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Indie Beauty Network

Reprinted from Indie Beauty Network, November 30, 2009. Copyright (c) 2000 - 2009 by IBN and Donna Maria. Used with permission.

4. Featured Indie: Marcia Elston :: Samara Botane :: Washington

Rob Stitt and Marcia ElstonI first met Rob and Marcia in the late 90's on the same aromatherapy list where I met Rosanne Tartaro (featured here) and Marge Clark (featured here). We couldn't get enough of chatting about aromatherapy on that chat room. Today, chat rooms and social sites have certainly changed a lot! And while businesses evolve, I personally love it when Indies stick to and show commitment to a niche over an extended period of time. Such is the case with Marcia Elston, pictured here with her husband Rob, of Samara Botane in Seattle, Washington. I met Marcia many years ago when I spoke at a NAHA conference. Too bad I didn't have my camera at the time or I would love to show you a picture of their shop in a beautiful area of town. Today, their business is online and they've just launched an exciting new website too! Marcia sat down last week to tell me a bit about her journey.

Marcia: The inspiration for my business took early root with a childhood fascination for plants, both in the wild growing up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and those pristinely cultivated in my grandmother's neighbor's huge and beautiful English garden. I spent countless hours as a child following Mrs. Judd around with pestering questions as she popped leaves in my mouth, explaining medicinal and culinary benefits. I was more at home learning all about plants than out playing with friends. I believe that working with essential oils or any of the plant extracts as ingredients in the skin care or spa products is enhanced greatly by comprehending the complexity that begins with the germination of a tiny seed. The many influences, ecological, cultural, political and regulatory as well as economical, that provide for the success (or failure) for that seed to eventually grow to maturity . . . then be distilled to end up as a fragrance or ingredient in a soothing aromatherapy massage oil is no less than miraculous. The reciprocal human obligation for stewardship has been impressed upon me by mentors and lamplighters from an early age. This love of plants and nature was an passionate avocation throughout much of my earlier career in folklore and public administration. My professional life took a circuitous route back to these early roots, but gave me additional insights that serve my business well. 

dM: How did your professional background or prior work experience help prepare you for launching your own venture?

Marcia: I never had a master professional plan. It just evolved; I was smart enough to recognize opportunities as well as stumbling blocks. I also allowed myself to change course as I gained new information and my professional-directional ideas changed. My college degree is in business administration with an emphasis on fine art. There were no specific diplomas in public arts administration at that time. While in school, I involved myself in campus performing art activities and found I had good organizational skills and enjoyed creating and managing public events. Finding I loved my role as a catalyst and the excitement created by bringing people together for events, I adjusted my curriculum to fit a pursuit of employment in public arts administration.

While going to school, I worked as a community organizer within the emerging OEO under Johnson/Nixon, finding early on that societal and cultural issues were inevitably intertwined with economic or professional ones. This combined education and experience broadened my horizons and viewpoint. I took additional graduate courses in folklore and found myself being asked by the Smithsonian Institution to be a principle organizer for the 1974 World's Fair Folklife Festival, which occupied me for 3+ years and was an intense and fascinating project that I am delighted to have helped manifest. From there, I worked for a number of nonprofit entities, creating and managing many cross-cultural festivals, myriad concerts, music residencies, art placement projects, documentary films, public leadership training programs, and the like.

Along the way I solidified my expertise as a public arts administrator and in later years helped develop curriculum for arts administration adopted by several universities. My continuing passion for plants segued into an interest in medicinal plants and prepared plant medicinals. I was blessed with a wealth of information that I had gleaned while researching indigenous cultures for the World's Fair Folklife project. I interviewed tribal shamen, medicine women and native healers within more than 50 Native American tribes in the greater Pacific Northwest states, including Canada, the Yukon Territory as well as Alaska. We have to remember that this was in the early 70's when little was published about indigenous plant medicines here in the U.S.

Some of the tribes I spent time with no longer exist and some of their medical lore is lost forever to the larger world because it was never recorded. I have always cultivated and maintained a garden and independently studied botany, ethnobotany and horticulture eventually specializing in aromatic plants and perfecting the art of distillation and other methods of plant extraction. I then returned to formal study in western herbalism (with David Hoffmann) and aromatherapy (IAPM with Philippe Mailhebiau, SPE with Dr. Bruce Berkowsky) to round out knowledge that I believed would enhance any foray into importing and marketing essential oils and natural product manufacturing.

dM: What are some of things you did in advance of starting your business to make it successful?

