The Unofficial Shopify Podcast

How Stephanie Morimoto Built a Wellness Brand So Good Venus Williams Invested

Episode Summary

Tennis star Venus Williams is now the chief brand officer at this organic self-care brand.

Episode Notes

Stephanie Morimoto is the owner and CEO of Asutra, a natural beauty company so good that customer Venus Williams approached them to get involved.

Asutra offers over 50 organic, natural products – from natural solutions to help with pain relief and sleep to skincare to bath & body – for people who invest in self-care.

Asutra is woman-owned and women-led; 77% of their team are people of color; and 100% of their staff would recommend Asutra as a great place to work.

Key Takeaways:

Stephanie is an enthusiastic board member of Equality Illinois, which advocates for LGBTQ rights; and Naturally Chicago, which creates an ecosystem for natural products companies to thrive. In her spare time, she’s an avid urban gardener who grows everything from tomatoes to lilacs.

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Episode Transcription

The Unofficial Shopify Podcast
Stephanie Morimoto

Kurt Elster: Well, you’ve inspired me. I’m gonna start growing my own herbs.

Stephanie Morimoto: We can talk about gardening another time if you would like. I’m a big gardening geek.

Kurt Elster: I have. Well, I’ll hit you up for advice. All right, I’ve hit record. That was our cold open. Today on The Unofficial Shopify Podcast, we are talking to a really interesting individual about a really interesting brand and even more interesting journey. There’s a key word here. It is interesting. No, I’m really, I’m genuinely excited about this one. I think you guys are gonna enjoy it, because joining me is Stephanie Morimoto, who is the owner and CEO of Asutra, which is one of the neatest, more exciting brands that we’ve gotten to work on. It’s women owned, women led, 77% of their team are people of color, and 100% of their staff would recommend Asutra as a great place to work. They’re in Chicago. We are, as well, so it’s close to home, and man, they’ve got over 50 organic, natural products. All kinds of good stuff with a strong focus on magnesium, which I’ve taken magnesium for years, so I understand the practical power of magnesium.

But Stephanie, you tell me, what… Well, number one, thank you for joining us, but tell me, what is Asutra?

Stephanie Morimoto: Hey, Kurt. Well, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. And thanks for all you’ve done to help us make our site even better.

Kurt Elster: It was great when I got there. I was just like cleaning the windows, basically.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah, but we’ve seen some good lift, so that’s been great. Well, I mean you gave a great overview of Asutra. I would say the only thing I would add is that our mission is what we call active self-care. We want to help you take care of yourself on purpose, so that you can take on anything. And as you said, we have a wide array of products. Our top-selling collection contains magnesium, which helps with recovery after exercise, creating a sense of calm. A lot of people use it to get a better night’s sleep. And then we also have natural solutions for sleep, as well as bath, body, and skincare, as well.

Kurt Elster: When was Asutra started?

Stephanie Morimoto: Asutra was founded in 2015, so about five years ago.

Kurt Elster: And when did you get involved?

Stephanie Morimoto: So, I got involved in my current role in 2018. I actually bought the company from its founders, but before that, I was a customer. So, I had been buying the magnesium, and pain cream, and body scrubs online, and absolutely loved them, and then just through serendipity, when I moved from New York to Chicago about four years ago, I was networking with a bunch of people here in the city, one of whom was a small business lawyer, and he said, “You know, I just got this memo that this health and wellness small business is for sale and it seems like something that would be right up your alley.” Because I’ve always loved yoga, and fitness, and taking care of yourself well, whether it’s what you eat or what you put on your body.

And so, he sent me the memo. I contacted the broker who was representing the sellers and when he said what the brand name was, I said, “Oh my gosh, I have this stuff in my medicine cabinet right now. I used the body scrub this morning and I use the pain cream after my workout.” So, it felt a little bit like fate, and then-

Kurt Elster: Yeah, that is. Yeah. You said serendipity. I’m like, I’m going with fate. That weird, kind of a small world scenario. When you… It sounds like if you were to get this recommendation from this lawyer, were you actively looking or considering buying a business at that time?

