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A Natural Connection – Jess Edelstein, Co-Founder of PiperWai

On this episode, Jess Edelstein shares the story of PiperWai, from a need to build a better natural deodorant to the Shark Tank stage and beyond. She provides her perspective on building brands around the ‘natural’ movement and how to look at category disruption. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Jess Edelstein: So we prepared those 10,000 jars and we ended up selling out of those while we were on TV. We didn’t realize it until a few days later when we were like 120,000 jars backward.

Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency.

Quite a thrill today, co-founder of PiperWai Natural Deodorant, Jess Edelstein, is joining us. PiperWai is a really, really interesting business concept that through Shark Tank and other means has achieved a great deal of notoriety in this region, and based upon their performance, well beyond. Jess is an example, a great example, of an executive and a leader who came at this, again, not necessarily through deep study of gaps in marketplaces, but through passion and purpose.

Often we find the most successful and inspirational entrepreneurs discover their path through accessing, as a consumer, a set of options that ultimately are imperfect to do what one is seeking to do. Then with energy, and creativity and drive, these entrepreneurs say, “That kind of sucks. Let’s make it better. Let’s change this industry or this product category.” Also very interesting is natural deodorant, how it relates, or doesn’t in some cases, to general consumer trends related to, obviously, a strong move towards natural products, organics, etc, in food and elsewhere.

PiperWai is any indication this is coming strongly and powerfully to personal care. Jess has such a energy about her and such a winning, interesting, fun, quirky personality that I think comes through. So this is a brand to watch, a business person to watch. Enjoy Jess Edelstein of PiperWai.

We are here with Jess Edelstein, co-founder of PiperWai. So excited to have you with us. Thanks for your time.

Jess: Thank you so much for having me. This is my first podcast interview and I’m really excited about it.

Bill: Nice. Well that’s an honor for us. Also, perhaps, the way that we could book a guest of this caliber is by getting there first so we’re very grateful.

This is a story, sitting here in Philadelphia, although we’re looking through the computer at you in beautiful Santa Monica, this is a story that has taken Philadelphia by storm and, hopefully, pretty soon, the entire universe.

So give us the scoop on PiperWai, take us through the founding story. And then after that we’d love to go back and learn a bit more about your own journey.

Jess: Cool. PiperWai Natural Deodorant is an all natural deodorant made with activated charcoal. It neutralizes odor, absorbs moisture, won’t irritate sensitive skin, won’t discolor your clothes and it lasts all day. Our customers say it works better than clinical strength anti-antiperspirant and it just happens to be all natural.

I started the company in early 2014, actually exactly three years ago, with my best friend, Sarah Ribner, who has been my business partner since our lemonade stands in elementary school.

Bill: Amazing.

Jess: We always, as kids, we always dreamed about what’s our million dollar idea going to be and we toyed around with different ideas. I think we invented games and glued toys together trying to invent something that we could sell.

Bill: Perfect.

Jess: But we stayed in touch. When I was in my early 20s, you know, complete millennial cliché, looking for my purpose in life, I decided if I’m going to be the best version of myself and be successful at something, I need to get healthy and really work on myself. Somewhere along the way I decided natural deodorant was part of that.

The toxins in anti-antiperspirant just kind of freaked me out a little and I wanted to wear something more natural, but I tried everything and accumulated this deodorant graveyard in my bathroom because nothing worked. I didn’t want to smell and I had very sensitive skin. Most of the stuff I was trying gave me these itchy red rashes and I was like, “That’s not cool.”

So I decided to make my own. I had a lot of free time and very little money, so I made my own deodorant in my kitchen. It took months of trial and error until I came up with a formula that worked for myself. I gave some to Sarah to try and she took it with her on a service trip to South America. She was super skeptical that it would work at all because she had already dismissed natural deodorant as ineffective.

Bill: Right.

Jess: But she was amazed at how well it worked. She said she did not expect it to work that well. She gave it to some other volunteers there, and they all tried it and said it worked really well. She said I should start a company and sell it. I was like, “Sell it, really? Let’s do it together. Be my business partner and we’ll go into business like we always dreamed about.”

