Graham Smith is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of No, Thank You.
Graham has spent the last 3+ years as an entrepreneur in the startup community. Prior to this, he worked in the financial industry for over 12 years, where he led cross-sector financings for middle market businesses across Europe.
Notable investments include Liberty London (a historic London department store), where he also served as a board member.
Graham graduated cum laude from USC Marshall School of Business in 2005 with a B.S. in Accounting.
Graham likes all things fitness, cooking, photography and exploring the world.
Zain Pirani is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of No, Thank You.
Zain has 3+ years of experience in developing and launching various consumer product brands across multiple industries, including supplements, food, beverage and most recently in the cannabinoid industry.
Prior to this, she worked in marketing and fundraising in the financial industry for over 14 years.
Zain graduated from Boston College with a B.S. in Finance and Management Information Systems in 2003.
In her free time, Zain likes to read, enjoy a good cycling class, dabble in cooking and charcoal drawings.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
- [00:00] Intro
- [01:23] Emphasizing the efficacy of CBD
- [02:36] How No, Thank You started
- [06:04] Why NTY focuses on the products and ingredients
- [07:36] Duration from idea to products
- [09:07] The importance of customer feedback
- [09:54] Go out and let people test your products
- [11:06] Where the name “No, Thank You” comes from
- [12:48] Sponsor: Electric Eye electriceye.io
- [13:07] Sponsor: Mesa apps.shopify.com/mesa
- [13:56] Sponsor: Rewind rewind.com/honestecommerce
- [14:26] Sponsor: Klaviyo klaviyo.com/honest
- [15:14] NTY and HEC are kindred spirits
- [15:32] The downsides of launching CBD brand
- [18:12] Rebuilding the broken trust in the industry
- [19:54] The CBD industry requires at least twice the effort
- [20:24] What makes NTY show up every day
- [20:58] How NTY got their first customers
- [23:07] Making your target audience as your Northstar
- [23:52] Struggling at first but making emails work
- [25:23] Employment is only sustainable for a time
- [26:41] Pick good people to have a business with
- [27:24] Prepare for a “divorce” if it happens
- [27:44] Where to find No, Thank You
- [28:07] Be informed about CBD products
- Subscribe to Honest Ecommerce on Youtube
- The best full-spectrum CBD + CBDa skin care and body care products scientifically formulated to help with anti-inflammatory and anti-aging concerns nty.co
- Visit the Science section of the NTY website to be informed about CBD nty.co/pages/science
- Connect with Graham linkedin.com/in/graham-smith-726b971
- Connect with Zain linkedin.com/in/zain-pirani-5309801b
- Scale your business with electriceye.io
- Download Mesa at the Shopify App Store apps.shopify.com/mesa
- Respond to any of Rewind’s welcome emails and mention HONEST ECOMMERCE to get 1 month free rewind.io/honest
- Get started with a free account at klaviyo.com/honest
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You can only do a job for the money for a defined period of time. After that, you've really got to do something that you're personally passionate about, that you really care about.
Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, a podcast dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running a direct-to-consumer brand does not have to be complicated or a guessing game.
On this podcast, we interview founders and experts who are putting in the work and creating real results.
Let's get on with the show.
Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of honest ecommerce. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And today, I'm welcoming to the show, not one, but two founders. I love it when this happens.
Hey, Chase, how's it going?
It's going fantastic.
Thanks for having us.
All righty. So quickly, let's just talk about the product itself. Just give it a quick background so people really understand what products you guys bring to market here.
I can start. And then Zayn, if I screwed anything up, you can fill in.
The way I always talk about NTY is we are providers of ridiculously high-quality CBD skin care products.
And I say that because not all CBD skincare and certainly not all CBD is created equally. We're huge believers in the efficacy of CBD and skincare.
And we'll talk about that when we talk a bit more about our products in the business. But we've spent the last 2 years really nailing our formulations to be the absolute most effective they possibly can be.
They're incredibly, incredibly potent anti-inflammatories, which has got a really great home in a skincare product. And we think we've had a really unique product in the skincare space. We're super, super excited about it.
Absolutely. Zain, anything to add?
No, I think Graham and I share a brain. He covered most of it. I think we've started our focus on the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of CBD that we'll talk about in more detail.
But our focus was to create the best of the products that we could and hopefully, that's what our audience and customer sees from us.
Absolutely. Alright, so take me back in time to where did this idea come from? What was going on?
I'll take that one. Graham, if you want to add (laughs), do it then. So No, Thank You actually started as a passion project.
Both Graham and I left finance back in like 2017. And Graham was in London at that time. I was already in LA. We're both native Californians.
