Building an All-Natural, Gender Neutral Skincare Brand – Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of Heliotrope
INTERVIEW VIDEO (Length – 56:19)
PODCAST AUDIO[sc name=”sponsors”]
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of Heliotrope shares his journey of creating an all-natural skincare line with a focus on gender neutrality and avoiding synthetic fragrances and artificial colors.
People & Resources Mentioned in the Episode
What You’ll Learn
Interview with Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of Heliotrope
|00:52||Motivation behind the business|
|30:01||The beauty industry|
|31:42||Marketing and customer acquisition|
|43:41||Mistakes made, lessons learned|
|47:00||Rapid fire round|
In this segment, the guest will answer a few questions quickly in one or two sentences.
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of Heliotrope
- An innovative product or idea and the current eCommerce, retail, or tech landscape that you feel excited about (Response: Wholesale trade shows moving online)
- A business or productivity tip that you would recommend (Response: Take a break in the middle of the day and go do something physical)
- An entrepreneur or business person whom you look up to or someone who inspired you (Response: Riaz Taplin)
- Best business advice you ever received (Response: Do build those relationships)
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Hey there, entrepreneurs. My name is Sushant, and welcome to Trep Talks. This is a show where I interview successful eCommerce entrepreneurs, business executives and leaders, and ask them questions about their business story, and also dive deep into some of the strategies and tactics that they have used to start and their business.
And today I’m really excited to welcome JP or Jonathan Flo. Kelly to the. Jonathan is the founder of Helio Drops San Francisco and helo p com, which creates all natural skincare product lines. And today I’m gonna ask Jonathan a few questions about his entrepreneur journey and some of that strategies and tactic that he has used to start.
So thank you so much for joining me today at
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: Of course, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: So, Let’s get into get into a little bit about your startup story. What really motivated you to create a skincare line? Uh, product brand.
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: That’s a, that’s a loaded question. It started because I lost my last job. Um, I’ve, uh, been in retail forever.
I mean, I’m, I’m much older than I look, which is actually a good thing when you’re in skincare. Um, I can tell people in my story that I’m 58 and they say, really? Oh my God, what do you use? And I just showed that my product line. So I’ve been in retail about, I don’t know, close to. Well, more than 35 years, let’s say that.
And I’ve worked for all the big companies, including, um, some of your, uh, followers might know Bear Essentials now it’s called Bear Minerals. Um, when I worked there back in the nineties, it was really more focused on skincare and body care, less on cosmetics. That has since flipped. But, um, I learned the business then certainly I learned, I worked with a bunch of local chemists.
I learned all about aromatherapy. I learned about essential oils. I learned about kind of the basics of skin care and body care without, uh, becoming a chemist. I never had an interest in becoming a chemist. So years later when I had cycled through a number of other, um, great, really great jobs, um, I worked for a company that was shrinking and my job was eliminated.
And I thought, you know, now’s the chance. This is about 12 years ago. And I just picked up the phone and I contacted some of the chemists I had worked with before and I said, Hey, remember me? And they’re like, oh my God, jp of course, let’s work together. So it was, it was really that simple. I just needed something to light a fire under me.
And at the time, three of my best friends were sole business owners. Uh, In various, one was in service, one was, uh, and two were in product. And I thought, well, you know, if, if nothing else, I’ve got three great mentors who I’m surrounded by. So that’s, that’s really how it.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: That’s something really interesting.
Cause a lot of times people start businesses because they think, you know, something is missing in the products or, you know, the way a business is being done or, you know, industry needs to be disrupted. But this was really just a way for you to, uh, self employ yourself,
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: I guess, and, and to seek and to seek some fulfillment on my own.
And it’s interesting you mentioned what was missing in the marketplace, what really. Made it come together for me was I was looking for a shower gel that had no perfume and at the time, fragrance free was not quite as popular as it is today. Today you can go and find any number of products that have no added scent.
Back in 2009, 2010, that wasn’t really the case. So when I was seeking out a shower gel with no scent and I couldn’t find one, that’s what really the light bulb went over my head and I thought, okay, this is, this could be what I kind of, the framework that I hang everything else off.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: So in the beauty industry, is it like, you know, these days what I hear, and I’ve spoken with a few of the beauty brands, you know, some brands are completely all natural, some are around aroma therapy, so which I’m assuming has the scent aspect to it.
And then you’re talking about products without any scent. Can you gimme a little bit of a landscape of like what. Um, is it really just about different people wanting different products at different price points and, you know, just targeting that different
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: demographics or something different? Uh, certainly that’s part of it.
I don’t know about the different price points part because as a small company I don’t have the same economies of scale as some of my larger competitors. So, um, you know, I do really well on some prices, but on, on others, I don’t really where. Where we excel is with people to, there’s actually a couple different things about it being fragrance free.
One for myself, I have, um, sensitive skin and I have a reaction to perfume oils and pretty much everything out there. When you look at a product that has a scent of any kind, it is almost guaranteed to be a synthetic perfume oil that comes out of a lab. Not that that’s a bad thing. Other companies do well.
Some people love those scents, you know, apple Blossom and Blue Raspberry and all those things. For someone like me, I can’t actually. Have those in my product. So, so for all the people with sensitive skin or who, who or who just don’t like scent, um, I offer a, a fragrance free line for them. Now, ironically, we do also offer a lot of aromatherapy and we do offer scent.
We offer, um, pure essential oils, so no synthetic perfumes. And what I’ve, what I’ve done is I’ve. Took a page of the book from when I was at Bear Essentials many, many years ago, and it’s something they had dipped their toes in that I quite liked. We offer all the essential oils in our shops and online and, um, give people the opportunity to custom blend.
