Rowan Founder Louisa Schneider shares how she’s reinventing a DTC ear piercing company
Joining me on the show today is Louisa Serene Schneider, Founder of Rowan.
Founded by Louisa in 2019, Rowan believes that ear piercing is a milestone that deserves to be honored and celebrated. Rowan is changing the ear piercing experience to provide top quality service right at your doorstep with safe piercings that are performed by licensed nurses and hypoallergenic earrings made from premium materials.
Rowan’s mission is to empower and build self confidence through safe experience, self expression and community.
In this episode we cover her path to the genius idea, why she decided to merge 3 businesses models into one and how word of mouth Is the backbone of the company’s success.
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
So my name is Louisa Schneider, mother of three kids um and hardworking entrepreneur started Rowan, which is um, a company that is improving the milestone of your piercing by prioritizing safety. So we are the only company that works exclusively with licensed nurses to provide the safest ear piercing experience available.
00:03:38 And we also make and sell our own designed hypoallergenic earrings so that if you get around piercing or if you get pierced somewhere else you can wear earrings that you know are safe that will not bother your ears so gosh I just love it. I think back of like oh my I mean I'm not sure if you can see but I have about eight ear piercings in my ears and I have so many stories from my childhood and my life of getting these done or whether I did it myself um Just imagine there are so many people who also you know have these experiences so I want to go back to your life before you started rowing to to talk about what got you thinking about disrupting the ear piercing space in in the first place. Yeah great question. So I've always wanted to have a business, I think being an entrepreneur is something that has always fascinated me and I've always thought maybe there's a better way of of doing yoga clothing, maybe there's a better way of weighing myself, I've had a lot of ideas for businesses but the idea for Rohan is one that kept me up at night, I could not stop thinking about it at the time, I was working for a hedge fund and we were covering malls And mall-based retailers and Claire's which is the leading provider of your piercing currently today um they do a little less than $1.5 billion dollars a year in sales and they're in pretty much every class B and C.
00:05:06 Mall in America and around the world. Um And so we were studying malls and how they were struggling and yet this one retailer Claire's was kind of bucking the trend so to speak because you cannot get an ear piercing on amazon, you actually need to go and have it done. And so it was interesting because even though no one was really going to these malls, families were going to these malls, they were going to Claire's and when my daughter was born this is about six years ago now I really wanted to find a provider that would prioritize safety. And so my hope is that my pediatrician or friends pediatrician locally might offer ear piercing and I called a lot of people and and I couldn't find anyone to help us. And my family is a big family from the south and all doctors and nurses and all my aunts who are nurses had at some point in their career, pierced ears if they worked at the pediatrician's office sometimes in an urgent care setting. But they were very comfortable with the procedure.
00:06:10 Um Compared to so many of the things that they do on a daily basis, it's relatively straightforward but a tremendous amount of diligence around the safety and sterility aspect that for them is second nature as nurses and then of course bedside manner anxiety both for person getting pierced and whoever might be there to support them being a parent or a friend. All of that. I felt like was really important for me so that my daughter and I would have a really positive experience. Um, and when I realized that that didn't exist, I was a little bit shocked to be honest because when you, when you think about milestones that you remember and you just talked about remembering many of your piercings, probably all of them. And you know, a lot of cultures pierce right after the first detach vaccine. So they pierce at birth. So maybe the girl doesn't remember her piercing, but she knows that it was a momentous, um, an important cultural event for her family. Um, and her, her family certainly remembers it for all of these people, you know, we deserve something that's really safe.
00:07:16 So, but I was just amazed at something that's still widespread that most, most women and many, many men experience in their life had not been updated to be modern and that there wasn't an opportunity to marry safety and celebration at any offering. So you could go to the mall and you could have sort of a fun time and it would be full of glitter or you can go to the doctor's office and it might might feel like going to get a vaccine, which is just not that fun right? And as a mom of young kids, I know that when my Children drive up to the pediatrician's office, it's, it's an immediate, oh no, are we going to get a shot? Like please don't let that happen. And so that's not what I wanted either really. Um and I think this is where the idea for rowan was born and um it's evolved from there. We've been working on the business night and day for four years and um we are growing uh and the receptivity and um the stories that we get on a daily basis are so inspiring.
