Sex (Oil) Sells: An Unsalacious Story Of The Products And Passion Driving Province Apothecary
Julie Clark is a maker in the truest sense of the word. She’s compelled to make stuff. That longing led her first to costume design and wardrobe styling in New York, where hostile workplaces distressed her, and then fortuitously to aromatherapy and aesthetics back in her native Canada. “Once I started in aromatherapy, I loved it so much that I knew it’s what I wanted to do,” effuses Clark, who launched Province Apothecary in 2012.
At the brand, Clark is thoroughly hands-on, giving facials to clients in its Toronto skincare clinic and leading product development. Like many founders, her problem isn’t committing to her brand, but occasionally pulling herself away. Beauty Independent chatted with Clark about meditation, lubrication and vacation.
How much money did it take to begin your brand?
It probably was under $10,000, but I traded a lot. I had the benefit of knowing a graphic designer and a web designer. One of my regrets is not taking out a loan for the $10,000. I had no money and every dollar counted so much that it really limited growth at the beginning. I would physically make my own labels at Kinkos and, producing the products, I could only make a small amount.
You worked as a waitress while you were running Province Apothecary at the outset. Why?
I started everything in about 2010, and I stopped waitressing in 2013. When we launched, nothing happened. It was so anticlimactic. Back then, I didn’t have a huge following. It took months and months and months to make online sales and gain a clientele. I did not quit waitressing until we got a pretty big Urban Outfitters order.
When did you reach profitability?
Since I’ve started, it’s always been profitable, but it’s because I sell products and also do treatments. The profits really came from the services not from product sales at the beginning and, now, we do more product than treatment sales.
Pretend I’m a retailer. Give me the quick pitch on your brand.
We are green, clean and handmade. As an aesthetician, I can see what’s missing in the market and what consumers want to buy, so that’s what differentiates us, and they can be confident in the results that their consumers will get.
What’s your retail distribution strategy?
We are in 180 stores in North America. We love green beauty stores that are owned and operated by small groups – a founder or two – that really care. That’s who we are most interested in working with. In Toronto, Easy Tiger Goods and Likely General are amazing. In the U.S., we love Wildcraft, Seed to Serum and Take Care. We are passionate about green beauty and they are, too.
What percentage of your business is direct versus wholesale?
The store/spa and online takes up 60 percent of the business. The rest is wholesale. We’ve been concentrating on wholesale and expanding the brand throughout North America.
“When we launched, nothing happened. It was so anticlimactic. Back then, I didn’t have a huge following. It took months and months and months to make online sales and gain a clientele.”
Do you still perform spa treatments yourself?
I do it one day a week right now and then I have tons of people I fit in randomly. I don’t think I will ever stop doing treatments. They really inform everything I do. Every product has come from a need a client has or for a treatment we do. It is when I get to play and experiment. I think, if I didn’t do them, I would get bored.
How often do you take vacation and unplug?
I probably take two weeks off a year, and I work through them. I have a really hard time unplugging during the week, so even when I’m on vacation, I check in a lot. In 2016, I started taking two days off a week: Sunday and Monday. From 2010 to 2016, I would probably take one, but work for half of it.
What are your hero products?
The Healing Eczema Balm. I started the company because I wanted to heal my eczema. Right now, at least in Toronto with our retailers, we are best known for our oil cleansers and Sex Oil.
Lube isn’t the most usual product for a beauty company. How did Sex Oil come about?
I had been looking for natural lube in 2008 and couldn’t believe there was nothing on the market. That’s when I started experimenting with oils and making my own lube. Lots of people were forced to try it because I did a lot of market research. I was also trying to find a better name. I thought Sex Oil was too blunt. We couldn’t come up as anything else, so it stayed as Sex Oil.
You must have to be really comfortable talking about sex.
I stick to the facts, and that’s what sells. People can see the passion I have for the product. Now, I just don’t even think about it. I ask, “What are you using? Have you read the ingredients?” I think it’s important for us to be aware of what we’re putting on ourselves.
Are retailers as comfortable as you?
With Sex Oil, it’s on a case by case basis. A lot of people are like, “It’s too risky for my clientele.” It’s about how forward they are and their customers are. It was the first thing Goop picked up.
What’s your brand’s price range and how did you land on it?
I looked at costs and then I looked at the market. I really wanted to keep it affordable. Our Healing Eczema Balm is $19, our soaps are $14 and our large cleanser is $44. We are not as high as some clean brands out there, and we are not as low as some. Our margins are not what they should be exactly. When Natalie came on board, she said, “How did you do this?” I said, “I just wanted our costs covered.” She said, “That’s wrong!” We buy in larger quantities now, so that’s helped.
How big is your business and how much has it grown?
Since Natalie came on board, we have doubled in size. We haven’t reached a million yet.
“I stick to the facts, and that’s what sells. People can see the passion I have for the product. Now, I just don’t even think about it. I ask, “What are you using? Have you read the ingredients?” I think it’s important for us to be aware of what we’re putting on ourselves.”
Besides yourself, who is key to making your brand work?
I brought on a business partner last year. Her name is Natalie Sischy. She worked in the corporate beauty world and wasn’t happy there. I had no idea how much help I really needed. I was trying to do it all. I was burning out, so it was really lucky she came on board. She manages all the sales now.
You worked with a wholesale distributor to spread to Western Canada and stopped. Why?
Natalie doesn’t like using distributors. She prefers handling all the sales herself with her team. She likes that connection to the stores. Generally, we are working with smaller stores, so it’s easier to have a connection, and that’s how we prefer it. In Canada, most of the distributors we talked to were taking 25%. It wasn’t worth it with our margins. It wasn’t sustainable.
You are a fan of meditating and journaling. Why?
I’ve been meditating since I was 21 and have seen results from it. A lot of ideas come from getting things out of your brain. That’s also where journaling comes from. I worry a lot and journaling lets me stop repeating something in my head. If I’m grumpy or upset, everyone can feel that, and that’s not helpful.
What’s an item in your workspace that has meaning to you?
We have salt lamps everywhere. They help clean, purify and calm the space that you are in.
You have 12 employees currently. How do you want them to view you as a boss?
I want everyone to feel like they are being seen and heard, and that I have great respect for them, and that they are part of a company that’s making more than just skincare. We are consciously doing things to improve the planet and our lives.
How do you embody your brand when you are in public?
I don’t wear makeup. My skin is extremely important to me. I take care of it, and I think that’s reflected in how I look. If I really tried to embody PA, I don’t think I would do it correctly, so it’s better to let it happen naturally.