Noticing a lack of natural skincare that’s affordable, Laura Burget and Connie Lo created their own by co-founding Three Ships. From bootstrapping and launching the business with only $4000 dollars, the complementary duo side hustled for more than a year before leaving behind their corporate jobs to run Three Ships fulltime. By creating effective natural beauty products, collaborating with other businesses and supporting fellow female founders, Three Ships has grown to a seven-figure business. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Laura Burget and Connie Lo share how they achieve work-life balance, bootstrapped their business, and shine a light on other female founders.
- Store: Three Ships
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Instagram
- Recommendations: Indie Beauty Expo, Prestige Theme, Privy (Shopify app), Gifter (Shopify app), Stamped.io (Shopify app)
The personal struggle that sparked a business
Felix: What was the personal problem that you both were facing that led to Three Ships?
Laura: This was born out of both Connie and my own personal passions within the natural beauty space. I had just graduated from university, I went to the University of Toronto, studied chemical engineering and during my fourth year of school started to get really into natural beauty. I was super frustrated with just how expensive everything was. Being a recent grad, I didn't have a lot of money to spend on skincare, unfortunately, and a lot of the brands that I wanted to shop because they actually had great, amazing, clean, natural ingredients in them, were way out of my price point. I would have had to drop probably $50 to $600 for a full routine. And so that was initial frustration that we set out to conquer, was making natural skincare products more affordable.
Felix: Did either of you have experience creating a product like this?
Laura: Not necessarily. I had my chemical engineering background, so I was comfortable tinkering around in a lab and understood the basics of how to speak that lingo. After I graduated I took a non-traditional route and went into software sales just because I loved the unknown and the risk and the excitement that goes along with being in sales. So, I wouldn't say that either of us had experienced formulating before that.
Connie: For me personally, ever since I was young I was very interested in natural skincare and also playing around with ingredients in my mom's kitchen. I remember coming home from school in middle school and playing around with green tea and mashing up bananas and using egg yolks and egg whites and making face masks. So, that was probably the extent of our formulating knowledge at that point. It just goes to show you can really start from wherever you are. You don't need to be an expert to start a business.
Felix: Did both of you have day jobs while starting the business?
Connie: During the time that Laura and I started working on Three Ships, I was working in marketing in sales at Kimberly Clark. It's one of the large multinationals, they make Kleenex and Huggies and Kotex and such. So, that was my time where I was really learning how to negotiate with buyers and understand brand management, which actually lends itself really well to my current role at Three Ships where I manage marketing and sales. But we did side hustle it for a year and a half.
Laura: This was an idea that I initially had after graduating from university and I was working a full-time nine to five and software sales and found that I was really lacking that creative outlet in my life. And had a lot of spare time in the evenings and weekends that I wanted to fill up with a business. I'd had two companies in the past and knew that that was eventually where I wanted my career to take me. This idea for Three Ships, I couldn't get it out of my head. I was so convinced there was something here within this market and that it was solving a real need that I had experienced. And so I "pitched" the idea to one of my friends who happened to know Connie from middle school. And so he had mentioned to me, "Oh, you should run this idea by my friend Connie, do some consumer research with her." So, that's actually how the two of us initially met was just under those pretenses. And I had brought our little minimum viable product with me to that meeting. It was just supposed to be a quick 45-minute sushi dinner, turned into a three-hour business brainstorming session and Connie and I were vibing off of each other the whole time, of having very similar visions for what the brand would turn into as well as our own personal set of values. But also polar opposite interests within what roles we would play in the business and opposite strengths and weaknesses. I knew that I wanted a cofounder and at the end of that first dinner offered for her to join me on this crazy ride and luckily she accepted. That was in November of 2016 and then we launched March 2017, continued to work our full-time jobs up until September of last 2018.
Connie: During that initial time period, we were meeting up at our apartments in the evenings, on the weeknights. When we were side hustling in the beginning days because we both only put in $2,000 to start the business. We didn't have money for a warehouse or anything like that. So, all the manufacturing was initially done in my kitchen on our countertop. And then because my apartment wasn't big enough to hold all the packaging supplies and all the shipping materials then Laura would lug all the finished product back to her apartment and then fulfill orders through Shopify from her apartment. So, that was what it looked like at the beginning days, which now we can look back on fondly. But it was definitely a big hustle period.
The organic way of finding each other as co-founders
Felix: How did you decide on finding a co-founder versus pursuing this alone?
