Tell us about yourself, Davina. How did Element Apothec come to be?
Davina Kaonohi: My journey towards Element Apothec began I started in the e-commerce space as a strategy and operations consultant. I’ve always been passionate about consumer goods and products that help people.
I first got involved with the cannabis space a couple of years ago when I was in-charge of a CBD business’s social media platform. Eventually, they did not end up launching. But by then, I had really become passionate about what this plant can do. From a more personal experience, my father was a Vietnam veteran and he would tell me how cannabis really helped him survive PTSD. He literally couldn’t walk outside of the house without the plant helping him.
The origins of the formula.
And so, a year ago, my great-aunt came to me. She had created these CBD formulations to manage multiple medical conditions and autoimmune diseases. I had actually helped her build a website a year before, and she sold out at farmer’s markets and a couple of retail stores. But beyond that, she had no idea what to do with the website and e-commerce.
She said, “I know that you are passionate about and you believe in CBD and you have the experience to do something with this. I want you to take my products from the kitchen to the world.” And I said okay.
I hadn’t launched a consumer product like this before. But what I do know is how to build great teams. I understand the dynamics of what it takes to build good strategic and operational plans, and how to bring in the right support people to make this happen.
Another thing I was aware of was the real lack of trust in the personal care industry. A lot of these products contain so many harmful ingredients. In the US, unfortunately, we have 1400 ingredients that we can put in products that are otherwise banned in Europe and Canada.
So, when I took on this project, I made sure to get it reviewed by medical experts to ensure their safety. I was taking on a product that people were putting in or on their bodies, and I really wanted to make sure that it wasn’t going to hurt them or include any ingredients that could be harmful. I knew that when my aunt made them, she used clean and safe ingredients because preservative and toxins in common medications were causing her more harm.
When I got that sign-off, I was like, “Okay. We’re ready”. Let’s build a great team and make this happen.
Element Apothec is a wellness and skincare brand that utilizes phytocannabinoid-infused formulas in their products. Right now, you guys offer a face serum, a balm, lotion, and the wellness oils in tinctures. Short of going into a science lesson, what innovation does using cannabis bring your skincare routine?
Davina Kaonohi: Our bodies all have endocannabinoid systems. And within that system, there are two main receptors—perhaps, more. Scientists are still learning about it. But there are two that we know now. One is neurological, and the other is found in most of our bodies’ circulatory and muscular systems. So, the endocannabinoid system produces natural cannabinoids. The phytocannabinoids like CBD fulfills the cannabinoid deficiencies in our bodies.
It explains why, historically, CBD and cannabis has been able to help people and make them better. Only through research do we now understand why – because our bodies have the receptors in our endocannabinoid systems. So, by putting it phytocannabinoids in beauty products, we’re triggering these receptors, which is way more impactful than a lot of the other ingredients utilized in skincare.
Of course, we look at every ingredient and examine their synergistic application. How do they all work together? How can they improve cell regeneration, skin elasticity, moisture retention, etc.? CBD and CBG are just two more ingredients added to enhance the formulation. A lot of companies in this space tend to focus on the CBD component. But there are so many other ingredients to make your products more effective.
So, Element Apothec differentiates itself by using and adding science and research to the body of knowledge explaining how these plant-based solutions actually help people.
Part of your brand is your Never, Ever Promise. You go above and beyond to make sure your product is safe, tested and legal. Aside from working with doctors, what other measures do you guys take to stay true to that promise?
Davina Kaonohi: It starts from the moment we source the ingredients. We make sure that they are eco-served and organic. We abide by the European and Canadian standards, as well as the Environmental Working Group and Made Safe standards.
It’s important for us to make sure that we don’t use any ingredient that falls under those lists. Even if the ingredient is only slightly questionable at best, we don’t use it. That discipline comes from the early stages of building Element Apothec, from the desire to use only clean products that have no toxins or preservatives.
So, we carry that commitment through by doing multiple testing.
For example, with the CBD and CBD pre-formulations, we do another round of full-testing after the products are formulated, just to make sure that there are no toxins or metal. We make sure that even the percentage of the milligram of the CBD we use is accurate.
In addition, we continue to work with other certifications as well to get our products reviewed.
I mean, you can claim you’re clean. But, in the industry, people don’t really believe it unless you can stand by your word and you can show proof. Some companies say that they are certified, but later on, we find out that they’re actually using toxins and harmful ingredients.
What’s interesting about the practice in the personal care industry is if you have a certain percentage of a certain ingredient, you’re not required to write it on your label. Which is really unfortunate. That obscures a lot the things that are not healthy for people, especially in combinations.
For us, we put every single ingredient on there. Element Apothec partners with a company called Clear for Me. They have overall descriptions of every ingredient, explaining what they do to people and validating the safety of each ingredient.
