Bushbalm’s 8-figure success and its array of “skincare for everywhere” products have come a long way since its ideation moment. In this episode of our Bushbalm miniseries, David Gaylord shares the origin story of the brand's first product, with insights on formulation, package design, and scaling production.
Learn how Bushbalm found production partners and worked through its production challenges to land deals with major retailers.
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The honeymoon experience that sparked a business idea
Shuang: This business started five, six years ago at a time where we weren't talking about ingrown hairs or struggles with your bikini line a lot in public. So, how did you get the idea of creating skincare for everywhere?
David: In the early days, we actually weren't talking about those things either. We were, on the periphery, thinking about them potentially, but the first product was actually called Bush Oil. And it was mostly focused on scent and just general moisturizing. So, it did take us a couple of years to find our niche and the markets we were going after. But that was a learning process for quite a while.
Shuang: Your co-founder, Tim Burns has a pretty interesting discovery story of how the idea came to be. Tell us more about that.
David: Tim and his wife, Mel, were, they were actually on their honeymoon, so I won't go into too much detail. But Tim ended up using a face oil down below the belt to freshen up after the beach. So, they came back from their honeymoon, and they told this story, and they said, “You know what? It's an interesting moisturizer. There's a little bit of scent in some face oils. It's interesting.” And obviously, face quality skincare is what we cherish. So, it's like, how do we bring that to a part that maybe many of us have neglected?
Shuang: When they approached you, what made you say, “You know what? That's actually a good business idea.”
David: I was working at Shopify fresh out of the university with a degree in marketing. And both of them are more on the design and product development side. So, they had great branding. They understood what it took to design logos and websites. Whereas I had more experience in Facebook and email marketing. They thought maybe it would be a perfect connection between they want to develop the brand, the products. And then, I get to bring those products to the world. And at the time, we just thought it was, hey, you know what? It's a really good way to learn. Let's start an ecommerce store. Let's see what it's like. And over the last six years, we've learned a lot of what you should do and a lot of what you shouldn't do, which has been great.
Shuang: I think that's such a defining moment for a lot of people. For yourself, what was that switch between just a funny story to a business idea?
David: With Tim and Mel, when we got into it, we thought, you know what? We're going to do something, and worst case, we just do it for a year and we learn. We learn what it takes. We learn a few skills that work or don't work. So, for us at the start, it was all about like learning. And at times, say you were investing in a business, and say, raising money or putting your own money in, and in large sums, that's where it does get, for sure, scary. But for us, it was all about starting out. And it's really, really easy for someone to make their own objections. When you start out, I could have said, “You know what? I don't want to go with a business partner because it complicates things.” And then, we might not have ever started Bushbalm. We might not have started a business at all.
Whereas by just saying, “You know what? What's the first step? Let's do it.” That actually got us through many cases. And for us, the first step was let's just buy a domain. So, we bought the domain. And then, we were a little bit more committed. And then, every week, we thought, okay, what's the one small thing we can do next to keep going? We quickly ignored any sort of challenges and just pushed through. Whereas yeah, a lot of people get hung up in the possibilities of issues that have never happened. For example, what if our partnership falls apart? What if the business goes sour between us? And then, that stops them from ever starting. Whereas our positioning was, let's just start. And as these things come up, we'll deal with them and we'll figure out how to get past them.
Shuang: After that conversation, you then had to make the products and get a few friends to test it out. How did you guys approach that?
David: The first thing we did was a lot of research. We Googled a lot in regards to regulations. Understanding what products are the most difficult to make and what is potentially easier and less risky. The name of the business is Bushbalm. And we quickly realized that making a balm or a cream takes a lot more chemistry, and it's quite difficult. You have to go through, find a chemist, work with them. Whereas if you are doing an oil, it's less risky, and you can use much more natural ingredients and very simplified formulas.
So, when we started, we actually thought, okay, what is the least risky to do? What is the most natural we could do? And what can we buy in smaller quantities? And it just turns out oils were products we could buy in small quantities. That is really difficult if you're trying to do a balm, or cream, or something more complicated.
