Cast your eye on Grown Alchemist’s sleek, luxurious packaging and you’d never picture the struggles that went on behind the scenes.
Jeremy Muijs, co-founder and one half of the brand, likens the brand’s uphill start to a scene in the 1997 American dystopian film, Gattaca. The plot centres on a future society where potential children are conceived through genetic selection to ensure they possess their parents’ best hereditary traits.
Vincent Freeman, a character played by Ethan Hawke, is conceived outside of this eugenics programme but pretends otherwise to fulfil his dream of space travel. Vincent and his genetically engineered brother Anton grow up playing a game of ‘chicken’ in which they swim out to sea as far as they can; the first to return is the loser. A concluding scene of the movie sees the two competing once more. Anton is unable to keep up and almost drowns until his brother rescues him. Shocked, Anton asks, “How are you doing this Vincent?”
“I never saved anything for the swim back,” replied Vincent in a now iconic line that resonates with Muijs.
“For Vincent, there was no safety net so he might as well keep swimming because he’s long past the point of being able to return. In business, you get to a point where you’re just so invested. We’d sold our homes and all our savings had gone into the business. We were sleeping in our office. Everything was down to zero. We were all in,” said Mujis.
Muijs and his brother Keston launched Grown Alchemist in 2002, after years of running Hatch, a creative product development company. Ahead of the Australian clean beauty brand’s launch in Singapore via Takashimaya’s e-commerce site, we speak to Jeremy about the brand’s troubled beginnings, its DNA, and the sobering realities of the clean beauty scene.
Why create Grown Alchemist?
We started Grown Alchemist by accident because no one else would.
Keston and I ran a creative product development company and was introduced to an idea by a client who mentioned a new thing called wellness that is starting to emerge. This was sometime between the early ’90s and early 2000s. We researched about it and how it related to beauty. At the end of it, we presented it back to them as a significant opportunity. But they weren’t convinced by the commercial viability of it as lots of money would have to be spent educating the market.
It was difficult for us because we really believed in it. We had a bit of an awakening about the importance of natural ingredients on the body and their functions. Beyond the health equation, there was a profound benefit for your skin. That’s when we started to shop it around with other clients. But again we got no interest.
What was the beauty industry like at the time?
There wasn’t really a strong interest or even a strong opportunity for natural versus non-natural beauty. Everything was very traditional. You would go the beauty floor and the most innovative thing you’d see there was Kiehl’s. It’s hard to believe how much has changed in 20 years. And I think it’s going to be completely different in 20 years from now too, or maybe even five years. Things are changing at a much greater rate.
What was the transition like when you decided to launch your own brand?
Two things happen when you move to the other side of the fence. You actually have to build a completely different business. You have stock, manufacturing, quality analysis. We were good at formulation, branding and marketing. That was our forte.
Previously, we didn’t have to get involved in sales, manufacturing, cash flow, and all the other stuff that needs to happen to get a product to market. That was a big question for us: could we even do all this other stuff? I think one of the reasons we said yes is because we didn’t really know what was involved. We weren’t very familiar with the amount of energy it was going to take. We naively said yes.
What’s the second thing? Your clients’ reactions?
As soon as you say to your client base that you’re setting up your own brand, you’re almost going into competition with them. It limits your attractiveness as an agency, because, all of a sudden, they might think that the insights and ideas that they’re sharing with you are going into your own brand. We felt a little divided. And so we made a big decision. We closed our consultancy in Miami and shifted to Australia.
We took back a couple of our team members with us, and set up a facility in Australia, because our parents were there and we wanted to spend time with them. We were very conscious that this is a long-term commitment that we were making; when you create a brand and a manufacturing process, you have to have a robust supply chain, and it cannot change easily.
Tell us about some of the difficulties you faced when launching the brand.
We came back to Australia between 2003 to 2004 and only launched in 2008. This was longer than we expected. In the meantime, we were doing some consultancy to pay the bills. But most of the time was spent on product development, sourcing for packaging and setting up our manufacturing facility.
At times, we were literally like, “this is the end, right?” No one really talks about very fundamental business things like cash flow. We set this whole structure up and produced what was the minimum amount of product, which ended up to about a million dollars with stock. We had all that sitting in the warehouse. We paid for a lot of it, but there was a good 30 per cent left to pay.
When that happens, you have this thing called terms, where you’ve got to pay within a certain period of time. In order to pay, you have to generate revenue. So you’ve got to generate enough revenue to pay your bills and keep your sales team paid and keep the salaries paid, and everybody alive. Then you have to pay the suppliers because they just stop making for you as soon as you don’t pay them.
It is a huge amount of pressure to manage all of that and keep everybody happy while moving forward as a brand and market. You start to realise that the easiest thing in the world is actually to create the brand in first place. The hardest thing is to get it out there and commercialise it.
Did you ever feel like you hit rock bottom?