And as native Californians, we've always had some inclination towards THC and CBD. Always been curious, always considered it a product, an ingredient that is super effective and how... No, Thank You came about when we both left finance and we started dabbling in CBD.
I would say we've always been fans of it. And I had some experience working in product development after --in a consumer product company-- after I left finance.
And also I was helping my dad in the CBD and THC business on the family side. And there was something to look at here.
And I think the ingredient is super efficacious, as we said, but there was something more here that we wanted to explore.
And Graham and I put on our hats and said, "Let's just try. Let's see what we could come up with." And it started unraveling.
We started going on this journey where we knew that CBD was an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant but how did it interact in a skincare product? What did it do? What are some properties we could bring out together? It's a great active [ingredient] to have in a skincare if and calm.... It's... I would say...
Sorry, I'm gonna take this back a little. (laughs)
Just going back to so I say when we started creating this idea of No, Thank You, we started creating the best products that we could. We didn't think about the costs or we weren't thinking about running a business.
We were thinking about creating the best CBD products we could and put it out there. And during that journey, we found out that there's actually a precursor to CBD called CBDa which is an even more potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. "How do we use that in a skincare product and how do we take a deeper dive into it?"
And we started learning all these things about it. Like there is CBD full-spectrum, broad spectrum, isolate, which is the best one. We are really research-driven individuals and if we were going to put anything out there and put our names behind it and our story behind it, we wanted to be 100% certain that these were the best products that we could create.
And it did some... It filled a void in the market that was there.
People [that] were putting out products or just sprinkling CBD on products and not really diving into the efficacy or functionality of the ingredient, but using it more for a trend basis. And that felt really unfair.
And if you really dive into mine and Graham's personal stories, we both have been at a place where things didn't seem fair.
And we had started connecting the product, the business, to our story and what the brand stood for, what no thank you stood for and everything started coming together, one by one and started falling into line. It's not something we started with and said, "Oh, here's an Excel sheet in here. This is what we're going to do. And this is where we're going to do next."
Yes, we had a business plan eventually, that we developed over time, but a lot of it did come together because we were just curious about the ingredients.
"We wanted to do right by the ingredient and create products that weren't out there and do justice to it" pretty much is where our headspace was when we started.
Yeah. I think when we... One thing to mention is when we first started this whole endeavor... We started talking about this, I want to say late 2017, to early 2018. And we didn't really do anything for a little while.
[Our] ideas are like soup at that point. But this was the time when particularly in California, --and we both are there in greater LA-- you'd walk down the street and you'd see dispensaries, you'd see all these just CBD shops selling all kinds of CBD, whether it's skincare, ingestible, or otherwise.
And it was almost too much to handle. And we said, "Okay, there's obviously something here, but we want to do our research and figure out what really makes CBD a great ingredient, what was its potential use in skincare and also, how do you tell the good stuff from the crap?"
And that's a huge, huge problem in this industry is there's so many different types of CBD out there. They're not all effective.
And everything right now, even still today in 2022, is mislabeled. And there's a big consumer education piece that I think we have to go through, before people really, really understand what it is they're getting.
But certainly from the outset, our mission was, we want to use the best of the absolute best, really try to educate people on how to look out for both what's in our products, and also everything else, and really just put together the best possible product we could.
And that's been our journey for the --I'm gonna call it the first part of the first part of the company-- are really focusing on the products and the ingredients. And that's something I feel... We both feel pretty good about.
Absolutely. So how long would you say it was that journey from ideating on "Maybe this is something we should get into and maybe make a product here" to you having a product in your hand. Maybe you're not selling it yet, but you've got a demo or however you prefer to [call] it.
Okay, I would say that was at least a year if not more. And it was a year from idea stage to first draft of a product when we're first testing out a few different versions of the product that we ultimately might want to create.
So the very first step we went through was "Okay, let's do our market research and figure out how we fit in, figure out what kind of product we're gonna put together.”
“Then, okay, we know we're a skincare company. How many SKUs do we want, what's the mix of like facial SKUs and body SKUs we want?"
And then ultimately, it was interviewing formulators, finding people who had experience both in CBD and in skincare which is actually pretty difficult to find...
And there are a few that really know both. And we're fortunate enough to have found one that did and was able to marry both the skincare knowledge with the CBD knowledge.
So we got our first draft of products, probably a year after that, that first idea stage. And then I would say we spent at least another 6 months really tinkering with the formulas to get what we wanted.
And we also sent it out to about 100 people to test the products and give us feedback. That took another 4 or 5 months and made some changes from there.
So I think we're very focused on making sure that it's not just Graham and I and the product developer in the lab, creating products that we like.
