406: Her Plant-Based Soaps Landed Her On Shark Tank And On The Path To $1.2M In Sales

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406: Her Plant-Based Soaps Landed Her On Shark Tank And On The Path To $1.2M In Sales

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This week in the guest chair we have Kristen Dunning, founder and CEO of Gently Soap – a bathing brand built on her self-developed herbal infusions. A recent MBA grad, Kristen hails from a rare five generations of Black Alabama farmers, and she’s continuing the legacy by bringing joy back to bathing experiences for people with sensitive skin, using the medicinal properties of plants.

 In this episode she shares:

  • Her vigorous passion and research that landed her on Shark Tank
  • Her secret sauce to having a rate of 78% repeat customers
  • How she won over 300K in investment capital and has a trajectory of $1.2M in sales

Highlights Include:

  • 00:00 Intro
  • 03:24 Generations of Black farmers
  • 06:38 Struggle with eczema
  • 08:45 Studying horticulture and agriculture
  • 14:10 Staring Gently Soaps
  • 18:03 Transitioning to selling at markets
  • 21:31 Importance of formulating for sensitive skin
  • 28:56 Sales growth and Shark Tank impact
  • 32:55 High margins and sales 
  • 39:49 Marketing strategies
  • 44:03 Tips for entrepreneurs 

Check out episode 406 of Side Hustle Pro podcast out now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and YouTube

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Speaker 1 0:02

You're listening to side hustle Pro, the podcast that teaches you to build and grow your side hustle from passion project to profitable business. And I'm your host Nicaila Matthews Okome. So let's get started

Nicaila Matthews Okome 0:22

Hey friends Welcome Welcome back to the show today in the guest here I have Kristen Dunning who is the founder of gently soap. So today's episode is near and dear to my heart as someone with quote unquote, irritable skin, aka eczema, my kids have eczema and you'll hear in this episode, let's talk about this and Kristen's own journey to founding this company. So let me give you a little bit of her background. So Kristin actually comes from five generations of black Alabama farmers and the passion from that fuel. The foundation of gently soap, which is a bathing brand, built on herself developed herbal infusions that cater to the growing millions of people struggling with irritable skin. During her time at UGA top agricultural institution. Kristin pursued two Agricultural Science Degrees embarked on an honours horticultural research project and secured a Graduate Research Fellowship in crop soil and plant science. These experiences allowed her to spend years in greenhouses refining her overarching mission to show every American how to embrace plant derived botanical products without compromising skin health, and overall bodily wellness. She anchors her brand gently so and not just providing cutting edge skin safe botanical products, but also invoicing the underrepresented like the mere 1% of black farmers in the US today. Alongside her award winning entrepreneurship. Kristin continuously studies clinical herbalism ethnobotany and has her heart in sharing the diverse history of agriculture in the US and shedding light on the importance and resilient contributions from communities of color that have made us agriculture, what it is today, she dreams to inspire young Bikepark folks to reclaim space in the future of agriculture. I just think Kristen's background is so unique. I just love how she has strategically gone about growing her brand, increasing her skills, increasing her knowledge, getting as many resources as possible for her business, and so much more. So let's get right into it.

Welcome Kristin to the guest chair. Thank you for being here.

Kristen Dunning 2:39

Thank you so much for having me. Nicaila I'm like so excited. Actually got like your podcast, like sent to me by a really good friend. She was like, you need to do this. So I'm so happy that you said yes, CJ, I'm

Nicaila Matthews Okome 2:50

so happy to have you. Here I am. I'm inspired by you for so many reasons. You are the embodiment of the phrase like I am my ancestors dream and we'll get into why in a bit. And also I also suffer from eczema, my children suffering from eczema. So I have liked the Korean consumer here. I'm very passionate about this topic. Welcome to the gently gay. Exactly. I I want to know a little bit more about your background. Now you hail from five generations of black Alabama farmers tell us about this.

Kristen Dunning 3:24

Yeah, I do. So my on my dad's side, I'm really fortunate enough to like be from a family of black family that still owns the land that my family has had for generations and generations. So in Dixon Mills, Alabama, we have a homestead that used to be my grandparents. And it just holds so much legacy and generational wealth, but also just like so many memories personally for me. So when I was younger, we used to go down there in summer times and like visit during different breaks from school and everything. And I just completely. I will say when I was a child, I was like, Oh my gosh, there's nothing.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 4:00

But where did you grow out? You didn't grow up in Alabama? Yeah,

Kristen Dunning 4:05

so I was actually raised in Georgia, but our his family, my father's family was from Alabama, so Dixon Mills, Alabama, and that's where we always used to go. And it was like when I was younger, I used to be so like, enthralled and like focusing on the fact that there was like no Disney channel down there. But like now looking back on it. I am very thankful to have been able to see black people living a way of life where they were completely like self sufficient. Relying on the community like everything that my grandma got was from other people in her community and they were also black growers or black farmers or black homesteaders as well. So yeah, so I would we would go to their friend's house and see them raising chickens and cattle and all these different things. So it's something that you'll never forget. And I think it's really played into a lot of how I view myself clearly and how out there. Torture is kind of like shining through me. But also, it plays a lot into the communities that I want to uplift as my brand continues to grow. Yes.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 5:09

And then you went to college to study agriculture.

