Monday, November 08, 2010

Managing Inventory - Interesting Website

We recently worked with a tech person to help set up our Big Pour (an event where we invite local people to come in and shop in our warehouse), and he pointed out that even though we are an internet based company, most of our operations function "off the grid".

The way we handle our purchase orders, our accounting, our inventory, our payroll. Plenty of these things are done a very old fashioned pen-on-paper way. While this worked for a long time, we are pulling up our big girl boots and trying out new ways of doing things.

One of our areas of weakness is inventory control. So far, we have relied on Van's amazing memory, but that's not really working any more. In figuring out how we can improve, I stumbled on this very helpful, easy-to-read primer on the basics of inventory control.

The advice here is forehead-slapping simple.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Breaking through the Platitudes

Even the SBA likes to spread the rumor: Most startup businesses "fail" within the first five years. You've heard that, right? From the web, from your well-meaning friends, from your family.

This oft-repeated platitude has no doubt discouraged 1,000's of hopeful entreprenuers from making the leap towards self-employment and for this reason I consider it a bit evil.

The nay-sayers tell you that it is a lack of experience, money or sales that shut down 50% off all start-ups in the first five years. Umm. Yeah. That's kind of like advising a new bike-rider to stay in their seat and keep their feet on the pedals. We all kind of know that, don't we? No experience, no money, no sales = poor likelihood of success.

I haven't seen a lot of failures in my 15 years of entrepreneurship. What I have seen is my competitiors and business asssociates closing shop (not "failing"), and mostly due to personal reasons. Typically health (a sudden illness in the family or an inability to sustain the energy level it takes to run a business) or a family crisis (a divorce or a need to focus on the children).

This year I mourn/celebrate the loss of several well-established and successful businesses: Mineral Basics (finished mineral makeup) Aromaleigh (finished mineral makeup) and Southern Soapers (soapmaking supplies). Mourn because I know these women worked hard to build their companies and closing is bound to feel a bit like falling, celebrate because I know once they hit the ground they will pick the pebbles from their knees and get back up.

When you are young and dating, five years is a long time to be in a relationship that doesn't work.

When you are in college, five years is plenty of time to go from innocence to education.

When you work at a company, five years is a long time to be in one job, no question.

So here is my point: who cares if most businesses change (close) within five years. So do most relationships, schooling and jobs.

If you are thinking about starting a business and get stuck on the fear that your business will become a statistic, get over it. Starting a business, building a business and closing that business within five years is not a failure, it is an adventure, one that you will learn from and build on. Go for it!

Sunday, October 03, 2010

TKB's Big Pour, the quick recap

I'm not going to say our "Big Pour" event was particularly easy to host -- it was a huge distraction from our usual daily routine and I've got lots of catching up to do.

I'm also not going to boast that it was a lucrative & smart business move -- prices were pretty low and in some cases flat out loss leaders. Next time around I'll need to shop smarter.

What I am going to say is that after 12 years of standing toe-to-toe 50 hours a week pulling, packing, and generally running an online business with no public face, Van and I got to see 100 folks walk into our warehouse with smiles on their faces and stories to tell. It was a juicy, most welcome buzz.

We're doing it again, for sure. First Saturday in November.

I'll blog more on what we learned from this event. I've got lots of thoughts about how we can continue to connect with local people in a way which energizes all of us to be more successful and creative.

For now, I get an afternoon of relaxing. Maybe a hot chocolate in my future?

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Shop Local Fast Buy Experiment

Even though our company has been in Oakland for nearly 15 years, we've never really opened our doors to the local community, instead we have been "online".

Lack of room and lack of English language skills amongst our staff were two big reasons for this, but there was also the comfort of the "we are an online business" cocoon. It's a warm, easy place to hide where your best foot forward can be shod in a fuzzy bedroom slipper because no one is looking.
Living in that cocoon has two major unintended pitfalls:
  • When you sell online, you tend to source your inventory and supplies online, which means you tend to not support your local economy;
  • Those online transactions you send out and bring in are all shipped, which impacts the environment both in terms of packaging and freight costs. (In fact, last year my freight and shipping costs were double what I paid to all my employees combined).

