Podcast 228: Starting An Herbal Products Business

This week Katja brings you the first in a new series we’ve been wanting to produce for you: Starting Your Herbal Business! Today the focus is on herbal products – tinctures, salves, elixirs, tea blends, all that good stuff!

Listen in for a simple explanation of what you’ll need to know if you want to build an herbal products business of your own. It’s not just about knowing your herbs – although of course that comes first! It’s also about medicine-making at scale, creating effective & regulation-compliant labeling, marketing effectively and sincerely, and finding what makes your remedies uniquely yours. That’s what people want!

Would you like to know more? We’ve got just the thing! The Herbal Business Program has all the nitty-gritty details about setting up your herbal business – whether that’s products, clinical herbalism, or another variety of herbal pursuit. From GMPs and labeling laws, to marketing, to taxes & insurance, to the technology you’ll need to make it all happen, this course has everything. You can do this!

Herbal Business Program

Like all our offerings, this is a self-paced online video course, which comes with free access to twice-weekly live Q&A sessions, lifetime access to current & future course material, twice-weekly live Q&A sessions with us, open discussion threads integrated in each lesson, an active student community, study guides, quizzes & capstone assignments, and more!

If you enjoyed the episode, it helps us a lot if you subscribe, rate, & review our podcast wherever you listen. This helps others find us more easily. Thank you!

Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.

Episode Transcript

Ryn (00:14):
Hi. I’m Ryn at Commonwealth Holistic Herbalism here in Boston, Massachusetts and on the internet everywhere, thanks to the power of the podcast. Katja has been working on a series about herbal business, and this one is the first episode. She starts with a quick introduction and then gets into some of the details about running an herbal products business. What do you do in that job? What do you need to learn to do it well? Listen on to hear Katja’s thoughts. I hope you like it. And by the way, if you’re dreaming of an herbal business of your own, we can help. We have a whole Herbal Business program to guide you through start to finish, even if you have no experience running a business at all. And we can teach you all the herbal skills you’ll need as well. You’ll find everything at online.commonwealthherbs.com.

Katja (01:01):
There are so many business opportunities for herbalists. So, I wanted to do a series that would talk a little bit about the different kinds of herbal businesses that people start and work in, and what kind of work you do in each one. What kind of education and skills you’re going to need to be successful in each one. And also just a little smidge of advice to kind of get you started. And I also want to say it is never too late to do this part of the work. Even if you already have an herbal business, even if it’s successful, it’s never too late to sort of just get back to thinking about what you want it to be, and how you want it to grow. On the other hand, it’s never too early to be thinking about this stuff. If you don’t have a business yet. If herbal business is just a dream that you’re holding on to every day as you go to a day job that maybe isn’t super fulfilling. It is not too early to be thinking about this stuff. Because the longer that you ruminate on it, the more that you clearly see what you want to build in the world. Whether you haven’t started or whether you have, a lot of students who are working through the business program actually already have herbal businesses. In fact, maybe they have two or three businesses that qualify as herbal businesses, businesses that are related to their herbal skills. But they’re all kind of growing at different rates, and they’re not exactly sure where they should put their energy and what work is the most important work for them. So really, at any point in the process, it is great to just sit and kind of think about exactly where you want to go.

Go With Where Your Heart Is

Katja (02:55):
And if I could offer one starting piece of advice here, it would be go where your heart is. Really think about what is on your heart to do in this world. What is the thing that makes your heart sing? What is the thing that feeds you? Not because an herbal business that you love will never feel like work. And you will always just go into every single day with a song in your heart. Okay listen, work is work, and business is business. And even if you love it with all of your heart, there are going to be some parts of the job that are not super fun. That is just the nature of work. So, I don’t want to say that every single moment of running your own business is going to be a pure joy because we know that’s not true. But if you are doing the work that you truly feel is in your heart to do, then the little tasks that aren’t super fun, that just need to be done to support that work in the world, don’t feel so intimidating. Or they don’t get you down as much because you’re in the place that your heart belongs.

Katja (04:15):
So, some people go into herbal business thinking well, this is a business opportunity. Or people said this is really good, so I should sell it. And so maybe that’s a product business. But what’s really on their heart is to teach, or to work with clients, or to work with kids, or to whatever. But they can see a clear path for a products business. They know what that kind of looks like. And they’re not really certain what the clear path is to starting an outdoor preschool with an herbal focus, for example, something like that. And so, because maybe that path doesn’t seem as clear, they’re like well, I love herbs. And I am going to make products because people say my products are good. There’s nothing wrong with that. And you might even find that people do say your products are good. In fact, they’re great. And selling products might sustain you for a while until the thing that you really, really want to do gets so big that you’re like this isn’t fun anymore. I really want to be putting my energy over here. There’s nothing wrong with shifting, changing, growing in your work in the world. Your business doesn’t have to stay one static thing forever. You may grow a business and sell it and start another one. That’s also completely valid. So, as you look through this series, just keep your mind open, keep your heart open, and find the things that really resonate with you.

