The Beauty Entrepreneur As Spokesperson: Laura Stearn’s Experience And Healthy Skin Are Selling Points For Her Company Just Pure Essentials
After establishing retail and fashion companies, Laura Stearn decided in her 40s to give the beauty industry a try by starting Just Pure Essentials. She didn’t make her entrance into the beauty industry easy. The brand launched with plant-based Just Love edible massage oils and lubricants at a time four years ago when the taboo-breaking consumer power of millennials wasn’t yet reshaping the personal care market. “We tackled the challenge by being very discrete. If we expect women to purchase the product in a grocery store and put it on the conveyor belt, it has to be,” says Stearn. “The packaging is so beautiful. It’s not embarrassing it just looks nice and appealing. In presenting it, we don’t go into details. We don’t have to.” Just Love doesn’t divulge details, but we pressed Stearn for some about Just Pure Essentials’ retail hurdles, its affiliate program, gentle extraction process, stance on Amazon and the serum responsible for her glowing skin.
What were you doing before your brand?
I come from a fashion background. I studied at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and Paris. I was a professional fashion designer for 20 years. I was in Europe for six years and, then, moved to Los Angeles and, after that, Orange County. I had my own clothing line and boutiques. I sold to retailers like Nordstrom and Cache. As my life progressed and my age matured, my interests became more than superficial and just skin deep. I have a really deep passion for health and helping other people.
I went through a difficult period and wound up with what was thought to be a bacterial infection. It was from a third-world country I visited. I was in bed for six months, and it took me four years to overcome. During that process, I was weak and sensitive to everything. That spurred my desire to start my own skincare company. There was nothing out there that was really clean, and I was frustrated by the fact that companies were cashing in on the organic trend, but their ingredients weren’t clean.
I was breaking out in blisters and rashes from products on the market. I was very sensitive to alcohol, and alcohol is in most products. I felt it didn’t belong in skincare, especially for sensitive skin. I knew there were many women out there like me, and my hunch about that was correct. It was also a passion of mine to help women find healthy alternatives and, at the same time, not give up on luxury. Just Pure Essentials bridges the gap between the beauty and health industries, but it’s still sophisticated and luxurious.
When did Just Pure Essentials launch, and how much did it take to get it off the ground?
We launched on shelf at the very end of 2014. It’s funded by me and my husband. We started with $70,000, and it took us 18 months to perfect the formulas, the branding and the production. This was just for our Just Love edible massage oil line. It’s a multipurpose product. We wanted a product that was safe and gentle, and could be used anywhere and anyhow on the body. We worked with a panel of top women’s health doctors, including OBGYNs, throughout the country, and one of the top cosmetic chemists. Just Love was the first product line and the whole company. It was a category that desperately needed something healthy and clean.
Where is the brand sold now?
Right now, we are in 50 really good retailers across the country, but mostly in Southern California. We started out with one product in four SKUs: the flavored, edible massage oils. Eighteen months after that, due to demand from customers who were using our products for skincare, we started formulating a really great face and body care line. We launched that in 2016.
How many products are there now?
We still have a very concise line because I want Just Pure Essentials to be really honest. We don’t need tons of product in our personal care regimen. Most women don’t have time for that anymore. We have a total of 14 SKUs with plans to launch a few more specific products next year. Every ingredient is safe to ingest and plant-based. Our products are unique and fill a niche. MultiVitamin Lipoic Serum is our darling. It was created for delicate under-eye tissue, but is meant for the entire face and packed with vitamins. It’s not just a vitamin C serum. We layer vitamins together to work synergistically.
We don’t use plant extracts that are alcohol-based. We pack the whole herbs into oils and put them in a hot room like a sauna. They don’t cook, but they steep for two weeks. It’s a very gentle process to extract nutrients from the plants. We specialize in sensitive skin, and our products are better on the skin than products using grain oil. A lot of our customers have had cancer or autoimmune diseases or they’re just really, really picky.
