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How Priscilla Tsai solved her own skin problems by developing a natural skincare line with COCOKIND

Joining me on the show today is Priscilla Tsai, Founder of COCOKIND.


COCOKIND is a clean, conscious, and accessible skincare brand, dedicated to providing natural products at an accessible price.


After years of using severe prescription acne treatments, Priscilla realized that traditional approaches to fighting skin concerns were unsustainable, unhealthy, and stigmatizing. Instead, she wanted to find a solution that would create long-term yet gentle results for her skin, mind, and body.


This is her story of leaving Wall Street to pursue a career in wellness, how she stays ahead of the game in a saturated market and her advice for women who have a big idea.


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


00:02:24

So I'm Priscilla's, I'm the founder and CEO of skincare company out in the san Francisco called Cocokind. We are cream conscious and affordable skincare brands. We sell primarily direct to consumer with national distribution at whole foods and Target as well. But I've been in the game for a little over five years now.

00:03:27 And yes, it's been quite quite the ride and I'm excited to talk about today quite the journey. I'm super excited to dig into it and here kind of the evolution of where things were when you began and where they are now today especially obviously during, well are we during? Yeah, still during the pandemic. Really very much still in it definitely, unfortunately. Yeah, unfortunately gosh can't wait for it to be over. I love to start by rewinding to life before you started the business to find out what you're up to and what kind of inspired you to actually get started down the entrepreneurial path. Yeah totally. Um so I grew up, I always like to like take it way back. So I grew up in michigan just a suburb and michigan and my mom is a small business owner, she um and my dad both immigrated from Taiwan and they met at Ohio State University and my dad got a job in michigan and so she came with him and she ended up starting as a clerk at this company that was seemingly kind of random and they distribute like industrial tools to other distributors, so she started working on that company and Long story short like eight years later ended up buying it from the owner and she's run that business for 25 years now and so I grew up going to our office and you know kind of helping us stuffing flyers, like seeing very much a small business work but work well, so I kind of knew that that there was this idea that I had that like I could do my own thing one day and and I felt very motivating for me and so I kind of had that in the back of my head um but I went to school at penn and I studied finance and accounting and you know as people do when you go to penn and you study those majors, you end up going into finance and um you know working at investment banks after school, so I moved to new york after school um but I was always like a little bit of a hustler like you know, I would have liked to internships in one summer and just to be worked out, worked like all the time.

00:05:40 Um I loved having like working jobs more than I did being in school like being in a classroom just like was not for me and I would like literally go to new york every friday to intern or do whatever I could to work and it was just like so excited at the prospect of working and so I ended up working in finance and before I left to start cobalt mine, I was at jp morgan and I covered stocks and equity research department and covered food and food retail stocks and was very interested in like the consumer industry generally but um was taking it for more of like the finance angle but then I realized like yeah I just really want, I'm so inspired by like the consumer industry, I think there's so much to be done in terms of like transparency and you know, kind of showing people how business works and behind the scenes and how their products are made and, and so that was always like kind of like a passion of mine and something that I had known that like, okay, that's probably very likely one day that will start a consumer company and then, you know, the side note which became like the main story, but um in terms of my skin, I really struggled with skincare and I had hormonal cystic acne had been to, you know, dermatologists and I was just on the wrong prescription.

00:07:02 Um I was on like really harsh prescriptions that like tore my skin apart every single day and made it so red and I was on antibiotics for three years, I was, you know, I went on birth control just for my acne and yeah, just like in that process of taking all that medication just ended up really having some stomach issues actually. And because I didn't realize that like taking antibiotics every day for three years was, you know, potentially harmful for my gut and that is now very widely known, but back then it was a very common treatment for correct me. So I started having some stomach issues and then I was like, not only that like everyday I would wake up and I would put on moisturizer Ceta Phil and my face would stink so much because it would have been so sensitized from the prescriptions that would turn red and my eyes would water and it was just like a terrible process every day. I would wait for my skin to to not be read like through a bunch of makeup on my face um and yeah, it's just like a terrible situation of feeling like I needed to cover myself up in my skin every single day in order to walk out the door and I always did that.