Early this year, I made a commitment to change. My first pass was to hire a woman (Ivy) to open a retail shop for us. Unfortunately, that relationship did not work out, but it was a helpful distraction because it gave me a better understanding of what kind of shop we could have at our warehouse.

Mid year, I hired two new employees who speak English as their first language and who are eager to see us open a shop. They pushed me to hire a designer to conceptualize the space (my sister, actually, Amber Westerman). Working with Amber really helped us get a better grasp on what we could do here and how it should lay out for the ease of customer use and the security and safety of all involved.

While Amber's design is still being finalized (and we think it will be awesome!), we wanted to start bringing in those local people and so we decided to host a Fast Buy.

The Fast Buy concept is simple, bring in Pails, Pallets, Bags and Buckets of raw materials that local soap/salt/bath and body folks might need for their upcoming craft shows, invite them down for a one day You Pack You Pour, and start the conversation going.....

.....What do you want? What do you need? Did you know you could get Olive Oil in Oakland from a third-generation company? Did you know you could get massage lotion from a second-generation company out by the airport? Aren't those increased container minimums horrible? I heard we could get them from .....

..... and such talk and so forth. If we know of each other, we can work together to support each other.

Our fingers are crossed, we hope to see Bay Area crafters here October 2, 2010 from 8am to noon! If you know someone who might be interested, please pass the word along!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Commerce and Cause: Found in Sioux Falls

I returned last night from a 24-hour whirl to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Sioux Falls is the kind of America's heartland I had never much expected to find myself, but when your nephew marries the daughter of a windmill farmer it's also pretty much where you end up when you attend his wedding.

Exactly one week earlier I had been in Los Angeles, at the IMATS (international Makeup Artists Trade Show) and I had been feeling the conflict of commerce versus cause (see prior blog post). At that show, I rode the rapids of thousands of young Californian women clamouring for discounted color cosmetics and their accouterments.

Here in South Dakota, on my way to the early morning farmer's market to grab a coffee before the wedding, I was standing near the natural water rapids which give Sioux Falls its name. A dynamic water way which has been running in this same location for more than 10,000 years, before their was an American heartland, before the Lakota camped at its shores, when it was just nature and nature, cascading over shiny stone.

My whole family swarmed the small farmer's market, buying up fair trade coffee and sampling organic radishes with sea salt. Of course, there was a local soap maker as well, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that she had expanded into mineral makeup and was a customer of mine. Meet Rebecca of Pearl Creek Goat Milk Soap (

I overheard Rebecca talking to my sister-in-law about her Breast Cancer Awareness lip gloss which was part of her mineral makeup line and of course I made a beeline to her booth to hear more!

Rebecca told me about her husband's grandmother, Barbara Turner, who had given to worthy causes all her life and in particular had supported the organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Barbara Turner had passed away after battling breast cancer not too long ago, and when she did, she made Rebecca promise that there would always be something in her product line which would be dedicated to raising money for worthy causes. "Even if it isn't a lot of money, it's something", Rebecca explained.

The wedding was lovely, the champagne flowed.

I returned to California the next morning, with a precious Barbara Turner lip gloss tucked in my pocket. It was July 4th, America's day of independence. Each time I reached for a boarding pass or a check of the clock, I touched my lip gloss. Each time I took a moment to be proud that I was so truly American: buttons, banners, ribbons and all.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Unclenching the Jaw

