Episode #32

Sarah Vilenskiy from Blossom Essentials

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In this episode of Beyond the Inbox, Sarah Vilenskiy, the founder of Blossom Essentials, joins us to share valuable insights into her marketing strategies. She discusses her approach to Facebook advertising, email marketing, and influencer marketing. Sarah emphasizes the importance of content organization and provides advice for e-commerce founders on self-care and mental health.

Sarah starts by talking about her focus on customer feedback and the importance of understanding the issues customers face and how her products can help them. She mentions that rather than using before and after photos, she relies on customer testimonials and reviews to showcase the effectiveness of her skincare brand.

When it comes to the marketing strategy, Sarah discusses the debate within her team about whether to focus on subscriptions or one-time purchases. She explains that while they do have subscribers, their best-selling product, the hydration repair honey cell, takes a long time to finish, which makes it challenging to push for subscriptions. She emphasizes the importance of understanding the product and its usage cycle when deciding on the subscription model.

Sarah also dives into their email marketing strategy, highlighting the inclusion of educational content in their email flows. They focus on providing value to their customers through self-care, health, mindfulness, and wellness tips, ensuring that using their products enhances the overall well-being of their customers.

When it comes to user-generated content, Sarah shares her experience with influencers and explains that she had little success with influencer marketing. Instead, she found that reaching out to customers who posted positive experiences on social media and offering them incentives to create videos resulted in better content and more authentic testimonials. She also mentions working with an agency for a rebranding campaign, which allowed them to create focused and effective content aligned with their Facebook strategy.

Sarah highlights the importance of content organization and having a well-organized Google Drive to store and easily access all the content they create. She emphasizes the value of repurposing content and the need for an organized system to manage and find content quickly.

When discussing partnerships, Sarah expresses her skepticism about influencer marketing and the lack of results she has seen from it. She advises entrepreneurs to focus more on creating good content rather than relying on influencers with large followings. She believes that niche micro-influencers with engaged audiences can be more effective in driving conversions.

In terms of future growth, Sarah mentions the importance of finding a second-best-selling product to scale their Facebook advertising. She also talks about their focus on retail expansion and exploring online marketplaces to diversify their channels.

Sarah concludes the podcast by emphasizing the need for self-care and mental health in the entrepreneurial journey. She encourages entrepreneurs to normalize the challenges they face and to take time off when needed. She also shares her personal coping mechanism, which is working out, and highlights the importance of finding what works for each individual.

Overall, Sarah Vilenskiy provides valuable insights into her marketing strategies and offers advice for e-commerce founders. Her focus on customer feedback, content organization, and self-care serves as an inspiration for entrepreneurs looking to build successful and sustainable businesses.

Show Notes

  • (0:00) Introduction to Sarah Vilenskiy and Blossom Essentials
  • (2:12) Sarah's focus on customer feedback and testimonials
  • (3:40) Debating between subscriptions and one-time purchases
  • (5:05) The importance of understanding the product and its usage cycle
  • (6:28) Email marketing strategy with educational content
  • (7:53) Using incentives to generate user-generated content
  • (10:30) Working with an agency for a rebranding campaign
  • (12:00) Importance of content organization and repurposing
  • (14:07) Skepticism towards influencer marketing
  • (16:40) Niche micro-influencers and the value of good content
  • (19:05) Future growth plans and retail expansion
  • (21:12) Self-care and mental health in entrepreneurship
  • (23:30) Coping mechanism: working out
  • (25:42) Importance of normalizing the challenges of entrepreneurship
  • (27:35) Investing in therapy for co-founders and relationship dynamics
  • (28:54) Conclusion and where to learn more about Blossom Essentials

Read the transcript:

Sam (00:00): Sarah, welcome to Beyond the Inbox. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us.

Sarah (00:05): Thank you for having me.

Sam (00:06): You said in one interview that you come from a long line of entrepreneurs. Can you speak on that and how that's influenced the work that you do today?

