Laura Grace podcast interview: founding a business on passion

Laura Grace

In Episode 28 of the Together London Podcast, I talk to Laura Grace about founding a business on passion. You can follow Laura on twitter @usherette and be sure to check out The Bathory.

To learn more about these themes, come to #dareconf: people skills for digital workers, 22-23 September 2014 in London.

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Jonathan Kahn: I’m talking to Laura Grace, who’s joining me from Clerkenwell in London today. Laura is the Founder and “Chief Bather” of The Bathory.

Laura, thanks for taking the time to join me today.

Laura Grace: Thanks for having me, Jonathan.

Jonathan: Tell us about The Bathory. What is this?

Laura: The Bathory is a business and a website that lets you create a customized bath soak and, depending on how you want to feel, say, you might want to feel relaxed or revived or sexy, you can choose your own ingredients. We help you along that journey to create a personal invention and then, enjoy it at bath time.

Jonathan: This is a bath product that people can order and customize to their exact wants and then, it comes in the post?

Laura: Yes, the intention was to bring mass personalization and the power technology has to do that sort of thing and to an industry that maybe is a bit resistant to that. We thought, “Let’s play around with cosmetics and see if you we do something interesting.”

Jonathan: You developed this with the company you work for, which is called Mint Digital?

Laura: That’s right. At the moment, Mint is trying to move more into creating their own IP, incubating new businesses. We’ve done this ever since we’ve started.

We started 10 years ago. Our birthday is in November. We started as a traditional agency, working with a lot of TV clients and big brands.

I guess, whenever we had some down time, we would be making products. I was at an event this week where one of our founders said that if you have downtime, you either can write a blog post or make something. If you look at our blog, you’ll see that we definitely make more things than we write blog posts.

The Bathory came from the fact that last September, we decided to be much more focused about this and actually divide the company in two where we would have a team that was full-time focused on new ideas and new ventures.

Jonathan: Your job has changed from being like a traditional agency…

Laura: Yeah, I was a Creative Strategist. That was my job title before, so concept development, content stuff.

Jonathan: Now, you’re making these businesses. Well, you’re working on this business which is backed by Mint.

Laura: Exactly. There’s a lot of freedom within that. We have product owners who are given small teams if they get to a certain point of validation, but we kill things pretty fast.

We’ve launched 50 products in the last few years. The idea is that we launch two products a month for the next two years.

Jonathan: One of these was The Bathory, which was an existing idea you already had.

Laura: Yeah. It’s one of those names on a napkin. I tend to collect domain names. My late-night purchases tend to be URLs [laughs] . I have quite a lot, including TheBathory.com, which I had for quite a while. I’d always enjoyed making things, making my own cosmetics.

I was very interested in natural ingredients and that sort of thing. It was always my intention to at some point try and make a business out of that. In my head, I was going to be living in a cottage mixing up lovely products and writing a novel on the side. I haven’t quite ended up that way, but I’m getting there [laughs] .

Jonathan: This is an idea you already had…and the thing that I’d like to talk to you about today is, that was an idea that was in your head, and in a sense it was a bit of a fantasy. You were going to be this hermit who just mixed soap.

Laura: [laughs]

Jonathan: Actually you’ve end up creating this in quite a short period of time with a team of people who didn’t have the same vision, or it wasn’t necessarily their idea. Can you talk about what it’s like to take an idea that’s all about me and then actually involve lots of other people in making it happen?

Laura: Yeah. It’s difficult.

[laughter]

Laura: …Definitely difficult, especially when you’re a girl who’s into bath time and bath products, working with a bunch of guys who don’t really see why you would want to spend $35 on a little jar of salt. It was a journey for them as well.

I guess it’s kind of lucky that I am very happy to talk about bath time all day long. I’ve become a bit of a bath evangelist. I think that everyone should have more of them. I think it’s such a nice place to have ideas and have some time to reflect and all that sort of thing.