Why sharing your idea early on is beneficial for product development
Shuang: How did you move into the packaging, and testing out the different formulas?
David: We actually had a group of friends come over, and we said, “Okay, let's just try all these options.” I don't know how many we had. We might have had nine different, say, formulas that we had created. And we had everyone just test them. And we did it where everyone tested the products, how quickly did it absorb. And then, they wrote their feedback on that side. And then, we had them write the scent or aroma that they smelled in each one. That's actually originally how we came up with all the names. So, the names led into how we branded each product.
We had Nude, which was our unscented. We actually had one called Wilderness, which is more like cedar wood, eucalyptus-scented. And then, we had Sweet Escape, which was our more tangerine-scented option. In that session, we learned a lot about what people had perceptions of the products. We learned the words people use to describe the product like “Fast absorbing,” which was really helpful for us. And we started to use that on the packaging, in our marketing. It's often these little words that change your perspective of branding, in particular.
Shuang: What a great group of friends. And also, it's such a cool thing to know that you had access to a bunch of end-users.
David: Early on, I thought, I don't want to tell too many people because they'll steal my idea. And I don't think anyone was stealing our idea in the early days. So, once I got over that hurdle, it was easy to say, “Hey, 10 people, what do you think of branding?” Or, “What do you think of this product? I'll give you a free one.” People were so excited. I don't know why people have that fear, but I certainly had it in the early days.
Shuang: What was the mental hurdle that you crossed when you're like, “You know what? Actually sharing my idea would be very beneficial.”
David: I'm actually not sure when I really crossed it. I think the thing that helped the most as I crossed over that hurdle was especially on the marketing side. Because when you're doing marketing and launching a product, you tend to use your own bias. So, you say, “You know what? I think people are going to resonate with this messaging.” Whereas for us, we actually went to waxing salons. They're in our target market and we asked them, “Hey, what do your clients need? What do they tend to buy? What do they value?” And then, we went back to them again, and we said, “Hey, what about this branding, this product?”
And in the end, we got so much good feedback. Especially considering we called the product Bush Oil at the start. And they said, “That doesn't resonate at all. Maybe pubic oil or soothing oil.” So, we changed our positioning entirely. Going to a waxing salon, they easily could have started their own product, but they're running another business as well. So, that was our greatest learning from it. But also, scary to go in to talk to a stranger about a new product.
Growing pains: the constant balance between marketing and production
Shuang: Where were you initially making the products? At what point were you ready to look for a production partner, and move out, and scale-up in your production?
David: I would say this'll be, depending on the product and what you're making, one of the hardest things for most people to do. So, for us, we started. We would get a facility, and we would make it ourselves. So, we'd buy in bulk the oils, and we'd buy in bulk the bottles. And when I say, “Buy in bulk,” I don't mean large quantities. This was really small. I think our first batch was 200 bottles. So, that's not a large sum of bottles. In the early days, it was, how do you keep costs down without having large quantities? Which is, I think, really difficult for most people. Because once you get over the quantity hurdle, you can work with all kinds of manufacturers. The world opens up to you. Whereas when you're small, the world is really shut off.
If you say to a manufacturer, “Hey, we're trying to do 500,” they might say, “No, there's no chance. Our minimum's 5,000.” So, that stretch between 500 to 5,000 is really hard. And a couple of ways we manage to do it and scale up as we bought generic bottles. When you buy generic bottles, you can do more with them. So, we bought 1,000 bottles that were very generic and standard, but we used a really nice branded sticker to make the branding pop and everything stand out. So, that's one way you can do it with stickers or tags. Or you can buy a sewing machine to do whatever you need. So, that was one way we did it. And then, the other way was making sure your product is one that you can make in a small batch so you can grow it that way.The last piece of it is you could also go big. And if you can get with a manufacturer that'll do a larger quantity, the cost savings goes down a lot.