Kristen Dunning 5:12

Yes. So that was heavily influenced by my grandparents. So I went to the University of Georgia and I studied Agricultural Communication and horticulture. Horticulture is a fancy word for like studying the growing of plants. So I was particularly in the greenhouse management, I never quite took to the being outside part. But I love being in a greenhouse. It's probably my sanctuary. And I love being surrounded by plants. And I was focusing specifically my research projects, were looking at medicinal plants and how they can interact with our bodies, but also our skin topically, so and that was very much inspired by my grandparents, but also my personal battle with eczema.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 5:57

So tell us about your personal battle, because people think it's just one size fits all too when it comes to eczema, right, but everyone's journey is unique. Everyone's triggers are unique. What was your experience? Yes, I love that.

Kristen Dunning 6:09

You say that, because that has been the biggest thing that I've been like wanting to share about eczema. That's why I don't believe in like before and after photos and all those kinds of things, because it's so personal to the person who's experiencing it. So for me, I was born with it. I had eczema on pretty much everywhere on my body back to my legs, carpets is on my arms. But something that always kind of plagued me was my neck and then scalp. Excellent. Okay, so I say that because those were the two places where I couldn't really hide. So growing up and you know, school systems and everything, a lot of people there. I mean, kids are cool, they when they don't understand things, they're cool. So I remember being like ridiculed a lot for like my flaky skin, or like I was, you know, also like you had eczema. But then I also had like, teenage acne layered on top of it. So it was just like a whole mess going on. And I remember like going to dermatologists always like I was getting steroid shots. I was getting like topical creams. I had to use like special shampoos. I had to use, like, these special soaps that the Dreamhouse will give me and all I remember thinking is that like, one my skin is in pain and everything burns into like, This is so not like the bathing experience that is depicted in like all of my favorite TV. Right? The movie. Yeah, right. Exactly. And it's like, my I remember specifically that like my mom, she was used to be obsessed with that the bodywork. And one of the things that she would always do like the semi annual sales, right? And then she would come in with her bags and bags and stuff and then be like, but this is not for you. You can't use this and it wouldn't be like, plainly, like painful. And I just felt like it was like stab

Nicaila Matthews Okome 7:52

opposite of what our skin needs. Exactly,

Kristen Dunning 7:55

exactly. It was like even worse, because it's like with eczema, and it's different for everyone. But for me, I had a lot of like open skin. So anything really was like causing this burning sensation. So I wanted to find a way to bring joy back to the bathing experiences of people with skin like me. And a lot of that was rooted in my love for plants

Nicaila Matthews Okome 8:24

and when did you start exploring the medicinal principles of plants? I find that so interesting, because it starts from nature. And yet it's been developed into some higher tech medicines. But there are things that we can get directly from the ground that are going to help our skin so when did you start exploring that?

Kristen Dunning 8:45

Yeah, it really fun for me was kind of my own self love for it. Like I had it through my grandparents for my own self love started in like my AP environmental science class in high school. That was when I started realizing that I was like, really into terrarium or something. I was really, I wasn't really into like health and I think that's when I like started entertaining. The idea that like this natural plant version of where science and nature can meet to create solutions was like a thing. I also was like, really into like watching makeup, like YouTube. So like Jackie Aina and stuff like that, like I was always at my sister's basketball games, putting on makeup and like skincare routines on YouTube. So I think I just got really into the idea that like, natural is better and nature is better and then also knowing like my history and my legacy and where I come from. I think that was also kind of just like embedded in me but I started like really plugging into it myself. Like,

Nicaila Matthews Okome 9:52

right when I was applying to colleges, so yeah, and then when you got to college, is that when you started developing gently or did that Completer

Kristen Dunning 10:00

Yeah, so I started college in 2018. And I was in an honors research dorm. And I knew immediately that I wanted to research plants and eczema. I wasn't sure exactly where that would take me or like, what that would turn into my dream job at the time, like anything that you pull up from, like me in high school is like me saying, I want to work for Burt's Bees. I really by I really, I think I don't think that like entrepreneurship came easy in the sense of a an idea that I personally thought that I could follow. I was very much like, I don't know, I think I was raised in like a household that was like, you go to college, you get a job. And that's your life. Entrepreneurship wasn't even a thing. Even like as in a sense, like, my grandparents were entrepreneurs, but that was still kind of like viewed in a way of like, they did that. So we could be more. So that's not something that we also do. Okay, so yeah, like entrepreneurship was not the goal, I thought I was going to use all this research and knowledge to like, enhance my resume to go and like do behind the scenes work for like a Procter and Gamble or Burt's Bees. So as I was like doing stuff in the greenhouse, I don't know, I think I connected with it so personally, that the idea of sharing it with others, especially as I was creating, like my own herbal infusions, and like, realizing that this herb belongs with this sermon, if they put them together like this could happen, and those kinds of things like the actual like phyto chemistry and plant chemistry behind it, I don't know something about like, sharing my brain with like, a pirate Corp started to be a very, like, frictional like this kind of, and that's when I was like, hmm, I don't know what I'm gonna do with this. But it really wasn't until a quarantine that I decided to actually do something with it. So yeah.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 11:49

Did you start like making your own soap molds and things like that in quarantine?

