From side hustle, to Nordstrom, to QVC: Curie founder Sarah Moret on mastering bootstrapped DTC growth
It was 2017 when I started to swap out all my makeup and skincare products with non-toxic, clean alternatives. With so many fantastic products coming out that worked and were made with safe ingredients, the chemical-laden ones I was using every day didn’t cut it anymore.
But when I tried to replace my antiperspirant with an aluminum-free clean deodorant, I hit a snag. Either they didn't work at all, or they made me smell funky after a while (mixed with undertones of patchouli or pine...not a good combo.)
I was so frustrated. Why did all the toxic crap work better than the clean stuff? As a runner—and a person who doesn’t like smelling like B.O., this was a big problem. I sweat a lot, and I needed something I could trust to hold up throughout my busy day.
I knew there had to be another way, and I realized I probably wasn’t the only one having difficulty finding a safe and effective deodorant.
So I started googling chemists.
I should note: I’m a total science geek at heart. Ever since I did a book report on Marie Curie in middle school, she’s stuck with me. Tenacious and brilliant, she was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. I find her inspiring, and her name has been floating around in my brain for years.
After a year of testing and (many) deodorant formulations later, we found the one.
Curie was born.
Humble beginnings for Curie
Of course, founding Curie wasn’t that simple, but my goals were. I wanted a product that worked smelled good and was made with clean ingredients that weren’t harmful to my body.
I started my career as a CPA (which, turns out, is not the best career for a social butterfly). Then I moved into the venture capital world, hustling my way from a back-office accounting position to the glamorous and highly sought-after investment team.
My job on the investment team was to find interesting new startups for the fund to invest in. I saw this brand new, growing category called “clean beauty” emerge, and I became obsessed. I fully immersed myself. It was shortly after that that I launched Curie—initially as a side hustle.
I kept the launch fairly simple, building the website on Shopify, designing the packaging, and shipping orders out from my living room.
$12,000 of my savings went into jump-starting Curie, spread out between the first round of inventory, monthly Shopify fees, and filing the trademark.
The first year I spent zero dollars on marketing, mainly relying on word-of-mouth advertising by way of friends and friends of friends and some unpaid influencer outreach. I’d give them a code, ask them to try the product, and post about it. To keep costs low, I used myself as the face of Curie on social media.
I lucked out with Curie initially, getting covered by Glamour in a clean beauty round-up and speaking on a couple of podcasts, both converting into a lot of sales. And because I already worked a full-time job, I had the luxury of not needing to pay myself a salary. The financial flexibility allowed me the freedom to test things out with Curie and see what happened. I didn’t have a business plan; I didn’t have a plan at all—I just let my passion for our product and the positive feedback we were getting from our customers drive me forward.
Going all-in on Curie
Curie kept growing, each month making a little more than the last, and soon my sister joined the team (the team being...me) to help fulfill orders while I traveled for my “day job,” which at that point was working for a biotech startup.
Then in December 2019, one year in, I took Curie to the next level and went full-time.
Three things spurred my decision:
- The fact I was making more at Curie than I was at my day job
- Reading Phil Knight’s book Shoe Dog (and the subsequent realization that all I’d ever regret was not going all-in)
- A serendipitous meeting with a global fitness chain
We’d just launched our orange neroli scent (a customer favorite, I might add), and a contact at a huge global fitness chain asked if we’d do a spray version of our deodorant in partnership for product placement within their locations. I said yes, of course, and we signed a contract to be in their locker rooms nationwide.
Having the free product on location paired with an on-mirror code encouraging text-to-purchase SMS opt-in powered by Postscript was successful, and the three-week pilot with the studio proved lucrative, turning into the three biggest sales weeks we’d ever had.
2020 was going to be our year of fitness studio partnerships.
Pivoting during COVID: Retail & QVC
Alas, 2020 had other plans for us, and we were forced to postpone our highly anticipated fitness studio focus for the year due to COVID. Unfortunately, we were stuck with no less than 15,000 bottles of our spray deodorant and no idea what to do with them.
The cherry on top was that deodorant sales dipped at the beginning of the pandemic. Deodorant wasn’t a priority for people that were stuck at home. Hand sanitizer, not traditionally a big seller, was now an essential and sought-after item.
