My mother started Cactus with my father around the year 1990 when the recession around that time hit and she could no longer afford the products she was using. She had a thought that maybe she could make her own products? She started reading peer reviewed journals about skin, how it works and how natural oils interact with it. After a while, she was able to come up with a formulation that was able to solve her dry skin problem. She then made a formulation that managed to keep my father's seborrheic dermatitis at bay.Then she started to solve skin problems for friends, it became a hobby and she found that she was good at it.
Before long, these friends were coming back and asking for more. Then friends of those friends would get in touch after asking what those friends had been doing with their skin. At some point, between them they decided that they should probably create a company. My father is a graphic designer so he designed up packaging and they started selling it locally. Almost entirely by word of mouth the brand grew slowly. At one point and by accident really... the brand ended up being stocked in America exclusively through plastic surgeons and dermatologists. I actually went over there when I was 18 and worked with the company as an intern for 3 months but then decided that I really didn't want to work in skincare (what an idiot).
However after a while there was a falling out with the American distributors around the time I was 20 and almost all business into the USA fell flat. After that, the business meandered a bit and eventually was shut down completely when my parents got divorced in 2007.
I have always been a dreamer. I have never had realistic goals. When I was in high school, I assumed I would be a celebrity by the time I was 21. I started my first band when I was 14 and we would play wherever we could. Over the years I did various musical projects, I did a bit of acting, studied tv presenting at Max Rowley Media Academy and won more awards than they had ever given out in the 30 years they'd been operating. However after a few years of trying, I never got as much as one job. I continued to make music and act in short films while working in cafe's as a barista.
I was quite passionate about my coffee making and in 2007 I came second in a national latte art championship. But... I never had even a small amount of break through in any of my creative pursuits. I had always believed that I had the ability to make it as a creative, however when I was 28 I went through a bad break up. The break up was my decision and I broke a heart. The only reason I include this detail is that I would hate for that person to feel as though I was blaming them. Anyway, I decided it was time to grow up. I decided to sell out.
I thought I would put my creative abilities towards a career in advertising. I had a friend called Steve Coll who I had gotten to know through my ex who was a bit of a rockstar in advertising. He'd just won the Cannes Grand Prix for Creative Effectiveness for the Walkers 'Sandwich' campaign. He is a rare amazing person who I have a lot of respect for and many times as I have been going about the business of shaping the man I want to be, I have kept him in mind. He had just taken the job as Executive Creative Director at an ad agency that is now known as Havas.
I called him up and could barely get the words out through the tears I was crying at the time. I had experienced so much failure in my life and at 28 I asked him if I could come and work for him if I worked for free. I figured I could work in a cafe on the weekend and I would fight and I would survive and I would win in the end. He kept his composure and said that he though that sounded like a great idea and that he thought I would be good at it. He gave me a paid internship as a copywriter and was very generous with his time and helped mentor me through the process.
It is not an easy thing to take on an internship as a broke 28 year old and advertising can be a bit of a lions den, but I was determined to succeed. I remember I would just repeat in my head "I'm going to win" over and over. The first weekend I was there I worked over the weekend (I didn't have a job as a barista at that time). The agency had to get a promo video done and I knew how to edit video because of all the short films I had made. I said yes to any opportunity I could and had the opportunity to work with brands like Mortein (the save Louey the Fly campaign), Clearasil, Woolmark and a few others. However after the 3 months of my internship were up, the company had a hiring freeze imposed, so Steve was given the difficult job of telling me and the other intern I was working alongside were told that they were sorry but they couldn't offer employment. Then, after a week of processing that. Steve took me to coffee and told me that the agency had wrangled to keep one intern but that they were keeping my partner. He said it had nothing to do with my work. He said that my work was great, but Jack, my partner had more history with the agency and he was very sorry.
To this day I think he made the right decision. He was a better fit with the agency and to be honest I'm glad I'm not in advertising. Anyway... Steve put his money where his mouth was and told me he was going to try and get me a job somewhere. He got me an interview with the Executive Creative Director at an agency called 303 which is now called 303 Lowe. Before I went, Steve briefed me up and told me that Executive Creative Directors are very time poor and I should be wary of that and don't be offended if he takes a quick look and to expect the meeting to last around 10-15 minutes. He kept me for an hour and we talked about ideas and creativity. He offered me a job on the spot.
I told Steve and he was delighted. He said, don't say yes yet because I've lined you up an interview with a Creative Director at Droga 5. Now... just a bit of context. Droga 5 is the dream agency for a creative. It's the sort of agency where when someone is retrenched in advertising people will say "Hey, you never know... you may get a job at Droga..." It's the sort of place where if you work there for 5 years, you can get a job anywhere and name your price (incidentally Steve is now the ECD at Droga). Again, Steve warned me to be conscious of the Creative Directors time. I mentioned this to the guy I met with. I told him that the last guy kept me for an hour. He said "well, don't be offended if I don't keep you that long things are crazy here right now." He kept me for an hour and 15 minutes. At the end of the meeting he asked me when my internship ended, I told him Friday. He asked me if I'd like to start on Monday. He asked me how much money I needed to earn. I said "Well... it's Droga... so... minium wage?" (I would have done it for free). He shook my hand and said "done". He told me that he just had to square things away with the powers that be and he would email me on Sunday.
He did email me Sunday but said that he hadn't squared things away just yet but to leave it with him. Steve was delighted for me but told me that nothing was ever certain in advertising until you're sitting at a desk and someone has made an email address for you with your name on it... so he told me not to say no to 303 just yet.