I think the first couple of months of working on the project was me with my head down figuring out things like cosmetic legislation and just the operational stuff of whether we were going to contract and manufacture or attempt to do it ourselves, and at the same time trying to galvanize people around me to see the value of the idea.

I think I had quite a specific route to market, and I had done a lot of figures to begin with that I was able to convince people just through that. In terms of creating a cohesive team that had a shared vision, that definitely came a lot later, and that was after quite a few attempts at creating that that didn’t go quite to plans.

Jonathan: It sounds like you started off by trying to get as much evidence or background info as you could to show people what it was that you were trying to achieve…and also make some level of case about the fact that it could be a business.

Laura: Yeah, exactly. I quite like putting decks together. That used to be part of my job when I was on the studio side. I put together quite an elaborate deck that explained how Epsom salts were the next big thing, as a quite specific the business plan and that sort of thing. The problem with “I’m not a developer, I’m not a designer”. Mint, it’s mostly developers and designers who would be creating a prototype at that stage and then getting that kind of help to further that.

But because I had to do it by myself, I ended up creating a prototype just in Keynote. It’s quite a high-fidelity one that was clickable, that a user could use, and it was a guided experience of inventing a product, but it’s still pretty close to what we have now. I was able to bring users in and get feedback without actually ever having to touch any code for the first few months, which was really useful.

Jonathan: It’s almost like you tried to do as much as you could without…needing people’s help so that you could get as much validation that the idea actually did make sense.

Laura: Yeah, exactly. It does make a really good case for having a pretty focused team for a couple of months.

Jonathan: I’m interested in the choice itself, your choice to make your product about you, because surely you could have said, “Oh, I haven’t really got any ideas,” and just waited for someone else. You could have been a creative strategist on somebody else’s plan.

Laura: Yeah, I’m definitely an ideas person, and to be honest, I’d been itching to do something like this for quite a while. I’ve always had lots of side projects, and it’s one of those things where your emphasis is usually going to be on one or the other and I ended up spending far too much of my weekends making things outside of work.

This was just a nice opportunity to really be able to dig deep into a problem and create a solution that I knew was going to be so much more beautiful and usable and scalable than something that I would have created in a weekend myself.

Jonathan: So it was already there. You already had the need to do this. It’s just like the opportunity arose and you’re like “Let’s just go for it.”

Laura: Yeah. It seemed like the right time as well. It’s something I’ve been sitting on for a while. I remember my first six-month review, about four years ago, when my boss was like “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I did say that I wanted to start a cosmetics company, so it’s something that had been in my head for quite a while.

Jonathan: If people are listening, everyone’s got an idea somewhere. It may not be to start a cosmetics business. It might be to write a book or record an album or go on a trip or whatever. Do you have any tricks that you used? How did you convince yourself to do this?

Laura: I think a lot of it is about committing a chunk of time and being realistic about that chunk of time to give a good stab at it, just to figure out whether or not it’s possible and whether or not you want to keep going with it. I think the beginning of projects, the beginning of ideas are always really exciting. You’re full of hope. It’s new.

I love that. I think that’s what I loved doing, a more creative, strategic role in the agency side of Mint. I was always at the beginning of projects. I was always coming up with ideas, and then it was left to someone else to figure out how to execute it properly. I definitely love that side of it, but I think you really have to give yourself some time to figure out the nitty-gritty.

Last year, last January I took a sabbatical to write a TV pilot, which was something I’ve been wanting to do for ages, and I finally got a bit of funding to do it and got a script editor and actually did something I was incredibly proud of. But that was only through admitting to myself that I couldn’t do it the evenings and the weekends. It had to be a focused period of time where that was all I was going to do and that was going to be my priority.

Jonathan: It sounds like you’re making commitments to yourself…

Laura: Yeah.

Jonathan: …And that’s what, if people are saying, “How can I do that,” well…

Laura: Yeah. I think it’s also about being realistic about the challenge and not diving in too quickly and just building the website and seeing if you’ll figure it out along the way. I think for some businesses that works, but for something that is such an unknown, I had no idea about cosmetic regulation. I spent months just figuring it out. I did all of the legal paperwork myself.