Kristen Dunning 11:53

Yeah. So the story goes that, like UGA, you know, so started in 2018, continue to work on it throughout 2019, then COVID happened. So school started shutting down, and UGA kind of sent out to this email, I will never forget, like how scary that day was where it's like, we are stopping all research. So anything that you have currently going or working on, like it needs to be off campus by like this day. And with I was the girl who had like, a whole greenhouse thanks to my research professor, Dr. Can off like, we did a whole greenhouse full of medicinal plants. So I was like, how am I going to move a full greenhouse of medicinal plants? Like, within a way, how did you? So we were like, furiously like getting everything out. And like drying it, because we're like, there's no way we're going to be able to move this stuff like live. So we were like, at this point, we know that it has to, like sad, but like, we know that we have to literally, like kill it. But like, we were like, we're trying to dry everything out. Because there was no I mean, like, I didn't have a greenhouse on my house, like my family lives in the suburbs. And I was like, I don't know where I'm gonna take this. And Dr. Mouth ended up taking like part of it to his home and like planting it in his backyard. And then the other half we had dried, and put in these like large like research, clear vinyl bags. And I was just like taking these huge vinyl bags, my dried my home to my parents, and they're like, What are we supposed to do with all that? And I was like, I have no idea. It was It was surreal, because I really felt like we were like onto something. And my professor was about to retire at the time, too. So we were like, I knew that like the school was shutting down, there was a good chance that he wasn't coming back to campus. So it was kind of like a salad, goodbye. But I ended up bringing everything that we had grown in the greenhouse like to my house. And it was like in these bags. And it's sad, honestly, like in our back, like on our back porch or in our garage for a really long time. Because I was just like, I don't know what to do in this. Like we were supposed to do things. And at that point, I don't only really looked at like, extractions from the plant. Like while it was alive. I didn't even think about like what could be happening with Dr. And I think it was kind of in like September when I just started thinking about like, maybe I should do something with this. And I literally was like googling like DIY skincare because I was like, I mean, the first thing that I knew that I wanted to do was something that was like super simple, but I was like, the basis of all skincare is bathing so doesn't really matter. Like what you're layering on top of your skin after if like the full experience of cleansing your body that you do every day is like super painful and like doesn't work for you because it's like that's where your microbiome starts. That's where your like whole entire process of what everybody carries skincare routine has started. Yes. So like DIY skincare. And like soap was like one of the first things I came up started teaching myself like relearning how to make soap. And that's really when it all started

Nicaila Matthews Okome 14:51

to say relearning. So did you ever do that when you were younger? Or were you doing that in

Kristen Dunning 14:55

college? Yeah, so I did it for in the sense of like, I want It was actually my professors idea because we were going around to different research symposiums like presenting what we had found. And we were like, What is a way that we can bribe people to show up to our research talks. And I was like, if we give something away for free, and there was like, someone in the Entomology Department who was doing something on Cricket Flour was giving away free clip cricket for our cookies. And they had always had their symposiums packed. And he was like, We should do that. But like, with our son, I was like, okay, cookies are not going to work. But he's like, he's like, Let's do so. And I was like, that's cool. So he actually bought me like my first soap mold ever. Professor my first time me, yeah, that was amazing. I'm gonna send this to him now, because he'll be.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 15:48

So you were handing out so?

Kristen Dunning 15:51

Yeah, we were handing out like many tiny soaps, like at our research symposium, and that was really one bar. So it was born in like, 2019. So, in quarantine, I was like, I'm gonna do that, again. I'm gonna relearn how to make soap on my own. And I did and I was just posting videos about it. I'm like, I'm using all these herbs. Where were you posting just like Facebook and Instagram. It was really like friends and family. They were like, hyping me up and in like, the comments and stuff. And I was thinking like, Oh, my God, I could do something with this. So it was like, October 10 2020, I launched the Shopify. Within a couple hours, everything that I had made for like a month prior, was completely sold out ice. And I was freaking out, because I was also under selling my stuff. Like it was like $3. So I didn't even take into account that I would not have to ship these things to any everybody here like personally delivered them. I didn't think of any of the logistics. I was just like, Oh, that's cool. I made some money. I literally was in a hole because I went to like Office Depot to look at like shipping supplies. And this is insane. Yeah.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 16:57

And then did you have to do like special packaging to make sure that soap stayed through the shipping process?

Kristen Dunning 17:03

Yeah, I mean, I just put them in like these little soap Saver bags, and like, put a tag on them. And it was very simple and very cheap. And kind of like, whatever I could find at Dollar Tree. Dollar Tree is not even the least expensive thing that you can find nowadays, but it's like, I don't know, it was definitely the beginnings of like, we had no I had no money or no intention of it being coming this thing. And it was I'm just trying to, I was like, I don't know, school's out. 1010 How can I just like start something right 1010 2020 and 10. Magical date right

Nicaila Matthews Okome 17:40

there. So now you you officially launched into the atmosphere. And I want to know what happened next, because you went from just selling to friends and family to now you have this huge company? Well, you know, huge versus what you thought it would be right? You've been on Shark Tank. You're doing all this stuff? What happened? Yeah.

Kristen Dunning 18:00

Yeah. So UGA has a community garden that's called you garden. And my friends are there, they run it. And I'm still friends with them. But they invited me to their holiday market. And that was my first in person selling event. So it was there that I was like, oh, like maybe I can just sell this stuff. Like on the side, like while I'm in school. And just like do it because it's fun. I mean, I genuinely enjoy making soap and I didn't know enjoy joined growing the plants to make the soap. So why not do that? And it just my biggest goal at the time was like, Okay, how do I get into like the biggest farmers market like nearby and I ended up being like Athens farmers market. So I applied to that and like January and then that started in March. And then I was just going to farmers markets on the weekends for the last two years of college and selling the soap and it was called gently at the time. I originally started like under the name like professional plant grow which is my Instagram now but I had no idea what any type. Just get started. Just get started. Yeah, just get started. Don't worry about branding. Branding does not matter at all. Until you're like real intelligence. Because

Nicaila Matthews Okome 19:10

your product you had the product and what was some of the feedback to the product itself.

