This Doc Prescribes Indulgent Soaps, Scrubs And Soaks That Are Good For You And The Planet
Sarah Villafranco doesn’t only play a physician in blog posts. The Osmia Organics founder is a real-life ER doc who took an unusual turn into soap making and wound up creating a natural beauty brand stocked by Credo, The Detox Market, Aillea, Follain, Take Care and Anthropologie. Osmia has expanded despite Villafranco’s distaste for salesmanship because of her dedication to filling its products with good stuff that smells delicious and spreading the gospel of skin care’s essential role in wellness rituals. “I’m a health care professional, and I think of Osmia as a health style brand. We are not here to make you look younger or prettier,” she says. “We are here to help you live your healthiest, happiest, most authentic life and that allows a person to glow from the inside out.” Beauty Independent asked Villafranco to explore her business from the inside out in a comprehensive interview that touched on her radical job change, pricing and product missteps and Osmia Organics’ envy-inducing social media feed.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a residential area of Washington, D.C., went to Georgetown undergrad and medical school, and residency training at George Washington University. Basically, the first 32 years of my life were spent within a four-mile radius. I ended up in medicine because I knew my Georgetown law professor father would want me to attend graduate school and law school was hugely unappealing to me. I love people and being able to help them on a healing path was attractive to me. I chose emergency medicine because I’m a good multitasker and because I didn’t have to limit the scope of my practice. After we had our first child, my wheels started to turn about where I wanted to live and raise children. I had been visiting my brother in the Aspen area since 1992 and always felt a connection to the mountains. So, when I finished my training, we made the move to a tiny mountain town in Colorado, which was a pretty big leap of faith for me and my D.C. lawyer husband, but we both had clarity about how special this place was and how it could serve as a sanctuary for our family even as we live busy, career-oriented lives.
When did you launch Osmia?
We launched Osmia in the spring of 2012 after several years of formulating. It’s not a very clear transition from being an ER doctor to launching a skincare line. My mother died of pancreatic cancer in 2007. It triggered an avalanche of turbulence in me about what I wanted to do with my time on the planet. She was 64 when she died, and she was super healthy until she wasn’t. I don’t think she got to do all the things she would have done if she had known her life was going to be that short. While I loved working in the emergency room, I never felt it was exactly my brand of medicine. I felt frustrated when people would take their health for granted and treated it as if it were something they were entitled to rather than something they needed to contribute to. So, that was bubbling inside of me. I took a soap-making class just to branch out to something creative. There is not a whole lot of creativity in medicine. It’s not like you are going to give someone medicine just because it feels good. It’s fairly scripted even if you have your own style. When I took the class making soap, a switch flipped in my brain. Some of the turbulence in me started to settle, and I started to see a future with Osmia. I asked myself, “What would my mother want for me?” The answer was as clear as if she was in the room. It was, do what you love.
Did it cost more than $100,000 to get Osmia off the ground?
Absolutely, but there is a lot I didn’t know then. I could start the company for a lot less money now. In particular, I decided to start a company with over 30 SKUs. That is crazy. If I could do it again, I would pick five things. I was a geyser of creativity, and I didn’t go to business school. I went to medical school. Now, I’ve been to the hard knocks school of business.
When did Osmia reach profitability?
We have been profitable since year two, but we have always reinvested the profits to grow the business. It is easier to reach profitability when the numbers are small in the first year, and it’s easy to quintuple your business in year two when you only made $40,000 in the first year you of business.
What’s been your distribution strategy?
Since we launched, we have really been an e-commerce business. About 90% of our business is e-comm-based. We do have a small storefront in our town and, the more people that find out about us, the more visitors we have at the store. The first 1,500 square feet that opened in April of 2012 was part production facility, part retail storefront, and part shipping and receiving, which is what we are still are, just in a bigger space. At this point, we still make everything in-house.
How do you grow Osmia’s distribution?