00:08:18 Yeah, yeah, I mean I totally get it and and when you're explaining, you know that whole situation, I'm like, yes, totally get it makes total sense. Um and in hindsight you can see that, but at the time when you have the idea, how are you going about validating this idea? Because obviously it sounds like there are still a lot of moving parts and a lot of hurdles that you did have to solve to bring the business to life. So what were you doing to get that validation on the idea? So I'm at heart a research analyst and so for me spending a tremendous amount of time with data and um and that was also listening to stories talking to friends, reaching out to people, trying to understand what people's preferences were, what their experience, experiences had been, all of that was really important in terms of thinking through is this a good idea. It was something I really wanted to dedicate my own personal resources to and certainly my time. Um and I got more and more conviction with with each person that I spoke to and um part of the research revealed for me that a very high percentage relative to other procedures of your piercings have some sort of a negative outcome, but frequently that negative outcome actually isn't a result of the piercing itself, but it is a result of what earrings um someone chooses to wear when their ears are still healing.
00:09:45 And part of the problem there is that were so eager to change them out and put in something cute, but we forget to double check that that earring isn't full of a metal that might actually cause us to be irritated or have an infection. And oftentimes similar to, I don't know if you were context, but when you get context, um you have to go to the doctor and they teach you how to put them in and they teach you how to wear them. And I think frequently there's sort of a lack of of education around best protocol and best practices for wearing earrings. And so a lot of young girls will actually push an earring back into the back of their ear when it's healing and that back can actually get embedded into the ear, it can grow over the ear because um no one has ever told them that there needs to be a little bit of space between the earring back and the ear so that air can flow and circulate and that the year can heal without having that contact. And so a lot of things there in terms of after care and in terms of aftercare products became really prominent.
00:10:52 So for me I did not want to start a piercing company unless I was also going to be able to bring also the products that would then result in a really positive outcome for a great healing experience. So I was really diligent seeing two businesses at once which made it even harder. But I knew that I wanted to find a really talented jeweler who had been designing for a long time who had deep relationships so that we could um really be very vertically integrated and own the design and on the manufacturing and I could put our Rohan stamp on the back of every hearing and know that that hearing is hypoallergenic and so we worked on that and we decided to launch ruin with earrings that were ala carte. So you could buy one earring but you could also buy earrings in a subscription form and we launched that really in size last year and our customers love Rohan and they are staying with us and our metrics in terms of subscription are incredible there exceeding all of our expectations because um these boxes also have mindfulness content in them that corresponds to the symbol of the box.
00:12:08 There are really unique gift and the earrings are our precious metals so you can keep them forever. So I think what we started off with was this um product that was hypoallergenic and we could put our stamp of approval on it, so to speak. Um and then we also um decided to start locally and understand if there would be receptivity and desire for a nurse to pierce ears and rather than putting forth the significant resources that are required to build a stand alone store on day one, we started with a concierge style model. So our nurses were able to come to your home and pierce years and we started in Westchester and in new york city and right out of the gates, we had tremendous demand for what we were doing, this would be for birthday parties or you know, grandparents wanted to participate or dad wanted to be there and if they had gone to the mall he probably wouldn't have gone, but if it was done at home he was there and invariably each time he said, wow, I would have missed this and I am so grateful that I was here for this moment.
00:13:17 So that was just constant um again, just affirmation that we had something special um over the summer with covid tremendous demand for safety. Um this flight to safety and preference for safety and I really do think that um for our generation and for anyone really, that's, that's going through all of this, there will be an imprint of preference for safety going forward when we think about services and so we saw demand for our nurses for at home, but we also decided to be proactive and we opened a store in august on the Upper East side um and that's gone tremendously well. Um and we decided to open on 3rd Avenue, so we're not um you know on the Pasha Street, so to speak, but we're where our families are. Um we're near schools and that's been really great for us. It was a really good decision, wow and they look so great. I've had a bit of a peek at what they looked like. Very fun, very inviting.