Natural products have a reputation for being not that great. We want to break that stigma and have products that are just divine. Ours feel really different. We are an oil-based line, but our products are super silky. The skin just soaks them up. They don’t lay on the surface. They don’t go rancid. They are naturally shelf-stable.
What’s your distribution strategy today?
We have two different distribution strategies. One is wholesale to our retailers, which are predominantly in the natural grocery industry. They understand and really appreciate a really clean product. Probably our best-performing store is Erewhon in LA. The customer there is really discerning, so they get it, and Erewhon appreciates and supports smaller companies that share its values. It has a lot of clout because it’s a hard store to get into. I’ve been very judicious about which accounts and how fast we expand. It has to be something I feel we can handle, support and be successful with before we take on an account.
About 50% of our sales are through wholesale and the other 50% is from a direct-sales program we created to work with and compensate professionals who are recommending and reselling our products. We are set up with a special software, which was the most expensive purchase I made this year, to handle and track sales, commissions, bonuses and rebates. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to do it. We create replicated websites for them, so they can send their customers to them to purchase. Everything purchased through their websites is automatically calculated, so commissions, bonuses and rebates are paid to them at the end of the month.
We work with small doctors’ offices and individual practitioners. It’s very hands-on for me. We have some who are stay-at-home moms, and we have nurse practitioners, makeup artists and an OBGYN. They’re not set up to be wholesale accounts, and they don’t qualify to be them, but they want to have the opportunity to sell the products to make money off of them. They help us spread the word, and it’s a very important part of the business that is growing. I enjoy it because I love working with other people and empowering them.
What’s the price range of Just Pure Essentials’ products and why?
I did a lot of research on pricing. Obviously, you do a cost analysis taking into account overhead and margins. My goal was to keep Just Pure Essentials affordable. I wanted it to be fair and accessible for the majority of people. I work hard to keep my overhead down, and I have a small marketing budget, so I don’t have to pad the prices. I also wanted it to be competitive for the natural grocery industry. There are products on shelves that run the whole gamut. Ours is on the higher end for the natural grocery industry, but I kept them as affordable as possible while still having a healthy company. They are mostly in the $20s and $30s. Our most expensive item currently is $40.
When did the brand reach profitability?
In my point of view, profitability is very nebulous because, as your company grows, it’s like a hungry child. You have to keep feeding it to get bigger. So, what’s profitability? You will reach different stages where you will be profitable. Then, you wind up reinvesting the profits. Within the first two years, sales had grown enough to pay for all the monthly expenses and production. Then, we had another big growth spurt when we launched the face care line that needed a cash infusion because product development and production is expensive. It takes money to move forward. I’m very frugal about what I spend. I keep my overhead super low. I don’t take a large salary. Whatever profits are there, they go back into the company because I want it to grow.
What was the worst day at your business?
A couple of incidences were very disappointing. One of them was just out of the starting gate. Our very first account was the Central Market store chain, which was nine stores. They’re beautiful stores, and we were so excited. With natural grocers, there are freefills. A freefill is free product you have to give the retailer in order to buy the shelf space. Most retailers ask for 50% free product. Some retailers like Whole Foods ask for everything free upfront. New accounts can be very expensive to partner with. We shipped Central Market our products – we packed up the freefills with all the testers and samples – and, that evening, I get an email from our broker saying, “Oh my God, the buyer just had to cancel all the orders because there was a miscommunication with the new CEO.”
This was for our Just Love product. The new CEO was very religious. He said, “An edible massage oil will not be in my store.” But the way, Just Love is very discreet. It looks like a little gift box. I was floored because this man didn’t even know he carried K-Y on the shelves at his stores. I was so devastated because it cost us time and money, and we lost our first account.
How did you bounce back?
We tried to recall the boxes that didn’t get delivered. We got 60% of our merchandise back. But you bounce back by going, “OK, next.” There are other eggs in the basket, but it was just too bad. I felt like the CEO had a bad day and took it out on us, and the buyer wound up quitting in a couple of months.