Bill: Right.

Jess: We launched the company early 2014, like I said, and we grew a very passionate customer base. Slowly but surely, we handcrafted the product ourselves in a community kitchen in Fishtown. 300 jars at a time, filling them with a pastry piping bag, in the middle of the night because the kitchen cost $10 less after 8 p.m. 

Bill: Nice. Nice.

Jess: We hustled and we bootstrapped. I was selling real estate at the same time, working a million hours a week, never taking a take off, not weekends, not holidays. We grew it to the point where we decided we wanted to pitch it on Shark Tank. About 18 months into the business, we got that opportunity and got in front of the sharks and we got an air date a few months later. Then we kind of exploded. People found out about our products on a level that we never really dreamed that could ever be possible, and we were back-ordered for about five months. We grew exponentially. I think it’s like 6000% in the year after our episode aired.

Bill: Right.

Jess: So, right now, we are a much larger company than we were before Shark Tank. We have several full time employees, we’re hiring more. We have a big contract manufacturer down in Atlanta that makes hundreds of thousands of units at a time, as opposed to 300 at a time which was all that could fit in my car.

Bill: Yeah, right.

Jess: So, it’s a really exciting time for us and the best part is people telling us every day that our product changed their lives. If you look at the hashtag PiperWai on Instagram, you’re going to find thousands of posts of people posting selfies with their deodorant because they’re so excited to have found a product that works as well as ours does.

Bill: Right. What a testament to all the hard work and having arrived at this from a sense of need and having experienced a category that just wasn’t getting it done for you. What a great story.

Jess: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Bill: What a great story. You entered a category that, in some ways, is mature. You are entering, at least to some degree, maybe, eventually food, drug and mass, where food has gotten to natural, other categories have gotten to natural. But, in some cases, personal care lags behind a little bit. Could you kind of speak to the personal care marketplace on the natural side compared to what we may see on the food side every day?

Jess: Of course. People care about what they put on their bodies as much as they put in their bodies, nowadays. They’re savvier than ever about the ingredients that they’re ingesting and putting on their skin. Unfortunately, natural deodorant is one of those things that is so hard to find one that works.

Bill: Right.

Jess: So we’re providing an effective and healthy alternative to the most toxic personal care product. The anti-antiperspirants on the market, they have aluminum, they have parabens, they have ingredients that you can’t pronounce. I don’t want those on my body but the natural options available, at least when we started, and even now, really lacked innovation.

There’s two kinds, in my opinion. There’s the kinds that are sticky and wet, and just don’t work. They stop working after 10 minutes or a couple of hours. And then there’s the ones that just lack any innovation. There are many, many brands on the market, maybe like 10 or 15 I can name off the top of my head, that all have the same formula as one another. If you google ‘DIY deodorant’ it’s like baking soda, coconut oil, essential oils and corn starch, or arrow root powder. First of all, not only does that not work that great but it’s irritating because it relies on baking soda, which is so irritating, to neutralize odor. That’s why I was getting those itchy red rashes from all of our, you know, our now competitors.

So I decided to do something a little better. I was the first to put activated charcoal in a natural deodorant cream. I was the first to make that work with magnesium. PiperWai is the first natural deodorant that actually lasts all day and works as well as clinical strength anti-antiperspirant. So, I think people are looking for a product like this and we entered the market at the right time knowing that this was a pain point for a lot of people.

Bill: Right. To your point, there’s so much noise and surround sound about concerns on the part of the consumer about what they put on their body, in themselves. We do a lot of research in the food channel and we find that there is a ton of consumer interest and education that’s going on, yet there’s a dizzying array of claims, ultimately, sometimes the moment of truth when the cash register reality of a premium dissuades some folks. What have you found in terms of consumer behavior on this side? Is it really an early adopter market still or is it mainstreaming as fast as, maybe, food did?

Jess: I think it’s definitely getting there. We like to say that it’s not a trend. This is the direction the market is going. Like I said, people are savvier than ever about what they put on their bodies and they’re reading ingredient lists these days. No one did that five, ten years ago. It’s getting to the point where you can’t fully trust what you’re eating and what you’re putting on your body, so it’s important to read those ingredients lists. We wanted to create something that we’re comfortable putting on our own bodies.