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah, so with our move to Chicago, I grew up here, in Joliet, Illinois, about an hour south of Chicago, and I really wanted to get back to my entrepreneurial roots, so after college, I actually taught English in Japan, I worked at McKinsey, but then I did this thing that I really loved, which was working with women in Chicago to start really small businesses. We ran a loan fund and we helped them with everything from marketing to how to identify a commercial kitchen, and it was super fun, and I wanted to get back into doing that kind of work. So, I decided I’d love to find a small business that had real legs but needed a new owner and new leadership to take it to the next level.

So, I was looking for something that fit, and when I met with this lawyer, like I said, he had just seen this opportunity and it was fate.

Kurt Elster: That’s really quite incredible. I mean, sometimes you just get… You get lucky with what you’re looking for from the universe, and it’s like one of those moments where you’re like, “Huh oh, maybe The Secret is real. I better update my vision board.” Right?

Stephanie Morimoto: Yes.

Kurt Elster: The reality is really the scenario is you had created what I heard a TED Talk describe as a luck sale. You had created, you let it be known that this is what you were looking for, and your identity and your interests were clear enough to someone else that they went, “I have the perfect thing for you.” And lo and behold, it was.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah, and to be fair, if anybody out there is looking to do something similar, I looked at a lot of other small businesses, as well. Everything from a banana ice cream company, to brass bolts that go on Weber grills, so I looked at a wide range, and I was really lucky to have gotten connected to this lawyer, and then for him to have just received this memo right before we met. So, I would say that was the fate part.

Kurt Elster: I have never… I have sold some small assets. I have never bought a proper business or sold a big boy, for real business. Was this your first business purchase?

Stephanie Morimoto: We had made a small investment to help friends in California, where we used to live, buy a small business from its founder. He was ready to retire and he had no transition plan, and they were looking to do something similar. So, we learned a lot through our investment with them and just watching them and advising them as they went through that process, and that’s actually partly what inspired me to do the same thing here in Chicago with Asutra.

Kurt Elster: So, you had some semi-direct experience that that gave you the confidence and the experience to be able to go forward with this. Hindsight being 20/20, any recommendations for someone who is considering doing something similar?

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. I think obviously you always do your due diligence before you sign on the dotted line, but I think the biggest thing is you will never know 100% of what you’re gonna find during the diligence process, because obviously the sellers want to put their best foot forward, and no matter how deeply you look into it, you’re just not gonna know every single thing that happens in the business until you’re in it yourself. So, as an example with Asutra, the vast majority of the sales when I bought the business were on Amazon, and very little were actually what I consider direct to consumer on the website, and there was zero retail, and I don’t think I fully understood, not having operated a business on Amazon before, all the ins and outs of what you have to do to make an Amazon business successful.

And even though the sellers told us a lot about that, and even consulted with us for three months after they sold us the business, there’s so much that you just learn when you’re doing it yourself that is hard to convey.

Kurt Elster: Right. No matter what, you can only study and prepare so much. Actual, direct, firsthand experience is gonna be the real teacher, where you learn the strange nuances, and oddities, and day-to-day life of actually living with something like that.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah.

Kurt Elster: So, what surprised you most about selling on Amazon? Having Amazon as a primary sales channel.

Stephanie Morimoto: Honestly, how little control you can have over certain things that can have a big impact on your business. So, we’re a third party seller, not a vendor. We rent Amazon’s marketplace and pay them a commission, and then we also use their fulfillment services, called Fulfilled by Amazon or FBA. So, they basically take a cut of our sales through both the commission and those fulfillment services. But Amazon can make unilateral decisions, and they also constantly have bots scanning their listings for anything that might not be in compliance with their various policies.

So, one example is our first and original product line and one of our most popular on Amazon is our organic and natural yoga mat cleaning sprays. They’re Castile soap-based, essential oils, very simple ingredient deck, very clean, very natural. As you can imagine, there was a huge spike in sales for that as people were stuck at home during the pandemic, working out more and realizing, “Ah, I should probably clean my mat, my dumbbells, and my other exercise gear.”

And we just got our listings paused and flagged by Amazon because there was some word in the listing that they deemed made it a pesticide.

Kurt Elster: Oh. Okay. You’re not the only one.

Stephanie Morimoto: Oh, really?

Kurt Elster: I had a client who was selling something like totally innocuous and what we all felt was totally innocuous, didn’t think twice about. They got a letter from the FDA that was like, “You’re making claims about curative power related to pesticides.” And so, it was the moment… It was because they said it was colloidal silver, something, some metal that had a natural anti-bacterial property, and they described that, and got a letter from the FDA going, “Hey, that makes this a pesticide and now you’re subject to these regulations.” Who knew? Right?