Katja (05:52):
Well, let’s talk about running your own herbal products business. So, first off, what does that look like? What would you do all day if that were your job? Well, the first thing obviously, is make products. Now, you won’t make products every single day probably. You would make them in batches according to the demand that you have. If you have a small products business, you may only have to make products once a month or once every two months even. Maybe you go to farmers market. Maybe you go to local craft fairs. And you’re not doing huge amounts of product sales. So, you don’t need to be every single day making new products. Or maybe you want to be really big. And you want to wholesale. And you want every Whole Foods in America to have your products in it. That is completely doable. And in fact Kathi Langelier of Herbal Revolution is doing that. And lots of other small herbal businesses are doing that too. So, that is totally possible. But in that case, you probably will be doing production several days a week to keep up with the demand for the products.

Make Your Product Something Special

Katja (07:06):
So, your first question is how much demand do you want to meet? How much product do you want to make, as you are planning out what your sort of business will look like? Now, making products doesn’t just involve the making. It also involves the sort of R&D, the research and development on your products. And this is very much like cooking. This is fiddling with a recipe until you get it just right. So just right that everybody says yes to seconds, right? That is a really important part of this job. Anybody can make a calendula salve. Anybody can make a this or that, an elderberry syrup, whatever. But you really need to take the time for the research, for the development, for the trial and error. For the giving it to all your friends, and getting their opinions, and then trying again and getting all their opinions again. Of really making your recipes unique, and stand out, and something special. That’s what’s going to really position you in the market as the thing they want. At this point – let’s say you’re going to make elderberry syrup – at this point there are so many places that you can buy elderberry syrup. So, we want your elderberry syrup to be really fancy, really nice, something special, something delicious, something super effective so that people come back for it again and again. So, that R&D part of the job is really important. Now, there’s also an artistic flare when you are a product maker. Not just the artistry that goes into the recipe itself or the series of recipes – however many different products you have – but also the artistry of the presentation. Again, there are lots of herbal products out there. So, how will we make yours stand out? How will we make it look special?

Katja (09:16):
Keep in mind that people purchasing from a small batch maker are usually people who have some herbal knowledge already. They are usually people who do in theory know how to make these things themselves. But they’re busy, or they only make it for other people, and they never make it for themselves. Or there’s too much going on in the house. They don’t have space in the kitchen. They don’t maybe have all the tools just ready and waiting all the time. So, they just sort of ah well, I would do it for somebody else if they needed it, but I’m not going to take the time to do it for myself. And so the packaging, the way that you present your product, is going to be really important. Because again, it isn’t like people couldn’t make it. Now, they maybe couldn’t make it as nice as you make it with your special recipes. But okay, they could make something functional. But then when you package it up in a way that makes them feel special. Especially thinking about again, that so many people can make this but don’t have the time, don’t prioritize their own needs over other people’s needs, all that kind of thing. When you make your product something beautiful, something that makes a person feel loved, feel special just because they’re holding it. Like wow, I have this thing that is so lovely that it makes me feel good about myself, right?

Katja (10:53):
Packaging can do that. Thoughtful artistry in your labeling, in the bottles or jars or containers that you choose, in -if you are online – the mailing packaging of how you send it. Or if you are in person somewhere, maybe there’s a special bag you put it in, something like that. All of this, you’re going to balance against the sustainability, both in terms of ecological sustainability of packaging, as well as the cost of packaging of course. So, there’s always a little dance here, and this requires R&D as well. Experimentation, trying stuff out. See what you like. See what resonates with people. So, that is another space in this work that’s going to take a lot of creativity. Once you get it settled, much like your recipes, once they’re settled, okay, it’s settled. You might change it every few years. But for the most part, once you’ve figured it out, then okay. This is what we do. But it takes a while to really figure that out and really create the product and the packaging that communicates to the customer what you want to tell them. All of the herbal love that you want to put out into their lives, how do you communicate that through your product, through your packaging? And I think those are probably the two most fun parts of a product maker’s job.