We have about 52 doors, some physical and some online. We’ve been pretty selective about our retail partners, and it’s probably meant a slower growth rate for that part of the business. We are really more interested in choosing partners aligned with our mission than in taking a check from anyone who’s interested in selling our product. We are comfortable doing that because we’re mostly a direct-to-consumer brand. Occasionally, we have said yes to a larger format store where we felt the brands had a good synergy, but we haven’t been out to explode our numbers.
Pretend I’m a retailer you’re interested in. Give me a quick pitch on your brand.
I’m a doctor with a deep understanding of human wellness, and our products our formulated with simplicity, health and mindful self-care in mind. I don’t need a gimmick to sell you on our line. I just need you to take this bag of Osmia products home. I actually hate selling my products. I just want you to use them because I know you will love them.
Amazon, yes or no?
My answer to that is kind of yes for now. We sell a few SKUs on Amazon. They buy from us and handle all of the returns. We realize there are some people that shop on Amazon, and we want those customers to be able to get a few of our core products there. It would be folly not to try it.
As you’ve entered bigger retailers like Anthropologie, have you had to change your production practices?
It’s been a gradual scaling up of our processes. Sometimes, it’s just buying a bigger mixer or pot. I totally get why a lot of people outsource manufacturing. We may do that in the future for some of our products, but we also really love the control we have doing it in-house. Thus far, we have been able to respond to demand mostly because we have curated our partners so we can meet demand.
What’s the key to your website?
We are trying to build Osmia as an educational platform in addition to an e-commerce platform. I have a big degree, and I want to put it to use by sharing real science with people on what we know about what’s going on with our skin, and how it can impact our health, and the health of animals, plants and the earth. People are hungry for that content, and they’re coming to know us as a brand and me as a person. I share a lot. I want people to know they are dealing with a straight shooter who is really passionate.
What is Osmia’s hero product, and how did it come to be?
I was suffering from a skin condition called perioral dermatitis. It’s like acne and eczema had a baby on your face in a goatee distribution. It can happen around the eyes, too. When it’s bad, it’s enough to keep people in their homes. During that time, I had come up with a nice base formula for facial soap that was gentle and non-drying. I had these memories growing up of my friend’s mom using Erno Laszlo’s gorgeous black facial soap. It was this rich black bar of soap and it seemed so posh. I started playing with ingredients that would make a bar of soap black. I ended up using black clay and dead sea mud. While I was testing that formula, I noticed my PD symptoms diminishing. I went back to other stuff to see if it was a fluke, and my symptoms came back. I went back to the soap, and my symptoms diminished. It helps with conditions like dermatitis and acne or breakout-prone skin. The dead sea mud has the right chemistry for these conditions. It’s very mineral-rich and rich in sulfur, which has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities.
What’s been your biggest product fail?
It wasn’t a product fail as much as a packaging fail, and that was our lip glosses, which I actually loved. We colored them with beet root and alkanet root. The hues were really beautiful and the texture was perfect, but we put them in these squeezable tubes and filling them was a disaster. It was messy, and the labels that went on them looked ragged quickly. As I got to know Shirley Pinkson from W3ll People and saw how nicely her brand was doing lip gloss, I thought, “I’m ready to let this go.” Those guys have that covered.
Do you have a mentor?
I consider many members of the green beauty founder community to be my mentors, and I hope they feel the same way about me. I’m in contact with 20 of my competitors. Hillary Peterson of True Botanicals is so in line with what I believe, which is that a rising tide lifts all boats. Katharine L’Heureux of Kahina Giving Beauty has the same way of thinking. It’s so much healthier to support each other and cheer each other on. There really is room for all of us.
How does being headquartered in Carbondale, Colo., a town of less than 7,000 people, affect your brand?
In some ways, it puts us in a little bit of a challenging position to become known on the broader market because we are really isolated. I have to travel a lot, which I mostly love. You have to work harder to get your name in front of people when you are not in one of the big metropolitan locations. Fortunately, it also provides the opportunity for total Instagram porn. The inspiration I draw from my surroundings is incredible.