Stephanie Morimoto: Right, right.

Kurt Elster: Sometimes you get those surprises. I’d rather get the letter from Amazon than the FDA.

Stephanie Morimoto: We were able to get it overturned. Yes. We got the email from Amazon and we were able to get it overturned, because we had a lot of evidence that showed that what they were saying it was, I mean it’s soap, essentially. It’s not a pesticide. So, we were able to get the items relisted, but they were down for two weeks.

Kurt Elster: Ooh. Yeah, and when it’s your primary sales channel, that’s scary.

Stephanie Morimoto: Right, right.

Kurt Elster: So, have you been… It sounds like you’ve been consciously uncoupling with Amazon or trying to shift the percentage of income to other channels, and it sounds like specifically your Shopify online store as direct to consumer.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. Yes, so when we bought the business, we knew that we wanted to diversify our revenue channels. I mean, we were 99% Amazon when we bought it in 2018, and we wanted to dramatically grow our direct to consumer on Shopify, on our online store. We had to switch to Shopify first. We were on BigCommerce before, when we inherited the site from the founders. Yeah. You should have seen our site before. You would not have loved it. And then we also wanted to diversify to retail, because part of our mission is making great self-care products accessible to a wider array of people, and part of the way that we can do that is through retail channels, as well.

Kurt Elster: So, going into it, it sounds like a lot of these ideas were already starting before you’d even signed and closed on the thing, where you’re like, “Okay, here’s the opportunity. Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna get into retail. We’re gonna improve this website. We’re gonna go direct to consumer and we’re gonna diversify the income.” Because you’re right, like with Amazon… Well, anytime you have a single source of income, even if it’s just like one single full-time job, that means you also have a single source of failure. And so, seeing that Amazon listing get shutdown for two weeks, you notice that you feel it, right?

Stephanie Morimoto: Right.

Kurt Elster: And so, when you’re diversified across multiple channels, suddenly you can weather that stuff a lot easier.

Stephanie Morimoto: Exactly.

Kurt Elster: What was the priority when you started with it? What was the thing?

Stephanie Morimoto: In terms of sales channels?

Kurt Elster: You know, actually, you know what? In terms of buying a business, because I’ve never done it. I have never bought a business. So, you’re like, “All right, we’ve got this plan.” But you’re still, you’re limited on resources. There’s only so much anyone can do at one time. What was the highest priority when you showed up? Kick in the front door? New owner’s here!

Stephanie Morimoto: Well, I would say the first thing that we did is we actually had to move the business. The founders had built it in Houston, Texas, and I really wanted to have it in Chicago, where I’m from, to create good jobs for people who need them here in the city. So, just the logistics in moving it, including our production, and shipping was one thing. But the first strategic priority that we had was rebranding.

So, when I bought the business, there was this very lotus leaf looking logo. It was very yoga. There was a lot of weird stock photos of people doing yoga poses on the packaging and on the website, and yet there were all these products that weren’t just about yoga, right? There were pain relief, there were magnesium for wellness. It was much more a wellness focus if you looked across the entire catalog. So, we actually hired a firm to do deep qualitative consumer research and had them talk to us about what they saw from Asutra. Some of them were actually our customers already, we discovered as we talked to them, and the story they started telling us was they loved this idea of one brand they could trust to offer clean ingredients, products that worked, and the overall theme was this idea of self-care.

But not like, “Calgon, take me away,” self-care, where I’m trying to escape my stresses or escape my worries, but rather these were people, largely women, who were super badass and active, and know the importance of taking care of themselves so they can continue to be really active. And that’s where we came up with this idea of active self-care.

Kurt Elster: Yeah, it’s easy… I’m glad you make that distinction and made that distinction, because I think it’s easy to dismiss self-care as like, “Well, that’s just hedonism with extra steps.” And it’s not the case.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yes. Yeah. No, we want you to be able to play sports, or workout, or play with your kids, or your grandkids, and do all those things and feel good, and if you have chronic pain or if you have trouble sleeping, then we have solutions that will help you address those issues, so that you can, again, be your best.

