Life Elements Endures Many Elements Of Business Life On The Way To Strength
Martha Van Inwegen is the Madonna of entrepreneurs. She reinvents herself to stay relevant. Van Inwegen’s been a Feng Shui consultant, beekeeper, intimacy products vendor, website development specialist and, now, and a natural cleansing wipes aficionado atop the company Life Elements. Through her various professional incarnations, Van Inwegen emphasizes the common denominators have been persistence, honesty, responsiveness and quality merchandise. “Customer service is the key to being successful,” she says. “We answer emails immediately. Packages go out the same day. If there’s an issue, we tackle it head on.” Van Inwegen has certainly tackled a hefty share of issues at Life Elements, including the economic slump, a licensing deal that took a U-turn and money shortages. She walked Beauty Independent through the company’s revamp, rebirth and renewed vigor.
What were you doing before you launched your brand?
I was in technology for 25 years. I had my own technology company, Bonafide Development Resources, at one point. We started it in 1998. We did customized websites and database development. We got that to a $12 million company and sold it in 2000. In 2004, I got married, we moved, and I was traveling all over the U.S. We were on the road all week and, when we came back together at the end of the week, it was awkward. How do you reestablish that relationship? I went to purchase things like massage products and lubricants to get the romance going. They were cheesy and had all these chemicals. When I finally couldn’t take the traveling, I said, “I’m going to develop a line of my own.” I quit the technology business abruptly, and started taking a course on aromatherapy and product development.
What was your intimate products brand named?
It was called C&M Couples after our names Curt and Martha. We launched in 2006, and it was a very romantic brand. We were in five Ritz Carltons, the Fairmont hotels and Miraval in Arizona. They used the product as part of romance packages. Within that brand, we had an intimacy towelette. What happened is that, when the market tanked in 2008, we went from 40 high-end clients to three almost overnight. It was devastating. We had all this inventory in the warehouse, and we were like, “What are we going to do?” We had to pivot. One night, Eric Meyer, the founder of Simple Shoes, happened to be at an event we were at. I love Simple Shoes. I went up to Eric and told him my situation. I said, “I need a mentor. Would you consider mentoring me and helping me figure out what to do next?” He said, “Why don’t you bring all your products to my house tomorrow?” The first thing he looked at was the towelette. We already had people taking the wipes camping and to music festivals, and asking us to change the packaging so it wouldn’t be intimate-looking. Eric said, “There’s something there. Have you thought about rebranding around just this one product?” We were completely out of funding. He said, “You don’t have to get fancy. Just change the name and put up a website.” That’s what we did. I donated the other SKUs to local charities.
How much money did it originally take to develop your brand?
It always takes much more than you anticipate. I had allocated $50,000 to start the company, but you make a lot of mistakes along the way. One of the biggest mistakes I made is I had contracted some sales reps to get the product out there. They came back to me and said, “Oh my God! Everyone loves the product. You are going to need more.” Before I had even sold through the first inventory, I trusted these people that we were going to sell out. That never happened. I ended up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. I also hired a PR agent. I did things I would tell other startups to hold off on.
When did you reach profitability?
Amazingly, we reached profitability at the end of last year. Now, we are in a growth phase. In 2018, we will reach $1 million in sales.
“One of the biggest mistakes I made is I had contracted some sales reps to get the product out there. They came back to me and said, “Oh my God! Everyone loves the product. You are going to need more.” Before I had even sold through the first inventory, I trusted these people that we were going to sell out. That never happened. I ended up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
You had a license agreement with a company that canceled the contract. Can you tell me about that?
We took Eric’s advice, and we only had Action Wipes. We had celebrities wanting to put their names on the product, and we turned down several deals. Then, a $50 million company in the fitness industry with worldwide distribution wanted an exclusive license agreement. They had the sales and administrative force behind them that we didn’t. They took over the company. Everything was going well until they got into a lawsuit with one of their manufacturers. It had nothing to do with us, but, in retrospect, they were preparing to be sold, so they were cleaning out the smaller brands that they had licensed, and we were one of them. That was only a year after we agreed to the license. We were ready to give up. My energy was not there, and the funding wasn’t there. But the clients started reaching back out to us and saying, “Hey, where are you? We need you.” Then, emails from fans started pouring in. We said, “OK, if we find the funding, we will relaunch.”
How did you raise the funding to relaunch Action Wipes?
We reached out to friends and family. We were able to raise a little over $100,000, and we relaunched at the end of 2015. It was embarrassing. You are like a little dog with its head down and its tail between its legs. They thought we had this successful company. My God, we had licensed it out. We should be rolling in cash. That’s a misconception that your friends and family have. They see your Instagram, Facebook and all this positive stuff, but they don’t see everything happening in the background. We had to explain. In January 2016, we had our first inventory run of the relaunch, and we sold out immediately. That was 150,000 units. We are paying the loans back. We also got a line of credit from our bank once they saw we were slowly getting back on our feet.