But we want to test it out in the market and make sure we get the consumer feedback before we finally let it out loose in the market and really, really send the product out which shows in the reviews and all the feedback we've collected over the years because we're really proud of what we've created.
And I think, that's a testament to all the hard work we put in all the research we've done, but also everyone else comes on the journey with us and tests the products, not knowing what's in the jar, like, "Oh, this really works." So that's been fun. (laughs)
Yeah, I think there's always a tendency for entrepreneurs or just people tinkerers, creators, whatever it is, they work on it too much and you really don't know...
If you're doing the same thing over and over, you start to believe in it, which is almost just bias because you're just so attached to it.
You gotta get out there, you got to show people, and get real feedback. And so I think that that's a fantastic take away from your story that everyone should really know.
It's just like, stop working on it and go get feedback, right?
Yeah, and I think that's not just on the product side. It's every aspect of the business. When you're developing the website, or when you're creating your brand, go out and test it out. Because you can work on it for years and years.
And people might not react the way you think so I think testing, A/B testing, or however you test your products, or branding, or ads, just do it little by little and get the feedback. And it doesn't mean like if someone...
If one person tells you to change something, you should just rip everything apart and change it. You have your conviction about things, you have your gut feelings about things, you want to stick to it, but take that feedback into consideration as you evolve.
Because it's all about evolving constantly and changing and pivoting as a small business.
Absolutely. All right. So I'm gonna use the word "noodling", because I'm hungry.
So you're noodling for a year on this idea and you're coming up with the concept of skincare and CBD, and then you've got a product in hand that you're testing.
And then is it about another year of iterations upon that product before you're about to go to market?
Yeah, it's another year of both product iteration and also branding iteration. We had a couple of early ideas around how we wanted to brand this and market it.
[We] completely turned away from some of those when we did a bit more work and figured out how we really wanted to pitch this to the consumer.
It took us a hot second to come up with a name: "No, Thank You." Actually, that was a group effort, both the two of us and also our head graphic designer and branding person or branding agency.
It came in the middle of the night, and we all said, "Okay, does this actually make sense? Do we want to take this chance and name ourselves 'No, Thank You?'"
And we took a couple of weeks to think about it, because it is a little bit out there.
And by the way, I mean, we should explain what we're saying "no, thank you" to, which first and foremost is frankly, the BS in the skincare space, whether it's the lack of transparency, the false promises, the unhealthy stereotypes.
We're here to cut through the crap and say and say no to all that. So that's really the genesis of the name.
But it does take some people back and they're like, "This is quirky, this is interesting." But I think what we came back to is, whether you like it or you don't, it's pretty memorable.
It sticks out and I think that's probably the best thing we can hope for as a new brand.
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That's amazing. I feel like we're kindred spirits here because the podcast's name comes from us cutting through the bullshit of liars out here, "Get rich quick, dropship, now you got Ferrari." type stuff.
It's asking you guys the real stuff and you're laying it on. And I've got some tough questions to follow things up with.
Alright. Alright, let's do it,
CBD and the way that it's regulated federally is a pain in the butt, especially with financing. So talk about some of the downsides to launching a CBD brand, especially when it comes around with payment providers.
Yeah. There are a lot of downsides to getting in this business. The good news, by the way, is it's all getting a little bit better every day, every week, every month.
But it still has a lot of challenges. So as you mentioned, finance is a big one but it's getting easier to deal with.
So the biggest problem we had was getting a credit card processor that would accept our payments. The biggest one out there that everybody seems to use in the world, Stripe, just says "I'm not doing CBD."
We find this a lot both in payments and also in advertising. Even though CBD is totally federally legal, it's just not a big enough category for the really big guys to care about it and it's too easy for them to say "I'm just not even gonna touch it."
Yeah, it's too close to THC in their mind. Right? Yeah, exactly, exactly.
There's still a lot of... And by the way, this is...
Any vice product. So we're talking sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, they all get hit with it.
(laughs) Yeah. "Vice product."
(laughs) The number of ads we've had rejected on Facebook for unsafe substances, when we're showing a picture of like a lip balm is to hide an account.
We're finally figuring a way around it but it's taken some time. So I would say finance is a big one.
But I do think that's getting easier, both from a payment side and also an investment from the investment side of things.
There are a lot more cannabis-focused, VC funds. So there's capital out there that understands the space a little bit and it's getting a little bit easier.
I touched on marketing, that has been a challenge. Facebook is open-ish to CBD. But you've got to do the advertising in a very, very specific way.
We're fortunate enough that we just started working with the nation's largest CBD advertising firm on Facebook.