Sorry, the lights go off in my studio if I don’t move, um, is the light okay or do I need to get up and wave my arms? Uh,
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: it’s a little bit dark, but uh, if you, if you need to move around then fine. Sorry
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: about that. Okay, cool. So silly. I do that every seven minutes or so. Um, my assistant just left, so no one else is moving.
Um, it, it actually opened up a really interesting piece for me, a piece of the puzzle, this not having sent art. Part of it is the elimination of purely synthetic product. There’s really, if you see the word perfume or parfum or fra. On an ingredient list, it’s, it’s almost guaranteed to be synthetic. So I’m eliminating one more synthetic product from, from the supply chain with all of the inherent problems with it.
It’s also, um, ironically in skincare, perfume, females are very drying. So to see a, um, a facial moisturizer that has perfume as an ingredient is somewhat ironic because it, it does the opposite of what the product’s supposed to do. It also kind of accidentally opened up a market that I didn’t even quite realize.
Now it’s obviously, obviously I’m a man. I’m in a business that is usually considered to be more female oriented, although men do have the same skin and should also be moisturizing. What it opened up for me was an opportunity to market to all those guys out there who might not otherwise want to put on moisturizer or to worry about their skin.
often it is the scent and only the scent that separates women’s skin care. From men’s skin care. Um, we all have the same skin and, um, and honestly, the only thing that. That separates them in the marketplace is how other marketers, uh, present their product Like this smells like wood. It must be for a man.
This smells like a flower. It must be for a woman. If you eliminate those artificial sense, that eliminates that artificial, um, dividing line. And in effect, we all use the same product. And, and because there is so much talk nowadays about the meanings of gender and, and all that kind of thing, and the fact that so many.
Choose not to identify one way or the other. It kind of fits into that niche too, without, that wasn’t not my atten intention, but it certainly worked out to, um, to open up the product line to to, to everybody basically.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: That’s, that’s very interesting because, um, traditionally, you know, one, one thing that is men and women have basically the same skin.
Mm-hmm. and. I mean, if you, if I, if I think about like, women’s can feel a little bit like they feel softer, they feel a little bit different. Whereas men’s can a little bit more tighter, I guess, you know, uh, and rougher, I guess. Um, and traditionally it has, you know, if you are using. These kind of products, you know, people will say, you’re feminine man, or something like that.
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: Yeah. And I, and yeah, sorry, finish your question. I tend to jump in when I’m supposed, so please finish.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Yeah. So I guess my question would be like, um, do, I mean I’m, I don’t really use a lot of, you know, these kind of products like sh. Is it, if I, if I’m not using it, is it just that I’m just leaving my skin a little bit rougher, a little bit dryer?
Or is it like actually harming my
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: skin? I wouldn’t say harming. I mean, if, when it comes to, um, certainly when it comes to Sun Care, for example, we all wanna use, uh, SPF products. I actually don’t make SPF products because they’re, they’re quite difficult and quite highly regulated. So I just wear a hat everywhere I go.
Um, but it’s interesting about, So, so I had a friend when I was 25, which is now 33 years ago, and they said, you know, the best thing you could, you could do for yourself is moisturize. And I thought, oh, well that’s crazy. I was never taught to do that. My mom certainly never talked about it with her three sons.
Um, but I did. I started doing it, and all I can say is 33 years later, I don’t look my age. I can say that in all honesty. And. Without being big headed, it’s just I don’t look my age and I can guarantee that a good percentage of the reason is because I moisturize. So, so sure. Would I have done harm to myself by not moisturizing?
Probably not. But you cert there’s certainly a great upside plus, you know, why not look good? I, I think there’s, there’s these kind. Uh, gendered roles, like you said. Oh, does it, does it somehow feminize a man to use moisturizer? I would argue men do take care of themselves in other ways. It’s just for some reason, you know, guys crimp and guys do their hair and guys, you know, shave the shape their beards a certain way.
And, um, perhaps go to the gym and work out. This is just another way of taking care of yourself. That along the way has been kind of thrown into the female camp. Mm-hmm. and I would argue that’s not necessarily the case. For example, my, um, so my favorite product, I don’t have it in front of me. It’s over on a shelf and I won’t get it, but it’s my cucumber after shape balm.
And I was, I worked with my chemist. I thought, you know, I want a product. Started out as a, as, as an aftershave, you know, to soothe the skin after you shave it. I still do shave some of my face. And um, I said, but why don’t we make it into a real great product? Let’s not just make it an aftershave. Let’s turn it into a great moisturizer too.
So what happened is, I’ve got this great. It’s very light. It smells great. It’s real cucumber in there, and you and I slather it all over. So it’s my after shake, but it’s also my bal and really it’s my secret weapon in my store. For guys who don’t moisturize or who are maybe uncomfortable or just don’t know any better, this is kind of my, um, what is it they call it the.
Like the first step towards something like the gateway. This is my gateway moisturizer. So you can, so someone, let’s say a guy walks in my store and isn’t familiar with the ins and outs of skincare. I’m like, this is a great place to start. You shave, right? Start with your aftershave, slathered all over your face.
Boom. You’re moisturizing. So I kind of, um, that’s how I get . That’s how I get people to moisturize. Cool.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Uh, now one, one part of your product line contains c d um, how is, how are these part, and these are still like, they’re, they’re also, um, uh, you creams and, and so forth, like, uh, yeah, absolutely. How, how are these products different than your regular product that don’t have cbd?
Do they have like, Added benefits or, you know, different things that
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: they’re Yeah, I would, so, um, that’s a great question. I would argue, well, the irony of C B D, which, uh, the cannabinoids in general is because they’ve been illegal for so long, there hasn’t really been any legal studies of them. So, It’s kind of a catch 22 now that the cannabinoids have been legalized.
