“Wow, toothpaste is really boring!”
Natural and organic cosmetics are making the transition from a comparatively young industry to an established one. The pioneers of the early 1980s are being followed by more and more new market players who have made the industry grow and become more professional. Today – after almost 40 years – natural and organic cosmetics are seeing a new wave of confident start-ups. What’s left of the old pioneer spirit? And what makes today’s founders tick? Answers to these and other interesting questions can be found in the following interview with Ute Leube, co-founder and board member of industry pioneer Primavera, and Carlo Hanuszkiewicz, co-founder of the natural and organic cosmetics start-up Niyok and author of the quote at the beginning of this article.
Ms Leube, you founded Primavera before some of the current natural and organic cosmetics founders were even born. Do you have any memories to share from the first two or three years?
Leube: The first years in the early 80s where extremely exciting. Our circle of friends was driven by enthusiasm for essential oils and plant-based body oils. We wanted the highest quality and were looking for producers who could offer us that. This took us to many different countries, because we sought out plants in the locations where they grew. We had no business plan, no market research, no computers, no concept of a work-life balance. What motivated us was our tremendous enthusiasm and vision. We wanted to make these natural treasures available to the people, who were interested in them. There was a lot of improvisation and hard work. Fortunately for us, without knowing it we had the right idea at the right time. We didn’t have to find the market – the market found us.
What was your greatest challenge at that time?
The commercial tools of the trade. We had no relevant experience and, to tell you the truth, no particular interest in getting any. From the very start, our passion was our vision of offering superior oils while at the same time protecting nature. That’s where our claim, “Our love for nature and humankind”, is rooted, we were extremely zealous about implementing it. At the same time, we were already setting up our academy for knowledge transfer, because when you work with these highly concentrated, plant-based ingredients, there are certain things you need to know. So we were really busy and everything else was secondary. At the time, we were classed as crackpots and green do-gooders. But that didn’t stop us from consistently following our path. We all had our hands full, working to meet this need for pure, natural products.
Carlo, you started this interview on a first-name basis. Is that the first sign of the difference between you and the established brands?
Carlo: I’ve also worked in established companies where a first-name basis was greatly appreciated. I don’t think it’s an indicator of anything. In my opinion, the big difference is flexibility – and I don’t mean just in terms of speed but, most of all, a love of experimentation. As a small start-up, we do a lot of testing and are curious about what might come of it. Sometimes it seems to me that established brands rely too heavily on what they already know about their customers and the market.
If, over time, you forget how to think outside the box and try out crazy concepts, things can quickly become boring. And boredom is the worst thing that can happen to you in this loud and shrill world. Not only are the employees of these brands no longer creatively challenged, but the brand itself just gets lost in the general uproar until one day it’s perceived only as a “traditional brand”. At that point, the great challenge is often gaining new customers.
How’s your business going? How are you sleeping these days?
Carlo: Oof, ... sleeping when your neck is tight with stress is a skill that has to be learned. There will never be less stress and for an entrepreneur, it’s always going up and down. The important thing, I think, is to keep having fun. Of course, we’re all financially motivated as well, to a greater or lesser degree. But what matters most for me is always the project as an enriching, subjective and cross-team experience.
I love our brand, our products and the content we produce. If I can make my co-workers and customers feel the same enthusiasm that I do, that’s perfection. I wouldn’t work on a project I didn’t find fun for all the money in the world. With this attitude, I think a person can confidently deal with a few sleepless nights.
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In the years since you thought up Niyok, what has given you the most headaches?
Carlo: The biggest concern with a new product is, of course, whether the market will accept it. You do research, development and testing, but it’s ultimately the consumers who decide whether they like it and whether they’ll buy it again. We don’t sell stereos, we sell toothpaste. This is something that’s used every day and it has to become established in the bathroom so that it will be bought again and again.
We were fortunate that our European scholarship allowed us to take advantage of the infrastructure of an incubator where UX tests were set up on a regular basis. From the very start, we were able to test our first laboratory toothpastes on potential customers and quickly get past the teething phase. That definitely saved us some headaches.