Kurt Elster: And then from there, I know the history here. You’ve rebranded and rebranded the site, who… We have a colleague who assisted with this. Who was it?

Stephanie Morimoto: Pointer Creative in Canada.

Kurt Elster: Oh! Pointer Creative. Shopify OGs. Been working on Shopify longer than I have. Chris Pointer, Pointer Creative. I will link. They’ll get that backlink. We’ll link to Pointer Creative in the show notes.

Stephanie Morimoto: They were incredible. Yeah, they were incredible. We really, that was another place where I feel like we were very fortunate. We talked to Shopify. We had decided we wanted to go with Shopify Plus, given the different scripts and other features that we wanted to have, and we asked for recommendations on agencies, looked at a whole bunch on the Shopify website, and it came down to two, and Pointer was willing and able to not just do our site, but actually help us take that brand research and create a new visual brand or identity for Asutra.

So, they’re the ones who actually came up with our new logo, the monogram, the color palette, the fonts, the look and feel, and they also did all the packaging. And they did everything in a very short amount of time, so they were incredible.

Kurt Elster: Yeah, and the layouts are really cool. The site’s very usable. And doing everything all at once, the entire brand, like when you’re doing a rebrand, doing it piecemeal is painful. You went with the band-aid approach and everything got redone all at once, and it like just dramatically reinvented the brand and took it where you went like, “This is premium.” Like it was very clear, they have they have thought through everything here. And then even when later, probably one or two years later when we worked on the site, it was very easy for us to… We built the mega menu that’s on that site now, and it was very easy to make it stay consistent with the rest of the design, because the branding, even without a brand guideline, was so clear.

But then on top of that, I was like, “All right, well, hey, I want to color code these scents.” And they’re like, “Oh. Well, here’s the brand guideline, already done.” It was like in a Google sheet, complete with hex values. I’m like, “Oh, this is the coolest.” That’s the stuff I geek out on design-wise.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yes.

Kurt Elster: But all right, before we hit the 20-minute mark, I need to do some name dropping here. There is an individual involved in this brand that the audience may have heard of. Who is it?

Stephanie Morimoto: Yes, so we are incredibly fortunate to have global tennis champion Venus Williams involved with Asutra. She is a part owner and our chief brand officer, and the best part of the story is she cold called us.

Kurt Elster: What?

Stephanie Morimoto: Yes.

Kurt Elster: My next question was like, “How do you pull that off?” Oh, just more of Stephanie’s extraordinary work. Do you just read The Secret over and over? How do you… How big is the vision board?

Stephanie Morimoto: Look, you know as an entrepreneur, right? So much of success is luck, but a lot of it is also putting yourself in the right places to receive that luck, to your point.

Kurt Elster: Right. The luck sale.

Stephanie Morimoto: Right, right, right. Well, you know, so it was our first year, my first year after buying the business, and at that point I was doing everything. I mean, I was doing customer service emails. Sometimes I was packing our eye pillows. I was doing everything. The financials, the accounting, the whole shebang. And the rebrand. And one day I got an email at our customer service email. I mean, it was literally like, and it was from a guy at IMG, which is the world’s largest talent agency.

So, I thought, “All right, I have no idea what this is for, but I should probably take this call.” So, we schedule a call and the guy’s name is Joe, and he starts asking me all these questions and I’m telling him the mission. Asutra’s all about active self-care, the stuff you said in the beginning, that we’re women owned, women led, that we’re very diverse.

Kurt Elster: So they, you didn’t know who-

Stephanie Morimoto: Oh no. I had no idea.

Kurt Elster: You just get this talent agency that’s like, “We represent somebody.”

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah.

Kurt Elster: Who’s interested in your brand. Give me a call.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yes.

Kurt Elster: Because I probably would have been like, “Yeah, okay.” Delete. And just shoot myself in the foot.

Stephanie Morimoto: Well, I looked him up. We had some people in common that we knew, so it wasn’t so random-

Kurt Elster: Okay, so you’re like, “I suspect this is legit.”

Stephanie Morimoto: Yes. So, I was like, “You know what? I’ll take the call. Half an hour. Whatever.” And we’re having this great conversation and I said, “Well, how did you hear about this? Why are you calling?” And he said-

Kurt Elster: Why am I here?