Laura: It really comes down to the individual entrepreneur. Fortunately for me, I'd run a business in the past on my own, which was very different. It was an exterior house painting business and I found that experience really isolating. And even thinking back on my time in school, my favorite types of work environments were group projects. I just love working in a team setting. I love having someone else to bounce ideas off of, to stress test my ideas, to add value to their ideas. So, it's that constant communication. I'm not an independent worker, I'm definitely a team worker. I'd say if you are torn in that decision, think back to other times that you've had a business or been involved in a team environment. What default do you tend to go towards? And also it comes down to, have you met someone that you think would be a good cofounder? Of course, cofounder match and compatibility are super important. I think Connie and I got lucky meeting each other so early on in this because I know it's something that a lot of founders struggle with, finding someone that adds value and perspective to the business, but then they can also get along with well outside of work hours. And those two things are super important. So yeah, it comes down to the individual.
Felix: What are the green flags and red flags that you would look for in a cofounder?
Laura: I wouldn't even say that we were going in looking for criteria because we truly didn't expect to go into that meeting looking for a cofounder. It was just to do market research and Connie was just generous enough with her time to be like, "Oh, I'll meet up with my friend's friend to tell her if I like her business idea." So, it wasn't under the context of being like, oh, we're testing out to see if this is a partnership. It felt very much more natural than that. But then as Connie and I were having the conversation and the idea came into my head. I'd say the things that I was looking for was her value set. Like, is she a good person in her core? Is she someone that I would trust? Do I think she would try to lie, steal or cheat within the company? Obviously those things would be huge red flags. I don't like people with massive egos. So, making sure that the other person was really down to earth was super important. We also talked about the Myers-Briggs personality test. Connie and I both love Meyers-Briggs types and I really believe in them. We found out during that first meeting that we're the polar opposite. So I'm an INTP, she's an ESFJ, which was a cool affirmation as well, that this is someone who can clearly balance out my personality and my strengths and weaknesses.
Connie: Completely agree with everything Laura said, especially the values part. I think a lot of the times when you're thinking about side hustling or starting a business, you're just thinking about the full-on hustle mentality. But something that Laura and I found that we both share is we both are probably within the top three people in our networks in terms of the level of hardworking and in terms of the level of hustle we're willing to put in. But at the same time, it's not like our entire days are only working on Three Ships. We both value seeing our families. We both value having time to work on our health and focus on going to the gym and mental health. I think that's really important because if you have it uneven where one person is just like go, go, go all the time, then you're going to get into conflict. That's something that we realized really early on was that we both really had this exact same family values and the vision for where we saw our lives heading in the next five to 10 years. But at the same time, our skill sets were just completely opposite in a good way.
The balancing act between business and personal life
Felix: How do you achieve a work-life balance?
Connie: On a weekly basis, Laura and I have a retrospective where we reflect on the week, what went well and what could have been improved, which I think is a really great structure to have. Something that we noticed repeatedly is whenever we would work full-day weekends after going full-time with Three Ships and not having any personal time, that would be a week where we would just feel really burnt out. More uninspired and things would take a little bit longer to do. So, reflecting on that and noticing that having even those extra few hours for yourself where there's nothing work-related actually helps you become more productive was a good realization. Some things that I personally do to try to set some boundaries, again not perfect with this at all, is since I live by my calendar, I physically block in calendar blocks called me time or self-care time in the evenings to make sure that I don't book something with a friend or have a meeting at that time. But also I'm not working through that evening. It could be something as simple as reading a book or going to the gym. Another thing that helped a lot was pausing my inbox because it's so easy to get addicted to refreshing your inbox and seeing who else you can reply even at midnight. So for me, I pause my inbox at 10 o'clock and then I don't let emails come in until 7:00 AM the next day. So, I can't be tempted to check my phone in the middle of the night. Those sound like very nitpicky ways to ensure that I'm not thinking about work all the time. But sometimes you just have to set those controls in place because you naturally want to be working.
Laura: I do remember that during that period where we were aside hustling and working full-time jobs, my immune system was for sure compromise. I was getting sick probably once every two months. Being kind to yourself of not feeling the pressure of having to do it all. I read this quote the other day that's, "The balls that we juggle in life are actually made out of rubber, so they bounce back if you drop them, with the exception of your health, which is made of glass." So, if you drop that, it's really hard to recover from something like that.
Taking the full-time plunge
Felix: How did you build that kind of belief that the business was going to be successful enough where you were going to be able to focus on it full-time eventually?
