Jessica Iclisoy Did It Her Way
Jessica Iclisoy founded her brand of organic baby products, California Baby, in 1995 to solve a problem: Typical baby products contained controversial synthetic ingredients. With no science background—Iclisoy worked in fashion for the designer Azzedine Alaïa before quitting the industry to be a stay-at-home mom—she started mixing ingredients in her Los Angeles kitchen in 1990 to create her own all-natural shampoo/body wash. Five years and a $2,000 loan from her mother later, she launched her business, now worth $260 million. Iclisoy maintains complete control: California Baby has never brought in an investor. Following, she shares her experiences and some expert advice.
How did you launch California Baby?
It was over 20 years ago. I realized the shampoo I was using to bathe my son that thought was natural was no different than any conventional shampoo. I started this as a passion project to solve a problem. I would go to my local library at UCLA on a mission to find an alternative [to sodium lauryl sulfate]. I found this one ingredient, something called glucoside, from Germany. So here I was, this 23-year-old living in LA, and I started cold-calling chemists. Then I had a product, and all my girlfriends wanted to buy it. So I thought, OK, well, this is a business.
What did you do to get the business off the ground?
The pillars of my company have been two things: education and leadership. I went into my local health food store and said, “If you put it on the shelf, I will educate your customer.” I spent the first eight years pioneering and creating the category. There was no premium baby category at that time. Although we formulate for babies, we also formulate for adults with sensitive skin—people with allergies or intolerances or those going through chemotherapy.
So you had no background in science?
Zero. In a way, it was an advantage for me because I didn’t know what I couldn’t do.
How did you grow the business?
For sure, it was a slower growth. I didn’t want to conquer the world—I just wanted to get the product made. I didn’t want the artificial pressure, so I didn’t set sales goals. Although, it was selling. That was enough encouragement for me to focus on developing the category. Then Whole Foods purchased that local chain that carried my products, and suddenly I was dealing with Whole Foods.
And then Target and Walmart, how did those come about?
We never go after business. Target came to us. And I actually said no because I said the customer wasn’t ready. My philosophy is you only get one chance with Target—or any of these retailers—and it has to be a slam dunk. So I wanted to wait. But then my customers started asking me to have my product carried in Target. So I called up Target and said, “OK, we’re ready.” That was about 10 years ago.
Did you have difficulty selling California Baby because people saw it as a “women’s product”?
It sold enough right off the bat. It wasn’t gangbusters, but it was steady. Definitely, I had to fight the naysayers. The only people who were consistently positive were mothers because it made sense to them. Men were a harder sell.
How did you remain 100 percent owner of the company?
I was told, “You need to sell the company because the big guys are gonna come and eat your lunch.” But I realized, I don’t need investors, I don’t have to sell my business as long as I stay true to it. So every bit of profit that I had, I poured back into the company. The sales from the shampoo funded the addition of a bubble bath. The bubble bath funded a sunscreen. And all of a sudden, I had a brand.
I borrowed the money from my mother, because I didn’t want anybody telling me what to do—not even my husband. I needed to figure this out on my own. My thing has always been: protect the brand, protect the brand, protect the brand. How hard is it, if you damage your brand, to come back and salvage that? That’s hard.
We launched into Walmart last August, so I want to just let that absorb. We’re pretty happy with what we are. We have a really strong business in Asia, and they keep us pretty busy. We have a good diversified business: health food stores, the children’s bouqitues, doctors, specialty shops. We have over 90 SKUs. And we actually just re-did our website and focused on mobile. We understand the importance that it looks good and is shoppable.
Tell me more about innovation and the focus you put on R&D.
That’s a key part of why are our products are so successful. We’re constantly innovating. We have a 100-acre farm in Santa Barbara county to grow our own flowers. We do our own extractions, so we’re getting really high-quality ingredients.
When competition comes in, we focus on the product because they can’t compete with us on product. That’s actually why I did my own manufacturing facility.
What’s different about your facility?
Our manufacturing facility in Los Angeles is pharmaceutical grade. Rather than using plastic and PVC piping, mine is all stainless steel. I did it because I want this to last for 30 years. I’m not interested in quarter to quarter to quarter growth.
I love that we are not only natural, but we are also high tech. My goal was always: It’s going to be natural, it’s going to be safe, it’s going to be healthy and it’s going to perform as the best in class. We spend a lot of money on testing because we want to be really confident of the performance of the product.
What advice would you give to a budding entrepreneur?
Don’t think about this as a money-maker right now. Because if you need to pay your rent off of this, you’re going to be making the wrong decisions for the brand. If you put in the work in the beginning, it will start to pay off.
Do your homework and find out where this product is accepted. Give it enough time to develop, at least a year. Chill out and stop worrying about success. Never chase retailers. But if the retailer wants your product, then you can make a great deal. And you need to have a great website.
Do you have any specific advice for a female entrepreneur?
I would advise her to follow her instincts. Women have fantastic instincts, and we also have the ability to work both sides of our brain, so we’re great business people. Women just need to get a little more confidence in that.
You’ve said that your approach to business is uniquely female.
I made a decision early on that I wasn’t going to try to emulate the way men do business. I have to play to my strength as a woman, instead of trying to be something that I’m not. The more I did that, the more successful I was. Women make great business owners. We’re the mothers, we run the household, we can multitask. So why not start a business?
How can women encourage other women to do that?
I want to be an example because I feel like women will say, “Well, if she can do it, then I can do it.” We learn by observation, so I think women need to see somebody in action doing it. I’m very happy to take that on. californiababy.com