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. What’s going on? And he said, “Well, you’re probably not gonna believe this, but Venus Williams uses your pain relief creams as part of her training regimen. Her trainer found you on Amazon and she’d never heard of you before, but she really loves the stuff and she asked us to find out more about you.” And of course, my jaw just dropped on the phone. I recovered and I said, “Well, great! I’d love to continue this conversation.” And we ended up talking and meeting for lunch over a few different sessions, and she became really interested in exploring a partnership, so we prepared this deck about our business, and where we wanted to take it, and mind you, we hadn’t done the rebrand yet, so we just had the vision of what it could be. But the current-

Kurt Elster: So, this is like… Because the previous version, not that it was bad, but it was nowhere on the level of the current Asutra branding.

Stephanie Morimoto: No. very clinical. It didn’t quite hang together across all of the different assets. So, she really took… I mean, it was really based on the efficacy of the products and I think a belief in us. She sat down with us in person for over an hour right before the U.S. Open, which apparently she never does, because when she starts her tennis tournament, she’s just in the zone. But she took the meeting and she asked a ton of great questions.

You’ll love this. I told her we were going to redo our site and she said, “Well, what do you use now?” And I said, “BigCommerce.” And she said, “Are you gonna switch to Shopify?” And I was like, “How do you even know what that is?”

Kurt Elster: Oh my God, there’s… I know a few Shopify Plus merchant success managers listen to this show on occasion and I’m sure at least one of them just fell over in their chair.

Stephanie Morimoto: It was hilarious. Well, you know, she runs two of her own businesses, an athletic apparel company and an interior design business, so her athletic apparel company is on Shopify. But yeah, she just… She fell in love with the brand and she said at that time, she wasn’t really involved in other businesses besides her own, and she said, “I don’t get involved with a lot, but I really love your mission. I have to live active self-care every day to be at the top of my game, and I’d love to help you build the brand and build awareness.”

So, she wanted a real title, therefore she’s our chief brand officer and she does a lot of press interviews for us, a lot on social media, and just makes a lot of different connections for us, as well.

Kurt Elster: You know, when you see those celebrity endorsements on brands, immediately it’s like it’s cool no matter what, but it’s immediately a little bit suspect, where you’re like, “What is the actual level of involvement versus what is claimed?” And it turns out the reality here is her level of involvement in Asutra, it sounds like it’s actually in excess of what it would appear to be from the outside looking in. It’s quite incredible.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. Yeah.

Kurt Elster: Absolutely amazing.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. She’s great.

Kurt Elster: Was that intimidating? Like I’ve talked to Jay Leno a total of less than 10 minutes in my life, but I met him a couple times, and the first time I psyched myself up for it and I’m like, “I’m not gonna be an idiot. Not gonna be an idiot.” And the moment I saw him, he tells a joke, it’s funny, he’s wearing the full denim, he looked like Jay from TV, and it turns out I’m six feet tall, he looked… From my perspective, he looked taller than me. And so, I just was like, “Hi. Bye.” And that was it. Just my brain broke. Was it intimidating to sit down with Venus Williams? Tremendous athlete, individual, A-list celebrity.

Stephanie Morimoto: I mean, I’m not gonna lie. I was definitely nervous walking into that meeting. It was also in this back secret room in a hotel on the conference room floor, so we had to go through this maze of hallways to find her. But then she walked in, and she just had her hair up in a bun and was wearing a hoodie, and she was so disarming, so when she sat down, she goes, “Well, I’m so glad to meet you and you should feel super lucky, because I combed my hair today for you.” And she was just very down to Earth, and then she got right into the meat of stuff, right? She was asking great questions about marketing and where we wanted to take the brand and focused on that, so it really was about the business and the brand, and not about her.

Kurt Elster: So, you know right away she was serious, and for real, and focused on the business and speaking your language. That definitely would make it easier.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. Yeah.

Kurt Elster: Wow. Wow! That’s cool.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. She’s pretty incredible. She’s pretty incredible. She’s also been great with retail. I mean, she, given her own businesses and her experiences, both good and bad, selling with different retailers, she’s been able to give us advice on how to approach a sporting goods store, versus a department store chain, and the ups and downs of those different types of retailers. So, she’s been able to provide a lot of substantive advice. Yeah.