I did all the formulation myself, and that was something I really had to just sit down and learn, and it wasn’t necessarily the most exciting task, but I felt quite strongly about understanding every facet of the business and of it coming from me.

It was an investment, and each step of the way got me closer to understanding the bigger picture, and being able to make informed decisions about what we were going to be doing.

It’s quite funny, because we focus on making websites on Mint, but to be honest, the website was the least of my concerns for a long time, because I was very confident that we could make a beautiful website. It was kind of every other part of the puzzle that I was trying to piece together up until I guess six weeks before we launched, when we actually made the website.

Jonathan: That is interesting. That’s almost like the last thing you did.

Laura: [laughs] Yeah.

Jonathan: I’m interested in this question of working with other people, because there must have been a time when you had to figure out, “What help do I need? How much of this can I share? How can I let go of my baby?” Those types of questions.

Laura: Yeah, it’s difficult. I think you can have this vision in your head, but at some point you do need to figure out a way to articulate it to other people. I think when I started, I came up against a lot of resistance. I started by finding people in the cosmetics industry who I had some kind of connection to and going to talk to them about our idea to create customized, on-demand product.

We don’t have any stock on our shelves. Everything is made to order. Everyone that I spoke to just told me I was mad. Every manufacturer I emailed said that they couldn’t do it and all that kind of stuff. You would think that that would have stopped me, but for some reason I was a bit belligerent about it and I felt like it must be possible.

Jonathan: In a way, that’s validation, though, isn’t it?

Laura: Yeah, exactly. I remember my CEO saying to me that it’s also validation that it’s really hard, therefore other people probably aren’t going to copy your idea very quickly. So [laughs] if it’s difficult, that’s maybe a good thing.

Jonathan: That is the competitive advantage, isn’t it?

Laura: [laughs] Exactly, yeah.

Jonathan: Almost that they can’t imagine it. Not necessarily that they haven’t got the logistics, but that they can’t get their head around it.

Laura: Yeah, because you’re just trying to rethink a traditional industry. I think that’s really interesting, because it’s not something that we do very much of. I would go to tech conferences, and everyone’s kind of agreeing with each other that Lean is a great idea and all that kind of stuff..

Then I went to cosmetic conferences, and it’s so traditional, it’s so siloed, it’s so corporate that there isn’t much room to innovate within that and to be a bit scrappy a bit…

Jonathan: If the incumbents think you’re insane…

Laura: [laughs]

Jonathan: …Then you’re more likely to have something than if they think it makes perfect sense.

Laura: I think so, yeah. It’s a point of differentiation, the fact that you’re a bit mad, I guess [laughs] .

Jonathan: Which is interesting, in terms of we’re all trying to make ourselves sustainable in some way, or pay the bills or whatever, or back up our passion with a business, let’s say. That’s interesting to say — it sounded like you were diving into something you knew nothing about, and actually that was the way you discovered this business model, which, it seems like it works.

Laura: Yeah. I knew about it from the perspective of a consumer. I had quite a specific route to market in terms of online influencers — beauty bloggers and vloggers and all that sort of thing, which was a community that I knew quite well. I felt like there was real opportunity to market something specifically to them and bypass the traditional retail model.

I was coming at it from that perspective, but it was just the actual logistics of how to run a factory and how to get a formula legally approved and all that kind of stuff that was definitely lots of big unknowns.

Jonathan: It’s almost like defining your work as being the thing you don’t have expertise in.

Laura: Yeah. Exactly. I don’t know — you can kind of take for take for granted that the copy’s going to be good, if you’re a copywriter. Then it’s kind of not worrying about that side of it and then just focusing on the things that are a bit harder.

Jonathan: You’re trying to grow yourself instead of saying, “What do I already have that I can throw out there?”

