How this Founder invented a world-first powder shampoo with Susteau's Kailey Bradt
Joining me on today’s episode is Kailey Bradt, founder of Susteau, previously known as OWA haircare.
SUSTEAU is an innovative clean beauty brand delivering concentrated, effective formulas.
These first-of-a-kind water-activated powders deliver everything you need and nothing you don’t.
In this episode you'll hear how Kailey decided to reinvent the wheel with a powdered shampoo, got the money she needed to get started and why she decided to make a name change.
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
Yeah, I'm Kailey Bradt I am the founder and CEO of Susteau, and we make clean, conscious, concentrated haircare inspired by the future.
Oh, I love that I want to go back to what was happening in your life before Sesto, what was getting you interested in starting a business in the first place and kind of that light bulb moment that went off for you to invent this new product?
Yeah, so I always actually had an interest in sustainability, very young, like in high school, I started an eco club with my chemistry class, so it goes back pretty far. And I actually really struggled with what I wanted to do as a career because I was super creative. But my strengths were in math and science and I was actually terrible at all my art classes. So when I really thought about what I wanted to do, I actually landed on chemical engineering thinking that it was actually more of a backup plan. But it was a pretty good backup plan. But I knew, like, it wasn't as creative as what I wanted to do with my life. And so I studied that. And in my time in school, I actually started working for a startup in L.A. and fell in love with like that fast paced, crazy startup life. And, you know, I thought that it would keep me pretty occupied. And again, I didn't really know, like, what an entrepreneur was or really what that meant. But I guess when I had this idea, I realized these things were always kind of inside of me. But I was traveling a lot for my job.
And really, just one day I realized that I was packing all of these little tiny bottles and to carry on back and one, they would always explode. I was always picking up whatever was left over at the drug store on a Sunday night, because at least Monday morning, like, constantly had these challenges. And then I kind of one day was like, OK, what's actually in this? Because everything has water. It was like water, water, water, water, first ingredient, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, my styling products. I was like, OK, what if I could eliminate the water? And then I had as much space as I could ever need. And this bag. Right. And so with my background in chemical engineering, started digging into these formulas and realized it wasn't like, you know, 40 percent water. It was like eighty nine, the ninety five percent water. And so that was really the moment where I was like, oh my gosh, I think I have to do something about this. Right.
Wow. That's so interesting and cool. Did you in that moment already think powder or were you more thinking I just need to eliminate water?
So it might be a gel, it might be a cube, it might be something, anything.
Yeah. So I think my perspective on product development is unique in that way, as I think as an engineer. And so I think like what does something need to do? Not what does it look like, how does it need to feel? And so I really just wanted something that functioned like a liquid. It didn't mean it had to be delivered to me in any certain way. I just knew the end product had to be the same. And I wanted to eliminate the water. The idea of a powder was definitely there, but I didn't know if it was the answer until it was fully vetted a couple of years later, but it was definitely in my mind.
And what year are we talking when you kind of have this light bulb moment just to set the scene?
Yeah, so it's twenty, twenty one now, which is crazy. This actually came to me in the beginning of two thousand sixteen and for perspective I was just about to turn twenty three, so I was twenty two at the time. Like I said, not long for me to realize that like a nine to five was not for me.
Oh my gosh. Starting early. I love that.
Ok, so you have the idea, you start playing around with formulation yourself I presume. What actually happens next? What do you do to stop building this idea and validating it with other people and kind of bringing it to life?
Yeah, well, the first thought I had was somebody has to have a patent on this because I can't imagine that I'm going to do this and not get sued by someone that already had this idea.
But when I started looking around at patents and doing more research, I really couldn't find anything that was like a powder format or even a concentrate, aside from shampoo and conditioner bath, which were on the market. And I had tested a few of those. And my my main thing with them is that I didn't get the performance I was looking for. And then also in doing research, which I always recommend to anyone to start talking to friends and family and literally just get on Google and see what you can find before you dive in and invest yourself in something. And so that's really what I did, is I went through a lot of different people first and was like, would you use the shampoo and conditioner bar? And it's kind of wondering, like it's a niche market for sure. And it's something I get asked about a lot. And honestly, I just didn't feel like they worked for me. And I have a lot of friends that weren't even open to using them. Where I felt like our our brand and product could really fit in was in this space where people were using like Albay or Way Haircare, Bumble and Bumble, and they wanted to use something more sustainable, but they weren't interested in trying bars. And so we really fit well there. And so those were the type of people that I was speaking out to try the product. And kind of like what you're saying, where I got started was literally on my bedroom floor. I was ordering ingredients. And luckily I didn't start with, like, kitchen great ingredients because of my background. I knew how and where to get cosmetic great ingredients. So I was able to take a very scientific approach to the product development process and actually to buy myself some time. I actually enrolled back in school and got my master's in product development while I was doing this kind of like side hustle thing, which turned into my full time job.
