Joining me on the show today is Hilary Quartner, co-founder of Hilma.
Hilma launched January 2020 by 3 remarkable women; Hilary Quartner, Nina Mullen and Lily Galef, and makes natural alternatives to your medicine cabinet staples that are backed by scientific research.
They offer clean label and clinically researched herbal-based alternatives for upset stomach relief, head tension and allergy and immune support.
In this episode we cover how they approached formulation, a really interesting marketing campaign they used during launch to get the word out there and what made them attractive to Forerunner Ventures when they got to pitch.
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
Yes. Absolutely. Okay definitely take us back back back back, take us back to all the way before life starting Hilma.
Okay cool. Um so yes my professional background at least has always been in the world of retail and consumer products. I started as an investment banker after college um in a retail and consumer products coverage group and when I was there I saw kind of the market shift towards these better for you CPG brands and I was mostly focused in the food and beverage space and so it was really excited about that is both a consumer but also professionally kind of getting my hands dirty. So moved to L. A. Joined the wonderful company which is um a family of brands better for you brands um and the food and beverage space and was a brand manager for Fiji water before heading to business school where I met Nina, my co Ceo and co founder and lily through Nina, my other co founder and we really kind of connected over just a general excitement about this space in this market movement and then post business school, I was the first hire at a walmart incubated brand called Jet Black and was able to see a really quick scaling process for a startup and also definitely got the bug to start something on my own. And so that was when Nina lily and I kind of had the idea for helmet and started hustling on the side. Did you guys, the three of you had, you thought, oh yeah, let's definitely start a business before or was there a light bulb moment that then the three of you were like, hey, hang on a second, we could actually do this together. So a little bit of bold. I think it definitely wasn't starting a business for starting a business sake, although each of us were I think are very entrepreneurial and kind of like always throughout our lives we each have our own stories of like the lemonade stand type things that were dead. But the lightbulb moment for us was really around a vitamin C packets which has more residents today than it even did then. But lily had a cold. Nina had one of those brightly colored sweet vitamin C packets on hand and they were kind of like, this is a little bit strange that we're still using this product. They kind of took that idea beginning of an idea to me that like maybe there's something to be done in the medicine cabinet and the three of us collectively started diligence saying the reality that we all as people and consumers had turned to more natural products in pretty much every category of our life, from food to beverage beauty to our household cleaning products, yet the place that we went to be the healthiest or when we needed to be healthy was really just stuck in the past. So it seems like very odd and at the same time, each of us had all had really positive experiences using natural remedies and with our own health journeys and so we knew there was a way to do it differently and that there was this gap on pharmacy shelves for most people. So we basically started working on creating a brand that we wish we'd had, which was both natural but also held the credibility of scientific approval from doctors and research so that we could feel like we could really trust this to work in the moment when we needed it too. So that was the beginning. Yeah. And I think that credibility pieces so important, especially for women who really do research the kinds of products that they're putting into their bodies. You know, we have such intrinsically certain issues that we have with, whether it's our stomach and our gut health and things like that or whether it's things to do with your period, like those kinds of things that you really do need, um you know, science to back what we're putting inside of our bodies. I'm wondering when the three of you had that kind of like, uh this is an interesting moment. This could be something to pursue. What made you also think like, why us, why should we be the ones to put this out into the world? Like, are we the people to do that? Well, it's a great question and I don't know that anyone has like the answer in that moment that they're necessarily the very best people to do it. But I think that we were, I think what we all kind of checked in on through the process of diligence ng was were we still excited about doing it and I think we were confident that each of us had had the right professional experience in the right amount of experience to at least be able to get the help where we needed it. So the glaring absence as far as skills among the three of us for this particular product was are none of us are doctors, none of us are herbalists, like we none of us are scientists. And the very first step in order to be able to answer that question of like can we even do this was to convince those people to get on board with us and find out in what capacity they would be able to work with us. And so building our scientific advisory board was like agenda item number one after we had validated the market for this and once we did that and we found um a formulate er to work with who is now on our scientific advisory board. We were kind of off to the races and we've since always been kind of continuously checking in on ourselves being like can we really do this well or do we need to get help? And that's I think one of the most important things you can do is an early stage entrepreneurs like kind of know your own limits. Yes, definitely 100%. I'm interested to know how you guys validated the product idea in the beginning and how you were kind of without even evolved to getting you know the advisory board members interested in what you were doing. So we validated the idea along two main dimensions. One was are there actual natural products aside from our own experiences having success with them that will really work for enough occasions that there's something to really build a brand around? I think there were a lot of different ways that we did that first and foremost. Like there's parts of the world that like only turned to natural remedies as a first line of defense and that's a very well established behavior that um for generations has seen success. So it's very much kind of like getting out of this mindset that we might have in the U.
