On the Atlantic coast of Canada, sea kelp, a natural vitamin-packed wonder, became the inspiration and central ingredient for a personal care brand. It wasn’t just that sea kelp had a cornucopia of benefits in skincare, or that the plant was abundant in the area—the founders of Nova Scotia Fisherman were simply fiercely proud of their heritage.
Every decision in the business, from ingredients (like locally-sourced kelp) to manufacturing to their chosen suppliers and partners, are deliberately made to support the local economy.
The approach isn’t always the most economical, of course. Shipping in and out of a rural town can be expensive, and the company could cut costs by outsourcing the manufacturing overseas. But the decisions bring authenticity to the brand, strengthening its story, and ultimately contributing to its success.
Today, Nova Scotia Fisherman is a 5-year-old thriving business, shipping its “extreme skincare” line to retailers in eight countries, and direct to customers through two ecommerce stores.
They have never, though, compromised on their made-in-Canada values.
Shopify is a Canadian company. There, we said it.
While it’s something for which we are immensely proud, it’s not a fact that may be entirely obvious to anyone passing through our website or even using our platform.
It’s part of our story, but you won’t catch us doing any obnoxious flag waving. We’re humble Canadians, what can we say? You see, the majority of our customers are American businesses, and we power stores in almost every other country in the world.
We’re a global company, with roots in Canada.
This year, though, as Canada pipes icing onto the massive birthday cake that will hold 150 candles, we decided that it’s time to speak up. Ahem, sorry, we’re Canadian.
As part of the Canada 150 festivities, our team is making the 7,821 km (4,860 mi.) trek across the country to visit some of our incredible Canadian merchants. We’re bringing Shop Class—a learning and community building event—to eight cities from Vancouver to Halifax.
On this blog, we’ve featured many Canadian merchants before—from a magazine publisher in Calgary to a general store in rural Ontario—but this year, we’re celebrating Canadian entrepreneurship as a whole.
This year, we’re celebrating Canadian entrepreneurship as a whole.
Our heritage is woven with entrepreneurship, after all. It was born with Indigenous craftsmanship and early fur traders, grown on the backs of immigrant family businesses, and propelled today by over 27K Shopify merchants selling online, in store, and at pop-ups and markets across the country.
One of those merchants is Nova Scotia Fisherman.
I spoke to Tassi Sewell, wearer of many hats, about the company’s beginnings and the rewards and challenges of growing a business in a small rural community.
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Pioneers in Natural Body Care
Let’s rewind a little. Though Nova Scotia Fisherman launched in 2012, riding a healthy trend in natural skincare and cosmetics, its origin story actually starts decades earlier.
Say you’re looking for a new plant-based body lotion in 2017. What do you do? You’d walk a few blocks to your local Whole Foods, of course, and choose from dozens of brands across multiple aisles—everything from naturally inspired to obsessively organic in every scent imaginable.
Now, say it the early 1980s. Whole Foods was in its infancy, not yet breaking out of its native Austin, TX. Natural and organic personal care brands were scarce, and the demand was low.
So, 30 years ago, when Bob Macleod and Steve Byckiewicz had the idea for Kiss My Face, a body care line with natural ingredients, they had no idea how the products would be received. But they took a risk.
Today, Kiss My Face is a leader in the space, with products in retailers across 19 countries including hefty real estate in Whole Foods (which, by the way, did make it out of Austin, now operating 465 stores in North America and the UK).
Two guys, a VW van full of bars of soap, one fated trip to NYC later, and a brand was born.
Now, the natural personal care market is thriving, and forecasted to reach $46 billion by 2018.
With their surprising early success with Kiss My Face, the founders decided it was time for a new challenge. They sold the business, though they still remain the faces and hearts of the brand.
Nova Scotia Fisherman
Bob Macleod hails from New Brunswick, a neighboring east coast province. With his follow-up brand, he wanted to invest back in his homeland, the Canadian maritimes, Tassi explains.
“We're in a pretty small town here, so there are a lot of people that need some good quality work. It continues to be really one of our main focuses—continuing to grow and continuing to provide more jobs here.”
It continues to be really one of our main focuses—continuing to grow and continuing to provide more jobs here.
He called up family friend and candle manufacturer, Perley Beairsto.
Bob, Steve, and Perley began to discuss sea kelp, and the possibility of using the natural resource to inspire a new brand, manufactured locally. Under the eye of the three industry veterans and the newly recruited Les Falconer, Nova Scotia Fisherman leaped from idea to reality very quickly.