Our target market falls into three categories. We have the people who have never even heard of natural deodorant being a thing, they just assumed that Secret and Old Spice was really all there was. Anti-antiperspirant, they didn’t realize it’s a problem. Those are the people that are going to be the most skeptical, but once they try PiperWai they’re never going to go back to Secret, or Old Spice, or Degree or whatever.

Then there’s the people who have already dismissed natural deodorants as ineffective. The people who have tried Tom’s or Crystal and say, “It’s sticky, it’s wet. It’s not going to do anything, it’s just not going to work.” Those people are also skeptical. Once they try PiperWai, they are the most excited because you’re kind of switching the way they think about natural deodorant.

And then there’s the people who already wear natural deodorant, maybe one they have to reapply multiple times a day. They’re happy with the fact that they’re wearing something that’s good for their bodies, but they’re wishing for something more. They want something a little more effective, with a little more oomph that’s going to prevent them from having massive sweat stains on their clothes or ruining their clothes, or just something that works a little better. They try PiperWai and they’re like, “Wow, I have tried everything on the market and nothing worked as well as this.”

Bill: Well each of them have a happy ending here, it sounds like. We’ve heard some exciting rumblings about new product innovation and big things happening. What’s kind of new and upcoming at PiperWai?

Jess: When we launched our company, we launched a jar of deodorant. It’s cream deodorant, you apply it with your hands. A lot of people thought that was weird, and then they tried it and they said, “Oh, it’s not weird. It’s a great texture, it melts into your skin. It’s fantastic.” But, there’s a lot of people that sill wanted the stick applicator, and we wanted to appeal to everybody so we launched that in December.

It’s only available on our website right now. The jar you can get at any GNC. We’re just rolling out regionally at Whole Foods. This stick has a lot of the same ingredients, it just comes in a solid to reach those people that can’t really wrap their head around the fact that deodorant has to come in a stick. They have eczema in their heads that … You apply deodorant with a stick applicator but-

Bill: Yeah, there’s a lot of ritual, I would think, to behavior that … You are helping to break down the barriers here. First of all it’s the need, which many have felt and more people are reading ingredients. Then it’s the way that it works and the proof point that it works. And then it’s the way that it’s applied. I mean, every step here take the excuses away, so to speak, from consumers who may be habitual or may not yet know what to think.

Jess: Yeah. The jar is actually really moisturizing. It’s great for your hands as well as your armpits. And applying it is a lot of fun. I actually prefer the jar to the stick, myself, just because I have been using nothing else for the past four years so I’m used to applying it with my hands.

Bill: Sure.

Jess: Most of our customers will look at a jar of deodorant cream, like, “What? That’s super weird.” And then they try it and they’re like, “It’s not weird. It’s fine. It’s great. It actually feels really good and it’s nice to rub back into your hands.” But it’s nice to reach a larger market with our stick applicator now, so really excited about that.

Bill: Yeah, that’s a big deal. It’s a big deal. Moving backward a little bit … I want to ask about Shark Tank in a minute, I’m sure you get the question of what it’s like all the time. You and Sarah have been friends since the lemonade stand, or even before, that was your first business together. How do you, on sort of the inside, divide labor? Is there clarity, a role for her, role for you? I know, I’m sure the big decisions are joint and mutual, you’re both in the leadership position here. So how does it work with you-

Jess: Yes. Sarah and I have very complimentary personalities, skills and strengths so we balance each other out really well. Depending on who’s available or who wants to do the project, we’ll just divide and conquer all the time. We never make a decision unless we both definitely agree on it. We kind of consider ourselves co-CEOs in that respect. 

Bill: It must be so much fun to take a journey like this with a really, really dear friend.

Jess: Oh my gosh, it is so much fun. Sometimes we’ll just think about, like, “Hey, remember when we were 12? Can you imagine where life would bring us together?” It’s so fun.

