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The Omnichannel Tide Raises All Your Channels with Hilary Quartner - Honest Ecommerce Ep. 148

Hilary Quartner is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Hilma. 

Hilary built her career in the consumer products and retail industry, most recently as Head of Strategy & Finance at Jetblack, a Walmart-incubated startup, with prior experience at The Wonderful Company and Credit Suisse Investment Banking. 

At Hilma, she is focused on building the direct-to-consumer and Ecommerce channels, as well as leading growth marketing and financing. 

Hilary holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and BA from Columbia University. She lives and works in New York. 

In This Conversation We Discuss: 

  • [00:00] Intro
  • [01:52] What led to the founding of Hilma
  • [05:09] Determining if “natural” is worthing investing in
  • [07:50] From idea to having an Ecom store
  • [09:16] What makes Hilma different
  • [11:37] Hilma’s go-to-market strategy
  • [14:06] The ease-of-use of the Shopify ecosystem
  • [15:12] It’s easier and more preferable to just start now
  • [19:38] Mistakes Hilary wants you to avoid
  • [15:47] Sponsor: Electric Eye electriceye.io
  • [16:07] Sponsor: Mesa apps.shopify.com/mesa
  • [16:52] Sponsor: Gorgias gorgias.grsm.io/honest 
  • [18:18] Sponsor: Rewind rewind.io/honest
  • [18:50] Sponsor: Klaviyo klaviyo.com/honest
  • [19:38] The first step is the hardest
  • [21:32] Picking which channels to focus
  • [24:18] Omnichannel benefits both retail and Ecom sides
  • [25:17] Why Hilma chose to also go with Amazon
  • [27:27] Can Hilma now invest back into its business?


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Hilary Quartner  

Being in front of consumers on-shelf is a huge part of our belief of [our] go to market [strategy]. Aside from that, we really believed in the power of personal recommendation.

Chase Clymer  

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. 

I also share my own insights from running our top Shopify consultancy, Electric Eye. We cut the fluff in favor of facts to help you grow your Ecommerce business.

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, we're welcoming to the show another brilliant founder. 

Hilary Quartner is the co-CEO and co-founder of Hilma, a new natural remedies brand that is creating herbal alternatives to your medicine cabinet staples. 

I always screw that word up "erbal" and "herbal" when I read it. I always put the H in there. That's just how my brain works. Anyways, Hilary, welcome to the show. How you doing today?

Hilary Quartner  

Thank you. Thanks so much for having me, man. Good. Thanks. How are you?

Chase Clymer  

I drank way too much coffee to be completely honest.

Hilary Quartner  

That's okay. It's a Thursday, you're just almost across the finish line.

Chase Clymer  

Getting through the week. And then today, I actually realized that the quarter is over, next week. And I was like, "Whoa, that's almost Q4 now." And I'm like... Now we got to do a bunch of planning. Awesome. 

So take me back to the beginning. You've got an awesome backstory, especially with what you were up to before founding Hilma. 

So let's just go back right before that what was going on in your life and what led up to the ideation of what is now Hilma?

Hilary Quartner  

Yeah, sure. So just to give you some context on my professional background, I've always  worked and lived in the world of retail and consumer products. 

Started my career and a pretty traditional role out of college and investment banking, and a retail and consumer startup as the coverage group, excuse me. 

And when I was there just happened to be staffed on a series of food and beverage deals, all of which were, at the time, notably emblematic of the market shift towards "better-for-you" products and more natural products. 

And so I really appreciated from that seat that that would be the natural would be driving the growth and CPG going forward. 

So I was really excited about that and decided to move to LA. I joined a company called The Wonderful Company, which is a family of healthy food and beverage brands. 

And among a couple of roles, was a brand manager for Fiji water, and then went to business school where I met one of my co-founders, and then through her my other co-founder (laughs). 

We're a 3 person co-founding team. And we always talked about you starting something together. We're both excited about this general, better-for-you, healthy trend at the time, specifically as related to food, but didn't have an idea. 

