Starting a company from scratch in a fiercely competitive industry may not seem like an expected or safe mid-career pivot, but that is exactly what Kari did when she looked at what she wanted to do with the second half of her life. It started as a personal investigation of what sort of skin products could work for her.
For the last 10 years, she has been thriving in the world of natural and clean skincare and beauty — doing it on her own terms. The former self-confessed “beauty product junkie” has built a company around a small number of essential products that she personally researched, developed, and tested. She discovered that more is not more when it comes to skincare products — we really only need a few simple steps each day to care for our body’s largest organ, our skin. Her ethos was helping people feel their best about who they were, not trying to change who they were.
Having no background in digital or skincare she learned everything by doing, proving there is no better teacher than necessity. It was hard, there were mistakes, but she excelled. Kari’s easy-going attitude, coupled with her fierce devotion to a set of powerful values, has been the secret sauce for her company, and for her happiness. She aligned her inner values with an outward-facing successful business. This may sound very of-the-moment, but Kari Gran has been doing this long before values were a primary driver in companies, especially in the skincare/beauty industry.
Why did you start Kari Gran?
Without trying to sound cliché, I really couldn’t find what I wanted so I made it for myself. And then to continue the cliché, I loved it so much that I shared it with my friend, now business partner, Lisa.
I understand some health issues contributed to the company founding as well.
Yes, they sure did. When I was 29, I was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Disease. Both are autoimmune forms of thyroid disease. Because of this, I started looking into everything from what I ate to what I put on my face, especially those things that are endocrine disruptors.
Your endocrine system is your body’s network of hormone-producing glands – essential to EVERY phase of your body’s development. An endocrine disruptor can trick our bodies by mimicking naturally occurring hormones like thyroid and estrogen. To bottom line it, they can throw off your hormonal balance. I have personally struggled with hormonal imbalance and the havoc it can wreak on your body.
“Calling BS on the beauty industry”
How did you and Lisa start working together? How do the two of you split the duties at the company?
We like to say Lisa is the instigator and I’m the inventor. She had the big idea to turn this into a business, seeing a need for women that wasn’t really being met in a way that felt authentic and truth-telling. Or plainly put, calling BS on the beauty industry. I formulated the line and remain on the side of operations and Lisa’s our CEO and keeps the business humming along.
Lisa and I met working in the same real estate office for 10 years. We met as we were the ones in the office that raised money for homeless children and families for our company foundation. We were really good at convincing other agents to part with their hard-earned commissions for a good cause.
Have you always had an interest in beauty and skincare?
I’m a self-described beauty junkie. I love it all. I spent years at all the beauty counters spending way too much money on the “new” thing and trying to convince all my friends (mostly Lisa) to try it along with me. I think I came out of the womb asking for lip balm.
Real Estate to Skincare
What were you doing before and why did you change your career direction?
I had a really great career in real estate for almost 20 years. I specialized in a very niche market – downtown condominiums – and had always said I would do it until I didn’t love it anymore. By 2009, I was super burned out from a career that was full of very high highs and super low lows and working seven days a week. Nights and weekends were never my own and I had a real lack of balance.
How did you come to formulate the original products?
I’d been making lip balm for about 20 years and giving it away each Christmas to friends. It all started with a recipe in an issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine that I tweaked to make my own. Fast forward a few years and I began my own little experiments with organic oils on myself. It involved lots and lots of self-study and much trial and error. Once Lisa and I decided to try this out as a business, I studied with an organic formulator and at Bastyr University, a local college focused on natural health art and sciences.
Your company is driven by some powerful values — you really walk the talk. Was this part of your ethos in starting the company?
Yes, Lisa and I have always been adamant about giving back. We believe that every bit of money and time we can give counts toward making positive change. And this year has been no different. We’ve given financially to environmental causes, voting rights, and to organizations that support the needs of women. In January, we are launching a new giving initiative for an organization that supports recovery and integration back into society for those that have been incarcerated. Our motto is small can be mighty too.
What was it like starting a women-run company? Did you get any push back?
Founding the company as women was easy, as we had both come from the women-dominated field of real estate — women rule in real estate. Financially, we boot-strapped it ourselves, and both of us have worked since we were teenagers, so we just charged ahead. It wasn’t until we actually went out to raise some seed money a couple of years ago that we got a punch of reality. Nothing like going down in flames in front of a group of male venture investors to help you get your game on quick.
“Everything was new…we had to figure it out on a daily basis”
What is the biggest business challenge you have faced with KariGran?
