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When Bob MacLeod, 54, and Steve Byckiewicz, 50, started selling olive oil soap out of the back of their Volkswagen more than two decades ago, organic products were still hard to come by and Irish Spring was about as green as it got in the skin-care department. Today their company, Kiss My Face, sells more than a hundred "obsessively natural" products, including a line that debuted last fall in Old Navy (GPS
) stores nationwide. MacLeod explains how the $50 million, 55-employee company, which is run out of a converted feed store in Gardiner, N.Y., grew up.LEARNING CURVE
In the late 1970s we were renting a farm and living off our savings. Steve was a flight attendant and aspiring painter. I had quit my job at a talent-management firm and was looking for something to do.
We did most of our shopping in natural food stores and noticed that there was nothing out there in the category of personal care. So we worked with a small lab to develop six products without animal products or testing. They weren't an instant success. The packaging wasn't great, and our marketing was pretty bad.
Our break came in 1981, when we found a basket of pure olive oil soap in a men's store in Woodstock, N.Y. It was a big beautiful chunky bar of green soap. We tracked down the importer and bought a couple of cases. I cut off the tops of some olive oil cans we had in the attic. We put the soap in the cans and took them to some local stores. They sold out immediately. Within a week we were loading our VW bug with soap and bringing it to natural food stores. The soap sold out.
Then we decided to go straight to the source: a family in Athens, Greece, that had been making soap since 1850. We borrowed $16,000 from Steve's parents and bought a 22-ton container of soap. After we bought the third container, the manufacturer came to visit us. You should have seen his face when we showed him our inventory, kept in horse stalls.
Soon after that we came up with a formula for olive oil and aloe vera lotion and put tons of testers in stores. Around that time we also started working with distributors who helped us learn the dos and don'ts, such as selling 48-bar cases, which were the standard, instead of 72-bar cases. Initially we even packed soap in apple boxes, but the distributors set us straight. Our first big customer was Trader Joe's, in 1982.
We hired our first employee at about this time. We had little money, so we had to be creative about whom we hired. We paid wrestlers from a local college to move inventory. But moms were our secret weapon. We hired genius women who wanted a job but also wanted to be home for the school bus. For the first decade everyone created their own job descriptions.IN THE NAVY
We try to run the company the way we try to run our lives -- with style, humor, and balance. We haven't actively looked to expand the company. Then last year, Old Navy asked us to create a line for them. In November we launched four collections in their stores, each with six products in different scents.
When Old Navy came to us we looked seriously at how working with them might affect our core values and customers. We realized that as long as we stay true to our product, we can reach more customers without upsetting our loyal audience. And who knows? If Old Navy customers are exposed to our products, maybe they'll be more inclined to buy other kinds of natural products. As told to Sarah Max