Connie Lo and Laura Burget have always had the business bug. The co-founders of natural beauty brand Three Ships know a thing or two about building a successful (and gorgeous!) brand from the ground up, and we’re so fortunate to have them share their entrepreneurial journeys with us! PSST, did you know they were also on Dragons’ Den?!
Tell us about Three Ships Beauty! What inspired you both to create it, and what made you decide to go all-natural?
C: The idea for Three Ships started back in November of 2016. At the time, Laura and I were both recent university grads, struggling to find affordable natural skincare products. Brands were either really expensive, or cheap and greenwashed.
We didn’t want to have to break the bank to outfit a full skincare routine, nor did we want to settle for something that we didn’t trust. With this problem in mind, we set out on a mission to make natural beauty accessible for all women! Our products are all-natural, certified cruelty-free and vegan, and under $40 USD.
Making 100% plant-derived, natural products was very important to us. We were both well-versed in the benefits of using cleaner ingredients on our skin, but were mystified by all the greenwashing and jargon out there in the market!
Because of this, we really focus on formulation transparency at Three Ships. We have an Ingredient Glossary which breaks down every single ingredient we use, including where they are sourced from, scientific studies backing the ingredients, and which products they can be found in. This level of complete transparency is really unparalleled!
Did you both always want to be entrepreneurs?
L: Yes definitely! For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to own my own business. My first “company” was selling jewelry that I had made to friends/family and parents on the school playground. When I was in university, I also ran two companies (a retail bookstore on campus and an exterior house painting business).
I found the process so exciting and rewarding – after those two experiences there was no turning back and I knew that I would have to start and grow a company while still in my 20s.
C: I always had the entrepreneurial bug! I was inspired from a young age by my father, who ran his own startup business. I had an inside look at the highs and lows of startup life (working from home – great! Working around the clock? Not so great!), and started running my own side businesses in high school.
This passion continued into my time in university, where I was involved with North America’s largest undergraduate entrepreneurial competition for three years, ultimately co-chairing it. I really love the freedom, daily problem solving, and resourcefulness required of entrepreneurship, so meeting Laura and starting Three Ships together really is a dream come true!
What were the first few steps you took to launch Three Ships Beauty after you had the initial idea for the business? ie. getting a business license, figuring out packaging, manufacturing, experimenting with ingredients etc.
C: We started Three Ships with just $3,300 USD, so we had to get really scrappy with our bootstrapped company! The first area we spent on was incorporating our business. We saved on legal fees and submitted our application directly to the Canadian government, which cost us ~$800.
After that, we got started on testing different versions of our initial product, a coconut oil-based makeup remover wipe. It’s funny to look back at this time, as we were making everything by hand in my kitchen!
I remember we tried spraying the makeup wipes with coconut oil, rolling the makeup wipes with a rolling pin (trust me, we tried it all!), before settling on dipping the cotton wipes in a mixing bowl of coconut oil. It was such a DIY process, and we often felt the imposter syndrome creeping in.
To make the product for different skin types, Laura researched which essential oil combinations were suited for normal, dry, combination and oily skin. We’d then take this small percentage of essential oil and add it to the coconut oil mixes to differentiate 4 SKU’s (e.g. tea tree + cedarwood for oily skin, lavender + geranium for normal skin).
Simultaneously, I got started on our Instagram page. We had no products at the time, but I began posting images that our target demographic would resonate with. These included women empowerment quotes, cute puppy photos, and natural skincare education. By the time our brand officially launched, we had around 1,000 active followers.
Our brand officially launched on March 1, 2017, and it’s been a wild ride ever since!
Some new entrepreneurs create a detailed business plan while others prefer to wing it! What was your process like?
L: I’d say that we’re a combination of both approaches. There’s always a place and time for planning – it’s necessary to ensure that you have the right amount of inventory, run successful marketing campaigns and manage your cashflow. However, there are times where trying to plan is a losing battle and it’s better to just wing it!
When we first started I had created a high-level business model but it wasn’t anywhere close to a full-blown business plan. I believe that it had the core details about our product margins (how much it cost us to produce, the wholesale price and the retail price), a list of some of our anticipated fixed costs and a few details on the competitive market.
It was very barebones but this didn’t hurt us. Since we didn’t have much cash to work with, a full-blown business plan would have likely not been too useful. Instead, we allowed our customers to guide the growth of the company and gathered/implemented as much feedback as we could get in the early days.
What goes into creating a natural skincare line that you think people might not know about?
L: The thing that seems to surprise people the most is how small our team is. Right now we are a small but mighty team of just 4 full-time employees! We really believe in operating in a very lean team structure and people are shocked that we are able to get so much done with so few people!
What were some of the challenges you faced in the early days of the business and how did you overcome them?
