Life Elements Battled Numerous Entrepreneurial Elements Before Finding Success With Potent CBD Products
Business life has sure thrown a lot at Life Elements founder Martha Van Inwegen, but she’s overcome to find success with her latest venture in CBD.
The former technology executive entered the personal care space 15 years ago with C&M Couples, an intimate wipes brand that broke into high-end hotels like Ritz Carlton and Fairmont. The Great Recession devastated its client base, and C&M Couples pivoted to become Action Wipes with a new customer target of athletes and outdoorsy types. In 2013, fitness company Harbinger licensed Action Wipes, only to cut ties with the brand shortly thereafter as it pursued a sale to Implus. Van Inwegen revived it three years later and added fire departments to its distribution network, a channel coveted by its external manufacturer that unleashed a cheaper competitor.
In November 2018, an accountant scoured Action Wipes’ books and told Van Inwegen she should shutter her operation. The cheaper competitor had eaten into Action Wipes’ sales, and Van Inwegen didn’t have the budget or stomach to fight the manufacturer that launched it. She set Action Wipes aside to experiment with another project. In February 2018, several months prior to the accountant’s dire recommendation, Van Inwegen released three lip balms, CBD Ache + Pain Relief, and CBD Skin Repair under a line she called CBD & Honey. She’d begun beekeeping when Action Wipes was under license to Harbinger, and her daughter Bettina Chavez introduced her to CBD initially for anxiety, but informed her it had skin benefits, too. CBD & Honey quickly gained a following.
“The accountant wasn’t seeing what was happening for the past few months. All she could see was what we had done in the past couple of years, and the fact that we had closed Action Wipes. We said, ‘Yes, OK, we should shut everything down,’ but, at the same time, we were looking at the numbers of what was happening with this CBD line, and a hockey stick was happening. So, we thought, ‘We can’t shut this down,’” recounts Van Inwegen. “We called her up and said, ‘We are going to wait a little bit longer,’ and the hockey stick kept going. We never thought that would happen, but we are very confident now.”
“We had a ton of feedback from people right away telling us how great the bath bombs were working.”
Last year, CBD & Honey rebranded under the name of its parent company Life Elements with the assistance of creative agency Fuzzco, revamped its design with inspiration from Van Inwegen’s Mexican heritage, and surpassed $1 million in sales. This year, Van Inwegen projects Life Elements’ sales could double. It’s been picked up by around 300 offline and online retailers such as The Grommet, Fleur Marche and Miss Grass. Still, half of its sales come from its website, and roughly 5% are from private-label clients. The brand has expanded its assortment that’s encompassed body care and pain management items to a face collection priced from $28 to $90 with Powder Face Wash, Face Mask, Day Face Serum and Night Face Serum. The expansion diversifies its customer demographics from primarily 50 to 80 year olds to shoppers in their 20s to 40s.
While it debuted with CBD Ache + Pain Relief, CBD Skin Repair and lip balms, Life Elements’ CBD Bath Bombs put the brand on the map. Its production is in-house, and the bombs are difficult to make. The brand spent months sorting out the difficulties, and its bombs premiered in April 2018. Each bomb is individually dosed with 50 to 250 milligrams of CBD, and they’re priced from $14 to $26. (Life Elements is bringing in an AI-powered robotic arm for dosing.) If the bombs become moist during the production process, they fall apart. There’s a dedicated room with humidifiers, de-humidifiers, fans and heaters to maintain a consistent level of humidity and hold them together. A batch of 100 bombs can take three people eight hours to craft before a 24-hour drying period, compared to a batch of 300 CBD Ache + Pain Relief pieces that takes a single person two hours to make.
“We had a ton of feedback from people right away telling us how great the bath bombs were working. We started talking about it not as an expensive bath, but as an inexpensive massage,” says Van Inwegen. “We talked about the 50 milligram as like getting a Swedish massage with a light touch that’s relaxing. Then, the 100 milligram is a sports massage that gets into the muscles better, and the 200 milligram is a deep-tissue massage that really addresses sore areas.”
“Our story is one of perseverance and belief.”
CBD & Honey kicked off before the 2018 Farm Bill federally legalized the hemp trade, and Van Inwegen had no expectations for her CBD products at the outset, but she had a sense CBD was going to be big. “We were very strategic and felt we had to get our brand out, and be known as a leader in that space because we realized it was going to be inundated,” says Van Inwegen. “We hired a PR firm and started getting out there, and we hired a social media director to make sure our messaging was getting out through Instagram and Facebook. Although we couldn’t advertise, at least we could start talking about the brand and how we manufacture.” On/Sight handled Life Elements’ web development and social media marketing, and Everything Branding dove into PR and communications. The brand has been mentioned in Bustle, Fast Company, Marie Claire, Refinery29 and more publications.
Van Inwegen has been extremely careful about selecting retailers for Life Elements. If they’re not CBD authorities, she prefers retailers that carry three CBD brands or less. “It allows the retailer to become knowledgeable about the product that they are selling and sell them based on their merit versus price point,” says Van Inwegen. “One of our questions is: How are you going to differentiate our product versus everyone else’s? We don’t want to be sold on price. We want to be sold on efficacy.” Van Inwegen is opening up to the idea of larger retailers, and Nordstrom and Credo are on her distribution wish list.
Self-funded Life Elements has limited resources to chase retail. Originally, Van Inwegen and her husband Curt manufactured its products alone. Life Elements’ growth supports six employees as well as them today, including two full-time bath bomb specialists. It recently moved from a 3,700-square-foot to 6,200-square-foot facility in Atascadero, Calif. Van Inwegen is interested in a strategic partner to further build Life Elements with equipment and a sales team. She doesn’t envision having to majorly pivot again.
Speaking of the blazing CBD market, Van Inwegen predicts, “I don’t think it is going to stop, but I think the reputable companies will stay at the top, and those that are just jumping it into for the money are going to go away.” Turning to Life Elements specifically, she says, “I hope that it continues to grow and that my kids take over the company…It has not been an easy venture, but we believe in what we are doing, and we love how many people’s lives we have helped along the way. Our story is one of perseverance and belief.”