Selling/Marketing

Katja (12:25):
Possibly a little bit less fun is some of the administrative work. So, you’re going to need to figure out where will you sell your products. Part of that is determined by how big you want your business to be. How much product you want to be making over time. So, if you want to stay small batch, then maybe you’re selling at local farmers markets, local craft fairs, and maybe you have an online shop as well. And that can be a very effective way to run a business. You absolutely can support yourself that way. I know lots of herbal friends and herbal students who do. So, I don’t want you to think that you have to be a huge producer, and wholesaling, and all that kind of stuff to be able to sustain yourself. That’s just not true. But if you are going to do that small batch work that often includes in-person selling, then you need to schedule in some time and also some energy for that local sales work. You’ll be talking to people at your local farmers market at the craft fairs. You’ll have to make sure that you have time on those days to be in those places. Or you may have someone who goes to those places for you, but in the beginning, you’ll certainly do that yourself. And that’s going to mean packing everything up, and taking it, and getting a nice little table display. And maybe having a little tea as a oh, this is just for you to taste, and stand here, and chat with me at my table, whatever. So, all those little things that you’ll figure out about going to farmers markets, going to craft fairs, wherever.

Katja (14:08):
If you are selling only online, then you won’t have to worry about that part. But you will have to build your website, have your shopping cart, have all of your marketing. The marketing’s going to have to be GMP and FTC compliant. That’s, of course, always the case. And really focusing on bringing people to wherever your corner of the internet is. And then you might be a wholesaler. You might really want to just make tons of product. And if that is the case, well, you will probably also be hiring some people to help you maybe not right off the bat, but pretty quickly. And so that’s going to mean you’ll also need to leave some time in your schedule for management of your employees. But you’ll need to be building relationships with the retailers that you want to sell to, wholesale to. And they don’t have to all be local to you. They could be chains like Whole Foods. Or they could be just all kinds of different places all across the country, sometimes even across the world. And so you’ll need to leave time in your schedule for building those relationships and finding the kinds of places that you want to wholesale to.

Katja (15:26):
And then of course, there is an aspect of management, whether you have employees or not, just the management of the business stuff. Managing your inventory, making sure that your GMP is up to date all the time. That you are compliant with all of your labeling, your marketing, and your forms that you’re required to keep. You’ll have to do accounting. You’ll need to find the sources for all the ingredients that you need. And build relationships with farmers or other sources of the herbs, and oils, and wax, and whatever else you need to make your products. Maybe honey – local, special honey – something like that. And then finally, of course, marketing. And lots of people feel like marketing is the hardest part or the part that is the least amount of fun. But I disagree. I think that since we have to do marketingā€¦ I mean, if they don’t know that you exist, then how can they possibly enjoy your products? Marketing is required. And so I think that since we have to do it anyway, we may as well have fun doing it, right? If we just are miserable all the time that we’re marketing, it’s going to come through, and the marketing isn’t going to be as successful. Plus, you have to do it a lot. So, you might as well just learn to do it in a way that is enjoyable and fun. And we really do try to focus on that fun aspect as much as possible. So, those are the kinds of things that you’ll be doing as a product maker.

One Magnificent Product & Creating a Buzz

Katja (17:07):
And I just want to give maybe one little piece of advice here, especially for folks who are starting out or reorganizing your business. And that is, it is better to have one truly magnificent product than to have 15 mediocre products. If you are just making the same products that everybody else is making, well, okay. If you’re only selling local, and maybe you’re the only one making them locally, that’s fine. Everybody needs a calendula salve. But even if you’re selling locally, at this point everybody can order on the internet too. So, if you’re making the sort of standard catalog of products, there’s a lot of competition for that. If you have something that is really exciting, really fancy, really just not your same old elderberry syrup. That really stands out, and people will remember you for that. Ultimately, no matter how many products you have, we want them all to truly be magnificent. But in the beginning if you’re just starting out, it is okay to have only one product. You don’t have to have a huge catalog of products in order to start your business. And a lot of people think that you do. And then you end up with just this catalog of products that are not really memorable. And so people buy them and maybe they’re fine, maybe they’re even good, but they’re not memorable. So, it doesn’t create a loyal customer base for you. Whereas if you just go all in on one thing that is fantastic, people will remember it. And they’ll be like ah, I need to get more of that awesome elderberry syrup. And they’ll come back to you again and again.

