How Sara Panton, Founder of Vitruvi, is building her business through sophisticated scent
Say hello to a company that’s changing the world through scent, Vitruvi
Founded by Sara Panton, Vitruvi sells sophisticated essential oils and diffusers to scent your day to day.
Sara’s sharing her journey of growing up in a rural town, going through med school and making a change in her life that lead her to launching this business with her brother and co-founder Sean. We’re covering the hustle from the early days when they were making everything by hand, to becoming a 20 person team today, named as one of Fast Companies most innovative companies in 2019 and stocked in more than 300 stores, and a very special project they support for women in Kenya.
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
Let's jump into this episode. Female Startup Club. Yeah, I mean life before the treaty, it's been such an important part of what was my twenties and now in my thirties. So life before it. I mean Sean my co founder and I grew up in a small farming community on Vancouver island and our parents were super early adopters of the organic movement. So we always grew up understanding the importance of natural before it was maybe trendy you could say and I always had an interest in learning about different places, we never traveled growing up but I was fascinated with jane Goodall and followed her and got every VHS discovery channel documentary.
00:03:29Edit So I was always curious about people in different cultures and different parts of the world and loved being in nature. So that was life before it. Yeah, and I read that you went to medical school and then you went to kenya. I think it was on a bit of an adventure before you started the business. Yeah, I went to um just the university in my town and then because I was nervous to move to a bigger city and I was studying neuropsychology and then I learned about this incredible program in global health and this is everything I care about. I'm so curious about learning about different wellness practices from different cultures and so the course is worrying medical anthropology where you were learning about different places and practices and my profits were so cool because they lived in sierra Leone and like Peru and all these places and so I got there and switched programs and had read most of the reading list and that was prescribed reading. So like this is where I'm supposed to be.
00:04:31Edit Um, and then from there went on to study preventative medicine and my goal was to work in remote places and learn about different practices around health and well being and then assist and so when I went to kenya was with an organization I was working with at the time when we were setting up safe birthing centers um for women for the first time in the Maasai mara in kenya. Um, so that was my life before it um, in full transparency when I got to school, it didn't feel like my people, I had worked for six years to get there and spent a ton of money um in student loans and it took about two years into the program for me to sort of check my ego at the door and really be real about the fact that like, you know what, I've been telling myself the story since I was 17, but I don't know if this is really what I love doing and so that was a really big wake up call for me. Yeah, wow, it's easy to kind of get on a trajectory. Yeah, absolutely. I mean it's a pretty big goal to basically say, yeah, I'm gonna, I'm gonna switch directions here and do something a bit different.
00:05:32Edit Yeah. What was the moment for you when you had that light bulb going off that said, hey, I want to start a business, I want to start a business with my brother. When did that happen? Um, there's never been a lightbulb moment, like it's still, it's still surprises me. Um, the company started as a blog. Um, do you remember tumbler? Yeah, okay, so it started as a tumbler account and um I would steal books from the library school. There was like this botanical encyclopedia by National Geographic. I actually still have it in my office. I took it um and I would like to learn about all the different botanicals and different practices and then right um blog content and put it up on tumbler and that's all it was. And then I started blending my own products with essential oils. I had no understanding of business or plan to start a business. It was just a passion project. So that then just evolved and I've been working like I said with an organization and part of that was managing corporate sponsorship.
00:06:36Edit So for the first time in my life I was around a business community, my parents were a teacher um and a policeman and there was no entrepreneurship in our family and no business. And so that's what it kind of started getting my wheels turning and I started to learn about the business world and how you could create something and work for yourself. And a lot of that independence is what drew me to be interested in practicing medicine, kind of being in charge of your own hours, Having a team. Like I liked that idea of I like responsibility and so I liked that responsibility and so a lot of that is translated to the work that I do today. But yeah, they answer your question directly. There still hasn't been a lightbulb moment. There were 76 years and that's incredible. So it kind of I guess spiraled from you working on the blog doing these things that you already loved, you're already really passionate about. Was there a moment when or a conversation when you thought yeah, okay we're going to invest some money to create some products that we go out to sell and what was that kind of time like?