Now my products do not contain any thc, so they’re absolutely legal in all 50 states and Canada. Um, uh, there’s still very little in the way of scientific peer reviewed research papers that could say C B D does this or that, because those research. Um, programs were not allowed to exist. You couldn’t, you couldn’t research these illegal chemicals.
So what we go by are the things that have been studied, and I could say without making any false claims, that CBD is known to be an anti-inflammatory. Um, that could be said for a lot of things. Lavender oil is an anti naro oil, so for me, I talked to my chemist maybe two years ago and she’s the one that actually came to me and said, oh, I found this really great resource.
It’s organic. It’s from Family Run Farm in Colorado. Why don’t we give it a try? And because we’re small and because we’re agile, we’re able to develop products pretty quickly and get them to market really kind of lightning fast. It’s just a matter of designing a label, and we use pretty much the same packaging for a lot of our products to try to save and to be more sustainable.
So it really wasn’t that difficult to say, you know what, let’s do products A, B, C, and D. Let’s add C, B, D, add cannabinoids in a in a particular proportion. That make them efficacious and let’s put it out there. So we’ve got a body cream, we have a lotion, we have a, a sav, which is kind of a beeswax and olive oil kind of, um, product you could put on your skin or your lips.
It’s really what it does is. I, for example, have arthritis in one of my knees. I slather on CBD in the morning. My pain goes away. Now is that a universal fact? I can’t guarantee can I? You know, I can’t, I can’t, um, claim to have any medical papers that prove that. But on many occasions, I’ve had a customer in my store or at a popup that I do a booth at and they say, oh, let me put some on, and I’ll be back later if it worked, and they come back later because it.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Yeah, that’s very interesting. I think it’s very similar to, I mean, recently, I don’t know if you, uh, this, there was this about, uh, this hair growing medication or, you know, which is, uh, and usually it’s prescribed in the spray format, right? Like you spray it. But, uh, similar thing happened. Doctors were prescribing the, the tablet form, like the, you can take the tablet for some other things.
Mm-hmm. . And they realized that form in is more in terms of growing hair than just the spray. And so it’s like this a evidence, even though it’s not, uh, authorized by fda, um, people, people or doctors were finding that. Uh, so I guess, you know, until there, there. Studies or there are, uh, official ways of, you know, monitoring the effect of CBDs.
Uh, it’ll really be just anecdotal evidence of people saying, yes, I as long we
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: don’t. Yeah, as long as we don’t make medical claims, which I don’t do anyway because I’m not a doctor, um, then, then we’re good. Now I have to stand up and make my life go . I should, I should have hired my assistant to stick around for an hour to just stand up and make movement.
Um, so yeah, about the CBD is because it does have, um, even though it is absolutely legal, In both the US and Canada, um, the financial institutions are slow on the uptake. They’re very fearful that the law might change and that they’ll suddenly, uh, be working with companies selling illegal products. So even with online, um, companies like Shopify who host my website, they’re not opposed to C b D, it’s their banks that are, and, and there are quite a few online marketplaces that we belong to that we’re not allowed to sell C B D even though it’s legal.
So it’s. It’s gonna take a couple years for that to kind of catch up with it. But, um, in the meantime, I have to have two websites instead of one.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Uh, and we’ll get, we’ll get into like, how do you actually drive traffic to those sites, you know, with this challenge that you have to maybe do everything twice maybe, I dunno.
Um, but when, when you were starting out, uh, this business, you know, you said, It, it really kind of forced you cause you were forced out of a job or, um, what kinda investment did you make in the beginning? Was it, uh, you know, you were saying you started with one product, um, was it like a manageable investment and how did you manage it?
Was it your own personal money? Uh, can you share a little bit about that aspect? It
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: was, well, a couple, a couple things happened. Um, one was, You know, like I said, I had, I had worked at all the big companies beforehand. There’s quite a few retailers that are based here in the Bay Area. So, um, I did have very good credit.
And that helps when you’re trying to start a business and you don’t necessarily have cash, you end up using credit cards. So, um, the good news is that a lot of the service providers I worked with in the beginning were just people I had relationships with. I, this is the number one thing I tell people. I actually had a local high school send some kids through our office building this week.
Under the guise of getting Halloween candy. But really they were asking us questions about business and I said to them, the, the one thing if, if I could instill one thing in you today, it’s that it’s all about making relationships. Um, my dad told me this, it’s about like making friends on the way up cuz you never know who, who can help you, who you can help and return.
Um, and when I started. Like I said, I picked up the phone and talked to chemists that I’d worked with years before who were willing to work with me until things started flowing. I didn’t have any cash flow in the beginning. I was able to, um, my copywriter was someone that I’d worked with at my previous job.
My graphic designer was someone that I’d worked with at my previous job. These were people that because we had relationships, were either willing to, um, let me pay on time or wait and take product as bar. I still do that occasionally. I’ve got some product photographers I work with who, um, will only take half the money in cash and the rest in product.
So we kind of have this. Ongoing barter system. So it’s, you know, because of these relationships, it made it quite easy for me. We also found a small space in San Francisco when we started. That was, you know, comparatively low rent. It was a tiny little shop, but it was big enough that I was able to get everything done.
And in this one little storefront we did all of our filling, all of our labeling, all of our shipping, and had a little, you know, tiny little storefront for people who walked in off the street. So it was really just, um, and of. You know, having credit cards certainly helped to do, you know, I had to buy bottles, I had to get labels printed.
Mm-hmm. . But, um, but a lot of it had to do with just working with people I knew and who I had working relationships
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: with. So, but, but a create this product line, you knew how to get, um, how to bring customers in or how to get distribution. I mean, I guess that’s, that’s my second question. Like how, how do you get your first.
