When her children started having severe skin issues, Janell Stephens struggled to find safe, natural remedies that offered more than a temporary fix. So the mom of five turned her kitchen into a laboratory playground in pursuit of a solution, mixing fresh fruits, herbs, and oils into skincare and hair care products. In 2011 Janell launched Camille Rose to bring her products to the public. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Janell shares with us the hurdles of finding the ideal production partner, grassroots marketing, and how COVID-19 affected her business.
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A business inspired by her children’s skin issues
Shuang: Take us back to 2011 and tell us why you wanted to start experimenting as a kitchen chemist.
Janell: I went on a quest for all things natural. My kids started having issues with their skin and nothing that I used on the market helped them. Every physician that I brought them to, just wanted to prescribe them some type of medicine that is to me was a temporary fix. And I said, “You know what? I want to take it upon myself to research all ingredients.” I needed to make sure that what I was using on my family, when we absorb it into our skin, into our hair, was safe, that it was not causing any underlying conditions that we didn't know about. I consulted with a specialist, a dermatologist to the Stars as he would call himself, about the severe eczemas my kids were having, the severe diaper rash.
And he told me, “Just watch what you're eating, of course,” and he gave me a list of ingredients and products to stay away from and what to use. And I did just that. And within two weeks, I saw a difference in their skin. It was clear and that put me on track.
Shuang: From those home experiments, how did you move from finding remedies for your family to actually turning this into a business and getting other people to trust you and try out your recipes?
Janell: I was so obsessed with formulating in my kitchen and touching, feeling, smelling different ingredients. It became such a hobby of mine. I just found it to be so interesting. And of course, you pass it out to your friends, you give it to your family and you get their feedback. And when they started to come back for more to a point where I was like, “Okay, they love it just as much as I do. So I'm going to throw up a website and see how this goes.” And I started getting orders.
Camille Rose just grew organically by word of mouth. We didn't have Instagram back then, but we had Facebook and we would post there, and people would come in and tell us their results. And then we just started traveling around doing different shows, hair shows, body shows, and gift shows. And it was really an organic growth for the brand.
Shuang: Was it ever intimidating to move into that next stage of business? I assume that you need a bigger production facility, you need to understand the legal logistics of becoming this beauty brand.
Janell: Never intimidating because I loved it and I believe in my products so much. It was exciting, it was fun, it was that moment where I realized, “This is my calling.” No intimidation ever entered my mind. In fact, I believed in my brand so much, when I got into my first big-box retailer, which is Target, in 2013, I was still handcrafting those products myself. I did that for about a year because I wanted to ensure that my formula stayed the same, my ingredients were not compromised. I wanted to ensure that the consumers who put me on their shelves and who were ordering the products online initially, were getting the same quality product.
Not letting existing industry norms challenge your own belief systems
Shuang: How did the Target relationship come to be?
Janell: I did a hair show. That was the very first show I invested in. And I just so happened to meet a buyer at that show. He was scouting. And I tell people, if you're looking to get into business and you know of shows, you never know who's there. I was at that show at the right place at the right time. He happened to stop at my booth. Out of all the booths there, he stopped at mine, and we had a great talk, we had a great connection. I told him about my product, I told him my beginnings, my story, my reasons, my whys. And he really enjoyed it. He said, “I am a buyer for Target. Let's connect in a month. I'll fly you up, and we'll talk about it more.” And that's how it happened.
Shuang: Were there a lot of things behind the scenes that you have to figure out to scale up and make sure that you can produce as much as they wanted for that initial contract?
Janell: I had to learn everything behind the scenes, everything. I knew nothing. I was just a mom at home mixing in my kitchen, and now I am in a major retail store. One thing I did was I took the number of orders that I felt comfortable with. I knew I was not a part of a major laboratory. So if I would have taken larger orders, I would have had issues with supplying the products. So I took like a hundred orders for the first year, and I was okay with that, but even the language that they were talking about, the retail language in the meeting, I had no idea. I was pretending that I did but I was making mental notes. And as soon as I got out of that meeting, I Google everything they said, because I had no idea, I was totally clueless. And I didn't have a big entourage with me to represent Camille Rose. I went there and I represented myself. It was definitely a learning process. I had to learn everything.