00:07:40Edit Yeah, so that was a very, very specific conversation and something that I will forever be grateful for a mentor of mine who I had met through that charity. Him and his then wife had a company and he was a really big successful Ceo and I ended up kind of helping his wife's company with a few things and think he knew through passing in conversation that I wasn't happy at school and he sent me a few questions and he is an extraordinary leader and has been referenced in different leadership books and sent me a list of six questions and took me to lunch and asked me the questions and wrote it out on a napkin and he was about to do some business deals with a friend on the side and said, you know, do you want to maybe I thought maybe I could help with those and just learn like as an intern. Um, and then he found out what Sean, my co founder and brother were doing and I'll never forget it. He took the snack of decks and push them to the side of the table and said let's do that. And so this person took a huge risk on me. Um he's forever one of the most important people I've ever met in my life and yeah, I completely changed my life.
00:08:45Edit That's incredible. Do you remember what the questions were that he asked you? Um I had, I probably find it in an email if I go back far enough, but a lot of it was around, you know, what do you want your life to look like? What do you value? What kind of scale do you want your life, what financially, how what does success look like to you independence wise, what does success look like to you? And I just remember, I vaguely remember just like a graph of that was where I was at and the path I was on and then a graph of what could be, so that was the conversation. So I think the learning from that is like I always try to take time with people and be really curious and look at opportunities are that they might have to fulfill their potential and I'm very, very interested in. I love that and I love that kind of like, you know, provoking the thought and making someone sit down and actually think about this kind of thing because sometimes you just cruise along and you're just coasting through and you haven't asked yourself those questions unless someone brings it to you.
00:09:48Edit Yeah or you haven't re ask yourself those questions right? Like I think it's bizarre that we have to make all of these huge decisions in high school when there's so much going on so to make sure that you're checking in with yourself and checking your ego and saying you know what, why am I doing this? Do I love it? Am I serving the world in the best way that I can? Yeah wow. So you have that conversation, you start working on this as a business. What kinds of things are you doing in those early days to get customers and how are you selling the product? Like what happened there? Yeah, I mean pretty simple. Um we could we could really no money because we put it all into branding um with an agency that I have met on a surf trip who had built one of my favorite brands of all time. So that was a sign and very special circumstance. And then uh we put it into rock components and we couldn't afford to buy things prepackaged. So sean and I would put roller balls in the rollers to make our role on and I felt like a little dent in my hand and we would watch Anthony Bourdain reruns and just like assemble the raw components at night.
00:10:57Edit And then in the daytime we would be like finance and wholesale but we had no budget for digital ads or Any sort of like larger digital marketing. And so the basis of the company was based on wholesale and I put together a list of 500 retailers and stores from mom and pop shops to like um Nordstrom's and my goal every day was to reach out to 50 of them either through email or call or Lincoln wow. And I still have the spreadsheet is printed out and I highlight each one after I did it and it was just a numbers game and I knew what our minimum order quantity was and like this is our minimum purchase order and they would pay and then we would ship it. And so building a business on just like we're both really working with a lot of our first stores were female founded companies. They were taking a big risk in taking on our product by paying for it. We were taking on a big risk by not knowing if they would be able to sell it. And so they also took the time to understand the company and what we were about and really what we cared about which was creating natural home scenting products.
00:12:06Edit Um that helped transform people's spaces into oasis of comfort in a way that is good for the planet and their families in the world. So that's where we started. That's incredible. I think I read that you emailed Nordstrom every three months for a year or something until you Yeah, I got on the shelves. I did. I fully, I harassed Nordstrom. Were you worried that you would annoy them or you were like, I'm just gonna keep going. No, I mean they had a lot of turnovers. So I just would pretend that I had gotten further along with the person before there. That's incredible. That's so cool. I love that. I knew that there's, you know, there's certain stamps of approval that you need to get while building a brand and regardless of the volume they end up doing. Nordstrom ended up being a great partner for us. But I knew that that was one of those key components that we needed to nail like a few key partners to have validity and to be bigger than we seem, got it. Like have that credibility behind you kind of think before you can work your way into those doors.
00:13:11Edit That's incredible. And I want to talk about raising capital. I know you guys just recently raised another 4.5 million. I think it was in February, which is so exciting. Congratulations. Thank You. And that brought you to seven million. I think I read. What was that process. Like it was horrible. I mean, anyone that says it isn't is lying in my opinion. Um, it's uh, it's really interesting. Like we ended up finding an incredible partner and two incredible partners and raising capital, it's, it's a great time to learn about your business, um it is a great time to just basically here, everything that could be wrong with it and a really good time to grow confidence um and the discerning amount of um influence of other people's opinions and um I think the biggest thing I would say if someone's actually raising capital is that it's people's job to seem interested and those people that get on the phone and the email you, they just have a checklist, just like I did with my retail stores.