After 3 months of working in a cafe and emailing once a fortnight, trying to always come up with new and creative headers so's not to be too annoying but to stay on his mind and see how things were going, I got an email back saying that they had just lost their biggest client and they would probably be doing reverse hiring rather than hiring.
I keep in touch with that Creative Director and count him as a friend, one time he asked me if I would be interested in starting an agency with him in exchange for shares in the company. I said I'd be interested of course, but that hasn't eventuated yet.
Around that time my mother told me she was starting Cactus again. A more simplified line and instead of just being natural, she wanted it to be natural and organic. She said she didn't have a budget to pay me, but she would make me a partner. I had always wondered why Cactus Skincare wasn't a massive company. Everyone had always raved about the product and my parents always looked a lot younger than their friends that didn't use the product. I had been developing ideas in my head about what I would do with the company if I was a part of it. So I said yes.
For about a year and a half I experimented with various things on social media, but I quickly learned that creating a social media profile is a lot harder when you can't throw 100k a week in facebook ads at it like I could when I was working in an agency... so we pretty much made no traction at all really for about a year and a half. Also, I was looking to my mother for leadership. I respected her position as the director of the company. Then one day mum turned to me and said, "Ryan, I'm burned out. I want to quit. If you want this to work, you are going to have to be the leader. You need to do it. I've been doing this for 20 years and now I'm burning through my nest egg and if I go down below $X. I'm throwing in the towel."
It was just the kick up the butt I needed. I poured myself into more books on copywriting, emotional intelligence, buyer psychology and motivational books. I read dozens. When I was in my car, or cleaning the house I would be listening to audiobooks. But if there is one book that stood out head and shoulders above them all, it's Linchpin by Seth Godin.
For a while I had developed the feeling that I was just missing some crucial ingredient that everyone else had that allowed them to succeed. I thought I was too soft and that I lived in a world of sharks (no offence to any sharks reading this... I signed the petition to stop the cull so... yeah). Linchpin is loosely a book about marketing but talked about not worrying about money. Focus on your art. Be genuine. Never let money be the main contributing reason for doing anything. He said that people are so sensitive to BS that sincerity is impossible to fake and being genuine is the most powerful currency you can possibly possess.
I listened to that audiobook 5 times in a row. It changed my life.
We started offering free samples if you signed up for our newsletter. We put them in a nice little craft envelope with a bit of potpourri. We also included a hand written note that my mother would write in her beautiful handwriting saying that she hoped they would enjoy the samples. Once we put that into practice, our business doubled in turnover every month for 6 months (we're talking about going from selling maybe 3 products in the store to selling 6 the next month then 12...)
Then, one monday we had 12 people sign up for samples, which was a normal number at the time. The next day we had 230, the day after that we had 780, the next day it was 815. The day after that, I shut down the list and emailed everyone to let them know that we'd had a huge surge and there was going to be a delay but that we'd get them out ASAP.
It turns out that there are sites where people can list businesses that offer free samples. We got featured on about 5 of them overnight.
It took 2 weeks of 16 hour days and many hours donated by kind friends who helped us get them out. And... I'm pretty sure at most of them fell apart in the mail... previously to this moment we had been buying the samples from a local art supplies store. They didn't have enough to cover our demand so we had to go with a wholesaler. Nowadays we put those envelopes in a mailer bag in case so they don't fall apart.
We didn't see much of an increase in full size sales and I still get nasty emails from some of the people who signed up and I apologise and send them another pack.
After much deliberation, we decided we would start charging $5 for samples and we slowly started growing again. The $5 really just barely covers the cost of production and in some cases we lose money. It costs us $6.45 to send to the USA and we charge $3 for shipping there. We consider making a loss on the samples as a marketing cost. It's a statement that we believe in our products and we have enough people who come out the other end as long term customers that it's a worthy investment.
Then around October last year, we started offering bundle packs. We would pack everything you need for your skin type in a box for a big discount. My mother would gift wrap them beautifully and include a handwritten note. Then we started to grow at a rate of about 30% a month. Shortly after that, mum had to stop handwriting notes because we were too busy (I would have helped her but I have terrible handwriting).
So yeah... that growth has continued to this day. Nowadays our biggest fear and the thing that has kept me up at night is whether we will be able to keep up with growth. I have decided not to worry about that. If we run out, we run out. We'll make another order and let people know when we have more. People are more understanding than you can imagine if you are just genuine. If you tell them you are struggling. I believe there is infinite goodness in the world if you are willing to make the first move and be genuine.
Nowadays, I drive a nice car, I live in a nice house. I have a warm working relationship with my mother.
I also just started a personal account on instagram. I'd like some followers as much as the next guy, so if you're game... it's @ryantheclark (All the other Ryan Clark options were taken)
If you are reading this and you have experienced failure, I hope you value it as much as I do. Without failure, you will never have enough fire to push through and do something truly rewarding. I hope that when you fail, when you are let down that you will choose kindness. I hope that you will choose generosity. I hope that when you choose kindness and generosity and it is met with cynicism or hatred that you will choose to realise that that negativity only comes from that person's own insecurities and pain. I hope you will choose to respond firmly but from a position of kindness. I hope you will value yourself and stick up for yourself but I hope that you will do it from a place in which you wish the best for that person.
I hope that if you have ever felt worthless that you will take my word for it when I say that you aren't.
I hope I bump into you one day so that I can shake your hand and tell you to keep going.