Lessons from D2C Founders

In this article we feature five D2C companies in our orbit - they share their highlights, lowlights, unexpected revelations, and biggest learnings.

Over the years, we've been fortunate enough to meet founders of incredible direct to consumer (D2C) companies - businesses that sell directly to their customers, generally online, primarily through their own channel. For an in-depth perspective on the Future of D2C, check out our article here.

In this article we feature five D2C companies in our orbit - we’ve asked them to share their highlights, lowlights and biggest revelations along the way.

Anna Podolsky is the founder of Lyka, a pet wellness company whose beach head product is lightly cooked, human grade dog food

Tell us a bit about your business!

Josh Armstrong, founder of We The Wild:

We The Wild makes plant food that's better for plants, people, pets and the planet.

Plant care is cluttered, confusing and dangerous. We the Wild’s simple organic essentials makes it easier for budding green thumbs to grow thriving plants at home. We launched right before the pandemic with an aggressive wholesale and e-commerce strategy, and have grown to become one of the leading plant care brands in the country. 2022 saw us launch into the USA, and we’re now stocked in over 200 retailers, with exciting growth plans for 2023!

Anna Podolsky, founder of Lyka

Lyka is a pet wellness business. To start, we’re flipping the pet food industry on its head from heavily processed foods to a fresh feeding, wholefood diet. The impetus for the company was when my Border Collie cross, Lyka, suffered her own health issues. After researching the pet food industry, I was shocked to discover what was actually going into her bowl. After sourcing fresh, nutritious ingredients and making Lyka’s meals from scratch, I witnessed a profound transformation in her health. I knew I needed to make these meals accessible to other dog parents. Beyond pet food, Lyka is on a mission to increase pet health spans through an upstream, integrative and personalised approach.

May Bandi, co-founder of Tirtyl

Tirtyl Suite Family Bundle | Buy once & refill forever
Tirtyl makes tablet hand soap, universal cleaner, laundry sheets, and dishwashing tablets

Tirtyl creates zero-waste home care products that allow you to effortlessly and affordably reduce waste at home. Our ‘just-add-water’ soaps and household cleaning tablets eliminate plastic waste and emissions associated to shipping water. Since launching in Jan 2021 in Australia and in the United States, we are now preventing thousands of plastic bottles from being consumed per day, and have collected over 5 million plastic bottles in partnership with Plastic Bank.

Alice Williams, founder of Ovira

Ovira is a women’s health brand dedicated to ending the unnecessary suffering of women everywhere, starting with period pain. Our first product is a small wearable device that uses pulse therapy to stop period cramps instantly.

I have endometriosis and for years suffered from debilitating period pain with no way to manage it. In my search for a solution, I discovered that TENS technology was an effective way of relieving pain - however society never mentioned it to women. I decided to take things into my own hands and started Ovira in 2020. We’re now available worldwide, have helped tens of thousands of women globally and have many new and exciting products on the way.

Danielle Vincent, co-founder of Outlaw

Outlaw is an artisan cologne and soap company making scents that trigger emotional responses through happy memories. We’ve worked with a scent researcher at Brown University to create evocative scents unlike anything else around. Our unique scents have earned us a dedicated following over the past decade, and we look forward to continuing to build our cult – er, company – for years to come. We are committed to creating an ethical and values-driven company. Our products and suppliers are certified cruelty-free, we make sustainable packaging choices whenever possible, we provide healthcare and above-average pay for our employees, and support small suppliers.

How Outlaw Soaps Sped Up Their Fulfillment Process By 116.7%
Some of Outlaw’s evocative and nostalgic scents

What has been easier than you expected?

Josh, We The Wild:

Getting customers. But while the fast pace of our launch and subsequent growth surprised me, the prior market research and brand development took years. I carefully analysed enduring macro trends to narrow down our target category, and relentlessly researched the customer. It meant that when we launched a minimum loveable product, customer acquisition was relatively easy.

Anna, Lyka:

Attracting great talent has been one area that has been easier than expected. We are a purpose driven company, and we have focused on building an authentic culture where our values are lived every day. Because of this, it has been increasingly easier to hire the high-performing pet lovers who are passionate about our mission, even during the times where the talent market is tight. Over the years we’ve even hired some of our customers!