Bill: So does that mean that the meetings, even though you have more members of the team, are full of inside jokes and, “Do you remember when such and such did such and such” and everyone looks around like, “What are they talking about?” but that’s just how the relationship is?

Jess: Pretty much. Yes.

Bill: That’s super fun. You mentioned the steps that led you to pursue this and all that that meant in the early days in terms of the time, and the real estate job, and 300 jars and all this stuff. You also mentioned, I think, and I’d like you to speak a little bit more about it, the role of purpose in this from your perspective, and the journey that you’ve taken is not one that many of us would just kind of get out of bed and do if we didn’t feel it so deeply and passionately. So as you’re building a brand and evangelizing for it, what’s the role of purpose and how do you summon that passion? How does that make a difference in the type of company that you’re building, and the enthusiasm of your customers?

Jess: When I was in college, I was a psychology major and a theater minor, I was very passionate about Broadway. I was a psychology major because I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. I am not meant to be a psychologist, I figured that pretty early on, so I pursued theater. I always felt like theater changed my life in so many ways, and I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives through art, or so I thought.

So I went to New York, interned on Broadway and made $5 an hour. It was miserable. I mean, it was a dream come true but it was also … I didn’t feel like my skills were being used or that I was valued. I actually ended up leaving New York to come back to Philly and figure out where my purpose was. I felt like my identity was gone. Without theater, like, who am I, what am I, what am I going to do? It was a very difficult time for me, personally.

I hopped around between part time jobs. I had one full time job at one point that I lasted in four months before they fired me. I was either fired or quit from the majority of jobs that I had early on between 2012 and 2014, because I’m very independent and I’m very eager to go a little faster than is okay when you’re first starting in a job. I think that really put off a lot of bosses, and I realized pretty quickly I’m not meant to have a boss. I’m the kind of person, I have to work for myself. I have to be in charge of my own success, and that’s the only thing that’s going to motivate me to get out of bed in the morning. Otherwise, I’m going to try really hard and it’s all going to be a waste. I got a real estate license in late 2013. That’s kind of when I was developing the deodorant concoction in my kitchen because I had all this free time. I had absolutely no leads. I was kind of … It was really hard to start a real estate career.

Anyway, to answer your question, the first time somebody told us that we changed their lives with our deodorant, this light bulb went off. I was like, “Oh my God. This is what I’m meant to do.” This is that dream that I had in college, that I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, I didn’t realize it would be through deodorant. But that’s what’s happening, I’m going with it and it’s great. And now, literally every single day people tell us in some way we changed their lives. They thought they’d go through life being a stinky person with a sweating problem and they’d wear prescription strength anti-antiperspirant for the rest of their lives, and all of a sudden they tried PiperWai and, bam, they no longer smell, they no longer sweat. It’s just the most amazing thing. Hearing that just never ceases to make me feel incredible because I created that in my kitchen and people love it. That’s, I think, a really important thing for me.

Bill: Yeah, well that’s daily validation in case your attention ever wanders. It doesn’t seem like you’re the type of person whose would but, still, it’s … What a wonderful thing to be able to experience every day.

Jess: It has been a hard journey, I’m not going to lie. But hearing that just makes it all better. Any time I’m having a rough day, when it’s hard or I’m working my ass off, it just feels incredible to hear that.

Bill: I’ll bet. And speaking of incredible experiences, you told us a little bit about the Shark Tank experience and the desire, at least, to be on, a bit of the lag time between meeting the sharks and air date. Could you expand a little bit about what that was like? Don’t expect any behind the curtain secrets, but we know that it drove the operational capacity to deliver haywire with the back up of demand, the pent up demand. What was Shark Tank like for you all?

Jess: It was a complete leap of faith to apply and go along with the process. While we were in the application process, there were no guarantees the entire way.

Bill: Sure.

Jess: They would tell us, every time we had a check in call with the producers we were assigned, “There are no guarantees you’ll get to the next step but here’s a pile of work to do just in case you get there.”

Bill: Right.