Marcia: Since most of my employment was within the public sector, I had not gained experience or great skill marketing directly to the public. I was very good at sitting down with the bank president and asking for $150,000 to support a public project, and I had a solid demographic pulse for the intended audience and adequate means to reach them for any public presentations, but had little clue how to "sell" an individual product to the public. I've taken a good number of marketing courses and seminars, but this is probably still a weakness.

I'm not a very good shill, and abhor self-glorification. However, I've found that providing solid educational information , having a good understanding for the benefits of my products and being available as a resource has resulted in good patronage. Having spent so much time in the public sector gave me an advantage to finding free resources. My advice for anyone starting today would be to take advantage of the SBA's myriad programs and mentors , join a local business group for new ideas and support, and continually network within your field or discipline. Make giving back a part of your budget, this promotes your business integrity and goodwill and probably helps you meet personal goals, as well.

dM: What's your niche? What makes your products special?

Marcia: My primary business is importing essential oils and other plant extracts for resale. When we started, there weren't over 1,680,000 hits when you Googled "essential oils" which may intimidate. Our aromatic ingredients are special because we've taken years to research and locate the best and we are scrupulous when it comes to quality. Although there is no "aromatherapy" grade, we know what makes the best essential oils for aromatherapy and medical use. The manufacture of spa and self-care products came later and flourished when we had brick and mortar shops.

he rich and compelling aroma of natural products practically sell themselves in a retail environment. It is far more difficult to sell a product in which the fragrance is a key enticer online and the average consumer is not versed in benefits derived because of the chemical makeup. However, it is getting easier as people are more educated. The niche would probably be aromatherapy if I had to pick one only, however I see us as more broadly perceived to include herbal products and natural wellness in general. Our endeavors appeal to various professional disciplines, including massage therapy, medical, alternative medical, physical therapy, artisan perfumers, as well as the average consumer, especially those interested in exploring self-care. We are like a magnet to them.

dM: How do you market your products? Wholesale? Retail?

Marcia: We have had an internet presence since 1994 and we have owned and operated wellness centers/aromatic apothecaries in two different locations for twelve or more of our first years in business, while continuing to sell wholesale and online. We have developed a considerable wholesale clientele for some of our manufactured products and bulk imports. We do not depend entirely on any of revenue stream and we are constantly vigilant to note new opportunities.. I have taught workshops and sponsored other educators for another income stream. I contribute to numerous online discussion groups and advertise both online and in print in select publications and websites. There is considerable word of mouth business; we have very loyal customers.

I think being directly available to customers by phone and email is a plus in that our customers have access to solidly researched information when they have a difficult question. Because there are so many who are in need of specific and expanded information before deciding to purchase aromatherapy ingredients. I encourage caution with essential oil use, and I am our most knowledgeable employee. There are essential oil sellers, especially those in multi-marketing companies who haven't a clue themselves about what makes an essential suitable for aromatherapy, adequate safety issues, good dilution ratios, let alone contraindications and disease interactions.

dM: Do you participate in any trade shows or craft shows?

Marcia: We did not participate in trade or craft shows while we had our retail shops. Supplying the shops kept us busy enough to not foray into wholesale, other than bulk ingredients sales. However, we have regularly participated in several regional health conference/trade shows. On of my integrative favorites was held at Evergreen Hospital in Redmond, however they have discontinued it. A couple of others I liked are Body & Soul, and an aromatherapy/herb conference held in Mesa, AZ that is now also discontinued. As we now develop a wholesale market for more of our products, we are looking at re-energizing our trade show participation, primarily on the west coast, but the focus will be the larger trade shows aimed at the small wellness store or gift shop. I've been looking at some of the new internet trade shows and see them as a great possibility for the future, especially as we actively pursue lowering our carbon footprint. Here is our company environmental policy, which may be of help to other small companies as they examine their own direction in this regard.

Samara Botane Products





dM: What is so great about aromatherapy? Why do you and your customers love it so much? (Aside from the fact that everything looks so beautiful in this product display!!)

Marcia: It isn't just aromatherapy; my core philosophy entails having a real and personal relationship with plants and Nature, what might be called the Gaia lifestyle. I believe that aromatherapy is yet another evolution of mankind's medicine. There is still much to be learned, however great strides are being made. Essential oils are now a part of the alternative and integrative medicine toolbox, as well as in the spa or for use at home.

