A former middle school science teacher endured a chemical fog every day as his students over-applied some popular body sprays. This prompted a lesson in organic materials and the eventual rise of American Provenance – a natural deodorant and personal care brand.
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As a former middle school science teacher, Kyle LaFond is more than familiar with foul odors. “It really isn’t much of a secret, but middle school boys stink,” says LaFond, founder of American Provenance personal care products.
“During this awkward time of life, a lot of my former students would over-apply some very popular, commercial body sprays,” says LaFond. “I remember walking down my hall through what can only be explained as a chemical fog most mornings.”
By the end of each day, he developed substantial headaches. While he initially thought it was simply due to stress, he had an inkling there might be an environmental influence.
One morning, LaFond asked to see a canister of one of the popular body sprays, and was horrified to read the back panel – which listed all the chemicals, preservatives and artificial fragrances. It was a teachable moment, so he instructed his students to bring a personal care product to class the following day to investigate the ingredients.
The children were surprised and wanted to learn more. So, the following year, LaFond took the lesson a step further and purchased raw materials for students to make their own products – but without all the potentially harmful additives. The experiment was so popular that friends and family encouraged LaFond to turn it into a business.
Thus, American Provenance was launched in May 2015. In just four years, the company’s products now line the shelves of over 2,500 brick and mortar locations, and the e-commerce site is booming.
“We’re growing like crazy, with a new facility on the horizon and our first $1 million revenue year,” says LaFond.
How did you start such a successful company without a business background?
Getting American Provenance off the ground was one of the most difficult, but also rewarding, things that I’ve ever done. Cash flow was always an issue (and still is) and learning to manage revenues against expenses was painful. I was very fortunate to have good banking, legal and business advice and mentorship to make things a little more manageable.
We made the decision to launch in stores before putting significant resources behind e-commerce. Walking through the doors of retailer after retailer was always a challenge, but I was able to do it by thinking long-term. I knew where I wanted the business to go – but it wasn’t going to happen on its own. I knew that I had to put in the work to make the vision a reality.
Did anything catch you off guard?
Every single day, there are surprises when you’re running a small business.
I had some inclination that larger corporations benefit simply from their size, but I didn’t expect the playing field to be so skewed. It seems that the larger a company becomes, the more advantages they have in purchasing, distribution and sales.
It’s always difficult for the small business owner to pull even with larger competitors. But that’s becoming further exacerbated every day with volume purchasing of raw materials, shipping costs and required marketing spends.
Did you use credit cards to help launch?
Yes. Like just about every business owner, I relied upon credit cards to cover emergency expenses. Additionally, when things got really tight with cash flow, I used credit cards to cover the shortfall.
My cards are the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card and the Capital One Spark Cash for Business. I’m always looking for business-focused cards with travel rewards and perks, and they have been very good for our business. We also have Visa business credit cards for five of my team members.
I appreciate the effort that good bankers make to let business owners know if they have good credit card options, or if you’re better off making your own decisions outside of the bank.
How do you handle the financial aspects of running the business, and are you usually leveraged?
A lot of money goes into digital marketing. We sell our products through multiple e-commerce platforms, but I’m often spending more than $25,000 per month just on Facebook advertisements. I think the average consumer would be absolutely shocked to find out how much companies spend on Facebook and Instagram ads.
I wish that we could remain debt-free, but that’s simply not realistic for scaling a business. High-growth companies burn money, but it’s important to keep the long-term vision in mind. It helps differentiate necessary expenses from uncapped spending.
What are the future plans for the business, and why?
American Provenance is scaling. We’re on the cusp of exponential growth and we’ve experienced at least 20 percent quarter-over-quarter growth ever since we started.
This year, we’ll be adding a 6,000-foot production facility and 15 to 20 new jobs. We’ve struggled to keep up with demand, so our plan is to have enough staff on hand to actually accumulate a sizable product inventory.
What have you learned about credit, and any business advice to share?
I’ve learned to be very careful about borrowing money. Specifically, you need to look at the source, rate, terms and requirements. If there are provisions in a contract that you don’t understand, you need to ask for clarification. If you’re still uncertain, you should always follow your gut and look for other alternatives. The best lenders are always open, transparent and responsive.
Success really comes down to three things: vision, leadership and grit. You need to understand where you’re at and how to get to where you want to be. Lead by example and show value in everything that you do.
Big ideas and small people never go together. You need to tune out the noise and follow the path that you’re creating. Never take advice from someone who hasn’t been there before. Finally, there’s no substitute for hard work; you need to put in the effort every day.