Founder Aishwarya Iyer of pantry essentials company Brightland on conscious sourcing and bringing beauty to a pantry essential
It all started with a stomach ache in 2015. Several.
After years of living in NYC and going out for meals every night, my partner and I decided to start using our kitchen again.
Having been raised in a family of passionate cooks, I grew up cooking. But moving to the city for undergrad made me rebel against that. For years, I didn’t even try to cook.
As soon as I started experimenting with food again, I began experiencing stomach aches. My partner and I tried cutting out all the obvious culprits—bread and dairy to start—but nothing worked until a friend suggested, “You know...it might be the oil you’re using.”
At that point, olive oil hadn’t even crossed my mind as a potential problem. I used it as most Americans do: like salt or butter when cooking.
I will note here that this is a decidedly American way of thinking about olive oil. In Europe, for example, it’s common for households to carry more than one varietal of olive oil. In America, it’s thought of as more like butter (as in, there’s just one).
My friend was right, though. Olive oil was the reason I had stomach aches.
I immediately began reading about olive oil and was floored by what I discovered. I found out 70% of the olive oil Americans consume is rotten, rancid, or diluted palm oil or canola oil.
With most olive oils sold in America, you don’t know what’s in it, how old it is, or where it’s from. And for olive oil to have the benefits and the flavor we’re all used to hearing about, it needs to be fresh.
What I learned, essentially, was that most Americans have never tasted good olive oil.
This intrigued me, and I wanted to do something about it. But the imposter syndrome was quick to show up at my door. I felt extremely unqualified to jump into the world of olive oil and commerce with no official background in food or business.
It took a couple of years of working through my mental health journey to get to the point where I could say I would try my hand at building a CPG brand.
And in 2017, I got there. I was ready to create something beautiful.
The early, bootstrapped days of Brightland
By the time I started building this brand, my partner and I had moved from New York to Los Angeles, allowing me to visit Californian olive oil farms.
Up until then, I’d only been looking at sourcing olive oil from Europe, so I was delighted to learn that I could source it from what was practically my backyard.
Meeting the American farmers and learning the story of the California olive was inspiring, and I knew I wanted to integrate that education into the experience of my brand. Visiting those farms catapulted me to realize that this was exactly what I wanted to do with my life.
Early on, I decided to bootstrap the business myself rather than try to raise capital. This was partly because I wanted to prove product-market fit to myself before having investors as part of the journey and partly because I wanted to see how far we could go without outside capital.
When we launched Brightland, I had 1,000 bottles of olive oil to sell. I told myself that if I managed to sell all of them, I would consider it a wild success.
All I wanted to do was prove product-market fit, even if it was only to a small group of people who were just as excited about this olive oil as I was.
We sold all 1,000 bottles in a week.
It was a greater success than I had dared to hope for. Not only did people love our olive oils, but they were willing to share their thoughts on each product and provided feedback on what they’d like to see next from Brightland.
Bringing beauty to the pantry
Aside from knowing I wanted to bootstrap the brand myself in the early days and source consciously, I also wanted Brightland to be a beautiful product visually. I wanted to bring beauty to this pantry essential in a way I hadn’t seen done before.
Having worked very briefly in the luxury products division at Lancôme, I knew firsthand how powerful product packaging and design could be. So along with tasting fresh and delicious, I wanted people to be inspired by our olive oil bottles.
I hoped both the product and the design would pull people into the present moment and relish the cooking experience.
My research on this front involved visiting pantry sections in essentials stores like Costco and Whole Foods. I wasn’t thrilled by what I found; the packaging and bottle designs I saw were unimaginative, and people seemed hesitant and unsure when choosing a bottle to purchase.
Designing the bottle: pushing against the status quo
I knew right away I wanted Brightland olive oil to be in a white, opaque bottle. I wanted to steer far away from the dark green or amber glass frequently found in stores. I also didn’t want any green to be in the branding or label because green was already popular in most olive oil branding.
The taste of our olive oil is fresh and herbaceous, so I decided I wanted the color green to come through at a different sensory point.
As I was thinking through this process, neutral tones of white, beige, and sand were popular colors frequently found in branding across industries—clothing, food, etc. I knew the bottle would be white, so the label’s bright pops of color would stand out. Mostly, I wanted it to feel like me, regardless of whatever was popular at the moment.
To get my vision off the ground, I partnered with a women-led agency called Stitch Design based in Charleston, South Carolina. They ran with my ideas and brought the brand to life.
Taking this design-centred approach even further, we partnered with artists to create the labels for our new line of olive oil blends. We could spotlight the artists we loved and whose work we wanted to support and share through this initiative.
This initiative allowed Brightland to be a canvas for inspiration for these artists. I wanted people with varying design tastes to resonate with our designs and feel excited when preparing food with our oils.
Advice for fellow founders ready to launch
There’s a beautiful golden period right before you launch your brand into the world. It’s full of naivete, fantasy, and the highest of hopes.
The best advice I can give to a fellow founder is to hold on to the originality of your idea and try not to be too swayed by what’s trendy. Create something that comes from an authentic place, and I guarantee you’ll find others who connect with it too.
Here are my top tips for those dreaming up new brands and looking for some guidance on how to do so:
Hold onto a healthy dose of naivety
When you don’t base your decisions on what’s popular, your brand’s uniqueness can shine through. Know your product and industry through and through, of course, but don’t imitate what everyone else is doing.
There’s a reason so many brands look the same. Holding onto the individual vision, you started with will help you stand out from the crowd and build your audience.
Believe in your ability to do something big
I know from firsthand experience how daunting it can feel to build a brand, especially if you don’t have any prior experience in the business. If you’re interested and willing to put in the time and energy to get it off the ground, you can learn the rest as you go.
I didn’t know much about olive oil before I started Brightland. But I wanted to learn. Remember, everyone starts from somewhere.
Fuse yourself into the brand
Your life and experiences are unique. Infusing those experiences into your business will make for a truly distinctive brand.
In conscious and subconscious ways, I’ve put myself into Brightland: Our poppy color pallet and our recently launched neroli, vetiver, and black pepper candle are both examples of my South Indian heritage peeking through.
Learn from your customers
Talk to your customers as much as possible! Get them on the phone if you can. Listen to what they’re interested in and see if it matches up with the direction you want to take your brand—and be open to change.
We realized how much they wanted to customize their subscription packages by gathering feedback from our customers, so we made that happen.
Talking to your customers could even inspire you to think outside the box, as it did for us when we learned some customers were drizzling brownies with our chilli-infused olive oil.
The future of Brightland
From the beginning, I wanted Brightland to be known as a sustainable pantry-essentials brand that champions small farms and artists. Remembering where Brightland started and seeing how far we’ve grown never fails to blow me away.
Every part of this business has evolved somehow—from product lineup to partnerships to our subscriptions. Bootstrapping the company has allowed me to experience so much freedom to scale at a comfortable and natural pace. I’ll always be grateful for that decision.
We launched with two extra virgin olive oils made from different kinds of olives, and now our lineup consists of several flavored olive oils, two kinds of vinegar, and a candle. We also have more partnerships and products in the works for the upcoming year.
Right now, our team is made up of six full-time members, so while it is much bigger than when we first launched, we’ve kept it small intentionally and still try to do things as scrappily as we can.
We have so many wonderful plans in place to partner up with people and brands we love in the coming months. My goal is to make sure our team feels set up for success and ready to take on the year.
For me, sharing Brightland with people is special. It’s a vision I have been nurturing for three years now, and the experience of it keeps getting richer and richer.