Leadership, validating your product & creating with integrity, with Kinfield’s Nichole Powell

Joining me on the show today is CEO and Founder of Kinfield, Nichole Powell.

Launched in 2019, Kinfield makes Great Essentials for the Great Outdoors—effective, plant-powered skincare and body products made from ingredients that are safe for both people and planet.

They believe in a happier, healthier tomorrow through more time in the great outdoors, and are creating products you actually need to make the most of your time in nature, whether you're in the backcountry or your own backyard.

We’re talking about what makes a sustainable company and how they tackle things like packaging when trying to do better for the planet, Nichole’s 3-step process to validating the idea and her lessons learned along the way being a venture backed, female entrepreneur.

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

Nichole: All the good stuff. So. So. Hi, everyone. My name is Nichole Powell and I am the founder and CEO of Kinfield. We make great essentials for the great outdoors. So we make this put simply. We make clean products that are personal care and skin care and really designed to make it easy and accessible for everyone to get outside and make the most of the great outdoors.

Doone: And I should also say that they all look so beautiful. You're branding and your website and your social media. There's such a vibe going on there.

Thank you. Thank you. Yeah.

Nichole: I remember we actually when we were designing our packaging and I we we were working with this amazing agency and we were they had pulled the first thing they usually do when you're when you're thinking about your brand and how you want it to show up as you pull all of the other brands that are sort of similar on the market. And I just I remember looking at them and saying, no, clipart of mosquitoes.

Nichole: I don't want I really I was like, please, like, we can make a repellent that doesn't kill, but thank you.

Nichole: We we really put a lot of love into the packaging and thinking about how the visual identity would show up. And so thank you for that.

I totally feel it. I totally feel it.

Ok, I want to go back to life before Kenfield. What were you doing? What kind of got you interested in the outdoors space? Why these kind of products? What was life like before.

Yeah. So why these products actually kind of take you all the way back. So I grew up in Minnesota, which is, you know, I think a very outdoorsy state. And my family was super outdoorsy. So I grew up mountain bike racing and backpacking and camping and playing in our backyard. And that was really kind of all I knew.

And I at the time growing up, I didn't know what entrepreneurship was. That wasn't something that I had access to. You know, I think my my my parents have very traditional careers. And so when I was thinking about, like a five year plan, all I really knew was that I wanted to go explore and be elsewhere.

I want to go to New York. I want to go to California. My parents, of course, were very supportive. They said, you can go whatever you want with your education.

And so I certainly did. And after graduating school, I actually ended up going out to California and I had looked at a bunch of different careers after graduation and ended up starting work with a rotational program with Into It, which is a large tech company based out of San Francisco.

And while I fairly quickly realized that the work that I was doing there was not necessarily what was getting me out of bed in the morning, it did have a really critical step in the journey, which was introduced me to startup culture within the Bay Area. There's a really, really. Healthy ecosystem there around startups and entrepreneurship, and, you know, you really can only create what you can imagine, and it wasn't until there that my eyes were really open to this idea of, oh, you can you can have an idea and do more than just kind of like wax poetic about it with your friends.

You can do something about it. So I ended up living into it.

I took about six months out to travel. I was doing copywriting and content creation for brands while I was traveling. And then when I got back to the Bay Area, at that point, I knew I understood about myself by that point that I really love to create. I really love to be in that place where someone's like, we have a problem. We have no idea how to solve it. Can you just figure out how to get started? And I loved that energy. And so I ended up wanting to then go join another thread because I had not the faintest idea how one started a startup.

So I was like, well, I'll go to a startup and I'll learn from there. And then eventually I'll figure my own thing out.

And thankfully, I ended up meeting the founders of Modern Citizen, which is a women's fashion e-commerce company. They are very intentionally wanted to go to a female led startup. I very intentionally wanted to go to a really early company and they had just gotten started and I ended up joining them as their first full time hire. And that was really my trial by fire into the startup world.

And I think it's really, to their credit as leaders that I did work with them for three years and still wanted to start my own company by the end of it, because you can certainly it's not for everyone.

There's a lot of task switching and blue sky, which can be really energizing, but it can also be really overwhelming. And so I was working with Modern Citizen and having the time of my life getting to build that community and build that brand and company with them. And as ideas, I think tend to do they tend to find you.

And I was getting ready to take a group of friends camping in Yosemite, packing for this trip, realized that all of my skin care and beauty, even home cleaning products, had become these beautifully, sustainably sourced, beautifully made values, driven brands and the outdoor products that I was bringing on my trip, the repellent that dyed lime green aloe gel, my sunblock, they were all the exact same brands that I remember growing up with. And I was looking at them, packing them and going, why am I still using the same products that I remember from when I was eight years old? Surely there should have been some innovation in the space by now and there wasn't.

And really the options I talked to a lot of friends and did about six months of research, but. The options that were on the market were either the kind of legacy incumbent brands or these sort of like home grown, often ineffective alternatives which were made with the best of intentions but weren't put through the same rigor that just in terms of efficacy testing and the kind of regulatory controls that we've gone through now, that really, I think a product into a market that you can trust. And so that was really kind of where it got started was, well, can we make better products and and build a brand, too, around the way that most people get outdoors today, which is to say a little bit less of the kind of machismo you can track to the top of Mount Everest with this product and and really more sell around.

Can we make you something that you're it makes you excited to just get in your own backyard or that you could take with you on a day hike and really make the kind of return, the joy of the outdoors to the brands that are trying to get people outside.