Sarah (00:15): Yeah, absolutely. So first and foremost, it made me realize I'm very bad at working for people. So this was almost the inevitable choice, kind of going off on my own and creating something. So when you have that mindset, you're never satisfied. You're never fulfilled no matter how well you do working for somebody else. And I kind of went through those same processes myself. And so when I started Blossom, I went into it with no other option as an exit. I was telling myself, I'm never going to be able to work for somebody again. This is it. So I have to make it work. And there's really no other way, whether that be this business or another one, which I'm hopeful that it continues to be this one, but it's all the sense of if you have that mindset in that this is it, figure it out, it makes you work a lot harder and see things a lot differently than saying, okay, well I'll have a fallback if it doesn't work out. If I don't work as hard as I need to, if this, that and the other something happens, then I can at least just go and get a job. And when you grow up with everybody being entrepreneurs and successful, you don't really think that way, and I think that pushes you into a different type of group of people, if you will.

Sam (01:45): Moving on from there, can you tell us a little bit about your background and what led you to starting the company?

Sarah (01:52): Yeah, so after college, I went into the digital space. I did every side of it, sales, affiliate marketing. I tried media buying, branding and whatnot. So I kind of got the full scope and I decided it's time for me to go off on my own and do this for myself. And then in terms of the product itself or the brand, we are a dry skin brand. I have chronic dry skin. And originally we started off as a different company. We started off as an eczema company and I don't have eczema. And we quickly realized if you don't have the problem that you're trying to solve, it makes it very difficult to solve it. And so I pivoted into something that I know and I personally have problems with and so I can address it head on. And that really allowed us to shine and scale and connect with our audience a lot more because I personally can say like, Hey, knowing this I made this product, I think you'll really like it as well. And that's helped us.

Sam (02:57): It's such a big leap to go from full-time employment to entrepreneurship. Was there a tipping point that led you to finally pull the trigger and make that decision to start the company?

Sarah (03:10): Yes and no. I think there's never really going to be that aha moment. You kind of just have to make it yourself and say, enough is enough. There's never going to be a right time. And you hear that all the time. There's never going to be a right time to do something. There will always be something in your life that says, well, maybe I should wait another month or two. And so if you say, okay, now is the time, otherwise there will never be another time, and if I can't get myself to do it now, I probably never will. And that was essentially my aha moment of saying, Sarah, excuse my friends, but get your shit together. Just do it and see what happens.

Sam (03:47): And what did your go-to-market strategy look like when you decided that you wanted to go full-time into this?

Sarah (03:53): Yeah, so with an advertising background, I looked at the business in regards to Facebook advertising. And so I created the product with a u s A manufacturer. I had a relationship and a network kind of in that world already, so that was easier. They kind of handheld me through the process, which was really, really helpful for me. Now obviously there were so many issues and things that could have been better, but having the things that you don't know anything about be advised by somebody else was really helpful for me to be able to take their advice, run with it, and then do what I do best, which was bring it to Facebook and see is this a viable product? And we did actually do a lot of audience testing initially before we launched a product. We did see, we created a presale, sorry, we created a landing page and we tested it to see if we can generate some sales. Now granted, I was very eager and probably didn't even give it enough data, so that was a flaw on my end. So I recommend really giving it time to see if it is a viable product for your market, but thank God we're still here today. But yeah, I think the go-to market was figuring out if this was a market for us, if the product would stick through our audience testing and then launch it and make some content and see what happens.

Sam (05:27): I want to come back to Facebook later, but what I want to ask you now is what are some of the challenges you face when it comes to selling cosmetics and how do you overcome them?

Sarah (05:39): Well, for starters, it's a very saturated market and CPAs are excruciatingly high. So you're going to be dealing with that. And I think it's really important going into something like this, especially if you want a skincare company, which we're actually now defining ourselves as a personal care company, but if you're trying to break into cosmetics, skincare, beauty, you have to know that it's going to take a very long time and you need to take it slow and you're going to have to wait for your audience to build any sort of loyalty to you or believe that your products are better than the 1 trillion other companies out there. What really helps for us and what we latched onto from the start and allowed us to scale within really just a year, we scaled to seven figures. The first year was a lot of problems, but a lot of guessing and checking, but we kind of pivoted.

