How Manuka Essentials is using their product to encourage sustainable change in Aotearoa
Mānuka Essentials is a plant based personal care brand, and joined our Kea community in 2019 when they sought help validating market opportunities in UK/Europe. Through Kea Connect, Founder Callum Armstrong realised UK/Europe wasn’t the right market, and instead expanded his business model to support his life mission of reforesting New Zealand through native plant extracts.
Tell us about Mānuka Essentials and what drove you to launch the business?
Mānuka Essentials is a plant based personal care brand using renewable plant extracts, the key ingredient being East Cape mānuka oil.
It all started when I was overseas backpacking around South East Asia. I somehow ended up going down a rabbit hole of scientific research papers on native plants. I discovered that mānuka essential oil which comes from the leaves, is much more powerful than the honey and has many health benefits. East Cape mānuka oil in particular, because of the environment that it has evolved with, provides a lot of benefits – antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, beats dandruff, among many others. This is in part because of a particular group of compounds called beta triketones.
I then discovered that mānuka plays a significant role environmentally. In New Zealand, mānuka is often the first plant to grow in a regenerating native forest (also known as a seral species). It helps other plants flourish, and it grows deep and flexible root systems that prevent erosion, binds hillsides, and helps to clean up our waterways.
In my previous job working for the family company as a sales rep (selling flooring to shops), I regularly travelled around most of the country. I saw how much of our land was once forest. I also saw how much of it we chopped down. Throughout Aotearoa, we are experiencing land erosion, loss of biodiversity, and polluted waterways… So I thought, if we can make it more profitable for farmers to plant sustainably managed native forests than any other type of farming, then we’re going to see the country return, largely to native forest.
And so I’ve made it my life’s mission, basically, to do this.
What was your initial approach to funding?
I had some savings – tried a range of ideas and ended up spending it all!
From here, I have been working as a marketing consultant which has supported this venture. This consultancy work evolved into what is now Paste & Publish, a content marketing agency with a team of twelve.
I haven’t tried to get any external investment or funding, mostly because I don’t want the need for short term profits to get in the way of long-term impact.
Where have you exported to, and what have been the key challenges throughout your export journey across these markets?
Australia was an easy start, and we have a few customers over there. Australia was good in terms of time zone, currency rates are similar, lead times are short, and regulations aren’t overly strict. One of the challenges has been regulatory compliance and understanding who to talk to. There’s a lot of contradictory information out there about regulations and compliance. Understanding cultural and consumption differences was really key as well.
We considered Europe, however the deeper we dug the more regulatory issues we realised. Compliance was just too much of a challenge at that stage. You really need someone on the ground who holds full responsibility over the product. We saw the costs add up, and ended up putting this on hold. We plan to revisit export into Europe in the next year or so.
Tell us about your experience with Kea Connect since reaching out in 2019?
It was actually Kea’s introduction that helped us to understand what the export journey to Europe would look like. Through Kea Connect, we were put in touch with a Brand and Industry Specialist with extensive experience across the UK and EU. As a result of his advice, we ended up holding off from exporting to the region and focused our attention on the local market instead.
This advice highlights how some export markets, while appealing, are not always necessarily the right path right for all businesses. Kea helped us to see the reality we were facing and I was really appreciative of the connection and practical advice that determined our export plans. We also were connected with some initial legal advice, which brought useful considerations to mind.
The team at Kea are open-minded, proactive, and well-connected. I can’t fault the service!
How has Mānuka Essentials grown since 2019?
COVID-19 put a damper on our growth, but in saying this we have expanded our range and offering, which is great.
When we first engaged with Kea, we mainly produced beard and shaving oil. Since then, we have developed a range of oil blends across genders and skin-types, along with solid beard shampoo and shave soap bars. We have also launched a brand called Mānuka Sensations which focuses more on the aromatherapy side of things.
Moving forward, we are focusing on creating an enterprise that builds the leading native plant brands of tomorrow. This involves development and operations management, marketing and distribution. Through this new structure, we are launching a wide range of exciting initiatives!
Are there any trends that you see from the entrepreneurs and businesses you’re working with day-to-day?
Going online is a big part. Through our content marketing agency, Paste & Publish, we can’t keep up with the amount of growth in terms of people wanting top notch content. Adoption of tech is massive. Initiatives like Digital Boost alludes to how Kiwi businesses are typically behind the curve on this front.
A larger trend I see is more conceptual, looking ahead 5-10 years. This is around access vs ownership of business processes. Back in the day, you would have your commercial building, your own machinery, equipment, trucks, etc. Back then, you had salaried staff as opposed to contractors or outsourced partners, and those staff would typically stay with you their whole career. Now we are moving towards a much more transient world.
A great example of this is Fulfilment by Amazon. If you want to sell overseas, you don’t need warehouses or space, or staff. Amazon brings the traffic to you, they store it, they ship it. Growth made easy.
So, with business, it’s more about partnering with what and who you really need, and contracting out business processes that aren’t your core area of expertise. In this way, the world is at your unique advantage.
You have a few other ventures on the go – can you briefly tell us about these, and what advice do you have for other entrepreneurs juggling many things at once!
Yes sure. As I mentioned before, the overall goal is to reforest Aotearoa. To do this, we need to create widespread consumer demand for native plant extracts so that there’s a market to justify farmers investing in making the shift. And to create this consumer demand, we need brands to tell the story and empower the change.
So we are building a brand incubator. There are three key pillars to any product based brand:
Development and operations – I have recently partnered up with Jess Elliot, the creative genius behind Boho Body Care, to develop what we are calling ‘Boho HQ’, a local business based in Tauranga that looks after product development, manufacturing, logistics and sourcing all under one roof. Basically, if you want to create your own personal care brand, we do all the work to bring your vision to life – from development to marketing and everything in between.
Marketing – through Paste & Publish, we look after all things marketing. Content (such as articles, guest blogs, strategic content planning etc.) is our core strength, but we also do design, web development, advertising, and much more.
Sales and distribution – we are assembling a nationwide network of distributors so that we can bring out new products, new brands, and new offerings, and have them represented in retail locations throughout the country. This project has just launched a few weeks ago, and our aim is to assemble an awesome team of distributors who own their own wholesale businesses supplying our products. You can find out more about becoming a distributor here.
Last but not least is The Reforestation Fund, a philanthropic fund that we are building to help accelerate the reforestation movement here in NZ. Through TRF, we are funding projects that result in native trees being planted, and our biodiversity to be cared for, by supporting local volunteer groups and the like. As part of our efforts, 50 cents from every Mānuka Essentials product sold is donated to this fund. We want to bring more ethical brands onboard, to help make a positive impact on the health of our ngahere (forests).
My advice to other entrepreneurs is that there will be a time where you go from being the business, to being part of the business. Learning when to let go is important, and so is finding the right people who share your vision, and empowering them for success.
One thing that set me well is understanding our core values and core purpose and making decisions from this basis. It ensures that we do things for the right reasons, and with our long term goals in mind.
If there are any returning Kiwi who want to start their own company, distributing native plant-based personal care products in their area, we would love to hear from them. We are also always looking to partner with people who are passionate about reforestation and would like to get involved. All the details of our distributor programme can be found at www.manukaessentials.com/pages/become-a-distributor.
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