Katja (19:06):
And then when you add products into your line, they will expect that same level of excitement. And they will be like oh my God, that’s the person who makes that amazing elderberry syrup. And now they’re making this other cool thing, and I can’t wait to try it. This stress elixir or whatever – I don’t know – whatever it’s going to be. And I can’t wait to try it. And they are going to be excited to try it because they know how good your other product is, even though you only started with one. So, start slow. Start small. Build your base around one thing that’s magnificent. And honestly, you could just stay with that one thing forever even. But if you want to build a larger catalog of products, do that slowly, so that each one that you add into your product line is just phenomenal every time. Now, this is going to take more time. You will grow more slowly this way because it takes more time to develop that kind of really special recipe. On the other hand, if you have a captive audience who loves your first recipe, they probably are going to be pretty excited to try your research on your next recipes. Now, you’re going to want to make sure that you tell them very clearly this is just a test. But you could select a few customers who come back regularly and say okay. I’m trying out this new product. I would really love to have your opinion about the direction I’m going in. It’s not ready for prime-time yet, but it is ready for me to ask for opinions. And I know that you love this product, and so I’m really excited to hear what you think about this new one that I’m working on.

Katja (20:56):
Now of course, you also can ask your friends, your family, and you should. You should ask as many people as possible when you’re doing development on a new recipe. But it also does generate a buzz – like ooh, something new is in the works – and also some loyalty. You have customers who are loyal to you, who keep coming back again and again. And when you allow them in doing a little bit of research, doing a little bit of development on new products. That also makes them think hey, you value my opinion, right? So, it is a relationship that can go both ways. And it can help create the excitement as you are coming towards the end of your development. As you know you’ve got something. You’re getting there with it. It’s not quite done yet, but it’s getting ready. That’s a great time to be asking for customer feedback on your new inventions.

Investigating the Market & Formulating for Delight

Katja (21:54):
And now, if you haven’t started your business yet. And you’re trying to think about well, what would be the products for me? Where is that place where I can really stand out? Well, first be thinking about what do you do that does stand out? Both in terms of you make a particular tea blend, and even people who don’t like tea like it. Okay, that’s something to pay attention to. That’s a place where you are standing out already. So in the world, but then also for yourself, what stands out for you? What really feeds your heart when you do it? So, if you are being creative with your tea blends, and that is really nourishing you. And you don’t really like to formulate tinctures as much. Okay, that’s telling you that you know that you want to be in that tea space. So, both looking at your work in the world and what stands out. As well as what is important to you? What is nourishing to you? What gets your creative juices going? Then you can take that information and go out to stores, to health food stores, Whole Foods, craft fairs, farmers markets. All different kinds of places near you where they have natural products, herbal products, stuff like that. And look to see what products they have. That is giving you information about your market.

Katja (23:30):
Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to only limit yourself to the kinds of products that are available in those places. But that is a good place to start out because it gives you information about what your market already wants to buy. And if you’re trying to think okay, well where should I start? Where should that first product be? What space should that be in? And you notice that a lot of the stores around you have products for supporting emotional health. And you have a tea blend that you really like that supports emotional health and is tasty. That would be a recipe to start really developing and honing in on. Because in your market people already are looking for that. You know because there are products available for that. Now, if you want to make a product, and nobody has anything like it, that is fantastic. But you will have to do a little bit of education about that product and help people understand why they want it. It might be that people aren’t looking for it yet. They don’t know yet that that’s something that they want in their lives. Maybe you want to make mocktail bitters, right? So, like cocktail bitters, but you want to make an alcohol-free version. And so you’ve got these really delicious herbal mocktail bitters. But you live in a place where people either drink alcohol, or they don’t drink at all. And the concept of mocktails is maybe a little new in your area. And so you might have to kind of do a little bit of education about why a mocktail is fun, and great, and delicious. And so it doesn’t mean that you can’t do something totally, totally new. It just means that if you do, there’s going to be a little bit of extra work in terms of building a customer base who understands what the product is. And they know how to use it, why they want it, they’re looking for it.

Katja (25:40):
So, both of those are great. You could start with something that’s familiar in your area and branch out into new things that you think people would love, even though they don’t know about them yet. Or you can jump right into the thing that you love making most, even though it isn’t popular in your area. And you can help people to learn to love it as much as you do. Both are great options. But the key is to do a little research just to see what’s out there. What are people already buying? Where are the gaps where people maybe aren’t thinking about certain things that maybe they would love, and that you could provide? And where do you fit into that spectrum? Now, we’re not looking to copy any existing products. Firstly, because that’s not cool. But also because copying somebody else’s products doesn’t serve you. We want your product to be a standout product, something different from what other people have. Even if you’re making elderberry syrup, and there are three elderberry syrups already on the shelves at your local health food place. That’s okay. We want yours to be standout. We want yours to be different. So, we’re never looking to copy what already exists. We’re just looking to see what is the market already looking for? What are people already wanting to buy? And how does that fit in with your skills, and your creativity, and the stuff that you love to make?