- Imposter syndrome
- Work hours
C: There were many inconveniences as a result of our heavily cash-strapped business. Because we had a small budget to work with, we had to get very creative with where we invested our dollars vs. our time. For example, because we couldn’t afford to hire a manufacturer in the beginning days, we handmade every product for the first 1.5 years (including orders for thousands of units!).
We also purchased a $300 laser printer to print our product labels, instead of ordering custom-printed high-quality labels from a label manufacturer. We were able to overcome the difficulties of our small budget by being extremely careful with where we spent our dollars, winning grant money at pitch competitions, and being resourceful with what we had.
Another challenge we often faced was our own imposter syndrome. On the outside, our brand looked like it was a flourishing emerging brand. Behind the scenes, we were deliriously making products in the evenings and on weekends.
We even hand-delivered products to customers who lived near us to save a few dollars. Laura and I often caught ourselves comparing our brand to other more established brands, and putting ourselves down. Eventually, we realized this thought pattern wasn’t serving us.
We began documenting our small wins by saving positive emails in a separate folder, and even making a scrapbook to share our biggest monthly successes! This really helped us overcome our imposter syndrome. Looking back, it’s incredible to see how far we’ve come.
I’m so proud of past Connie/Laura, and especially how much more confident we’ve become!
On the outside, our brand looked like it was a flourishing emerging brand. Behind the scenes, we were deliriously making products in the evenings and on weekends.
When did you first start reaching out to stockists/retailers (or were you approached)?
C: I began reaching out to stockists before our products were even live! Once we had product images (shot in my apartment, in a DIY lightbox made from recycled cardboard and tissue paper), I started emailing local retailers. When our samples were ready, I walked up and down the streets of Toronto, giving samples to any retailer who would accept them.
I’ll never forget how I felt signing our first retail partner! It was an incredibly reassuring moment to have a buyer want to carry our products in their shop.
What advice do you have for new and aspiring entrepreneurs who are dealing with frustration and self-doubt in the early stages of their businesses?
L: This is SO common, and frankly something that I think every business owner faces constantly throughout the growth of their business. I honestly thought that the feelings of self-doubt would go away once we got to a certain scale but if anything it’s just transformed into a different type of doubt.
My advice would be to find ways that you’re able to cope with the stress in a healthy way. For me, it’s making sure that I spend at least 30 min outside every day, that I have time to unwind in the evenings (usually with friends and family) and to take my mornings slowly with a great cup of coffee! Have patience with yourself and trust the process – just focus on winning each day.
COVID-19 has changed the landscape for businesses everywhere. Has the pandemic affected your business in any way, and how are you staying connected to your customers during this time?
L: The pandemic has definitely had an impact on us as well. The main impact has been on our supply chain. We’ve faced lead times that are up to 3x longer than they were previously and demand for some raw materials/components has skyrocketed.
Staying connected with customers has actually been easier than we thought that it would be. Since we have both a web and social presence, we were able to find new ways to engage with our community. This included creating content that was relevant to our lock-down lives and running IGTVs.
You were both on Dragons’ Den! Tell us what that experience felt like!
C: We had a BLAST pitching on Dragons’ Den! Both Laura and I grew up watching Dragons’ Den, so it was only natural that we would eventually audition for the show. We auditioned to producers back in February, and were selected out of >2,000 auditions to be one of 80 companies to pitch in the den!
We had two months to prepare, which we spent practicing our pitch (at least 200 times), rehearsing answers for potential Q&A’s, and buying supporting props for our demo. We were so nervous but also exhilarated, heading into the studio, and left the den with FOUR offers! You can read all about our experience in this detailed blog post here.
Could you each share your favourite/go-to Three Ships product?
C: It honestly changes on a daily basis (it’s hard to choose your favourite child!), but my current favourite product is our Radiance Grape Stem Cell + Squalane Day Cream! It’s a deeply hydrating and yet light-weight moisturizer that protects against UV damage. It also has the most luxurious dispensing airless pump top, which I absolutely love.
L: My fav has been our Purify Aloe + Amino Acid Gel Cleanser since we came out with it a year and a half ago! It’s an amazing product that zaps combat white and blackheads like nothing else and cleanses my skin without drying it or stripping my skin of its natural oils. It’s a wonderful product for all skin types!
What product would you recommend for first-time Three Ships customers?
C: I would recommend the following three-step skincare routine!
- Purify Aloe + Amino Acid Cleanser – this gel cleanser removes makeup and dirt, without stripping skin of natural oils. It’s our best-seller!
- Calm Lavender Hydrosol Toner – rebalances skin and reduces redness.
- Radiance Grape Stem Cell + Squalane Day Cream – hydrates and keeps skin protected from UV damage.
What’s next for the business?
We have SO many exciting plans for 2021! Including 6 (!!) new product launches and several new retail expansions!
Find us on IG and TikTok @threeshipsbeauty, or shop us online at www.threeshipsbeauty.com