Oh, my goodness. How long did it take for you to come up with kind of a formulation you were happy with where you thought, oh, hang on, we've got something that we could stop marketing now a long time.
And I think there are a lot of challenges in about two years total from like when I actually started physically formulating. I always tell people to start with paper because there is a lot you can kind of get from just doing your research and talking to people, making phone calls. And what I realized was I actually think I wasted an entire summer of the summer of two thousand seventeen getting the formula to a point where I thought it was really good and I wanted someone to, like, finalize it for me. And pretty much all of the labs and manufacturers I spoke to just told me, no, I'm like, this isn't possible. I was like, no, no, no. I have like I have a pretty good formula. I just want somebody to, like, check it over for me, make sure it's OK. And actually, during this time and this is why I'm so crazy with research and ingredient, one of the main ingredients I was using actually stopped being manufactured. And so I thought I had to finish formula and then I had to completely reformulate because they no longer made that ingredient anymore. Part of it was, yeah, part of it was they were marketing it as natural and I was probably one of the people, but I'm sure many brands had been digging into this as well. I wanted proof that it was natural and I never really got a solid answer on it. But I have the feeling they stopped making it and relaunched it under a new name because it was being marketed the wrong way. And so it took about 50 formulas and two years total to get that final formulation for what is now moondust hair wash.
Wow, 50 formulas. That's a lot of hair washing.
Oh, my God. You must have had a really clean hair around the clock.
You were the girl washing your hair every single day. Oh, that's so not me.
Well, are you able to share anything about how much capital it kind of cost you to be able to do fifty formulations and and develop the product and actually place your first order?
Like what kind of capital does it take and how were you financing it in the beginning?
Yeah. So when I was when I first had the idea two thousand sixteen, I was working full time. By that fall I decided to go back to school part time and within a month of going back to school, I quit my job, packed up my car, drove across country, sold everything I had like crazy things. I don't recommend that. But going back to school gave me the opportunity to participate in a lot of student competitions. And so I was still working a little bit on the side. But I was actually able to do these pitch competitions and there was an opportunity to win money. And I was like, OK, this is great. So I kind of like threw together a paycheck. I actually have some photos of me presenting this. And let me tell you, it is really embarrassing about why.
Why is it embarrassing?
I mean, I had like I was literally calling like friends and coworkers and was like, can I put you on a paycheck as part of my team? Because I don't have one. And I need to look like I can do this and I think I can do it. I just have not prepared for this. But, you know, I could win like one hundred thousand dollars going crazy. And people are like, yeah, I here take the photo from my LinkedIn. And so in terms of funding, it was literally me and I think it's hard to put. No, on this day, but your time is so valuable, right? And so to me, I had the experience that I was able to do 50 different formulas. If you went to a lab and like, I need to change this 10 more times. Yeah, it would probably cost you I mean, a base formula to a lab is five to ten thousand dollars. Sometimes manufacture. If you manufacture with them, we'll let you kind of like develop something with them and not charge you for me. I was able to do kind of whatever I wanted because it was my time and I guess money I wasn't making elsewhere, but really putting that investment into the business. And then with a student competition, I won ten thousand dollars, which in the grand scheme of physics is not a lot. But it was a lot to me as a grad student living in Rochester, New York, with like little to no income and now all these student loans for school.
So it was a big deal and that actually allowed me to incorporate the business. I filed a provisional patent, a thousand dollars called the incorporation fees for a couple of hundred. I got a website on Squarespace, I think it was I've had like 20 different websites now. And it was very it was like a landing page with an email sign up. And I literally texted everyone like, hey, I need to raise money and I need you to go put your email in. This website is just like very scrappy, but that ten thousand dollars actually lasted all of two thousand seventeen and got me to twenty eighteen and got me to my first pitch pitches with investors and covered from travel. So honestly, you can do a lot with a little as long as you're putting your time in to get to where I am today. We've raised to round. Very different than that, ten thousand dollars, our first round was about four hundred and seventy five thousand dollars and that got us to launch the company, it got us to launch our first product. But things get very expensive very quickly, as you can probably imagine. And we're based in New York City. So that also is very costly. But you know what? You can make it work. And I think there there's so much you can do without having to spend a lot as long as you put the time in. And so to get to where we are today, we've raised about three point three million total.