I am a firm believer in a healthy lifestyle, prevention and the empowerment of self-care. The language now being developed in the new health care bill in Congress that puts emphasis on prevention is a welcome charge for aromatherapy, along with other natural wellness disciplines. Essential oils are a perfect tool for alleviating stressful patterns that can cause disease, and they work in many cases as antimicrobials to ameliorate a disease state. They are especially effective for respiratory health. A primary place in the clinical setting for essential oil use is oncology, specifically for supporting mental attitudes, alleviating stress and providing comfort for both the patient and family.

In skincare, lotions, creams and bath preparations, they not only help address various skin problems, they promote relaxation or stimulation, depending on which essential oils are chosen and their chemical properties. I've also studied perfumery and create natural perfumes, another way to reduce the use of synthetic chemicals, many of which are becoming quite harmful to the environment and people. Natural perfumes are burgeoning into the marketplace right along with all natural beauty products as consumers go 'green'.

dM: What is your most popular products and why do customers tell you they like it?

Marcia: Essential oils, absolutes and fine aromatics raw materials comprise 75% of our business. The lavenders are the most-used essential oils across the spectrum. We carry about 15 different lavenders, including the lavandins, lavender absolute and three absolutely gorgeous lavender concretes. The Irish perfumer Ruth Ruane wrote a beautiful and creative story featuring the three lavender concretes.  Our most popular imported product for the past couple of years is the Ultrasonic Atomizer/Diffuser, along with our manufactured diffuser synergies that I've featured in the Indie Shop. These are flying out of here, especially with the new interest in combating colds and flu. Retailers can't keep it on the shelf, it is so popular. (picture attached).

dM: What's new and exciting with your business these days?

Marcia: Of course, it is our new website, which has been one-and-a-half years in the making. I wanted it to be more than just a shop to find quality aromatherapy ingredients and products, I wanted to share my passion and knowledge about all things natural. We've just concluded Beta testing, and we have now announced it to the world by featuring a Treasure Hunt. The Treasure Hunt will conclude at the end of November; there are approximately 38 prizes, including a $100 shopping spree and two $50 shopping sprees for the first three lucky winners.

It has been extremely well received, helping create the excitement we all feel about it. I've sent out a couple clues for frustrated seekers who hadn't found the key and treasure chest yet. The Treasure Hunt was a collaboration between our web designer, my techie partner and husband, Rob, and myself. We feel its a real winner and we've gotten remarkable comments from other small businesses. The details are posted on the store landing page (click through the store door). Anyone is eligible to participate. The information that will be added and updated into the future will insure that customers will always have the latest available and accurate research.

dM: What forms of social media do you enjoy using?

Marcia: I am on fb, Twitter, LinkedIn, ByRegion, MerchantCircle,and several other social networks. It's been a learning curve to get to know each one and learn how to best utilize them. I like fb because my personal page is a place I not only keep up with colleagues, but also with my family and friends, which extends across the globe. I like being able to get a quick fb message or tweet out to announce new items or specials, or even when new information is up on one of our blogs or the website. I am not totally organized to the point I feel I'm utilizing all of these to the fullest extent possible, but I'm getting there.

dM: Who helps your business be successful?

Marcia: My husband and partner Rob Stitt is the primary person responsible for the systems nuts and bolts. Before he retired, he designed databases for Boeing operations as a primary facilities engineer, developing their giant autoclave hardware and software. These huge autoclaves are sort of like pressure cookers for composite airplane parts. He's traveled the world working with Boeing suppliers and contractors and has systems design experience that I could have never been able to purchase as a small business. Our database not only contains a complete up to the minute inventory, it provides batch specific labeling information for traceability of all of our essential oils and other raw ingredients right down to the last 5 ml bottle from any batch. It also is designed to alert us to shelf life limits, which products need cold storage, and any specific nuances we need to keep on top of. We are now working on getting the finished product stock into the database with the same inventory setup.

The database also contains complete customer (and potential customer) demographic information, organized so we can target specifically for any geographic region or customer preference. We once had a huge database crash and had to send it over the internet to Australia for the complete recovery. I was on pins and needles the whole time, thinking about having to rebuilt it all from scratch. Needless to say, we now have a better backup system. Our website designer has been a key partner over the past year and a half developing our intricate website. I've had wonderful staff, including some family members that I'll mention later.