The CBD oil is a growing market. How did you guys put yourself out there? Was it easy to market yourselves or did it take some time for sales to pick up?
Davina Kaonohi: I mean it’s tricky, because it is a competitive space. When the Farm Bill passed in 2018, it was like the floodgates had opened. We were in the process of building a company and everyday, when you open the news, here’s another CBD company. We went to a CBD Expo where these manufacturers were offering what they call “whitelabeling”. You just stick your label on a product and you could start your CBD business in 10 minutes. Consumers don’t realize that most brands out there are not creating their own formulations. Some of the products are exactly the same just with a different label.
The trick for us is to figure out how to cut through that noise. We wanted to build a really strong brand story. We put a lot of thought into the actual marketing messaging. How do we stand apart from these other companies?
Another challenge is Facebook and Instagram don’t like CBD ads. You’ll see some companies that are able to do it. But I often think that it’s because they give enough money. In our experience, we’ve had so many ads that we tried to run that they won’t approve of. Even on the Element Apothec Instagram store, we can’t have our tinctures on there. They won’t approve them at all. We only have our topicals under the lotion and face serum. So, as a CBD brand, you can’t utilize regular social media advertising in the same way.
We’ve had to get really creative to overcome the limits in what we can do. We look to influencer marketing and organic reach. We’re also building our SEO, which is more of a longer-term game. There are a couple of platforms that recently came out and said that they’re accepting digital ads from CBD brands. We’re currently working with a marketing partner that’s working with those platforms.
All in all, it’s an interesting space to navigate. It’s been frustrating, yes, but at the same time, we’ve been learning and experimenting with new ways to get ourselves out there.
Over the last year, a lot of businesses have been diversifying their channels. For you, setting aside the limitations with Facebook and Instagram, is there a particular channel that really works for you, or a platform that really captures your market?
Davina Kaonohi: Right now, Instagram seems to be the best platform. Influencers can say anything and promote our product. Plus they’re excited to get our products – it’s very highly valued. Instagram offers a lot of utility through Instagram Reels and IG TV, which seem to be getting really good responses and views.
We’re also exploring Clubhouse from a content perspective and we want to see how that plays out. We want to focus our content entirely on wellness. We have wellness advisors and contributors. Our plan is to start a room that brings in people to talk about CBD, ask questions, and how to integrate it into the everyday things and practices like yoga and meditation.
Do you guys sell largely online or do you work with retailers as well?
Davina Kaonohi: We’ve just started to, actually. We are launching our first retail locations in Miami and New York next week called SHOWFIELDS. They claim to be the most interesting store in the world. They take brands and basically create an artistic expression of that brand. So, we’re really excited to be working with them.
We’ve got a few online marketplaces that we work with, like Storyline, and we just got approved to work with a company called Swell. All of them are focused on conscious consumers. And that’s a value we really want to attribute ourselves. We’re partnering with a sales team to reach out to the high-end niche supermarkets like Erewhon. That’s our next big goal.
What was your 2020 experience? Did the rise in desire to stay healthy and the spike in stress from working at home work in your favor, at least in terms of sales?
Davina Kaonohi: So, 2020 was interesting because we were going to launch at the beginning of the year. And a lot of stuff got delayed in terms of packaging, being able to source ingredients and manufacturing restrictions.
We utilized the time to perfect the branding and get these other certifications like Pending B Corp., while all the other stuff worked themselves out. That pivot was a particularly good decision because when we did launch, we were able to tell a better and stronger story by having built a stronger foundation as a company. The shift to wellness definitely improved sales.
The influencers we worked with were excited to try the product to get relief from stress and get support with sleep. People who don’t wear much make-up at home learned that they can use the benefits of using our face serum. People are thinking about wellness more. They’re researching online before they buy a product.
The shift to a conscious consumer has been significantly impacted by COVID – people want to put their money on things that really matter, things that have a good impact on themselves and on the world. So, those trends, we believe, are only going to continue in 2021.
How will this emergence of conscious consumerism shape your strategies in 2021?
Davina Kaonohi: I think it comes down to knowing that the consumer deserves better. That goes behind every decision that we made in 2020, and now in 2021. As we look to continue to build new products, as we look to market our brand, we want to really hold ourselves accountable to do the best we can.
For example, we have sustainable packaging. But we want to figure out what else we can do better. How can we reduce our carbon footprint? All that we do as a company has an impact on people and the planet. We want to make sure that we are doing everything that we possibly can to be of genuine help to everyone as much as possible.
Aside from Dr. Swathi Varanasi, do you have a team at Element Apothec that helps you bring your vision to life?
Davina Kaonohi: Yes, we have myself, and our COO David Crowder who is our marketing and branding guy. He designed the website and all the packaging. He’s done all of our video work and handles all our manufacturing and logistics. The three of us make up the core team.