And so went our separate ways. And post business school, I joined a startup that was being incubated by Walmart, which was called Jetblack

I was the first hire there and acted as right hand to the CEO who was a very talented and proven founder. [She was] one of the co-founders of Rent the Runway

And so I really got a sense of what it was like to work at a startup from day one and really scale it. And I was definitely bitten by the bug. 

And so at around the same time I started, Nina, one of my co-founders approached me because she and my other co-founder had been together and one of them had a cold and the other one handed her an Emergen-C

And they were like, "Hmm, this is weird that we're still using this product. It's basically sugar and vitamin C." 

And so we're maybe like "Why isn't our medicine cabinet clean the way the rest of our lives are?" So they took this kernel to me and we all started diligently seeing the medicine cabinet and I appreciated that. 

We were all healthy consumers yet we had old Emergen-C and Tums boxes in our own medicine cabinet. Yet we had --each had-- really compelling experiences with natural alternatives. 

I had terrible allergies when I was young and have always used more natural approaches, as I related to that part of my life. And each of us brought our own set of personal experiences with us. 

So we got to work and really started validating that this was a really compelling business opportunity. And we're sort of the last domino to fall, so to speak in the store. 

All other categories from beauty to personal care to food and beverage, of course have turned over and yet the medicine cabinet is stuck in the past. So that's how we got started.

Chase Clymer  

That's fantastic. So you guys have this amazing idea. And how do you go out and get it? Because I know that an issue that a lot of brands have is finding product-market fit. So what was your strategy and the team's actions to try to [determine] is this the right idea to invest our time and money into? 

Hilary Quartner  

Yeah, it's a great question. So first, it always starts... For us, we took it... We approached it 2 different ways. One, just looking at the market and really validating what we were seeing with numbers. And that was very resoundingly clear. 

I already mentioned many times that natural [products are] really driving the growth and consumer products. Natural is growing at like 8% a year and CPG overall is less than 1%. And then OTC

We looked at what is the penetration of natural products and other categories, and where is OTC relative to that. 

And when I say OTC I mean over-the-counter products. And so OTC is less than 3%. And there are categories like dairy, where it's almost close to 15%. So there's this big gap.

And at the same time, millennials in particular are both very distrustful of pharma and 60% are saying they're actively searching for an alternative. So the hunger is there. And the appetite of the consumer is definitely there. 

So that's like all the on-paper stuff that you feel good about (laughs). And then we started talking to customers, which is the more important process. And we did a ton... We've had hundreds of customer interviews, people who had never tried natural products before and understanding why. 

They're just understanding what types of things make them uncomfortable on a more everyday basis. What do they use a lot? And then what are their current set of solutions? What do they like about them? What they don't like about them? 

And then also people who are already in the natural market and similar questions like what do they like about what they're using? What are they not like about what they're using? 

We really, through that, honed on where we wanted to be different and where we thought that there was an opportunity to stand out.

Chase Clymer  

Perfect advice there. I think that the number one advice that I usually get on the show is just talk to your customers at any stage of the process and you're gonna just... You're gonna find answers. 

Alright, so you guys, you have a validated idea. Now, how did you approach getting everything going? How long did it take from... 

Actually, I guess the first question would be how long did it take from the inception of this idea where you saw this opportunity to go live with your actual Ecommerce store? What is that journey? How long did that take?

Hilary Quartner  

That time, it's just like, it's really hard to... I feel like it was so late. We were really like... It's probably about 2 years, to be honest, start to finish. Maybe a little more. 

About a year of pre-work before.... we really started not working on the site, etc, and all that validation. And then a year, as we're officially working on it leading up to the launch. And that I think, like the lead time is different, depending on the nature of the business. 

But for us, we were creating physical products that needed to be well-researched and safe for people and validated to work. 

So there was a lot of complexity there as far as assembling the right team of experts, getting the right manufacturers in place, doing the right research and validation, in addition to all of the normal things that you do to start a direct-to-consumer brand or any Ecommerce brand. 

