Creating cult products & Sophia Amoruso as your mentor, with Chillhouse Founder Cyndi Ramirez-Fulton

Joining me on today’s episode is Cyndi Ramirez-Fulton, Founder of Chillhouse.

Chillhouse is an experiential flagship in Soho which offers a suite of spa services and in addition to their physical space, they have a line of products ranging from press-on chill tips to candles and Chill Wear. The Chill Times is the media arm of Chillhouse that covers beauty, health, fitness, and wellness topics.

Born and raised in New York City, Cyndi has been dubbed “The Queen of Chill” through her creation of Chillhouse. The idea was sparked when she and her husband realised the city didn’t offer something that was aspirational and affordable, and their desire to create a place with something for everyone led to the creation of Chillhouse -- which is now the authority of modern self-care.

In this episode we’re talking through bringing this vision into reality, how a cult product can be used as a major discovery tool and how the ultimate Girlboss of entrepreneurs got involved with Chillhouse in the beginning, getting Cyndi to think and dream bigger.

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!

Sure, yeah, I'm Cindy Ramirez Fulton, I'm the founder and CEO of a company called Chillhouse, and we are the party of modern self care. What that means is we have a basically a 360 outlook on giving people ways to practice self care regularly. So we have a physical space in Manhattan's Soho area, our flagship location. And out of that space, we do a large suite of services ranging from manicures, massages to facials. And we have a wellness cafe and we also have an infrared room. And additionally, we also have products. So you can kind of visit our website or Tollhouse Dotcom and either Shop Tollhouse products or third party products that can basically just bring you from feeling like to feeling really good. So it's really just about creating experiences, products and content that make people feel good on the regular until, gosh, so needed at this time in the world.

And what's going on. And my God, I cannot wait to get a massage and a money and a petty when things go back to normal. Holy moly. Let's go back to life before house. What was sparking that idea in you to bring this vision around attainable self care and modern self care to life?

The story is one of those like, oh my God, I need this sort of stories, but I guess kind of back it up even further. And my mom's in esthetician. So I think subconsciously I always kind of knew I was ingrained in the space. I was. I grew up watching my mom sort of run her medi spa and she was more focused on maintenance and upkeep and that obviously, as a young woman, I didn't really, like, find that appealing to me because I was like, OK, I don't really need stuff for cellulite. I don't really need stuff for, like anti aging. These are services. And so I think in some way, shape or form, I was watching her. I was also shaping forming my own opinions on what I wanted. Fast forward, obviously, many, many years later, my husband and I were trying to get massages in Manhattan and kind of one day just hit us that we didn't love what our options were at the time. It was, you know, even now, aside from Hillhouse, your options were either you spend kind of like an obscene amount of money for a 60 minute massage or you ended up somewhere kind of weird, sketchy in like a basement with you don't know who you're going to get, what kind of therapist you're going to get and, you know, at a very, very cheap price point.

And that didn't really sit well with us either. So we were kind of just realize that there was something missing somewhere in the middle where I didn't feel guilty getting a massage in either capacity. And then we kind of talked a little bit more, just developing the concept a bit more, because I like doing a little bit more than one thing. I'm not one to do just one single service. I was like, I don't massages. And what I want to do ultimately is like the only thing Hillhouse does, like what else can we bring to the table, what else is missing? And, you know, as someone that practice self care in a way regularly, but like I wanted more like experience, base place to go, like manicures or one of those things that I got weekly, I mean, my manicure is terrible right now. I've been I've been putting my tips on and off, so I don't have anything going on right now. But yeah. So Banneker's are one of those things that I wanted to that I got regularly and I never found a place that had fun experience attached to it. You know, it was very much like, here you go, go get your nails done. If it was a high end place, maybe I would get a TI offer to me or champagne offered to me.