00:08:15 And so um there was this kind of just like this misery in my skincare journey where I would, you know, pay whatever I could for services for products for any recommendations to help my skin, I felt extremely insecure about it when I go to like daytime parties in college or after college because I felt like it just, my skin was like so highlighted. Um and so there was that separate, you know, kind of journey for me until I had started to cook more and more holistically and just look into more ingredients um and understand more about skin care products. And because of that, I was able to kind of more more specifically tailor my routine, I found a lot of comfort in oils um and my barrier had been totally destroyed. So just like feeding it with these really nourishing oils was like the first time my skin didn't sting and from there, you know, I kind of took it into my own hands and just really understanding the industry and ingredients that we were using not and, and taking a really long break from like these really, um, you know, powerful and, and good active, but that my skin was just like so exhausted and needed to be repaired.

00:09:34 So yeah, so that's kind of, you know, my skincare journey and basically, I, you know, new, I want to start a company, but I was super insecure about my skin, never imagined myself as like a skin care company founder, especially in the era of like, you're seeing celebrities, there's spaces of brands and, you know, it just, it felt very uncomfortable, but ultimately, I just convinced myself that I could be like the quote unquote business person behind the brand and not really be out there, which is funny today, but um, but yeah, that's how I ultimately decided just to take the plunge. And so I quit my job and officially launched in 2015, but it was, I'd say like, through the years of 2015 to now, like, through starting coca kind have gotten so much more comfortable in my skin in a way that I wasn't at the very beginning of this process. Yeah, in lots of ways, it feels like it healed your skin not only physically, but that emotional side of you as well and the stuff that you were dealing with as a young woman, you know, coming out and being who you are, it really helped with your confidence, which is which is so amazing, so special.

00:10:51 I want to stay around that time when you were just launching the business um obviously you were working a lot with coconut at that time and well you still are but you know, your hero ingredient began with with coconut. Were you making things yourself or were you going and finding people to help you make products in those early days? Both um so we started with that and we were making like body butters and lip balms and these cells with coconut. Um we actually don't have it in the majority of our products today, like most of our facial products don't have it, but um those body butters and the lip balms and all that stuff, we were filling ourselves and then for the facial products, those were the blends for those were um the individual ingredients or ingredients that I love, but um with the help of chemists helped to produce. Right, And how at that early time were you funding the business? And did you kind of have the vision of growing it into the big business that it is today? Or were you just kind of like, oh, like I'll just see how it goes.

00:11:54 What was the vision? Yeah, so I've always, I never wanted to start a small company. Um not that I had an idea of what a big company was, but I never, you know, wanted to keep it small, like I wanted to build something that had impact and um that, you know, a lot of consumers knew about. So I, even things like farmers markets, like I love farmers, rockets and I love meeting makers there, but I just kind of felt like I wanted to reach scale and didn't want to kind of go into like a knee sure, like a very small corner versus just kind of approaching like the broader market and then yeah, so I think that was like very much like, I never had an idea of like, and certainly, yeah, I think my idea of what a big business was back then, it's like very different from what it is today, but yeah, I always had that intention of trying to build something that reached as many people as possible and was a clear, um you know, comfortable brand in terms of making people feel good and it was like, instead of playing out of the fear and desperation, like a brand that people could trust.

00:13:06 So that was like my biggest goal there? Yeah, totally. And were you with that in mind, did you think, okay, I need to start with getting alone or using personal savings or were you kind of like, I'm going to go straight into looking for potentially angel investors or institutional funding. Yeah, so we were really lucky and then I did um start the business with my savings, so I had $60,000 in savings that I basically um was it, you know to be 26 years old or 25 years old and have that in savings was like very um I feel very grateful for that. Just a working in finance and saving for a couple of years. So I do think that there's something very important about um not everybody is going to go to the bootstrap route um and there's certainly a lot of pros and cons to it, but I did it for five years and you know, I wouldn't take it back um but it is certainly a decision that has like a ton of pros and cons and if you are going to do it then saving beforehand is obviously very important.

00:14:12 Um So we funded the first like, you know production batches and everything using my savings insurance, like all that stuff um but we very quickly um started to make revenue and we are production batches were extremely small until we made revenue and they would just grow as we have more and more customers but I never really, when you're a bootstrap company you just can't get over your skis, you know, and um and you have to start small and so that's what we did, but we are also very lucky that like we started selling the whole foods in northern California within like the second month of like technically launching. So like we started to have revenue pretty quickly wow that's crazy to get them on board as a retail partner So early on in the journey. How did you get on their radar? And and what do you think was attractive to them about the brand? Yeah, I mean I think um you know back then clean beauty didn't really exist in form and so um in the way that obviously so prolific today and and increasingly so um but back then you know, all I had to say was like the other ingredients were using were under $20 and and that was basically it and people would you know take take a meeting and so when it came to whole foods like they did, I was very aggressive and like before the product was even ready I was like reaching out like I knew the value proposition and everything obviously you know what you're building and I started emailing and everything and they never got back to me on the regional office here in northern California.