This year has been my tipping point. It is the year that I have gone from sleeping well at night to tossing and turning. The year that my jaw began to clench. I have my eye on a couple culprits:
  • My iPhone. I can pick it up at 2:00 a.m. and do a quick check of the emails or read up on the forum or check a twitter feed. I no longer come home at night and shut the door on the day's activities.
  • Social media. Social media is a game changer when it comes to running a small business, and the changes are largely positive. But it also keeps me awake at night as I try to unravel the consequences of social behaviors that I was never very good at to begin with. In my private universe, social media is confirmation that the cool kids and the cheerleaders won the nerd war. I no longer feel confident in my relationships with my customers.
  • The warehouse. Not only does paying rent on a physical space "up the ante" with regard to responsibilities, it also becomes space that needs filling, which means more products and more diverse creative projects. I no longer "know everything" about everything I sell.
  • The employees. Not them particularly, just the fact that they exist. That someone has to rise to the occasion on every occasion. I no longer get to hide in my work.
Recently, I moved my desk to a different part of the warehouse and brought my files with me. In cleaning out the cabinets I stumbled across a pile of old "to do" lists. I had to smile when I saw the exact same things on a five-year-old "to do" as were on last Monday's list. Poor little Kaila, plugging away week after week and still not able to cross that one off!

Next to the list was an old business plan and it was interesting to see how much of that plan I had actually realized and also how outdated it was when considering our current situation. A recent Wall Street Journal article on small business suggests that the first defense against stress is to develop a long-range vision and business plan and then to simply work the plan.

With that flicker of insight lighting the way ahead, I set the old business plan on the top of the pile on my desk, and began to write this blog post.

The beginnings, I hope, towards unclenching the jaw.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Safety Of Pigments

Recently, there have been videos on Youtube where concern is expressed regarding the safe use of pigments as cosmetics.

When things get confusing like this I always suggest people go to the "source" which in the case of the USA would be the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) which regulates cosmetics. The FDA is actually quite approachable by phone. Their phone number is 1-888-723-3366. When you call, ask to speak to someone in the cosmetics division (it defaults to food safety).

While this blog post attempts to answer some of the questions raised on Youtube, I encourage interested parties to contact the FDA directly if they are confused or concerned. If you would like to make corrections or clarifications, please feel free to post.
  • One pigment which people have been expressing concern over is Ultramarine Blue. Ultramarine Blue is a pigment approved by the FDA for use in cosmetics, including eye shadows but not include lip products. Here is the specific language at the FDA
  • Ultramarine blue for use in cosmetics is synthetic, having been manufactured in the laboratory specifically for use in cosmetics. Natural ultramarines are not used in cosmetics, as the FDA only allows use of synthetic ultramarines (see link above).
  • While cosmetic (synthetic) ultramarine blue may look the same as paint-grade ultramarine blue when compared side-by-side, it is not the same product. Cosmetic grade pigments are processed to meet FDA standards with regard to safety (see link above). Industrial grade (or paint grade) pigments are not required to test to this level of safety.
  • Because ultramarines are processed using sulphur, they can have an odor (the familiar "rotten egg" smell). The strength of this odor depends on the pH of the product. For example, if you bring ultramarine blue under 6 on the pH scale (toward acid) it lets off sulphur fumes.
  • TKB Trading does not sell finished cosmetics (although we do have a little baby cosmetic division we call MyMix Cosmetics, these products are finished cosmetics). TKB sells raw materials which may be used for making cosmetics, soaps, and also we sell products for arts and crafts projects. (In short, we sell colors).
  • TKB Trading does not recommend that people use ultramarine blue directly on their eyes as an eye shadow not because it is unsafe, but simply because it would not make for a very good cosmetic. It would be draggy, perhaps too intense, be staining and not adhere over the long term.
  • There is no particular FDA restriction related to putting ultramarine blue directly on the eyelid without any other ingredient or texturizer. Note that in the link above, ultramarine blue's use is limited to "amounts consistent with good manufacturing practice". In our understanding, this would allow ultramarine blue to be used at 100% if for some reason someone wanted to do that. Here is an interesting link about Good Manufacturing Practices (GPM) and the FDA.
  • Pigments don't dissolve in water, they disperse into it. However cosmetic pigments are often fine enough that you will see them color the water and so they may make you think they are dissolving into it. If you blend ultramarine blue into water it may appear to be dissolving, but if you leave it overnight you will see that the pigment sinks to the bottom like "sand in the ocean" and the water is much less colored looking.
  • TKB Trading sells a color known as Carbon Black. This product is 60% D&C Black #2 and 40% Polyester 3. The purpose of the polyester is partly to encapsulate the color and make it a "jet" black. It is absolutely approved for use in cosmetics, including use around the eyes. Here is a sample formula provided by the manufacturer for a water resistant mascara. Note that the product is made in the USA.
Water Resistant Mascara
Phase A
5.00 Stearic Acid
12.00 White Beeswax
9.50 Ozokerite Wax
7.0 Carbon Black