So now we can finally get our ads approved and we actually have a better idea of what we need to put in terms of content to get them out there.
But Google is still a no go. And there are a lot of tricks that you have to play and a lot of hoops you have to jump through to try to get your ads approved.
So whether that is using ads that are just focused on education and really not trying to sell anything at all, whether that's creating an entirely, like a carbon copy version of your website that just talks about hemp instead of CBD.
There are all these little tricks that you kind of learn after you've been through this business for a little while.
And you can make it work, but it's like, it's at least double the amount of work for any other Ecom business, I feel like, just because there's so much stuff to think about.
I would also add that, there was already a first iteration of CBD 1.0 products that, as Graham mentioned, there are a lot of potheads who thought they could get into the consumer product business.
They created some products. Maybe they weren't backed up by science, they weren't backed up by research, they were just sprinkling CBD, there wasn't really...
There's so much misinformation and hocus pocus going around on consumers in this space that there's been a little bit of mistrust, a little bit of loss.
People that weren't really business focused or business operators that came into this space and just ruined it. But I think right now we're getting through that mess as well and getting people to trust the ingredient again, educating them about it, getting them...
Getting people who have invested to come back and invest and really do the diligence rather than just throwing money around.
So you're seeing this second round and second iteration in the finance space, both from a consumer standpoint, from a financing partner standpoint.
And I think all of us are just learning and doing even the extra work to make sure what they're putting money behind works.
And I think the products or the brands that do have quality products that do work will prevail this round. This goes around.
But there are still some that think this is easy money just to come out with a product really big and come out and sell it or whatever they're thinking. I think that's in any industry but it seems to be way more prevalent here.
I've got horror stories of conversations... They are not horror stories. It's just like I get on the phone and I can quickly identify what people are trying to do. And I'm just like, "Is this like a cash grab?"
"If so, here's some free advice, but I'm not interested in that play."
Right. And yeah, I will say CBD is one of them where we're, I get on the phone and Within the first 10 minutes, I go, "Hey, you know that it's gonna be twice the work whatever we do because of your industry."
"It's not me trying to fleece you. It is... That's the chosen industry and that's the realities of your business."
And you know, if I'm the first person that tells people that they just... They're not receptive to it, because they don't understand the challenges that you guys are laying out here.
It is. It is extremely difficult. And I think the first iteration has made it hard.
But I think just showing up on a day to day business, we truly do believe in what we're selling and our brand and what we stand for.
Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
And I think that's why we show up every day. And we've been doing this and pushing... It's pushing that boulder uphill, that's what we're doing.
And when you see folks who are just sprinkling CBD, or putting CBD or putting whatever else, they're in their product to sell it as a CBD (product), it's extremely frustrating.
So I'm glad you're out there policing these people and putting them in their space. (laughs)
I'm trying to. Sorry, we jumped around a lot here. Let's get back to the... I'm trying to paint a story arc here.
So you guys have this product and you're happy with it. Let's skip ahead a little bit here. How did you get your first customers? What was that like? How were you out there marketing this thing?
So the way we first started was testing everything with... We started with our friends and family, pushed out to extended friends and family. And the very, very first customers in the business, we really got through organic word of mouth.
I think because advertising this space or because paid advertising [is rather] tricky, everything early on really has to be organic.
So we did that both through our own networks. But as anyone knows, you run out of that pretty quickly.
So you can't rely on your friends and family to make a business out of it so you gotta figure out what's next. So for us, it was all about...
At this point, we can do almost whatever we want in terms of organic social media. So [for] unpaid [ads], we can talk about CBD, we can talk about its benefits, we can talk about our brand, our products, etc, etc.
So a lot of our early efforts were really focused on social media and influencer recruitment. Influencer, I've got such mixed emotions overall. Some of them are amazing, some of them are harder to work with.
Sometimes they're just really hard to find. You've got to find the right ones who have got a really engaged audience. Fortunately, we found...
Early on, we identified a couple that came through our extended network again and we had really good luck with them pushing some of our products out.
We set up affiliate programs with all of them. And then we started to grow that program over time.
Then the next step for us was really layering in the paid advertising side of things as soon as we figured out how [we can] actually execute this paid ads strategy in this really weird world where not everything gets approved.
So we're finally figuring that out. And it's really, it's really great to be in that position. But it's a lot of work. And support before...
Anyone who's thinking about getting into this space, I cannot tell you enough that you've got to do it with your eyes wide open and know exactly what the challenges are going to be because there are a few for sure.
Defining your target audience and using that as your Northstar, which took us some time to develop...