So yeah, it took a little... It took a while.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. I guess what I wanted to highlight there for the listeners is that good things take time. And overnight isn't really how these things get started, especially you guys took a little bit of a different approach, as most people. 

Do you want to speak a bit to that?

Hilary Quartner  

And what's that? Do you mean the way that we created the business or just how we're  positioning our products is different from?

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. You are approaching it differently than others like people that have come out with these products before. 

Hilary Quartner  

Yeah, so I think at a high level, the way that we think about how we're different is we sit between over-the-counter products and what we call the hippie-dippie herbal market, which is very well-established. 

And people have been using herbs medicinally for generations. And so we had a couple of foundational beliefs that we believed were important to bring these types of remedies to a mainstream market. 

The first of which was how do we harness science and really bring data to the consumer so that they could take a leap of faith and try something that for most people is different than what they're used to. 

So you asked what were the things that we did very early days to get this idea off the ground. One of the first things we did was create a board of scientific advisors, which includes traditional MDs and holistic practitioners

And they're really the foundation of our product development strategy, we work with them on all of our formulations. 

So that's the first pillar of our scientific difference. The second is that this is a crowded market. And there are a lot of trendy ingredients that spring up, some of which I'm sure have great efficacy. 

But we took a stance early on that we wanted to only work and include ingredients that have been validated with clinical research. And so we really haven't included anything that's bleeding edge in our own products to avoid the risk of it being defunct in a couple of months time. 

And then the last piece, which is very different from our peers, is that we conduct our own primary clinical research. So we've completed that on our first 3 products today. And we have plans and hope to continue doing that on select products going forward. 

So that is the main differentiation aside from the baseline positioning that we believe we need to be  price accessible in what has become like a very inaccessible wellness market and distribution accessible. 

We are stocked in shelves at Target. We’re on Amazon. We're on our own site. And we want to be as easy to understand as possible.

Chase Clymer  

Oh, absolutely. And I definitely want to get into the omnichannel strategy a little bit. But I guess my next question is what was it like... 

You've got these products, you've got all this validation? You're excited to get started? What was the go-to-market strategy? How did you get the buzz about this new natural remedies brand out there?

Hilary Quartner  

Yeah, so a big part of our go-to-market strategy was just like a belief that we needed to be omnichannel. And that's because of the way that people shop in this category. So we launched our own direct-to-consumer site. 

We, in parallel, built up a footprint of natural and specialty brick-and-mortar stores, so that people could discover us in real life, even though it was... We launched directly into COVID so that was different than what we thought. 

And at the same time worked on getting ourselves into Grove Collaborative, Thrive Market, , and on Amazon. And as you mentioned, we launched at Target last year. 

So that is... Being in front of consumers on-shelf is a huge part of our belief of [our] go to market [strategy]. 

Aside from that, we really believed in the power of personal recommendation. And so all of our marketing is really channeled through... 

We have a grassroots affiliate program, which is a network of ambassadors that are health authorities who speak about Hilma when they use them and why they think they're different... 

And, we try to harness, of course, the morality of a personal recommendation through friends and people who have loved and found benefit with the product. Because there's nothing like someone saying, "I used to take 'x thing' all the time [and] felt badly about it. 

So I want to try something different. So I found this brand. And I was skeptical and it really worked." "And it 's so cool it has things like chamomile in it and versus something that's bright pink." 

And so that narrative space, there's nothing like it and as far as convincing someone to take the leap and try some products.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So I know a lot of the listeners out here, they're probably a little more nerdy might be a way to describe it. 

So could you talk a bit more about the choices you made and the selections you made in technology? Are there anything in that regard that was definitely a game-changer for you guys? 

Hilary Quartner  

Oh, luckily for me, I do not have a technical background. We have a pretty straightforward Ecommerce website. We're built on Shopify. We [probably use] the standard apps as it relates to the various things that we need. 

And I'm happy to talk through what the stack is (laughs) in some cases [if it] were interesting. But honestly, there wasn't anything super differentiated. 