Gosh, that is so awesome. Love that for you when you had to place your first order with the manufacturer, was there a crazy minimum order quantity that you had to go with or were they able to give you smaller batches? How big did you have to place your first order?
Yeah, so our first order ended up being around ten thousand units and it was a lot. And part of the reason for that is that we're doing this for, you know, powdered to lather shampoo formula. And I thought that if we found someone who manufactured like a dry shampoo, they would be able to manufacture our shampoo. And it really wasn't that simple and also cost us more in terms of inventory because we have a concentrated product. So if you think about selling mostly water, your material costs are fairly low, your packaging is your biggest expense. And so for us, we actually have a very expensive formula as well as packaging. So it was a lot more costly just to even manufacture our product for the first time.
Hmm. Well, it's so interesting.
I want to switch to talking about the launch and the marketing side of things, all the fun things that happened in the beginning. When you're trying to get the word out about your brand and shout it from the rooftops. How did you launch and find those customers?
So, as you know, we originally launched under the our haircare brand name in two thousand nineteen and then relaunched as Sesto this year. And so we've kind of been through this twice. Right. And the first time was really a soft launch for a brand that I thought we would very easily be able to turn around and raise capital for. But we had a global pandemic. Raising takes long as a female founder. And so we were faced with a lot of challenges in that and didn't get to do the big launch that I had envisioned to begin with. So our launch number one, we'll call it was very scrappy. We didn't have PR. I had like hired a couple of people, like friends, literally hired my friends. Some of them wouldn't take payment, but I was trying to give them something, you know, to help me cold email and reach out to people who are first who is now our first employee. Literally, it was like our designer for years. He designed everything but never got paid until, like, we raised money two years later and he was our first hire. But it's really like pulling in whoever you can. I think there's like, you know, there's everyone's grand idea for a launch, which was really our launch number two.
But it's OK to just start somewhere. And I think that's what's really important is you have to try everything. And so that's what we did called emailing to press, sending out product to influencers, even sending out products to friends. I mean, my mom's friends are still some of our best customers, you know, so don't underestimate your closest family and friends and to really help you get out there and spread the word, it's not just about like, you know, a big launch. You can you can make it work both ways. But of course, with the launch of Sesto, all the traditional influencer seating, press podcasts, all the fun stuff, I love doing interviews. I love doing digital and Instagram live and super fun clubhouse. I'm doing my first clubhouse. So it's like there is there's a lot that's happening that I just think there's so much opportunity. Just don't do what everyone else is doing is probably my best advice around that, because there is always a new platform. There's always something new to experiment with. And I think there's just so much opportunity really nowadays.
The total is so much to do.
What do you think is driving your growth right now? What's really working for you when it comes to acquiring new customers?
Yeah, digital is definitely our strongest platform. I think building our community, which was something we really focused on the end of twenty twenty, just really building an organic community online. And then they just they start answering questions for you. They start posting like it's really about authenticity and creating those connections. And then from there it just continues to grow. And sometimes it's very surprising. Like I get really excited when I see someone I don't know posting about the product, which is like totally normal now, but it still excites me. And so I really think it's important to build that strong base and then from there, it really does organically grow. But I think it takes a lot of like feeding and watering and caring for to get at a point where digital kind of starts working for itself. And then, of course, like ads and everything online, I think we have a really unique product. So when people see it, they do get really excited about it and they want to share. So there's even people that will like share our ads. And I'm like, oh, thank you, I love that. But it's really cool just because it's such a unique brand and the products are really different than what's out there. It's easy to share and it's easy to talk about and it's easy to tell people about. And that's really been what has driven the most successful.
I can really see that, and I actually had that same experience before you were booked in to speak on this podcast. I had come across your brand, I think it was you'd won an award for Allure or something like that. And I was it just popped up somewhere as an article. And I was like, this is such a cool brand. And I actually sent it to one of my girlfriends to be like, how cool is this? So it's funny how those kind of things come about. And I can totally see that being something that really works well on social and digital for sure. And take talk. I imagine you great on Tick-Tock.
Yeah. Working on it. Working on it.
I'm so I'm still trying to get to the center part and get rid of my skinny jeans, but like Tick-Tock is like it's getting better.
Why did you go through the name change, why why the re the. Well, not really a reverend, but why the why the big change? And what were the challenges that come with doing that?