But it was it. There was nothing further than that. So we realize it dawns on us that there was a hospitality element to any of these stores or salons as well. So we started basically putting all of these things together, all these things that we love together, which is beverages and for me, manicures and the massages. And so the first location was those three things. It was cafe manicures, massages, and then we just evolved the brand from there. I think what we realized is that people were just really excited to see what we came up with and what we were able to offer them from an experience standpoint, but also from like a digital standpoint, because there were people that just were really gravitating to the brand just because of what we represented. Right. We were fun. I mean, we are fun. We don't take ourselves too seriously. We talk about self care from a very holistic standpoint, where it's not just about how do you spend all your money towards services. It's it's more so about just how do you make sure you're thinking about yourself regularly. And here are all the ways that we can help you achieve that goal. And yeah, so it has evolved obviously way past those three things. And the concept is so funny how it.

Started there, but really now is like taking on a life of its own totally, I can really see that as well and all the things you're coming out with and just the whole vibe around it, it's so amazing. I really love the chill times and the kind of content that you're publishing online for people who are on the other side of the world that love the brand and follow you on Instagram and then like, cool, I want to read about this stuff, too. Right.

And I want to talk about your branding for a hot second, because obviously it is such a special part of what you're doing with the business and especially, you know, from what I can see about the space and when you step into the space, it's just so incredible. How did you approach the look and feel for the space? And was it like that from the very beginning or has that evolved to.

I see the look and feel definitely has evolved, the first location feels totally different than the second one, but I think the brand as a whole has stayed pretty consistent as far as how I envisioned it. I think the first space wasn't fully representative of what the brand like could be, which is why now we were like very excited about the flagship. I feel like it's like, ah, we've grown into it. When people come to New York City, they go to Chill House and it's like, oh, this feels like it matches the Instagram versus the other one. It was like people are like it's so small or like it it really is ismy like this on this block, you know, it was the perception wasn't fully aligned. So I'd say the flagship definitely is very much representative of the whole brand. But as far as the look and feel, I mean, I definitely had a vision for how I wanted it to look from like a branding standpoint. But then also how to tie the decor in simultaneously was definitely like kind of tricky. And I've never this was my first time ever doing that. So a lot of it was just mud boarding, you know, looking at different types of brands ranging from food brands to fashion brands, the beauty brands, and kind of honing in on our own brand identity from a logo color, all that standpoint. And then the design. It was kind of like we started working with our architect, who also was our interior designer, and telling him, hey, this is what we have going on from a branding perspective.

How do we align this with the store? So that was a really fun process. But I will say that I was much more hands on in the design of the second one. So actually being able to, like, source the furniture, we really wanted to have final say on the color of the tables of the material of the surfaces, all that, you know, that was very important to me, whereas the first time I it was my first go ahead. And so I just didn't want to step on his toes. I kind of wanted to let the expert sort of lead the way. And then this time around, I was like, no, I know my brand more than anybody else. I need to make sure that I have final say over every single element that happens in the space. So it takes some time. I will say, even like the first time, if you're not really savvy when it comes to interior design and an even branding, it's hard to match it up to the point where it's perfect. It would really take some time if you're not well versed in it. And I was not well versed in it totally. But, you know, as time goes on, you just realize, OK, I know my brand inside and out. Let's go. I got this one.

It must have been a pretty thrilling moment to see that actually come to life, you know, from when you mood boarding and coming up with your thoughts and how you wanted it to look and feel for that flagship store and then actually unveiling this thing and walking in and being like, holy shit, I did this. You know, this is crazy.

It was a wild day. Yeah. We did a whole ribbon cutting for our launch party and a full on. I did like a little speech and I fell on like burst into tears. I was like I never thought I would be that perseverate. Gosh, it is wild when you I mean, it was it's one store into a lot of big companies. It's like one store is like whatever, because they are used to doing this volume of real estate transactions and store openings. But for us it was like the main thing that was going to solidify us as a company. And it was a big moment. I mean, it was it was a long time. It was in the works for a very long time. Like the build out wasn't as long maybe as you would think, but the actual process of so we were reached out to by the landlords and then they were kind of trying to like entice us to come to actually, you know, take the risk and enter their their space. And that took a lot of convincing, I'd say, for us to actually go for it. And it took a long time to fundraise for it. So it was just a lot of anticipation, I'd say. And then, of course, about a little under a year of building as well. So. Wow.

And then here we are and then here we are. That's crazy.

