Hi, Tell us your name, what you do, and about your business.
Hi, My name is Stacy Marking. I founded The Lemongrass Trading Company Ltd about five years ago, making all-natural insecticides, fresheners, and fragrances from Lemongrass.
Every ingredient is plant-based and ‘green’ – safe in use and environmentally friendly. Every product is fresh, chemical-free and safe to breathe (even eat, though that’s not the point!)
I first fell in love with Lemon grass about 5 or 6 years ago, when I was in India, where incidentally I was brought up as a child. We were in a rose garden when a small bamboo cart came trundling by, pushed by members of the local Farmers’ Cooperative.
We couldn’t really make use of their fresh vegetables and grains, but there was a row of local Essential Oils (Eucalyptus, Wintergreen, Rose, Black Pepper, etc.) and I bought as many as I could. I hadn’t even heard of Lemongrass oil then, but luckily it was amongst them, and I was told it would be useful against mosquitoes.
We tried it that night, and I fell headlong in love with the smell: fresh and uplifting, the very opposite of DEET and those other chemical insect repellents. What’s more, it worked!
I didn’t begin particularly ‘green’. I had some vague ideas about chemicals in relation to health, and the need to protect the planet, but I was shocked to see around us an agricultural countryside that was saturated with chemicals, while small farmers were losing their health and economic wellbeing, deeply indebted due to their expense.
I began to ask: what did they use to use BC (before chemicals)? One recurrent answer was Lemongrass. People pointed it out, growing wild in the landscape.
Lemongrass was fed to their animals for their protection; used in medicine; plants are grown to keep mosquitoes out of the houses, and weevils out of foodstuffs. Lemongrass is, of course, great in cooking, but it’s also a natural deodorant, antibacterial and anti-fungal.
Honestly, I some times think it could save the planet! And, as you can tell, I’m on a mission to spread the word.
I began to import Lemongrass Oil into the UK, to experiment making use of its fragrance and its insecticidal properties, and so the business began. I decided very early on to include NO chemicals at all.
That decision limits some of the products (there is no effective natural preservative – as yet) but I still believe it’s right, and it’s the direction the world is turning.
Like all small businesses, it’s been a bit of a struggle. Four years is not so long to make a profit, they say, though it feels long enough!
Monthly revenue fluctuates wildly, as the UK climate means there are few insects in the winter months. But luckily the run-away winner amongst our products are those against Clothes Moths, and in our centrally-heated and globally-warmed houses, they seem pretty continuous.
Now that cashmere is more affordable and available on the High Street, there has been an epidemic of Moths all over the UK, and the Lemongrass & Cedarwood Anti-Moth spray has kept us going.
Two years ago we had our highest income: £23,000 in the year. I’m afraid it’s less now, for reasons I’ll go into below – relevant because I think they are “women’s” reasons. But as these are solved, I’m confident of scaling up.
What’s your own background? Were you always great with this business? How did the idea strike you?
There’s nothing in my background to suggest that a) I might go into business or b) I could love chemistry – the mixing, testing, studying, making friends with Professors of Parasitology!
I have led a varied, rather reckless (or is the word feckless?) earlier life as an actress – in several French and Turkish films, billed as The Turkish Myrna Loy (though I had little idea who she was); a reporter for The Guardian in Latin America, and expelled as a Maoist spy in Bolivia (which I wasn’t); a television producer; a wife and mother.
The two attitudes that hold these strands together – and which I would love to pass on to every start-up, indeed to every girl on this earth –
◦ If you can read, you can do anything. (i.e. don’t be intimidated)
◦ Just Do It: (I swear I invented this before Nike)
What went into designing the initial product? Can you take us through the actual process?
There were 2 aspects to the design: The Actual Product, and The Branding
To make an effective spray (insects or fresheners in my case), you face the basic problem of mixing Oil and Water. So, you research that and discover how to emulsify. You buy a laboratory-quality mixer (2nd hand from a lovely girl making cosmetics in Cambridge) that looks like something out of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. This costs several thousand pounds, so you are now committed.
You apply for a (European) “Innovation” grant, miraculously win it, which allows you to work with a renowned University lab. Tests are successful: you have several effective formulae that happen to be innovative, chemical-free, eco-friendly.
Driving ideas: all-natural, green, refillable or recyclable packaging, lemongrass.
With luck that almost seems like Fate, I find two wonderful young designers who have just left Nottingham Trent Art School, Lun Yau, and Claire Coulthard. This is their first job, and they are endlessly creative, patient and do beautiful, professional work. They design all the labels, sachets, drawer liners, leaflets, the logo. I still thank them.
My idea is that the bottles should be shrouded in leaves as if the plant was growing around it. Silk-screen printing requires too large a quantity and is too expensive, but luckily transparent adhesive labels are a new thing, perfect for my bottles (200ml/125ml/50ml.)
