Nieves Rathbun is one peach of a gal. A sweet-as-nectar friend who I first met in the San Francisco Bay Area, Nieves is the founder of a natural skin care company–By Nieves–which was today featured in The New York Times. Her products are, incidentally, 100-percent animal-friendly and formulated with ingredients as pure as the driven snow.
When I still lived in California, I was lucky enough to spend time working in Nieves’ production laboratory, as well as helping develop marketing and PR materials for her company. I’m so thrilled for her continued successes and swear by her products so much that I receive regular deliveries all the way to my new home here in Berlin.
By Nieves is really just that good.
There’s also talk of Veganz–Berlin’s adorable, all-vegan grocery store–beginning to carry her products right here in Germany. Until that fine day, all of you Europeans can easily find her stuff online, as she happily ships abroad. Using her products is as if you’re taking a walk through a wild California meadow, hiking in the deep Redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest, and taking a dip in the cold waters of the Lost Coast–all at once! Which is to say, heaven.
Congratulations, Nieves! Ich bin sehr stolz auf dich! And, everybody, please read this fantastic NYTimes article featuring her human-scale, ethics-centered small business below.
A Start-Up Dares to Leave the Bay Area and Venture Into the Wild
By Jessica Bruder
Last summer, Nieves Rathbun — the owner of By Nieves, a natural skin care company with a loyal following in the San Francisco Bay Area — decided to uproot her family in search of greener pastures. Her destination was Petrolia, a remote hamlet of 300 people on California’s rugged Lost Coast. “It’s not the edge of the world, but you can see it from here,” her late father-in-law used to say.
Like many parents, she and her husband, a musician, dreamed for years of raising their child far from the urban grind. The trick? Ms. Rathbun is also raising a four-year-old business. She is determined to see it grow and support her family. To make that happen, she will need to maintain strong customer loyalty in the urban area she left behind.
In April, Ms. Rathbun re-established her production and shipping facilities in an airy, 400-square-foot office with sweeping, pastoral views. To hold costs down and keep the family tight, her husband built the new headquarters into the side of an old barn on his 89-year-old mother’s Petrolia homestead.
Employees: Four part-time employees in Petrolia; one part-timer in Oakland. Ms. Rathbun hopes her company eventually will employ four to 20 people full time and diversify the economy in her adopted community, where employment opportunities are scarce outside of Humboldt County’s famous marijuana trade. “I have a fantasy of it becoming worker-owned,” she added.
Founder: Ms. Rathbun has been in the natural products industry for two decades. She managed the flagship store for V’tae Parfum & Body Care in Nevada City, Calif., and later worked at Zia Natural Skincare in San Francisco.
Her decision to start her own company, she believes, was influenced in part by an iconoclastic childhood: born to a draft-dodger father and a Dutch mother in the Canary Islands, Ms. Rathbun’s family roamed Europe, then traveled around the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, with stops in hippie communes in the Siskiyou and Marble Mountains. In one episode, her father hitched their belongings to a pair of donkeys and set a course for South America. (They never quite made it.)
Pitch: “My extended tagline is ‘Handmade natural body care made with super natural ingredients, sassy sincerity and apothecary style,’” she said. “My other tagline is, ‘everything good, nothing bad.’”
Traction: By Nieves’s five products are distributed to 50 independent stores, mostly in the Bay Area but also in Brooklyn, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles and points in between. They are sold at craft fairs and online, through the company’s own Web site and in Internet boutiques like Beautyhabit, Ecomomand Beklina. (Ms. Rathbun has also signed a vendor agreement withBeautySage, a new online retailer founded by Dr. Mehmet Oz, which plans to start selling her products next month.) By Nieves was named “Best Local Skincare” by SF Weekly in 2010.
“I may be shooting myself in the foot with this, but I’m committed to working with independent spas and boutiques,” she said. “You’re not going to find my stuff in Whole Foods. For me it’s a branding choice, also. If it goes into a place like that, it just loses its impact. The skin care display is packed; it’s eight feet high and 16 feet wide. I like it so much better when my stuff is in Atomic Garden — it’s a lovely independent boutique and mine is the only skin care.”
Revenue: Sales have been doubling annually and totaled $100,000 in 2011. She hopes to continue apace and top $200,000 in 2012.
Financing: Bootstrapped. “I meet other small- or medium-sized business owners, and they’re like, ‘I can hook you up with investors,’ but I don’t want to get hooked up with investors,” she said. “I would be trading away my independence, the ability to make my own business decisions if I had to be answering to just the bottom line, rather than my moral inclinations.”
Marketing: “Word of mouth, to me, is gold,” Ms. Rathbun said. A part-time public relations staffer responds to sample requests from blogs and magazines. Otherwise, her strategy is mostly reactive; she’s skeptical of ventures that focus heavily on advertising. “I think a lot of companies spend too much money on marketing when they could treat their employees better,” she said. “I kind of like it when I hear that a company doesn’t do advertising. It’s one of those things I’m grappling with right now: Do I try to take advantage of that machine?”
Competition: The market for natural personal care products is vast and growing. In 2011, global sales hit $26.3 billion, up nearly 11 percent over the year before, according to the research firm Kline & Company. The domestic market is dominated by heavyweights like Aveeno, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, and Burt’s Bees, which was bought by Clorox in 2007; whether their products have actually remained “natural” is a point of contention among industry watchers. But Ms. Rathbun isn’t interested in going head-to-head with the big brands. “There’s plenty of room in the market for lots of little companies,” she said. “There’s a real freedom in being smallish.”
Challenge: Making the move work. “The thing I’m nervous about is that I don’t know how much being in Oakland influenced the business,” she said. “I know I can talk about the business better than anyone. I don’t yet know what the opportunity cost is that I’m going to pay.” So far, her clients seem to be responding well; she sent them all letters and received a “warm and wonderful send-off,” Ms. Rathbun said. “So many people have a dream of maybe moving to the country someday.”