No intimidation ever entered my mind. In fact, I believed in my brand so much, when I got into my first big-box retailer, which is Target, in 2013, I was still handcrafting those products myself.
Shuang: Did you have to find different production partners or at least scale up and have a bigger production facility?
Janell: Eventually I did. I had no idea how to get a laboratory. I had no idea what the costs would be. I call myself a kitchen chemist, I'm the master mixtress. So how would I be received walking into this huge laboratory with my notebook and my formulas telling them, “This is how you need to make it”? I had no idea, but when I got to that point, I had to search high and low. I got a bunch of nos from laboratories before I found somebody to say, “Okay, I'll help you out”. And even at that point, I had to supply every one of my ingredients because my ingredients are food-grade, they're gourmet. It's ingredients that you can eat. Because my belief is, if you could put it in your body, you could put it on your body. As something nourishes your body inside, it can nourish your body outside. And I didn't want a laboratory to not have that same belief or their primary is, “Let's make the most money as we possibly can. And we can use a synthetic powder that will deliver the same amount of moisture.” I didn't want that.
I wanted to be able to use my product myself and I didn't want to use synthetics. And so my first laboratory got me through maybe a year and a half, and it was hell if I could say that. Can you imagine me having to purchase big drums and pallets of ingredients and have them shipped to a laboratory? That's their responsibility to order raw materials, but they would not do that for me because of the type of ingredients that I was using.
So I was in Target for the first year without even turning a profit because of how my structure and my beliefs and my brand was. So, oh God, I was with him for about a year and a half and I couldn't take it anymore, besides the fact that he wasn't even keeping up with my order amounts. And so I just took time off. I let my team handle the day-to-day, which was like two people. And I searched high and low for a perfect fit, a perfect laboratory partner, for my brand. And God blessed me with one, and we're still going strong today.
Shuang: What was it that made you stick it out and go through the extra hoops?
Janell: A lot of chemists get upset with people like me coming in there telling them how to do their job. That's what they went to school for, that's their life, it's not mine. We're just people at home that we have a need and we're solving it ourselves. So I got a lot of nos from labs. But what made me stick it out was the consumer and myself, and I make these products, these are my formulas, I own them. They are performing the way I want them to perform and the way I'm seeing a difference in my friends and my family in their skin and their hair. So I was not going to back away from that at all.
And like I said, I wanted to use my products. I'm not going to put my name, my brand name, on a product that I'm not using. And so it was easy, it was a no-brainer, never a question in my mind. I don't care how much I could have saved, I was never going to change my formula to save a dime.
Shuang: How do you go about seeking advice from established brands and contacting other business owners?
Janell: I just called them and emailed them as if I knew them. And if they helped me, thank you. If they didn't, then that's good too. And the majority of them did not, and that was okay. That didn't stop me. I was going to get the knowledge and the information one way or another. The internet was my best friend.
Whatever industry you're in, the longer you're in it, the more knowledge you're going to gain. Going to different functions, events, people talk. You'll hear info that you might need. And then people will start to trust in you as they get to know you. I was a newcomer on the block, nobody knew who I was, nobody's ever heard of Camille Rose, but if they kept seeing me around and they kept hearing my brand and the consumer keeps speaking and they see people are going to the shelves and picking up a Camille Rose product, and they're seeing my sales number rose behind the scenes, then I had their attention.
Being a industry disruptor by being inclusive
Shuang: There's only a handful of large international conglomerates and they dominate most of the beauty market. What is it like being an industry disruptor and creating the change that you want to see within the beauty industry?
Janell: I get so much joy, comfort, happiness from knowing that Camille Rose is offering that difference and different products that people were seeking. Larger companies have been in business since before I was even born. So they've had plenty of enough time to listen to their consumer to get it right. And I was just a consumer myself, I had a need, and I just took it upon myself to solve my own issue. And listening to what my followers are saying, we're very heavy on social media to figure out what they need. If I miss something, if you're dealing with something, let me hear you, and let's create, let's try to solve it. So that's very important to me and to my brand.