Kurt Elster: Yeah, how nuts is that? That you’re like, “All right, one of our goals was to get into retail and to do wholesale, and it enables more direct to consumer access and visibility. And oh, by the way, the person who coached us on it was Venus Williams.” What? That segues us into getting into retail stores. I’ve heard merchants talk about it. It can be a double-edged sword in that managing the retailers can be… Getting into big retail stores is its own fabulous gauntlet you run. What stores are you in?

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah, so we partner with CVS. We’re in about 4,000 CVS stores. Kohl’s, we’re in about 200 Kohl’s stores. They built a gorgeous beauty department focused on indie brands to present new stuff to their shoppers. It looks like a Sephora inside a Kohl’s, so it’s really excellent merchandising.

Kurt Elster: Oh, cool.

Stephanie Morimoto: And then we just launched recently on, so we’re doing an online test with some of our sleep aids and pain relief products with the idea that if that does well, which so far it is, we would consider going in store in 2021.

Kurt Elster: I was gonna say.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah.

Kurt Elster: Yeah. I’ve had several clients where they sell on Target online first. That’s always like, “Well, we’ll test it that way.” Because it’s low risk for everybody.

Stephanie Morimoto: Exactly.

Kurt Elster: And then if it sells and the relationship is good, ah, suddenly you’re in the store, and that’s cool.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. Yeah. And then we actually work… I mean, one that I think is really great, especially for smaller brands if you’re in the natural products niche is iHerb. Have you ever heard of them? It’s-

Kurt Elster: Vaguely. Like it rings a bell.

Stephanie Morimoto: So, they’re a natural products etailer. They only sell direct to consumer on their site and they also sell on marketplaces like Amazon, or marketplaces in Korea, or China, or that kind of thing. But they sell globally, and they’re super great to work with, so for a smaller brand looking to expand awareness and distribution, they’ve been an excellent partner.

Kurt Elster: Is there anything about being in retail that has surprised you? Where you’re like, “That’s not how I thought that would work.”

Stephanie Morimoto: I would say CVS is constantly surprising. It’s tough. They’re tough to do business with. I would definitely say as a smaller brand, that’s been a challenge.

Kurt Elster: I’ve heard Walmart’s the beautiful one, where it’s like, “Oh yeah, we got your stuff and we sold it. Yeah, we’ll pay that invoice in like six months.” Like, “What?” “Oh, by the way, we need more stock.”

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. CVS is similar. So, we have two different sets with them. One’s like an innovative wellness set and then one’s a sleep set, so we have three items in one set and five items in the other set, and the payment terms on the first ones are 80 days.

Kurt Elster: Whoa! Yeah, it’s very different than any other channel as you get into these big retailers.

Stephanie Morimoto: Right. They also just look for a lot of what they call chargebacks. So, if you don’t ship something in exactly the right box, with the right label, on the right form, they might charge you for it and then they deduct that from their future payments. So, they have a lot of different things like that. Chargeback… programs, they charge you for.

Kurt Elster: Yeah. It’s a weird cost savings center in larger businesses. My wife for many years worked for Pactiv and did financial controls for Pactiv, and Pactiv, like if you’ve ever gotten drive-thru from McDonald’s, you probably had Pactiv containers. And like a big part of her job was just dealing with the back and forth on like, “Well, they didn’t need this, or they sent it back, or this pallet didn’t look quite right to somebody, because a forklift poked it, and so they kept it, but they also don’t want to pay for it.” And there are people whose job is just to try and screw your vendor on these chargebacks, and it’s part of a post-sale negotiation.

It’s utterly baffling. And if you are brand new to this and getting into retail with a big brand, the potential is huge and exciting, but then there’s also these very strange things that only occur in those relationships.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. Well, somebody once told me, who had a lot of experience in retail, that a lot of retailers make money from programs, not products. So, to your point, they’re making money from those programs like charging you back for the pallet getting poked by the forklift, or marketing, even though they’re not doing a lot of marketing, because it’s hard for them to make the margin on the product.

Kurt Elster: I don’t know if it’s still the case, but Beav Brodie from Tactical Baby Gear had the opportunity to sell in Target, and initially they said, “You know what? We’re not gonna do it.” They’re like, “Until we are bigger direct to consumer,” I believe was the thinking. I could be misquoting him wildly and he could correct me, but they’re like, “We just don’t think it’s worth the risk.” And to hear someone talk about, “Oh, the opportunity to sell in a huge national chain,” as the risk, that blew my mind.