We have been fortunate to have employees who have a strong interest in the foundations of our business and who enjoy learning outside their specific job description. All of them love to work with the plants in the demonstration garden and lend a hand when we are distilling. Fresh plant infusions in fixed oil are routinely a part of our manufacturing and especially fascinating to new employees.

dM: What do you think are the best things about being an independent business owner?

Marcia: I've generally had managerial and supervisory responsibility my entire working life, so I'm used to being self-directed and creative, as well as organizing group efforts. I more or less had baptism by fire working with a world's fair project, which, explodes exponentially in terms of staffing during the last 6 months of preparation. This was another time that I found I was good at thinking on my feet and turning on a dime when needed.  I do love the complete freedom of owning my own business, and I know how to take calculated risks.  I like being able to have a flexible work schedule, sometimes working late hours and sometimes coming in late when the pressure is light.

dM: If your family is involved in your business?

Marcia: My husband Rob has always been a part-timer, spending his evenings designing our company systems and database until he retired from Boeing two years ago. I am pleased to now have him full time. He is also the money guy, is the Treasurer and Comptroller, supervising the accounting staff. He's involved with how things flow in warehouse and production areas and in purchasing supervision/calendar. All of our girls (3) have worked in the business at one time or another. I haven't put pressure on any one of them for a long-term commitment, as they have each been pursuing their own passions.

Aromatherapy is a business you have to have a strong passion for; it is detailed and complicated. The youngest two have each gone back to college at the present time and my oldest has found her niche in photography and has her own studio. Rob and I will be taking the month of January to analyze and develop comprehensive options for the business now that we are seriously looking at actually retiring in a few years. It has been very rewarding working with our children, but too soon to tell if they will choose this business over other options that might come their way. We are certainly open to the idea of it remaining a family business, but the plan we develop will have other directions outlined if they choose otherwise.

dM: How did you discover the Indie Beauty Network, and do you enjoy your membership?

Marcia: How did I discover Indie Beauty? It seems I've been a member so long (back when it was the Handmade Toiletries Network) that you've practically always been there. It's been a joy to watch your development, dM, Rob and I often comment about the indie empire you are building. In a good way and with admiration, I assure you. I very much depend on your efforts gathering forces to lobby on behalf of small business and I enjoy getting to know and share with other indies. You have been phenomenal in presenting educational workshops and business training. If I were to ask for anything more, it would be a topic-specific forum or online entity where regulatory issues or other legislation that would affect members might be discussed more in depth within the membership.

dM: What tips can you offer for people who are looking to start a business?

Marcia: Self motivation is the primary ingredient for success. My advice would be to never use economic goals as your primary motivator. Running a small business takes an ability to keep many different balls in the air and consumes more time than you ever imagined. IOW, you had better have a great love for it; it needs to be something you literally live to do. If you don't have an underlying compelling motive for operating your business, being narrowly focused on potential revenue won't sustain your interest and energy over the long haul, especially through the down times. And, there will be bad times and downturns, certainly based on the current state of the world economy and economic projections for the foreseeable future.

The world is in the process of great changes; resources are diminishing, and there will be problems beyond your control that could affect your new business that you haven't considered. In our case, increasing wars across the globe, societal upheavals, over harvesting and climactic conditions like drought and flooding are already affecting countries around the globe and production and supplies of raw aromatic materials. International corporations have grown to behemoth conglomerates that command influence and control that supersedes the voice of small business. The world is waking up to the fact that an unrestrained free market has created adverse consequences that ripple across all of the globe and affect small business in sometimes harsh, punitive conditions. Make sure you have adequately funded your startup, however I believe that lack of imagination trumps lack of capital as a sure-fire business killer.

If possible, operate on a cash basis and don't borrow money unnecessarily. Be practical, but take the calculated risks necessary. Paul Hawken advises to borrow a lot or none. We've operated via the latter. Although we have an excellent credit rating, we prefer to have only a few 30 day supplier accounts and most of those are still either prepaid or paid immediately upon receipt of supplies. We have primarily borrowed from ourselves when necessary and we pay ourselves back with interest. On the flip side, we also do not extend terms beyond 10 day to all wholesale customers, and only to those customers who have a long-standing relationship with us.

dM: What business book have you enjoyed and why do you recommend it to others?