After ghastly attempts to get bottles labeled commercially – can you believe some were put on upside down!– I decided to try it myself. It’s time-consuming, and some are botched, but I do them in the evening in front of the TV.
Talk us through the process of launching your business.
First, there are some standard requirements that I’m sure all your contributors will have worked their way through form a Limited Company; make sure the Brand name is not in use; find free Website and email addresses; copyright the design & trademark. In the UK I found the government department “Patents, trade marks, copyright and designs” were really helpful.
If all this seems formidable to anyone starting out and reading this, remember my mantra above: If you can read, you can do anything. (i.e. don’t be intimidated, not by lawyers or accountants or other advisers!) There are all sorts of company names etc that have fallen into disuse, and these are not expensive to take on.
At first, I could not have Lemongrass Ltd, which is what I’d wanted, but a year or two later it came up so I took it on.
Website is really important. My first bespoke design ended badly, because I had some wonderful national press coverage (which I’d warned them about), and the site crashed for 3 or 4 days.
Disaster! Embarrassed, they suggested going over to the platform Shopify. This is terrific, but also (with the decline of the pound and the strength of the dollar) terrifically expensive. So I gave that up and now have a lovely designer in Australia who uses WordPress. Good news: no VAT. Bad news, he’s asleep when I’m awake.
How is your repeat customer rate like? Can you take us through how you attract and retain customers?
My repeat rate is very, very important. I have really loyal customers, from way back, who like to ring in their orders because they want to talk. This can lead to mistakes (on my part) and can take rather a lot of time, but I love them.
I also trust them to send me a cheque after their parcel has arrived, and have never been disappointed.
In every package, I enclose a copy of the Order Form, and always add a personal note, and usually a small extra like a Sachet or tiny soap. If the customer’s new, I say “Do let me know how you find the [Mozzie/Moth, etc] spray,” and they often reply, which builds a relationship.
Sometimes I have a 10% Off offer, but not regularly.
What is the current situation? How do you see yourself in the next 12 months?
I mentioned earlier that my results were down this year because of “women’s” reasons. These are to do with serious illness within the family. It’s meant quite a lot of caring, and grand-motherly duty, things that take time.
It has never meant that we missed sending out an Order, but I have not had time to do all the PR stuff that’s needed. [Nor the social media – though forgive me, I’m of an age where much of that seems just stupid!]
Whatever your financial circumstances, I think women will always put family first, in a crisis. This is a conflict that a male entrepreneur is far less likely to feel – I’d be interested to know if you agree?
I’m hoping that this present crisis is nearly over and that in the next 12 months we’ll be back on track, in fact growing.
As a woman founder, do you see this as only financially uplifting? Or otherwise too? If yes, then how?
As a woman founder, this has not been about the money. Obviously it’s an important factor, but basically, I’ve done this because I believe in it. I believe in making chemical-free products for health and safety.
I believe in the efficacy of Lemon grass, Neem, and all the other plant extracts that could make the planet cleaner and more sustainable. And I’d love the world to make Lemon grass the go-to solution for managing insects, for anti-bacterial safety, for dealing with unwelcome smells, for getting rid of flies safely, etc.
Imagine every public room, every bus, car, hotel room, bathroom, school cloakroom, etc, smelling of Lemon grass!
What are your key challenges today? How are you planning to tackle those?
Growth is the key challenge. Especially I need to delegate the manufacturing side. This would make for the consistency and availability that larger suppliers demand when I go to them.
I am convinced the demand is out there, they need to be convinced of the supply.
Which are some resources, books, articles or podcasts that have been useful to you, and would share with your readers
Google Scholar for up to date research.
The British Library has an unexpected Business & IP Centre which has excellent events, workshops, classes – many of them free.
Apropos of my mantra “If you can read you can do anything”, I make an exception for Double-entry Book Keeping. However, I do find a book called “Accounts DeMystified” by Anthony Rice.
Many times, women feel that businesses are for only for men. What’s your take?
Of course, a business must not be a men-only world, and women must not be afraid to go into it. In fact, I think we are better at Start-Ups. There’s a nice description in the autobiography of Body Shop’s founder, Anita Roddick, where her husband is talking about finding an office and getting furniture, etc, and she just starts on the kitchen table.
I also think women are worse at confrontation (who wants it?) and better at persuasion.
Looking to kick start your own venture?
Hi! This is Misha?
I interview women founders in building profitable businesses??
My idea is for other women to get inspired by these actionable tell all stories and start their own profitable enterprises.
I am hugely inspired by inspirational interview series starters like IndieHackers, StarterStory by Pat Walls, Failory, SpaceBandits and have put significant efforts in reaching out to women founders in order to get started.