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: Um, that, that’s, that’s a great question. I want to jump back one, one thing for the, the thing about starting up, um, a lot of companies will go to their bank, their local, their personal bank and say, Hey, can I get a business loan? And a lot of people will be turned down because they don’t wanna, they don’t wanna subsidize a new business.
There’s an organization here in San Francisco, it’s called Working Solutions, and. What they were able to do working. So that is not the name of it. It is working assets. Oh my god. I said the wrong thing. Um, and they basically are a non-profit that helps startups. There are actually a lot of, of, of organizations, both non-governmental and governmental, that helps startups.
So in this case, it was a, it was a non-profit organization that gives low interest, uh, loans to startup. Who’ve been turned down by the banks. There was also a program in San Francisco run by the government that allowed you to hire people who were currently on public assistance and the city would subsidize their.
Wages. So there are programs out there, both governmental and non to help to help startups. You just kind of need to go online and figure it out and, and hopefully you’re in a metropolitan area that will provide those kinds of resources. But your next question to move on was about getting customers. Um, I strongly believe that the place to start was in a retail store.
I had worked for some. Online retailers catalog. I mean, I’m older. My, my retailers were catalog retailers. Okay. I still call my online orders, mail orders, even though they’re not mail orders anymore. Mm-hmm. . Um, but I felt strongly that because your website new and you’ve gotta do all sorts of things to build it up and get SEO and do all those things and pay for advertising, I thought, let’s just get a storefront.
So, That was the thing that started. And by having a storefront, not only did it allow people to walk in just as they’re walking down the street or waiting for the street car, but it also provided a level of credibility that I don’t know, that just having an online presence would provide if, if I were to reach out to a local newspaper or, or one of the websites that talk about skincare.
If you say, oh, we have a shop in San Francisco. You know, I think, I think that adds a lot of cred credibility. Like, oh, you’re not just some fly by night, or, oh, you’re not just, um, somebody working out of your garage. Not that those are bad things, you know? For a time between stores. I was also working out of my garage, but, but I was, I was lucky enough to be able to find a place that allowed me to have a little storefront.
It gave me, um, an address. It gave me something I refer to. It gave me, I could take pictures in my store. Um, and it added a, you know, I could join the neighborhood association and piggyback on the other merchants advertising capabilities. So for me that was a really great way to, to jumpstart the business That’s, Um,
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: so, so you started in, in a, um, in, in your own, you created your own shop, um, is right now, is your eCommerce like, what, what is working better for you?
Is, is your shop still, is storefront still the biggest driver of your business, or is now eCommerce, uh, really the one that’s, you can really, and I chose
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: mm-hmm. . Can I choose option three? It’s neither. My biggest business right now is wholesale, so. For many, many years my store, I moved my store. I’m actually part of a collective on Valencia Street, which is quite a nice, charming shopping area in San Francisco.
And I actually share my store with a friend who does home decor. So it’s actually a little bit of a collective, it’s both skincare and home decor. Um, I like collaborating with other people, so it’s a perfect model for me. We get to share everything. Um, for the many, many years it was about 75 to 80% of my business.
Valencia Street’s quite popular and it was a nice place to be. Online kept picking up. Then the, um, the big shutdown happened in 2020. The store closed for a while. Even when it reopened, it was very severely cut back hours, and so online flip flopped. I put all my resources into online. And then I started marketing my products, um, to other retailers online.
I did some trade shows, but mostly online and not just my fully formed, like full size, here’s a shampoo. It didn’t come out cuz it’s blurred out. Um, but also I sell my products in bulk and let other retailers. Use my base formulas to put into their own bottles. That is now more than 50% of my business is just shipping to other retailers.
So it’s, it’s, it’s kind of magical. It’s not something I ever really planned for. I knew I wanted to do a wholesale, I always had wholesale going on in the background. Mm-hmm. . But in the last two years, it’s really become a major driver of my.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: What are the main key ingredients that you use? So you said other, um, other businesses or brands are using your products.
Um, is it the raw materials for this are, are they pretty basic? Are you getting it from within or something?
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: Yeah. Well, um, I mean basic that could be, could be used as, I mean, I like to say that there’s maybe five or six main ingredients that I love to use, uh, in my formulas. There’s, there’s simple things that everybody knows.
Aloe Vera, everybody knows Aloe vera every, I bet 90% of people have it in their cupboard. Just a bottle of aloe vera. Um, shea butter, which is a really wonderful nut butter. It comes from a tree in West Africa. Um, ho Hoba Oil, which comes from a plant in the southwest. Olive oil is a great one to lavender oil.
The, these are kind of basic things that are, that show up in pretty much every formula I make. You can find alle and shea butter specifically. Um, it, it’s not brain surgery. These are ingredients that have been around forever. Obviously they’re natural. They’re, they’re plant based. Um, excuse me while I jump up again.
Okay. and, um, You know, these are these problems like our skincare, just dry skin, whatever it is, you know, were solved centuries ago by humans who figured out that if you break open an aloe plant, it’ll help heal a cut earlier. Or if you squeeze the oil out of a lavender flour, it’ll help you sleep better at night if you drop it on your pillows.
So this is not brain surgery. Um, where it comes down to being difficult for people is actually turning it into a formula that you could squeeze out of a bottle. onto your hand, so, you know, it’s easy to say to somebody. So, so here’s an example. During the shutdown, when everybody was talking about hand sanitizer, hand sanitizer was flying off the shelves.