00:15:50 So I just went to individual stores and I um yeah and like at that time the store team members were able to bring in like very local brands and so I started to like set up meetings with literally individual stores. I would ask him how it's done and they told me even drop off samples if you want or like Oh okay like I have 15 minutes on this day and I would literally set up meetings with like the 35 stores in northern California and I would drive up and down just for like, a just to drop off a box or to meet them for 15 minutes, and eventually um um that was really what I concentrated on in the first month and then, um, and then they, the individual team members like love the brand so much that they ended up pinging the regional buyer. And then I got an email from the regional buyer one day being like, okay, there's enough interest to set you up as a vendor. So, and then, you know, I was just ready to go after that. So then, um, so that was very special and I will always remember kind of like that first time that, that beginning period and getting that email, but um, but yeah, then we started selling tool foods within like two months, wow, crazy.

00:17:01 Does that mean in the early days, were you more focused on building the retail side of the business versus the Aecom DdC side of the business? When did you start to be like, we're going to focus on our online store and how are we going to find the customers to bring them into our website instead of going to somewhere like whole foods. Yeah, for sure. I mean, I like to say like I stumbled upon it, not because I plan for it. I wasn't smart enough to like Know anything about DTC or like tried to do anything there and again, this is 2015 and is this a different environment where you've had so many amazing BDC companies come up in the past five years, but that was not the case, you know, a couple at that time. And so I didn't have precedent and I didn't know and all I knew was like retail is all I thought was like retails where it's at, like that's how you reach customers. And so I did focus on that for the first two years of the business and we stumbled upon it because we launched these sticks, the matra and the turmeric sticks and um we just didn't get retail placement for those on time.

00:18:10 Like retail, the calendars take a long time and you know, you can launch something if it doesn't end up on shelf until like a year later because of their calendars. And so the only place we could launch it was on our website and um our website was doing like a couple $1000 a month um up until that point and we had a, we were building instagram but um it wasn't like this fixing yet, but then we launch these products and people just became really obsessed with them and we have this waiting list and everything and then all of a sudden our instagram, you know, followers went from 10,000 to 20,000 and one month. And I was like, wow, I'm like, our online sales went from a couple $1000 to $90,000. Um that first month that after we launched that that product and, and I was like, okay, like that's like a real number now. I'm like, that's pretty awesome for cash flow and you know, not to mention possibility, but also just like getting the feedback from our customers and like the fact that there, I was just like so amazing. I still am so amazed when I realized that like people come to your, they, you know, intentionally come to your website and buy something.

00:19:16 Like I just think I'm so grateful for that experience because one thing that you realize that's an entrepreneur especially of a product is that people think that like, oh your products on the shelf or you launch a website that's beautiful. But the product, like you think people think that like you just start getting visitors, like you could literally have like zero, you know, like, you could literally have like zero customers or like six people visit your website in those beginning days and per day. You know, it's like, so you, you start to appreciate customer by customer in that level. And I think because I bootstrapped like I just have such a deep appreciation for like every single person because I would do demos at the whole foods stores in those first two years before we had, you know, an online presence and I would literally felt, you know, 10, 12 products and that was like a great demo in a three hour period. And I've done that, you know, like literally 1x1. And so yeah, I think that when we, when we launched those sticks and we started having this presence on online, I was just, I was very like, just pleasantly surprised and, and, and found that like, yeah, like it's a little bit easier for me to talk to like 20,000 people than like one person at a time at a store in like, you know, I was like driving like three hours to do a three hour demo and I was like crazy.

00:20:41 So, um, you know, obviously made more sense and so we started to figure out like, okay, like I'm gonna be on social. Like I would be in a demo. Like I'm going to talk to my customer how I wouldn't like to be talked to. You know, you, you said the same thing. It's like just like talking to a friend. Like that's what we wanted, what I wanted to do because that's how I like imagine myself being so desperate trying to find something that works for me. I would just want like the truth. I would want honesty. I'd want transparency and that's how we approach like every conversation really with our customer and I'm really lucky that now we have people on the team, Coco kind team that like still carry those values even though it's not me, like damning every single person. I definitely am in the DMZ all the time. People don't realize that. But I respond to like a ton of dems myself because I just love it. But um, but that's just part of our values and it's part of our culture as a brand totally. I bet like those customers that you were selling to in the whole foods stores back in the day, I bet there you're kind of like true loyal customers still today.