No handbook came with this job. This was our second career; Lisa and I didn’t come from a digital or e-commerce background. Everything was new from sourcing to production to shipping to the website. We had to figure it out on a daily basis. We definitely had some hard (and expensive) lessons. At times it was exhausting but being intuitive marketers and seasoned salespeople helped us take it with style.
You were a pioneer in natural beauty and skincare. Was it difficult for people to understand what you were doing?
Younger people have been quicker to embrace the clean beauty movement and its positive impact on our planet. The hardest sell has been to my age group and older. We were raised on the messaging that oils cause acne by clogging your pores, so why would you ever put it on your skin, let alone wash with it? We came from the age of oil-free products. Now oils are even touted in many drug store brands, although my guess is they don’t make up a big percentage of the formulation, as good oils are expensive.
“We were raised on the messaging that oils cause acne by clogging your pores”
Your customers are incredibly loyal. What do you attribute that to?
Telling the truth. We don’t promise to turn back the hands of time. We don’t quote random studies to tell people that “x% of users experienced a reduction in this or that” because we became weary of being overpromised and underdelivered. We also don’t tell our customers that they need to be fixed because they’re getting older and there is something wrong with them. Our customers are discerning and, while they care about taking good care of themselves, skincare is important to them but not the most important thing in their lives.
How do you formulate new products?
For me, it’s not about the trendiest ingredient that’s having a moment, rather I go to the tried-and-true classics: plant oils. Every ingredient we use has a purpose and is packed with skin-healthy nutrients. I’m also extremely picky about sourcing ingredients from organic, non-GMO and earth-friendly suppliers.
I love the subtle variations that come with organic ingredients. From season to season, the crops vary and so you can get color and scent variations which let each batch be unique. We like to be really upfront with our customers and let them know that’s the beauty of working with naturals.
“SPF is so underrated but so incredibly important”
What is the number one skincare product you would recommend?
SPF, hands down. SPF is so underrated but so incredibly important. So many people are chasing the anti-aging train. Our products focus on health and hydration not youth and perfection. Why not focus on prevention instead of repair? And honestly, it’s never too late to start.
I love the smell of your sunscreen. Why does it smell so good?
You have excellent sniffer! Every plant oil has an aroma and some are definitely better than others. When I started working with French Plum Oil, I knew it had to be in the formula. It’s the most incredible smell of almond/marzipan. It also includes Red Raspberry Oil – while not fruity, there’s a bit of brightness. And those (along with zinc oxide) are the stars of our SPF.
What’s up with those elegant dark glass bottles?
When this adventure started, I knew I wanted the aesthetic of dark black glass (plastic was not an option). Unfortunately, I discovered that black glass was actually clear glass which is coated/painted, making it not recyclable. So, that was out. I’m sure I had the sad Charlie Brown walk as I moved through the Anaheim Convention Center at my very first trade show. I then happened across MIRON glass and there was no turning back. MIRON glass is from Europe and is actually dark purple in color (but looks black). It’s designed to protect the products from light degradation and it’s really beautiful too.
Why do companies make skincare so complicated and mysterious?
I blame the category, the whole “newness” thing, having to bring something new into the mix all the time. It’s exhausting…and expensive. I grew so incredibly tired of hearing the same fear-based marketing message overpromising me on results. Did I have sensitive skin, mature skin, dry skin, combination skin? Was I really going to wake up to younger-looking skin? I actually started feeling like I was missing out if I didn’t use everything.
How did Covid affect KG? How were you able to ship during the shutdowns?
This is where being older entrepreneurs gives you an edge. After a full life of ups and downs, you can rely on your own radar and know it’s accurate. We didn’t wait to see how it was going to shake out. Seattle was one of the first parts of the country to go into lockdown, so we had to furlough our entire team for two months. That left just the two of us, but we’re a couple of tough cookies. We managed to ship every single order on time and our customers must have felt the love, because they shot it right back to us. Our e-commerce business soared. Working every day for two months on our own was exhausting, but we knew we were fortunate to be able to work at all. Happy to report that our entire team came back, full-time.
When you are not working on KG, what are your weekends like?
I’m pretty lucky; during Covid we created a neighborhood “pod” on my tiny dead-end street. We’ve all been gathering, rain or shine. It’s social distancing at its best. We do everything from a standing outdoor movie night every Friday to outdoor Sunday football (even with a nacho-off competition). We are making the best of a not-so-great situation. I also like to batch cook for weekday lunches and catch up on the phone with my best friend who lives on the East Coast. We call it chore chat, and it makes doing the mundane things around the house a lot more palatable. I’m pretty lucky to live close to Puget Sound, so beach walks are always on the list when the weather cooperates.