And even though you might be right or wrong, having a direction you're going in and speaking to that audience, and gravitating towards them, and getting them on board as your fans are going to help you.
Either you're gonna find out that is your target audience or that's not, you've missed it by a lot, but you're speaking to someone and making them a community.
I think that's very important as you start getting customers.
And then I think, because we were in COVID, we didn't have that much of an opportunity to do that at that time what we're doing more of like showing up to events, showing up to local events, local small business events, supporting other small businesses, figuring out how you can partner with them, and layering that on on top of our marketing strategy to help us grow.
Absolutely. Now, that's all fantastic advice.
Something that I've heard on previous episodes from people in similar spaces, was emails playing a big component in their marketing strategies as well. Are you guys seeing the same results?
We are. It's been tougher for us to or it has been tougher for us to grow our email list because we've had to do it all organically.
Now that we can finally play in the paid space, we're doing a lot more paid email, email collection efforts as well.
But certainly what we found is as soon as you get a customer through the door, then marketing to them through email is so much easier than anything you can do on the paid social side.
Because one, you're free to do whatever you want as long as you don't piss them off. So finding that right cadence of enough emails, but not too many is a tricky thing to do sometimes.
We also want to make sure we've got the right balance of both sales emails, but also educational and informational emails.
So we're now at the point where we're putting out at least a blog post, if not more, every week, we send an email announcement about that.
So people get a nice mix of what we think is some... I think it's some really interesting educational content about not just CBD skincare, but how CBD works, how it interplays with other active ingredients that not that many people talk about, because there are so many people just putting CBD in products for CBD's sake.
And we're really here to say no thanks to all that.
Now, is there anything about the journey that I forgot to ask you about that you think would resonate with our audience?
Well, the thing I would say to that is both Zain and I worked together in finance for a long time. That's actually how we met. We both became best friends when we were both living in London together. My background is I grew up in LA, started working for...
I don't know what the average age of the audience is here, but if people remember Lehman Brothers, that bank that famously went bust, that was my first job out of college.
And then Zain, and I spent a decade working together at an LA based investment firm. And that was such a powerful experience for me in the sense that I learned so much about how to get stuff done, what makes a business tick...
It was a great, great training ground. But it also started to eat away at my soul a little bit. And I think the best advice that I give to somebody is you can only do a job, for the money, for a defined period of time.
After that, you've really got to do something that you're personally passionate about, that you really care about, and also doing it with people you like.
One of the best things I get to do is show up with Zain every day. And even though we're not in a physical office, we're talking together every day.
We're friends, we're colleagues. Because we've worked together for such a long time, we share a brain, and we're almost always on the same page. And it's just a lot of fun.
It's way more fun than we did before.
I would just add, yeah, it's important who you pick you go on this journey with because it's all-consuming. It's like having a family and the business becomes your baby.
Just make sure whoever you pick on this journey, you have fun with them. You can do conflict resolution, you can be honest and it's really hard.
But also balancing and making sure your friendship is intact at the end of all of this. And Graham and I both personally been through, like everyone else in this world, has been through tough times the last two years, during COVID.
And I think having a partner that I could trust has helped me sleep at night. So I'm not totally crazy and anxious all the time, which I was when I was in finance.
So I think it's very important to have peace of mind and pick the right partner during that process.
Yeah, I couldn't agree more with working with the right people. And it's honestly... I was lucky to find a good partner myself.
But I think some of the greatest advice I got when we're first starting out is to plan for the divorce before it even gets started. Honestly, it's like you're getting married to somebody.
Pretty much. (laughs)
Alright. So we talked all about these amazing products. So you guys clearly have passion for it and [have] just so much knowledge about it.
For those that are curious to check out the products themselves, where should they go?
There, we have not just information on the products, but I'd also encourage people to spend some time on our Science section where we go into all the detail on, one, why CBD is a great skincare ingredient and two, the different types of CBD, why we use what we use in particular, and also what to look out for as a consumer.
Because whether you're buying our products or someone else's, we want to help arm our customers with the information they need to make an informed decision. This is still a space with so much misinformation, so much mislabeling.
By the way, just because something on the cover on the jar says “full spectrum CBD” does not mean that's what's inside.
As a customer today, everyone's making their job...
Everyone's making your job as a customer really tough because you've got to literally download the lab report and read it. Otherwise you have no idea. So that's what we're trying to do.
We're trying to give people the information they need to make an informed decision.
Absolutely. Zain, Graham, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Thank you for having us.
Chase, thank you so much. It's been awesome. Really appreciate it.
Alright. I can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their knowledge and journey with us.
We've got a lot to think about and potentially add into our own business. You can find all the links in the show notes.