At some point, we were trying to figure out how to make ends meet. I was looking at the spreadsheet and no matter what I would do, it wouldn’t give me a black number at the bottom. It was all red. I was like, “how are we going to do this?”
The truth is, we didn’t have any answer at that point. But like that scene in Gattaca, the only real option you’ve got is to try and figure out a way to make it work and keep swimming forward.
You always think that, tomorrow we might get a big order or a big opportunity. You don’t quite know how far away that is. You keep living day to day thinking that you’re going to get a break or something is going to happen. And eventually it does. Maybe not in the timeframe you wish for but it does. If you’re still alive when that happens, you can take hold of it.
We look at the Facebooks of this world and the tech industry and people going from zero to a billion dollars in a very short period of time. We look at brands that sell for $900 million, or some crazy number. And we think they’re so lucky. But I think some have a slightly easier journey than others. All of this comes at a cost and a price. Often, I think back and say, if we’d had an out, like a trust fund, I think we probably would have given up.
Which point did you realise that you’re onto something good?
Probably last month? [Laughs] We’ve been around now for more than 12 years. If you asked me five years ago if it was the right time to launch healthy skincare, I would say yes. But looking back, I think the consumer has changed more in the last 12 months that they’ve changed in the last 12 years.
Tell us more about niche clean beauty brands in comparison to the big mainstream ones.
We always thought clean beauty was mainstream. But we were surprised to find out majority of people that we spoke to had no concept of things like natural food.
When you become fascinated and knowledgeable about a space, you assume that everybody feels almost the same way you do. You’re spoken to people about it, you’ve got people in your team that are scientists and human biologists that have evidence of it. You start to think everybody out there believes the same until you go out there and you start talking to consumers.
They’ll say they trust a product from a huge beauty brand more than they trust a product from a niche beauty company. You can understand why they do. Because with huge companies, you expect them to be responsible and to be ahead of the curve for the research and development. But many consumers don’t think for a minute that these companies are actually operating off a flawed, traditional cosmetic science view that the body can absorb and utilise non-natural ingredients as well as good natural ones. And that non-natural ingredients have no negative side effects.
Take the baby powder from a popular brand. People find out that it’s carcinogenic and it’s been that way for more than 10 years. It proves that just because a company is bigger, it doesn’t mean it’s better. Often, bigger companies make decisions that are for profit, and not for people. Shortcuts are made to achieve a better profit margin.
When there’s no one person emotionally connected to that decision, those decisions become very easy to make. In comparison, in small businesses, so much of everything is part of the founder. You’re putting yourself on the shelf, and not just the product. The quality of your product and the integrity of it are related to you. Everything about it is a reflection of you.
What is the Grown Alchemist approach to beauty?
A key question on the beauty floors is regarding your skin type. I don’t mean to be rude, but that’s ridiculous. It can be helpful to a degree because it’s not just about your skin type. Ask about your lifestyle, the food you are allergic to, where you live, your environment and your habits. All these things affect the level of hydration, skin function, and the anti-ageing access you might need.
We are holistic. I think our biggest difference is we focus a huge amount of our energy on bringing function back to the skin, restoring the capability of the skin.
There were so many areas that we explored, but we boiled them down to five core pillars. One was emotional, the other was environmental. Things like white noise and pollution. It could be paint, cleaning products, and other things that absorb ambient smoke. Food is an important one: the digestive system, and the profoundness of a good one. Lastly, there’s topical skincare. There are many different elements in each of those pillars. But essentially, we use those as ways of organising information, because there’s just so much.
What we realised is every subset within a pillar has a profound impact on the way your body works and the function equation of your body. We became enamoured with this thing called function. How do you create function in the body that releases capability in the body? There’s a direct line between health and function. It became our core focus.
The reality is, focusing on active ingredients without bringing function to the body first is like pouring rocket fuel into a car that’s only running on one cylinder. It’s pointless, right? You get a little bit of an uplift. But you’re still only running on one cylinder.
A gastroenterologist explained it to us this way. He said, for most people who go through significant life trauma like cancer, the first thing they do when they come out of it is they change their diet significantly with supplements and nutrients. The body has an engine, and that is the digestive system. If you don’t fix the engine, then you cannot extract the nutrients, and they pass straight through you.
The engine of the skin is sometimes the digestive system because the skin feeds from the inside out. So if you can work on the internal and the external simultaneously, and fix the engine or capability of the skin, and place an active ingredient on top of it, the effect is significantly greater.
We have this thing called health equals function equals youth. We leverage all of the things that produce function and the body and in the skin cell. If you fix the health equation of your skin and body, you’ll fix the way you look as well. Anti-ageing isn’t some magical thing that you can spray some fairy dust on yourself and become younger. Anti-ageing is just health-restoring. In our retail store, we have a treatment centre, we have drip therapy, nutritional advice, beauty supplements, and we’ve had them for more than 10 years.