Phase B
58.40 Water
1.00 Glycerol
2.00 DC-193 (Dow Corning)
0.25 Hydroxyethylcellulose
2.00 R-49 Bleached, Dewaxed Shellac (Mantrose-Hauser)
0.10 Phenonip (Clariant)
2.75 Triethanolamine

Procedure: Heat the wax components of Phase A to 65ºC and add
pigment slowly while thoroughly mixing. Hold phase A at 65ºC. In a
separate container, mix Phase B ingredients and heat to 65ºC.
Slowly add Phase B to Phase A using a homogenizer. Package
while still fluid.

If you have any questions, please let me know.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Commerce and Cause: Missed opportunities at IMATS 2010

I attended the 2010 International Makeup Artists Trade Show (IMATS) in Los Angeles a little over a week ago.

While I have wandered many a trade show, this was my first time at the IMATS and I had heard a lot of good things about it. Primarily, I was told that there would be lots of color cosmetics and special effects companies plying their wares at deeply discounted prices.

And ... they were right. There was lots of creative Hollywood-style special effects to observe (the designer for Avatar was on hand, and I got to see the the transformation of Hell Boy). But the bulk of the show seemed to be women in their 20's and 30's purchasing their favorite MAC and similar cosmetics at discounted pricing. And when I say "bulk" I mean it. The place was so swarming it was difficult to move through the aisles!

My last moments at the show were spent watching a makeup artist demo how to switch your daytime look to evening in just a few strokes. The demo was taking place in front of the pink and white banner of the sponsoring brush company. I watched distractedly as the frenzy of the last minute shoppers surged around me. My gaze finally settled not on the model but on the pink banner behind her and even though the day had been instructive, I suddenly felt sad.

All this buying, all this spending, all this energy and not a single dollar of it going for breast cancer research. Nor was there a single banner or handout for these young women who represented the exact demographic needing education on prevention. Based on my very rough estimate of the size of the crowd, at least a thousand of the people in that room were going to receive a diagnosis of breast cancer at some point in their lives, and of course many more would be impacted by the disease in their families. How hard would it have been to incorporate even the smallest nod to issues larger than eye shadow at this incredibly lucrative trade show?

I'm not judging these companies as shallow beauty-mongers. I have no doubt that plenty of people of there would have been happy to do something to round out the experience of the event. What I am saying is that I felt an opportunity was missed. In today's world, where we have so many important things to do, to cure, to save, I was surprised that incorporation of commerce with cause hadn't occurred as a matter of course. I saw it it as a missed opportunity, and it saddened me.

I later shared my feelings with my co-workers and husband. They tried to wrap their heads around mine but the wrapping quickly unraveled. You see, all my co-workers and my husband come from communist Vietnam. Just after the fall of Saigon, life was recast into something dull, dark and dreary with no color in clothing or cosmetics. While Vietnam has since modernized and now fashion and cosmetics are everywhere, this is not true in every country.

"Americans think change happens when it is expressed in buttons, banners, and ribbons", my husband said, "But in the minds of many, the simple act of purchasing a lipstick is an exciting expression of freedom, independence and joy. It is a celebration of the beauty of life. It is cause enough."

Monday, April 05, 2010

Where to Get Ideas for Your Blog

Here are two tips.

1) Set up a schedule: Monday = What's New, Tuesday = Recipe, Wednesday = Tip or Trick, and so forth. If you have a specific schedule like this, then it is kind of a no-brainer. You simply look at the calendar, see, Oh, it's Monday, and then ask yourself what you could talk about that is new. I used this tip for a few weeks and it really helped me with daily blogging.