(06:35): And then 2022 is really where we started from scratch and scaled to seven figures on Facebook, but we focused on a relief angle. And for us that worked really well because people are dealing with something all the time and they want something that's going to fix their problems. And when you're a regular skincare brand and you can't find something to latch onto as an issue, that makes it really difficult for you to advertise your unique selling point because a lot of other companies are doing the same thing. So for us, and what I would recommend for you guys, if you are trying to launch a skincare company, personal care company, anything is find a actual problem. You're trying to solve it for a lot of people and then show that content of how you solved it for other people. So we have a ton of befores and afters. We have a ton of U G C, and that's what's driven our marketing to date. We don't do really any of those TikTok styles, although we recently started testing it, but we do mashups and mashups based on both the hooks initially with the TikTok styles or whatever, but then we go immediately into what our customers are saying, what types of relief you can get from it and how it's going to make you feel after you get that relief.

Sam (07:59): Does this inform a lot of the ads creative that you're using on Facebook before and after versus U G C? Are those some of the more popular angles that you're using in your world? Creative.

Sarah (08:10): We'll never deliberately say before and after as you can't, but we do focus a lot on just what other customers are saying or pinpointing the issues at hand and how it helped them.

Sam (08:26): I want to start pivoting into the marketing strategy and we can start with Facebook. So when someone clicks on an ads, are you going for a one-time purchase or a subscription? What does that customer lifecycle look like?

Sarah (08:40): There's a lot of push and pull in our board meetings on whether we should be a subscription focused or just a get the sale and know that we're going to get them coming back through our email and s m s efforts, whether it's cross-selling or repurchasing from the data, I think it's for us specifically, and I really think it's important, you have to understand what your product is. For us, our hydration repair honey cell, which is our bestseller, that's what we scale on Facebook and then everything else kind of trickles in after that. That is a product that takes a long time to get through. And so no matter how much we try to push a subscription and we do get subscribers, people build up the product, they're like, oh, okay, I just got another jar not even close to done yet. And I think that's an incredibly important metric you need to look at when determining whether you're a subscription-based company or if you're just a regular company that happens to have a few people that love your product, use it regularly and run through it, and so they actually want to be on a subscription.

(09:46): I think there's quite a different track you can go to depending on which route you take. I think for us, we noticed that Higher AOVs initially getting them to test other products quickly works for us a lot better than getting them on a subscription. We do have quite a few subscribers because they genuinely want to be on it, but then we also have a lot of cancellations and we try to retain them, whether it be through discounts or skipped, cancel, whatever. But people are very reluctant to do that because they feel like, okay, I already have too much product, why would I need to do more? So all of that to say, figure out what works for your business. Don't just try to jump on any bandwagon just because subscriptions are the newest hot commodity for VCs.

Sam (10:30): It's so interesting because I imagine it's really difficult to calculate replenishment because it's different for everyone and it's not as simple as making an email automation that goes out x number of days after purchase to try and upsell them to a subscription or to get them to renew or something like that

Sarah (10:48): Without a doubt. So we've been testing predictive analytics for return subscription, sorry, return purchases. So I can't speak to whether it's working that well right now. However, it is something that we've been trying to tackle for a long time. We have taken the average time it takes for somebody to get through the jar and typically send out a replenishment email. Then however, people will just purchase when they want to purchase. And so when all is said and done, I think it's really important to just keep engagement with your community and eventually when they're ready to purchase, they will come back to do. So

Sam (11:29): We mentioned email a moment ago. Can you speak more on your email marketing strategy, how you think about campaigns, how you think about workflows and so on?

Sarah (11:37): Absolutely. So our flows are quite rigorous. We have everyone under the sun because we always want to make sure that we're communicating with our audience, our community and our products as a whole are very education focused. And so yes, our flows are the generic ones that you'll always see, but we involve a lot of education into those flows and we build out very useful content and we always try to tie in a lot of self-care and health and mindfulness and wellness and whatnot so that people understand that using our products we'll get them that relief and they'll also have a better life because of it. And so overall, all of our goals are not just like, let's throw another discount at them. That's not who we are as a brand. We aren't a cheap brand in any sense of the word. We're not the most expensive, but we understand that and we drive value through education and why our ingredients and our products are going to are number one, very clean and healthy for you, but also number two, going to give you the results you're looking for to have a better life.