S. Or other places where that's an alternative versus like a very legitimate first step. And then also just doing our own research talking to traditionally trained Mds to hear about kind of their trust in natural remedies and how they might think about this to validate that we could create really high quality products for people. And then the other side of it in parallel was just confirming that we weren't alone in having this like, moment when we looked in our medicine cabinet saying like, is there another way, like, do people feel good about about turning to what they're currently turning to and in the moment or is there kind of some hesitance and what's the root of that Hesitance? So tons and tons, like hundreds of customer interviews to validate that we weren't alone in wanting something like this. So those were like the two main work streams leading up to us deciding that there was an opportunity here. And when you were doing those hundreds of customer interviews, what was it clear kind of things that were coming out of those conversations? Like the clear problems that women were facing? Yeah. So for us, like we're kind of sitting between traditional herbals and Otc products over the counter products and so there were problems with both that we have hoped were hopefully addressing for otc. It was just like what we've been talking about, do you feel good about the current option, which is the easiest option? And if you don't lie and a lot of people don't feel great about having kind of what we call like the nuclear option b the first option that you go to when you're feeling uncomfortable and that is for different reasons for different people, whether it be that they don't feel good if they have a chronic condition, like having to overuse and for other people it's just I actually feel bad when um I take something and it hurts my stomach in the moment and I know that and I know that about myself and I don't have a good alternative and so I just kind of have to white knuckle it and then the other side of it is you know what's limiting about the natural products space as it exists today. And I think there's just a ton of confusion and intimidation, both in the formats that people find natural remedies accessible to whether it be a tincture and not really knowing like how exactly should I use this or do I need to consult a doctor before I use this because which you should in most cases, but just on the level of understanding what it is, like what do these ingredients mean? Like are these actually better than what I'm used to taking, so needing to have a translator to make a decision at shell. So for us we're also trying to solve that problem by just making first of all grounding our products in research and expertise, but also making it really easy to understand like simple labels, explanation of ingredients and what they do and just making the herbal experience more accessible. Yeah, I feel like I fit into both of those situations that you've just explained just to clarify when you're talking about the over the counter stuff. Do you mean something like taking a Panadol or or a Nurofen and being like yeah that's the thing that I just don't want to take all the time but my head does feel a little sore and I want something to relieve it. Is that what you mean? So I'm actually not familiar with those particular drugs in the U. S. I think those are british. So it's like it's like a paracetamol. Yeah I think it's the us that that is what I'm talking about. So yes not turning to kind of pharmacy pills as the first option and we're by no means anti medicine. It's just there's a time in a place um and sometimes overuse can become problematic. Got it totally. Okay so you have the moment you have the ah ha moment you've started figuring out that there's obviously a really big need for this in the market. Other people want what you're doing what happens next. How do you actually formulate these products and bring this brand to life? So both of those things, formulating the products and bringing the brand to life are a lot of work. And I think we, one of the hardest things about creating a business around a product that's a physical product is there's so many unforeseen things that like when you're doing it the first time, it's really hard and timelines are never correct and it's just there's a there's a steep learning curve to get like a physical product to market and so what we did is obviously first started with the formulation and that was after we had established our scientific advisory board to really make sure we were doing it in the right way and that kind of stem first from our market insights as consumers. Like where did we feel like there were uh conditions that a lot of people experienced, A lot of people didn't feel happy with the current option. Can we start there? And are there certain ingredients that we know and recognize as consumers and would be excited about like incorporating into the way we started feeling better. So it's kind of like a brief to the formulate er who were working with um she then went through combed scientific literature like compiled a huge massive document to substantiate every single ingredient that we included so that we knew that there was research for that ingredient in the use case that we're using it in as step one step two was then taking that formulation to our you know the doctors the PhD that we work with a different herbalist that we work with to get another opinion and having each of them go through and apply kind of their lens of how they heal in their own training to the product. And then we start creating it with our manufacturer. So like then there's a bit of iteration, there is to like what ingredients can we create. We work with the sourcing expert who validates all the sources that we, that we source from and then you know the product gets to market um and what we have done which is different than a lot of other natural brands is we've invested in clinical research on each of our products so that is like above and beyond what you typically see. But we felt it was really important to be able to bring kind of numbers and data to um consumers. Yes totally. I love that. That's really, that's really key. How long was the process of like the idea through to actually getting the finished product that like developed. Okay we're ready to go to market with this. Oh my God it took a really long time. I think that is, I honestly, I'm having trouble like exactly answering the question. I think we probably worked on a total of almost two years from idea to launch because there is a really long product development process but also creating the brand. It takes a lot well it doesn't take as long as the product but just validating the concept and getting the team together like all that stuff combined, chuckle a long time and how are you funding the business up until