What’s been the worst day at your business and why?
It was during the holiday season a few years ago. I had been traveling on business and came home to find out we had hundreds of unfulfilled orders, and nobody was scheduled to work over the weekend. I had somebody in charge at the time who didn’t have her priorities quite in the right place for our brand. I remember feeling so disappointed that our customers were going to feel the effect of our lack of organization, but it ended up being great for a couple of reasons. It was like an American Express small business commercial because I went and packed up 150 orders myself over two days. It gave me clarity on my team and what needed to happen to make it truly great, which it is now. I really had to trust my gut feeling. I will never allow someone to make me feel like I’m tiptoeing around my own business again.
What’s Osmia Organics’ price range, and how did you land on that range?
Our price range is from a $12 lip balm to a $98 face serum. We have some stuff coming out in the next six months that could bump up that higher price point. As far as picking pricing, a person I took a class from early on said the answer to the question of how much should I charge is always as much as you possibly can. At first, I thought that was seriously gross, but now I realize as a small business that is choosing to use premium quality ingredients and never sacrifice, that you price things high because, as you grow, there are a number of expenses that crop up and eat into the bottom line. As a result of my inability early on to price things as high as I should have, there are certain things we don’t wholesale because we actually wouldn’t make money on them.
What does your most successful retail partner do that you wish would become an industry standard?
When we work with people who appreciate our commitment to education and quality, we really appreciate that. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is just to finish a string of emails or get answers. The thing that is frustrating in this industry is the feeling that we should somehow be groveling to be on someone’s shelves. What we are trying to do is elevate people’s brands. This is a partnership. It is not you doing me a favor.
What is your approach to discounting?
Is there such a thing as meaningful discounting? We do some seasonal celebrations. We do a Spring Equinox sale and a Summer Solstice sale. We are connected to the seasons and nature. It somehow feels mindless to say, “Oh, I’m going to discount on this day because everybody thinks I have to.” The one exception is Cyber Monday, which is a time I think people are excited to see discounted prices, and we want people to have Osmia in hand when the holidays roll around.
Have you done any fundraising?
We are still self-funded. If the right opportunity came along, I would consider it. I have not felt it was critical yet, and I also want to partner with someone who is trying to make meaningful change and not just make money. It’s possible to do both.
What would you do with a big cash infusion?
I could see us spending money in our lab. Our production manager Monika Kincade and I fantasize about certain filling machines and being able to make that dream come true would be fun.
How fast have Osmia’s sales been growing?
We have sustained solid 30% year-over-year growth. I feel we are at a healthy, organic pace of growth. We have room to move if the right opportunity came along, but we are also creating a beautiful company culture. That’s a big part of the model that matters to me.
Does Osmia Organics provide employee benefits?
We have certainly come a long way in terms of what we are able to offer people who work for Osmia. We provide a healthcare plan for our full-time employees as well as a movement benefit which they can apply to anything that contributes to their wellness. They can choose if they want to make it a yearlong yoga membership or ski pass.
What have you found works for your brand on social media?
Instagram is definitely our biggest social media platform. It’s the perfect platform for me personally. I do the whole thing, and I do almost everything on my iPhone. In another life, I would have been a photographer. I don’t mind carrying my phone everywhere, and taking the time to post pictures and the thoughts that go with them. I feel it’s a really wonderful way to connect to the essence of me and my brand. If I’m out trail running, cooking beautiful vegetarian food for my family, taking time for self-care rituals even with my schedule the way it is, I want people to see that. I’m not telling you one thing and behaving differently myself.
What have you learned about what it takes to make it as a beauty entrepreneur?
It sounds trite, but you have to hustle. People always say, “You stepped away from a career in medicine, and you finally get to spend time with your family. It must be less stressful.” I think, “Are you nuts?” After a shift in the hospital, I was off. This is elbow’s deep all the time, and you have to be ready to do the job yourself.