May, Tirtyl:

From a distribution channel perspective, getting traction and acquiring customers in Australia and the United States, both directly via our website and through Amazon, was relatively straight forward, given our previous experience.

Our fundraising was also relatively stress-free: this is partially because our our strong revenue growth, part timing, part vision, and part luck!

Alice, Ovira:

Building community. Women’s health and conditions like endometriosis are often under researched, underfunded and receive next to no attention in the media, however they’re such universal problems. One in ten women suffer from endometriosis, 80% of women suffer from period cramps and the pain is often likened to being worse than a heart attack.

When put like that, it’s no surprise that when we started a Facebook group (Ovira’s Inner Circle) where women could openly talk about their periods, health conditions, as well as general health and wellness, it received immediate traction. We now invite all our customers to join our Facebook group and have built a hyper-engaged community with over 14,000 members sharing anything and everything to do with their health.

Danielle, Outlaw:

Having “hard” conversations. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it’s true: hard conversations are much easier than I expected. When I managed a team at Disney, I dreaded (and usually avoided) difficult or conflict-prone conversations. This led to lots of miscommunication and an undercurrent of – if I’m being totally brutally honest – well-founded distrust of my friendly demeanour.

At Outlaw, I’ve had to learn how to have caring, compassionate, direct conversations with people. I take responsibility for my mistakes and I hold others accountable for their mistakes, too. It turns out, when you really do care about someone, and they know you’re humble enough to admit your own mistakes, it takes a lot of the weight out of these heavy conversations. Not always, but more often. And my team also knows I’m not gritting my teeth behind my smile (usually). Learning how to have difficult conversations has given me a real superpower that I bring to every relationship.

What has been harder than you expected?

Josh, We The Wild:

Balancing inventory spend with growth budget. I underestimated the level of expertise and the investment into systems that an early-stage start-up needs to maintain visibility of inventory and supply chain. We want to invest as much in growth as we can, but having healthy inventory levels is crucial in this fragmented supply landscape. That’s where funding solutions come in!

Anna, Lyka:

Grinding towards pre-product market fit was harder than expected. In the early days, I bootstrapped the company - we had a very lean team, meaning I did most roles across the company including our in-house manufacturing. For many months I was not only growing an eCommerce business, but also cooking the meals in the kitchen and many times even delivering boxes. 100+ hour weeks were the norm back then, but a necessary step to get through that period. I certainly don’t miss those days!

May, Tirtyl:

We’ve had a lot of product development related challenges. It took us two years to start making our products in Australia; the capability to manufacture our tablet products did not really exist locally.

To convince manufacturers and other stakeholders to work with us, we had to generate enough sales traction with our overseas-manufactured products. We still have work to do, but we’re stoked to have launched two game-changing Aussie-made products: our foaming body wash and universal cleaner.

Alice, Ovira:

Product development. As a startup, you often have to be scrappy - which works in my favour because I’m naturally quite chaotic.

But when it comes to developing a physical product, I’ve learned that patience and attention are a must. We launched with a version of the product that I didn’t love and it created a lot of ongoing problems. Recently almost happened again - a week before we were due to launch new products, we received the final samples and due to a lack of patience and attention to detail around packaging, I held the samples in my hand
said to myself “I hate them”.

I’ve now adopted the mindset that we can’t settle with a minimum viable product (MVP). Instead, we launch with minimum loveable products (MLP). If I’m holding the final sample in my hand and don’t love it - then it doesn’t go to market.

Noha by Ovira period pain relief device | Ewokii
Ovira’s flagship product, the Noha device

Danielle, Outlaw:

Profit! We were profitable until 2020! It seemed so easy! But then some California privacy laws changed, and then iOS privacy settings, then the cost of supplies exploded, and labor costs went atomic. If you don’t know, I probably can’t fully explain it. And if you do know - have a tissue.

What do you wish you'd known before you launched?

Josh, We The Wild:

How important it is to keep a tight control of margins. Tonnes of mistakes are inevitable and making sure your margins create enough room to weather these storms are key. An early stage consumer business cannot grow sustainably without having control over the factors that impact profitability.