Connie: I remember before I met Laura, even two months before I was telling my sister that even though I had a job that I really loved, I still felt unfulfilled and I knew I wanted to start something. And when Laura's idea was in the natural beauty space, it was like a dream come true because natural beauty and natural skincare is my number one love. Having the ability to start my own business with Laura as well as being in a field that I genuinely was passionate about was something that I could not let go of. So, from day one when Laura and I were talking about the market opportunities and how we'd be different, it was never really a question of if we would go full-time, to be honest. It was just when we would do it. How we decided when we would go full-time was we knew that we wanted to have six months’ worth of money saved up in our bank accounts so that we wouldn't need to be making decisions out of desperation. We weren't the type of entrepreneur to drop everything right away and quit our jobs. We worked for a year and a half, when we did quit, we felt comfortable with that decision. Immediately after we went full-time, our sales skyrocketed. I remember two weeks after we went full-time, we signed a massive deal for like 250, 300K and that's definitely because we're able to put our full-time hours in.
Felix: So you saved up six months of revenue before going fulltime, was there a path towards revenue at that point?
Laura: There was in that we felt that we had found product-market fit. We were starting to see great numbers in terms of reorder rates. Same being able to land some retail accounts. Within a few weeks of us going full-time, we landed that big partnership, which was a wholesale partnership. There was definitely runway and traction and we had also just gotten into an accelerator, which was a lucky timing type thing because I'd already given my notice. And then we found out that we were getting into an accelerator, which just out of chance, the first day of that program was the first day of us both being full-time. So, all the stars were aligning.
Felix: That was a $300,000 wholesale partnership deal. What did you do with the time that allowed you to start making these big leaps in the business?
Connie: I could only respond to X number of emails per day. And especially during the workday when other Three Ships buyers were working too. Because during that time, I was working with my other accounts with Kimberly Clark and so most of the time during the nine to five workday, I was working my other full-time job. Because of that, when I was side hustling, the only time I could really get work done on Three Ships was in the evenings. When we went full-time, I was able to have multiple messages, multiple calls per day, really get the ball rolling that way. I think that was like a massive change once we went full-time. I think also you're in a different mindset when you go full-time where you just have so much more time to work on your baby.
Starting scrappily and working with limited funding
Felix: When you think back on it, what was the best use of the $4,000 you initially invested in the business?
Laura: This wasn't something that we bought right out of the gates, but it was something that we bought, I think, maybe two months it was a really high-quality home laser printer. Being a physical goods company, one really annoying point for us was ordering labels for our first line of products. Because they were super expensive at the quantities that we were ordering at, and then if we wanted to change anything about our design or our formula, which is a great thing to be able to do since you're growing and still learning about what exactly your brand means, we found that we were having to waste inventory or we just wouldn't make those changes because of like the sunk cost mindset. So, investing in that printer, which I think was like 250 bucks was amazing. And it served us well for I think over a year and a half, almost two years it was still going and we would use it basically just to print our own labels.
Connie: You also need to spend on incorporating. That was the first thing that we did after we started working together to make sure we could protect our personal assets.
Felix: What were the things that you probably shouldn't have spent money on?
Connie: We didn't have a lot of money to play with, but we also wanted to attend trade shows to meet with retailers in the beauty space, like Indie Beauty Expo is one of the most reputable trade shows to attend. But the cost to attend I believe was $4,000 for a booth. And because we only had $4,000 in our account to play with, it didn't make sense for us to attend. We did end up finding one in New York that was round, I think $1,500. And that was one of the things where Laura and I looked at each other and we're like, okay, trade shows are definitely something that we're not going to spend on until we're ready to attend the ones where we're going to be meeting with the right contacts. And so then from that point, we held off on trade shows for around six months, I believe. Once we had some more cash flow coming in, then we booked Indie Beauty Expo and that was completely night and day in terms of the quality of the buyers and press that attended. We made back 3X what we put in within a month.
Laura: It doesn't mean that you need to spend tons and tons of money on the flashiest booth. There are ways that you can save money on the booth expenses. Because these trade show companies will charge you so much money just to rent a table or a chair. There are ways that you can bootstrap that, but definitely, when it comes to things that are out of your control, like who attends a trade show, it's better to go with the main brand ones as well. And then while you're there making use of it. It's unbelievable to us the number of people that go to these shows and then sit behind their table sitting down looking at their phone the entire time.
Connie: Another mistake is spending too much on agencies in the beginning. What I found actually worked better was myself just cold emailing as many writers and editors as possible. I would creep on different websites and see which editors were ... and assistant editors were writing about competitive products and then reach out to them on Instagram, LinkedIn, email, whatever channel I could find them on, introduce myself as a cofounder and offer to send the product. I sent out hundreds of emails, but we were able to land things like Elle Canada, Refinery 29, PopSugar, CBC, Livestrong, and HelloGiggles.