What can we pull off in order to create a much a greater level of function in the body and in the skin? Why do we, as a skincare company, have a incredibly powerful probiotic? Because the digestive system is fundamental to the release of nutrients into the body and your skin. We get some people coming to us, young and old, that have got severe psoriasis. The only way to effect long-term change is often digestive-related. One of our core differences is while we do have topical skincare, we’re a beauty company and are holistic.
What’s your perception of other clean beauty brands in the market?
Personally, I question if some of them are even clean. Some of them have the perception of clean but they’re not. Some are what I call a little bit myopic; they focus on a cream or a wash. And while we believe we that can have a significant and profound effect on the game, if you continue to smoke, if you have have got a poor digestive system, and you’ve got reactions to all sorts of things and foods, you haven’t got resilience in your digestive system. And that to me signifies a problem. And that can often show up in the skin.
We are going to be and I think probably already are the most verified brand or certified brand on the Think Dirty skincare app. We’re a certified Australian toxic free brand. We’re vegan and also gluten-free — the list goes on and on. I think we’re moving into a new era where it’s not good enough anymore to say you are 100 per cent natural. Because if you truly are, there are plenty of ways you can get that independently verified now. So why haven’t you?
There are brands out there that say they’re healthy and are into healthy body rituals. But then I look at the ingredient list, and I go, are you joking? You’ve got phenoxyethanol, dimethicone, sodium lauryl sulfate — fundamental, widely accepted carcinogenic ingredients. And you’re talking to me about a healthy body cleansing program or a healthy skincare product. To me, that is laughable that we can even get away with it. It shows how terribly unregulated this industry is.
What are the best sellers or the ones that your customers always come back to?
Our cleansers are extremely well-repurchased, because there’s nothing that’s absolutely revolutionary about it. It works in a way that doesn’t strip the skin of the natural oil. It supports the natural cleansing process of the skin. It’s open to receiving other ingredients, but it’s still got its oil mantle and it’s acid mantle is left undisturbed. This is really important for the next stages of topical treatment. When you move away from an artificial cleanser or a more stringent one, you realise that your skin’s actually pretty smart and it’s been putting up with a lot.
Then we have what I call the unique standout products. One of them is an anti-pollution primer. We started this journey on this product with international customers, and they love the idea of natural, but they don’t necessarily want to compromise on the benefits sometimes that are brought by artificial or synthetic makeup.
We created a primer that doesn’t just build a barrier between your skin and your makeup; it also stands between blue light and environment, and your skin. This primer is not like a traditional one. It’s a silky gel that quickly liquefies with just a little bit of temperature change. It fills in the gaps to create a smooth surface for skin while still enabling skin’s function. It uses a different kind of technology that allows the skin to breathe, like a mesh that goes over the skin that’s strong enough to be a protective barrier.
We also have the Instant Smoothing Serum. I call it the Cinderella serum. It’s lightweight and uses a different kind of hyaluron. Our bodies naturally produce this thing called hyaluron, which is like a Venus Flytrap, where it basically sucks in moisture and holds it in. It keeps the cells well-hydrated so they function better. The problem with hyaluron is it’s either a lightweight or heavyweight molecule. Lightweight is great because it’s a very small molecule and hydrates the system at a cellular level. Heavyweight is good because it’s a large molecule that plumps skin and gives you an instant visual effect of decreasing wrinkle definition. What we created was something that mirrored the skin more with different weights of hyalaruon so the skin takes what it needs and benefits from a cellular level. While it’s working, you get an instant visual effect. The problem is you lose that effect after eight hours because you’re losing hydration but you’re getting that cellular benefit. That’s why I call it a Cinderella serum. You have to apply it every eight hours to keep skin at an optimal level.
Skincare myth you’d like to debunk?
That all the work in the anti-ageing space is done through a moisturiser. That the real secret to anti-aging is a serum or some magical ingredient. The real and most important thing you can do is cleanse well. If you don’t do it properly, nothing else will work well. With our facials, we probably spend 45 minutes to an hour cleansing.
A serum either works or doesn’t. The level of absorption is largely contingent on the ability to access the deeper layers of skin. That depends on cleansing.
Tell us a skincare sin you were once guilty of.
I was guilty of buying with my eyes. Our mum was in the textile, fashion business and we’d follow her to department stores learning what was trendy. We became enamoured with the physical. She’d take us through the beauty floor. I was transfixed. The person that caught my attention was a Clinique lady. She recruited me at 13 years old and gave me samples. I loved the packaging, the system, the sales message. I loved it all. I fell in love with the brand that way.
I had a paper route that paid me $11.67 AUD a week and I was spending all of it on Clinique products. I had two payments: one for Clinique, the other for the bike. I bought those Clinique products because I’m a sucker for packaging. That’s why we spent so much time on our own designs.
What is next?
We’re releasing a 100 per cent natural sunscreen that is reef-friendly. We also want to bring more of what we know to the market such as why sleep is so important and what food you should be eating. Things we haven’t talked about in a social space. It’s time for us to communicate more with our heart.
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All images are courtesy of Grown Alchemist