Kristen Dunning 19:14

I'm sure that helps you to keep going. Yeah, everyone was like really obsessed with what ended up being charged because of the Sun, which is our best seller now. But back then it was just like an orange bar. So with like no real name. And I think the feedback was like when people especially at the farmers market, it was like the first two weeks before I actually saw someone come back to me and they were like, this has changed my life. Like it doesn't burn. It's like working with my skin. And that was like why I designed it because I feel like so many products are like, you know, you pick them up when you're like in the midst of a flare up but then it's like what are you doing to like, preventative care, but also just like in the moment where your skin isn't necessarily in a flare up. How do you still use eczema friendly prod Yeah to, like, keep your skin throughout like, Great throughout the whole entire cycle and lifelong relationship that is having eczema. So it wasn't necessarily, like it's not about healing, it's not even about like full on prevention. It's really just about like an eczema friendly bathing experience that's joyful. And she was just saying, I've never been able to use something that has any type of smell. So even this like subtle botanical smells like was like a game changer for her. And that's when I really started to realize that that was my value proposition. And that is what I started doing. So

Nicaila Matthews Okome 20:35

that is really interesting to me. And I'm sorry, if I'm cutting you off, because I'm just so excited, you're fine. But I find it really interesting that you are very clear on what your value proposition is. And that can take a lot of business owners a while to pinpoint what helps you and pinpointing that, truly,

Kristen Dunning 20:54

I created gently soap for myself, like the six year old girl who was struggling to feel confident in her own skin. And I was tired of being sold these like quick schemes of like, I don't know, I always like It's like Hair Growth Oil. No. No, like you see the before and after. Like people. I feel like it was like the same type of thing was going on like the eczema community. It was like these before and after photos. And I don't know, I started to get in the habit of buying stuff like that. But then if it didn't work for me, I would feel really hopeless and lost and be like, What am I doing wrong? Like what is so nice? There's so much like loneliness in battling a skin disease or condition like by yourself. And I was like, How can I make that experience more of like this, like joyful confidence revolution, rather than, you know, talking to people about you need to make this go away? Yeah, you're not pretty, or else you're not beautiful. But I'm like, How can you just like change it and be like, you have this thing and it makes you more powerful, it makes it it's bringing people together, it's causing community like we can be open and talk about it. And we can find joy in what is like, usually super painful, because we're creating joyful experiences around talking about this condition that we have.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 22:12

And there's this sense of inclusion too. Because finally, you can be included in this experience of having a luxurious bath experience. You don't have to be excluded. Like I wonder what that's like, because so many of us, the trigger is perfume soap scented soap, like that's what I always used to tell people to simplify like, I'm allergic to perfume products. Like, I can't have perfume, lotions, and soaps and all that good stuff. Right? But it's like, is that really what I'm allergic to? You know, like, yeah, there's so many new,

Kristen Dunning 22:40

there's so much nuance to it. Yeah, exactly. Like so for me, like gently soap is free of synthetic fragrances, it's free of any type of fragrance, added fragrance. But it's also free of essential oils, which was a big trigger for me. And it's, it was like really hard navigating the world of natural products. Because instead, everybody was put that in everything, every single thing and the crazy thing about especially when you're buying like DIY, or like from, you know, people at the farmers market, that's where I got my start, so I'm not shaming them. But it's like, a lot of times people aren't going through like the formulations rigorous like background that you need to actually create a skincare product in general. And because it's not heavily regulated, and there's a low barrier to entry to market. A lot of times that amount of essential oil isn't being recorded and or regulated. It's kind of like just a violation. Yeah.

Yeah, it's like, Oh, I like this, let me add a couple more jobs. That's what we're supposed to be doing. Because it's very volatile. And it's very, it's very allergenic. So it can cause a lot of reaction. So I wanted to create a way to just like get rid of it, and products would still have the benefits of a plant. Because I'm like, I like what lavender smells like I like what it does. But I do understand that like essential oils, in general are just very irritating to people with skin like mine, especially if you're dealing with like open skin or like actively itching skin. So yeah. And that's what's so unique about your background, because you're right. And that's not to shame anyone because not all of us can go to school for agriculture and horticulture, like not all of us. Exactly. Yeah, start with that path. And then we might gravitate to starting a spotty care line. However, that's what's so unique about you that's a superpower in that you've actually studied these plants you actually understand how they work together and particularly for some of the most sensitive skin out there. I think that is just so impressive.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 24:45

So how do you deal with the fact that after you have tried so many things as a person with irritable skin as you would call it? You once you found something that works? You're afraid right? You're afraid switching costs are high, you're afraid to try something and have it irritate your skin. So how do you get people to actually try your products? Oh,

Kristen Dunning 25:09

that's such a good question. Um, I think the opposite was actually has actually been like the case in the sense of like, because there isn't a cure for eczema in this, like, associations are working on it. But it's just one of those inflammatory diseases that happened for humans. And because I think it's just like, so many people are like, chasing relief. And that is, it's, I don't know, it's sad to me, because that's why people are like, so quick to just buy anything off the internet and not necessarily fact check it or like, see where it's coming from, or where it's being sourced from, because it's like, we're like, we're in so much pain that we're craving anything that can just help. And for me, as a parent, when my children aren't paying, I will buy anything, and it pisses me off too. Because everything is like $30

Nicaila Matthews Okome 25:59

for one little jar of lotion. Yeah.