Yeah, absolutely. I'm actually really excited about everything that this show is bringing. So looking back at the timeline I talked about a little bit, essentially I launched this very strong, very scrappy with like little to no strategy other than friends and family. And we actually had a very strong lunch under the our brand. But I had no employees. It was just me. And like I said, some friends like that were, you know, just working because they wanted to support me. And I was like, well paid back when I can, you know? And it was great. But the reality of the situation is, is I have this crazy vision for how people are going to rethink their personal care routines. And it does take a lot of money. We have spending on that shampoo and that takes a lot of money. And so there is a lot that I knew I was going to have to turn around and raise capital very quickly. And so with our launching the first product in June two thousand nineteen, I immediately started going out to fundraise and that took longer than I had planned. I think it always does that, especially for female founders. It's very hard to raise capital. Less than two percent of the capital last year was to female founders.
And so I know that's part of why you have this podcast and you're so supportive. And it's amazing because everything helps. So for me, I realized it was going to take a little bit longer. We ended up closing our seed round the end. I think it was like January twenty seven, twenty twenty or something like and then a couple weeks later everything started shutting down due to covid. So it was very hard to even get packaging made. But the silver lining of this is that I was accepted into the fourth accelerate program. So as one of 13 women from around the world to be in this program last year and I had all these amazing bootcamp classes, we went through branding, marketing, retail strategy, PR, you know, all of these things. And I had an amazing mentor and advisors and just got so much advice. And I realized that I really wanted to take this brand global. It was always a vision for me to really see this around the world and be able to share it globally. But I didn't translate as well that four out of this world amazing. It was more fun and I really wanted this more sophisticated brand.
And so where Sesto came in is that it really had more meaning and more alignment with what I thought the brand doing. And it was also limited to haircare. And I have so many crazy plans that don't just include haircare. So Sesto is actually the name comes from sustainability, the US and then the EU is water and French. And so bringing that together, you have this sustainable water story. And that's really what we're about, is just like this clean, concentrated products. And it just made more sense. It felt right. I felt like with launching the conditioner that some people had been waiting a year and a half for a brand refresh and everything just made sense to happen at the same time. And there was so much I wanted to do with it, just felt it felt right. And I think I'd grown up a lot. And I think this fall thousand sixteen, when I named the brand so I knew nothing about how I was doing, it was just for fun. And so it's really just like a more sophisticated version of what I was grown into. And it's really exciting because there's no limitations to what we can do.
Yeah, absolutely. That's such a nice meeting. I really love that.
Was there anything in that process of the name change that you didn't expect and that was a bit harder than you thought it would be?
You know what, no, I think as an entrepreneur, I like change happens for me every day, sometimes every hour. And so I don't expect consistency, I guess, or anything to really faze me anymore. I think change for an entrepreneur is just something that you're always ready for. And so I actually got excited about it. I was really looking forward to kind of like hitting refresh and being able to start over in a sense, but still bring all the good things from our with us. And so, honestly, it's been a really great process and I've really enjoyed it. And our team really enjoyed it, too. Like it was a lot of fun being like, well, what if we change this one thing because we didn't get to do it without it? And it's like, yeah, why not? You know.
Mhm. Yes, totally. And I think also bringing everyone into it to be involved sounds like a really bonding experience for the team and, and to be building this thing together I guess from not from scratch but from a place of new beginnings.
Where is the business today and what does the future look like for you guys? What can you shout about? That's really exciting.
So we are just selling on our website, our shampoo conditioner. The first powdered leather formulas, which are really cool. And so where I see this going for us is like I definitely want to go into retail. I definitely want to go global. So hopefully all those things. And then in terms of haircare, I think it's really important to to like, you know, we're not limited to haircare anymore, but the way that we're positioned right now, I want to compete with these other liquid brands. And so don't expect to just see shampoo and conditioner. We have a lot more that we're working on for concentrated formulas that are super exciting, that have never been done before. So I can't wait to, like, share those and bring those to market and just bring those to more people. And I really see this brand again, just being, you know, some leader for a change in the industry where we can do something and then hopefully other brands won't be afraid to take the risk for other founders. Don't be afraid to start something kind of crazy, you know.
Mm hmm. Gosh, I'm excited to see what comes next and what what else you've been working on.
What advice do you have for women who have a big idea and want to start their own business?
Honestly, just start I think everybody gets so caught up in what if and it's always going to be that you're always going to wonder what is. So just do it like I can imagine if I would have found this any longer. I'm glad I did it as long as I did because I had nothing to lose. And so I think just get started honestly. Start writing things down, start researching, start asking friends, start talking about it. You never know what it's going to turn into. But there's always that fear of getting started and you don't want to sit there and wonder what is forever.
Mm hmm. Absolutely.