And I think that just speaks to the moment that we're in such a well-developed ecosystem that most people can, stand up a site  --Obviously, we had help for sure--  and find the kind of tools that they need. 

And so we're always keeping our eyes out for ways, I think, mostly for as it relates to  speaking to and having an intimate experience with our customers. 

So we really are paying attention to the evolution of customer experience as it relates to our product and tech. But otherwise, we're pretty tech non-intensive to be completely honest.

Chase Clymer  

Oh. No, that answer is wonderful. It just highlights that, you know, people sometimes when they're getting started, they put up these barriers of "I have to research all the tech and all that stuff." 

Now, you just got to get started. Everything will evolve with time. And notice, I think, not making a decision is worse than making the wrong decision, to be honest. 

Hilary Quartner  

Yeah, I think there are some things that stick with you longer than others as far as if you go the wrong path. 

But I generally agree with you that now,luckily, there's a lot of things that are direct and there's a lot of [easily accessible information] that can help you make a solid decision to get going on.

Chase Clymer  

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Chase Clymer  

Well, I guess in the spirit of making the wrong decision, is there anything in the last couple years of running the business where you'd like to go back in time and tell yourself, don't do that or just something that stands out to you that you want to let the listeners know like, "Hey, don't make the same mistake that we made in this particular regard."

Hilary Quartner  

I mean, there's probably so many I'm trying to think of a helpful example that's a little bit more applicable to anyone's business. Timelines in the beginning are just so hard. 

I think for us it was very real, because as I mentioned before, we're working on a physical product that needs to be perfect for the end consumer because it's something that they put in their bodies. 

And our credibility and trustworthiness as a brand is so important. So we tight things... Everything just takes longer than you think, especially the first time around. Now, that's not so true. But when you need to get... [Before] one would live... And if you have some... 

And you're not able to test and iterate the way that, luckily, a lot of tech businesses and products can very early on without being perfect, that is hard. 

So I think it depends on the business, how pressing that challenge is, but like, I guess I'll say I wish we would have known. I think we kind of knew but didn't know what the impact of it would be.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah, I think that just that applies to almost every business. I do a little bit of real estate stuff outside of the agency. 

And the advice I got was like "Buying your first investment property is the hardest thing you'll ever do. And then each time, it just gets a little bit easier. A little bit easier." 

Because you start to know what's going on, you start to have systems in place, and it's not your first rodeo. I think it's just it's the same with any type of business.

Hilary Quartner  

Yeah. For sure. Definitely. Things get easier over time. You definitely know where the pitfalls are.

Chase Clymer  

Exactly. So with going with an omnichannel strategy and getting into Target --which congrats, by the way-- how much of a multiplier of effort and attention in time, I guess, would that be considered with just picking one channel first and going straight that way?

Hilary Quartner  

Yeah. Well, I mean, to be fair, we did pick one channel first in the sense that we made the choice to launch direct-to-consumer, which many brands do for the same reasons that we did, which is that all the things we just talked about: The ability to get something stood up and learn really quickly about your customer the best there. 

But I think as we looked forward to the brand, even however many years now  --almost 2 years ago-- which was a very different context... 

We knew that, as I mentioned before, that we just needed to be where the customer was where they were thinking about these products, and that is definitely at retail so it just... We had to design the team to be able to manage multiple channels at once. 

And so the way that we did that is  as a founding team, we split channel focus so that... There really are skills that you build as it relates to building a direct-to-consumer brand or in a digital brand, specifically in managing marketing spend and allocating that marketing spend. 

That's completely different from the sales process at a retailer. And so we sort of divided and conquered in order to manage that as a team. 

But we've been particularly happy that we did that early on and set the foundation early on because the landscape over the last --since we launched last January-- has changed remarkably online and the pure play DTC brand is becoming more and more a relic of the past when it comes to consumers. 

And so we have luckily gotten somewhat of a head start there, which we may not have prioritized doing as quickly as we could even 3 to 5 years ago. So...

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely, I like how you just shared with us that you had to divide and conquer on those channels, because they are almost a full-time job to start building those things out. And especially the way that you approach them is just completely different where... 