Jess: It turned into a full time job at that point, just applying to Shark Tank. They did a ton of due diligence before they made sure you were okay to actually get up there. And then there were no guarantees you’d get to LA, and once you’re in LA there’s no guarantees you’ll get to pitch in front of the sharks. Once you pitched in front of the sharks, there’s no guarantees that you’ll get an air date regardless of whether or not you get a deal.

And, to complicate all of that, you’re not allowed to tell anybody that you’re even applying to Shark Tank. I had to go back and delete any posts, any tweet, anything I ever said mentioning Shark Tank or tweeting at the sharks, of course. I followed them and, of course, I interacted like anyone would, and I had to delete all of that because they weren’t allowed to know who you are. They take authenticity extremely seriously. The hardest part was not telling anybody, especially people I trusted and cared about, because the stakes were really high. They made me sign this massive confidentiality contract. The stakes were too high, I couldn’t tell anyone. I don’t think I’ve ever kept a secret that long in my entire life.

So we pitched in LA in September of 2015 and we didn’t hear anything from anybody at Shark Tank except, “Good luck, hopefully you’ll get an air date, but there’s no guarantee that you will” for three months. I think it was the week of Thanksgiving in 2015, we found out we got an air date. I remember I started hyperventilating. I think I texted Sarah just the words ‘air date’ and started hyperventilating and freaking out. I had no idea what was going to come next. I was like, “Okay, we have to make more inventory. We have to get some PR. What’s going to happen?”

We actually ended up asking Barbara … We made a deal with Barbara on the show. We didn’t end up closing, that’s a whole other story. But we asked, “How many units do you think we should have prepared because we’re going to get a lot of people on our website. We should probably make like 50,000, I’m guessing?” And she said, “No, make like 10,000. We don’t want you sitting on too much inventory just in case it doesn’t sell. You really don’t know if it’s going to resonate, you don’t know how you’re edited, so just be safe.” So we prepared those 10,000 jars and we ended up selling out of those while we were on TV.

Bill: Wow.

Jess: We didn’t realize it until a few days later when we were like 120,000 jars backward.

Bill: Wow.

Jess: And it was just me and Sarah at the time, we had no employees. So we sent out an email update to our customers explaining ‘we are so sorry but most of you are going to have to wait til January to get your deodorant.’ So many people emailed us back saying ‘You’re ruining Christmas. How dare you? I was going to use it as a stocking stuffer. How dare you not deliver my product, I want a refund.’ It was just me and Sarah answering 10,000 angry emails.

Bill: Oh my goodness.

Jess: Literally, thousands of angry emails from people. We spent about 12 to 15 hours a day during that holiday season just answering email, after email, after email asking about the back order, asking about the product. We finally hired a team in January and it turned out the co-packer that was making the product couldn’t keep up with production. They just couldn’t keep up with our demand, they didn’t have the capacity. We ended up being back ordered until March or April – I think it was under control in May. We had to hire a second co-packer. We had to actually hire a third at one point. It was a lot of work. I had never worked harder in my life, but it was so exhilarating to watch my tiny little company grow exponentially, literally overnight.

Bill: I can imagine.

Jess: And then, of course, all of those people that were yelling at us about the back order got their product and said, “It was worth the wait, I love it. It’s so great.” And then they post on social media about it, tell everyone they know, and then those people they told about it would buy it. It just snowballed. It was fantastic.

Bill: What a … They used to call it a Cinderella story but, I mean, to be in the middle of this and … What a weird pivot, to I want people to hear about it, I want to tell the world about it and probably watching individual clicks come through and turn into orders, to all of a sudden having … We always talk about good problem to have, well it isn’t maybe if you’re in the depth of it. Certainly better than the alternative but …

Jess: I hate when people say that, honestly.

Bill: Yeah, I’ll bet.

Jess: The problem to have is still a problem that needs to be managed.

Bill: No doubt. No doubt.

Jess: But it was a lot of fun. We had a viewing party that night and we watched how many people were on our site. It went from like 12 people, to 20 people, to like 26,000 people in like a second.

Bill: Wow.