Coincidentally, we had been working on a clean hand sanitizer formula due to launch in the fall. We kicked it into production early, and it saved the company. Within three months, we sold through over 100,000 bottles, and Curie made its way into retail, something that wasn’t even on the horizon yet.
Anthropologie, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdale’s now carry our hand sanitizer and our deodorant (which, thankfully, customers have decided is important again.)
Of the three, I had only spoken with Anthropology before the pandemic by connecting with one of their Board members. Once we launched our hand sanitizer in May and Anthropology showed a renewed interest, I cold-emailed Nordstrom’s buyer to see if they’d like to stock it as well. Not long after, Bloomingdale’s reached out directly to me.
And then we got on QVC. The distribution and reach here was a major opportunity for our DTC brand.
It was a dream of mine to be on QVC someday, and in 2018 I auditioned Curie for their version of SharkTank called The Big Find. They didn’t have a category for deodorant at the time, so we didn’t make it. Luckily, that changed, and we launched with them in January of this year. I couldn’t be in-studio due to COVID restrictions, so I streamed straight from my apartment to the masses.
My countless hours of practice and preparation paid off. We sold out in 10 minutes and had more than 1,000 people sign up for the waitlist.
My tips on forging a successful DTC brand from scratch
Zooming out and looking at the progress made so far, I have to say: it’s been a roller-coaster ride, with many highs and a few lows.
Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart, so being passionate about what you’re working on is essential. For me, knowing that our brand is making a difference in people’s lives makes the hard parts worth it.
For founders working on starting a DTC brand, I’d encourage them to make sure they’re comfortable with risk, first and foremost. I mitigated some of my risk by having a safety net of a full-time job until I felt comfortable going all in….and that worked for me.
Here are a few other tips from me to you on how to take a passion and turn it into a blossoming business:
1. Create a product you want but can’t find.
If you can’t find something you’ve spent a long time searching for, chances are you’re not the only one. There’s probably a market for that nonexistent product. Make it yourself!
2. Baby steps are good.
Don’t expect overnight success. Curie took a couple of years of careful research, planning, and small-scale rollout to get off the ground, and it wasn’t my main source of income until a full year in.
3. Be persistent.
You’ll hear ‘no’ often, but don’t give up. Timing is everything, and sometimes the timing of a particular partnership isn’t right, but that doesn’t mean it won’t ever be right.
Keep in touch with the people you meet along the way, communicate your data, and prove there’s a market for your product. An opportunity may present itself down the line. That’s how I ended up getting Curie into most of our retailers.
4. Be willing to change the plan.
Get creative and strategic when you pivot, always keeping your customers’ current needs at the forefront. We had an entirely different year planned out for Curie when COVID upended life as we all knew it, and we figured out a way forward, one that led to several major developments we may not have seen come to fruition otherwise.
5. Storytelling is essential.
The best and most powerful way to sell a product is through storytelling (especially when you have a limited marketing budget!). Connecting with your customers is important, whether on your site, through social media, or a live shopping platform like QVC. Telling your brand’s origin story well and engaging with those customers is necessary to forge long-standing relationships.
6. Cut yourself some slack.
Every founder burns out at some point. You can’t run a million miles a minute seven days a week and not hit a wall, so shut your laptop early a few nights a week. Take a vacation (even though you feel guilty as hell doing so). It’s so important to protect your well-being.
Bonus tip: Don’t forget about the trademark.
Take it from me–it is a pain (with a capital P) if you don’t check your brand name before you start printing labels, buying domains, etc.
Looking forward: The future of Curie
Product is still our primary focus moving forward: We currently have four products, most available in a variety of sizes, assortment packs, and three different scents: the Deodorant Stick, the Deodorant Spray (this might be my favorite...don’t tell the others), the Moisturizing Hand Sanitizer, and the Clay Detox Mask.
In thinking about the upcoming year, I can’t wait to see our fitness studio partnerships finally come to life. That and our three upcoming QVC slots, the first of which is next month, have me very excited.
Curie has been the recipient of my undivided energy, love, and attention for two years now, and there are still so many more ways I want to expand. Our year-over-year growth rate right now is an incredible 530%, and I’m looking forward to continuing to grow my three-person team and brand thoughtfully, always centering on our goal of creating safe, functional, and innovative products people can trust to get the job done.