Mm-hmm. . Now technically hand sanitizer is a, when you say something as a sanitizer and, and kills 99% of germs, you’re making a medical claim. Mm-hmm. But suddenly a sanitizer is an FDA regulated product, and you need one of those. Drug labels on it. Well, that’s above my pay scale. We’re, we’re not trying to create something that has a drug label on it, so we instead told people how to make sanitizer at.
You buy some isoprol alcohol, you buy some aloe vera, maybe you add a little bit of essential oils for your own benefit. Lavender, sandal, whatever you like. Shake, shake, shake. You have hand sanitizer. Mm-hmm. , so, so people could do that for their lotion too. I, I have a lot of people who say, you know, oh, I love olive oil.
I just put olive oil on my face. That’s great. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. What we do and what our competitors do too, is we turn it into something that people. Can more easily use in, in a final form. A lot of people don’t want to like, go into the cupboard and pour olive oil onto their hands to moisturize every night.
You want, you know, people have a certain, um, they want a lotion with a particular consistency. They want, uh, something to have a certain, you know, not just olive oil is like, Uh, it’s like if you eat the same thing every day. Yeah. You know, if you eat broccoli, that’s healthy and that’s great, but you need a round of diet.
Yeah. And I feel the same way about my skincare. You know, you could put just olive oil on your skin all day long. It won’t hurt you, but there’s so many other things we could be putting in there that would also benefit you. So, What other retailers are coming to me for in that case is I put it all just in one big bottle and all they have to do is like decant it and sell it to their own clients.
There’s also a new movement and I’ve got at least 20 wholesale clients to do this. They just put my gallon jug with a giant pump in it. on the sales floor and they just sell refills. There’s, there’s a significant number of businesses that have been started in the last couple years that have the word refill in their title.
Okay. And it’s not just in America. I’ve got Canadian customers, I’ve got British customers who are literally just taking my, my big jug with the giant heliotrope labels. It’s one gallon and I stick it out and people come in with, Empty jars and bottles and just do refills. So, um, that’s a significant movement now that, that is really new.
I know someone tried to do that in San Francisco maybe a decade ago and did not succeed. People weren’t ready for that model now. But we do refills in our stores. We always have. Um, what’s different is that there’s now these emporiums that have started that that’s all they do. They just sell things.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Yeah, because that’s, that’s probably more sustainable than, you know, you’re not selling a plastic bottle every time and,
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: and those kinda things.
Absolutely. And, and, and why it’s working now is, I just think because people are more aware, you know, 10 years ago that shop that tried to do it in San Francisco, I forget their name, they were ahead of the curve. I don’t think people, people like people thought about. And now everybody’s thinking about it, so it just makes sense.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: think timing definitely does matter a lot. Um, one, one quick question about the beauty industry. So a lot of things that you said, you know, in terms of ingredients and these kinda things is of course, you know, there, as you said, they’ve been around for long, long time and you know, really basic things that definitely make a difference.
A lot of the big beauty companies, uh, I suppose when they add like these extra synthetic, uh, ingredients or, and then they basically in a way sell the dream that, you know, if you use it, it’s going to reduce your wrinkles over time or, you know, anti-aging and all these things. Are they really just snake wealth and sales people selling their dream?
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: No, I, I mean, maybe some of them are, I don’t, I don’t know every single one of these companies, but I would argue they’re not. I bet these things really do work. I bet when a big company comes along and buys a million dollar is worth of ads on television, and they say that this is proven in studies to increase elasticity and skin.
I bet it’s true. The key difference between us is that there are other more natural ingredients that will also naturally increase elasticity in skin. Um, and I think certainly for me, and I can say for my clients, I would rather use something natural than something lab made. Is the lab made thing better or worse?
I don’t even need to make a, a, a value judgment about that. I can just say that from my perspective, I’d like to have something that’s not made in a lab. Ok. So, um,
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Let me switch the subject a little bit to towards marketing and customer acquisition and so forth, at least, uh, from the, uh, direct to consumer side of things.
Um, mm-hmm. , so you have two websites and. Um, you know, the people who come to buy your products online, how are you? Are you doing any marketing? Is it completely organic? Are you doing social media? Any of those things, and how do you manage the two different sites and bringing people to two different places?
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: Yeah. So yeah, it’s all of the above . It’s everything. Okay. Um, marketing can be done, um, with little money and a lot of effort or with a lot of money and a lot of effort. I mean, you could. The problem is if you want to go down the road of paid advertising, it is extraordinarily expensive. Um, specifically in an industry like mine, if I wanted to do Google AdWords, and we’ve done this over the years, I’ve, I’ve worked with a number of different ad agencies over the years.
It’s difficult because the big departments or companies of the world are paying you. Dare I say a hundred to a thousand times more per word than I can in my little, like when I bid for a keyword on Google. There’s, there’s just, it’s very difficult to compete in that arena to say, um, it’s like putting on a local radio ad.
From your local radio station or a Super Bowl ad on tv. It’s that kind of thing. Like I could do a little text based, uh, Google AdWord campaign that’s very cheap, that gets me very few results. Or if I try to ramp up and do visual ads with movement or whatever it is. I mean, the word moisturizer is one of the most expensive words you can pay for when you do paid advertising.
So what we’ve tried to do is everything else. So, um, one thing that has been very successful, To get traffic is to try to do well. It’s twofold. It’s natural seo. It’s organic seo. We write a lot of blogs and in our blogs we’re trying to not just inform and not just create content and not just give people a reason to visit and to educate.
I mean, we like to think our blogs are educational. The Google loves new content and loves blogs and loves consistency. So if we can, and I’ve had friends over the years write blogs, I’ve had paid people write blogs. I’ve written blogs. Um, it doesn’t have to be like a dissertation, and it doesn’t have to be like a book report.