Jess: It was insane. My phone … We get like 10 orders a day so I had all the notifications for every order on my phone. When all the orders started rolling in, my phone was unusable-

Bill: I’ll bet.

Jess: because there were too many notifications, and I had to turn off those notifications because it never stopped buzzing. It was incredible. I mean, I almost didn’t believe it was happening, but we also had so much work to do that we were kind of in survival mode, the adrenaline was pumping.

Bill: I’ll bet.

Jess: We got to work and made it work out. It was kind of the most amazing thing, ever, to see that growth.

Bill: Yeah, I’ll bet. And so fast, and something you’ve worked so hard for. So as we move forward with the business, you mention some of the … The stick applicator’s a big deal. What does, and don’t share anything you’re not allowed to, or you haven’t gotten there yet, but what does PiperWai become here? A broad personal care brand? I mean, are there similar product applications across kind of natural categories within, that are adjacent, or is this a deodorant company, do you think?

Jess: We are really excited to expand into more products, eventually, down the line. We do have some things in the works, I can’t disclose what they are.

Bill: Of course.

Jess: But it’s always been our goal to expand beyond deodorant. Obviously we do deodorant very well so it’s one of those things where, hopefully, once we do expand, customers say, “Well if PiperWai makes it, it must be great.”

Bill: Right.

Jess: So we’re excited about that.

Bill: Right. That’s great. And last thing, you’ve been so generous with your time and we’ve overstayed our welcome by just a few minutes. Your own story and your own personality just really sort of shines through here. Any words of wisdom that you’d share for folks listening to this who are inspired by your career path and who are looking for their own sense of purpose, or maybe just starting out, whatever it is? What would Jess coach these folks to think about and do as they move forward?

Jess: Two things. The first would be don’t seek to make a lot of money, seek to make a difference and solve an actual problem, and the money will come. I think that’s a really important thing to remember, that there are so many ways to make money, especially on the internet, but if you’re doing something unique that nobody else is doing and you’re solving a real problem that people have, you will be successful. I think that’s definitely my best advice. Don’t just make another DIY deodorant, just innovate it a little bit.

The other thing would be to remember that short term discomfort is always worth it to achieve long term success. It’s a lesson my parents always tried to teach me when I was a kid, you know? Short term versus long term, short term versus long term, and it never stuck until I became a business owner. There were so many times when I just wished I could not put in the hard work for short term. But there’s that quote out there, it’s like, “Live a few years of your life like nobody else will so you can live the rest of your life like nobody else can.” That just resonated with me. So remember it’s hard, it’s going to be hard, it’s not easy. But it’s worth it, to put in that work, and you will reap the benefits eventually if you work hard enough.

Bill: That’s terrific and a great way to finish it. Jess Edelstein, co-founder PiperWai. Credible, unfolding success story in the natural deodorant space. We’re certainly proud as fellow Philadelphia business folks about what you all are doing and can’t wait to continue to watch the story unfold. Thank you so much for being with us.

Jess: Thank you so much for having me. This was a lot of fun.

Bill: Thank you to Jess who, along with her business partner, Sarah, highly in demand, both in terms of customer interest and business partner interest but, generally speaking, as Jess spoke about, the level of fascination with this brand, how it works, and that it does work is really setting the world on fire. So grateful for her time, insight, energy, all the things that really just come through so strongly when you spend a little bit of time with Jess Edelstein.

Three ways to support Real-World Branding and what we’re doing here. First of all let’s keep the dialogue going on Twitter. We love ideas for future guests, or questions, or topics or criticisms of our motive of producing this. We certainly deserve criticism for the pace of releasing new content because we have had a little bit of a gap here, in part due to the fact that things are really busy at Finch and it’s been a really fun start to the year. So that’s one way to keep up with us.

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That’s the most we can ask. We’re grateful for our listenership and certainly for really compelling and inspiring guests like Jess today. Signing off from the cradle of liberty.

About The Author: Bill Gullan

Bill Gullan is the President of Finch Brands. His nearly 30-year (ugh!) career in branding has revolved around naming, messaging, M&A brand integration, and qualitative research. He has been with Finch Brands since 2001.

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