Sam (12:40): What are some of the ways that you're going about generating user-generated content? Are you using an affiliate program? Are you using anything else like that to drive those types of posts on social media?

Sarah (12:55): Yeah, great question. We've tried everything initially. So actually in December we went through a rebrand, so we had to kind of do an overhaul of creatives, but initially we had a ton of customers just sending it in, which is amazing because they have these really great experiences. We have it built into our flows, get a $20 gift card or something like that, or free product. But actually what's worked really well for me in the past, and this is funny because I'm a brand owner and I have so much on my plate, but I do this anyway when we get a ton of engagement on our Facebook ads and they're all these emotional, incredible stories of how our products have helped people. Yeah, they're wild. So I just messaged them. I'm like, Hey, I love that you posted this. Would you be interested in getting a free jar in exchange for a video?

(13:46): And sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. We get a lot of befores and afters that way. It works really well for that. So if you go on our main product, we have 15 befores and afters, which is getting a little bit ridiculous, but we have that content because of that. That's actually the easiest way for me to generate befores and afters. Video is definitely harder. You have to follow up and they get excited about it and then they forget or something like that. But through that, we've been able to build out a ton of mashups. You really only need a few videos to create hundreds of pieces of content. But otherwise, we went through a agency for the rebrand and we did a massive, massive campaign. So they had six or seven creators. We drafted the angles, what we were really looking for, which was forward facing camera action, talking to the camera about why they really love it. Here are the key points we want to address, and that allowed us to continue on with our Facebook strategy that works for us instead of that TikTok, we did test it, however our original style does better.

Sam (14:56): I wanted to ask you about, you mentioned content then, and I heard you talking about in another interview the importance of having a well organized Google drive for content, and I wanted to ask you about that.

Sarah (15:07): Oh yeah. That is pivotal because as you grow and you start accumulating all of these pieces of content or documents or reviews or whatever else, you need to be able to find it quickly. We have probably like 500 images now because we have a photographer on retainer, and if I didn't have everything neat and tidy, it would be impossible for me to find something quickly and then send it over to somebody. Or we have a graphic designer, we have videographer, we have the agency who sent me the content that I had to then put into a different folder for my email team and then my affiliate manager. If everything is not super clean and easy to find, it becomes a mess and you lose all of that content, you'll just never be able to find it. So I think as you grow and start initially as you're just starting out, because you won't realize how quickly this can build up on you, and if you don't start right away, you will be in a sea of content that you just won't have time or figure out how to sort later on. So

Sam (16:10): I think it's such a neglected area when it comes to entrepreneurship, this idea of organization, especially when it comes to content, you do need an owner as it gets very large, very quickly as you just mentioned. And I do feel like it's something that more people should pay attention, especially when it comes to repurposing content, because that certainly saves a lot of time in the long run as well.

Sarah (16:33): Without a doubt, we do so many mashups, and so if I have 10 different iterations of one mashup, how am I going to figure out which one was most successful and then iterate from that? And then my video editor has to sift through dozens and dozens of pieces of content just to find the ones that she wants to use, and she does an amazing job of doing so. However, it's overwhelming if you don't keep it neat for her.

Sam (17:00): I wanted to ask you as well about partnerships. Is that something you've explored? If so, what are some of the success stories that you've had with it?

Sarah (17:07): Yeah, can you define partnerships?

Sam (17:09): Yeah, sure. So finding similar brands or micro influencers or even influencers that can promote your brands for you.