It could just be from the heart. A couple paragraphs about why I love lavender, which I’ve written many of those kinds of blogs, but I found. The num, the top pages that people enter my site through are all blog entries, blog entries that are years old because people keep clicking on. Um, two examples. One is, uh, why is Sandalwood oil good for you?
And another is, I don’t know what it was called, the top five Reasons why Rose Oil is great for aromatherapy, what, whatever it is. You look at your reports every single week, and that’s what people are still clicking on. So it’s about generating content, which everyone can do. I mean, anyone who’s starting a business can can write a blog again.
If you set yourself up that, oh, it’s gotta be the best blog out there and it’s gotta be read by the most people. It doesn’t. It just needs to be consistent. It needs to be authentic, and it needs to be original, and everybody can do that. You could write just a couple paragraphs a week on why your products are great or what’s going on in the neighborhood Around my story this week, it could be anything.
We try to do that, and lately we’ve really been trying to push social media, but it’s hard. It’s something I’m not, um, I’m not native to it. Mm-hmm. , I certainly scroll through Instagram on my own, but to create content is not something that comes naturally to me. So I, I, um, Hired a friend who has a marketing company just recently, and we just started working on, um, creating content, doing short videos, uh, taking pictures around the studio, things like that, and, and trying to put together a plan on how to, um, best utilize the various channels.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Um, I, I, I completely forgot the question I was gonna ask you, but. Yeah, so, so you mentioned, you know, a lot of the people enter through these blog posts and they’re searching for like these specific things. Um mm-hmm. , when you think about your target market, I mean, there have to be a certain people who are actually looking for,
for you, you know, other things. Do you now have a better understanding? Your target market, your, the persona of the, the customer who’s, who buys
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: your products? Um, well it’s hard to say because so much of it is organic to the site, and I’m not checking demographics, so I, I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head, you know, is my customer.
It’s probably. Two to one female to male, but I can’t really guarantee that. I think even with the blogs, what I, what I have found about my clients is that they are interested in ingredients, they’re interested in, they’re choosing a company like mine versus a big department store brand because. Multifold.
Maybe they, they do care about ingredients. Maybe they want things to be all natural. Maybe they like supporting small businesses. Um, maybe they like supporting local, I mean, we make everything here in the Bay Area. That’s a really big selling point for us, is that we’re local. So what I can say is that the clients we have are interested in those kinds of things.
And dare I say, a lot of people are making, uh, a choice just where they wanna spend their. And they’d rather go to a small local company. Maybe they know the owner cuz they’ve been in the store, or um, maybe they just like the fact that we’re making things in the Bay Area, or maybe they really do delve down into the ingredient list and read it and say, oh gosh, I like how much essential oils are a part of this formula.
Any of those things. But I think people are much more aware about how they spend their money lately and they wanna make smart choices.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: So you definitely have like a full place business with, you know, uh, e-commerce and retail and wholesale and, you know, marketing. What does your team look like right now?
How are you managing all of these different things and what, what, what do you focus on
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: in your business? Um, well, the thing I like most is talking about my , talking about my products. What people tell me I should be focusing on is creating new products. Everybody’s like, what’s new? What’s coming down the pike?
Oh, you’re on a new website. What? What’s coming out for the holidays? Well, we don’t really have holiday focused skincare. I mean, so much of that is, is, um, Like if I were another store in a mall, maybe I would introduce Cranberry or, or pumpkin Spice lotion. We’re not doing that. So instead I’m really, now, now I’m really trying to focus on the social media stuff.
I’m trying to think more about, um, How to present ourselves. What can I do to be a good spokesperson for the company? Um, what are people interested in looking at? It’s my understanding, I’m not a 17 year old, but it is my understanding that a lot of people love to watch unpacking videos or love to watch the videos of all that behind the scenes stuff.
So I’m giving a lot of thought like, what, what? What is it that we do on a day to day basis? My assistants here, or the people who work in the store over in San Francisco, what, what can we do to just kind of make fun, interesting content for people and still be authentic? I don’t wanna just do it just for the heck of it and become, God knows, I don’t wanna become an influencer.
But, um, but I think there’s a way that I could authentically be out there and be myself and represent the company and try to. Try to do it in a way that gets us more recognition, or certainly gets our name out there so people can recognize it. But, but honestly, a lot of the stuff I spend my day to day job doing is all the, with operations stuff.
I mean, I, I don’t have an operations person really, so I’m. Ordering supplies and I’m doing the books, and on Sunday nights I’m taking out the garbage. And, um, you know, it’s not really glamorous, but that’s, that’s the life of a small business owner. And that’s fine. I, I’m perfectly happy to do those things.
I, you know, I’m paying bills, I’m managing money between my bank accounts, so I’m doing, I’m doing all the things people do at home, running their own lives. I’m just doing it maybe on a bigger scale.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Have you ever. Tried, uh, going like the big, big, uh, big box retail kinda, uh, distribution, um, something like, you know, whole Foods that is focusing on natural ingredients and those kind
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: of things.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve actually, in the past, we were in Whole Foods actually, they, there was a movement before the Amazon takeover where every local Whole Foods had as part of its buying budget, the ability to buy. So they, they depended on X percent of their business, um, stuff that the buying office would buy.
And then a smaller percentage was stuff that each individual store could, could bring in. And I was in quite a few stores in the San Francisco Bay area for a while, and then after the takeover that that system wasn’t in place any longer. I think there was less and less local control or local input. So, But I, uh, I did just get approved to be on a, a rather large online platform, not Amazon, but a, another similar kind of department store online.