00:21:47 They, and they remember that time that they met you and that you spent that time with them. Yeah, no, and I definitely see that um, and see those messages on and social and I just think it's like quite amazing because the brain and products have changed, you know, we've developed so many new products and we went from like the body butter and the lip balm and like the very, you know, like very, very simple kind of ingredients to like a full on skincare line and we will continue to develop and grow and change and but the one thing that's been the same is really how we speak to customers and our values as a brand and the values that we put into our products and so that's why people have stuck with us, even though we have changed the branding, we've changed this and that like everything has changed as we've, you know, grown up quote unquote, but I think that that is uh when I hear people who have been around for so many years, I just can't believe it. I think it's amazing. Yeah, totally, absolutely. You know when you were saying like back in the early days of your marketing, you know, in one month you grow 10,000 followers and and that would be a really great way to reach your customers.

00:22:53 But obviously now five years down the track, social media is more pay to play. It's obviously evolved um as a brand, how has your marketing evolved and what's kind of the best way for you to require customers today? Uh huh. Yeah, I mean marketing is such a beast, you know like you, it's I feel like there's a million ways to market. And up until very recently we were just going about our like organic marketing ways, which is like, you know, and this is still our bread and butter which is like, we really try to provide value at content which help grow our customer base because people come to us and they realize they can learn a lot of different things and then they, you know, they learn the values behind the brand and the products and then they try their products and they can try multiple different products for the same price that they would buy like one product at a Sephora store and basically they, you know, they, they go from there but that, that is still our bread and butter is really just like, it doesn't matter what we're doing paid or unpaid on our channel or on a different channel.

00:24:00 Value add content is very important and it's very hard to do consistently, so I think that's like number one for us, um but as we've grown, we have tried and we are growing different channels whether it's paid media, um you know, influencers obviously have been incredible, are incredible partners for brands, I think at the end of the day, you know you can experiment with a lot of different things and marketing requires a lot of experiments and you need to be okay with like succeeding or failing equal opportunities for those outcomes, but I always find that like what ends up working is, are things that just like feel really you, you know like just like our kind of unsurprising in that way because you're like yeah, like this is the reason why this works because this, you know, influencer believes in the same core values as we do and has that same relationship, like she provides that value add to her, her followers, she cares about them, she talks to them in a care and comfortable way, makes them feel good about themselves, like that's the type of stuff that like it's like I'm never, I guess, I've never really surprised by that, that works, but it is hard to come by.

00:25:17 So especially, you know, because there's so much like pay to play out there. And there are so many sponsored ads these days. So we are in the phase right now just like experimenting a lot with our marketing. But I feel like it always like kind of diverged back to what we're really known for. Which is like the relationship and the values. Mm Yeah, putting the customer really at the forefront. You know, Earlier when you were saying like, back when you started, obviously it wasn't as saturated as it is now. Have you had to further differentiate yourself to remain really relevant in a market that's obviously, you know, there are tons of different brands now in the skin care industry. Um, And what do you do to really differentiate yourself when you're seeing so many new brands come into the market? Yeah, definitely. Um, I go back and forth on this because I on one hand, like, I think competition is so good for the consumer. And I always like, try to be, even though I leader of this brand. Like I try to be on the consumer side, no matter what.

00:26:22 And there are so many competitors that I really respect. Um, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that, You know, just, just, just being able to say that and be like, yeah, like they have a great product. They have a great following. They have a great whatever brand. Like I think that's totally okay to like kind of have that and good to have that humility and respect for like what other people are doing because because the industry is large and, and speaker is highly fragmented industry, it's like there's not like one, you know, player that dominates the market, it's like there's so many, so many players, so there's room, I do believe there's room for all of us, but it does clearly feel more competitive today than it did before. And you know, obviously it stings a little bit when you feel like, okay, there's a brand that like either has like a very similar brand name to us or that they popped up or they have a very similar like whatever it is like that will sting and when we have customers that send that to us and we'll look at what, what, what I found like this is ridiculous and you know that, that kind of thing, I'm not gonna lie.