Shopify stores a lot of data and a lot of numbers where retail is a lot about relationships. And it's just a completely different style to grow that arm of the business. Is there anything that I forgot to ask you that you think would be worthwhile to share with our audience? 

Hilary Quartner  

No, but you actually the way that you just rephrase that made me also think that for people who are considering omnichannel strategy, we really benefited as it comes to building retail from having that type of rich customer data and experience from our online businesses. 

Because that's first-hand feedback that retailers are extremely hungry for and so the left hand definitely serves the right. 

They really have been harmonious which oftentimes people feel like "Oh, they might dilute the impact of the other." 

But for us, rising tides raise all ships. And we really do consider them generally, awareness at the beginning to be the most important thing that we can get? 

Chase Clymer  

Oh, absolutely.

Hilary Quartner  

What have you not mentioned? Hmm. Honestly, I think we've just covered a lot in a really short period of time. Is there anything that you are wondering about?

Chase Clymer  

Well, you said that a rising tide raises all ships. And I think there's something to be said about... 

You also made a play on Amazon early on, and maybe talk about the decision making behind that. Because I know a lot of brands out there fear Amazon, in a sense. 

So could you explain the reasoning behind that choice?

Hilary Quartner  

Yeah. And I think it's different for every brand. And again, so dependent on the category. For us, it was also very dependent on the time. 

As I mentioned, we launched at the end of January 2020. So our first year of business was a COVID Story and still kind of is, so our view of the impact of physical retail was definitely challenged in the first 12 months of doing business and is now starting to rebound. 

But in the meantime, like, we didn't want to just wait around. So we saw so much of that dislocation in-store was going to Amazon, and particularly in our category. And so that was just like a... We were going to do it eventually but we just accelerated that decision. 

And at the same time, Amazon has made a lot of effort to kind of improve the tools that brand owners have at their disposal to really tell the brand story visually. And so that's lucky that we happened to enter the ecosystem at that time, where we have a really beautiful store on Amazon which makes the brand stand out. 

And again, we were able to leverage a lot of the insights that are on what worked on our side to that Amazon experience. And we do find, which makes (laughs) our customer and the unit economics challenging to report out on when we interview customers. 

They buy across like all 3 of our channels, whether it be our direct site, Amazon, and retail. And it's just like "Where are we when they need it?" 

Do they need it slightly faster? They go to Amazon. 

Do they need it right now and they're in-store? They'll pick it up. 

Or do they want to try a special bundle? They go to our website. 

So there really is this nice synergy of having different experiences available to the customers that are loyal to you.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Now, and this is a question that you may not be able to share with me.

But what is going into Amazon, and the velocity that you see capitalizing on just the traffic that that monstrosity gets, did that velocity help you guys hit unit economics, make them cheaper --economies of scale-- and then be able to invest back in the other parts of the business? 

Hilary Quartner  

In general terms, it's still very early days, but we appreciate just like the magnitude of difference in terms of the audience on Amazon. It's completely different. And we have a slightly different customer, which is really interesting to analyze there. 

And in general, yes. The volume of servicing multiple channels, also at retail, helps the whole business. So yes, I think it is important. 

You have to be set up to operationally handle each of those channels, which like we alluded to just a minute ago. But if you can, it does help. 

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely, yeah. And you're not the first guest to mention that all the data that they had from other areas of the business helped them with the retail push. 

So anyone that's out there thinking about that, you should definitely start to gather all that together before you get out there and start pounding the pavement and making connections and trying to get into stores. 

Hilary, thank you so much for coming on the show today. You're a fantastic guest. I'm sure that we'll have you back in a year or so and you can catch us up on what's going on.

Hilary Quartner  

Thanks so much, Chase. I appreciate it.

Chase Clymer  

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. 

Make sure you head over to honestecommerce.co to check out all the other amazing content that we have. Make sure you subscribe, leave a review. And obviously if you're thinking about growing your business, check out our agency at electriceye.io. Until next time.