Interview: Krysta Lewis on Knowing What Your Customers Want
The Aisling Organics founder and CEO explains how to build loyalty during a pandemic.
Welcome to Direct-to-Conversation, a recurring interview feature from DTC Magazine. These conversations highlight insights, advice, and innovation strategies from leading thinkers in the DTC, eCommerce, and retail space. Our most recent interview was with Nik Sharma, who heads up Sharma Brands and serves an investor and advisor to countless DTCs.
In this Direct-to-Conversation, we catch up with Krysta Lewis, who is the founder and CEO of Aisling Organics, a beauty and personal care product DTC company, that focuses on clean, plant-based products.
DTC Magazine: You started your journey into entrepreneurship at a young age in an industry not known for its friendliness. What was the process of learning to advocate for yourself like?
Krysta Lewis: That's a fantastic question. So I launched Aisling Organics at 21 and I was pretty naive to the fact that I would be judged just because of my age and gender. You hear about this stuff, but you don't actually believe that it will happen to you until it does.
Going into the beauty industry, it wasn't really something that I was hesitant about. And honestly, even when being in it, it's really not the beauty industry that's created hardships for me. It's actually the tech environment and raising capital for my startup. So that was something that was certainly not expected. And as I've gone through accelerator programs and spoken to other companies who are used to being in that world, it's been very quick to have judgments passed. But most importantly, people not necessarily taking you seriously when I do pitch about my company and are trying to secure that capital that has been needed. It's definitely challenging.
But for us, I knew that if I just kept looking forward, people would see that things are heading in the right direction and that we're doing well at the company. And that's exactly what happened. Anyone who doubted my ability to lead this company early on has, I hope, at least changed their opinions now, as they see as they have seen the milestones that we've hit.
I said to myself, ‘You know what? This is a problem. People need a better alternative, and I can't be more broke than I already am...'
DTC: Of course, thinking that an idea can be a business and turning it into one are totally different animals. Did you have a particular a-ha moment when the practical vision for Aisling fell into place?
KL: Absolutely. So it's kind of a two-part answer to this question. I would say, first of all, I grew up with very entrepreneurial parents. Both of them own businesses. And my mom was involved with my family's company, which ended up being the largest beauty-supply distributor in the East Coast, which got acquired by L’Oréal in 2010. So I grew up seeing that it was a possibility. It certainly wasn't something that could be unachievable for me because I have seen two other people do it. So that definitely helps.
And then, throughout college, I was really sick, even for years before that with chronic migraines and nausea and found out that, unfortunately, it was my makeup. I know we as women (and even men who use personal care products) never really expect that something you bought off the shelf could be hurting you. And so I found that out and really couldn't find any alternatives on the market that were truly organic, but actually worked—and that's the kicker there—actually stayed on your face and had that performance element.
I graduated college a year-and-a-half early, and I said to myself, ‘You know what? This is a problem. People need a better alternative, and I can't be more broke than I already am. My friends still have a year-and-a-half in school, so might as well give this a shot. If I have to sleep on couches, I have to sleep on couches. It's socially acceptable for my age; I'm just going to give it a try and see if it’s adaptable to the market.’ And that's exactly what happened. I know people say this, but I really was pretty fearless going into it.
We felt it was very important to think and say to ourselves, ‘What is the average person going through right now? And what would they want to hear from us?'
DTC: We're obviously in a strange, surreal moment in which our relationships to our most cherished products and carefully cultivated wardrobes have drastically changed. How have you reimagined your brand story during such a tumultuous time?
KL: I will preface this by saying that we were already in a pretty great position when the pandemic happened, primarily because we were in about 250 retailers by the end of 2018 and we took 2019 to pull out of all of our retail stores to become an online-only brand. Of course, we didn't know what was going to be coming, but we were in a great position, considering some of the places that we're going to be carrying us either went into bankruptcy or were having some challenging times. So we felt very grateful for being an online-only brand.