00:27:31 But um, I think the way that I think about is like competition, like you can either get scared by competition, which I sometimes find myself in that those stages or you can use it as a source of inspiration, like just like put your head down and like motivate yourself, you shouldn't stay stagnant, like you really shouldn't. So if it requires refreshing your brand, refreshing your products thinking about like how do you go back to the drawing board staying innovative, Like that's what you need to do. So I try to like, have it go, like, turn it from this anxiety to this like positive source of like, yeah, like the competition makes products better and they make companies better for the customer, so use that and be better. So I think that's kind of like what I, you know, on my best of days, like where I will channel that energy to, but it is definitely something that I feel like every, you know, kind of founder will have to deal with. Um and it's an inevitable and it's really good.

00:28:32 So it's just, it's, yeah, I think it's a good exercise, totally. I love that. Like, using it as a motivator instead of something that can bog you down and make you feel less than, or something. Where is the brand today in terms of how big is your team? How many products do you have? What's the vibe today? Five years on. Yeah, so, um, so we have around 25, people on the corporate team here And on the product side, probably around the same actually, like 2020, 25. So we've just been really lucky to continue growing, I'd say like, the cocoa kind story has been more of a, like a story of compounding really great growth versus like hockey stick, Like we've, we've just like consistently grown well versus like, you know, kind of Being a little bit more like slower growth and then like this huge hockey stick of like 400%, you know, where your growth, like that's that's not our story.

00:29:38 Um I think yeah, that also allows you to make a lot of mistakes in a smaller like level um when you're kind of consistently growing versus like dealing, like I have a lot of respect for the companies who go from like, you know? Yeah, just go from very small to all of a sudden like this like huge company in 12 years because like just running an organization is way harder than running a company and um and there's so many mistakes that every founder, every business owner makes along the way and you kind of just have to like know that um you're not going to be perfect, you're not, yeah, everybody's human and you have your strength and you have your weaknesses. So I feel like that's just something that I'm I'm also just like grateful for to like the opportunity to like kind of consistently learn ahead of my company as much as I can because when you grow so exponentially quickly like that, I mean it's it's still very challenging, like any growth is very hard and and google kind is certainly put up some really strong growth figures.

00:30:42 But yeah, I just like the companies that go from like 5,000,200 million in two years, like I just, I don't know, you know, like it's just it's a hard, hard job, totally. Absolutely, well that would be crazy, What does the future look like for you? Is there anything you can share that's coming up next, what does the next year look like? Yeah, I mean we're in a really exciting stage right now where we have brought on some pretty amazing talent this year to just join our team and help us get to the next stage and whether that's on our marketing or on our products or operation like operations, you know, scaling that is quite difficult and really just like having subject matter expertise which before it was kind of like me being like a very average jack of all trades, master of none. And so that to me is like the most, the best gift I think to be in the stage where we can um we have a lot of people who are just like bringing a lot of um talent to the business and so that is um what's going to be driving us forward and in terms of products, like I think there's probably another evolution of where our products go to um I think what we are interested in testing new categories like body and hair, but at the same time in their skin care, like there's so much more to be done there too and with so much innovation happening, whether it's, you know, continue innovation with ingredients or formulation or um sustainability, like all that stuff, I think it's a good time for us to just, you know, really think about what that looks like for us going forward, we never want to dilute the market would just like unnecessary products um but um at the same time like there's just a lot happening, so I'm excited to kind of build out that pipeline and see where that takes us, but it's so for us it was like a balance of like we want to give the consumers like what she's asking us for, but then we also want to try some new things that she's not asking us for in and see if that's six.

00:32:52 Yeah, totally sounds really exciting in any case, I'm excited to watch and see what happens next. Yeah, what advice do you have for women who have a big idea and want to launch their own business? Um um yeah, I'd say like what I always go back to is um well yeah, I think there's a couple of things, but like the first is like you can, it's totally okay to start small, you don't have to like wait for perfection, but you know, the best idea in the world is nothing without execution and like the best founders I know are like just incredible people at execution, like you just get shit done, you know, and that to me is like just irreplaceable, it has to happen somehow through your leadership team either through you because you just like our incredible executing or um your co founder or some something that basically allows you to like move quickly, uh I think that's like important, just very important, underestimated, and then um the second thing is like I think this year more than anything proves that it's like the resilience, like every day is so hard, it really is, and like you go through a roller coaster, you go through emotions and you have a lot of weight as a founder and ceo like you just, you carry a lot of weight, you care about the people on your team,