So, as we grew to a large manufacturer, we got so many more economies of scale. It was much more efficient and we actually had access to new products. It's a challenge that I've had many sleepless nights of production because we were doing it in-house in the early days.
Shuang: It's like two challenges in tandem? You have to make the products, but you also need to market them as well.
David: It's funny actually. If you're the marketing person, but also the person who's either shipping or making the product, the more you sell, the more work you have to do on manufacturing or shipping. So, you realize if you're successful in marketing, your time goes completely to shipping, manufacturing. So, those are the reason we outsourced fulfillment, we quickly outsourced. And then for manufacturing, we found great partners.
There's a stage where if you're doing everything and you do really well in the positioning marketing, you're the busiest person ever because you have to ship everything.
Using minimum order quantities as scaling goals
Shuang: At what stage were you ready to look for a manufacturing partner? And what were the things you looked for when you were finding that ideal partner?
David: We reached out to quite a few cosmetic manufacturers when we were not ready, which actually was good because we built a slow relationship with them. And we met them, we interviewed them. They were kind of interviewing us as well. We understood, okay, what is your baseline minimum quantity that you would need? So, on the cosmetic manufacturing side, those are all local, so we could go meet them and talk to them, see their facility. I would highly recommend that.
And then, the other piece is if you're looking for, say, boxes, bottles, or clothing, or whatever it is, reach out to other people maybe in the space. They might be able to provide you with, hey, here is a good bottle manufacturer. And they will probably tell you, here is exactly the minimum quantity. For us, we actually didn't know, so we spent a lot of time going to manufacturers and saying, “Here's our idea. Here's what we need.” Then, they would say, “Well, the minimum quantity is 50,000 units.” And we'd go, “Oh, right, right.” So, then we had to go back to the drawing board. Knowing early on, what are the minimum quantities? If the minimum quantity is 10,000 bottles, then you can work backward and say, “Our new goal is to get sales to be able to handle 10,000 units. Let's figure out what that looks like, how many sales a day.”
And then, you can build this plan to get there. Once we did that, it actually made the transition pretty seamless into a manufacturer, who we had a good relationship. And then, all of a sudden, they take that burden off you, and you can hopefully scale up much quicker because they have the capacity in their facility.
Shuang: I think it's interesting that you mentioned the initial manufacturing, production partners you looked for were local production partners. Was that a requirement for you?
David: Anyone who does cosmetic manufacturing, the facilities near us is Toronto. It’s the closest place to manufacture cosmetics. We also wanted to keep production close by with trusted partners and not go overseas. It's just much easier. The stickers for the bottles that we use, we source those entirely locally, mainly because if you're producing more and you need to do more quickly, it was easier to get them quickly.
There were a few items that we used Alibaba for a small amount of time, we did source our bottles in China in the early days. And they were just generic. We found them somewhere online through Alibaba. And the shipping took forever. It was really slow. It was tough at the time to figure out. But at that time the timelines weren't that important to us. What I would do is try to find as much local as possible. You can adapt more and change more. And then, once you're moving into economies of scale, there will be local manufacturers who can keep up and scale with you, which is what I would prefer. We've bought in a hundred thousand bottles. Essentially, we've been recommended to, hey, here is one of the best bottle manufacturers in China. Here's who uses them. Here's why. And then, we worked with them. But getting with them, their minimums were a little bit higher than we were used to.
In the early days, keep it local. And then, as you scale out bigger and bigger, try to keep it local, but your profit margins will be really important. And then, you'll just expand naturally to whatever works.
Shuang: Your current bottles are really beautiful. They give that droplet look and definitely not generic. At which point did you start to design that bottle and what was that design process like?
David: It was probably about two or three years ago now. We felt like we found our product-market fit. Our marketing was working really well. And our biggest challenge was inventory keeping up. So, that was the point where we as founders all invested more into the business.
At the time, we all put in capital to order more then what the previous year’s entire inventory was. And our goal with that, “If we want to get into a Sephora or an Alta of the world, what does our packaging need to look like?” So, that was our baseline. We set that as a goal. And then, we went and we found manufacturers for the quantity we wanted, which we were at the point, getting close to that minimum edge.On my side of the business is I do the marketing front, so the front end of the business. And then, Tim and Mel, they run the design and packaging.