Katja (27:12):
All right, well, what are you going to need to know before you get started in a business like this? So, obviously you’re going to need to know your herbs and your product making. You have to know what herbs you’re going to work with, and why, and how you’re going to turn them into something that’s going to really stand out in the market. So, you will need those skills as well as formulation. And not just functional formulation, like I need a formula that will do this work. But kind of next-level formulation, formulation really for delight. So, whether it is something that you want to formulate to be delicious and effective, or sort of topically delicious, like experientially delicious and effective. That extra step of formulation is going to be important.

Requirements, Technology, & Helpful Courses

Katja (28:05):
You will also need to know all of the GMP and the FTC requirements. Now, this is going to be internal. Your process records, your batch record, your master recipe records, your standard operating procedures, your plant identification, all that kind of stuff. As well as the GMP and FTC requirements for your labels and for your marketing, both on your website, on your social media accounts, what you say at farmers market, all that kind of stuff. Of course, you’ll need to know about business administration, so spreadsheets. And whether you actually use spreadsheets, or you use something like Quicken for your accounting. There’s some technology there that is going to be a factor. There will be some inventory stuff that you’ll need to track, just administrative stuff.

Katja (29:03):
And then there’s also in the realm of technology, there is marketing and your website and design. And in these cases, I really recommend that you do as much of that yourself as possible. Simply because if you know how to make edits to your own website, if you need to change something quickly, you don’t have to pay somebody to do it for you, and you don’t have to wait till they get around to it. So, I really think it’s important to know how to maintain your own website. It’s really important to do your own marketing because when you are selling products, you’re selling you in the product, right? You can get herbal products anywhere these days. But the special part of your products is you. The love that you put into it, the creativity in your designs, in your recipes, in your formulation. The special perspective that you have on a particular plant that makes your product with that plant so much better than everybody else’s. Whatever it is, that’s actually the thing that you’re really marketing. And it needs to have your voice. So again, even though people really always want to outsource the marketing, I really think that’s one that you should keep for yourself. And then if you’re not very good at design, okay, that’s easier to hire somebody to help you with. But it’s important that you have an eye for what you like. So, even if you’re not good at drawing it or designing it on a computer. If you are good at identifying the types of styles that appeal to you, it will make working with a designer a lot easier.

Katja (30:50):
Now, if you’re studying with us, the programs that you’ll need to get that information will be the Family Herbalist program. That’s where you get your Materia Medica and your product making skills. And you’ll probably also want a couple of the Community Herbalist courses. You don’t necessarily need the whole Community Herbalist program. But if you’re going to make skincare products, for example, you’ll probably want the Integumentary Health course. That’s the skin health course. Or if you’re going to focus on products for emotional health, then you probably will want the Neurological and Emotional Health course. So, sort of if there’s a course that is really directly relevant to the types of products you want to make, that’s probably a pretty good idea. And then if you want to branch out into high potency products, then the Phytochemistry course is going to be really helpful for you in terms of really matching up constituents and menstruums so that you get that higher potency aspect. You can make very potent, very effective products with sort of regular product making skills. But when you really want to push it to the next level, phytochemistry can help a lot. A lot of people are intimidated by phytochemistry. But we try to teach it in a way that’s fun, and approachable, and just the parts that you really need to make really superior products. So, that course may be very helpful for you.

Katja (32:17):
And then, of course, the Herbal Business Program, which is going to help you with every aspect of your business. Now, for product makers you’re going to want to put a special emphasis on the GMP chapters, which will give you all of the GMP and FTC requirements for your labels, for marketing, for all of your forms that you need to do. You will also want to focus a lot on the chapters on designing your website, on designing your logo and your brand, and also on your marketing, your social media, and your online presence. And as you go along there is a very supportive community of all the herbal business students who are always super happy to give opinions on label designs and everything else. Everybody in the Herbal Business Program signs a code of ethics, so you don’t have to worry about your ideas being stolen or anything else. It’s just a really safe place to get support from other herbalists who are in business just like you.

Ryn (33:19):
That’s it for this episode of the Holistic Herbalism podcast. This show is produced and edited by us, Ryn and Katja. If you like what you hear, check out our online herbalism school. Our courses are taught primarily by video lessons that you can watch at your own pace. Each one has an accompanying MP3, so you can take your learning on the go. There are PDF files of quick guides and key information for you. Every lesson has an integrated discussion thread where you can ask your questions and get a faculty response within a day. Courses come with access to a lively community space – kind of like social media, but herbal and therefore better – plus access to twice weekly live Q&A sessions. And all of this is yours for lifetime access. There’s no ticking time limit for you to take in the material, so take your time. You’ll find everything we have at online.commonwealthherbs.com.

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