen table. “I spent all my time following up with people from the Expo,” she says. “So many phone calls, and reminding people who I was, what the brand was. They don’t tell you that, when you’re starting out. It’s all just furiously connecting with people to get them to try samples.”
It wasn’t until late 2012 that all her efforts seemed to pay off. Anthropologie, the on-trend, bohemian clothing retailer known for being forward-thinking when it comes to indie beauty, placed a significant order—but of just one product. “It was just one product, but that was good,” says Adina. “Every product in that batch was made by me, Adam [her now husband] and our friends. We didn’t do anything except fill that order. When friends wanted to hang out, we said, ‘Well, you can come help us make skincare.'”
But it was also the perfect platform to learn about scaling, she says. “We knew after that order that we needed a fulfillment center and a manufacturer for other parts of scaling.” And this is often where a small brand runs into issues—manufacturers work in such high quantities that it’s a struggle to even find one who will talk to you. “This small-brand stage is new to beauty,” says Adina, “since so many conventional brands are owned by big companies doing massive quantities of product… I called so many places and it was just by chance that I convinced one guy with a small facility to work with us.”
To find that facility, Adina says there are three key points to zero-in on:
- Do all your research beforehand, so that when you’re ready for the transition to the facility, you can do it right away.
- Get someone on the phone. Actually speaking with a person who can answer your questions and you can be kind to does a lot for building a relationship.
- Find someone who will work with YOUR formulations. Lots of manufacturers have formulas they plug into their system, but you’ll want to work with someone who will respect your formulas.
Target Comes Calling
“It was at that point,” says Adina, “that I had to decide what part I was actually going to do with the brand. It was really hard to give up the hand-making piece, but at some stage, the founder has to decide if they want to scale OR hand-make everything. It’s not sustainable to hand-make if you want to scale.”
And that lesson paid off, as Adina and her team began to be able to work on product development and marketing instead of filling orders. They rebranded in 2013 as S.W. Basics, launched the entire line on Anthropologie.com and in Urban Outfitters stores.
This whole time, Adina had been pitching larger retailers to pick up the line. Because of its high-quality ingredients and its slightly-more-than-drugstore prices, everyone in the industry told her to start with the luxury retailers. “But the luxury retailers didn’t understand what we were doing,” she says. “They said ‘natural’ wasn’t a trend that was going to stick around, that women were fickle and no one cares about handmade—and we couldn’t get them on board. Buyers were scared to push a product that was out in front of a trend because they were scared to lose money.”
But the feedback the S.W. Basics team was getting from their website sales and their online audience told them they were successful. “We had such great connections to customers and their feedback because of the Internet that we knew we were filling a need,” Adina says.
Their feelings were justified in 2014 when a broker reached out to them about pitching the line to Target. “The great thing about a broker is that they’ll be an advocate for you,” says Adina. “Get a broker if you want to scale.”
In Target, Adina found exactly the team S.W. Basics was looking for. “I get heart eyes for them because they’ve just been a dream retailer for us,” she says. “They just got it from the beginning. They got what we were trying to do. But at that point, I was also really clear on what we were doing. I had to get crystal clear on why we were doing what we’re doing. The clearer you get, the more obvious it is that some people aren’t a fit for you and others are. That’s scary, but if you know why you’re doing it—the truth, super deep down—and then you end up with a better fit.”
S.W. Basics launched first on Target.com in late 2014, then in 500 Target stores in 2015 as a test run. Things went so well that Target put them in stores nationwide in January 2016, and things have only looked up from there. “It took us two years to really learn how to work with Target,” says Adina, “and now we’re strategizing about the future.”
It’s been a slight whirlwind for Adina and the S.W. Basics team, and even now, things aren’t slowing down. So what advice would she give to brand looking to make the leap from small-batch to big retailer? Here are four insights from her journey.
- “Remember how expensive it is to run a business. You need A LOT of cash. Be ready or have it on hand, because it’s one long, expensive road.”
- “It’s okay to say ‘no’ to things when you’re not ready. I said ‘yes’ to everything, desperately, because I thought the chance would never come up again. But I wish I hadn’t. I wish I had realized it’s going to be a long road no matter what, and it’s okay to say no and be patient for the right opportunity.”
- “Ask for help. So many other people have done what you’re doing and asking for advice is totally worth it.”
- “Be NICE, and build a reputation you’re proud of. It’s easy to get stressed and take it out on other people, but what an impact it makes to treat people and vendors you work with like you’re in real relationships. The thing that makes it all less overwhelming is realizing that we’re all just people.”
Want to learn more about how to grow your wellness business? Check out our full Business of Wellness series.