00:14:20 I want to kind of start back a little bit further further back when you were just getting, you know into that launch phase and just finding your first nurses that you were working with and when you were kind of in that smaller phase of building, how are you getting nurses interested and how are you finding them to come onboard and join in what you were doing? Yeah. So I think this has been a part of Rohan that um you know, sometimes when you start a business you have a good idea and then there's gonna be some luck, a lot of luck and sometimes it's a matter of, okay, you know, how does the landscape look and does that actually work for your business model or not, but it's nothing that you can't necessarily control. So I think for us what's really interesting about about nurses is that they're highly skilled and they're highly trained and yet they work um and what is probably the most hierarchical structure that exists which is hospitals. And so very frequently they are um closer to the bottom of that hierarchy.
00:15:22 Um And oftentimes they are not given the most appetizing of work And they don't have a lot of flexibility with their schedules. So typically the shifts are 10 or 12 hour shifts and so you know, you could couple all that together, years of professional training, real expertise, something to say that matters, but oftentimes not appreciated. And so I think what Farran nurses have always been um the heroes of our business um safety has been a part of the DNA since day one and nurses love the fact that we appreciate them and that for our customers, nurses really are the expert and so they really enjoy doing this. It's a positive celebration and for them they are therefore able to um to come in and perform something that's happy and um we we've made sure to commentate them really really well so that I think is incredibly important and what ended up happening is that most of our nurses have come to us through referral.
00:16:34 Okay, so we have just a network of people that we know and have worked with in the past and I worked at Columbia University and so had a friend who is a professor of nursing there um and she was able to refer a lot of local nurses that she had worked with in the past or continue to work with um and they actually pierce at the pediatrician's office um in Connecticut and so they had years of piercing experience, they all appeared thousands of years, but they were eager to step out and do it as part of Rohan, they love the brand, they love the mission, they love the products and so this is a nice way for them to supplement their income on the weekends or in the evenings when um our customers wanted to get a piercing. So it actually has worked out really really well. Yeah, gosh, it just sounds so special. I really love it in that beginning phase when you know you were growing through having different nurses on board and you have the jury and getting kind of started how were you funding the business up until that point?
00:17:36 And did it require a lot of startup capital? So initially and I'm extremely grateful for this. Um I had saved money, I'm probably older than a lot of founders um and also um you know, my husband was very supportive, both from a time standpoint and from a resources standpoint so that we were able to put forward some of the initial capital to get a proof of concept off the ground and then in my work at Columbia University and um and in various roles in finance, I had met people and worked with people who believed in me and they were very excited to support what I was doing. They also like the business model and the business idea. And so it was really initially friends and family. Um and very quickly we did have an M. V. P. That made a lot of sense and I think it was very clear that you know, there's really quite fragmented market aside from this one player who was actually going through bankruptcy process when I was sort of talking about Rohan.
00:18:46 So um the idea made a lot of sense to some really, really smart people and you know, fundraising is really challenging. I know there are some people that say it was a breeze and I just did it in two seconds. I think um smart investors want to do a lot of due diligence and it takes time and you really do have to think through all aspects of the business and be willing to go back and gather more data for them and um ask questions of yourself for the business that you may not have. Um, but I think ultimately if you just are persistent and you continue to do the work and get good results, you will find investors that believe in the idea and and you and that really is important having the funds to build up the brand to hire red antler. We've got to work directly with Emily who is co founder of red antler. She's incredible and just having their help envision as we were thinking about even our name um, which happens to be the county in north Carolina where my whole family is from.
00:19:52 Um, but it's also a name that really boys and girls are named Rohan. Um, and then there's also symbolic meaning around the name, but working with them was one of the most incredible experiences certainly in the early days of building the business and that required a good amount of capital and I would absolutely do it again. But we did need the backing of real investors in order to be able to do that. Did you? And when you did that was that, you know, at the very beginning, what year are we talking? Did you do the M. V. P. First and then you went into the branding. So we did the m. v. p. first and we had, we had about 50 subscription box customers and we've done about as many year piercings and we had really tracked the data and so I would say if you're starting a business You could have a cohort of as small as 50 but you really want to track the data, know everything about each one of those customers ask all kinds of questions and the more data that you have and the more you can talk in percentage terms etcetera and you do have an idea of what this might look like if you were able to expand it to a much wider group of people.