that point? And were you still working full time and your other jobs or have you been like okay we're going to quit this in full time focus on hill MMA. So we were kind of diligence ng and validating the idea before we took the plunge and assembling the scientific advisory board before we took the plunge and left our jobs. But then we were full time for pretty much a year leading up to when we launched and the way that we funded the business and like the very first production run and you know, getting our brand put together all of the website, like all of those initial start up costs was we raised a pre seed round with other like friends and friends and family, not true, not all friends and family. A lot of it was people who were founders of other businesses kind of in like the new york startup consumer space who have effectively been like our advisor bench of people who are other operators who have been through that stage before for a business. Um, so that was kind of like our initial raise and then we, we've raised institutional capital sense. Got it, got it. I want to talk about the marketing side of the business, especially in those early days when you were just getting started and how you sort of started to see the word out there, how you were starting to acquire customers and bring them into your space. So our lawn strategy has very much been around um, channel sequencing And so for us, we very intentionally started in Direct to consumer to establish a place for, to build community around and a place for people to really engage with what it means to kind of turn to herbals or natural option first. And so a big part of our focus in the early days has been around cultivating that community and we have largely been growing it on instagram, that's been a kind of like our main focus for brand building. And in conjunction we've also been distributing in specialty retailers were in a little over 50 doors nationwide and that also has its own kind of brand building value and that you know if we're sitting in a retailer that people trust for their curation, it installs trust in our brand as well. So in the very early days around kind of building community primarily and buzz on instagram like some of the fun things that we did which was the works were really memorable back in the days where people working in offices was we started kind of this like clean up your medicine cabinet office medicine cabinet campaign where we went around to different offices in new york at kind of other buzzy startups and offered to kind of put our products in their medicine cabinet and we came in with like white coats that said like the hell money and we kind of and we gave everybody little succulents to have on their desk and a sample of our immune support products. So that was kind of a scrappy way initially like right after we launched to get the word out and it started kind of hitting and people like we started getting D. M. S. From different companies like as big as like facebook saying like can you come to our office and we didn't we had to like cut it off at a certain point because we're still like a six person team at that point. We weren't even I think we were four person team and you know we couldn't do it. So I was like a one example of something fun that we did in the beginning to just like kind of get people wear of what we were even up to. Oh my gosh I love that kind of stuff. Guerilla marketing vibe getting really in it and and having fun with it while you really go along and I imagine the content was really fun to, it was definitely fun. Yeah but how is the marketing evolved and like what do you now? Obviously you have institutional funding and so it's a lot easier I imagine to acquire new customers at scale. But what are the kinds of things that work for you now? And how has that marketing evolved? Yes. So for us it still remains really focused on as a product for your health. It's an ingestible product, like there's like it's a very specific type of activation. It's not like someone's wearing a pair of pants and like someone sees it on instagram and things they look good and then wants to try them or sweater or something to that effect. So for us, our entire marketing strategy is built around um having people learn about Thelma via trusted authority. So that's either someone with actual like healthcare credentials or wellness authority. Like whether they're like a leader yoga practice or something to that effect or if it's your friend who you ostensibly trust for that level of like personal advice. So for us, our marketing has just scaled up with that concept and influencers for us is a really important way to get the word out, but it's a specific kind of influencer, someone who's who has an authority in the health space. So that has definitely been something we've focused a lot on from both the grassroots, but also in some cases like paid partnership because we really care about creators and also making sure that, you know, like that were being good partners as the ecosystem is evolving but also maintaining a presence in retail for us. That's a really important part of our marketing strategy um, and will continue to be the last pieces around really thoughtful brand partnerships, So aligning ourselves with other medical practices, for example, we're partnering this month with TIA, which is a female health clinic here in new york and they're doing a big push around giving out flu shots and immune health and we're partnering with them on that and kind of sampling are immune support product and also providing some content to educate around immune health and maintaining a lifestyle that promotes good immune health. How does it work for sampling products, because I imagine if you are to sample a beauty products, say where you can instantly put it on your skin and you can say like, oh yeah, like this rouge looks great on my cheek kind of thing, but a supplement where you have to take it and you're not going to see an instant effect. How does the sampling world of supplements work? Yes, Well, first, I think just to clarify, most of our products work in the moment, so our attention relief should, you know, it offers relief in the moment for for occasional head tension or upset stomach relief. Similar relief for occasional heartburn and upset stomach. Our indoor outdoor support helps with seasonal triggers like pollen or triggers like dust. And our immune support is really the only one that's less instantaneous. Um but that kind of like helps over time if you're feeling under the weather. Uh and that's the one that is also easiest for us to sample. So, depending on how on which program the answer that question is slightly different, but you should be able to feel the effect, which is at which, to your point is actually much more helpful for us as a brand for people to like immediately be like, wow, like that works.