Do you plan to raise money again?
We do want to raise money, but it’s not just for the funding. We want to raise smart money. We are looking for investors that have connections and have worked with companies that have distribution to help us get the product out there rather than continuing to bootstrap. We are looking for about $1 million right now. For angel investors, we are structuring it so they can decide how much they want to invest, and we accomplish goals with those amounts. We have turned down offers to completely purchase us. They weren’t the right fit.
Who is Life Element’s target customer?
They are the ones that loved the C&M Couples towelettes and brought them out camping or on hikes. Our customers are active, outdoor enthusiasts who care what they put in and on their bodies. My husband and I are campers and hikers, so they are our people. When we did change the name, the first event we went to was a triathlon. We used it as a testing ground to see if we really had something, and we did. People bought it. Then, we started getting on Twitter and following all these triathletes on Twitter. We asked them to try our product, and we asked people going to Burning Man to try our product. That’s how we found our audience.
Where are Action Wipes sold now?
Right now, 60% of our sales come from e-commerce in a combination of our own website, our FBA (Fulfillment By Amazon) partners and The Grommet. The other 40% comes from established brick-and-mortar like Sports Basement in the Bay Area. We are in Whole Foods in Southern California, Hawaii and Arizona in the beauty department. We are in boutique yoga studios, CrossFit studios and independent outdoor shops.
What have you done to build your e-commerce business?
This year, we really ramped up our online presence. We hired On Sight Strategy out of Colorado. They are helping us shape our direct marketing and content. We hired them in March and saw immediate results. I would say we’ve had 30% website sales growth since March. Now, we send out an email every week. We do a blog every week. We also redesigned the website to make it more appealing.
“We reached out to friends and family. We were able to raise a little over $100,000, and we relaunched at the end of 2015. It was embarrassing. You are like a little dog with its head down and its tail between its legs. They thought we had this successful company. My God, we had licensed it out. We should be rolling in cash. That’s a misconception that your friends and family have. They see your Instagram, Facebook and all this positive stuff, but they don’t see everything happening in the background.”
What’s your hero product?
We have 13 SKUs and two hero products: Action Wipes and Healing Honey Stick. When we licensed the product, I started a different company selling honey and developing balms using that honey. When we got the brand back, we transitioned those products over to Life Elements. The Healing Honey Stick is an all-natural balm. I use everything we take out of the hive: the honey, the propolis, the royal jelly. I never imagined the impact it would have on people’s lives. I hear stories that make me cry about how it’s soothed people’s psoriasis and eczema.
How did you get your products in the hands of firefighters?
Firefighters are one of our fastest growing markets. They account for 20% of our direct sales. The wife of a firefighter in Orange County, Fla., who is a marathon runner, was using Action Wipes. Data about firefighters and cancer was coming out. The fire department in Orange County, Fla., started delving into the cancer issues and changing procedures to make sure they were addressing them. They were using baby wipes, but the baby wipes are full of chemicals. What he didn’t want to do was add additional chemicals when the firefighters were trying to remove them. He got the wipes from his wife, tested them at his station and loved them. They bought several cases, and that’s how we spread like fire. Our challenge has been educating firefighters about the importance of ingredients. They are on budgets, and they can buy a case of baby wipes for $3.50, so buying a case of Life Elements Action Wipes at $250 is a big deal. We have six competitors in the market, but they are just private-labeled products, and we are the only EWG Verified body wipe on the market. We take pride in that.
Your company is called Life Elements and Action Wipes is one of Life Elements’ brands. Do people get confused between Life Elements and Action Wipes?
They do, and we are trying to change that. That’s why we redid the website. It says Life Elements, home of Action Wipes. We are starting to do more trade shows like Indie Beauty Expo as Life Elements. Before, we used to do them as Action Wipes. When I started the company Life Elements, it was going to be an umbrella so we could have different brands. When you come up with different brands, and you need to have a website for each brand. I had four different websites. Now, I want to have one website, and I want Life Elements to be known as a company that makes quality products.
You seem to have done so much. What don’t you do?
I don’t keep house very well. My house is a mess.
How have you pulled through the tough times?
Alcohol and crying. I’m kidding. It’s the tenacity in me. It’s a curse and a good thing. So many times, I say, “Martha, just give up.” Then, I say, “No way, man. I know this can be successful.” And I also get angry when I see other companies promoting natural and safe products, but they only have one natural ingredient in them. I think somebody has to be out there telling the truth. That keeps me going, too.