Those who know me best will tell you that I started VIVO Natural Products because I shower a lot. I have exceptional hygiene, no doubt. However, this is not the sole reason for my founding VNP. Having worked for a mid-sized consumer products company, I came to realize that there are no "major" players in the natural products space. In mainstream CPG's we have Unilever, Kraft, Coca Cola, etc. Companies that do billions of dollars in sales, globally. However, for the most part, their products are bad for the people who consume them and even worse for the environment and the economies that produce them.
Hi Michael, Can you give us some background information about you and what you do?
I grew up on Long Island, NY, where I caught the entrepreneurial 'bug' at an early age. I organized ski tours, started a car detailing business, a mortgage business, sold lots of stuff on eBay, and always had interesting jobs as a kid.
What were you doing before you started your company?
I was a student at Babson College- near Boston- it's sort of a hub of entrepreneurial activity in many regards. I had been working as a mortgage broker during the summer months from the time I was a senior in HS through my junior year of college. Telephone sales, learning the basics of marketing and selling. During the summer after my junior year, I landed an internship with Roll, a Los Angeles based private equity company. I was assigned to FIJI Water, one of their subsidiary businesses that was recently acquired. I took a great liking to the business for several reasons- it's a great product (the water really does taste better, and it comes from the most pristine place on earth- so packaging/branding aside, it's authentic), the marketing and branding strategy is very clever, and most importantly, the company is socially conscious and helps their employees in Fiji with all sorts of great community development projects (clean drinking water, schools, healthcare, etc.).
Was that your first company?
My first company was technically a ski tour marketing business- I loved snowboarding, but my parents were unwilling to drive me to Vermont (which is 5+ hours north of Long Island). The only way I could go snowboarding on the weekends was to A.) mooch a trip with friends who had homes up north, or B.) find a ski tour operator and go on a 1 day trip, which usually cost between $60 - , $70. I quickly realized that many of my friends were in the same situation, and as I built up a "customer base" of friends and friends of friends, I was able to start marketing my own ski trips. Before I knew it, I was setting up weekend long ski trips and grossing $10,000 per trip. It all sort of happened by accident, and I was more interested in going skiing for free than I was in making a career out of operating ski tours. In hindsight, I made a lot of money for the travel agent that brokered us the ski tours during those winter months.
Have you always been environmental conscious?
I have never been a "tree hugger" but at the same time, I don't litter, in fact, I will pick up trash if I see it on the beach. I love the outdoors and will do whatever I can to keep the earth clean. Always.
What inspired to start the company?
Those who know me best will tell you that I started VIVO Natural Products because I shower a lot. I have exceptional hygiene, no doubt. However, this is not the sole reason for my founding VNP. Having worked for a mid-sized consumer products company, I came to realize that there are no "major" players in the natural products space. In mainstream CPG's we have Unilever, Kraft, Coca Cola, etc. Companies that do billions of dollars in sales, globally. However, for the most part, their products are bad for the people who consume them and even worse for the environment and the economies that produce them. My belief (which still remains in-tact) is that a new group of major-players in the CPG space will emerge- their brand portfolios will consist of high quality natural products (food, beverages, beauty care, household, etc.). I hope VIVO Natural Products bar soap will serve our little company (and my big plans) the same way bar soap served the Lever brothers.
Who are your target markets?
Our target markets are retailers. You're probably thinking I forgot a precursor to retailers, but I didn't. Drug, grocery, mass, beauty, natural, etc. all of these types of retailers should carry our bar soap (and the other products that we'll be launching in early 2010). Our soap (and the rest of our product offerings, for that matter) is affordable, made with the highest quality ingredients, environmentally friendly, and best of all, made with ingredients that we source from entrepreneurs in underdeveloped countries helping those who need it most earn a fair living.
So what do you think gives you an edge against your competitors? What is USP?
We have a few USP's- the best one we've got going with our existing product offering, which consists of 5 bar soap SKUs is the fact that we use this amazing, fresh shea butter from women farmers in Africa. This is what makes our soap incredibly rich and nourishing for the skin- it is filled with vitamins that naturally heal your skin. It makes you look and feel healthier. Plus, we buy this shea butter from women in Africa who are now able to earn a fair living, support their families and send their children to schools, feed them, etc. It's meaningful- far more meaningful (in my humble opinion) than donating a percentage of sales to a charity that I have nothing to do with.
How did you finance your business?
I financed the startup of VIVO Natural Products with my own money- I worked my butt off and constantly reinvested in the business. Start small, make sales, reinvest, and repeat.
How do you market your products or services?
It's funny you should ask this- we don't. So far, we haven't spent a dime on "traditional" marketing. Our only "marketing" spend is on samples. We often do demos at stores and give away free bar soap so people can try the product. Nothing sells our soap better than a free sample. Our customer retention rate is off the charts; something the major players are very envious of.
What’s the worst business advice you’ve ever received?
I'm not sure I can answer this question- I'd like to think that i've received mostly sound advice from those around me. Even the bad advice is good because it serves as a learning experience.
What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?
I travel a lot, eat out, read, exercise, spend as much time at the beach as possible. I'm very interested in business, though, so even while i'm traveling, it's usually business related. When i'm eating at a restaurant, i'm admiring their decor, or plates, or furniture, etc for the business behind each component. When i'm in a supermarket buying food, that's completely business. Much of what I read is business related, though, not all of it.
How do you build a successful customer base?
Make a great product, set a fair price, and explain the benefits as clearly as possible.
Where do you see in yourself and your business in the next 5 years?
In 5 years (or less) we will have a number of other products- beyond beauty. We'll be selling our products to retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, and also to Whole Foods and independent companies, too.
Great Interview Michael, Thanks for your time.