Kristen Dunning 26:03

Yeah, I think I think my approach to that is I think it's like it's my messaging about the product. Like I welcome feedback. I welcome criticism, I welcome like conversation surrounding the product, like what would you rather see? Like, what, how can we help you? Because it's like, at the end of the day, like, I want my goals to be like a one stop shop for eczema bathing, for sensitive skin bathing. But that doesn't happen without community and conversation. Yes. So I think the biggest thing that I've been doing, it's just like, as my product grows, like the the products that we have now it's the same formula. But it's just like, the sizing has always been changing. Like I remember when our soaps were like they were really small people like this is just right.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 26:47

We'll make them there.

Kristen Dunning 26:51

So now they're listening to that feedback. Yep. Yeah, exactly. So it's just like constantly changing. And

Nicaila Matthews Okome 26:58

then I also heard about your product that most of your buyers actually don't have sensitive skin. So that's kind of a unique experience of starting something for one demographic and realizing that hey, like, this doesn't just appeal to them.

Kristen Dunning 27:14

Yeah, I think it's because like, once the education starts or like when something like this comes out, where it's like I'm talking about it, people start realizing that like, it's actually kind of the better choice for a skin over general, right? In general, because when you create something, it's, it's kind of like, the topicals founder, she talks about how like, when you create something for melanated skin, you create a better product for all skin, like you create something for, yeah, excellent and sensitive skin, the most sensitive of skin types, you create something that's better for all skin types. And that's kind of the angle that we're working with here. It's to be inclusive of all skin types, but work for the most sensitive of that

Nicaila Matthews Okome 27:53

is really good. I really, I get that. I like that a lot. And then your repeat order. Percentage is really high. Right? What is it something like? What's the percentage? At this point? 78. What are you doing? What's the secret sauce?

Kristen Dunning 28:10

Oh, my gosh, oh, my gosh, I the secret sauce. I think it's just I honestly, I might my advisors tell me that it's truly the eye they say it's my personality, and the way in which I interact with my customers. I think more than anything, I just want people to feel special no matter what skin type or skin condition they have. And I think like the joy of it, like the joy of our branding, the joy of when you open the box, like it seeps in through all of our packaging, it seeps in through our materials. And you know, Shark Tank was the best thing that happened for us. But it was also the most like stressful thing. Imagine it because we were so small. Yeah. But like even be able to come out of that with so much more learned experiences. And to like use that to continue to grow because that is our superpower. Is that like 78% of our customers come back within six months. Yeah. So yes, that not a lot of businesses can say that. Yeah, that's our bread and butter. Yeah.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 29:12

Let's go back for a bit to the kind of startup timeline. So you start this while you're a junior in college, and you grow it by the time you went on Shark Tank, which what year was Shark Tank? 2022 2023 2023

Kristen Dunning 29:23

So

Nicaila Matthews Okome 29:26

literally September of last year. Wow. And at that point, how much have you done in sales?

Kristen Dunning 29:31

That's a great question. Okay, so 20/21 year business like 5,402nd year business 2021 We did 30,000 Again, this is like side house. Yeah. So I find so happy to be

Nicaila Matthews Okome 29:44

in school full time you're in the perfect place to be

Kristen Dunning 29:47

sharing. All of my revenue is only from farmers markets on the weekends. So 22 was like 112 that

Nicaila Matthews Okome 29:54

change and you graduated at that point. What What was what caused that chump?

Kristen Dunning 29:58

Yeah, I graduate I ended in 20. I was in grad school, so everything was boarded together. So I think spring of 2021 is when I graduated from undergrad, and then I was in grad school, but I literally, I graduated on like may 15, and went into grad school may 8, all combined together. But I think it was, it was really kind of like the high end elevation of collegiate pitch competition. So I've won over $300,000 At this point in collegiate pitch competition, but nice, like free grant funds. Yes. So being on those stages, traveling across the country, and pitching from like college, to college, and whatever, that helped give me a little bit of brand awareness and at least traction within that community. Then it was like after a pitch competition, someone actually convinced me to apply for shark tank, and then 2023, we did around 300,000 in sales. So this year, we're on track to do 1.2 million. So that is,

Nicaila Matthews Okome 30:58

that is beautiful. And I love you know, seeing that trajectory, hearing about that. So you know, that's why I wanted to like to stop and really understand, and you went from side hustle your full time now. Right?

Kristen Dunning 31:08

I am full time. This is my full time job. I just graduated with my MBA. And this is what I'm doing. That's awesome.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 31:15

Awesome. Now, you talk about shark tank in the Shark Tank experience. What was a little bit challenging about going on Shark Tank? Like, first of all, tell us what happened when you went on Shark Tank and then the aftermath, so to speak? Yeah,