Um, if a big, if a big box store wanted me, I would, I would love to say yes. I’m not opposed to them, but, One of the issues that I’ve come across is it’s not capacity because we can actually do capacity, we can build up our production, and it’s not following all the various rules, like putting UPC codes on things because we can do that too.
Um, what I found is there’s a certain amount of, um, necessary, God, how do I put this into words? Um, there’s a lot of stuff that goes into the relationship with a big box store where you have. In some cases pay them money to get shelf space or, um, check in marketing money in order to be featured or, you know, various things like that that really take someone who, like if I had a dedicated marketing person or a dedicated wholesale customer, person, wholesale customer service, rather then.
That is something we could probably handle as it is now. A lot of those things are, are just too time consuming for me. So I’ve chosen instead to focus on, um, market, uh, the wholesale marketplaces allow me to sell to other retailers who are small like me and who have needs like mine and who I’m very comfortable speaking with.
Yeah. Um, so, um, but again, if you know, a Sephora, let’s say, or someone like that were to come to me and say, we wanna do this, you know, I would, I would certainly figure out a way to do it. We, um, like I said, we were in Whole Foods before and we’ve been in some other, uh, smaller chains. We were in a bunch of airport stores for a while.
You know, a lot of people who are part of bigger organizations. Um, it just adds another layer of complexity to the relationship. Okay.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Uh, in every entrepreneur’s journey, there’s always lessons learned, mistakes made, um, you know, failures. What has been, you know, what, looking back, what, what are some of the big or, or one biggest mistake or lesson learned that you can think of?
And, and what can other entrepreneurs learn from, from the, from your
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: mistakes. Gosh, that’s a good one. I, I actually don’t think I’ve made any bad mistakes that I regret. I mean, obviously as long as you learn from your mistakes, it’s like, I was in my kid’s school last week for, um, some presentation and they had this sign up on the board about like, classroom rules and one of them was, um, let’s all make marvelous mistakes.
And I thought that was a really cool way of putting it in my kids’ fourth grade class in Berkeley, California. Because a marvelous mistake is one that you make that you’re not ashamed of, that you learn from. So, you know, should I have spent money on that one particular thing? Uh, should I put that on a high interest credit card?
Uh, maybe not really. The ones that I regret, I try not to have a lot of regrets. But one of the things that I’ve regretted really had to do with. With interpersonal relationships more so than, um, wasting money on something or, or buying a system I shouldn’t have bought or creating a product that nobody wanted.
Um, but there were two different occasions. I won’t get into the gory details, where I created a business relationship with someone who I thought was a, who was a friend at the time. And friends are friends and aren’t always the greatest business partners. And, um, in one case it was a very close business relationship that really just went sour and took many years to kind of get out of.
Um, we’re all happily, uh, uncoupled after all that. And another was, like I said, on my, um, my store in the city is a collaboration with another retailer. We were actually in a different collaborative. Uh, uh, location before that with another retailer. And that also was getting into bed with somebody that you thought could be supportive and mutually beneficial.
And instead was, um, let’s just say wasn’t, let’s just say was not what you thought it was. So, And, um, they’re the kinds of things that I don’t know that you could learn from, you know, oh, I shouldn’t have used a high interest credit card. Okay, you’ve learned from that. Don’t do it again. Or I shouldn’t create a product that uses such and such ingredient.
You learn from that. But, you know, making a mistake about getting into a business relationship, it’s like, It’s like dating the wrong person. You don’t know until you’re in it and then you realize, okay, it’s the wrong thing. How do I get out of it? So, yeah. Again, I think most of the things I’ve talked about are relationship based.
Mm-hmm. and including, including the mistakes. So,
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Okay. No, that, that’s, I think that’s a really great thing. I mean, a lot of the times I, it’s, it’s, it’s almost like you can’t predict it like a hit or a miss. Right. Sometimes I hear some founders find co-founders, which they’ve just met, they don’t know anything about, and it works great.
Sometimes, you know people you know for a long time and you get into something and it doesn’t work out. So now we’re going to move on. You try. Yeah. Now, now we’re gonna to, to our rapid round. Uh, we’re the line in this segment. I’m gonna to ask a questions and you to answer them maybe in few words, uh, one or two sentences.
The first is one book recommendation for entrepreneurs. Uh, why?
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: Hmm. I knew you were gonna ask that. I, I don’t have a book recommendation. I have never read a book on business in my entire life. I, um, started in retail right out of college and the best lesson I ever learned was just learning it on the ground.
Um, if you. In college and something interests you, go try to get an internship. If you have a cousin who has a business, see if you’ve got, you know, a couple hours a week, you can help out. That’s how you learn everything. I really don’t think anything I, I’ve gotten out of a, let’s just say I haven’t, I haven’t read a business book and I’m doing that.
Ok, we’ll leave
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: it at that. Ok. Okay. I mean, I was going to ask you, I didn’t, but you know, was because it seems like, you know, some entrepreneurs start off really early in life, um, and, and there’s like, there could be some benefits to that when you don’t know how difficult it’s going to be or, you know, um mm-hmm.
that you can, there’s high probability of failures and some, someone like yourself who started out in offer 35 years of experience and, and so forth. What was your, do you have any comments on, you know, or did you feel. Fear, um, of failing, you know, cause you’re starting out later in life or something. What
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: will Oh, absolutely.
I was, uh, of course if you’re not afraid of failure, there’s probably something wrong with your, with your system. I mean, you should have a healthy sense of fear about everything, but not let the fear stop you. Um, I was a business coach for a while, a personal coach and a business coach for a while, and one of the main things I tried to get across to people is, even if you have fear, that’s fine.