I was really lucky to have two partners in the business who are able to design packaging beautifully. Whereas if you don't have that access, you'd have to find someone, say, on Upwork or figure out how to do it yourself in, say, Adobe or InDesign. Luckily, I had Tim and Mel. And they did an amazing job on the packaging, which is on iteration six now. And I think our iteration now, we're really, really happy with.
Moving into different product categories by offering complementary products
Shuang: How do you know when is the right time for us to expand and develop new products?
David: It's quite difficult to, for certain, say, “Hey, it's time to expand into this. It's time to do that.” Because you just don't have the data to know for certain that if we launch a product, it brings X more revenue to the business. For us, it was guessing, and not to say totally guessing. We'd look at industry trends. And one thing I do a lot actually, and still do, is I use a tool. It's a Chrome extension called Keywords Everywhere. But you could use Google Search console or you could use any sort of keyword tool. And I would search keywords around skin concerns.
So, we launched a dark spot treatment the summer of the pandemic, for underarms and bikini lines. And before that launch we solely help with razor burn and ingrown hairs. What's something similar in the similar area? And then, we Googled, we searched, and we noticed dark spot treatment, which has a lot of search volume. That is a big concern people have. And then we said, “Okay, it's very similar to our product line. Now, let's expand.” And then, we expand it to that. So, if you're going to expand, it's figuring out something that's close that you can go into. And then, recently, we expanded our first-ever cream called Tush Cream. And that was a product that we said, “Intentionally, we want to expand our business from what people think of it as into something much bigger.”
Now, we focus on any sort of skin concern you might have. So, ingrown hairs, razor burn, or dark spots. Stretch marks are a category we're moving into now. Keratosis Pilaris is another big category we're moving into. We're trying to grow from the pubic region or underarms to a more whole-body category. And to do so, we have to launch products that are obviously in the whole body category.
It's less about metrics and more about what we're trying to build the business into. Whereas if you're in the early days, it's often about metrics, and something similar to your current catalog is probably the best choice.
Shuang: Are you still using the same testing process and user-generated feedback?
David: One thing that we do now, which I think is helpful for almost any business is, if you get an email list of a certain size, send a survey usually once or twice a year for feedback. It's our annual survey. We get a lot of good ideas out of that survey. That will start the process for product development as well as some other research.
The process for testing now is quite a bit different. We work with our chemist partners, and they will create samples for us and run all the quality and safety tests in the back end. But they will send those to us. And often, what it is is you can give feedback on consistency, especially scent, how quickly it absorbs.
Now we have this ability to be really hyper-focused. And we still do the same process, we have a bunch of people that we get all these samples. They always come in very laboratory-looking bottles, and we say, “Hey, we have this shower cleanser. It is safe to use. We know that from our chemist partners, but give us feedback on how it works and what you like about it. Here are all the things, the claims that it does, and what we expect out of it, the ingredients.” We give all that to everyone. And then they give us feedback, usually in a spreadsheet. They'll say, “Okay, I like this. I don't like this.” And yeah, so far, it seemed to work really well. We do that cycle two to three times for each product we do.
Shuang: For your chemist partner, how did you go about finding the right one for you?
David: It depends on what you're trying to build. Our chemist partner is connected to our cosmetic manufacturer. We have another chemist partner that's connected to another cosmetic manufacturer. And we have another in a different category.
So, depending on the products we're developing, we personally like to keep it with the cosmetic manufacturer, just because it streamlines the process. And they know timelines, they work together. It's really simplified. Whereas other people, what you can do is you can find a chemist on Upwork or another different platform, and they'll help you make the product. But then, you also have to find that cosmetic manufacturer. Whereas for us, the price of the chemistry is often built into the manufacturing side.
Shuang: Is it correct to assume that some of these chemists are actually introduced or they're actually just working with your production and manufacturing partners?