Having said this, daily blogging is really just generating lots of words on a page. If your purpose is to drive traffic to your blog or your company, I think you get more bang for your buck if you write about things which have a lot of buzz.

For example, my post on the natural colorants used in cosmetics by 100% Pure, I get a lot of traffic off of that, compared to other posts. And I've seen a lot of comments as well. I suspect this post is the perfect storm of topical, controversial, and intriguing.

So, how does one find more topics like this? Recently I discovered Google Alerts. They could not make it any easier for you to get daily (or less often if you want) alerts about topics of interest to you. These alerts will direct you to other blogs, posts, websites, news stories, etc., about a topic of interest. If all you do is post: "Hey look at this fascinating blog post I found on such and such . . . and here is what I think about it . . . " Well, I think then you can consider yourself having jumped into the giant stream of info that is our internet.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Hey Dr. Oz, how about Fruit and Flower Pigments in Cosmetics?

This past week, Oprah's Dr. Oz tried to increase his ratings by bashing Mineral Makeup as one of the most dangerous forms of color cosmetics. His basic concern was the inhalation hazard. Umm. OK. I'm going to set that one to the side for now and ask, "Hey, Dr. Oz, how about taking a look at the newest trend on QVC, which is color cosmetics made with fruit and vegetable pigments?" Can we say "not-FDA approved and at risk for bacterial growth"?

Loose powder mineral makeup is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but the use of fruits and vegetables to pigment cosmetics sure ain't. The FDA strictly regulates color additives and their approved uses in cosmetics. Per the FDA, the definition of a color additive is a follows (source: Sec 201)

(t)(1) The term "color additive" means a material which—

(A) is a dye, pigment, or other substance made by a process of synthesis or similar artifice, or extracted, isolated, or otherwise derived, with or without intermediate or final change of identity, from a vegetable, animal, mineral, or other source, and

(B) when added or applied to a food, drug, or cosmetic, or to the human body or any part thereof, is capable (alone or through reaction with other substance) of imparting color thereto; except that such term does not include any material which the Secretary, by regulation, determines is used (or intended to be used) solely for a purpose or purposes other than coloring.

I just got off the phone with Naomi Richfield-Fratz in the cosmetic division of the FDA (email her at

Naomi confirmed for me that the cosmetic industry is largely self-regulating with regard to the ingredients used, except that the color components are strictly regulated. If a company states that their COLOR comes from non-approved ingredients, then they are flat out not in compliance with the FDA and are subject to a warning letter, fines, and possibly seizure of their products.

More importantly than the letter of the law, however, let's take a look at the ingredients in a sampling from this company, 100% Pure which describes their products as "the first and only cosmetics colored from antioxidant rich fruit and vegetable pigments".

Fruit Pigmented Vanilla Eyeshadow: Ingredients: Organic Rice Starch, Pigments of Organic Carrot, Squash, Organic Apricot, Organic Peach, Papaya and Organic Tomato, Vitamin E (a-tocopherol), Organic Lavender, Organic Rosehip OIl3, Organic Avocado Butter, Organic Cocoa Butter, Vitamin C (ascorbyl palmitate), Mica (natural shimmery mineral.

Sounds lovely and edible. But where is the preservative? As the FDA's Richfield-Fratz said to me on the phone, "I'd be worried about bacterial growth in a cosmetic which uses food or fruit juice for coloring."

Look, I'm not a 100% Pure hater. What I am a hater of is that because the 100% Pure product is on QVC, my customers are coming to me and asking why they can't use organic fruit juice to color their handmade natural cosmetics.

Just the other day I was contacted by a vendor which offered me an exciting new line of "100% natural pigments from plant extracts" made to be "effective natural colouring agents" to bring "a touch of natural colour to your makeup products". When I asked the vendor: how can you sell these given the FDA Regs, the response was: "These are not classified as colorants – only color enhancing extracts".

When I asked Richfield-Fratz at the FDA if there was a special designation or exemption for "Color enhancing extracts" she laughed.