But like his business partner, that was his specialty was doing these big retail national store deals. And so, it’s like, “I don’t think it’s there yet.” Wow!

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah.

Kurt Elster: I think the advantage to hearing that is for like someone who is new and pursuing that, it’s not necessarily everything it’s cracked up to be. So, certainly active self-care is more important than ever, because oh, man, the anxiety’s coming back. Ugh, I don’t like it. How has Asutra, how have you, how’s the healthy and beauty space been impacted by COVID-19?

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. I think health and beauty overall is mixed, right? So, things like makeup aren’t selling as well. They were already declining to some degree in favor of skincare, where more people are focused on taking care of their skin, versus covering it up with makeup, and then if people aren’t leaving the house, even if they’re on Zoom, they may not be investing in as much like that. Whereas hair care, or at-home manicure and pedicure products went way up when people were sheltering in place, because they had more time to do those things, or they couldn’t go get it done at a salon.

For us at Asutra, I think we’re in a great category right now, because we offer a lot of things that help with I think probably the issues that people are facing, right? So, you’re on your computer all day, or you’re in front of a screen of some kind, it’s harder to go to sleep at night. We’ve got a solution for that or a number of solutions. You’re stiff from sitting at your computer all day, we’ve got pain relief solutions. You’re feeling stressed, we have aromatherapy sprays that help with mood. So, we’ve seen a lot of people gravitate towards what we’re offering, and in fact, we’ve seen our site sales more than double over last year.

Kurt Elster: Whoa! Congrats.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. Yeah.

Kurt Elster: Yeah. Definitely a fantastic thing to do, especially like in March, when none of us knew what was gonna happen, and that was a scary month, and then things start to shake out, and some people, categories start to do better than others. And so, if you were lucky and able to weather it, it put some people in a great position to go forward.

You know what, if someone were to try, because you have quite a few products. If someone were to try any one product from Asutra, what’s the one where you’re like, “This is what you gotta try. This is what you should start with.”

Stephanie Morimoto: Well, I’ll answer that a couple different ways. Our most popular product, like the best-selling product across all channels, is our Spray Pain Away magnesium oil. I personally love our Chill Pain Away CBD magnesium cream, so-

Kurt Elster: CBD. I love it.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. CBD’s great, and the combination of CBD and magnesium are really smoothing. I especially get like a sore neck and shoulders, and a little bit of carpal tunnel being on the computer all day-

Kurt Elster: I get the sore neck.

Stephanie Morimoto: So, it’s great, yeah, at the end of the day. Just helps calm and relieve that.

Kurt Elster: Cool. What was the product that made, that turned Venus Williams into a true believer?

Stephanie Morimoto: We have a menthol pain cream. Our natural pain relief cream. And she was using that, and then she, since getting involved, she loves a lot of our magnesium products, as well, so the Spray Pain Away, we also have a body butter, so it’s a thicker magnesium lotion called Melt Pain Away. She’s a huge fan of that. And then the other thing that she’s fallen in love with, that she talks about all the time, actually two things. One, our Pure Soothing Comfort lavender aromatherapy mist. It also has some chamomile in it, so she likes to spray it on her pillows before bedtime. And then she loves our anti-aging skin serums. Excuse me. She’s a huge skincare fan in general.

Kurt Elster: Well, she spends a lot of time outside, too. It’s probably important.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. Yeah.

Kurt Elster: I want to close on your social mission. In 2020, certainly social issues are more prominent and important than ever. Talk to me about as we come to the end here, the future of Asutra. For you, why was including the social mission so important?

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. I think when we started, the main focus of our social mission was, as I said earlier, to create good jobs for people who need them here in the city of Chicago. We wanted to give folks opportunities that they might not have had otherwise, so we partnered with a lot of nonprofits and ended up mostly partnering with an employment agency called Purpose Workforce, which works with folks who’ve been kind of down on their luck, maybe out of the full-time workforce but want to get back in, and the great thing about Purpose is they not only identify excellent candidates, but they also provide extra support to those folks, so they know what it takes to be successful in a full-time job. And we’ve gotten some great candidates from there.