David: Essentially, the cosmetic manufacturers will have 20 chemists on staff. And then, they'll have hundreds of people in the manufacturing side, the warehouse, the facilities. So, they'll work every day on either improving formulas or conduct testing. Stability testing to make sure how long it lasts and can it withhold certain conditions. All these cosmetic manufacturers generally have that side. Whereas we've never really worked with a chemist individually, but I know many brands do that. It's just a totally different process.
Integrating industry trends and customer data to develop new products
Shuang: Has there been any data integration that also helped with your product development?
David: That's an interesting question. I guess one thing that we do is industry trends is something we look at quite a bit. We use something called Mintel and what it does is, say, “Okay, here are some upcoming trends in this category or in this,” and they'll give trending products or trending ingredient lists. So, we subscribe to Mintel to see what's up and coming. Whereas it's not concrete data to say, “Hey, you should do this or that.”
But you do get an interpretation of, the world seems to be going in this direction. And then, you can say, “Okay, we're going to try to make something that hits on that, that attribute in our own spin on it.” So, on the product development, not much data behind what we should do. Obviously tons of data on costs and manufacturing ingredients, but it's really hard to say, “This will be a success,” because you just don't know.
Shuang: What about looking at your own customer data and using that to create bundling or discounting?
David: We do a lot of bundling. And for us, a good example of how we've expanded the line, which is pretty data-informed, I suppose, is we've looked at our top-selling products forever. And we know we have a dark spot treatment that's really successful. And what we've done is we've added new products to that, we call it a routine. For us, it's less about a bundle or a kit. It's more about a routine. If you're combating dark spots or hyperpigmentation, we had one product, and then, we expanded the line to have a second product. That becomes a routine. And then, we've added another product.
Now, you have this full package routine that you can use every single day. That's an easy way to be data-informed about having something be a pretty good success. Whereas if you try to do a new product entirely, it's a lot riskier, right? We've done that quite a bit with our current line. We've expanded the most successful categories. And then, as far as data, one thing we do do, which I'm not sure is the right way to do it, but we tend to write a lot of blogs on skin concerns, and they might not even be skin concerns we tackle right now.
When we write these blogs, it's interesting to see over a year period, we'll get traffic for them. And if something's getting traffic, we think, okay, let's dig more into that. So, it's the starting point of, okay, let's dig into that. Or on our website, we have a little category called Skin Concern Shop By. For that, we'll actually add a skin concern. And if we don't have a product, we might put a form, a signup form. Hey, we don't have any products in this category, but we're launching. We're thinking about launching. Let us know your feedback. That's one way we've added and gotten feedback.
Shuang: Bushbalm is also expanding into grooming tools. Has the process of research and developing for that been different or brought you just new challenges?
David: For that process, you get into molds. We have a trimmer and the basic technology exists for trimmers. For us, it was about finding the best technology that exists for a trimmer. We found the manufacturer. The next process is what do we do for design? And does the mold different? Does it grip differently? Is it smaller? Is it bigger? How do we make that work? So, yeah, hard goods actually, for us, has been an excellent adaption. We've grown into it, and it's been really successful for us with our trimmer.
And the process of making it is very complicated, as far as finding the technology. You have to find the right manufacturer who's obviously an expert in the space. But manufacturing, they make it all. It's all assembled in the same spot. They actually box everything for us. So, it becomes one of our easiest products to manufacture. It costs you a lot more because there's the technology built into it. But manufacturing it is very streamlined. You get everything done at one place. And then, it ships to our warehouse. Whereas cosmetics, bottles come from one place, boxes come from another place. You have to send it to your manufacturer. It gets assembled and created, and they, have to send it back to your warehouse.
So, hard goods or clothing, for instance, the process of manufacturing is really, really simple. Whereas, obviously, like filling a liquid gets much more complicated because it's generally not a one-stop-shop. It's many different pieces. Even imagine our lids come from a different manufacturer than our bottles. All of a sudden, you have another element added in, which complicates it just one more time.