It's not a leap of faith, totally. Absolutely. And then it's easy to really spread that word and be like, well, yeah, there's totally worked for me for sure. It sounds amazing by the way way. Andrew some Oh my God, please do. I am actually had a conversation yesterday with a woman who her company is called harmoniously and she specializes in um women's gut health and like issues with women's hormones and periods and that kind of thing. And we were talking about, you know, well, I was talking about some of the problems that I have personally and the need for like, like options that aren't like, you know, the options that you buy over the counter. And it's a funny thing that we're having this conversation now just following my conversation with her last night where I was like, yes, I really need this kind of stuff. I need answers and I need support that isn't from the doctor kind of thing. Yeah. Well doctors, I think it's interesting because we're kind of stepping into this space at a time when traditionally trained doctors are expanding their own perspective on the right way to advise and address kind of these like common issues where you know, like you experience that most likely like every month and like what are some ways that you can get to the root cause then what are some more like subtle interventions that you feel good about? Like I do think that's becoming more routine for more doctors. Yeah, that's good to hear, totally. I wanted to go back and talk a little bit about your institutional funding. I read that last year you had forerunner ventures um invest into your brand, which is obviously hugely exciting and I know they back a lot of incredible female founded companies like Glossier and Away and birchbox. So I'm interested to know like how you got on their radar and what it was that you think, you know, made your pitch stand out to them when you were able to present. Yes, we're very lucky to have them as partners and we were so excited for all the reasons that you said first and foremost that like right now our main focus is building a brand that sits like, I mean what we feel really excited to be a mom like that company of companies that you listed but so they're so smart around kind of what does it mean to build community online and bill to digitally need a brand. What were they excited about helm A So I think they were excited about the idea of like being in stride with how people's approach to their health is evolving and having that evolution be paired with research. Um I think they're really excited about the clinical research that we were making a point of investing in and just also like the methodology of product development that we were taking to hopefully get more people over the hurdle of being able to try this type of solution and kind of like how that changes consumer behavior and an enormous category that's crucial to people's lives. That's amazing. And I'm interested to know if you can share it all, what sort of numbers do you need to be hitting to actually be attractive to investors at all and to be able to reach that point where you can go out and be like, hey, we're ready to raise some money. Um, this is our track record today. Is this interesting for you? So I think it really depends on the investor we raised actually pre launch and for us, it was all about proof points of like what we had in place ready to go. Um, and that, that is a way that some startups take others raised after they've shown some traction and the terms will very, depending on kind of like when you have that conversation and some prefer to do it later to have a bit more leverage. But for us, we, um, we had the pieces in place kind of, we showed like the plan, like, um, the medical advisors that we had on board, we had product samples. We had a beautiful brand. Like we had had everything and we're like, we're ready to press go. And that was exciting enough for people to get on board. Oh gosh, so incredible. Congrats on that. Is there any key learnings that you can share from your experience of raising capital, that other female founders might benefit from hearing? Well, I think that it can take a lot of time. And I think it's important to remember why you're doing it. Um you're doing it to kind of get to the next phase of your business and not to kind of over obsess around the process in and of itself, like there's a lot of different types of amazing partners and ways to kind of get the ball rolling from your business perspective, um, and sources of capital and to just sort of problem solved through it, but like, be conscious of the time and the energy that you're directing towards it, because the point is to, like, start going, So I do see it kind of take up a lot of mind space and time for people generally, because it can be very stressful. But the point is to like, continue to build your business and you use it as a point of validation and a check to get like, great partners on board? Mm, totally. And where is the business today? And what does the future look like? Are you able to share any exciting things that might be coming in the pipeline that we can look forward to. Yes, of course. So where is this is today? So, since our Director Consumer and kind of limited specialty retail launch? We've launched on amazon as of a month ago, which is really exciting. Uh we hope we will just make it that much easier for people to try the product and we will be launching a mass retail next year, I can't reveal who the partner is, but that's really exciting for us in a big step up towards kind of our omni channel strategy for our brand and as far as more near term excitement and buzz, um we will be launching, let's see 1234, Yeah, 1234 new products in the new year. So we'll be continued to be innovating along kind of like the same general product categories that we're in today um but provides some new options, so we're really excited about that. Oh my gosh! Sounds so exciting. I will be staying tuned for sure. Oh and for the holidays, I forgot we're doing a very special gift with