And the great thing is, I am a self-proclaimed chemist. Like I am my own mixtress. So wherever I am feeling, whatever ingredient I'm inspired by, I have the knowledge and the ability to go to my own laboratory and whip it up first. And I do that with every collection, all of my products, before I say, “Okay, this is how I want it to perform, this is what I want it to do,” pass it along to my laboratory partners, tell them how to do it, and then they produce it for me on a larger scale.
I love multicultural. I love textures. One thing about a Camille Rose product that is a point of difference is that I mix with honey and peppermint. Who doesn't love that? We are so ingredient-focused, and that is for everybody. I have products in my range for everybody. My deep treatments, if you are a girl who gets color treatment, please use my deep conditioner to help seal those bonds back together. My shampoos are infused with ginger. You know, that's for everyone. I also have lighter creams, I have thicker creams for people who have more textured hair. So it's exciting and it's fun, and I'm glad I'm able to offer products to all types and textures.
Shuang: How do you get inspired and how do you get those new ideas and start rolling with them and knowing that this is a good avenue for me to go down to next?
Janell: I get inspired by the consumer. I get inspired by my followers. I get inspired by seeing people repost my product or styling their hair with my product or cleaning their face on their Instagram page with the Camille Rose product. So I'll never not be inspired. I could get inspired by being in a grocery store and I see food in a certain container, and I love that container. That's how my Leave-In Collection came to life. Honey Hydrate is one of my top selling products, and I saw it in a vegan mayo bottle and I was like, “I love that packaging. I'm going to make three Leave-Ins with that same packaging.” And it became my top sellers, Honey Hydrate, Latte Leave-In, and my Herbal Tea. And simple things inspire me. I can see or hear about an ingredient and start doing my own research. And I'm inspired to bring that ingredient into like a bigger life and offer it to my consumers.
Navigating growing pains and seeking out the best talent
Shuang: How do you navigate both social media and traditional media?
Janell: Initially, I could not even afford to even go that route. Everything was grassroots, where we had to rely on our followers and word of mouth. We also participated in product swaps. And I still talk to my followers as their best friend. And so I think that that's important.
And then when we started getting more sales and more income coming in for the brand, then we had to say, “Okay, let us hire a person where that's their area of expertise. If they're in public relations and they know how to get us more coverage and help us build brand awareness.” Once we decided to do that we started to see a change.
Shuang: Was it tough to let go of control at each stage of business, as you hire more people?
Janell: Yes. Because it's when you birth something from the ground up, it becomes your baby. And I went through the same thing everyone else goes through. Like it was tough for me. Because I don't know, you just have so many people coming at you and telling you what they can do and a lot of times it's all talk. So just kind of weeding out the bad people and holding on to the good and learning how to recognize who can really deliver on what they say, it's trial and error.
I've wasted a ton of money by just doing it. And I think it's necessary when growing a brand, nobody gets it right the first time. And then realizing that I have to learn how to let go a little bit. And that was kind of hard for me. Now, I know when I completely exhausted and I need help by going through all those different stages with growing my brand and my business.
Shuang: Are there any specific questions or is there something specific you look for when you are hiring and looking for people to join your team?
Janell: I look at their track record. Initially, I was hiring people based on their resume and how they look on paper in black and white, and that was a mistake in itself. I had to learn that, you need to hire based on who you're vibing with, what kind of energy they're bringing to you and your brand? Do you enjoy being around these people? If you got stuck in the elevator with them, would you all laugh until somebody opens the door? You know, all those things are important because I think that if you have good people, good energy, hard workers, people that are like you around you, there's no way you cannot win.
Managing a ‘Sold Out!’ moment during the COVID-19 outbreak
Shuang: So how did you adjust your business strategist amongst the COVID-19 outbreak?