Just don’t let it stop you in your tracks like, Go ahead and you could, it’s not about having courage, it’s about just overcoming your fear. That being said, um, I am very thankful I started this in a very lucky period of time. Um, it was right after the big financial crisis of 2008 and. Here in the US unemployment insurance was extended and it gave people a much bigger safety net or a much longer safety net.
Um, I had, uh, yeah, it, I, I, I was very lucky at the time and I’m very thankful for it. Not everybody has the opportunity or the ability to leave their job and start something new. So if you can figure out how to make it work great and, you know, don’t kill yourself if you can’t. Sometimes circumstances just don’t work out.
I was very lucky. Okay. Uh, an
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: innovative product or idea in the current e-commerce retailer tech landscape that you feel excited about?
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: Well, I’m excited about the, um, There’s this new movement, it started a couple years ago where wholesale trade shows are moving online. Um, there’s a couple companies, one in particular that, that has been a great relationship for me is fair.com, and, um, they’re local.
They’re here in San Francisco, although they’re, they’re international now in scope, you know, a lot of people, either because they don’t want to or they’re not capable of doing it, Going, traveling to trade shows. It used to be everybody went to New York for, you know, twice a year for the houseware show, or you went to Chicago for the whatever.
Um, a lot of people don’t wanna do that. So now if you’re a small retailer in Peoria, you can literally go online to one of these many sites who have different kinds of areas of specialty, of specialty, and. And you can buy the same thing that the big boys are, are buying. You can, you can shop wholesale in the comfort of your own store.
Um, and I, I think it’s a great move. It’s certainly as a. As a retailer, it’s allowed me to buy things from my store that I don’t have to schlep to New York to buy. And as a wholesaler, it’s um, it’s just been amazing. It’s so much less, uh, time and money invested in doing trade shows. It’s really, it, it was a great idea and a lot of people are doing it nowadays.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: there, there is definitely great, uh, a business or productivity tool or software that you would recommend or a
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: productivity. Um, I’m probably the worst person to ask because I work all the time and when I wake up, the first thing I do is check my work email. So I’m, I’m probably not the most productive person in the world.
You know, what I’ve been doing lately, I’ll go probably with an unexpected answer. Um, one thing I’ve been trying to do recently is take a break in the middle of the day and go do something physical. Um, I’ll take a yoga class or I’ll walk around or I’ll. Do something. Um, I started doing aqua aerobics recently for my arthritis and it’s nice you feel really young when you take those classics.
Cause everyone’s like 80. But um, again, not everybody’s able to do this, but if you can get up away from your desk at least once a day, go out to lunch, go walk around the block, um, it really, it doesn’t just. For your physical health to like get up and move around, but for your mental health, it clears, it clears you out.
You could continue to think about work, but maybe come back refreshed with a different perspective. Mm-hmm. . So for me, that makes me more productive. Very nice.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Uh, a peer entrepreneur or business person whom you look up to or someone who inspires you?
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: Huh. That’s a really good question. Um, So the, the building that I’m in right now, I’m in Oakland.
It’s called the Art House, and it’s a big co-working kind of, uh, space where there’s a lot of us that are in here that are makers and we each have our own. I have about a thousand square feet here. I’m not gonna show you cuz it’s a mess. Um, but there’s a gentleman who has a real estate development company.
His name name’s Riaz Helpen. And he, you could think of him as just like, oh, he is just my landlord, but. Has these, this great vision of bringing together these communities and I feel like coming into this really cool building every day, it’s covered in a really beautiful artwork on the outside. Everybody knows the building, if they see it on the freeway from the freeway.
Um, And it’s just, it’s, it’s, Rios has put together this community where people can come in and ostensibly it’s just a place to work and have an office. But it gives me the opportunity to, instead of working alone in my studio, I’m part of a community. There are other makers down the hall, there’s people upstairs who provide services.
There’s events that we get there, lunches that we have. I, I love being part of community. You know, at my store, I’m on the board of the local Merchants Association. I like. Being part of that. And here at the art house, like even I’ve, I have great business relationships. Some, some of my neighbors we’ve collaborated on gift giving projects.
So, um, Rios has really built this community and has really, uh, uh, uh, fascinating plan to, uh, to, to increase the number of buildings like this in the bay.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: That’s awesome. Final question, uh, best business advice you ever received or you would give to other entrepreneurs?
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: Moisturize. No, that was personal advice.
um, the best business. I said, you know, do build those relationships. Find out, you know, um, I know it’s hard cuz sometimes you’re in a job and you don’t like your coworkers. But there, there are trade groups you can join. There are, um, affinity groups you can join. You know, I’m invited on Facebook to groups all the time or on LinkedIn that are kind of trade specific.
If there’s something you know, you’re interested in, there are people in that same field who like talking about themselves and who like talking about their work and, you know, if you are interested in. Let’s say skincare. You can find groups, just Google them locally. Oakland, California Skincare Trade Organization.
Or, or, or even the Chamber of Commerce. Every city has a Chamber of Commerce. It’s a place to start. Um, and there are experts in your field or in related fields who want to help. And it’s just a matter of being open and finding them cuz they really are out. Well, j
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: that was, uh, that was really great. Uh, thank you so much for joining me today.
Those were all the questions that I had. Uh, so thank you again for sharing your story and sharing, you know, a little bit about your, uh, business journey and advice for other entrepreneurs. If anyone wants to get in touch with you or, you know, buy your products, uh, what, what
Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: is the best way they could.
Best ways to go to our website. It’s HELIOTROPE sf, so H E L I O T R O P E, and SF like san francisco.com. Awesome. Yeah. Thank you so much. It was great being here. I really enjoyed my time with you.
Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Likewise. Thank you so much again for joining me today. Jonathan Plotzker-Kelly of HeliotropeSF: Thank you. Take care now.
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