Sarah (17:16): Okay. I have a lot of thoughts on the influencer matter. I personally, again, this is truly a subjective opinion. I cannot stand the influencer marketing route. I don't see it working. I've spent so much time and wasted money on influencers that have gotten me absolutely nowhere. We did a campaign for our rebrand. We did 10 influencers, they were vetted. I paid a sum of money. I don't think we got a single new follower from all 10 campaigns that posted. The only thing we did get were maybe a few pieces of content that we can then repurpose. So going into anything influencer related, I always say, unless you can give me the raw files, I'm not, and the rights to do so to use them for lifetime, I will not go into business with you. And then even so, if somebody contacts me via Instagram or something, I will not hire them anymore. I've had too many bad experiences and it's just not worth my time.

Sam (18:25): It's super interesting, and I'm hearing that a lot more when I speak to e-commerce founders. It seems like followers really doesn't mean a lot, and like you say, at the end of the day, it really comes down to conversions and sales, and it's almost as if the niche micro influences that have a very engaged, albeit small following, sometimes the ones that are worth actually betting on.

Sarah (18:49): No, I haven't had any luck with them either. For us, content is king. I just need good content. I've had legal documents written up with these influencers who had very small followings and I said, just do this one thing. And then the content came back trash, which is why I loved working with this agency so much. And if anybody wants a recommendation, I'm happy to give them. I had truly an amazing experience, which is hard to come by with an agency, but him and I, the owner of the agency worked together to create the main topics to discuss. I wrote out a very lengthy brief. They drafted the templates of the conversations, but they did let the contact creators were vetted and than handpicked within a ton of different ones that they typically work with. And based on knowing my demo and what I'm really looking for, they were able to say like, okay, this is the content creator who's not going to be posting about my products or whatever. They're truly just making the content. For me, it was so much better of an experience for getting what I actually needed rather than having this great influencer as a great community that will post for us with a picture literally just holding our jar or putting it on a nightstand versus here is exactly what I'm looking for based on what I know is going to convert on Facebook. So I'd recommend going the agency route versus influencers.

Sam (20:27): I have this in my notes. I wanted to ask you about the agency and also the current team setup. What does that look like today?

Sarah (20:33): The agency specifically that I was using? Yes.

(20:36): So I used Creator House. I think they rebranded, but if you've heard of them, they're fantastic. Highly, highly recommend speaking with them. Alex, Alex something. Let me remember his last name before I completely botch this. Alex Cooper. So I did a big overhaul of assets, but like I said, I do mashups, and so I was able to, I'm still using all of that content from December. I haven't had to make any new pieces of content because we got so much out of it, and I explicitly asked for the raw files of each little clip so that I can mash it up myself into a thousand different ones. And I think that's a really important lesson that I learned over the years of working with these types of agencies and content creators is ask for every little clip, single files of five, 10 seconds. You'll be so surprised at what you can do with that. Just that alone without having a full two minute video. Go ahead.

Sam (21:40): No, please go ahead.

Sarah (21:41): I was just going to say in terms of the team, now, my minority equity partner is a experienced media buyer, so he handles all of our ads for us, which is blessing. So I can focus on alternate marketing channels that we haven't been able to look into up until now.

Sam (22:00): This was going to lead into my next question. With so much uncertainty right now about meta and privacy and the algorithm, what are some of the channels that you are considering exploring in 2023 and beyond?

Sarah (22:13): We are doing a really big push into retail right now, whether that be boutique or larger brick and mortars, although obviously that takes a lot longer to break into. In addition to that, online marketplaces, we're exploring stuff like Flip. There's another one called Flagship that we just started on. We have yet to go live, but essentially it's creators that make their own storefronts, and then we pay out a commission of anything that they drive. Then in addition to that, we have something like a Throne, which is a gamer platform that people can gift products. So all of these are very small add-ons to the Facebook sales that we rely on, which is so unfortunate because yes, it is. So you have no idea what's going to happen every single day is, am I going to pull out my hair today or am I going to smile today? Which I'm sure you can relate to. So no matter how uncertain Facebook is, it will always be our driving force for conversions until we at least diversify into retail because all of the other channels are supplementary to Facebook. For us at least, TikTok never worked. Hey, we switched to a better offer. There's just no way to consistently drive those conversions unless you're the best offer out there, which there's always going to be a new shiny object, let's be real. And then Google is supplementary to Facebook for us, Pinterest, all of the organic channels, which go nowhere. That's truly for, we drive organic just to look better for retailers and for hopefully an exit down the line.