Are your products available on Amazon?
We have mixed feelings about Amazon. We sell Just Love on Amazon because I feel that’s a product that’s important in a a niche that needs to be addressed with a product that’s available nationwide. We haven’t put our face care on Amazon yet. We are contemplating putting it on Amazon next year.
We want to protect our retailers, and it’s tricky. We have a nationwide distributor who sells to independent web retailers and has very strict minimum pricing. The web retailers were not complying, and I had to blacklist them. I lost some accounts, but they were hurting our reputation and the retailers I want to support. Competitive, fair pricing is really important and hard to keep control of these days with the internet. I can’t force websites to take the listing off even if they don’t have products. But, if one of our customers or retailers complains, I can tell them they don’t have any products, so they can’t fulfill. We do everything we can to help protect and support our customers.
Has there been a rejection that particularly stung?
The Central Market one was a rejection that stung because the CEO thought that we were a naughty product that his store was too good for even though he didn’t even know what he carried. I have another that’s not really a rejection, but a disappointment. I was slotted to be in the Southwest region of Whole Foods, which was 60 stores, in the fall of 2016. This was for Just Love. It was before the face care launched. We were all excited. They were all excited, and they’d placed the agreements months ahead. Come July, I didn’t hear anything. I emailed the buyer and got no response. I emailed the buyer again a week later and got an email back from a new buyer who said that our buyer had quit and the previous purchase orders were cancelled. We were going to have to start all over with a new vendor process, which would take another six months.
I was crushed and upset. I had spent so much time and money because you had to send them tons of products. She wanted me to do that all over again from the beginning. I stewed over that for a week, and I decided that was a clear red flag. They could put me out of business easily. I would have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to fulfill the freefills for 60 stores and, seeing how quickly they flipped on a dime, I decided I didn’t want to do business with them. At first, it was a major disappointment, but I think it was the best decision I could have made for my company at the time.
Where do you see growth potential for Just Pure Essentials?
My plans are to launch more products, but it takes a lot of money to launch new products, and I’m a small company without a large backer. A lot of them are already formulated, branded and waiting for refinement. I’m very cautious about what we launch and when. I don’t want to just launch products to launch products. I would love to do a simple, ultra-clean baby line. I would love to do a natural fragrance line and products for men, too. I’m excited because I see a lot more men interested in skincare and what to use to take care of their skin.
How big is the brand in terms of retail revenues?
We are retailing about $60,000 this year. We’ve been growing an average of 40% every year. This year, I’ve had to take it easy on growth because we are also building our residence, offices and guest suites on our vineyard. I could only handle so much. Next year, I’m excited because our building will be done, and it’s going to provide great new energy, and there will be growth that comes because of that. We will have more room for warehousing, offices and fulfilment.
What’s it like being a middle-aged entrepreneur in a youth-obsessed business?
I think we’re successful because I am more mature. I have had my own companies since I was 25, so I understand the energy and eagerness that younger entrepreneurs have to conquer the world, but, at the same time, I have the experience and wisdom to make good decisions, and I also know myself and my limits. That’s why I would love to sell my company in five to 10 years. I know I won’t be able to do it justice because I will be wanting to slow down and enjoy my life.
There is discrimination, too. Luckily, I’m a pretty woman, but I’m 50. I have chosen to go completely natural. I have wrinkles. I have expression lines. I think I’m a great spokesperson for the woman who wants to be herself and go natural. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I think wrinkles are fine. I do a lot of public appearances and product demonstrations for retailers, as many as I can. They scrutinize me because they think, if it’s working for you, it could work for me. I depend a lot on our Revive brightening serum. It works, and I’m proof of that. I sell a lot of product because I have beautiful skin, and it’s not manipulated. It’s just glowing, healthy skin. They know I’m not a young woman, but I set a good example.