00:21:04 Um that's really compelling. Got it, got it. So you had that M. V. P. Then you did your friends and family around to kind of work on the branding launch, you know Large on a larger scale and then since then you've also raised around where I think I read it was around $4 million dollars since then. So we did, we did a seed round in two in two phases. So in two tranches Where um we raised four million over two rounds and really it was okay, let's hit these milestones of revenue and a number of subscribers and a number of piercings and number of nurses and if we can do that then we will raise more, which is what we did. And then in september of this year we raised a bridge financing round to to fund a very specific growth initiative with the large retail partner. And so we did that in september of this year and you know, continuing to move forward in that direction. So wow, that sounds exciting, Can you share anything about that?
00:22:07 Yeah, I mean it's it's on our website um and it's on their website but we are absolutely delighted to be working with target and we have gone live in a good number of stores and we are building out more studio in stores and the experience is going really, really well there a phenomenal partner, Gosh, that is so cool. I was actually gonna ask you this before because it might be a really stupid question, but when you look at like who your competitors are is Claire's a competitor because they're in malls and but now I guess you are kind of going into malls with Targets. Are they considered a competitor or are they in a different space to you? I think that we are in a way reinventing the space and so we are the only pure seeing the company that prioritizes safety science. Everything that we're doing is based on actual medical research. So we've had doctors and professors of medicine from Harvard Med school that have helped us in reading every journal that's been written or every publication that's been written on your piercing and we're making sure that all of our decisions are based on that.
00:23:21 So there's a lot of lure out there about the best way to pierce an ear or you know, a lot of that is not based on science, but it's based on, you know, can you sell an expensive earring to be honest. And so I think in a way we're really reinventing the space by bringing medical professionals and into the most important role, which is the piercing role for us. And so I would say it's not necessarily competition, but reinventing the space and I think it's important for us to stay. I think we we don't do every kind of piercing, we we don't, we first of all we don't pierce anything but an ear. So we often get asked do you do noses or can I get my belly button pierced? We do not do that and we also really focus on the lobe and the most easily accessible part of the outer helix of the year. There are really thick parts of the cartilage or inner parts of the ear and rowan doesn't do that.
00:24:27 And I think there are other um piercing options that are probably better suited to do it, we don't do that. Gosh, I have the biggest scar from my, I think it's called the context which is like straight through your ear and Bloody Hill, it was a nightmare, total nightmare. You're 100% right. Our amazing head of our nurse network, she's head of community and um I had worked with her in the past and was so thrilled when she decided to come on and join us and she's had tons of piercings and she's gone to every type of piercing option that exists. And recently she went somewhere and had her con which pierced and it became terribly infected. She'd never had a problem before, but I think part of it is just there are parts of the ear that are more challenging than others and we we just have chosen not to pursue those. So sounds like a great decision, I fast forward a little bit and I've jumped all over with, you know, when you were doing your fundraising and that kind of thing, but I want to go back to marketing and start at the beginning to find out, you know, what you were doing to attract people towards the brand and to get the word out there, especially because obviously your customer is a young girl or a teenager, but the buyer is obviously a parent or someone else.
00:25:45 So you've got a market to two different demographics. Um and I'm really interested to know how you were launching and reaching, you know, your target parent or older person. Yeah, that's a great question. One thing that we found to be really compelling about your piercing is that it is something where word of mouth goes a really long way. Typically, parents are going to do a bit of research, but typically it doesn't extend beyond calling their friend or their parent or their sister and saying, hey, where did you take jane? And did you like was it safe? Are they professionals? Um and did you have a good outcome and if you can check all of those boxes, it is typically the type of procedure and milestone where that level of research will suffice. Oftentimes there's some reading that goes into it from a parent's standpoint, they want to understand outcomes. They may even reach out to us directly to ask how we peers and why we pierce that way.