We are up to the six quick questions I ask every woman on the show at the end of every episode. So question number one is, what's your why why do you do what you do?
I think this is my favorite question to ask, because I never wonder why I do what I do, you know what I mean? I never wake up in the morning wondering, like, why did I do this? Why did I start this? Why am I doing this job? It's really because I wanted to create change beyond what I was capable of as one person. Like, I felt like, OK, I can make these improvements. I can do this small thing, this small change. But I really wanted to help people do that in their lives and do it at scale and do it in a greater capacity and also make it fun. So really getting people to rethink what their personal care routines look like and feel like and they don't have to be like, I have to wash my hair. Like maybe it's fun to wash your hair now and you're also, like, doing something that's better for the planet. And so I just love the idea that I'm able to do this and more than one shower than my own, you know, a hundred percent love that question.
Number two is, what do you think has been the number one marketing moment that's made your business, pop?
You know, I think from marketing, what I've learned in my background is not in marketing. Like, you know, I'm an engineer by trade and very much have a science background. And what I realized about marketing for us is there's never just one component of something. It takes so many different things, especially when you have a brand that requires education or it's something new, like you need to make sure that you have a blog so people have somewhere to go to get their questions answered. And you need to make sure that you're reaching different audiences on different platforms with different influencers and also sending emails like there's so many different things. I don't think there's just one thing, but there can be something that helps you jumpstart that. Like for the allure of the award was definitely a game changer, because all of a sudden, all these other brands but never want to talk to us, we're like, oh, yeah, let's clav.
And I was like, you know, I was like, I'm a huge fan of that brand.
So it's definitely just like about timing and making sure that you you can capitalize on when you get a good.
Mm. Yeah. That's a good one. That award is really cool. I'm happy. Yeah.
Yeah. That's my first formula. And from my bedroom floor I want to know more about the video and honestly like now there's so much pressure.
So what I love about this came from my final question.
Number three is where do you hang out to get smarter? What are you reading or listening to that would help others if they did the same?
I am very much in my own head, and I like very much an ideas person, and my best thing for kind of getting smarter is for me to sort everything out, which is actually getting away from anything, and especially my phone, my computer. So that means like going for a walk or a run or a hike, just something definitely out of my apartment. I just have to, like, get into a new space so I can kind of like sort out what's going on and and get into a mindset that gets me ready to go. It's really like not for me about watching what other people do, because I feel like that influences you to to kind of like fit in rather than stand out. So I try to get away from every.
Love that question number four is how do you win the day, what are your AM or PM rituals that keep you feeling happy and motivated and successful?
In the morning, for sure, my whole team knows no calls before 10:00 a.m. it is like my rule. I have to have my time in the morning. I have to have my coffee of water with lemon, most recently got a new face and loving my thing and gives me like five minutes to literally just chill in the morning. I'm like, OK, I have to do my new face, sorry. And then I just go through my email or through anything that's really urgent, whether it be like a question after an answer, an email, or maybe it's calling my grandma that day. I just have my time in the morning to do what I need to do. And that is so, so, so important to me in the evening. I definitely take a couple of nights a week to, like, do some distracting activity of sorts, whether it's go get a massage or like do a hard workout. I just need a couple nights a week to kind of like let myself distract because this is a crazy job that I love. But it does get stressful and I need that time as well.
Mm. I want to get onto this new phase business. I have heard really good things. It's great.
Question number five is if you only had a thousand dollars left in your business bank account, where would you spend it.
I would really let our team and our community decide what to do with it. My instinct says that we would donate it and then probably like let our community go on where we would want to put that capital. But I definitely look at it is like it's, you know, the people who made the company's money. So let them choose.
Nice. That's so cool. I love that that's a first on the show. Question number six, last question is, how do you deal with failure? What is your mindset and approach?
I say, bring it on, you know, if you don't fail and you don't take risks. And you don't kind of just see what happens. You're never going to learn, and if you don't learn from failure, then you know that's the problem. The biggest thing is definitely learn from it and let it happen. And I just think that without it, we're never going to innovate or we're never going to push any boundaries. And so I welcome it. You know, I'm sure I'll put out a product eventually. Someone like what? What is this supposed to be? And I'll be like, well, we tried it and it's not good. So don't be afraid to just put it out there. Try saying don't be afraid to fail. It's totally normal. And it it brings good change.
It does, indeed. Kelly, thank you so much for taking the time to be on female strip club today. I'm just so excited for what's coming next and to try your awesome products. Thank you so much.
Hey, it's just me here. Thanks for listening to this amazing episode of the Female Strip Club podcast.