On the topic of fundraising, I always love to ask how a business was financing in the very beginning. So when you were first, you know, coming up with the idea, you and Adam are like, yeah, this is this place that we want to bring to life.

What was the process in terms of like savings loans or financing from the very beginning? Investment, rather?

Yeah, the process is pretty much getting to work from a research standpoint, putting together a business plan simultaneously. We were doing a lot of real estate scouting at the same time. We were also doing a lot of research into competitors, I guess, even though we don't have like direct competitors, but like understanding the nail industry, understanding the Bosarge and spy industry and even the cafe industry. So getting a better sense for what our margins are going to be. And, of course, putting together your financials based on that and. Coming up with pricing and all that, and then based on where you end up with all that, you kind of put your deck together and get to work. So we've only really have done friends and family and angels up until this day. We've raised about a million total. But that's really just to power the stores. So X amount for flagship, X amount for the location. The rest of the business has been pretty much bootstrapped. So that's something I'm pretty proud of, of course, because we haven't raised institutional capital yet. I think there's a different there are different expectations with your business when when you do that. And I'm not saying we're not going to do it. It's just it's kind of cool to have gotten this far without it.

But we did have a fair amount of friends and family that have invested in Adams bars prior to opening up till house. So we went out to them first, of course, as people that we knew that were interested in doing smaller investments. And to be honest, I mean, it's mostly just a lot of people that were very good friends with our inner immediate like know network that have given anywhere from 10 to 50 grand. And, you know, it may sound like a lot to some, but, you know, I think you'd be surprised how many people are just ready to to make these smaller investments. And so it was really interesting when I kind of realized that I went out to a few friends and people were like, oh, yeah, of course I would invest in you like, oh, music. OK, so I never thought that I had friends that had that kind of money, like just sitting around in the bank. But as soon as you started talking about it, you'd be surprised how many people are actually really interested and almost like flattered. I'd say that you consider them or ask them. Right. So that's how we fundraise for the most part.

And then, of course, it's extended past our network. We've asked people if they know anybody that would be like a good fit from an advisory type standpoint. So we brought on a lot of really amazing founders, entrepreneurs that have done similar sort of not similar businesses, but have been down this road before. You know, that can kind of help us guide us in the right direction. So we just that we have a credible group of investors. And I feel like for US loans, we never really went down that road. And I do feel like doing friends and family, at least for me sort of you have a built in community that already supports you and is there for you and that you can bounce ideas back and forth with. Right. So I think that for us was super helpful versus having going to a bank and being like, give us a million dollars and you won't hear from us until we're ready to pay you back, you know? So that's not something to me that excites me. I like the collaboration aspect of having people that I can call partners, you know, totally. So that's pretty much that was it. And so a lot of people, they just they went for it.

I love that. And it also further kind of like builds this notion of this community that you've been building. Your whole brand is built on community and bringing people into the spaces that you're also doing that within your own community, which is a really nice way to think about it. I read that one of your mentors in the beginning was Sophia Amaru's. So is she someone that you're talking about as one of the founders who was helping you in the beginning? Yes. Would you be able to tell a little bit about how that came about and how she was able to help you?

My God, that's such a crazy story. I feel like she probably thinks I'm such a psycho any time I share this story, because I was always a huge fan of hers. I was a nasty gal shopper when I was younger, in my early 20s, and she was like an entrepreneur I could actually relate to. You know, she didn't have a fancy pedigree, college education or anything like that. It was more so that she just kind of went went with her gut, with her intuition, and she just worked her ass off. And she was unapologetic about her personality. She was unapologetic about her leadership style. I just love that she was super raw. And I anyway, so I followed her for so long. And at one point prior to launching Telehouse, I ended up on a trip for her girl boss Netflix, I guess, promotional. It was a promotional trip that influencers and media were invited to. So I luckily my friend Alyssa Casaroli, she she couldn't go and she's like, I put you up for it. Would you want to go? And I'm like, you have way more followers.