“Bob and Steve both have such an incredible knowledge of natural products and different ingredients, and they discovered sea kelp, which is a product that’s plentiful here in Nova Scotia—our coasts are full of it. It's some of the most pristine and clean kelp in the world, because our pollution levels are so low here. They really wanted to highlight that awesome ingredient.”
The line, based in locally sourced ingredients like sea kelp, sea buckthorn, and bayberry, were designed to treat and soothe overworked hands, inspired by the local fishing industry. The products caught on with gardeners and those with skin conditions. But the product’s clean ingredients, light, neutral scents, and soothing properties had even wider appeal.
Following the winning distribution strategy of Kiss My Face, they focused on grocery.
"They were really pioneers. There weren't a whole lot of natural body care products before they came on the scene. A big factor for them was to be affordable, so that people wouldn't scare away from going natural."
They were really pioneers. There weren't a whole lot of natural body care products before they came on the scene.
With natural products generally carrying a higher price tag and catering to niche consumers, they focused on a mass market approach, making the prices and products accessible.
“The bulk of our business is wholesale—we're in Sobey’s, Loblaws, Whole Foods, and a lot of independent grocers. We wanted our products to be available in those types of retailers because it’s a natural product that's also affordable. We really don't think that choosing natural products should be an expensive option.”
We really don't think that choosing natural products should be an expensive option.
The company now wholesales to eight countries, taking the burden off of the high shipping costs that would be associated with selling individual bars of soap directly to international customers from Canada. They recently expanded into Dubai, and found an excellent market in New Zealand, a country with strong fishing communities.
But the ecommerce site services their loyal North American followers, and generates many holiday sales.
The website serves another purpose, too: as a powerful storyteller. Nova Scotia Fisherman’s story—maritime heritage and local pride—is the active ingredient in the brand’s success.
“There are so many great things happening that we want to share, but we can't put everything on every single bottle, and we can't get the message out there with one photo.”
Not only are the products made and ingredients sourced in Atlantic Canada, but wherever possible, the company leans on other local small businesses.
They work with a graphic designer and printer in town to produce labels, and partner with a local organization that provides employment opportunities to people with disabilities.
“Plank Industries employs people from our local rehabilitation center, people with a variety of different cognitive and mental disabilities, and they provide them with a safe work environment. It’s a group-based setting for them to learn some new skills and develop their experience at work. They do some labeling for us, they hand-label some of our soaps, or they also make our boat displays, which we sell to wholesalers. The most important thing is to continue to help our local economy grow—if we grow, they grow too.”
The most important thing is to continue to help our local economy grow—if we grow, they grow too.
These are the stories that bring strength to the brand.
The company also gives back to Canada and the greater good. A portion of the profits of every product sold support the Nature Conservancy of Canada, an organization that buys land in Canada to protect its natural resources and prevent development.
"The Nature Conservancy purchases a lot of their land in the southern part of Canada, so the most heavily populated parts. It's not just the random spots like in the north, it's right in our backyard. They protect the land long term from overdevelopment, so that it will be preserved and properly maintained, and so that ecosystems can thrive. They're providing a lot of jobs for biologists to study the landscape and see what's working, too, and if there's any help that they can give to make sure that the land is safe and healthy.”
Small business success in the community of New Minas has a ripple effect, impacting other business, creating jobs, and inspiring more entrepreneurship.
"As a small business here, we can support other small businesses in our community. When they see a new small business start, it's always exciting for them because it means potential for them to grow too. We really do support each other here."
Small but Mighty
Back at HQ, the team is lean but providing a substantial 16 jobs in the small community.
“It's a small company, there's really only about four of us here in house in the office. In our manufacturing plant, we have about 12 people who make the products as well. Our roles blend often, and we do a little bit of everything, and it's a lot of teamwork.”
Tassi’s own role involves social, content, sales, and running the ecommerce store.
They may be small, but they’re mighty: almost 12,000 tins of the company’s flagship product, Rescue Balm, are produced and sold globally each year. An aggressive summer roll out of new products is in the works, too, starting with the latest line of beard balms released this May.
Nova Scotia Fisherman proves that scaling a small business doesn’t mean sacrificing the core values upon which your brand was built.
“It does end up being a really big selling point, that it's a Canadian-made product. We can't change that at this point—that's what people know us as, and we definitely want to stay true to that and be honest with those decisions.”