About five years ago, twin sisters Kim and Zoe Roebuck had to make a decision.
Their parents, both doctors, had developed an all-natural cream to help the young girls treat their sensitive, eczema-prone skin. If they ate the wrong thing or put a drugstore product on their skin, they'd break out in painful rashes from a young age.
Now, the pharmacist down the street from Kim's house in Sydney, Australia, was telling them he would no longer formulate the family invention.
"I'm spending my entire week making your cream," he protested. So the two had to selectively dole out the last of the precious jars of Dr. Roebuck's – or find a way to make more. Kim recalls being on a skiing trip with friends. "I had two or three pots in my bag, and it was like anarchy. Who was going to get the last pots?"
Zoe was seeing the same demand from friends and family, and wondering if the sisters were missing out on a business opportunity. "We've got to give this a go; people keep asking for it."
Little did they know that the small decision to make a push with their tiny brand would result in a global company that would take hold halfway around the planet – in Canada.
The duo found a chemist to make their all-natural cream, developed some packaging and some complementary product offerings, and started selling online. Kim worked in media strategy for a television company while Zoe worked in pharmaceutical R&D, and the two juggled their fledgling business with their full-time jobs.
Then, Canadian cosmetics retailer Murale called. This six-store offshoot of Shoppers Drug Mart found Dr. Roebuck's website and its small product line, particularly the flagship product Pure (designed for eczema but also ideal for diaper rashes) and wanted to carry it here in Canada.
By 2012, the sisters rolled out five of their skincare products in Murale stores – and five day spas in Sydney at the same time. They began flying regularly to Canada to do product demos for Murale staff. (While Murale has only six stores, they're spread out across the country from Vancouver to Montreal.)
"We did well," Kim recalls. Canadian consumers snapped up the product line: they were already well educated about the use of chemicals and additives in many cosmetics and appreciated this line's simple and natural approach. Plus, the harsh Canadian winters meant that dry skin is a real problem here.
After a year of solid sales at Murale, the Kim and Zoe sat down with the head of buying for Shoppers Drug Mart. But first, they sent her some products and she loved them. Shoppers agreed to take nine Dr. Roebuck's products to be placed in 200 stores for September 2014.
Meanwhile, the sisters were negotiating at home at Priceline, an Australian drug store chain comparable to Shoppers. They finally set their terms to put their entire 13-product line into that retailer, but with a roll-out that exact same fall week.
"Our production guy nearly killed us," Kim recalls. The sisters quit their jobs last July to prepare for the launch – which went off fine. They spent the next several months travelling across both Australia and Canada doing training and running in-store promotions – doing facials, giving away products – to get the brand off the ground. They also hired a part-time, national sales force of staff to go into stores and promote products.
In February, Kim and her husband moved to Vancouver (he works for Lululemon) to better manage Canadian operations. By this spring, they expect the brand to be in 430 Shoppers locations and 400 Priceline stores. In 2014, the company went from selling 5,000 units a year to 50,000. They expect sales to hit 100,000 in 2015.
This kind of global growth from a tiny, untested brand is not unprecedented, but it is rare, particularly in the crowded natural skincare market. "This is a huge challenge, it's quite an accomplishment for them," says John Torella, senior partner at the J.C. Williams Group, a retail consulting company based in Toronto. Many retail sectors are saturated with dozens of brands on store shelves, and even more up for grabs online. "I'd look for differentiation," he says in finding success in retail.
He says Dr. Roebuck's – with the doctor stamp of approval behind it – has the legs to compete. (In fact, the twins' physician mother is actively involved in the brand and vets its medically related marketing materials and plays devil's advocate for company ideas.)
He thinks their intensive in-store marketing was a smart move to be sure sellers and consumers understood the line, and it surely helped create an overall brand experience that builds an emotional connection, not just a practical one. (The sisters further their personal connection to their customers by listing an email address on their product information that Zoe personally answers.)
But major hurdles still exist for this brand. It's global – but not that global. The large and lucrative markets of the U.S. and the U.K. beckon. "We feel like that's our next market and we want to be there in the next two-to-three years," says Kim.
Their hope is to make sufficient contacts in the industry – although they're still newcomers – to make inroads to retailers in these big markets to get the ear of purchasers, without having to go through the traditional route of using an agent.
"They're going to face a lot of challenges," says Mr. Torella of expansion and the future in general. He says retail brands need to invest heavily in product development to stay relevant, and they need to be active in marketing approaches such as social media. He confirms that getting into a massive U.S. retailer without big-name credibility will be difficult.
But that's the future. For now, for this upstart brand that's finding loyal customers here and back in Australia, the global marketplace seems a welcoming one. And while bigger horizons and serious growth may lie ahead, these business owners insist they won't forget where they first found success. "We would never put Canada and Australia at risk to go into the States," says Zoe. "We know you can kill yourself as quickly as you started if you don't manage your base."