Janell: We put all of our heads together and we got our minds working. No one knew what a shutdown meant, that's never happened in my lifetime, so we didn't know. We just said, “Okay, when retailers close, that's a loss of income for your business. So what do you do?” I tell people all the time, anyone in business that's selling a product, you always need to focus on your own ecommerce, that's your own retailer. You have to take that seriously. And let me shout out to Shopify for helping us through that time as well.
I tell people all the time, anyone in business that's selling a product, you always need to focus on your own ecommerce, that's your own retailer. You have to take that seriously.
Our 2020 marketing plan completely went out the window, 2020 was supposed to be a time for us to do our own Camille Rose activations outside of the shows we had already signed up to do. So we said, “Let's take our 2020 plan, which is going around the world with the Camille Rose Culinary Beauty Kitchen, we just have to bring our Beauty Kitchen to our Instagram page. We have all these followers on our page, that's an amazing opportunity to let all of them experience it.” So we did just that. We had so many lives on our Instagram page. We took our Beauty Kitchen on our page. We had our brand stylists on our page talking about styles, how to use our product. We had an esthetician on our page. We even had people, yoga instructors, we brought DJs, we brought a violinist just to help calm people's anxieties. I had a psychologist on. My husband is an oncologist. I had him come on and talk about COVID and how to stay safe and the effects of it. We said it all. We did it all. We teamed up with influencers. So we just put our marketing budget for 2021 on our own ecommerce and on our social pages.
Shuang: And it truly paid off as you did sell out. And how did you navigate this time along with shipping delays?
Janell: When COVID hit, we were just starting to get back on track with getting all of our components and our ingredients. It was like a domino effect. Everybody felt it, everyone in business, suppliers, retailers. And I think that communicating with your consumers, communicating with your customers and letting them know that due to COVID, this is the reason for your delay, and everyone they understood the world was in a different place.
Of course, you had your people who were, “I want my order and all that stuff,” but if you talk to them, if you let them know this is what's happening, we're a small business, we are trying hard to make sure that you are still getting your products on time, they were pretty understanding.
Taking care of yourself to give your best in business and in life
Shuang: How about the balance between navigating being a mom of five, having your family life, and going through all this growth with your business?
Janell: That's hard but is doable. And the way I handle it is through prayer and through taking time to step away from all of it, the business even being a mom, even being a wife, running my household, running my business. I need to step away from it and get me-time. And that me-time doesn't mean I have to fly on a plane and take a weekend long vacation, that me-time can be an hour a day to recharge, refresh my mind so that I can make sure I'm giving my best to everyone.
That me-time doesn't mean I have to fly on a plane and take a weekend long vacation, that me-time can be an hour a day to recharge, refresh my mind so that I can make sure I'm giving my best to everyone.
Women are naturally, we're nurturers by nature. And so a lot of times we tend to forget about ourselves. And so, I just have it every day that I know that I have to step away and take at least an hour, take 30 minutes, walk the track, run the track, do some type of exercise, or sit in my car and drink my coffee. And that recharges me. That's all I need. And then I'm back to let's go, I'm ready.
Shuang: What are some future plans that you are excited about?
Janell: I am so excited about Camille Rose. I am excited about our growth. 2021 we'll be in more retail stores. I'm excited about our new collections. I'm excited about our just products that are solving issues for women that are having alopecia, thinness, and balding because that's a real thing that women are experiencing. Even by them wearing their hair, more women are wearing their hair in protective styles. So we have to make sure we're protecting what's underneath those protective styles and clippings and extensions and all that micro links. So my brand is here to ensure that scalp care is there, that you have it, that you are using scalp care products with great ingredients in it. And so we have a few more products coming out that addresses those issues.
Shuang: What is the one thing that you feel like new business owners can harness as they kind of embark on their business journey?
Janell: Staying true. Staying true to yourself, staying true to your craft. Keep a tunnel vision, do not look at what your competitors are doing, do not think that, “Oh, the market is already saturated.” If it is for you, if God puts you on that path, then no one can stop that. Nothing can stop that. So stay true and grow organically, grow at your own pace. Remember that. Don't take on too much and you can't handle it, and then you find yourself with a whole other issue. So stay true, grow organically, and enjoy your journey.