The art of managing your own publicity
Felix: How were you able to get them to entertain the email at first or the message at first and then eventually featuring you?
Connie: I think a big part of press hits and having a story is really just telling the editor about the story of how you started the business. Because that's something that's really unique to every business. Whereas, you could have a really compelling competitive advantage in terms of the price point or the affordability or the quality. But at the end of the day, there are many brands that can also say the same thing, but no one can copy the founder's story. What worked really well for us was saying we were 23 when we started the business. We were fresh out of university. We each had $2,000, young female founders on a mission to make natural skincare accessible for everyone. And a lot of editors could relate to the story because they themselves had found struggles with affording high-quality skincare. And then as we're able to get one press hit, as soon as we had one, I would reference that in the next email being like, "By the way we're also mentioned Elle," and that immediately gives you social proof and you just piggyback off of that. That goes the same for when you're getting a new retail partner. Once we landed our first small retail partner, which was in a small area of downtown Toronto, I would start including that in all my emails that got sent out to retailers just to show that one retailer took us on.
Felix: What channels worked best when reaching out to retailers?
Connie: Instagram works really well and Twitter also. Well, what I would do is a lot of editors will postings on Twitter. I personally don't use Twitter very often, but I would find something that they had been writing to their community about on Twitter and then DM them on Instagram and mentioned that in my DM to them. And most of the time, it's harder to contact them through email because they're getting a bunch of in-bounds every day. But on their personal Instagram accounts, often it's surprising that these assistant editors and editors tend to have maybe sub 10K followers. So, they'll have the time to go through their DMs and if you have a personalized message that you're reaching out to them with, more often than not, they'll at least reply and give you a shipping address.
How to find a product-market fit
Felix: What were you looking for to determine that you did have the product-market fit?
Laura: One thing that was a huge validator was very early on we went to these markets where we got to set up our six-foot table for the day, bring a bunch of our products in and a lot of them were local artisans, the other vendors. But these markets get quite a bit of foot traffic and allowed us to have really great and detailed conversations with people who would be our target demographic and target buyers. And just to understand how they shop for skincare products, the types of questions that they asked, how they interact with the product once they're trying it for the first time. And that was a really great learning experience for us. And then also helped to guide what types of products that we released and then also what type of tone we use when we talk about the products to shoppers and consumers.
I remember very distinctly this one time that a lady who we had met at one of the markets came back three months later to the next market specifically just to see Connie and I and to talk to us about how much her skin had changed. It was a remarkable transformation. I remember the first time that we saw her, she had fairly severe hormonal acne and very active breakouts. And then when we saw her the next time it had almost all cleared up, maybe 10% of it was left. So, it was just such a great encouraging feeling to see the change our products had on her skin. And that's still the highlights of our days, is being able to see reviews and testimonials from our actual customers.
The role content plays into Three Ships
Felix: Tell us more about Her Hustle, the biweekly interview series that you have launched.
Connie: The initial concept for Her Hustle came around because a big mission for Laura and myself is supporting women in business. As a small business right now we're not able to necessarily donate large amounts of money to support other female foundations or charities. But a way that we knew we could give back was raising awareness of how to start your own business, the common struggles that female founders face and just highlighting other people's successes so that their brand can be visible through our channels and on our Instagram. As we started posting about these interviews, we also realized like, "Hey, we can also make this work well for us too with copromotions where say we partner with a haircare company, we can both pull in some products worth like $300 between the two of us and have an Instagram copromotion on both of our accounts. And that way our audience can follow their account and vice versa." It just started out really organically. But now it's something that a lot of our audience really enjoys and looks forward to. And because we have such a large roster, I think we have over like 75 or 80 of them now we're able to approach really large, successful, inspiring businesswomen. One example I can give is, I was at Shop Talk with Laura in March and it's a retail conference in Vegas. One of the people speaking was Raissa Gerona, who is the CMO of Revolve. She's massive and has been credited with being one of the first to really capture the influencer marketing trend. I ran up to her after her presentation and was like, "Hey, we have this thing, it's called Her Hustle. We have like, at that point then we had like 50 interviews including X, Y and Z people, would you be interested?" And she was like, "Sure." So, we were able to Raissa on the blog, which was amazing.