Kristen Dunning 31:32

I want to start this by saying that I was incredibly lucky. And I'm so grateful for my chart taking experience because I was in the van with other Shark Tank people that were going to fill in that day who were on there, like seventh or eighth time trying to fill and I applied in February of 2023. Heard back while I was on Taylor Swift concert in May 2023. Film that June. And then by September, I was airing and I was the first episode of my season. So my experience is unlike any other a lot of people don't even make it through to filming their first time, let alone actually get to be aired. So very grateful for that. But that was all God. So when I started Shark Tank, my lifetime sales was around 163,000. And I think I said that on the show, or something around there. And I didn't have that's not technically a lot because I had been in business since 2020. At that point. So it was around three years. But I explained to him like I was in school. I didn't even I mean, yeah, like the fact that I even like standing here is like, honestly, like beyond me because this was my my full time job. Like I'm still in school, I was still in school at that point. So I was really just like, going in there selling the dream. Because I was like, it would be great if I could do this full time, but I'm just not there yet. And luckily, Candice Nelson my shark in my bestie, my mentor she bought into it. So I just don't think that you need to have like 500 or millions to go on Shark Tank. I feel like you should go with like whatever traction you had, because my superpower was what I shared in the tank was just like, people are coming back though. I see a pasture growth. I know how much it costs to like acquire customers. I know that this can scale. I just don't like I'm a plant scientist. Yeah. I don't know how to like be CEO yet. And I need someone to like help them for me. So I can take on that role. You're growing a little bit more marketing. Okay.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 33:27

Yeah. And it's like you, you have the advantage, like you're young. So you know, it's so awesome. You're starting so young, but at the same time, you're starting so young, right? And it's like you're having even worked for someone else yet to even like have some of the exposure to grow your own company. So it's so cool that you can start so young, but at the same time, you know, its pros and cons to it. And it's just a testament also to the fact that people invest in people. Like you think they're investing in your company, but they're investing in you. Right and if you do you feel so proud of that, like they are seeing me they're seeing what I can do and they believe in me

Kristen Dunning 34:06

and cannabis tells me yeah chemists tell me to this day that like she bought into me immediately because of my energy when I walked through the door she was like I don't know what you're selling but this is it. And she was like that's the energy she always want me to do videos and stuff like that because like that's the energy that's like, like gently is all about joy but they were like Kristen is also all the way like you just have this bubbly joyful energy which translate through like bubbly, joyful, so

Nicaila Matthews Okome 34:31

what's your tagline?

Kristen Dunning 34:33

I forget it but I love it. So we have like the joy in bathing but we also have real herbs and real joy, herbs real joy all of our soaps on the back. It's always says like this bar soap is infused with like Rose chamomile and joy. Okay, yeah.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 34:47

I love that. You bring that out though because you think you know it's something that's so simple, but it you immediately get it and you immediately feel it and I saw something recently that talked about out influence. And it talks about like telling people what they're going to experience actually works. Like if you start out a talk and you're like, This is going to be the best talk you've ever heard. I mean, of course, you got to follow it up with good info, but it actually works to anchor people. So telling people like, this soap has joy in it. It works. So yeah, I love that.

Kristen Dunning 35:29

And I think I think what's great about where we are now is that like, I necessarily, I don't even have to like, bold all of the restaurants really doing all the talking anymore. Because it's like now it's like, our reviews are on the website. People are also the testimony. Yes, yeah. So like, the first year, I was like, hitting it hard trying to convince people and I'm like, but look at all the proof.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 35:48

Hello, hello. Yeah. And speaking of Shark Tank, let's talk a little bit about something else. That's impressive of what you've been able to do. And let me know if it's, this is still the case. But you have had high margins for a bar of soap, right? Like people think, you know, I gotta have, I gotta start at a low price point and all this other stuff. But you actually found a way to have really good profit margin. So the difference, you know, between the, like you did some goods, and what it costs you to make it versus what you sell. So tell us a little bit about that. Yeah,

Kristen Dunning 36:19

that is testament to one the qualities and ingredients. So I think like, you know, I told you like when I first started selling, I had no idea how anything works. And cost $3 An hour bar soaps are $11. And having those profit margins are very important, because it allows me to spend more on customer experience. It allows me to partner with only US growers for herbs that allows me to like only sourced from the US, only US US manufacturers and all those kinds of things. So I think because I put so much emphasis and care into where herbs are being sourced from like, even when I was growing everything myself. And when it got to the point where that was like not sustainable, because we were selling more than I could grow with. It's like, whatever I still wanted to partner with like black farmers, I was like contacting black growers in Georgia and North Carolina and Florida, because I really wanted that to be like a thing. And like, even now it still is. So I'm really, like hyper focused on our supply chain and where that is coming from. And it allows, like having our profit margins where they are, allows me to make the best decision for my consumers in the products that I'm giving to them. So I love it. I think that is a testament in itself. Yes.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 37:32

And even being able to speak to that, again, that takes time. So I'm also really impressed by your ability to articulate not only your unique value, but then also even the importance of your profit margin. And I just really love that. So you mentioned you were in grad school, you got your MBA, right? Did this come from that experience, or also from having this shark as your coach? This

Kristen Dunning 37:59

came from the experience of realizing I knew everything about plants and nothing about I was tired of going into different rooms and having everyone like say these like acronyms, I'd be like, Wait, what the what this LIFO FIFO, like, all these accounting things, and I was like, I don't ever want to be the smartest person, I mean, the dumbest person in the room, when it comes to my business. If I'm gonna be CEO, I need to be CEO. So I went and I got my MBA and I just graduated two weeks ago. Now I feel a little bit better. I think a lot of entrepreneurship, what I learned from going through the program, too, is just like, you learn it while you're doing it as well. But at least now I have some case studies under my

