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Priscilla Tsai cocokind

Reflections on year 2 as a natural products startup

With the honeymoon phase of starting a company over, cocokind's founder shares candid advice on the pursuit of becoming a "sustainable entrepreneur."

This week, we celebrated cocokind’s second birthday. Looking back on year two, I thought I’d update you on what we have accomplished and where we stand today. If you’re interested, it’s pretty funny to compare this to my post exactly one year ago.

Where we are after two years:

  • We are currently distributed in well over 2,000 stores in the world.
  • Our team has grown to 10 people, and we’ve also added 20 new brand ambassadors all over the U.S.
  • We finally signed a two-year lease in downtown San Francisco…and we have daylight, which is more than I can say for our previous office. Don’t worry, it’s still what I would describe as “startuppy.”
  • We became an official partner of Fair Trade USA, and we’ll have contributed more than $15,000 this year to make the world a better place.
  • We expanded our product offering from 12 to 20 products, including launching our NEXTY Award-winning USDA organic baby line.
  • We continue to produce our products ourselves in San Francisco.
  • We remain a self-funded company.

It’s been an amazing year, and I don’t want what comes next to take away from the fact that we’ve done a lot in a short amount of time…

However, what I really want to talk about is how this year’s challenges have far exceeded my expectations and those of year one.

I like to describe year one's problems as "fun problems"—things like needing to rush to get orders out, not having enough production capacity, lacking enough space to store products, scrambling to find vendors who could handle our growing volume, etc. Today, I’d consider all those things "fun problems."

This year, I had real problems, and the honeymoon period ended. We struggled to build a foundation for a company that will be around not just five years from now, but 20 years from now. I’ve had some seriously low points (both in regards to my emotions and bank account balance), major team-building challenges, sales growth and performance issues, working capital constraints, anxiety about the future, etc. Every success this year has been met with a larger disruption, rejection or failure. So while we had a lot of wins, we had so many more challenges to overcome.

But as my dad says, smart people get a larger ROI from failures than they do from successes. I always remember that and fight to appreciate our challenges. They only seem to be increasing by the day, anyways! I’m learning what it means to be a "sustainable entrepreneur," and it’s not easy. 

These days, when I talk to new/deciding entrepreneurs, I’m less blindly encouraging than I used to be. It’s not that I’m more pessimistic; despite my very real problems, I’ve never been more optimistic about our future. But it’s that I have a deeper understanding of what it takes to be a "sustainable entrepreneur." I’m not even talking about being a "successful entrepreneur"—whatever that means—because I’m not there yet. To me, being a sustainable entrepreneur means not losing your mind, personal relationships or sense of fulfillment. And obviously, it also means building a business that keeps the lights on every day.

I’ve updated my tips for people debating if they should take the leap to become a sustainable entrepreneur. My tips are less rosy than they were a year ago, and that’s simply a result of me having more real experience. Here goes!

Ask your family if they think this is the right move for you. 

It is my personal belief that the people closest to you should not be surprised when you tell them you are going to start a company. These days, the idea of starting a business sounds glamorous—it’s easy to get sucked in and carried away. If you are truly meant to be an entrepreneur, I believe it should feel natural to both you and your inner circle. That doesn’t mean that your family/friends shouldn’t have (many) questions or even express doubt about your business idea, but they should believe in you as a person and as an entrepreneur. While I’d love to encourage everyone to take this leap, I think most people are not meant to start businesses. As such, rely on your family and friends to help you decipher if this is the right fit for you.

Start a company not because you hate your current 9 to 5, but because you truly love something.

The glorification of startups has made it easy to hate the 9 to 5, stable (and probably higher-paying) job. I speak to so many people who are considering starting a company because they want more control over their time and/or are sick of working for someone else. That’s not a good enough reason to start a company. Sustainable entrepreneurs become entrepreneurs because they have a deep passion and love for something—NOT because they hate their current job. Entrepreneurship is not a form of escapism.

Make sure your company has a mission that is one and the same with who you are fundamentally as a person.

Despite many ups and downs, my personality has not changed since I started this company. Our product values are the same, and I am still driven by the exact same mission as I was from day one. I attribute this to the fact that I am building a company based on my personal values—I want to sell clean, organic, conscious and affordable skincare. When you sell something based on your beliefs, you won’t have to worry about a mission that won’t last the test of time. Your company mission should be so core to who you are that it is, without having to even think about it, unwavering.

For instance, people tell me all the time that I should charge more for my products or develop a second "luxury" skincare line. But, I would definitely fail at selling a luxury product. I truly believe that organic products should be accessible to the majority of Americans, not the minority or elite. So while there is certainly a huge market for luxury wellness products, I know I wouldn’t excel in that arena because it’s not who I am. Other people will do luxury better than I will, and I will do accessible better than other people.

When you are learning about other startups, don’t just tune into the beginning and end of their stories. Understand all that occurs in the middle.

I notice that when I talk about cocokind, people often listen more to the fun/happy parts of our story than they do to all the gloomy/uncertain things I talk about (which I’m always upfront about when I meet with people). I think this is because we want to continue glorifying the startup world. However, if you want a realistic idea of what entrepreneurship is, don’t gloss over the challenges and automatically skip to the section where there is a good ending. Understand what happens in the in-between stage. It’s a stage where you continuously face problems and only sometimes reap rewards. Most entrepreneurs permanently live in this middle stage. Most entrepreneurs do not have a hugely validating event that closes the story and all the sudden deems them "successful." It’s a continuous fight. Listen to the middle part of the story, because that will most likely be your reality.

No job is perfect, and neither is being a founder.

It’s so refreshing when I speak to friends who are happy in their current jobs—whether it’s finance, fashion, corporate or startup. Those people are hard to find! As millennials, we are not only looking for a job that is functional (aka enough $), but it also must serve us emotionally AND give us a sense of purpose. Because of this, we’re switching jobs left and right and continuously finding ourselves unhappy in our careers…and dreaming of how great it’ll be to have our own companies. And while many amazing companies have been born from this, there have probably been many ideas or companies that have not had the chance to grow because we are becoming entitled, impatient and insatiable participants in the workforce. It’s true! My advice to everyone in our generation, founders or not, is to find things you are grateful for in your job every day. No job is perfect, and if you try to build a career around this idea of finding a perfect job, you will fail.

Two years ago, we launched cocokind from my home in San Francisco. Since then, I’ve felt a deep sense of gratitude and fulfillment every single day. On my great days and horrible days, I can’t explain how persistently lucky I feel to have this job and to have so many customers to serve on a daily basis. I am so thankful for our customers, our team and my family. This company is built on their support and I hope we stick around because of and for them.

Thank you for reading and for having a vested interest in my story! Happy bday, cocokind.

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