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.