Yeah, totally. I'm wondering why people hadn't innovated in that space.

Why was it because it was too hot or because it wasn't interesting or I'm trying to understand what was the reason then?

Yeah, it's a good question and one I've thought about a lot. I think it's a combination of, you know, it is hard, certainly to make something new. We spent a year and a half. So, for example, our repellent product, which is one of our kind of products that we're the best known for, called Golden Hour, Golden Hour, it took us a year and a half to formulate. It's made with a strain of citronella that I actually sourced personally in Indonesia. My first thing when I launched the company, and I will say this is hideously backwards.

And I know that at the time I didn't know how to how to make a product.

But what I did know was that our products started with better ingredients. And the only time that I had used a non DEET repellent that had worked was when I was traveling in Indonesia. And so I returned to the theme of I was like, great, how do I make that?

And you had gone back and did that work to source that. But it was a long process to be able to and it was kind of following those breadcrumbs of, OK, well, I used a natural alternative that worked once.

Let's go find that. Why did that one work?

And it was it was a lot of a lot of breadcrumbs. At one point in the process, I flew to Nebraska to go meet with the USDA researcher who is was a fantastic help in my education, in the repellant process and space, and is still someone that where I'm in touch with today and I deeply admire. But I think a lot of it is that you see brands and companies trying to innovate, but just not having the access that I had in terms of being able to go and find those natural natural ingredients that would perform better than their other counterparts. And I think a lot of larger legacy brands don't necessarily have the like either maybe the resources or the desire to innovate. Why? Why cannibalize your own space? It's working.

Hmm, yeah, totally. Gosh, that's so interesting and it must have been such an exciting adventure to be like, cool, I'm going to go out here and find some citronella, like, where do I find this?

Oh, my parents thought I had lost it.

I remember I left modern cities and quite literally, the first thing that I did was fly to Indonesia. And I just remember calling my family and saying, OK, I quit my job and I'm going to go to Indonesia and I'm going to go surfing. I'm going to go source the citronella. People were just floored, to their credit, very supportive, but they definitely were taking a leap of faith. And to be fair, I was taking a leap of faith with myself, too. So, yeah, but but innovation has to come from from taking risks and taking the leap. So.

Oh, totally, just a side note, I moved to Bali last year for six months and I just had the best time of my life. So incredible. Indonesian people, Balinese people, rather, just so beautiful. Such a special place. Very cool. It is lucky you getting to go there.

I know. I feel like I feel like I've secretly hacked something, something in the life, the life life continuum where I now have a reason to be able to go back to that magical place frequently. Oh, yes.

Yes, 100 percent. I love that. OK, so you have the idea you've kind of tracked down the citronella, which is one of your key ingredients. How do you then go from validating the idea to being like, OK, I'm actually going to start a business and like turn this into a thing?

It's a good question, so I as I said earlier, you know, I had known for a long time that I liked being in the space of having of building something from scratch. And it took me a while to land on the idea that was canefields. And every idea that I had, I would sort of vet it against three things. So I would say, is this something that I am deeply passionate about? Is this when you're starting a startup and launching into a company, if all goes well, you're going to be doing that for many, many years, longer than most most jobs. Right. So ideally, you're if you're thinking about it, is this something you want to be thinking about, talking about for the next seven to 10 years at a minimum? And then I also wanted to look and see, is there a market for this?

So one of the examples I was given once was you can be the best trombone oil maker in the world, but what is the market for trombone oil? Do you need that? Probably not.

And what I was looking at with a cane field was that we knew that more and more people are spending time outdoors. We also know that eighty seven percent of consumers want cleaner products for their personal care, skin care. And so the combination of those two things, I was looking at that and going, well, there's not a clean, effective alternative to these conventional goods, but we know that consumers want it. So I knew that there was a market there and the outdoor market is the thirty one billion dollar business. So we knew that there was an ample opportunity. And then the last question there is, do I need to be the person to build this so it doesn't matter if you're passionate, doesn't matter if there's a market there. If any number of people could do this, why you? And so for me, I was looking at it. I knew that these were products that I wanted. I had grown up using these kinds of products. I grown up in the outdoors. I was always the person who was taking my friends camping and wanting to introduce more people to real health benefits that come with time outdoors. And and I had the combination of having the startup experience I during my time at modern cities and had built an incredible network of other female founders, female businesses. And I really felt like I had the support system that I needed to be able to build this. And I also know that I have the tenacity of a bulldog and I will be anything through. And so it got to the point where I was like, I have to be this person. But once you, I think, may choose to make that commitment, then from there it's just a matter of asking the questions and you're taking it one day at a time.

And thirdly, gosh, it's just such a big adventure to embark on, and I'm wondering how you went from going and exploring Indonesia and finding someone who can sell you citronella and then is it you being like, OK, now I need to go back to the US and find a lab and get them to ship the Centinela over there?

Or do you then produce it in Indonesia? How do you figure out those blocks that are key to building the foundation of a brand?

A great question. So definitely wanted to start with a product I knew before anything else. Building the brand, building the website. We had to have a product that was better than anything else out there. So I initially thought that this was something that I could formulate in my kitchen.

I was wrong, but I did so to my credit to my roommate at the time who she was very patient. She'd come home and there'd be a slew of everything all over the kitchen counters. But I quickly realized that that was not going to work and was not going to create a product that, again, could stand up to the market.