Anna, Lyka:

During our ‘seed’ phase, we were mostly focused on our product (both physical and digital) and we didn’t invest as much in brand and marketing.

Retrospectively, our product focus was great for building the long-term foundations of our business and has helped with our customer experience and stickiness. What I wish I knew earlier is that as a consumer brand, investment in branding, communications, and marketing is also extremely important. ‘Build it and they’ll come’ just isn’t true. Although we have a great brand now, if I knew this, we would have invested in our brand and marketing even earlier.

May, Tirtyl:

I wish I had a full appreciation of how much personal sacrifice would be needed to build a successful business. We have lofty business and impact goals, and we're  playing in a category that is both mainstream and highly competitive. This requires impeccable execution. Keeping up with these high standards is not easy.

Alice, Ovira:

There is so much hype around raising capital in the startup ecosystem and it’s very easy to buy into the romance of it all. I love getting into the weeds and working on all the nitty gritty details of day-to day-work and I wish I’d known that raising capital can often distract you from this and from growing your business, which ultimately takes you away from achieving your company mission.

I’d say for anyone out there looking to start their own business - only take on funding if you really need it and do your best to not get swept up by the romance of raising capital.

Danielle, Outlaw:

On one hand - nothing. Because we were industry outsiders, we came to the business without any pre-conceived notions of how things should be. I came from Oprah! What did I know about manufacturing? What did I know about soap? What did I know about cologne or business or anything?! When we started Outlaw in 2013, I didn’t even know what “CPG” stood for (it stands for ‘consumer packaged goods’).

Because we were as skilled and graceful as a baby giraffe, people helped us. That was really cool. All of the people who were there from the beginning, helping us out and laughing at – er, with – us as we faltered, are still our friends to this day. But while I knew nothing about manufacturing, I knew more than any one person should really know about SEO, brand-building, writing, and product development. I knew about product differentiation at a different level than I think most CPG folks understand. I had no roadmap, but that also meant I had no ruts. So, even though it was hard to know nothing, it was good. I have no regrets there.

On the other hand, I wish I knew enough to know when to call bullshit on some ‘standard’ business practices that straight-up do not work (e.g. using performance marketing as the cornerstone of growth).

In many aspects of the business, I believed that because I knew nothing, that meant other people just had to know more than I did, or that their guess was as good as mine. I made a lot of mistakes hiring people who seemed to have all the answers, only to find our business in a worse position, and with the added bitterness of regrets.

Outlaw Founder Danielle Vincent and operations manager Jake Skidmore nostalgic feelings with their soaps and colognes.

I’m not saying I’m always right. I’m not even saying that I know better than other people. But I was letting people’s own advocacy be the gauge of whether they were qualified to do a job, and that was foolish. Now, I believe in results. We track KPIs. I watch performance. I see how people show up. I see if people are looking at the results of experiments, or if they’re just wildly shooting into the void. Being present mentally, as well as physically, goes a long way at Outlaw. Trust is earned, not lightly granted.

For example, our VP of Operations, Jake - I hired him 2 years ago as Operations Director. On his second day, all the existing managers were snowed in from a freak snowstorm that dumped 3 inches of snow in one night. My car was literally in a ditch.

I called Jake, and said, “Hey, you got this?” and he said, “No problem!” He was actually happy for the challenge. He had a freshly minted key, two temp workers, and hundreds of orders to get out the door… and he welcomed this as a fun exercise.

I’ve learned that’s Jake’s modus operandi. Two years later, he’s running the whole workshop and fulfilment, our supply chain, our cash forecasts, our inventory, our manufacturing processes… Earlier today, we were wringing our hands over that profitability thing I was mentioning earlier, and we were both having fun. It’s hard, but at least I know in the middle of the storm, Jake and I are a team.

When I started, I wish I knew it was okay to hold people to high standards, to expect results, and to push back when I felt people were doing the wrong thing. It goes back to having the courage to have hard conversations. I still struggle with it, but I’m getting better.

Enjoyed this inside look into the realities of running a direct to consumer company? Subscribe to AfterWork Reading for regular content on startups and venture capital!

You can also read our investment notes in some D2C companies: Lyka, Tirtyl, and Vitruvian.