The best she and I could come up with was that the European Union has a different list of what is approved, and perhaps these products are approved in the EU. This is something I'll have to investigate.

In the meantime, she confirmed that the FDA is a complaint-driven organization and their first step would be a simple letter to the violator asking them to cease and desist. But she admitted nothing might happen at all until there is "an incident".

Well, that's all I've gotten so far. I'll keep you posted as the research unravels.

Hey, Dr. Oz! You listenin'?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Determined to drill this one down: Natural Products as Color Additives

I am determined to drill this one down, because our customers would love to start using botanical additives for color cosmetics. The fear is that the FDA would act against them if they did.

The FDA strictly regulates color additives and their approved uses in cosmetics. Per the FDA, the definition of a color additive is a follows (source: Sec 201)

(t)(1) The term "color additive" means a material which—

(A) is a dye, pigment, or other substance made by a process of synthesis or similar artifice, or extracted, isolated, or otherwise derived, with or without intermediate or final change of identity, from a vegetable, animal, mineral, or other source, and

(B) when added or applied to a food, drug, or cosmetic, or to the human body or any part thereof, is capable (alone or through reaction with other substance) of imparting color thereto; except that such term does not include any material which the Secretary, by regulation, determines is used (or intended to be used) solely for a purpose or purposes other than coloring.

So, if one included a botanical which is used for a purpose other than coloring, that would be OK.

Recently I contact a vendor of natural products which they market heavily for use in coloring cosmetics. I asked them to explain how this was possible. Here is the response:

"These are not classified as colorants – only color enhancing extracts"

Well, I'll keep you posted. I'm still in conversation with the vendor and I'll also put in a call to the FDA.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

100% Pure Redux and Bare Escentuals Business Changes

I have been following the growth and changes at 100% Pure and I received some interesting responses. You can revisit that post and those responses here:

Long Story Short: This Berkeley-based company makes natural cosmetics and has a patent pending on using fruit and flower pigments to color them.

Yesterday the broker who sold TKB the building we are currently in came to visit. We purchased the building about a year and a half ago and he was checking in to see if we were ready to expand.

He said that 100% Pure had just signed on for a new, 75,000 square foot space (about two years ago, they had just moved from their 10,000 square foot space to a 30,000 square foot space). So obviously, Home Shopping Network is working for them.

In other news of the month, Leslie Blodgett, founder of San Francisco-based Bare Escentuals (sales of $556 million in 2008) sold her business to the Japanese Cosmetic firm Shiseido for $1.7 Billion.

Could be 100% pure is headed in the same direction?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Community Participation Update

For those who have been following TKB's steps towards community participation, we are happy to announce our first community-based class coming this Thursday.

I was approached by teacher Kate Sugarman of Arise High School to do some kind of presentation for her class "Money Really Does Grow on Trees". Here is a description of the class:

Since the beginning of time, people have been making household products from things found in nature. In this class, you will learn how you too can develop a business based on natural, organic products. We will forage for fruit and flowers, make essential oils, paper, soap, candles and edible treats. We will also be building the ARISE greenhouse to propagate and grow our own seedlings. Along the way, we will visit various Bay Area merchants to interview people about running a successful, natural business. At Exhibition Night, our products will go on sale. Interested students can keep their businesses going throughout the year. Keep a little extra cash in your pocket!

We will be looking at two different products here at TKB. The first will be lip products (lipsticks, chapsticks, balms, etc.) and I will explain the different types of plant based oils, waxes and color additives one can use. Of course, each student will also get the thrill of unmolding a lipstick into a casing, as well as to make their own product.

The second project will be melt and pour soapmaking. We will again look at the plant based ingredients but we will also focus on how to design a soap which will "sell". We will be doing fortune soaps. This is a project where you design a fortune, laminate it with packing tape, and then put it in a small zip lock bag which you fill with soap. This way you have a small prepacked travel soap the student can take home with them, and a unique fortune inside.

I am pleased to support ARISE which is a school specifically tasked to prepare students from low income families to be the first in their families to attend college.