So, that was important to me, just because I used to work in education and I saw the impact that frankly, right? Racist education policies, structural racism, and just all the disadvantages that created for a lot of different communities, and I wanted to do something, even if it was relatively small and focused, to create opportunities and pathways for people who had not had access to those.

I think with the Black Lives Matter movement getting even stronger this year because of all of the police shootings of Black men and women across the country, we felt an even greater sense of urgency at Asutra to say even more how much we stand with people. I mean, we’ve always cared about diversity. I’m a woman of color. Obviously, Venus is a Black woman. Our operations director, Shanika, is a Black woman. Torrence and Romaine, who oversee our production and shipping, are Black men, and just given who we are, it’s always been important for us to amplify the voices of diverse people who are taking part in Asutra’s mission of active self-care, and who represent the folks that are on our team. And more now than ever, we want to make sure that we’re providing great products at accessible prices, and that in our marketing, and our messaging, we’re trying to be as inclusive as we can.

Kurt Elster: That’s fantastic, and it’s 100% an example of being the change, being the solution, and putting your money where your mouth is.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah.

Kurt Elster: Like it’s not enough to say, “I believe in these social issues.” You are actively working to make that change. And certainly, I will link to Purpose Workforce in the show notes if anyone wants to check them out.

Well, all right, so now that you’ve done this for… You’ve been at this for two years. In regards to marketing the website, which I don’t think we… We didn’t touch on that, but with marketing the website, what’s one thing, one channel, like tactic, strategy, whatever it is, to drive traffic or revenue for the online store as you make that switch away from Amazon and to DTC? What’s one thing you wish you’d done sooner?

Stephanie Morimoto: Oh, man. Just one? I would say the channel that has become the most successful for us from an advertising standpoint is Google. And I really wish that I had hired our Google ad agency much sooner, because they’ve been phenomenal.

Kurt Elster: And is it like Google AdWords, or Google Shopping campaigns, or both?

Stephanie Morimoto: All of it. So, we use an agency called WebSavvy. They’re actually out of Melbourne, Australia, so the time zone is not awesome, but they are so talented, and they have deep technical expertise on all things Google, so they manage all of our Google ads for us and they do full funnel, as well as different types of Google ads. So, everything from search, to shopping, to display.

Kurt Elster: Okay, I will include a link to WebSavvy in the show notes, because certainly, like a recommendation for a really good Google partner is very valuable, and it’s interesting, because everyone is so focused on Facebook ads and Instagram ads, to hear you jump straight to, “Man, Google’s where it’s at.”

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. It has been incredible.

Kurt Elster: That’s refreshing.

Stephanie Morimoto: Yeah. The ROAS has been… They have steadily increased our ROAS over the last year, they’ve more than doubled it, and that’s blended across all channels, and some of the stuff we do is for awareness, so it obviously has a lower ROAS.

Kurt Elster: Right.

Stephanie Morimoto: As planned. But they’ve just done an incredible job, and they’re always on the lookout for new placements and new things coming down the pike from Google, as well as evaluating the tools Google has to recommend which ones they would use and which ones they wouldn’t use, because some of the tools Google offers, as you probably well know, are really designed to make you spend more money, but not necessarily get better return.

Kurt Elster: Yeah. That’s what’s frustrating about them, like I… Everything Google recommends, I take with a grain of salt. Including Page Speed recommendations, damn you. That thing drives me crazy. So, where can people go to learn more about you?

Stephanie Morimoto: They can go to our website at

Kurt Elster: Yeah. Check out the about page. It’s really cool. Make sure you peruse that mega menu. That’s the one thing I contributed to this project. Very proud of the mega menu.

Stephanie Morimoto: You did a lot. You did a lot. Made the homepage better.

Kurt Elster: Yes. But I stand on the shoulders of giants. If I did not have that base that Pointer did, there’s no way I design anything… You know, I could get like halfway as good. Okay. Man, this has been… I’m so glad we did this. This was really interesting. I had no idea, for as much as we’ve done together, I had no idea that’s what that Venus Williams story was like. That was really interesting. I learned a lot today!

Stephanie Morimoto: Good, good. I’m so glad.

Kurt Elster: Okay. Absolutely check out and some of those other resources in the show notes, and Stephanie, thank you so much.

Stephanie Morimoto: Thank you so much, Kurt, for all you’ve done for us, from Ethercycle, and for having me on today.