Nicaila Matthews Okome 38:43

watch to me a lot. Yes, yes. And it's interesting, because I think it's so smart to get your MBA while having a business because you're able to apply it right away rather than just like have the theory and the case studies and which is nice and everything and you still learn a lot, but being able to apply it to an actual business is so very smart. And a lot of things that people don't talk about from these graduate degrees. And it actually is having that confidence to be able to be in the room, be at the table and understand what the hell is going on. And they don't put that in the brochure. It's especially for competence. Yeah. And having the confidence to like, admit, you know, no, go do something about it. And realizing because that's another experience, you know, you get through going through the program, you realize that other people it can a non black people are more confident, and being able to say, Hey, I'm actually smart, but I don't know this part. And that's cool. That's great that that just shows you how smart I am. So it's a lot to unpack, but it is helpful. So I love that you did that as well. And now it shows I can tell just in the way you speak, right, that you you have this business acumen. Yeah. Thank you. All right, so we're about to get into the lightning round. But before we do, I'm curious, what has been your approach to marketing? Do you have a team do you have a strategy or has it been like word of for now until you can build up a team. Yeah,

Kristen Dunning 40:02

so 2020 2021 22 Word of mouth did nothing 2023 We dipped our toe in digital marketing. And that was the first time where I was like, we're gonna stop farmers markets, that was the year, you're gonna stop it was, yeah, it was really sad. Because I couldn't be, in order to scale farmers markets, you need a whole team of people going to a whole bunch of different farmers markets to make more money than if you were in one place. It was just me, I could not be in Nashville, Atlanta, Athens, you know, all in one day. So I basically I met my marketing advisor, Kevin philosophy, and he was like, ecommerce is going to be our way to scale this. So you can do the things that you want to do, which is like go to in person events, and have like a little bit of relaxation. So 2023, he convinced me to like really try and put a little bit more emphasis on digital marketing. And we started with Google ads. And then also like, making our website look better. Then Shark Tank happened. And we were like, We need a new website now. So we did a full redesign, and had it like up literally, like two days before the episode aired, like the scary. And then we basically let Shark Tank like play out how it was gonna play out. And then we like, started January this year, we poured more money into like digital marketing. And now like Google ads, Amazon ads, we've just started Facebook ads a month ago. And it's like, honestly insane how much it's working now. I think it just because we're because we have so many more assets of like an understanding our branding now like before, I was trying to figure out what I could and couldn't say to like, not get banned off. So now we understand kind of the parameters of who we're talking to and communicating with, and also interviewing the customers that we have to realize, like, What are you searching? Like, what are you looking for, so we can show it to more people like you.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 41:56

Okay, that makes a lot of sense. And I understand that, that journey that you have to go through right to get to that everyone has to start somewhere. So thank you for sharing your journey. And then speaking of that, now, a lot of people lose money, or make a little bit of money in the first few years has you have shown what has been your experience? Overall? Like, have you been profitable? Have you now gone kind of in a hole as you're scaling? What has been your experience with the financial side? Yeah, so

Kristen Dunning 42:25

I was profitable. And all of my buildup years. I mean, farmers markets, I wasn't making far enough to even I mean, I didn't pay myself anything like not even a part time salary, I was just throwing everything back into the business 2023, we were building so much that we were like a little bit less than profit. So I think we were like $11,000 in the hole, which is still not even a lot. So now we're working out a profit. And I would say that, like, in the history of my business, we've been profitable. Mostly, the only times that we were it was when it's like I had to pay legal things to get these deals. Like, I didn't know how much. And that wasn't

Nicaila Matthews Okome 43:02

the team now and you're in headquarters, it looks like I see the Jet Li so you guys could check her out on YouTube to see. So how big is the team? How big is the headquarters? Yeah, so

Kristen Dunning 43:13

my advisory board is three people, then it's me founder and CEO. And then I have my family and then a full time or part time full time employee working in fulfillment. So it's about it's less than 10 people, it's about seven or eight people. And a lot of the people that we employ as far as like website marketing and stuff like that are all contractors, which I highly suggest to any small business owner because bringing on full time employees, it's like you, you are now responsible for someone's day to day living and also medical and everything so the more that you can like find independent contractors to pay when you need them and then just like not necessarily had the full like financial responsibility of supporting their families is so much

Nicaila Matthews Okome 44:04

so now let's get into the lightning round. You know the deal, you just answered the first thing that comes to mind. Are you ready?

Kristen Dunning 44:12

I am alright,

Nicaila Matthews Okome 44:13

so number one, what is a top resource not Google that has helped you with building gently soap as a side hustle that you could share with the side hustle

Kristen Dunning 44:22

pro audience collegiate Pitch Competition grants. Oh yeah, I know that because you want a bunch of money Yeah, it's just like grants in general whether it be from like black ambition which I was an award winner for this year. A vino I'm their skin health startup of the year for this year. Got $100,000 grant from them. Yeah. Thank you. Grant darken lovely has it looks like I don't get them on fire for them all because free money is the best way to

Nicaila Matthews Okome 44:51

Yes, I love that for you and for everyone and for all of us. All right, number two, who is a non celebrity black woman entrepreneur who you would want to switch please This is with four data learn pick their brain. Ooh,

Kristen Dunning 45:03

Mikhail Greco. And who is that she is the founder of 13 Loon, which is a EECOM. Well, it's an E commerce. And she has like actual brick and mortar stores now for black and brown founders. And it's for beauty founders especially. And gently soap is actually sold there. She's our first high end beauty retail partner, which is great. But she's also just like a powerhouse of a beauty brand. Like connoisseur, like, advisor, consultant, editor, but also she also has her own brand, which is relevant skin, which they sell it in her stores as well. So we got a lot of things black and brown beauty. Right? Okay, number three, what

Nicaila Matthews Okome 45:43

is a non negotiable part of your Davies based?