Partnerships with retailers and how they impact product development
Shuang: I notice that you guys are actually selling at Indigo, which is a large, nationally distributed Canadian retailer, mainly with books, but they're expanding into lifestyle and home goods. Has getting that large contract put pressure or changed your production?
David: With Indigo, we've actually just launched, so it's really new. And the way they're doing it is unique and really smart. What Indigo's done is they have this online business, and they are adding more wellness and sexual wellness. And they're trying to expand it. And what they've done is if you get online in your success, they're like, “Okay, it's time to go to the big leagues and get you in store.”
But what it does for the manufacturer, for us, now, we're learning what it takes to get into these things. There are different packaging requirements. You have to polybag things. You have to have it packaged a certain way.For us, it's been a good learning curve to grow into more of these mass retailers and direct to consumer is really easy. You're lucky. You could have a fulfillment provider, and every order ships within a couple hours. You just package it yourself. Whereas when you're going into retailers, you have to have their barcode in a certain spot. You've got to package it a certain way. You have to ship it in a certain way.
So, it's complicated the business, and yeah, we've certainly had to change how we fulfill. And our fulfillment partners, we really trust. And if you don't have a fulfillment partner that you can trust or is a fulfillment partner who does this mass retail side, it's going to be really hard. So, we've gone through that and seen it. And the more you lock down that process, the easier it becomes. But yeah, it's complicated to move into any new channel, especially retail. It's a different world than direct to consumer.
Shuang: Speaking of that Indigo partnership, what was the process of getting that order?
David: We actually took this approach early on where we said, “Let's go direct to consumer really big and really quick.” So, we grew a lot. We focused on it entirely and our Instagram, then we started to get more press. We were on Dragons' Den. So, that increased our awareness in the market. And we actually had Indigo and Urban Outfitters reach out to us directly. They asked us, “Hey, would you be interested? Let's chat. This is what it would look like if you want to start online.” Right now, those were two that they reached out to us.
Convincing someone who reached out to you is much easier. So I don't actually have much to say on the other side of the fence. Whereas right now, we are really trying. There's a couple of retailers we're keen on, and we're doing the reach out, the sales, trying to connect with the right buyer. And it's obviously much more difficult. So, our strategy is grow to a size where any retailer can't ignore you on direct to consumer channels, because if you're popular and they see you're popular, they want you in-store. So, that's been our strategy. And hopefully, it pans out in the next year or two, we grow into many other big, big retailers.
Shuang: Are there some tips or advice you would give to new entrepreneurs when they approach or think about product development?
David: There are a few very specific learning curves that we've had. One is to think about the shipping cost as well. And I guess you could say shipping costs and the environment, that's one. And the lesson under that says, you have rigid boxes. You have to ship those, say, from China or wherever you're shipping them. They will fill up a lot of pallets and skids with just air, right? So, if you have boxes that fold, they will fold down nicely and be really, really small, and shipping is much easier. And also, that's good for the environment. It's just much better all around. And rigid boxes, often, you can't recycle many of them. They're covered in a coating. So, you got to think about all of these little things that are good for you, cost-wise for shipping, cost wise with storage, but also, for the environment. A lot of these things are super important.
The second one that we learned the hard way is the supply chain, in general, isn't perfect. It'll never be perfect. If you're trying to live in a world where it's perfect, you're going to have issues all the time. For us, what this means is one of our lowest cost components are our bottles and boxes. Instead of us trying to order exactly what we need, we order them in mass. We order way more than we need at the time. And we warehouse them. And then, when our manufacturer needs to fill them, we send them exactly what we need to send them, and we store the rest.So, during COVID and during supply chain disruptions, we were actually really, really good. And we only sold out of a few products a few times.
But if you can not do just in time everything in the early days, as you're growing really quickly, that's probably better. Otherwise, you're just going to constantly sell out. Whereas now, we're getting bigger and we can control more of these things. We can do more just in time. But yeah, in the early days, that just in time idea sounds amazing, but is really, really hard to manage without obviously selling out.