Sam (24:06): One thing that I'm sure looks really good to retailers is the number of reviews that you have. I noticed this when I was researching for this episode, 1,100 plus reviews. How are you doing this? Is this happening organically at this point? Are you incentivizing customers to leave reviews? Can you speak more on that?

Sarah (24:23): Absolutely. So we have a three email flow that goes out. We're currently using jip. You guys, have you heard of that?

Sam (24:35): Yes, I'm familiar with them.

Sarah (24:36): Okay. So they've been wonderful. We recently switched from Stamped. I thought I liked stamped until I realized how many issues we were running into and how was never, we would have downtime all the time. I would go on my site and be like, where are my reviews? So we recently switched to juni as of two months ago, and it's been such a blessing. They're mobile first, and so we're not having as many issues with people adding the wrong star level, like five stars, but a terrible review or one star great review. We've only had it once so far, actually, which is a really big help for us because it doesn't skew the results and then it makes it really easy to hook up to our email platform and then it sends it out automatically through our flows that we build through there. Whereas Stamped had its own E S P.

Sam (25:28): We're soon coming to the end of the interview, and one thing I wanted to ask you was, you've talked about personal care and finding fulfillment in the work that you do. I know that for a lot of e-commerce founders, entrepreneurship can be challenging. It can take its toll on your mental health. What are some of the things that you do to take care of yourself and ensure that you are bringing your A game to your work every day?

Sarah (25:52): This is certainly a work in progress. I think it's really important to normalize how crappy this is. It is really difficult to build a business, and there will be so many more downs than up and riding. That wave Motion emotionless is critical here, and it's something that I've been trying to develop over a few years. Actually, as of two months ago, I told myself, okay, no matter whether it's a good day or a bad day in sales, I will not react no matter what because it took such a toll on my mental state. Even on the great days, I'd be great, I feel fulfilled, and then on the bad days I'd go into a deep depression. And so if you just take that away and you realize there will be bad days and good days, and it doesn't reflect on how I am as a business owner, your life and your mental state will be a lot better. But yeah, normalize the shittiness. If you need to take a day because you're having a really tough day, just go take the day. Nobody is going to call you up or it's okay. And I think that's really important. People forget that.

Sam (27:01): I spoke to a founder recently and he told me that he and his two co-founders invest $50,000 a year into therapy, and I asked him to tell me a story about how that paid dividends, and he said his two co-founders were a married couple and they were on the brink of divorce. And he said, through investing in this therapy, they were able to resolve the conflict that they had and save the business. And I just thought that was such an amazing perspective on the importance of mental health in entrepreneurship.

Sarah (27:29): I couldn't agree more. I work out to take my anxiety out and my stresses. I work out a lot, and that's my coping mechanism. I think everybody should find their coping mechanism. It really helps.

Sam (27:42): As we start to come to the end of the interview, I want to ask you, how do you plan to continue growing and expanding the company in the future?

Sarah (27:49): Yeah, so I think our biggest thing for this year is to find a second bestseller to scale on Facebook, because right now what we're finding is that as we increase budgets, obviously our returns go down, and so we just need to find an alternate product that will stabilize those ad costs and the return on ad spend. And then of course, retail expansion will be such a big win for us if we can do that. And then, yeah, just continue to grow and build out our audience, continue with our email and s m s build out so that we're not having to continually acquire new customers at these excruciatingly high rates.

Sam (28:25): My last question for you, Sarah, is where can our listeners go to learn more about Blossom Essentials?

Sarah (28:31): Yeah, so check us out on our website. It's tryblossom.com, so tryBlossom. We have everything there. We're also on Amazon, and you'll hopefully soon see us in some retail stores.

Sam (28:44): I hope so too. Well, I want to thank you again for taking the time to join us today, Sarah, and all the best in the future with Blossom Essentials.

Sarah (28:51): Thank you. I appreciate it.