00:14:24Edit And so it's just, it's a really great practice to just like stay steady, not get too excited um because everything can switch so much and um yeah, it definitely made me interested in like how I can help maybe change that system or be a part of that system in the future in a way that I wish that it had existed for us. But yeah, we ended up with two incredible partners and I'm grateful for that. Yeah, sorry, I just lost my voice for a 2nd. Yeah. And what does this most recent round of funding allow you to do in the business? Um really the funding for that is like we were growing so fast and continue to grow really fast and so there's certain levels of growth that you get to, that you need some more fuel on the fire to reach the next, the next growth spurt. And a lot of that for us is product innovation And so when you create a new product or you're really innovating, it takes a capital and we have pretty ambitious growth goals.
00:15:28Edit And so that's really what that is being used for. But we have and continue to run the business very responsibly and very more traditionally. Um, then you would say maybe like a e commerce like digital brand that's raising a ton of capital like Sean and I are pretty old school. Um, and that, so we raised quite conservative numbers for a series a you would kind of consider and that is how we maintain growing the business as well. And now when you're in this phase of bigger growth, faster growth, what are the kinds of things that are working for you and how are you acquiring customers at scale? Mm A lot of the same tactics or even just how we started. But just larger. Uh, so a huge piece of what we do is through our affiliate programs and that really just started with influencers. Um, you know, not in the fancy youtube setting but just like influential women. We talk about our customer and our customer is someone who is a discoverer amongst their friends and there's someone that's curious and that they're looking for natural products that fit their aesthetic and the way they live and so for us, our customer actually fits that mold of someone that's influential in their peer group or their friend group or mom group.
00:16:46Edit Um And so we were able to formalize that actually through one of our second hire who now directs all of our partnerships and customer experience team and the program just organically grew And so that's a huge component of what we do both from. I think the term is like Micro influencers so people with less than 10,000 followers to you know we've worked with some larger podcast like Ashley Graham and Sophia Bush and um larger media outlets there but alright I think our affiliate and influencer program is really really exciting to me. Yeah for sure. Especially getting to have like you know access to all these people who truly love your brand. It just must be such a fulfilling project within the company. Yeah and I mean they're so talented. It blows my mind like the content that they create um and we use it for shoots and we work with them to help launch products and get their insights. Um And so yeah we're it's really fun program. I love that. I want to talk about your connection with one girl.
00:17:49Edit Can I was reading about your partnership there. Can you tell our listeners what that is? And yeah just a little bit about it. It's so amazing. Oh yeah thanks. Um so my background like I kind of mentioned was in work abroad and that's something I'm really passionate about. Lottie Davis and her husband co founded the company E. G. Hair care which is like quite a large salon brand. And they're actually based in here in Vancouver Canada and she grew up in South Africa and started this incredible program. One girl can that works throughout Uganda and kenya helping women go through. Um and if the final stages of high school and setting them up for university programs and I witnessed firsthand just what education can do for women and what that does in communities working and speaking with women in the Maasai mara over tea on numerous occasions. And just the way that lady had set up that program really resonated with me. And so the program that I created and pitched Lottie was that for every woman employed at the Trevi Vitruvian would pay for the four year university scholarship for a woman abroad.
00:18:59Edit And that includes like books, tuition, laptop living expenses. And the only stipulation is that within the one girl can program where they need to be pursuing stem um like science technology engineering and math type careers because there's an abundance of nurses and teachers in that region of the world. So it's pretty cool for me to look around the office and see all of these incredibly ambitious people um in our office and and women and knowing that there's a woman halfway around the world also pursuing her professional ambitions. So that's the program. Yeah and I feel like it must make um you know by having that D. N. A. And your company, it must make your employees feel so connected to what you're doing and and the bigger goal and the bigger mission there which I just love. I think it's amazing. Our teams really cool. There are, how many are you now? Just over 20. Yeah so it's a small and mighty team. Um that was always mine and Shawn's goal was to build sort of what felt like a design studio and that everyone wears lots of hats and we worked really hard and in sprints but it's a really tight knit group.
00:20:09Edit That's really cool and how how is it working with your brother being siblings, being business partners? What's the vibe? I mean it's awesome. He is my only sibling. So it's kind of all I know and like I said we grew up in the middle of nowhere so it's like we're going to be friends or it's going to be super boring childhood. Uh But I think our our ability to work through issues in a really transparent and compassionate way is a skill set that I obviously have been able to have with Sean but I think has translated throughout my leadership where just being able to speak straight clearly. Being compassionate, knowing that you love the person across the table and you're going to celebrate you know christmas with them maybe or a family vacation. So it has allowed us I think to grow as quickly as we have. Um we just, we're just people that don't like drama or politics and so keeping those um co founder relationships really clean and simple as good and china.