Marcia: The Guerrilla Marketing Handbook -Jay Levinson & Seth Godin and the Guerrilla Marketing Online - Jay Levinson & Charles Rubin are two of the must-have marketing books for small business. Paul Hawken's 1987 Growing a Business was innovative then and still applies to a changing marketplace. The Girl's Guide to Building a Million-Dollar Business by Susan Wilson Solovic is inexpensive and includes most of the basics. You will want to get a library card because constantly reading to build, improve and update your skill set is good for your business. Purchase only those books you know you will re-read or use as a constant reference.

Samara Botane German ChamomiledM: How has owning a business enhanced your life? Any regrets? (And just look at the beautiful color of this lovely German chamomile from the Samara Botane pantry!!)

Marcia: I suspect many of my colleagues have some of the same personal traits as I do, liking to learn new things, using skill and imagination to create, sometimes easily bored with routine, strong curiosity, somewhat daring ability to take chances. What having my own business has taught me is that practice (doing things again and again) has given me the opportunity to perfect these traits into practical performance. Business is no different than learning to play the piano or fly a plane. There is no presumption of excellence at the beginning, in fact it is just the opposite. Once I learned to relax, take my time, work, practice and learn along the way, my own abilities got better. I now understand the value of creating redundant systems and backup to handle the unexpected. All of this has organically come about along the way.

dM: What has been your biggest Indie Business challenge so far, and how are you overcoming it?

Marcia: Our biggest challenge is currently facing us. All else up to this point has been foundational. Samara Botane/Nature Intelligence is now well poised in the marketplace with a respectable brand and thriving at the level we have taken it to. Rob and I are well into what others would call retirement years and it's time to examine and choose on a more personal level. We have both had exciting careers aside from the business, however, we are loyal and dedicated to Samara Botane and it's kept us energized, engaged in the world and added to our retirement assets. We will be focusing during the month of January to examine and plan what the future could look like if we look to take on partners so that our involvement is reduced and we have more leisure time. We will examine the possibility of selling the business in its entirety, looking at a franchise model and all avenues of choice that may be available for us to examine to create the optimum course for the company and for ourselves.

dM: How, if at, all is the current unusual economy affecting you and your business?

Marcia: All of business is being affected by the current world economy, more and more small businesses are closing because of financial hardships and the inability to adjust to shrinking markets and other adverse changes.  I've explained how we've been able to avoid creating large debt, however, our costs are increasing exponentially. Make the decisions you need now to adjust prices to keep up with inflation so that you are operating at a reasonable profit margin without unrealistic margins. Evaluate all expenses, be picky and strategic. Evaluate and manage inventory to decrease waste. Negotiate payment terms with suppliers, even though you may not need to. Prepare for increased business; some of your competitors will be going out of business.   Before you can make choices about expansion, you have to clearly assess the terrain.  Examine the new business models, such as co-operative and employee-owned.  See if this shapes a new direction for your business success.

dM: What are you doing when you're not working in your business? What are your hobbies?

Marcia: Most of what I do (other than spending time with my wonderful large family and friends) is related to my business in one way or the other. If we go back full circle to the first part of this interview, my business is very much an integral part of who I am and who I have been all my life. Pleasure overlaps business pursuits and business pursuits encompass passion. I am constantly learning and enjoying myriad aspects of working with the plants of the world, whether it be in the garden, in the woods, in the laboratory, library or computer. This is certainly a testament to passion and I've been fortunate to figure out a way to integrate this passion in all aspects of my life.

dM: Please give an idea of your annual sales.

Marcia: We have been fortunate in that annual sales have reached the upper middle levels for what qualifies as small business in the U.S. in the period 1995 to 2006, however, we are seeing the same downturn as many other small businesses as our wholesale customers face their own challenges and retail sales also decline. We were smart to be aware of the pending economic downturn and to close our retail stores in late 2005. We were acutely aware that brick and mortar retail was being crushed and building leases were up for renewal so it was a good transition to move to a leaner operation. Sales have decreased gradually to a total of almost 20% over the past 3 years and we have adjusted accordingly. We are holding steady and even beginning to increase income over the third quarter of 2009 at about 4%. This is positive. I have no doubt that we are in the forefront of the 'green' business of the future and we feel we have created a great foundation for the continuing success of Samara Botane/Nature Intelligence.

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