And we also built a really incredible advisory board. We have a finance advisory person, we have a wellness advisory person, and we have someone who has experience with fundraising and growth companies.
Then, we built our medical advisory team. We have creative doctor, Dr. Martin Singh, who heads the medical practice at UC Irvine, and he’s a part of our team. We also brought on Dr. Raja Sivamani, who is a dermatologist and a professor at UC Davis to complement the team. So, we have our pharmacist, our doctor, and our dermatologist who contribute their expertise to creating our formulations for all the new products we’re going to come out with.
It sounds like you put a lot of care into positioning yourselves to succeed in this market. When all the competitive noise dies down, you have the credibility and the science on your side to grow steady and strong.
Davina Kaonohi: I was doing an interview yesterday and the writer asked me what I would tell people coming into CBD and to the wellness industry. And I said, “Think long term. Think of all the decisions you’re making today in terms of building a brand that could be sustainable.”
I expect there to be more regulations and rules, and compliance in the near future. Even our labeling, the product description and the claims were designed to abide by the supplements base, because I predict that is where the trend is headed. We have a regulatory compliance advisor who checks our social media posts and blog posts to make sure that we are abiding by those types of regulations.
Anyone coming into wellness, personal care, and beauty needs to think long term. Be strict and hold yourself accountable to the strictest guidelines, so that whatever happens in the future, you’ve built yourself a really solid foundation.
I think a lot of people are tempted by the promise that if they do something in a certain way, they can have quick sales. We would be gone tomorrow if we did that. We certainly wouldn’t be able to manage how the future is gonna be like post-COVID.
I appreciate how much you prioritize your process. I think that’s really important, especially in bringing and ensuring brand integrity.
Davina Kaonohi: Yeah, and you really have to start small. We went live and we were like, “Oh, where’s our first sale? Where’s our second sale? And oh we finally got our first sale that isn’t from a friend or family.”
You build slowly, but everybody starts there. Most people do. Some people believe they need to raise millions of dollars before they go through this stuff. Either way, you have to stay excited and don’t give up hope. It just takes time.
We’ve realized that we had these goals, like. “Oh we’re going to come out and sell this”. But, then, we learned that we had to work through some manufacturing issues. Some logistical issues. It took time building the website, and so on.
You know what? It’s good that we started out slow and really focus on our process. Now, it’s time for us to take advantage of the opportunities to start really growing.
Speaking of opportunities, I recently read that investment in the cannabis industry is really skyrocketing. Do you feel that you guys are in the best position to take advantage of that windfall?
Davina Kaonohi: I think so. When we were pre-revenue, we didn’t have the products. People didn’t know about us. We started out slow. But after we launched our products, we’re showing traction and we’re starting to gain interest.
Actually, I’ve started to get return emails from investors that I initially reached out to have scheduled meetings with. People are responding to me in a way they didn’t before.
But I do think it takes time to get traction, especially in this space because it is so competitive. It takes time for us to convince people, and for them to realize that we’re not just going to be another one of those companies that’s in today and gone tomorrow.
We’re really hopeful that we can take advantage of that windfall. Just this week we’ve started speaking with a lot of people who can help us grow. So, I definitely see the hard work paying off.
For this month’s Mover’s Spotlight theme, we’re talking creativity. How would you define entrepreneurial creativity? How does creativity function in bringing to life your vision for Element Apothec?
Davina Kaonohi: Entrepreneurial creativity, for Element Apothec, is all about being unique and creative in our storytelling. We have a unique story and we’re doing something different as a wellness CBD brand. And we’ve had to really think hard about the right words to make that apparent.
I try to include everyone in the process. Every single time we have a team meeting, we ask one another, “Does anyone have other thoughts or some creative messaging that we can use in our ads?”
We’ve come up with CLEAN SCIENCE, and NEVER EVER PROMISE on our boxes, promising that “inside this box is NEVER EVER anything but good.”
We aim to create messages that create an “aha” moment for somebody, to make them say, “This is intriguing and I want to learn more.”
It’s important, even in our photography. How can we visually depict that our products are clean? It also translates in our packaging. How can we be true in a creative, expressive way that these products feel safe and clean for everybody?
Creativity functions behind every decision we make. How do we tell our story through our photography, through our messaging, through our website? It’s something we constantly think about all the time.
Where do you want to see Element Apothec in a year’s time?
Davina Kaonohi: In a year, I hope we would have gained more brand awareness and traction. When there are articles about the TOP 10 CBD brands, I hope that Element Apothec is considered as one of the up-and-coming brands in that space. That’s where I hope we see ourselves. Also, I hope to gain more retail partnerships. I’m excited to bring our products to Erewhon and Sephora because they do have CBD products on the beauty side. So, it’s twofold. I want to start to be a recognized brand and to gain retail traction.
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