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Behind the Operations for PLANT Apothecary Skincare Line

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 06/28/2017 | 6 Minute Read

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By: Margaret Andersen

Starting a business is easier said than done—from startup costs to finding suppliers and endless unexpected challenges. This week we’re chatting with Holly McWhorter, owner of PLANT Apothecary, to learn more about the nitty gritty of how she took the idea for the skincare company and turned it into a reality.

Read part 1 and part 2 of PLANT Apothecary’s journey.

Give us an idea of your timeline. When did you first get the idea for PLANT, start hiring people, line up suppliers, etc. all the way to having physical products to sell?

Holly: We got the idea for PLANT in 2011. The first bodywashes came out in 2012, so that’s when the apothecary line started. We had to line up suppliers right away, but I knew of a number of them from having been making these kinds of products for so long before we started the brand. We didn’t hire our first employee, an assistant, until 2015. We did, and still do, however, work with a workshop for disabled adults, which started when we first started getting more orders than we could fill in our kitchen—in late 2012. The workshop made all of our products themselves until we got into Target, and since then they’ve been helping with outer packaging, making samples, and shipping. It’s part of our mission to keep them involved.

Let’s talk startup costs. Can you provide a breakdown of what costs went into getting PLANT started?

Holly: Honestly, not much. We had to buy a domain and hosting, but built our own website and did all our own design work and copywriting. For the products, we only bought enough raw materials and packaging for very small batches at first. Once we sold those first products, we had enough money to buy more raw materials and packaging the next time. There were some filing fees of a few hundred dollars to register our LLC with the state, but we didn’t pay a lawyer to file them for us—we did it ourselves, with the help of the interwebs—so those business setup costs were pretty low.

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Did you have investors? If so, how did you work to line them up?

Holly: We’ve never had an investor. 

What was your biggest expense in founding PLANT? What ended up being way more affordable than you’d imagined?

Holly: There was never any big expense at the beginning. We were profitable from the start. And nothing turned out to be surprisingly affordable, either. We knew that it wouldn’t be a super-expensive endeavor, at least to start. That was a big part of what made it possible.

Has Brooklyn been a supportive or challenging city to start/run a business in?

Holly: Brooklyn has been very supportive! There are nonprofit agencies offering free business counseling, the SBA hosts entrepreneurship learning events, and there was even a super-hip store that showcased Brooklyn-made products, called By Brooklyn. There is definitely a supportive community for business owners. The only problem is office space. There are way too few small, simple, affordable workspaces in the city, and it’s something everyone in the small business community is aware of. The city wants to promote small business and light industry, but they don’t subsidize the cost of the kinds of spaces where that can happen, which makes no sense. It was an ongoing problem for us for years, until we found our current office.

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What has the experience been like working with BKLYN UNLTD to produce your products?

Holly: It’s been challenging, but also fantastic. They do an excellent job, and we’re happy to be able to provide work to a group of people (those with mental and physical disabilities) who are so often underemployed—especially in our current political climate. 

Can your business model of partnering with organizations like BKLYN UNLTD work for other small artisan companies?

Holly: Definitely! For most projects, there is always something a workshop for disabled adults can work with—especially as they get bigger. Putting finished products into boxes or tins, bottling, stuffing envelopes and gift bags, applying labels to things, gluing things together, sorting caps, shipping… There are tons of things that people who are differently abled can do that are useful to a business. The thing is, it takes on-site involvement to work with an organization like BKLYN UNLTD, and the business needs to be prepared for someone to spend time there not only setting up the workflow, but checking in on it, making sure supplies arrive on time and to the right place, etc. It’s a project in and of itself.

What resources were the most helpful in getting the business started—websites, magazines, software, etc.?

Holly: The internet for sourcing, research, and filing forms online; and software for design and business tasks.

How did you go about finding suppliers? Who did/do you work with?

Holly: We generally find suppliers online, and focus on having them be as local as possible.  

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Who did you turn to for packaging your products?

Holly: We design all the packaging ourselves—it’s one of our two favorite parts of the process, along with formulating the products.

How do you feel that the packaging/branding for PLANT is successful in communicating the values and mission of your brand?

Holly: It’s clear, simple, and straightforward, like our formulas. Our products contain only ingredients that people can either easily recognize without looking them up, or understand what they are immediately if they do have to look them up. They’re extracted straight from plants and the earth, and that’s intentional—we want to move people away from thinking that only complex and potentially toxic chemicals can serve their needs effectively. And the packaging works the same way. The names say what the products are and at least hint at what they do for you, and when it’s feasible, even the bottle or jar is transparent, so you can see the product. And in true modernist style, we try to make sure form always follows function!

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Margaret AndersenMargaret is a freelance graphic designer and writer based in Los Angeles. She received her MFA in Graphic Design from the California Institute of the Arts. She writes for AIGA’s blog Eye on Design, and is currently designing futuristic things for USC’s World Building Media Lab.

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