Kristen Dunning 45:46

Ooh, my journaling and prayer time, that is not because I need at least like two times out of the day where I'm not thinking about anything gently related. And that is literally like journaling and praying and or running, which is like my new hobby

Nicaila Matthews Okome 46:03

is so important. So important. Number four, you might have touched on it. But what is a personal habit that is helping you be significantly successful, and just show up right in your business.

Kristen Dunning 46:16

I think like listening on a podcast, I

Nicaila Matthews Okome 46:19

know. We love

Kristen Dunning 46:22

my drives into the headquarters and stuff like that. I've been like, I don't know, also, like audiobooks have been a really big thing for me recently. But that is I'm telling you like, pouring into yourself when you're not at work is so important. So that way, when I am at work, I can focus completely on what I need to get done. And like this is the first year where I'm prioritizing that like life balance, because like last year, I was like, go go go, I was like flying all over the place. And like also Shark Tank was like, I was here until like 4am Packing orders. And I didn't really have any time to actually to feed into myself. So now I'm like, I'm doing that that is happening. Because the happier that I am in my like in wellness of my full life is better for the company in general. Yes, I'm

Nicaila Matthews Okome 47:05

so glad you mentioned that. And then finally, what is your parting advice for fellow side hustlers who want to start their own company, but are worried about not having a steady paycheck?

Kristen Dunning 47:15

I think the biggest thing to always remember if you're like facing a decision of like, when to leave your job or like should I leave my job? How do I know the side hustle is working? Or like even the the thing about to like start a side hustle to even start is when you are 80 years old, 90 years old, 95 however long you were graced with on this earth, and you're like laying on your deathbed. Like you don't want to be like what if I would have started that thing? Like, I cannot imagine how heartbreaking it would have been to like never have started gently and just be like, what if I would have done something with all of my research, you know? And that is the most important thing is like to answer all your what ifs. So that way, when you look back at over your life, you can say that, like you truly followed every dream, and it might fail. Like most of our startups fail. I don't even know the I don't know, I learned in Tech Stars that the percentage is actually very high. But yeah, the most important thing is that you did it. Like you could say you did it and you'll learn something, whether it sends you back to your corporate job, or you end up like flourishing, and like being a next big company. Like you've done something and you're learning so much from it. And you you're going to be a better person regardless. So

Nicaila Matthews Okome 48:24

yes. So wise wise words. Yes. And, and you touched on it. I forgot to mention this in the episode, but you you're also a part of Tech Stars. Is that current or is it something you graduated from? And how did that program help you? Yeah, so yeah, I

Kristen Dunning 48:40

did TechStars New Orleans, around so block ambition Shark Tank TechStars. I mean, I love it the same time. They were all happening. Oh my god, like quarter four of last year. So TechStars is great. I absolutely loved it. I love the people I met I loved my managing director Melissa Vegas love all of them. I have graduated from the program, but I am an alumni. So I am currently going like I am currently going to a lot of alumni events, especially the ones that are in Atlanta or New York. So I don't know, I think that's one of the best salaries I've

Speaker 1 49:14

actually been in. And I've been in quite a few. But I think it was so personalized and focused on like everyone truly wanted to help specifically my company and like figure out how it works. So yeah, I love it. I love to hear that. Like there's so many accelerators out there. So it's good to know and I hope that you know anyone listening that one of your takeaways from today's talk can just be you know, go after those resources. Look up every single one that Kristin mentioned and you know, apply for those pitch competitions, apply for those accelerators, and just get every resource you possibly can for your company because why not? So where can where can people connect with you and gently soap after this episode? Yes,

Kristen Dunning 49:58

so you can find gently So products on our website gently soap.com. Very easy. Our Instagram is at gently so you can also find them on Amazon. It has prime so if you're a prime bestie then you can do that.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 50:11

speaking my language.

Kristen Dunning 50:13

Also, you can also find them at 13 lunes la store or on 13 lulu.com which is the beauty retailer mentioned before. And then me personally, I am Kristin Dunning on LinkedIn and also at professional click girl on Instagram. I really

Nicaila Matthews Okome 50:31

Yeah, so yeah, you're busy. You're busy woman. Okay. That's, like

Kristen Dunning 50:35

became like exci like delete. Yeah.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 50:39

All right. So with that, you guys this has been an awesome conversation. I myself really enjoyed it. And I cannot wait for you guys to listen, reach out to Kristin and to take action after this episode and I will talk to you next week. Hey guys, thanks for listening to side hustle Pro. If you like the show, be sure to subscribe rate and review on Apple podcasts. It helps other side hustlers just like you to find the show. And if you want to hear more from me, you can follow me on Instagram at side hustle Pro. Plus sign up for my six bullet Saturday newsletter at side hustle Pro, that CO slash newsletter. When you sign up, you will receive weekly nuggets from me, including what I'm up to personal lessons and my business tip of the week. Again that side hustle pro.co/newsletter to sign up. Talk to you soon.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Meet the host:

Nicaila Matthews-Okome

Hi! I’m Nicaila, the Creator and Host of the Side Hustle Pro Podcast. I started Side Hustle Pro when I was a side hustler myself. I was a digital marketer at NPR by day, side hustler by night. Through the powerful stories shared on this show and the courage to launch my own initiatives, I was able to quit my own job and go full time with Side Hustle Pro.

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