Laura: Yeah. I think for me it was thinking about it long-term as well as a business that eventually, I don’t want to be responsible for every facet of the business. That isn’t scalable, but I do want to understand it, so I can have a conversation about it and so I can delegate effectively, or we can make changes to be more efficient and that sort of thing.

I was quite deliberate about figuring out the manufacturing personally, reading lots of books on manufacturing, talking to manufacturers, and then implementing something that was based on those learnings, and then kind of iterating within that as we saw where the bottlenecks were and all that sort of thing in the actual factory.

Now I can take a step back and let them get on with it and focus more on being more strategic and managing the business.

Jonathan: There’s an element here of your idea, your perspective on the world, and there’s also this element of getting outside of yourself and figuring out all the stuff you don’t know that you actually would need in order to make this thing happen.

Laura: Yeah, exactly. I think equally with the website, I had a small focused team for about two months creating the site together, and one front-end developer, a back-end developer, and a designer. We all sat together. We worked very, very closely, and it was a team where all of our competencies were very well-matched. It worked really well, but actually it took a while to get to that point. I’d worked with a few other designers in the company before we hit on the brand.

I think what I found was that creating things in a piecemeal fashion, which was how we started — get in a day here and a day here to work on packaging or visuals just…you needed the focus, it ended up that what we did was we actually physically went away from the office, got in a room together for a couple weeks, and just thrashed it out, which was very helpful.

Jonathan: I want to take you back to something you said a while back, which was you knew your route to market and you knew that there was this community of beauty bloggers and people interested in cosmetics who you would appeal to.

Laura: Yeah.

Jonathan: I would like to ask you about, how did you appeal to these people in a genuine way?

Laura: Quite a few things. Even before the Bathory existed, I decided to start a mailing list called the League of Extraordinary Bathers [laughs] , which was about appealing to bath lovers and people who are a bit like me and people who might want to be involved in the creating of a beauty brand.

I would email them every so often and invite them to test free samples, which is something that I legally had to do anyway, so it was quite a nice way of accomplishing that legal requirement of testing things on real people and also creating a community simultaneously.

That was nine months before we actually launched. From the beginning, I had a few beauty bloggers already on-board because I tweeted them or I’d emailed them to invite them to join that. After that, I think it was about crafting a very specific story and being very personal about it.

It’s me, Laura, the founder, emailing you, big beauty blogger, and being a fan or a peer. Actually saying something personal in that email and offering a story that’s maybe something a bit different. I think these kind of people are looking for content. They’re talking about products every single day, and it tends to be the same brands.

If you can offer something a bit different, a bit unique, it’s an interesting story for them to tell their audience. It just catches their attention a bit more.

Jonathan: Yeah. They’re looking for something real.

Laura: Exactly. It’s that authenticity of I’m all over the website and I’ve got a blog, thebathgirl.com, where I’m trying. That’s the intention. I need to blog more, but my intention is to put myself along beauty bloggers, in a way, and not just talk about The Bathory. Although, inevitably, that’s what I’m doing right now.

I want to start talking more generally within that space and being able to be another voice in that community as much as a brand.

Jonathan: What’s interesting to me is I don’t know that much about your work before you did this but this seems more personal. This seems like this is me. I’m Laura. This is what I stand for. I stand for baths.

Laura: [laughs] Yeah, definitely. I think that kind of side project become main project thing which is really nice.

Jonathan: It’s got to have some downsides in a sense that you were in front of all these people…even just your colleagues not really understanding why baths are important, for example. There must be a kind of fear factor to being so open and starting a whole list about your passion, that kind of thing.

Laura: Yeah, it does feel very personal. I feel very personally responsible if numbers are down one week. If I have a week where I have to go to a conference or I’m on holiday or I’m sick then it feels like the business is my responsibility. I find it really, really difficult to switch off from it.