purchase this, this holiday season two. So we're making um something special and exciting. We did a nice collaboration to hopefully get people excited about buying kind of our starter trio this holiday season. So you can check it out. When does that kick off? That's your kickoff. And actually I don't know whether I should be talking about that publicly yet sneak peek like that should be like in the next week or so. You're gonna be fine. This comes out two weeks later. So you're all good. Perfect word. What advice do you have for women who have a big idea and want to launch their own business. Well, I think the first step, like I think is around kind of de risking the idea like, and not in a way to be like risk averse, but just for yourself to kind of isolate what are the core things that you need to believe in order for this to come to life? And really being very intentional about checking through like how do you gain confidence around like each of those, like hyper, each of the fast, it's like the overall hypothesis and talking to a lot of people whose opinion you trust because you should be open, like getting criticism upfront is the best thing that you could do. Like it's it's way better than realizing like you've had a blind spot three or four months in um after you've invested so much time and it can really kind of direct you, like point you in a better direction, so kind of being humble about what you know what you don't know, put making yourself vulnerable in talking to people about it, forcing yourself to pitch because sometimes that can be really nerve wracking to something that you've been working on and you care a lot about to like open yourself up to like somebody else's opinion, but that's like going to be your life after you kind of go live. So I just like take advantage of it while you can still control the situation. So I think like thinking through ways that you can make yourself ready to tackle the opportunity by being thoughtful about where the risk areas lie and just really talking to a lot of people that you trust about it. That's really interesting advice. I love that. Thanks. We are up to the six quick questions part of the episode. Question # one Is, What's Your Wife? I really feel fulfillment and making things that make other people's lives better and that's very abstract and broad. But I really do feel good about the fact that our products made people feel better totally. If you and if you're not doing that, then it's like, well if you're not making people feel better in life than what's the point? I love that. 100%. Question number two is what's been the number one marketing moment that's made your business pop? Well, my favorite one is kind of the one that I mentioned before around kind of our medicine cabinet takeovers and like our white code activation. That was definitely the first thing that really got the ball rolling and seated excitement about the brand. Yeah, I love that one too. That's so cool. Question # three is where do you hang out to get smarter and that's around things that you're listening to books podcasts, who you're chatting with, that kind of thing. Yes. Um, well definitely these days. It's certainly not where you go, who? It was like contact your absorbing. So I think my answer would definitely be, it's the people that I spend the most time with and that is my husband and my co founders who I talked to more than anybody else. And luckily they're extremely smart and I feel like I learned a lot from them every day. I'm lucky to be able to learn from them. Love that. So true as well. What's that saying? It's like you are, who the people you, you know the five people that you hang out with the most, it's like five people I think. Yeah, well for me it's certainly three. I am the other two would probably be my mom and my sister love that makes sense. Question number four is how do you win the day? And that's around your AM and PM rituals that keep you feeling happy and motivated and successful. Yes. For me, my mornings are very important. I wake up somewhat early and I mean there's a range of what people think our early, but I wake up around 6 30 every day try to keep it consistent. Um so that it's not painful and I make sure that I do something for myself. First thing. Um, so that for me is like exercising, meditating like making a good breakfast, like really reading the news and feeling kind of engaged with like the world outside of work, going for a walk, something like that and then sitting down to do work, which obviously it's a really big part of the way I spend my time. Yes, I imagine so Question number five is if you only had $1000 left in your business bank account, where would you spend it? Uh huh, That's a good one. Certainly, I don't know that anyone would be content with $1,000 salary, but I think like it would go towards somewhat on our team because they're really like what makes all the magic happened and we definitely cannot do what we're doing without our team totally. And question six, last question is, how do you deal with failure? And that can be around a personal experience or just your general mindset and approach? Mhm Well I'm a first time founder um and my co founders are also first time founders and I think we've just been really, we felt very lucky to have each other as a support system through failure, but also honestly to celebrate success and I think our process is very much rooted in that support system of like when something doesn't go the way we want it or when there's disappointment and it all is very much about each of us, kind of reminding each other about the long term view and sort of making sure that we're able to maintain perspective on whatever, like the near term good or bad thing that comes up, yep, totally uh this was so cool, thank you so much Hillary for taking the time to be on the podcast today. I really loved chatting with you, this is so fun. Thanks Yeah, me too. No, I'm super excited for all the cool things that you have coming and I will be cheering you guys on from the sidelines.