00:26:50 But so what we found is that free options like facebook moms groups and next door have been phenomenal ways for us to talk about our business and proactively answer questions that are getting asked every day on those forums. We've been really active there. We've also worked with influencers big and small and what we found is that people are pretty savvy today and if someone's getting paid a lot of money to post something on instagram, it's not as compelling anymore as if they are more authentic because they're not as big and so local influencers have been tremendous for us. So that's on instagram. We've also used Pinterest, Tiktok has been interesting and I think, you know, we'll continue to explore all of those avenues, but a lot of it is word of mouth and our nurses are amazing and they are our best Brandon ambassadors. Oftentimes their moms, their teachers, they work in schools, they work in hospitals. Um, and they have, um, really this authority that people listen to because they're medical professionals to totally was there a few kind of moments within the last few years where it felt like they were the tipping points, You know, something happened in your marketing that was a really like step change and leapt you ahead.
00:28:13 Yeah, I mean, I think certainly hitting certain milestones with our retail partner has been absolutely incredible. We did have an influencer post for us where the, the response was so tremendous in the early days that we knew we had something special and the feedback from customers when they were receiving our products and just not canceling. So they would make a three month commitment to us and then almost all of them are still with us 13 months later. That's incredible. And the feedback is my granddaughter still wants to receive this and I've now gifted it to all of my other granddaughters and that is when, you know you have something special I think so often it comes from an individual story, you know, we've had In the past week we had a dad of an 11 year old, get his ear pierced with a heart stud because His daughter was scared and she was 11 and he wanted to show it didn't hurt. So yeah, and that photo is just unbelievable of the two of them and it's bonding moment that they'll have forever.
00:29:20Edit Oh my goodness, we pierced a baby's ears where the parents had gone on to other families, they had gotten divorced. So the girl wasn't a newborn but she was very young and the families put aside their differences and came together to be there for her ear piercing and the nurse had come from um a blended family as well. And so for her also it's really special moment and then um in one of our Kansas city studios last week we pierced the 94 year old years, she came in and said she wanted bling and she got it. And so I think, you know, it's these moments of joy, especially in a time like this where you hear those stories and you feel really good about what you're doing and you know, like people are getting pierced in the height of covid, they're getting pierced during a recession. Um, they're getting pierced when the world is awesome, but it's a pretty predictable thing and if we can do it better than I feel like we're doing something great, totally.
00:30:23 Gosh, that sounds just like such an uplift. Especially for 2020. You know when you say you're talking about your retail partner target, how did that come about? Uh, this, you know, this is one of those things where I gotta linked in and for a period of days I thought it was not real because you know, when you're early on your days, you want anyone to listen to you and believe and then when someone from target reaches out to you, you think that can't be real. But after a lot of calls and a lot of meetings and a lot of trips, um, it's an amazing partnership. So yeah, Gosh, that is so cool, Congratulations. Thank you. What advice do you have for women who have a big idea and want to start their own business. I think that the biggest piece of advice that I would give is that you know, as long as you just keep at it and you believe in it and it brings you happiness then you have something special and you will find success.
00:31:34 And I think that the risk is in thinking that in a short period of time, um you have this huge, tremendous success um or that everyone is going to see what you see and so um really the ability to hear others feedback and not get discouraged by it. Um but also be humble enough to maybe make some edits or some changes. That is really, really critical. Um I think just, you know, going out and building networks and focusing on both men and women as potential sources of just, you know, positive reinforcement or investment is great. Um but testing and being willing to make mistakes. I think women are um we're typically really good communicators. Um and it's been my experience that sometimes we are less willing to take risks.
00:32:39 Now, these are huge stereotypes, but as having been a traitor and working on Wall Street, that was often the feedback Louisa, you know, you need to swear more and you need to, you know, take bigger investments and be willing to to lose it all because that's the only way you're gonna make everything that's not, that's not how I come at this. I really do think about making sure that at the unit level Rohan can be profitable but I think that and so I would not ever say to go against something that's that important to you that's very important to me. But I think just being willing to take risks and not knowing everything so you know don't limit yourself to saying I have the answer to everything and therefore I can move forward. You can move forward even if there's a lot of unknown um as long as you're willing to listen and keep your ear to the ground and know that you know maybe you're going to go down the wrong path but it's not the end of the world just keep going so amazing thank you. We are up to the six quick questions part of the episode, a few of them we might have touched on already but we're going to go through them anyway because I love this part Question number one is what's your why?