00:21:10Edit I really complementary skill sets. Uh and he is just, he's just really great at what he does. So shout out to Sean, I want to ask you what your advice is for women who want to start a business and have a big idea. Mm hmm. Oh, good question. I think that um it would be to start slow and and do it um and know who you're surrounding yourself with a piece of advice I've given before. It's like in those early days of creating something you have to be really careful about who's influencing what's going on for you. And I talk about like kind of two circles of support. The first is the people that are around you, like your best friend, your girlfriend, your mom, that just like love you no matter what and think you're so brilliant and that you're going to take on the world and you can do anything which is so true and so important. And then the second ring are people with industry specific experience um that have maybe gone through a few things um and that they can provide very specific feedback or advice to you and it's really important not to get those two circles crossed and that to know that in the beginning days you just sort of need to have that incubation period where everything is possible because I truly believe you make your own life and then as you get further out you have to be very specific about whose advice you take because it is alarming how much people like to say that they know how to do something or take a very ambiguous piece of experience and apply it to your creating, which can get people fuzzy.
00:22:51Edit So just yeah, just keeping things really simple and being aware of who's advice you're taking in at what stage is I think really important and how do you think you would like separate the good from the bad or the good from the not so good. Yeah, so like looking at someone's background for me, I had a ton of advice given to me early on from a range of people from technology to food, like all these different industries and just having a mindset of saying, okay, this person built this business in this year, in this industry with this consumer, what can I take from that? That could apply to my business as opposed to sort of broad strokes, like oh well that happened to them so I should do this and that's where I think people get fuzzy and it decreases confidence um and waters down the end result and it's more so even more important when you're raising capital Because you basically just get on 10 phone calls a day with someone telling you what you could do better.
00:23:55Edit Yeah. Or a genius idea that they have for you. Yeah of course everyone's got the ideas. Yeah totally. So we're up to the six quick questions part of the interview ready to go. I think I am. Question Number one is what's your why? Um my wife is creating safe spaces at home that make people feel inspired and cozy um and in control of their environment. Question number two is what's the number one marketing moment that made your business pop? I think designing the amenities for Air Canada. Um We designed the amenities for Air Canada four years ago when five years ago when we didn't even know if the company was going to survive and they're still on every in every flight today. Every bathroom every amenities overnight trip. Oh my God, airplane bathroom self you sent to me. That is so cool too. Do you see like a direct um is there a way to see a direct result to see if those people are a direct result?
00:25:05Edit But the message, our customer experience team and yeah, I get a lot of notes about it. That's so cool. Um question number three is where do you hang out to get smarter at the beach? Okay. Yeah. Uh yeah water. I live close to the beach in castellano in Vancouver and then spend a lot of time in to Fiona Nice Question number four is. How do you win the day? I think I win the day by being present for people and listening actively and taking time to move my body and uh, to connect with my breath nice. Yeah, breath works. A big one. I get a lot of women who talk about the different techniques that they've used over the, over the years. It's really interesting Question. Number five is if you only had $1,000 left in your business bank account, where would you spend it on our team? Nice. Probably. I love that. And question # six is how do you deal with failure?
00:26:11Edit And that can be around a personal experience or just your general mindset and approach. I think I normalize failure because it's inevitable. And so failure is just a stumbling of in the pursuit of something and I welcome it. Um, I moved through it and then I get over it. Yeah. Amazing. Oh and I had one more question. What's your favorite scent? Oh, it's like choosing your favorite child. My favorite combination is cedar wooden burger mont. So like 10 drops of each and the diffuser. And then one of my favorite aromas that we've ever made is Grove, which smells like Cathedral Grove where my grandparents used to take me and it's the same trees that are in the grove. Um, and it just makes it smell like nature in your living room. Is that in my office? How beautiful. That's so special. You know that mix that you just said? When would you use that mix? Is that like a morning or even steven wood? And, and Bergama, It's more evening like super grounding.
00:27:19Edit Um And really kind of, yeah, it's fresh from the Bracamonte, but bertha Montes an earl gray tea. So it's like very cozy. And then the cedar wood is, our cedar wood is really beautiful. And then I've been using frankincense oil, just a few drops on the palm of my hand and I smell it during my meditation practice and spending time, I need a quick breath. So I love that. I'm gonna give it a try. Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today. Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.