And from there we were able to get other people, including an actress from Harry Potter who now has a vegan subscription box. I think one point that's important about this is that content is so important. You shouldn't just be posting on your Instagram like, "Here's my product, here's my product, buy my product." You should also be posting value add content that people are going to enjoy following your Instagram or your emails.
Felix: What is your process for creating this kind of content?
Connie: What we would love to do is to have more video content. In the beginning, since our budget, was so small from bootstrapping, we decided to just do it through email. That works really well for us and now we have a whole library bank of questions and we just send the potential interviewee, a Google doc with the questions that we've written out. And one of the questions also asks them to link a folder of images that they would be okay with us sharing on the blog. And then once they have that all filled out, we plug it into our content calendar. Our social media coordinator then ensures that the blog post is formatted well. And then if the other person that we're interviewing has a physical goods company, then we often ask them, "Would you be interested in a copromotion?" Slot that into the calendar as well.
Felix: How do you promote the content after you've created it?
Connie: Multiple ways. One of them is through Instagram. It's usually every other Monday is the Her Hustle feature. And then on Instagram, if they do have a complimentary product, we'll both share a photo of both of our products on both of our accounts and then encourage followers to comment and follow both accounts. That's one way that we raise awareness. We typically see a lift of a couple of hundred followers from every giveaway that we do. And then we also promote emails. All of our emails that go out aren't just product-focused. One of our emails that goes out every month is just like a content type email where we talk about the month, we recap the month and then we also share our Her Hustle interviews in that so people can click on that through there. We also always ask that the person who we're interviewing shares it on their personal channels. Say we interview someone with half a million Instagram followers, being able to secure them to even post an Insta story about that is amazing for awareness.
Felix: When you go from the Her Hustle side to go into the giveaways, is that like a pretty high conversion rate where most brands will agree to do a giveaway?
Laura: 100%. Giving product for promotions is very low cost but usually very effective. Again, you can definitely see a lift in terms of sales as well as in terms of your audience on Instagram. One thing, again, that works really well is having a promo code that you share afterward. I'll give an example. Say we partner with Verb Hair Care, which we have in the past, the giveaway bundle is $500 of haircare and Three Ships product and there are two winners. But even if you're not one of the winners, you can use the promo code, and track the results that way and see if people are actually interested.
Felix: For your site, what do you believe is the most important part of this site in terms of conversions or getting the purchase, essentially?
Laura: Make it very clear what you do when they first land on the site so that it's very obvious that we're a natural, affordable skincare brand. Having proof. So, for us reviews and testimonials are massive. And making sure that you really focus on driving more of those to the website. And then, of course, calling out those press hits as well if you do have any. Those two things make it really clear what you offer, having social proof. And then the third would just be decreasing the burden of your checkout flow. So, making sure that all of that's really seamless. We love that Shopify now has multi-currency functionality because that was a huge pain point for us in the past of ensuring that customers can check out in their local currencies. So, anything that you can do to make it really easy to buy.
Felix: Are there any tools or apps that you use to power the business?
Laura: Fr email collection, we use Privy because we really like the Spin to Win the feature that they have. We find that that converted way better. I think we got twice as many emails from it when we AB tested versus just a normal email popup. So we use that. We also recently added this app called Gifter, which auto adds a gift to cart. So, whenever someone has anything in their cart, in our case, we give them a free makeup bag with their purchase. So, it's just another incentivization to make people excited to complete. We use Klaviyo for email automation. We have a bunch of meta fields that we use as well. Pickzen is the company that we use for our skincare quiz just because within skincare people want to know that they're finding the right products for themselves. And then we use Stamp.io for our review collection.
Felix: What would you say is the biggest lesson learned that you want to apply to 2020?
Connie: I think oftentimes you get so excited with all these things that you're building that you can get really carried away and only thinking about the future and comparing yourself with other businesses that are doing amazing jobs. And I think that's something that we've had to work on this year is being able to reflect and be like, "Damn, we actually did a really good job." We grew this with just $4,000, now we have an actual office in downtown Toronto. These little things, it's so easy to overlook and forget about all that you've accomplished. So, that's something I would say is definitely big learning. Another thing is protecting your time, ensuring that you're not spreading yourself too thin and always having time for yourself and your health.
Laura: I'd say the biggest thing I learned this year was the importance of having the right partners within your business and that people are really what makes a company tick. And that these partners can be both internal employees but then also external vendors. We've been very fortunate in being able to have some amazing suppliers and logistics like freight forwarders that help us to ensure that our company is operating well. Really investing the time to finding those right people and waiting until you find the right ones is the best way to grow.