Ms Leube, do you think founders starting out now in the natural and organic cosmetics sector have it easier?
Leube: No, absolutely not. Thirty years ago, there were basically no rules. We could produce whatever we wanted. There were just a couple regulations about what information to put on a label or how the production facilities should look. Plus, the general offering of comparable natural products was still small and interest in essential oils and natural and organic cosmetics was growing rapidly. That marked the beginning of the organic and natural trend that continues unchecked to this day. We benefitted from that a lot back then.
Now there’s practically a new regulation every day and the market is overflowing with excellent brands and interesting offers. The only advantage today is that organic is no longer a “wacky idea”. It’s a highly developed awareness of health and respect for nature that is deeply rooted in society. Aromatherapy and natural and organic cosmetics have established their place in the market.
So do you see start-ups as enriching the offering or do you see them as potential competitors in an increasingly competitive market?
Leube: I see them as assets. We all benefit from one another because we all expand the market, we learn from each other, inspire each other, and we don’t allow each other to become complacent. Our vision 35 years ago was the idea that agriculture around the world could shift to organic. A lot has to happen before that’s possible, but every year, more and more land is converted, because the demand for natural and organic raw materials is growing along with each new competitor. The market is big enough for all of us and good ideas are always an asset. One important issue, however, is the availability of the highest quality raw materials and resources. The run on high-quality materials and resources is a consequence we have to deal with. We’re very happy that we have decades-long relationships with our organic farming partners.
The natural and organic cosmetics market is still relatively young, yet Niyok can still be called a newbie. Do you look on the pioneers with reverence or did you set out to stir up the market, as your claim – “We make toothpaste. Different.” – seems to indicate?
Carlo: We’re not at all reverent. I think that our concept actually does make us “different” from the market and we just do our thing. Happily, we get confirmation from our customers. To tell the truth, we’re not very interested in what the pioneers or even other start-ups are doing. We’d rather listen to our customers. Naturally, we’re always up to date, but we know our values and have clear visions for the future.
We don’t have a lot of time to spend comparing ourselves with others.
In what areas do you want to differentiate yourselves from the established brands and in what ways do you want to emulate them?
Carlo: It’s less about brands than about products. When we started our project, we thought, “Wow, toothpaste is really boring!” We wanted to change that. Of course, we knew that it wasn’t just one brand making it boring, but many brands. Ultimately, we wanted to completely transform the consumer experience. We examined it from an extremely minimalistic but critical perspective and studied the natural and sustainable aspects of toothpaste from the ground up. The result is Niyok, a natural, vegan toothpaste made from coconut oil in a chalk tube that reduces the amount of plastic.
Speaking of packaging, Ms Leube, is that also an issue for you? And what exciting new developments are you seeing on the market?
Leube: Yes, the packaging issue is becoming more and more urgent and is a challenge for us all. There are some good approaches that we’re carefully weighing in terms of sustainability and benefits. We’re very concerned about this topic. The growing interest demonstrated by well-informed and value-conscious customers spurs us on. Another enormous challenge is the opening of large discounters and retail chains that deal in natural products. In this case, we need to provide our customers with extensive, expert information on our quality standards in order to educate them – along the lines of what Primavera stands for, and what we’re not willing to do. I think authenticity is key.
What’s currently going on inside your company? What are the most important fronts you’re currently working on?
Leube: We’re right in the middle of the digitalization process, which we consider a necessary and indispensable tool for improving transparency and service. At the same time, we’re focusing on clearer communication. We’re developing concepts so that our natural products that require clarification can be more easily understood. I can also tell you that our main product range, aromatherapy, is going to debut a new look at VIVANESS 2020. Our customers can already look forward to that!
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What are the largest fronts on which you’re currently working, Carlo?
Carlo: We launched our toothpaste made from coconut oil at the beginning of 2019 and are currently represented in more than 1,500 retail outlets throughout Europe. So we’ve created our hero product and now we’re extremely busy generating awareness for the brand. What’s especially important for us right now is not standing still, but always continuing to create new content. We’re experiencing an incredibly creative phase and we want to take advantage of this momentum to establish Niyok as an iconic brand.