In terms of reimagining our game plan and who we are as a brand, we felt that it was really important, especially with the fact that we do a lot of online advertising—certainly through Facebook, as one of our largest—to think about our consumer. A direct-to-consumer brand is all about the consumer in theory. So for us, we felt it was very important to think and say to ourselves, ‘What is the average person going through right now? And what would they want to hear from us? What would be something that's really helpful, and not only from a sales perspective, but also from a comforting, we're there for you type of thing?’
For us, one of the biggest things we did was launch The Daily Laugh, which was a text subscription line. And essentially our customers would get a Joke of the Day every single day. And it sounds kind of silly because you're asking, ‘Okay, Krysta, so what is the goal here?’ And the only goal is to have people smile and for them to associate that with our brand. So I think that those types of things are often overlooked and certainly helped us during this time.
From a conversion or sales perspective, I will say that we really had to think about our copy when creating ads. You can't any longer talk about wearing a red lipstick to go out for the night because, while it's a little bit more of a possibility now, it certainly wasn't six months ago, and so that wouldn't resonate with our audiences. Instead, we created a Zoom bundle: How to get ready in five minutes with these five products and certain things like that helped people know that there are still ways in which you can wear makeup and it's appropriate for the time being and certainly creating content that resonated with those people.
You want to know that demographic and you want to know what they care about. You want to know what is attractive to them in terms of packaging and colors and branding.
DTC: Products that are clean and plant-based have risen in popularity as consumers reconsider what they're buying like never before. Without giving away any trade secrets, how would you advise a new brand work to stand out in a crowded space?
KL: That's something that we've certainly given a lot of thought. Now, obviously, it's in hindsight, but what I will say is there are a couple of things that really can be keys to success.
One would be to know your target market. It's easy to say that you're making a product for everybody, but in reality, you’re not. So it comes down to, ‘Who is that target market and what do they care about?’ And, right now, Gen Z is really, really popular and there are brands that should be coming out just to cater to that generation. It's gonna be the largest generation we've had yet. So if that is the case, then you want to know that demographic and you want to know what they care about. You want to know what is attractive to them in terms of packaging and colors and branding. And it's just important that you find that audience and you create it specifically for them versus all audiences because if you do all audiences, you're gonna have a hard time finding product-market fit. So I would say that that's certainly important.
Secondly, I'll say that it's funny, you think with personal care products, it’s all about the formula. And you can have a killer formula, but at the end of the day, it comes down to how that product looks on the shelf and whether it looks good in a shelfie, which is essentially a picture of people’s shelves and the products that they use. And so it's It's really, really important that you focus on that more so than anything. At the end of the day, you do have to have a great formula, but you just need to make sure that you have all parts of that equation.
My last tip would be to gain a following first. If you can build that audience before you launch a product, you are in such a better position because you have people who already care about what you're doing. If you want your product first and then try to find the audience, it's much more difficult. So if you have the time to build that audience first, I highly recommend starting there.
I encourage my entire team to be as creative and innovative as they can be and nothing's really off the table in terms of testing. I think that's really important to us, in addition to innovating based on consumer feedback.
DTC: Having started in 2016, you're coming up on a pretty big milestone in the coming months. How do you plan for the next five years?
KL: Well, if we have years that are as crazy as this year in the next five years, I don't know that I can plan for anything. But given that things are a little bit more consistent, I would say we're always trying to innovate quickly and be incredibly creative with what we do.
In this space, you really need to be the first in the market with certain ideas. And so, I encourage my entire team to be as creative and innovative as they can be and nothing's really off the table in terms of testing. I think that's really important to us, in addition to innovating based on consumer feedback. So many DTC brands say they do it, but to actually talk the talk and walk the walk is really important.
Those are the two things that I think we're working on, Aisling-wise. Personally, I'm working on being a thought leader in the industry, helping other entrepreneurs understand the importance of pitching. For us, we won numerous pitch competitions and have gotten ourselves to a great spot in the industry because of that. I think that there are so many businesses that underestimate the importance of that and being able to communicate a message well, so that's just my personal goal for the next few years.