I'm sure if they want me, I'll happily go. I'm obsessed with Sophia. And then there was also this like Chelsea Handler episode that she was going to be on. So I get to meet Chelsea. It was unreal, as obsessed with both women, of course. So off I go and I get to interview her and everything. So but I'm amongst like 50 girls or something and saying that she had to meet that day and then fast forward like a year and a half later. And I've noticed that, like, it was a crazy year. When we opened up HILLHOUSE, we had an influx of followers that range from celebrities to founders and entrepreneurs that I really admired. So it was definitely like a very wild time in my life where I was like, wow, there's so much attention happening. I don't know I don't know how to feel about all this, but cool, like, very flattered. So I didn't notice at one point that she followed me and she followed Hillhouse and I was like, whoa, big stuff.

Big stuff like this is cool. She follows me back.

This is so cool. I have the attention of my favorite entrepreneur of all time and then I'll never forget this. At one point it was just a random day. We had a party that canceled last minute at Hillhouse and this is like back when maybe we're still figuring things out. We didn't have her credit card on file, whatever. It was sloppy. We didn't have a system for when people canceled last minute, you know, these sort of parties last minute. And it was it was a lot of money that we had lost because she decided to cancel last minute and there were no repercussions. And I just took to Instagram. Instagram, I'm sorry. It was like early Instagram, Saugerties. And I started complaining about the situation. I was like, please, like, if you ever find yourself, like, wanting to cancel, like, please consider the business. It's like so disrespectful to do this last minute, blah, blah, blah. And it's not like me to complain about customers anymore. But in the beginning I was very sassy because I was dealing with so much, you know, and I'm still dealing with so much. But luckily now I have people that deal with their own individual customer service concerns. Right. I have a lot of people that it gets to them first. But in the beginning, it was coming to me first and I was like, oh, so yeah, she was like DM's me as I'm complaining, she's like, I love what you're doing.

Let's talk. I'm like, of course you do me when I'm like complaining about customers that such as Sophea thing to do. And now it's amazing that I was like, OK, I must be doing something right. Like this is, you know, part of being an entrepreneur is being vulnerable and sharing these sides of what happens on a regular basis. And anyway, so she really took a liking to that, I guess, and Demi decided to Demi in that moment. And that's kind of when I feel like a lot of things change for us. We really we realized that we were more than that little store, that we had the opportunity to really take things to the next level. We had the attention of some really notable people. And, yeah, she she came on board, ended up flying to L.A. and went to her house and chatted with her. And she became an advisor, an investor shortly after that. So and then, yeah, we've had you know, that's just having her to bounce ideas off of has been incredible. So she's one of the few like really bad badass entrepreneurs that we have. And it was a wild story. And I was like, what is happening?

That is going to be the coolest thing ever. That is like the ultimate fan girl moment for an entrepreneur in today's world. Obviously, having followed her like her career and everything, that's just so cool. Congratulations. Wow.

Absolutely. Thank you. Yeah, it was a really crazy moment for me. I just never knew that I would manifest that. I love that fear. Very bizarre. And she doesn't reach out to I mean, she's very supportive of female businesses and all that, of course. I mean, she's made a whole career out of it. But we were her first adviser role and her first investment, I think. Oh, wow. Which was crazy.

Yeah, that is really interesting. That's so. Yeah, I want to switch gears and talk now about your marketing and the launch, especially in those early days when you were just getting started and you needed to spread that word and put in that grassroots hustle, I guess. And I'm sure you still do it today.

But you know that early time when things are up in the air, how did you launch and how were you putting the word out there?

Our launch strategy was to be a little, I guess, secretive in the beginning because we were doing something completely unique and we didn't want to kind of come out and say exactly what we were doing. We wanted to keep things a bit of a mystery to keep people on our toes. So, yeah, I formed an Instagram. Maybe I don't want to say like six months prior to actually launching. And it was just a really pretty feed of things that symbolized self care, that gave people a good idea of what our brand was going to be. I started asking people to follow and it just kind of quickly gained a little bit of speed. We ended up with about, I want to say, seven or eight thousand followers prior to even opening up our doors. And then by the time we opened up our doors, people were like ready to come in. So we were teasing it out. And and I think giving people a little bit of a little bit of a tease into what we were doing. And then I think by the time we opened, they were just like, wow, this is cool, you know, because they were obviously we don't want to let them down, like, we only do this and you can't come or you have.