Ms Leube, let’s go back to your point about authenticity. You support the Fridays for Future movement. Is it okay for corporate responsibility to end at the company’s front gate?
Leube: We’ve been committed to climate protection and sustainability since the company was founded. It’s firmly rooted in our corporate philosophy and it’s what we stand for. That the younger generation is – once again – taking to the streets and protesting is a wonderful thing and worth supporting. We don’t consider ourselves a politically active company but we do take a stand.
Have you been to any of the Fridays for Future demonstrations, Carlo?
Carlo: To tell the truth, I missed the last FFF demo in Berlin because I was visiting my brother. But our team was there, and for very good reasons. I think we’re currently experiencing very exciting times – rebellions in Hong Kong and Chile and climate demos everywhere. I’m glad to see that something in people’s minds is changing and hoping that this will also change consumer behaviour. Let’s be honest, what governments have been doing to fight climate change has long been one big joke. That there’s then such a big fuss when a few kids – for very good reasons – skip school, tells us that this issue still isn’t being taken seriously. Our planet is suffering more and more and we just stand around and watch. It’s good to see that someone is finally declaring that it’s gone far enough.
What’s your view of the future? Are you more optimistic or pessimistic, and why?
Carlo: Definitely optimistic. I’m generally very positive, even if there are things wrong with the world. I think positive vibes are a decision you make in life and they generally come back to you. As a founder, of course, it’s extremely important, because otherwise the constant ups and downs would have you sticking your head in the sand every other day.
Ms Leube, what would you like to say to the younger generation – both the Greta Thunbergs and the young natural and organic cosmetics founders like Carlo?
Leube: Pour your heart and mind into everything you do. Maintain a balance between giving and taking. Trust your intuition. Be passionate about your ideas. Then you’ll make it through the dark times that are a normal part of life and business.
Carlo, this is your second appearance at VIVANESS since your debut in 2019. Is this based on heart or mind?
For one thing, it’s incredibly fun. We let visitors taste our toothpaste on little wooden sticks, because we have three toothpastes with unusual flavour directions. Naturally, that’s a great experience and gains us more and more fans.
At the same time, we can gather feedback and become better acquainted with our target group so that we can respond to them better.
Of course, we also meet a lot of potential partners and have time for one-on-one conversations with them. That saves us a lot of e-mails and makes the process of getting acquainted more enjoyable. VIVANESS gathers together almost the entire natural and organic cosmetics scene in one place.
Ms Leube, Primavera is a VIVANESS veteran. How do you think the trade fair has changed since the first time you participated?
Leube: There are still pioneers there who determine the atmosphere. It’s still a meeting place for raw materials producers, specialised brands and industry customers, and increasingly so. Today, the public comes from all over the world, reflecting the growing global interest. The trade fair organization is becoming more and more professional and customer-oriented. At the same time, the organizers make sure that the level is kept consistently high. They still verify and guarantee that only natural products are exhibited. In my opinion, the BIOFACH/VIVANESS combination is the best trade fair there is, because it celebrates sustainability and natural products extremely creatively.
How the organic and natural cosmetics industry is evolving
That sounds wonderful. In conclusion, do you have any personal tips regarding the trade fair? Why should people plan a visit to Nuremberg in 2020?
Leube: At VIVANESS, you’ll gain comprehensive insight into the market. The brands show their faces and answer questions. The Novelty Stand features trends and developments. The trade fair offers exciting presentations on current topics. The proximity of VIVANESS to BIOFACH makes it possible to discover nourishment for your skin and all your senses. It’s like taking a walk through a gigantic deli department. A visit to Nuremberg is sure to provide all sorts of information, experiences, and fun.
And what are your tips for trade fair visitors, Carlo?
Carlo: In my opinion, what’s most important for visitors is to sample, sample, sample. At VIVANESS, there’s a huge selection of fantastic products. As an exhibitor, I don’t think you can go wrong. VIVANESS always attracts a great audience that’s genuinely open to the new.