How the Cult of Herbivore Happened

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Herbivore Botanicals is the kind of brand you can’t stop scrolling through on social media. Gorgeous product shots, heavenly colored concoctions that deliver glowing skin overnight and that kind of perfect-bathroom lighting that makes you want to redo everything in your house fill the Instagram grid, drawing you in with the promise of a better life.

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A lofty exaggeration for a beauty company? Perhaps. But, as cofounders and husband-and-wife duo Alex Kummerow and Julia Wills have already proven, this company, in addition to creating a line that literally started in the couple’s kitchen, is focused on “the different”—something they define as “sensorial beauty.” Read: They want you to make the time to do an intoxicatingly scented bath ritual or apply a luxuriously textured face mask to “treat yourself well, mind and body” and they want you to do it with their safe, nontoxic and effective products.

It’s a unique formula that is undoubtedly working, as the brand keeps gaining dedicated followers and growing, growing, growing on the retail scene (global expansions for 2018 currently include debuting in Sephora SE Asia stores in March and Space NK in the UK in April, and you’ll be seeing the brand in more U.S. Sephora stores starting next month). Here, the team dishes on how it all started, why Julia’s dad single-handedly made 80,000 bars of soap in 2017, and the secrets to the unpredicted success that’s catapulting the brand to cult-level status.

What role has social media played in Herbivore’s success?
Alex: I think social media has played a major part in Herbivore’s success. Julia has been super hands-on since the beginning and still does the majority of our Instagram posts. She responds to questions and engages with our followers daily. It has always been important to us that our voice on social media reflects who we are as people and as a brand. It’s authentic and I think people respond well to that. 

The brand started on Etsy in 2011. Did you ever think it would be so popular so quickly?
Julia: At first it was just me making everything myself in the kitchen and packing out orders. I quit my job and working full-time at Herbivore became my new one in what felt like overnight. I was so excited, but also slightly nervous at the quick rate of Herbivore’s growth. I had to learn a lot of skills to run my business really fast—it was very sink or swim. Just a few short months after I opened our Etsy shop, Alex quit his job to help me run Herbivore. At that time we were only making and selling soaps. Bamboo Charcoal Soap was one of our very first products. 

The entry into Sephora obviously helped, but how did it change things? 
Julia: Working with Sephora has been a dream come true for us. Starting from our kitchen with literally zero industry connections and a few years later ending up in Sephora isn’t very common. It does feel like a bit of a fairy tale sometimes, but we have definitely worked hard! Sephora reached out to us in late 2014. I opened my inbox and cried. It was one of those moments like, “Wow, if you work hard enough the things you dream about really can happen.”

They told us that they loved our stuff and that they thought their customers were ready for truly natural skin care. Our goal has always been to change the beauty industry for the better and bring truly natural, cruelty-free skin care into the world on as big of a scale as possible. We felt Sephora could be the platform we needed to get our products out there to millions of people. And, it’s been amazing. Currently, you can find us in 300-plus stores in the U.S. on their Discovery Wall and we are about to launch end caps (more shelf space) in 50 stores nationwide in February 2018. It’s a really exciting time for natural skin care. 

Alex: We have always manufactured in-house. Building our company with this model was the only way we could afford starting our business without going into debt—something we have avoided since day one. We have continued to reinvest into our facilities and have been able to scale operations to keep up with our growth. We have the most amazing team of Seattle artists and creatives making our products and shipping them around the world. I am so incredibly grateful for our team. It is a super positive work environment with the lowest turnover I have ever witnessed in a company. There is so much love and we really are a big, happy family. I believe you can feel it in our products. 

Because we were born as an online brand through our Etsy shop, our online distribution has always been key. We do approximately one-third of our current business on our own website. Our other major distributors are, of course, Sephora, Nordstrom and Anthropologie as well. We also sell in hundreds of boutique shops around the U.S. and Canada. Many of these have become our friends over the years and we love supporting their businesses. 

What else is in store for the new year? 
Julia: We are really excited for 2018. We have a few new products in the works… I don’t want to give away too much, but one will give your skin a beautiful glow. Another one will be all about eyes. Wink-wink. We are also focusing on global expansion into the UK and SE Asia. I think it’s going to be a big year. 

With all the growth, do you still consider yourself an “indie brand”? 
Julia: Yes, I think we are as indie as it gets! We’ve really done everything ourselves and paved our own path in the industry. Alex and I still do a lot of the design and formulation of our products. We are very hands-on. We still make everything in-house from our headquarters in Seattle. Our team is very tight-knit and incredible and everyone really embodies the culture and spirit of the brand.

Our team is really like a family—some of them literally ARE family. My dad still makes all of our soap with equipment he built himself. He’s thinking of bringing on a few team members this year as he single-handedly made 80,000 bars of soap in 2017! We love that we’ve been able to keep our identity even though our growth has been…well, it’s been a lot.

Are you able to share any numbers regarding sales?
Alex: We were so incredibly thankful to hit $30,000 in sales our first year in 2011. The following year we did $70,000. At this point, we had both quit our jobs and were scraping by as we were still reinvesting nearly every penny into the business. Then, Herbivore began to experience 300-percent growth year after year. This was an incredible rate to scale.

Each year we were like, “OK, this last year was incredibly challenging, can we do this times three next year?” And each year we surprised ourselves by doing it. In 2017, we hit $10 million in sales and are looking to continue our exponential growth through global expansion, continuing to nourish our relationships with our major distributors like Sephora, as well as focusing on our direct to consumer business on our site

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