There are bad sides to that because I do really want to work on it, but, at the same time, it’s not wholly mine, as well. It’s strange being emotionally attached to it because it’s so much come from the heart. Also, being within this environment where I’m the product owner but it’s not a traditional start-up/founder relationship to a product, which is something we’re still working out at Mint.

At the same time, I enjoy being so personally connected to it. I think it was the missing link in other projects. I find it maybe too easy to walk away from it.

Jonathan: Because you weren’t so emotionally invested.

Laura: Yeah. I think the downside of that is it’s dangerous to become attached to things that aren’t working, and it’s easy to do that if you feel no, it’s my idea, I’m right. Everything else is pointing towards you not being right about it. To just kind of walking away from it is like killing your darlings. It’s a hard thing to do.

Jonathan: Presumably, there were times where you were like, “You people don’t understand baths. That’s why you’re saying this.”

Laura: Yeah. I think people have to take a lot on trust, and that’s your team trusting you and you trusting your team. I would make decisions like, for example, the jar is heavy and glass and a lot of people within my team thought we should go with a paper bag or something that would fit through the letter box really easily.

I could see their point and I knew that was a sensible thing to do, but I knew that, as a woman going into a shop like Space NK, you want to feel like you’re getting something heavy. When you’re giving a gift, it has to feel substantial.

Otherwise, a bag of salt and oils, even though they are premium quality, organic salts and oils that have been expertly blended, at the same time there’s so much around the presentation and that feeling that you get when you’re given something that feels nice and sits alongside other products, as well. It fits into that environment.

That was a decision to be premium rather than to have put our products into paper bags and maybe been a different type of brand.

Jonathan: What’s really challenging about that is there’s a certain amount of customer testing you can do, but you can’t really customer test everything.

Laura: Yeah, especially I always think the real test is give your credit card details. We couldn’t do that legally for a long time. You just can’t randomly sell people bath salts without many, many things having to happen like stability testing and safety assessments and all that kind of stuff.

I guess we could have faked it, but I didn’t really feel like I wanted to do that. I definitely did a lot of testing on things like pricing and interviewed people and gave them various comparisons and that sort of thing. I did a lot of competitor analysis.

The first test was launching it and seeing if people would actually pay full price for the product.

Jonathan: I’m just thinking about this is a question about hunch or instinct versus what actually happens. It’s like whenever possible it’s really helpful to get people’s feedback and to try and validate things. Still, there’s a whole load of stuff, when you’re trying to execute your vision, that you need to take on trust…on instinct.

Laura: Yeah, absolutely. I think especially when you’re so immersed in something you do develop that intuition about your product and about your market. Sometimes it can be difficult to convince people of it, but you just have to try and get as much real-world feedback as you can. Also, just be open to changing it, as well.

At the moment, we’re AB testing whether we should be mentioning that we’re a British brand. As much as I love the idea of us being a British brand, I worry that it’s maybe putting people off who live far away from Britain. That’s something that we’re testing at the moment.

Jonathan: You’re trying to get away from just intuition and trying to see how people are actually behaving?

Laura: Right. It’s really digging deep into data and doing lots of experiments. It’s really great to be able to do that now.

Jonathan: As we finish off, I’m sure there are people listening who have ideas, whether it’s writing the novel or it’s starting a business or whatever it is or leaving their job. What would you say to those people?

Laura: I would say don’t be afraid to be really passionate about your ideas and to go follow your passions. I do see people with a lot of ideas. They think it fits the market now or it’s the right time for a certain thing or there’s a new API that they could integrate with and all these reasons for creating their products.

They might build it and they might put it out there, but it’s the kind of day-to-day working on it. I think you really have to care about something if you’re going to be emailing people about it every single day and trying to convince them that you care. It’s much easier to engage a community if you’re part of it.

I feel a lot happier working in an environment that I feel so connected to. I would say don’t be afraid to go with your passions.

Jonathan: That’s really inspirational, Laura, and thank you so much for sharing your experiences on The Bathory. I think it’s going to really help people.

Laura: Thank you very much for having me, Jonathan.