00:33:53 So I, you know I think that this whole notion of you know what are you gonna do with your one precious life and you know you look at yourself in the mirror every day and you say like okay I'm pretty lucky I get the the ability to decide what I'm doing and um so I think for me it is am I doing something that's making a difference. Um and am I taking, Even if it's 30 seconds of that day to consciously appreciate the opportunity that I have. so for me, you know in building Rowan and then sticking to it every day, I just feel a tremendous sense of gratitude and that really gets me through the hard times because I do feel very, very lucky. There are so many people on this planet who can't choose what they're going to do every day and and and it's probably not fun and so even though there are days that are really hard and really stressful, like on the whole, I feel tremendously fortunate, it's amazing Question.
00:34:57 Number two is what do you think has been the number one marketing moment that's made your business pop? Um Number one, you know, it has to be in launching with a retail partner like target I think, but I would also say in starting our own new york city studio, I mean there's tremendous just visibility there and um and that's probably it. Yeah, amazing Question # three is where do you hang out to get smarter? What do you read? What podcasts do you listen to? What newsletters do you subscribe to? So um I am an avid reader of the Wall Street Journal, I read it every day and have since I started an investment banking in 2000 and I read a lot of the the emails that come from the various venture and tech publications. Um I like the economist.
00:36:01 Um I I love Bernie Brown, I don't know if you're familiar with her, love her, I love her academic, but really positive approach to leadership and she's just incredible. Um, and I like to to see what other entrepreneurs are doing as well. So huge fan of Elon musk. I love his, you know, ability to have not one but multiple businesses that are changing the world for better and he's doing things that people said could never be done and he's doing them. And to that for me is a huge source of inspiration, totally. Gosh, he is just a weapon. It's unbelievable. Yeah, incredible. I mean we were talking last night about how the market is valuing every Tesla sold, which is in the millions of dollars, even though you can buy a Tesla for like $50,000 versus GMC, you know, for each car sold, It's being valued at around $10,000. So there's just this massive belief in what Tesla is building and how much bigger it is than just a car company and people are willing to pay for that And it's fascinating.
00:37:07 Yeah, really fascinating question number four is how do you win the day? What are you doing in your AM PM rituals that keep you feeling successful and motivated and productive and happy. Great. Um, I love yoga. So try to practice every day, even if it's like, you know, five sonny's and five son bees and I just do it in my room and then I can hop on our morning call, which is also part of our morning routine now that we've been working remotely for almost a year, which seems impossible. The ability to connect through zoom has made us being able to continue to grow and build a team possible. So I'm really thankful for that. Our morning call is, is wonderful. We try to keep it to 15 minutes. Um, we have different things that we discussed on different days, but you know, the ability to see everyone on my team, check in, see how they're doing, make sure they're healthy during this time has has been awesome. And then at the end of the day, uh, you know, we didn't do this before because my husband are both commuting into the city and sometimes we wouldn't even see our kids every day.
00:38:18 You know that's the truth, but now we do try to have a family dinner every night and that has been awesome. So not every day, but when we do it, even if it's a half hour, it's a nice break and then I can focus on family. Yeah, I love that Question. Number five is if you only had $1,000 left in your business bank account, where would you spend it? So our business is based on nurses. So I would, I would focus it on nurses and on materials for piercing because um if we, if we do that fundamental part of the business, well then um, that automatically generates demand for our products and it's it's wonderful because we do not have to spend um what would otherwise have to spend to get that customer totally. And last question question # six is how do you deal with failure? And that can be around a personal experience or just your general mindset and approach? So I think once you get to be my age, you know you've experienced failure in lots of ways, you know I had a very late stage loss um when I was pregnant between my 2nd and 3rd child and I have tried to start other businesses and they haven't worked um so lots of things, I think it makes you more humble, more appreciative, you start to see other people as the same as you versus as different, which I think is really, really critical um to being able to relate to people and to do well, um but for me I think it's just, you know, it's it's being grateful, it's gratitude, I mean that that is what gets you through failure and then um one of my bosses really early on said, you know, no is just the start of a conversation, it's in no way the end of the conversation and if you can embrace that in a way that's um that's compelling, then I think you're able to turn what might be perceived as failure into the past to success.